Can’t Stop the Signal

The Rev. Sarah Buteux
March 24, 2013
Palm Sunday 

Habakkuk 2:9-12
Luke 19:28-42


I wanted you to see what real courage is.... It's when you know you're  

licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  

You rarely win, but sometimes you do.  

- Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird”  


So I learned something new this past week, (never a good idea), about the world and our country’s place in it. I learned that the United States makes up about “6 percent of the world’s population and possesses a little less than half of the world’s weaponry.”[1] This may explain why somewhere between 27 and 53 cents of every tax dollar you send to the government in April goes to fund our military. (Why the discrepancy between 27 and 53? Because I was trying to get the answer off the Internet and sometimes it’s really hard to get a straight answer off the Internet. Go figure.)  


But whether you aim high or low with your estimate, we’re still talking about hundreds of billions of dollars being spent every year on war (wars past, wars present, wars future) and I don’t know about you, but all that money being spent on our military doesn’t exactly make me feel a whole lot safer.  If anything, it just makes me feel kind of sad. Sad for so many reasons, but perhaps sad most of all because I have no idea what I could ever do to change that…realistically I mean.  


My dear friend and colleague, the Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, whose name you’ve heard me mention here before, is not as cynically despondent as I am. She is a war tax resister and has been for well over 30 years.  


(Did you know people still did that; that it didn’t die out with Thoreau? I didn’t, until I met Andrea.)  


Every year my dear friend completes her tax forms with her friend Jerry over at H&R Block, withholds a portion of the taxes she owes, and sends the rest in with a letter identifying herself as a war tax resister and explaining that as much as she loves her country she also loves people – all people- and believes that each and every one of them is made in the image of God. She therefore does not want her tax money used to fund war.  


It is an act that costs her dearly, for you see pastors are self-employed and already pay rather exorbitant taxes, but when the IRS gets a hold of Andrea’s letter they don’t just come to collect what she owes, they also fine her, charge her interest, and put a lien on her paycheck until everything is settled. It’s damned inconvenient and costly on both sides, but the real question is: does it matter? Does it make a difference?


After all, it’s not as if anything has changed over the past 30 years. Andrea is hardly part of some vast resistance movement that has brought the military industrial complex to its knees with their unauthorized withholdings. In fact, except for some unknown IRS agent who needs to process her file and do a little extra paper work every year, you have to wonder if anyone even notices, if anyone even cares. Does Andrea’s non-violent act of protest have any effect, or is she just hurting herself?


I don’t know.


What I do know, or at least can conjecture, is that there were once some Pharisees who weren’t all that impressed with how their tax dollars were being spent either, at least not with regard to the military. It was a week before Passover, roughly 1900 and 80 years ago, and these guys were hanging out on the far side of Jerusalem; the far side that is from all the excitement over at the Western gate.[2]


Given that it was time for Passover, they all knew that meant not just extra pilgrims coming in from the surrounding country, but also a whole host of Roman soldiers under the direction of none less than Pontius Pilate coming in to make sure those pilgrims stayed in line. After all Passover is a celebration commemorating Israel’s escape from slavery in Egypt, a time when God had intervened in a mighty way on behalf of their nation, broken the yoke of oppression, and set his people free.  Well, the Romans weren’t stupid. They knew a people celebrating their escape from one oppressive empire might well get it into their heads to rise up against the current oppressive empire, so they took steps to keep that from happening. 


Pilate and his minions would have marched in from Caesarea, from the West that is, erecting crosses and crucifying people as they went in order to let all the pilgrims know they were serious about keeping the peace in Jerusalem, especially at this time of year.  Pilate would have entered the city astride a great warhorse surrounded by a small army, and I would imagine these Pharisees probably didn’t want to have anything to do with all that, which is why they are all the way across town at the Eastern gate, laying low.


They’re just out there minding their own business, when what in Sam Hill do they see but an alternate procession coming down from the Mount of Olives. Only it’s not some Roman official astride his mighty warhorse, but that Jesus fellow bouncing along on a little donkey. And what’s this? Why it’s his disciples… lots of them. Not just the 12 losers he’s always walking around with - those fishermen and that tax collector - but a whole multitude of the poor, the cast off, the unclean: lepers and loose women, old folks and small children, that zombie Lazarus (did you hear about him?) and his sisters Mary and Martha, the infamous Mary of Magdala and who knows who else. And people in the crowd were putting down their coats for the donkey to walk upon and singing:


“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!

Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”


…singing and dancing, waving branches they were ripping down from nearby trees and, well, as you might imagine, some of the Pharisees were understandably quite upset by this.

“Teacher, order your disciples to stop,” they said.

This is ridiculous.

After all, they would have known the prophecies of Zechariah as well as anyone, the prophecies that declared God himself would one day appear on the Mount of Olives and ride into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, bringing peace to his holy city before assuming kingship over all the earth” (Zechariah 9:9-10, 14:4-9).

I have no doubt that every last one of those Pharisees had not only imagined but longed for that day, longed for the moment when God would appear and overturn Rome as surely as God had overturned the chariots of the Egyptians, hurling horse and rider into the sea; longed for that day when God would not only come and liberate Jerusalem but set the world straight once and for all.

And given that longing, given that longing, can you imagine how absurd Jesus would have looked to them in that moment, Jesus and his rag tag band of disciples clambering down the hill on their way into the city on that day of all days? I mean every one else was across town welcoming Pilate, a man with real power, a man who could do some serious damage, and yet here was Jesus allowing his merry little band of misfits to march the length of that prophetic path and claim him as King in front of no one more important then them.

I mean give me a break.

Jesus’ antics would have seemed absurd to them, absurd and needlessly dangerous if word of this little piece of street theater ever got back to Pilate. 

What are you doing Jesus? They must have wondered. What are you trying to prove? There’s no one out here (thank God) and nothing you can do here. You’re not going to save us, so just cut it out before you get yourself and the rest of us killed.


 “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”


 But Jesus didn’t. Instead he said, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”


Which probably brought those Pharisees up short, because unlike you and me, they not only knew the prophecies of Zechariah, they would also have known the prophecies of Habakkuk, and this quote from that lesser known prophet probably would have made them shut up and think twice. Listen to it again (Habakkuk 2:9-12):

‘Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses,

setting your nest on high

to be safe from the reach of harm!’

10 You have devised shame for your house

by cutting off many peoples;

you have forfeited your life.

11 The very stones will cry out from the wall,

and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.

12 ‘Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed,

and found a city on iniquity!’

They probably would have run those verses through their head quite quickly, so quickly that their lips were probably moving as they tried to figure out what the heck Jesus was talking about. Why would he quote Habakkuk to them, especially that verse about the stones crying out?

Why, because he wanted them to understand…understand that they were putting their hope and their trust in all the wrong things.

You see the Pharisees believed that if every one of their people could keep the law perfectly for just one day, then the messiah would come, crush their enemies, and restore Israel.  This is why they were so tough on people and so quick to ostracize those who didn’t measure up. Their plan was to lay low and keep the Romans off their backs while raising up their own people to be righteous until such time as God would bless them with the power to turn the tables on their oppressors. And yet here is Jesus quoting Habakkuk as a way of telling them to cut it out, telling them to let it go, because that’s just not going to work.

All those verses about setting your nest on high in order to be safe, cutting off the people you don’t want, building a town by bloodshed, I think what Jesus was trying to tell them and anyone else who will listen is that you can’t attain peace – at least not true peace- through violence; that no one is safe and secure until every last one of us is safe and secure.

Jesus quotes Habakkuk in an effort to teach us all that any and every society - whether it be built by Rome, Israel, the United States of America, or anyone else - is doomed to perpetuate violence, exclusion, and oppression if it is built by means of violence, exclusion, and oppression.

You can crush your enemies, discard the weak, exploit the poor, and build up mighty strongholds to keep yourselves safe from retribution, but eventually says the prophet, someone even stronger than you will come and tear those walls down.

And when they do, when they do, the very stones themselves will cry out against you because you put your faith in their strength and your own power rather than using your strength and leveraging your power to create a new kind of kingdom; a world graced by forgiveness and grounded in liberty… liberty and justice for all.

All being the operative word here.

The endless cycle of violence and retribution must end somewhere.

Jesus, riding in on his little donkey, says to the world, let it end with me.

He rides on into the city as small and insignificant as any other pilgrim. He is betrayed, arrested, wrongfully convicted, beaten, humiliated, and crucified. Like a lamb led to the slaughter he does not open his mouth but allows those around him to do their very worst to him without once raising a hand against them, because in the end Jesus lived and died for every last one of them too…lived and died to show us there is another way.

The question is: did it matter? Did it make a difference?


Given our propensity for war, even and especially in this most Christian of all nations, one has to wonder: did Jesus’ non-violent act of protest have any effect, or was he just hurting himself?


I don’t know.

What I do know, is that a few years back my friend Andrea went through all those letters she’d sent to the IRS and reflected on why she even bothered. In an editorial[3] she wrote for the Gazette she said:


Some have called war tax resistance a silent scream - a protest that no one hears or cares about. Some have pointed out that the government receives, in the end, more money than what was originally owed. Some have said it is an insignificant protest carried out by a small self-righteous few who do not prevent war from happening and are not making a difference.


Those are just a few of the objections I have heard over the years and all the criticisms have some merit.


But…I believe that when people act on their most deeply held values something in the universe shifts - even if it is imperceptible to the one taking the action. I have not stopped one war in 30 years. And I have probably not prevented one bullet from being produced. But I also have been a cog in the war machine system that just won't mesh - a tiny cog, a small blip, a middle-aged woman with a form and a letter who says year after year after year: life is precious.


Riding in on his little donkey, unwilling to take the life of anyone but more than willing to give up his own, Jesus offered himself up because he believed that life is precious too; every life.


He died to save us all.


Let us pray:  Dearest Lord Jesus, you have a chosen a path for yourself that is so hard for us to follow.  You ask of us that which is so hard to give. Lord on this day of all days, as we lay down our palms before you, grant us the courage and the grace to lay down our lives that we might take up our cross and follow you.  Amen.


[1] “What We Talk About When We Talk About God,” by Rob Bell, p 170-171

[2] This section re-imagined after reading Borg and Crossan’s, “The Last Week: A Day by Day Account of Jesus Final Week”

[3] “Three decades of resisting war” The Hampshire Gazette Saturday, April 9, 2011