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"Cosplaying Messiah" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - March 25, 2018

posted Mar 26, 2018, 11:33 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Cosplay (v) - dressing up as a character from a movie, book, or video game, especially one from the Japanese genres of manga and anime.

A few weeks ago the results of my ancestry.com DNA test arrived.  To be honest, I took the test hoping for something interesting or unusual to show up on the family tree.  My sister-in-law had recently unraveled a family secret. Her grandmother left Germany in the 1930’s to pursue a career on the stage in London and then America.  But in the attic was a trunk the grandmother kept anyone from looking in and commanded be burned on her death. For years, my sister-in-law carted around the trunk: too curious to burn it and too committed to her Grandmother to open it.  But, eventually, curiosity won. Inside were the mementos of a hidden life - a German Jew who reinvented herself, first in Britain and then America.

I wondered if I’d find something similar in my DNA, a hidden history.  So I waited for my results with anticipation. And when they came, I learned I’m really white, WASPy white.  90% of my ancestors come from Great Britain, immigrated to America 300 years ago, and apparently only married other old Brits.  Basically, I’m more English than the Queen; after all, her people came from Hanover. Germans.

My family suggested I look to see if I could get a British passport, or even become a “peer of the realm.”  Sadly, I only qualified as a “queer of the realm.”

The longer I sat with my DNA results, I kept coming back to the story of my sister-in-law’s grandmother.  Are we only who our DNA says we are? Or are we who we reinvent ourselves to be?

This question reminded me of an insight Ta-Nehisi Coates makes in his book Between the World and Me.  In the book he never speaks of “white people” but only “people who understand themselves to be white.”  By this phrase he called attention to being white as a socially created identity, not rooted in DNA but an invention, an on-going reinvention actually, given that who counts as white changes from generation to generation in America.

As I continued to mull this over, I realized the spiritual stakes of this question.  To imagine my identity coming from ancestral DNA makes me passive; I have no control over what chromosomes I inherited.  But to see identity as a question of invention, to know that who I am comes from who I understand myself to be, makes me active.  And so while getting my DNA results was fun, I’ve come to see there is a more important question than “Where do I come from?” And that more important question is, “Who am I going to become?”

The Gospel of Mark imagines Jesus living with this question: who am I going to become?  Unlike the other Gospels, Mark’s Jesus appears out of nowhere. His ancestry, his history didn’t matter to Mark.  It’s all about how Jesus will reinvent himself.

And in our story today, Jesus so clearly picks up the role of Messiah, reinventing the poor kid from Nazareth as God’s chosen one, costuming himself with thick layers of tradition. Jesus’ performative actions come to the fore in entrance to Jerusalem.  He played the role: dressed like a king; making sure to have the right prop, a colt; and even having his disciples act like the retinue of royalty. Jesus mimicked all the projections of power used by conquering heroes. And yet, even as he cosplays his way into Jerusalem, Jesus points to a different way of being heroic.  He not only reinvents himself as Savior but also reinvents the meaning of salvation.

I’ll turn to that reinvention soon, but first I want to sharpen the opening question, “who am I becoming?”  Seeing Jesus play a role, seeing Jesus as performing, invites us to look at the roles and performances in our lives.  What roles do we play in our families? What role do we take amongst our friends? Do we conform to the expectations put on us because of our sex or race or orientation?  When do you find yourself stuck in a role you don’t want?

I can certainly think of times I feel constrained by a role I play.  And this can be true from the roles we play in our families to the parts we play in society.  For what is racism, but typecasting people for a performance they don’t want to enact.

Jesus showed how to reinvent ourselves and to reinvent our roles in society in our story.  (And I want to acknowledge that my reading of Jesus’ role was shaped by reflections shared in our “Building Resilience for Racial Justice” program this Lent.)

We almost always jump into this story of Jesus entering Jerusalem at the point when the crowd proclaimed him king.  “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” We even enacted this part of the story at the beginning of worship.  But, when Mark told the story of this day, he focused a third of the story on all of the things Jesus did to prepare for entering Jerusalem.  When we want to change our roles, we need to prepare.

Jesus gave detailed directions to the disciples on how to requisition a colt; to look like a king, he needed the right animal.  Focusing on the animal, we might miss the question of power and domination that hangs over this part of the story. Romans, soldiers, and imperial powers regularly took what didn’t belong to them; requisitioned, appropriated, stole.  But Jesus makes clear from the outset the plan to return the animal. “If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” While Jesus acts like a king, he does so without replicating the dynamics of power (taking).  And in case we miss the fact that he returned the colt, the story doesn’t end until he returned to Bethany, bringing back the burrow he borrowed.

In saying this, I want to underscore the particular way that Jesus prepared.  He paid attention to power dynamics. Kelly Germaine recently wrote about how hard that can be in a reflection on what she calls the “White Spiritual Bypass.”  Speaking as a white person, she described the way she found herself and other white people trying to bypass the pain and experiences of other people. As she said, “I struggle to trust myself, because of how frequently I see us as white people prioritizing our desire to avoid anxiety over the literal lives of people of color.”  Just as a highway whisks us by a poor neighborhood, we bypass the reality of oppression in order to reach our destination of hope and joy.

Jesus didn’t look away; he knew any performance of kingship had to address the threat of exploitation.  So from the beginning, he looked out for the danger areas of pain, how what he did could affect someone else.  In the roles we play in our family, in our work, in our society, do we attend to the pain we may cause? Sometimes in a family, there’s one person always out of step; do we see how our role as “golden child” affects the other?  Or do we see how our performance of masculinity affects another? Or the script of race? The play of wealth?

Jesus rode into Jerusalem with people shouting praise.  Mark described the crowd throwing down their cloaks to create a red carpet for Jesus.  They treated him like a celebrity. But we know what comes next, the same people will denounce him less than a week later.  Sometimes scholars want to suggest two crowds existed in Jerusalem, one that praised Jesus and one that denounced him. But from what I know of human nature, I think not; after all, even his disciples abandoned him.  No, in this performance we see the fickleness of acclaim.

To sustain himself with the boom and bust of approval, Jesus needed to discover the inner core of himself.  Valarie Kaur, a Sikh civil rights activist, discovered her core through her work after 9/11. A white man angry at Muslims killed her uncle.  She began to travel the country to help organize people of color and religious minorities to combat hatred and extremism. Eventually her journey confronting extremism led her to call the man who killed her uncle.  He said, “I'm sorry for what happened, but I'm also sorry for all the people killed on 9/11.” Valarie wanted to hang up on this man who would not take responsibility for his actions; but her aunt kept her on the phone.  Her aunt said, “This is the first time I'm hearing you say that you feel sorry.”  As she reflected on her aunt’s ability to speak to her brother’s murderer, Valarie saw how her aunt’s faith in the dignity of every human allowed her to see how a man full of hate was himself wounded and trapped.  Sikh values at the core of her aunt’s heart gave her the strength to see this. Whenever we want to reinvent ourselves, we need to strengthen our core, so that we don’t depend on the approval of the crowd but on our own inner convictions.

Once in Jerusalem, Jesus did something that confused the disciples and might well confuse us to this day.  While it was not the season for ripe figs, Jesus decided to curse a fig tree that had no figs.

Puzzling over this bit of Jesus’ performance reminded me of something Margaret Wheatley once wrote regarding the willingness to be disturbed.  She spoke of the importance of being curious about what other people say and in particular to pay attention to what we don’t understand. As she explained, “Noticing what surprises and disturbs me has been a very useful way to see invisible beliefs.  If what you say surprises me, I must have been assuming something else was true. If what you say disturbs me, I must believe something contrary to you. My shock at your position exposes my own position.” How does Jesus’ shocking performance make us aware of all the invisible expectations in our own roles?  And how do the roles we play in our families and society surprise other people? Or do we just play out the script society gave us?

Mimicking a conquering king, Jesus went to the Temple, where he famously overturned the tables of the money changers.  He acted like a king: issuing orders, enforcing his rule. We often pretend that the issue was the mixing of money and faith; as if the Temple just needed to be spiritual.  But like the White Spiritual Bypass I mentioned earlier, this misses the problem of what was happening in the Temple. The money changers exploited the poor, charging unfair exchange rates.  The Temple also maintained all the records of debts. We wouldn’t be far off the mark to imagine these moneychangers in the Temple as subprime financiers - rapaciously lending - or check cashing stores - providing a service at an exorbitantly profitable rate.

Jesus responded with anger.  “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’ but you have made it a den of robbers.”  Jesus didn’t get angry about the presence of money, but in the abuse of power to cheat and exploit the poor.  His anger reminds me of the anger Audre Lorde once described; “anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification.”  She also explained, “It is not anger… that will destroy us, but our refusals to stand still, to listen to its rhythms, to learn within it, to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance, to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment.”

Jesus’ anger might be even harder for us to hear than his curse of the fig tree.  And yet it invites us to listen in a new way to anger, to listen to it as an expression of frustration at injustice, to find in it the witness of pain.  And it might make us wonder: what happens to our own anger? If we’re not angry, where did our emotion go? And when will it erupt?

Yesterday I ran into many Plymouth people at the March for our Lives, which began at the Courthouse and ended at City Hall.  I couldn’t take part in that march for gun violence prevention without thinking of Jesus’ Palm Sunday march. During the rally at the beginning of the march, I saw a woman dressed up as a Statue of Liberty and another person as Superman.  They reminded me we are all called to cosplay too; to be like Jesus, to cosplay messiah.

I saw Jesus in the young adults who spent weeks preparing for this march, cognizant of the shock of a school shooting but also aware of the all-to-often threat of violence many young people face on their streets and in their homes.  I heard Jesus in youth like Amaya Chheda as they spoke with strength from their core. And in the nation’s capital where another eleven year old named Naomi Wadler showed deep strength in core while naming all the unheralded African-American youth who have been killed by gun violence.  I marveled at crowds calling for disrupting our politics of the possible. And felt the disturbing silence that brooded over Washington DC after Emma Gonzalez invoked the names of her classmates. I witnessed Jesus in the anger of youth at growing up with “red drills” and the inaction of our society after seventeen deaths at Parkland and seventeen deaths already this year in the City of Milwaukee.  To me, they were cosplaying Jesus.

DNA may give an answer to “where do I come from.”  But the more interesting answers come from the question “who am I going to become?”  This Palm Sunday, remembering Jesus’ performance long ago and the youth who cosplayed him yesterday, I want to find my answer in acting and living like Jesus.



I consulted the New Interpreter’s Bible, Feasting on the Word, and: