There were many things that were unique about my internship site, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But probably one of the most unique things that I got to participate in while I was there was the procession into the church on Palm Sunday. The parish house, where all of the church offices and classrooms are, is separate from the church building itself. So, the procession started at the parish house and crossed the alley separating the two buildings, finally winding up in the sanctuary itself. My job was to lead the procession from the parish house to the church sanctuary carrying the processional cross. In between me and the choir in the procession, we had two gentlemen dressed in kilts and full Scottish regalia who played the bagpipes. Now, I know that bagpipes are somewhat of an acquired taste, but I happen to love them, and it sent chills down my back to be leading the way, carrying a cross, with the music of bagpipes behind me. In recounting the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Luke records Jesus saying, in response to the Pharisees, that if the disciples were silent, “the stones would cry out”. And this is what I picture the bagpipes representing: this ancient and very loud instrument symbolizes the whole of creation shouting out as Jesus finally enters the city of Jerusalem; the King of Peace whose subjects cry out that now there is peace in heaven. Today I would like to talk about what peace means, what it means for Jesus to be the king of peace, and what it means for us to not be silent and to proclaim that peace to the world.
First, what does peace mean? Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” distinguished between a “negative peace,” which is the absence of tension, and a “positive peace,” which is the presence of justice. A negative peace, then, would be a kind of calm where the status quo reigns, and where, even if people are dissatisfied with that status quo, they do nothing about it because they don’t like to shake things up. A positive peace, on the other hand, is one where, if there is no justice, the status quo is shaken up. This positive peace does not therefore mean calmness, but instead it is a place where people work for the justice that is absent, because they know there can be no true peace unless there is justice.
So then, what does it mean for Jesus to be the king of peace? Well, Jesus did not promote simply a negative peace, that is, a peace free from tension. No, Jesus liked to stir things up and to challenge the status quo. Throughout Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus seeking out the least and the lost. For example, two weeks ago we heard the parable of the two lost sons, told in response to the Pharisees and the scribes criticizing Jesus for eating with sinners. Later on this year, we will hear the parable of the Good Samaritan, showing that all people are our neighbors, even those we treat as outcasts. In Nazareth, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus preached a message that was not popular because the people there needed to hear it, and he almost got thrown over a cliff because of it. And today, as we hear Luke recount Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, we see Jesus again stirring things up. When his disciples shout out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!” they are not proclaiming a king who will keep the status quo. They are proclaiming a king who will finally bring heaven’s justice to a city occupied by Romans who are interested not in justice, but in maintaining the status quo and keeping things calm. And this is also why the Pharisees tell Jesus to silence his disciples: they want to keep things calm so that the Romans do not utterly crush Jerusalem and the Jewish people. And so, Jesus speaks of the stones crying out: were the disciples to keep silent, the very creation would cry out that the king of peace was coming to bring heaven’s justice to Jerusalem.
Given, then, that the peace that Jesus proclaims is a positive peace where there is justice, what does it mean for us, as Jesus’ followers, to cry out for justice in the community of Powell and to not remain silent? Let me start with a basic premise: From the very beginning, the movement called Christianity has been countercultural. It had promoted different values than the ruling government up until the year 313, when the emperor Constantine issued an edict of toleration for Christianity, and then himself became Christian. Since then, somehow, Christianity has accommodated itself to the government that it finds itself in. And even when the things that Jesus taught run counter to what the government promotes, many Christians remain silent.
This has happened here in the United States as well. For many years, this nation has seen itself as a Christian country, although this is now changing with the influx of different faiths and the increase in the population who describe themselves as having no religion. I find this fascinating and also hard to understand. The United States, and especially here in Wyoming, promotes a culture of individualism and self-reliance. And that is completely opposite to what Jesus taught. If the story of the Good Samaritan had been told by Americans, the man who had been beaten and left for dead would have somehow heroically crawled to the nearest gas station to make a phone call himself in order to get help. And there probably would not have been a “good Samaritan” in the story, unless the EMT’s who came to get the man decided not to charge him for their services.
This is a far cry from what Jesus taught. Christianity is not supposed to be a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” religion. The phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is NOT Biblical. It originated in ancient Greece as a moral to one of Aesop’s Fables. Instead, Christianity is about God’s grace towards us and love for us, not because of the things we do, but because we are his children. And as his children, we are to help one another and show his love to one another. Christianity is a faith that is about community, and not individualism. The children taught me that on Tuesday night at the Seder meal when they came back to me and said they had all found the piece of matzoh together. Thank you again to Kovan, Sydney, Elsie, Lilly, and Catherine for that.
So, what does all of this background have to do with justice here in Wyoming? Recently I have learned that Wyoming has the highest number of suicides in the country. I was surprised to learn that. When I lived in Alaska, the rate of suicide was very high there too, and I would have thought Alaska would have been number one for that. In Alaska, we blamed the suicide rate on the darkness in the winter. And so, I asked around for a reason for the high suicide rate here in Wyoming. One person said it was due to the constant wind and isolated locations here. This may be part of it. But another one said, “Because of the individualistic culture here, where everyone is expected to be self-reliant, people who are in depression and despair do not think they should ask for help. They think there is something wrong with them if they can’t fix their problems themselves. And so, they give up and they commit suicide.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, this should not be. People should not feel that they always have to fix their problems themselves. There should be no shame in asking for help. One thing that I think my colleagues in the Montana Synod do well is to model this kind of Christian community where it is okay to ask others for help. When I arrived here, I was welcomed by several pastors who I know I can call upon, despite the great distances involved, should I ever be in need. And I know that there is no shame in asking for that help from my colleagues. Here in Powell, I have been blessed by the community of ministers across denominations who have also offered me support. This is why, should you come in to the church office on a Wednesday morning, you will generally not see me—I will be meeting either with the area group of Lutheran pastors for Bible study or with various groups of ministers in the Powell area. This time together benefits all of us in our different fields of ministry and supports us in our personal lives as well.
With this model in mind, then, let us as a Christian community be countercultural. Let us begin to chip away at that individualistic, self-reliant model we have for relating to our neighbors both inside and outside our congregation. Let us not simply wave at our neighbor with a quick, “Hi, how are you doing?” and then quickly walk away, but instead let us deliberately take the time to get to know one another and find out how we can support one another. Let us each be aware of counseling resources in the community, so that, if the need ever arises, we will be able to help our neighbor access those resources and support them in their journey towards good mental health. Where there are gaps in mental health care in Wyoming, let us work for those gaps to be filled. We may not be able to eliminate suicide completely, but we may be able to make a start by becoming communities who care about one another, despite distances involved. And then, we may begin to see some of this positive peace that Jesus and his disciples announced come into Wyoming.
Suicide is only one issue where we can be crying out for justice—there are many more issues out there that I don’t have time to go into today. As a countercultural community seeking the positive peace that Jesus brings, we need to always be on the lookout for where the status quo needs to be shaken up a bit. Our temptation will be to be more devoted to quiet and order than to justice. Let us resist that temptation; let us not keep silent, but instead, let us cry out as noisily as bagpipes. For the coming of Jesus, the King of peace, demands nothing less from us. Amen.