This past week, I watched a talk by Charlie Todd online. Charlie moved to New York City with an interest in acting and comedy. Since he was new to the city, he didn’t have access to a stage, so he did the next best thing: he decided that New York City would be his stage. He created a group called Improv Everywhere, and set out to put together street theater projects, or missions, as he likes to call them.
One of the first missions he started in 2002 was called the “No Pants Subway Ride.” It was, as you can imagine from its name, a project where they had people who would get on the subway in New York City, in the winter, wearing shirts, coats, socks & shoes, carrying their briefcases and backpacks…they just weren’t wearing any pants.
Now I’m guessing that most of you will go home and search YouTube for “No Pants Subway Ride” and there are some pretty funny videos to check out, although…they can get a bit risqué, so keep that in mind. But it is quite hilarious to see the videos of the responses among those who have no idea what is going on…as they see people get on the subway and go about their normal routine of standing there, sitting down to read a book and so forth. When they host the annual “No Pants Subway Rides” now, they get around 3,500 people in New York City participating and people in over 50 other cities around the world hold “No Pants Subway Rides” as well.
Now, Improv Everywhere does a lot more than just take off their pants. They have created and performed musicals in public spaces, much like flash-mobs. Back in 2009, they picked a random couple getting married at the City Clerk’s Office in Manhattan and threw them a surprise wedding reception in front of the building. In 2007, they did a mission where over 200 people walked into Grand Central Station, froze in place for 5 minutes, and walked out. Another year, they had around 80 people wearing royal blue polo shirts and khaki pants walk into a Best Buy in New York City and just stand around the store.
When Charlie spoke about the “No Pants Subway Ride” and the other missions that Improv Everywhere has instigated, he admits that many are critical of his form of theater. But when asked why they do what they do, this is what he said:
“One of the points is to cause a scene in a public place that is a positive experience for other people. It’s a prank, but it’s a prank that gives somebody a great story to tell.”
Hmmm. Pulling a prank and causing a scene in a public place that will give somebody a great story to tell…sounds a little bit like what Jesus was up to in our story this morning…and appropriate for us to consider on this April Fool’s Palm Sunday.
Now when Charlie and the Improv Everywhere folks decide they want to do a new mission…they don’t just send out an email…this kind of street theater takes a lot of planning, nailing down all of the details, coordinating with other groups…In order to pull off events of this magnitude, you have to put the time in beforehand that Charlie does with Improv Everywhere events and that Jesus did in our passage.
Look at what happens in the first 7 verses. They arrive at Bethany and Jesus gives two disciples the task of stealing a colt, or a donkey. He’s even thought through the scenario enough to know that someone is probably going to ask them why they’re stealing the donkey and so he has an answer ready to give the disciples. The two disciples are able to pull it off and the triumphal entrance is about to start.
The text tells us that many people spread out their clothes on the road and others spread branches cut from the fields. But…what we don’t know is how much of this was just a spontaneous reaction to seeing Jesus begin to enter Jerusalem, or how much of this is all part of this grand street theater performance. Maybe the disciples ran around telling people what was about to happen and then others just joined in. Kind of like a flash mob. There are some people present who are in the crowd and know what’s happening and so maybe they started throwing their clothes down on the ground before Jesus and the colt. And then others saw their actions and followed suit. We will never know.
But when we start paying attention to some of these little details, we see Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem begins to look like a well planned Improv Everywhere mission. Jesus and the disciples seem ready to cause a scene in this very public place and give people a great story to tell. Perhaps the greatest story.
Now, I want you to close your eyes for a moment, and listen to those verses again from the Gospel of Mark – and try to imagine what the scene must have looked like:
“They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” Jesus entered Jerusalem.”
I’m guessing that some of you may be picturing a serene and peaceful Jesus, entering in on a beautiful, young colt, a sweet looking donkey, as the crowds are preparing for his entrance…ceremonially waving their palm branches…shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!”
And that is certainly how it could have been.
But if we reframe this story a bit – if we think of it not as a triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, and not as a special, holy moment that signifies the beginning of the end for Jesus’ life and ministry…but rather as a spectacle, as an intricately planned form of street theater…an Improv Everywhere mission…I think we may come away with something different from this story.
In addition to groups like Charlie’s Improv Everywhere, there are other theater groups who participate in something called guerrilla theater. These groups have clear political and social justice motivations for their street theater work, and the most notable among them is a group called the San Francisco Mime Troupe that became active in San Francisco in the 60’s. These groups put on performances to try and draw attention to a political issue through satire, protest and other carnival-esque techniques….
Many theologians and scholars have written about the entrance into Jerusalem as a form of street theater…preaching professor Chuck Campbell from Columbia Theological Seminary writes the following about our passage from Mark:
“When Jesus does finally enter the city, he enjoys all the trappings of a great military procession for a triumphant national hero. The people participating in the event do everything a victorious military leader would expect…The whole time, however, Jesus is turning imperial notions of power and rule on their head. His theater is a humorous piece of political satire. In his ‘triumphal entry’ Jesus lampoons the ‘powers that be’ and their pretensions to glory and dominion, and he enacts an alternative to their way of domination. Riding on the colt, his feet possibly dragging on the ground, Jesus comes not as one who lords his authority over others, but as one who humbly rejects domination. He comes not with pomp and wealth, but as one identified with the poor. He comes not as a mighty warrior, but as one who is vulnerable and refuses to rely on violence. Jesus here takes the role of a jester, who enacts in a humorous, disorienting way a totally different understanding of ‘rule’ and invites people to see and live in the world in a new way. The event takes place on the air of a carnival – this of a procession by a New Orleans jazz band – where those on the bottom of society festively unmask and challenge the dominant social order.”
If you’ve been following along in our Lenten Study, either with Connie or online on the blog, you’ve probably read the final session, which talks about these issues of power, and about the Palm Sunday procession as a parody of power. The author sums it up by saying:
“The Palm Sunday reality was a living parody on that dream. There was no stallion for this Messiah, just a donkey on loan. There was no army for this Messiah, just a rag-tag assortment of unemployed fisherman, an errant tax-collector, and some vaguely disreputable women. And this Messiah was no vanquisher of Romans; he was just a Galilean rabbi.”
Jesus, in a sense, pulls the biggest prank of all on this April Fool’s Palm Sunday. Jesus orchestrates an elaborate street theater mission, similar to Improv Everywhere…
And causes a scene in a public place that will give everyone a story to tell…but Jesus goes beyond Improv Everywhere’s hope of just giving people a good story…he employs some guerrilla theater as well, because this story he wants people to tell is clearly a political one and a theological one.
And what is this story?
That Jesus would reject the militaristic and political powers of the day, because in the end, they were fleeting.
That Jesus’ staged entrance to the city was an example of the power of self-giving love and humility that exemplified his life, ministry, death and resurrection.
That Jesus would indeed be their Messiah – just not the kind they were hoping for.
That Jesus would indeed be victorious…not over the Romans…but in the end, over death itself.
That Jesus had come to turn our world upside down.
That Jesus invites people, to this day, to see and live in the world in a new way.
On this April Fool’s Palm Sunday morning, we are invited to follow in the way of our Jester Jesus, and to see and live in the world in a new way. We are invited to “festively unmask and challenge the dominant social order.”
You could argue that the senators who wore their hoodies in the United States Senate Chamber last week were unmasking and challenging the dominant social order of our country, that they were trying to get others to see and live in the world in a new way, in a way that would bring about justice for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
You could argue that we here at First Presbyterian Church challenge the dominant social order here in Ashland when we open our doors each Sunday night, and on other cold nights throughout the winter, for homeless people to come in and get a warm place to sleep. We are trying to get others, including those in leadership positions in our city’s government, to see and live in the world in a new way, in a way that would provide a more consistent shelter for the homeless in Ashland.
You could argue that each and everyone one of us here, challenge the dominant social order of our world when we refuse to accept the powers of the world, but instead pursue the welfare of others before ourselves, when we seek to bring Christ’s peace into this world, and when we love God and spread God’s love with all those we encounter. We are all trying to get others to see and live in the world in a new way…a way that we see exemplified in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
As we prepare to enter this Holy Week, the question for all of us is whether we will let it transform us…or let it be just one more week among many? Will we let it remind us that our Holy Jester, Jesus the Christ, challenged the social and political expectations of his day to bring about an alternative reality? Will we create our own acts of guerrilla theater in the world today? Will we find ways to live out this alternative reality that Jesus ushered in, the day he entered Jerusalem on a donkey?
Palm Sunday is just the first act in this street theater play that Jesus has orchestrated. As we journey through the rest of this week on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and finally Easter Morning – we will experience the other acts of this most subversive of plays that Jesus has crafted. And let us be attentive to the scenes that are happening in public places…for come Sunday morning – we’re going to have a great story to tell.