Every year I look forward to the Super Bowl. Not because of the sport, but for the halftime show. I never miss it. Madonna’s 2012 performance ranks as my all time favorite, if only for the nostalgia of Vogue.
This year, as countless people observed on social media, the halftime show felt a jumble. Chris Martin of Coldplay sang with Beyonce and Bruno Mars. While Beyonce and Bruno Mars delivered electrifying performances, Chris Martin looked like a lucky fan taking a selfie with the stars.
Why didn’t the show work? Chris Martin sang his popular songs but they seemed to fall flat. No amount of “woo hoos” could save them. A reviewer captured Chris Martin’s problem when he pointed to the way Coldplay sang universally about love. The songs spoke to generalities, a universal ode to love divorced of the friction of real stories.
In contrast, Beyonce and Bruno Mars claimed, celebrated, their own particular experience as black people in America. Beyonce sang her new hit “Formation” with a phalanx of Black Panther clad women. Amazing. The queen stole the show. And I know there are gay men lip syncing their way through the song. We’ll look back on Beyonce’s performance as the show that launched a thousand drag queens.
I find a spiritual lesson in the difference between Beyonce and Chris Martin. Beyonce spoke to many because she spoke out of her own experience; she embodied, incarnated her song. But Chris Martin reached for the universal and the bland result didn’t say much of substance at all.
Christianity often speaks of universal truths - love, compassion, peace - but our true calling is embodied, incarnational; we follow the God who took on particular flesh at a particular time. Because of our incarnational faith, we can say: the divine is in the details.
Details and a focus on them shapes our gospel lesson this morning. We often overlook one key detail: the song of the crowd. As Jesus entered Jerusalem they sang:
Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.
The song ought to sound familiar. The angels sang a version of it to the shepherds:
Glory to God in the highest,
And on Earth
Peace among people
With whom God is pleased.
Luke, in writing the Gospel, imagined the crowd on Palm Sunday singing a response to the Angels outside Bethlehem. We’re caught between the angels’ song of ‘peace on earth’ and the human response of ‘peace in heaven.’ We find our place in this antiphonal song, as one chorus sings to earth and one sings to heaven; we catch our rhythm between the choreography of Beyonce and Bruno Mars.
The Gospel begins and ends with an exchange of peace. When we pass the peace in our services - turning to shake the hand of or hug the people around us - we mimic the cosmic drama of the Gospel. Making peace on earth and in heaven is the drama of our faith.
And yet, as dramatic as those words can be, we sentimentalize them. We take the song of the angels as a passing quote for Christmas cards. The angels’ sang of peace, sang to poor shepherds living under Roman oppression, that is, the angels sang to people who desperately needed peace, but their words now hang in the air like tinsel; glittering and pointless.
But before peace becomes another Chris Martin song, the Palm Sunday choir rises to bring peace back down to earth. The crowd sings of peace but we know where this parade will end: confrontation with the authorities, betrayal by friends, death on a cross. The crowd sings of peace but even on this happy day we sense the tremendous cost.
Scholar Thomas Long once connected these two songs, saying, “Luke wants us to know that these words we so cheerily send to each other at Christmas come with a Good Friday price.”
Jesus knew what peace would cost. Perhaps the anticipation of it drove him to manage the details of his entrance into the great city. For certainly he did watch over all sorts of details. He chose a specific place - “between Bethpage and Bethany” - and gave his disciples detailed directions - “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden.” Nothing was left to chance.
Scholar Craig Barnes reflected on our detail-minded savior, saying, “We tend to think that spirituality means escaping the concern with detail. Spiritual people, we think, live simple lives. They don’t worry about mortgages and dentist appointments and going to church committee meetings. They wear sandals, meditate and feed the birds. But that is not the biblical understanding of spirituality. According to the Bible, the obstacle to our spirituality is not that we pay attention to the details of life, but that we pay too much attention to the wrong details.”
Jesus worked to portray his entry into Jerusalem as that of king returning. He chose the Mount of Olives, the place where King David took refuge from a coup and then returned with soldiers, triumphantly. He wanted a new colt in order to fulfill an ancient prophecy about the return of kings. In an act of stagecraft, he worked to communicate a message: God’s anointed comes, the era of peace begins.
The details Jesus paid attention to didn’t end there. Along his procession, Jesus wept at the injustices he saw in the city. And then he went to confront them in the Temple, overturning the tables of the money changers. The money changers - much like money changers in airports - charged high fees and offered awful exchange rates. This particularly affected the poor. Jesus noticed the treatment of the poor in the city - he wept and acted on it.
All of this - the dramatic entry like a king, the concern for justice in the city - were the details important for peace. Jesus heard the song of heaven and earth and then paid attention to the details peace demanded.
At the same time we ought to notice what Jesus didn’t pay attention to. Jesus planned to go to Jerusalem earlier in the Gospel; it took him months to travel not much farther than Milwaukee to Gurnee Mills. In other words, Jesus felt no urgency. His plan to confront the seat of Roman power in Israel by marching in like a king was so guaranteed to fail that we can say with certainty that Jesus didn’t worry about effectiveness. Whether people praised him or shunned him didn’t ruffle Jesus; he seemed immune to popularity or recognition. Some might turn popularity into wealth, but Jesus was so unconcerned with accumulation that he gave away whatever he got. Traveling with just a staff and the clothes on his back, he clearly didn’t care about tomorrow; Jesus had no pension plan.
These details shape our lives: the demands of schedules, the concern for effectiveness, the thought of popularity, the building of wealth, the plans for tomorrow. We could call these the details of privilege. For whether we have power or seek power, these are the details by which we measure success. But the details which shape our lives never defined Jesus’ life. Jesus was concerned with the details of peace.
What details consume our life? The details of peace or the details of privilege?
Earlier I suggested the ritual of passing of the peace represents the way we stand between the cosmic choirs of heaven and earth as they sing of peace. Thinking about that ritual of passing peace can help us understand three details we need to pay attention to.
We started the passing of the peace a few years ago. At times the passing of peace seems like nothing more than a handshake, a nod hello, or maybe a hug. But, standing here on the chancel, I sometimes see more. I remember when two families in our congregation were at odds with each other. One family sat in front of the other. But when it came time for the passing of the peace, not one of the four could greet the other. The ritual revealed the brokenness.
Other times I’ve seen people who feel alone in life, greeted and hugged as a dear friend. And in those moments I know the ritual enacts a healing grace.
My point is that this ritual is something more than just a friendly moment; it can be a revelatory one. In particular, I suggest the passing of peace is about “encounter, reconciliation, and anticipation.”
The passing of the peace is at its most basic a greeting - we encounter each other. But spirituality we can say something more. We not only encounter each other, we encounter God through one another. As the Apostle John reminded us, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us.” It’s a beautiful thought, but it places a demand on us to pay attention to who we meet. I want you to notice who’s here in church with you. Notice who you don’t know; greet them, encounter the Christ in them.
This is something we can do better. A few months ago a family I know visited church. I went over to speak with them after the service. I knew the mom but not her grown children. Later in the week I called the mom to follow up on her visit. And she shared that other than me no one spoke to them. One of her children is an African-American guy taller than me. I know that he was seen, but he was not greeted. We can all do better greeting people who are here. Start this day: meet someone whose name you do not know.
Passing the peace is not just encounter, it’s also reconciliation. The ritual reminds us to seek peace with our neighbors. So after you notice who’s here, I want you to look for who’s missing. This detail needs to be noticed. Not just noticed, but I want you to call. This afternoon, call one person you didn’t see in worship to check up on them and let them know they were missed.
So passing the peace starts as encounter then reconciliation; lastly it’s anticipation. The passing of peace anticipates that time when all people will dwell together in peace. It symbolizes our hope, expressed in countless scriptures; the hope held in my favorite Psalm, “how sweet and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity.”
That hope means we need to do more than just look around for who’s here and who’s not. I want you to pay attention to what’s going on in our wider community; in particular I want you to notice the detail of racial equity. Our MICAH core team is taking the lead in this work but we all need to pay attention because it’s one of the most important details of peace.
I’m trying to pay attention by engaging with MICAH as it addresses issues of race and power. I’m reading Michelle Alexander’s book on the New Jim Crow. Lots jumps out from her book such as her observations about the War on Drugs as a cover for racial discrimination. She notes how many African-Americans are locked up on drug charges; huge percentage. But then she notes what we see in drug overdose hospitalizations; mostly white. Why is it we mostly arrest African-Americans when most drug users are white? We need to pay attention to these details.
On Palm Sunday the crowd sang of peace in heaven. This is not some Coldplay, sentimental, universal song. Jesus knew he could only attain that by attending to the details that mattered. Like Jesus, our work for peace demands our attention to details too - details like who’s here, who’s not, and what’s happening around us. The good news is that we’ll find the divine in the details. Amen and Amen.