One spring in Jerusalem, two parades marched into the city.
And one spring, two thousand years later, in Knoxville, Tennessee, two groups gathered to hold rallies on opposite sides of the same street. On one side of the street were people in white robes with pointed hoods and hate in their hearts, holding signs with hateful slogans and racial slurs. “White power,” they chanted. “White power.”
On the other side of the street, gathered a vast array of clowns. Everyday people, mostly, not professional performers. They wore squeaky noses and face paint. They walked on stilts and rode on unicycles. And as the KKK and neo-nazis on the other side of the street began to chant, the clowns put their hands to their ears as if listening carefully. Then they pulled out paper bags and began a chant of their own. “White flour!” they shouted, as they ripped open bags of all-purpose flour and tossed it into the air. “White flour!” They lobbed handfuls of flour at one another, shouting “white flour” all the while, until the chanting on the other side of the street died down. After a while, the KKK began to chant again, and so the clowns strained again as if to listen. “Oh!” they exclaimed. “White flowers!” Reinforcements arrived with bouquets all in white, and the clowns began to pass out blooms to passersby. “White flowers!” They chanted, as they distributed daisies and carnations. “White flowers!” As the afternoon continued, they all donned wedding dresses, chanting “Wife power! Wife power!” The clowns vastly outnumbered the KKK protesters, and their joyful noise all but drowned out the hate coming from the other side of the street.
It calls to mind the scripture reading and story we celebrate today. Two thousand years earlier, Jesus gathered his disciples just outside Jerusalem. They and the crowds who rushed to greet them would have known well the tradition of the Roman imperial parades, as colonizers marched into colonized cities in great displays of the military might that kept them subject to state violence and starvation taxes to enhance the grandeur of Rome. These dusty peasants would have known of the tradition of victory parades, where Roman armies would march home bearing the spoils of war — the riches of conquered territories, the holy objects of sacked sanctuaries, vanquished kings and queens and leaders chained and humiliated, on display to demonstrate the military might of Rome. The se Galileans and Judeans knew about the parades Rome liked to hold. And they held a parade of their own.
They borrowed a donkey (and, if you believe the text in Matthew, also a colt), and lifted Jesus up onto this unlikely steed. The charismatic itinerant rabbi paraded into Jerusalem, riding a humble beast of burden, as the crowds greeted him like a victorious king. “Hosanna!” they shouted, which means, “Save us!” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” What the crowd did that day was risky: in a colonized, occupied city, mere days before a festival that celebrates God liberating the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, they held a victory parade for a peasant king. It was visionary. It was playful. It was silly, and subversive, and joyful. Living under the constant threat of state violence, they thumbed their nose at the empire, and threw a parade that ridiculed the powers that be, and proclaimed the power of God.
Biblical scholar Walter Wink speaks about the way of Jesus as a “third way” of responding to violence, conflict, injustice and oppression. The two ways we are often inclined to respond to evil are “fight” or “flight,” he says. We know what fight looks like: it’s armed revolt, or covert rebellion, or revenge. It’s “tit for tat.” On the other hand, there is flight. We get ourselves out of the situation, or we retreat from the conflict via passivity, submission, or compliance. Usually, it’s hard to imagine any other options. But many of Jesus’ teachings and actions point us toward a different path. Not a path between fight and flight, but a path that is utterly different from the two: Walter Wink describes that third way as a path of creative, subversive resistance. A path that seizes the moral high ground, that imaginatively breaks the cycle of violence. A path that exposes injustice, and makes oppressors appear ridiculous.
That third way is what Jesus and his followers chose two thousand years ago, as the crowds waved palms and cried “Hosanna,” and Jesus paraded into the city on a donkey. The third way is what the clowns chose when they gathered across the street from the KKK rally and chanted “white flour, white flour, white flour!” On that day in Knoxville, and on that day in Jerusalem, everyday people responded to hatred with a subversive playfulness that steals the spotlight from the powers of evil, injustice, and oppression. Jesus and his followers could have chosen flight: they could have steered clear of Jerusalem, avoiding the powers that be and running from the conflict between the way of Jesus and the way of Caesar. They could have chosen fight: armed insurrection against their colonizers. Instead, they chose a third way: mocking the Roman parades with a parade of their own, declaring that God’s true power comes humble and riding on a donkey.
As light-hearted and whimsical as that third way of Jesus might seem, though, it is much harder than it looks. The ways of “fight” and “flight” are primal. Even the disciples, who sat at Jesus’ feet turned automatically to fight or flight when they faced the violence and terror of Jesus’ crucifixion: recall the story of Peter drawing his sword, and the disciples scattering in fear as Jesus was arrested, tried, and executed. Fight and flight are instinctual, deeply-ingrained ways of reacting to conflict and danger and the rush of adrenaline that comes with the sense of threat. Indeed, psychologists tell us that in the face of danger, our very physiology changes; the parts of our brain that are responsible for reasoning and creativity show less activity, as our heart rate rises and our body braces for conflict. The third way, the creative, non-violent way of Jesus does not come so easily; it is something that we have to learn, and to practice.
I imagine that the disciples and the crowds gathered that Sunday with anxiety churning in their stomachs. I imagine that the hands that clutched those palm fronds were damp with sweat, that the voices that cried “Hosanna” sometimes quavered with fear. They knew the risks they took when they threw a victory rally for a miraculous healer from the Galilee who proclaimed that God blessed the poor and the meek and the peacemakers. And yet there they were: they overcame their own instincts to avoid danger or to face violence with violence, and they chose something else: they chose the reign of God.
It might never come naturally to us to choose Christ’s way of compassionate, creative resistance. It might never come naturally us to find that third way, which honors the humanity of oppressed and oppressors, inviting repentance and reconciliation and renewal. And yet, Christ-followers have managed to do it over and over again through the centuries: from that Palm Sunday parade, to that clown rally against the KKK in Knoxville, and so many times in between. God’s invitation to us, today and everyday, is to imagine what it would be like if the Holy Spirit could imbue creativity and mischief and joy into the most conflict-ridden places of our lives. God’s invitation is to breathe deeply, let God’s peace wash over us, and find a way to walk that third path, in our daily lives, in our life as a church, and in our wider world. God’s promise to us is that we never walk that path alone. When we breathe, and pray, and even in the midst of our anxiety choose to be imaginative and compassionate and joyful, we do so with the Holy Spirit carrying us along. We walk that path with clowns and disciples and donkeys and civil rights marchers. We walk that path with Jesus. And it is a path that leads to the Reign of God.
Thanks be to God.