In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
The conventional wisdom is that anyone foolish enough to enter into a conflict in the Balkans will not emerge unscathed. That's probably as true of preachers as of politicians and armies. But there are links between today's headlines and today's liturgy--between Kosovo and Jerusalem--which we as Christians can't ignore. Not just because friends and relatives of this congregation may soon find themselves in uniform as part of a NATO "peacekeeping" force, in a part of the world where names and borders seem to shift every few months. But because "peacemaking" was and is at the heart of what we observe today in the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, and of his suffering and death, and it is part of our calling as Christians.
Not to say that Christians have always behaved like followers of Christ, of course. The roots of today's conflict in Kosovo, as near as I can tell, go back to the earliest centuries of the Christian era, when its original inhabitants were conquered by Rome, like so many other peoples--including the Jews of Palestine, Jesus' own people. When Rome became Christian, so did Kosovo. When the Roman Empire split in two, Kosovo became part of the Greek-speaking eastern Christian empire of Byzantium. When Christianized Slavs invaded, Kosovars became--unwillingly--Serbian Orthodox. When the Christian nations of southern Europe were conquered by Muslims of the Ottoman Empire, most Kosovars and others, who had become known as Albanians, converted to the Islamic faith of their conquerors, to distinguish themselves from the Greek and Serbian Orthodox Christians they saw as their oppressors. Other Albanians remained Christian--but as Catholics like the Croatians, not Orthodox like the Serbs.
For most of the last two centuries, Kosovo has been part of a region that has given the world "Balkanization" as a term for ever-shifting political, ethnic and religious alliances--and chronic civil war. Communism brought a fragile peace to the patchwork nation of Yugoslavia, a peace easily broken at the end of the Cold War. What's left of Yugoslavia, after the bitter civil war that spun off Muslim Bosnia-Herzegovina and Catholic Croatia, are three provinces: Serbia and Montenegro--both Serbian and Orthodox--and Kosovo, largely Albanian and Muslim. Kosovo, not for the first time, is pressing for independence, or at the very least autonomy; the rest of Yugoslavia, under Serbian Slobodan Milosevic, refuses to let them go.
Lest you think there are any good guys in this conflict, there aren't. Atrocities have been committed on all sides. Now U.S. and NATO bombers circle above Belgrade, hoping to bomb the region into peace. As Serb and Albanian, neighbors are split along the fault lines of history; as Christians and Muslims, they . . . and we . . . are strangely united in an idolatry as old as religion itself--an idolatry that at the beginning of the week strewed Jesus' way with palm branches and cloaks in the road, and by week's end shouted "crucify him."
What is the name of this idol? Mennonite Roy Hange, in an essay entitled Curtains of Fire: Religious Identity and Emerging Conflicts, names it as a kind of unholy trinity, grounded in a religion that forms ethnic or cultural identities and shapes the politics that results. For most of this century, you could replace "religion" with any number of secular, materialist ideologies--communism, socialism, capitalism. But here on the eve of the third millennium of Christianity, religion is regaining its place as an engine of conflict. You can hear its echo throughout history: Holy . . . Roman . . . Empire. White . . . Christian . . . America. Blood and Soil. God and Country. Whose God, whose people, whose government is fit to rule?
From the beginning, the people of this god Yahweh were to be different. This is the story they told: that theirs was not a tribal or racial or national god, but the Creator of all peoples. They were a people "called out" from other peoples by the voice of this God: Abraham from cosmopolitan Ur of the Chaldeans to settle in backwoods Canaan; Joseph from Canaan to urbane Egypt, first a captive, then a prince; a ragtag band of "Hebrews"--a word which may mean "fugitive" or "outlaw"--led by a changeling and murderer, wandering in a desert for a generation, returning to their home for the first time.
They were not to be like other nations, led by a king, addicted to the politics of power. For them Yahweh was to be king, and their politics was to be characterized by justice and mercy--a "light to enlighten the nations." They were a chosen people. But they were not chosen for any quality they possessed in themselves. They were chosen for Yahweh's purposes alone. They were to chosen to demonstrate that in truth, all humanity is dependent upon God--that those who follow God may trust in God's protection and love, no matter how weak they may be; while those who trust in idols erected to their own might and intelligence will ultimately fail. They were to lift that light for all the peoples of the world to see--not to hoard it to themselves as a national or ethnic or cultural possession.
On that first "Palm Sunday," his own people greeted Jesus with the cry "Hosanna!" It means, literally, "Lord, save us!"--save us from the Romans, save us from the oppressor. Lead us into battle with twelve legions of angels on our side, to destroy our enemies in the name of our God. But Jesus refused to be part of an ethnic cleansing of the world. Jesus refused to reduce the God of all peoples to a national deity. Jesus refused to save himself by saving his people and condemning the rest of the humanity made in God's image--Roman and Greek, Persian and Egyptian, the whole rainbow of human diversity.
The Romans didn't see it that way, of course. To them their presence in Palestine was simply "peacekeeping"--maintaining order and stability among the fractious peoples of a far-flung empire, ensuring that their national security interests were protected, making certain that world trade wasn't disrupted. But Jesus refused to keep silent in the face of Rome's crushing exploitation and arrogance. Jesus knew that Rome's addiction to power and domination was poisoning it from within, that the day would come when the legions that held his own people captive would turn on one another.
The religious leaders didn't see it Jesus' way, either. By not leading the military revolt that the people wanted, but refusing to keep silent about Rome, he risked the security and safety of their institutions and offered them nothing better in return. But what was worse, Jesus challenged their religious authority in the eyes of the people--they, who were the guardians of the faith of Yahweh, and its only true practitioners.
Roy Hange notes that "the same powers that tempted [Jesus in the wilderness] were the powers that crucified him": the pull of ethnicity, political power, religious authority. The people who hailed him "could have been any people impatient for a revolution to save themselves"; the imperial legions of Pilate "any political leader saving the stability and peace of his rule"; the religious leaders those of "any religious community saving their religious structures and positions by sacrificing the truth in another." He goes on:
"The awareness that any of us could have been any of these persons is the confession that all of us have sinned. Our primal instinct is to save ourselves by saving our people, saving our politically or militarily arranged peace, and saving our religious structures. The message of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is that God saves us. We cannot save ourselves. Truly, Christ is our peace. Faith calls us away from the sin of associating our salvation with our own efforts. . . . We cannot by our own efforts overcome the fear generated by the other, whether they are a political enemy, ethnically different, or of another religion."
When we enter Holy Week, we enter the story of this One who chose to be broken rather than to break others; to allow his blood to be poured out rather than spill others' blood. Listen closely to the stories you hear this week in light of Jesus' story. Let his mind be your mind. Pray--and work--for peace. Amen.
Hange, Roy. Curtains of Fire: Religious Identity and Emerging Conflicts. http://www.mennonitecc.ca/mcc/occasional/24/index.html
Copyright 1999 The Rev. Jan W. Nunley. All rights reserved.
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