You have no control: a Palm Sunday sermon

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(You can find the day's readings here. You can find the mentioned hymn here.)

In the Hamiltome (basically the annotated study Bible equivalent for the musical Hamilton), there is a note from Lin-Manuel Miranda on one line of the libretto. It reads: "Once I wrote this passage, I knew it would be the key to the whole musical. In the words of Tupac, 'This be the realest sh*t I ever wrote.'" 

It became the grounding for the entire show. It holds the whole company, the whole narrative, in one line. It marks the turning point of Act I and the final moments of Act II.

You have no control. Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

It is Hamilton's failure, the thing he never learns. It is Washington's legacy.

And it is Pilate’s undoing.

In Matthew’s telling of the trial before Pilate, there is only one question that Jesus is willing to answer: Are you the king? In other words: Are you now or have you ever been a threat to the empire?

And all Jesus has to say on the matter is this: You say so.

After that, he does not say anything. This is in fact the part that drives Pilate crazy. Jesus doesn’t have witty retorts; there is no inspirational aria or rap monologue to make us shout “booyah!” after it. This is not a Hamilton cabinet battle. This is not even the exchange about kings and truth that John gives us. There is no reaction. Pilate threatens Jesus by waving before him how various people are telling his story, but Jesus doesn’t bite. 

So Pilate looks for others to pull into this drama: the priests, the crowds, whomever he can manipulate into demanding the very thing Pilate knows has to be the outcome.

Because Pilate needs to control who lives, who dies, and who tells what story. That's his job. That's what empire does, no matter where we find it: controls the story.

The story empire tells us is the one that says that we get what we earn, we are limited only by what we are willing to dare, and because greatness lies *in* us, therefore whatever we do will be great, so if we expel and kill the people who were here first so we can keep pushing west, if we keep finding new ways to enslave people, if we invade and sanction and carpet bomb until we have colonized the entire world, it’s all ok. Call it the divinity of Caesar or the divine right of kings or manifest destiny or American exceptionalism, as long as we can convince people that we are great, then whatever we do is morally right and divinely approved. 

The story that says if we challenge that story, as Jesus does with his bawdy imitation of a royal procession and throughout his ministry, then the empire will make us know that we are nothing, we are absolutely insignificant. It will tell us that story right up until the moment it is threatened enough to kill us, and then it  will try to sell the story that our death was no more important than a fly’s. And those of us still left will be pointed right back to the story of the empire’s greatness: that the blood being shed doesn’t matter because it was inconsequential in the shadow of the empire’s amazingness. It will repeat this over and over again, until we believe that this is the real story and can tell it to ourselves: in moments of power, we are great; in moments of weakness, we are failures. 

And so Pilate redoubles his efforts and drums up more political theater; he washes his hands and says “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” Pilate does this in no other gospel. Only the telling of the gospel story which is most concerned to show how Jesus stands in the tradition of the Torah and the prophets relates to us how Pilate washes his hands, calls us back to a verse in Deuteronomy that most of us don’t even know we’re seeing: the law that says that if there is an unsolved murder then the town elders must have a heifer dispose of the body and then the heifer must become the scapegoat for the guilt, and the elders must break its neck and wash their hands over its corpse, and declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor were we witnesses to it” - and then the guilt of innocent blood will not be upon them and upon their people, but will be purged from them and they will be absolved of it.

So Pilate leaves having tied up all the loose ends of this story, and yet, he still cannot control it, because the blood the crowd has called down upon them and upon their children turns out not to be their damnation after all. It turns out that this blood is their salvation instead. But all Pilate can see is the success of his political theater. 

So he misses the story that is playing out right in front of him, around him. He does not grasp that he has as little control over the story as anyone else.

Because the real story is not the story of our own power or our own failure. The real story is the one that says that there is more to all of this than just our own selves.

The real story says that our choices go beyond Jefferson or Burr, Clinton or Trump, bombing Syria with or without congressional approval. 

The real story is that if we will open our eyes, we will see that there is another choice, a choice that offers us abundant life. 

That's the story we're going to hear and see and smell and taste and feel this week, as we praise and lament, as we eat and drink and wash feet, as we encounter God nailed to a cross and bursting out from the tomb. 

This is the story that is really real. It strips away all the sugarcoating and padding we add in from other stories and reveals that we are not as powerful as we tell ourselves we are, and we are not as worthless as we tell ourselves we are. 

This is the truth that the empire will kill to keep from us: that the stories we tell ourselves about our own power and our own value are the ones that finally must die; and the story of palms and betrayal, of trial and torture, of cross and tomb, of triumphant life and love - that is the one that must live, that will live, that will persist. 

That’s why we’re singing a hymn labeled “Christmas” today, because it is a brilliant reminder of the full already-not-yet-kind-of-now-always-coming-ness of this story: that just as the grief of everyday living and torturous death are already promised in the midst of birth and joy, so also even in the anguish and despair of the crucifixion, we proclaim that both now and at the ending all the heartbreak of the world is constantly being healed and overturned - low is high, stars bend down, stones sing out, and whole worlds are reconciled.

And none of it depends on us. We have no control over it - and in that very lack of control is our liberation. We don't have to control it. There is nothing to be gained from trying to control it. As we squint to see what’s coming, we can just discern the edges of something on the other side of the cross from us, a glimmer of hope that this lack of control will indeed be, in the end, good news. Because the God who was willing to relinquish divine power and majesty to be born as a tiny child and live among us fully human, who was willing to keep those hands open long enough to die a terribly human death, is the same God who has ultimate control over the final outcome of this story. And so for us as for the company of Hamilton, what began as caution ends as grace: We have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells the story. 

Thanks be to God.

Elizabeth Scriven