She travels outside of karma

This is such a curious day, Palm Sunday. We sing and shout in joyful procession, welcoming King Jesus into the city, because we do want him here, we do want him to rule and make all things right – but we already know better. While we are singing Hosannah, Jesus hears the voices we would rather drown out with our happy songs.

I hear the whispering of many—terror all around!—as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.

The words of the Psalm[1] pull us toward Friday, and we wish the parade could just go on until inauguration day and then we all live happily ever after. We do want Jesus to rule and to make all things right, but we are also at least beginning to understand that it is not just them who get in the way – them being the Romans, or the Jews, or whoever else we can blame – it is we ourselves who cannot let God’s love have its way with the world. Our own visions of a world made right often have more in common with imperial dreams of world domination than with the peculiar way of Christ. We get power wrong, and we half know it, and so we feel a little awkward standing in the gate of the city and watching Jesus riding down Broadway on a donkey. He’s turning our world upside down, and we half know that that is what it takes to make things right, but the other half resists the pull of God’s love. We get power wrong. We see the donkey, but in our dreams it’s still the hero in shining armour, riding high on a white stallion, who comes to save us.

There is a city, not far from here, and it could be any city, in any state, where they have a state hospital.[2] And in the state hospital they have people who are emotionally wounded and mentally ill. Years ago, the hospital staff wanted to start some halfway houses in the community, so that people who were on their way to full recovery could be supported while making the transition back into life outside. Rather than taking one giant step from the small world of the hospital to the big world of the city, they would be encouraged to take a number of small steps toward greater independence.

Well, not everybody in the city was thrilled with the possibility of this prospect, and so there was a city council meeting. The place was packed. Hundreds of people squeezed into the meeting room, yelling and screaming their opposition to the halfway houses. “We don’t want these people in our neighborhood.” After a couple of brief presentations and a lot of yelling and a lot of screaming the city council said no to the proposal.

Just then, the back doors of the auditorium were opened, and in came this little woman with a white scarf over her head. Suddenly it was so quiet, even people up in the balcony could hear the hushed questions, “Is that Mother Teresa?” Indeed, it was her. She was in town for a ceremony dedicating a Sisters of Charity program and she heard about this meeting. She came down the center aisle and everybody gasped as she came to the front, got down on her knees in front of the city council, raised her arms and said, “In the name of Jesus, make room for these children of God! When you reject them, you reject Jesus. When you affirm them, you embrace Jesus.” And then with her arms up in the air, she pleaded, “Please, please, please, please, please, in the name of Jesus, make room for these children of God! Make room for them in your neighborhoods.”

Now pretend for a moment that you’re on the city council. There is Mother Teresa on her knees in front of you. Crews from several television stations have followed her into the auditorium, with cameras rolling. What are you going to do?

You guessed it. One of the councilmen moved that the previous motion be reconsidered, there was a second, and then the city council did a complete 180 and voted unanimously in favor of the proposal.

There were hundreds of people packed into that hall, and not one of them uttered a word of opposition to the motion. Why? Because of the pleas of a little old woman who spoke with irresistible authority. Mother Teresa didn’t have to twist any arms because everybody knew about her love for the poor in the streets of Calcutta. Everybody knew how she served God by giving of herself to meet the needs of others. Her selfless love was her response to the grace and mercy of God she encountered in Christ, and it was the source of her authority.

Those who draw from the well of divine love don’t have to resort to power. Jesus doesn’t ride in front of an army. Jesus doesn’t change the world by imposing his will on others. He turns the world upside down by refusing the path of coercion.

This is the week when we reflect on the character of God’s power and how it is revealed in the life and death of Jesus. Paul’s words in his letter to the Philippians call us urgently to let the same mind be in us that we have in Christ Jesus. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4). When you think about your neighborhood, listen to the needs of your neighbors, rather than forcefully and loudly asserting your own. Listen for the small voice that calls you into community. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit” (Phil 2:3).

In a city like Philippi, such words were rare and they challenged the dominant version of reality. The citizens of Philippi valued their imperial connections, their privileges, and their advantages as subjects of Caesar. Roman culture valued force, competition, and honor-seeking, and humility was not considered to be a virtue. The perfect career of a young Roman aristocrat followed the cursus honorum, or “course of honor.” It was a ladder that comprised a mixture of military and political administration posts. Each office had a minimum age for election, and at each stage the upwardly mobile young man gained new responsibilities and new privileges. Roman society, much like ours, was built on the pursuit of status. You move up, and you socialize with the people who can help you move up even higher.

But when everybody is only concerned about moving up, nobody thinks and acts in ways that encourage and build community. The defining reality for the world, Paul reminds us, is not the race to the top, but a different path.

You want to talk about status? Jesus had the highest status imaginable: equality with God. Only he did not regard that equality as something to be used for his own advantage. On the contrary. He emptied himself. He humbled himself. He “made himself of no reputation” (KJV). Obedient to God, he lived a life free of concern for status and honor, loving us with a vulnerability for which we have no words.

On the cross, his career in reverse reached its end and he died the most cruel and degrading death. You may say, “Well, that’s just the way it is in the world, isn’t it?” Yes, that is part of the truth we must face here, this is what we are capable of doing in the name of religion and justice and political convenience. But this Friday truth has an Easter side: God vindicated the way of Jesus. God gave him the name that is above every name, which is to say that the story of Jesus reveals the very name of God. Jesus is Lord. In the end, the defining reality for the world is not the race to the top, but love that goes all the way and opens new possibilities.

In 2000, U2 released their CD All That You Can’t Leave Behind. It wasn’t one of their best albums, but on the final track Bono sings about Grace, and it’s the name of a girl, but it’s also the name of this wondrous something that changed the world.[3] One of my favorite lines of the song is, “she travels outside of karma.”

You know Karma, if you’ve watched My Name Is Earl. If not, Karma is the common expectation that people ultimately get what they deserve, “You made your bed, now sleep in it.”

But grace travels outside of karma – that’s another way of saying, thank God, love goes all the way.

Today is a curious day, when we stand in the gate of the city; part of us wants to shout for joy, and part of us wants to fall silent as we watch Jesus, humble and riding on a donkey.

When asked by an interviewer about grace and karma, Bono said,

At the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you [sow], so you will [reap]” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff. …

I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. … I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity. …

Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That’s the point. It should keep us humbled.[4]

Humbled, yes, and full of hope. Welcome to the city, King Jesus.


[1] Psalm 31:9-16 was our second reading

[2] Based on a story told by Tony Campolo

[3] The lyrics say “thought,” but thought is not big enough, is it?

[4] Michka Assayas, Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2005), p. 203-204