Doodah Parade (Sermon, Palm Sunday, April 13, 2014)

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Matthew 21:1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

*****

Whether we’ve grown up being in church since we were in diapers, or whether we grew up with our only religious exposure being Hollywood movies and television shows, we’ve probably all seen representations, and have our own mental images, of this story that we just heard – Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem in the days leading up to the Passover feast, and his crucifixion and resurrection. But what must this event really have been like? Do you suppose it was really like the Sunday School pictures, or the movie portrayals? What would the average man on the street – what would Joshua Six-Pack have seen and thought if he happened to see this scene unfolding? 

To give a little perspective, it might help to visualize that in Jesus’ time, Jerusalem had a population under normal circumstances of maybe 40,000 people – just slightly larger than Gahanna. But it had a smaller physical footprint than Gahanna, so while it wasn’t huge, it was still a pretty densely populated place. But during major religious festivals like the Passover, Jewish religious pilgrims flowed into Jerusalem from all around the ancient Mediterranean world, ballooning the population of the city to at least a quarter of a million – making an almost overnight change from a city the size of Gahanna to one about the size of Toledo, full of people speaking dozens of languages, and all of them trying to find a place to eat, and sleep, and go to the bathroom; and all of them trying to get the same picture next to the Roman centurion standing guard, or taking videos of the priests making sacrifices at the Temple and uploading them to youTube; and just trying to make their way through the ten-foot-wide streets making the city just a big hot mess and the whole thing was as chaotic and exciting as Times Square at midday. And every year, as part of this, the Romans would stage a big, impressive parade full of pomp and circumstance, and music and flags and war horses and shields and daggers, all as a welcome to the religious pilgrims pouring into the city to worship and celebrate and spend their money – but more importantly, as a show of force, and as a warning to tourist and resident alike to stay in line – to not to make trouble, or the Roman hammer would come down hard. 

But this year, this particular day, on the other side of town, there was another parade going on – Jesus’ entry into the city. On this day, here comes one average looking man riding into town not on a fancy horse like the Roman generals across town, but on a humble little donkey. He’s just ridden in from this little village out on the Mount of Olives – just about the distance between here and the Bob Evans at Crosswoods – and a bunch of the villagers are flocked around him, shouting out religious praises and waving tree branches and throwing their clothing into the street, and as far as the average bystander can see, basically acting like a bunch of crazy people, making as much of an impression as the annual Doodah parade, if even that. And now they’re pushing into the crowd of the city, getting in the way of tourists trying to get across the street to buy a three-pack of cashmere scarves and postcards from the Holy Land. And some tourist asks who this man on the donkey is, and what the demonstration is all about, and one of the country bumpkins says that this is Jesus, the Messiah who’s going to kick out the whole Roman army and establish God’s rule over all the world. And for a moment, the tourist looks at Jesus, and looks at the people around him. And then he nods his head, and pushes his way past them into the postcard shop, noticing the little hubbub in the street, and then forgetting it before they get to the next intersection.

Maybe that isn’t quite the way we tend to picture this event in our minds, but I’ll bet that to the average bystander in Jerusalem that day, it must have been something very much like that. Something whose point was largely missed in the moment. Something that offered a completely different, alternative message to the big show going on all around them. On this day, Jesus enters Jerusalem, and God speaks to humanity, in a way completely different from conventional wisdom and religious hierarchy and the power and might of the government. 

And that’s the way God usually seem to reach out and speak to us, too. We want to hear God, and get answers to the questions in our lives, clearly, in writing, with bells and whistles, and maybe even fireworks if there’s time to schedule them. But God reaches out to us and speaks to us in different ways. Maybe we’re at some crisis point in our life, feeling unloved and unwanted and unimportant to anyone, and maybe the world would be better off without us. And in that moment, God comes to us as a little girl who reaches up and tugs on our shirtsleeve, and at just the right moment, looks into our eyes and smiles and says “I love you” and gives you a big awkward hug around your knees. 

He was having trouble taking some risky step out in faith that he’d been wrestling with, and he wanted some clear-cut, doubt-free direction from God, but what he got as he sat down at the bar at the Old Bag of Nails was a damp, wrinkled cocktail napkin sitting in front of him that the bartender hadn’t scooped up, and someone had scribbled a note on it that said “Do you trust me?” and it was just signed with the letter G. 

She sat at the kitchen table overwhelmed with worry and fear over two dozen stressful situations she was dealing with, and worrying about how she and her husband, and their kids, were going to get through it. As she sat there, she pushed aside a big pile of unpaid bills, just enough to prop her elbows on the tabletop and without even thinking about it she blurted out “Oh God, what am I going to do?” And suddenly, without warning, and in some way she’s never really been able to describe, she felt a complete, overwhelming sense of peace, and she felt love almost as a physical thing cascading over her like a wave, and she heard a voice that somehow, she just knew was God saying, “It’s OK; everything is going to be all right; I love you.” 

We want steel-reinforced concrete from God, but what we get is the Doodah Parade. What we get are these alternative, counterintuitive ways of reaching into our existence. These things that the great Presbyterian minister and author, Frederick Buechner, called certain uncertainties, dim half-miracles, oddly relevant sermons at just the right moment, things like that. Things that just might be coincidence, and that’s what many people would write them off as, but that for some reason you just can’t. It’s more than coincidence. For better or worse, it’s that alternative way that God uses to cut through the clutter and the crap and the background noise of our lives to let us know that what we see in the life, death, and resurrection of the man riding into town on the donkey, riding into the chaos of the Old City and the chaos of our lives, is the love, and the way, and the very face, of God. And that no matter what we go through, God will be with us, and see us through anything that life, and all the power and might represented in that other parade might dump on us. In all these little, ambiguous ways, God calls us to come join in the alternative parade on the other side of town; to the alternative way of understanding life and the world – to the reverse logic of the kingdom of God. 

So today, you get to write your own ending to the sermon. Just what did Joshua Six-Pack do when he bumped into this little alternative parade? Did he pass by and forget it? Or did he fall in with the crowd? Did it change his life? 

What did he do? What will we do? 

Thanks be to God.

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Morning Devotional

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Will someone wise up and cast Anthony Hopkins to star in a film about the life of Frederick Buechner, before they both die?

This will be a busy day. As I sit here, I already know that I have at least two days’ worth of work that’s supposed to get done today, and I’m trying to prioritize what will make the cut and what won’t; who I’m going to have to apologize to and how to put it and when I’m going to be able to get to whatever it is done, along with fixing any fallout caused by not getting it done in the first place. There are worship processions and recessions to choreograph, a sermon to write, a proposal for a new video projector installation to review, a poster to get designed and printed for an upcoming spaghetti dinner, and there’s always a committee report or two to knock out as well. Ruth is also in the hospital again and needs a visit, and there are a stack of homework papers from the Confirmation kids to read through. I also have to come up with a make-up assignment for the next Confirmation class, because for the fourth or fifth time, Blake or Meghan or whoever won’t be in class because their U14 Traveling Chess Team has a mandatory practice scheduled for Sunday morning, and if they aren’t at the practice they won’t be able to participate in the upcoming tournament, which is where kids qualify for the state championships, and if they miss that, they probably won’t get a chess scholarship to a really good college and they’ll be stuck attending a second-tier school and their life will basically be ruined. So they have to be at the practice, because it’s really important. And five or six or seven years from now, if I happen to still be here, I’ll listen to Dad, or probably Mom, complaining that their child had just left the church behind when they went off to college. They’ll say they’re upset that the church failed them and their family, and that their kids didn’t learn what the parents considered important in life, and I’ll find some way to be empathetic while simultaneously not pointing out that in fact, that was exactly what they did learn, and perfectly well.

So with all of this and more not just on the plate but dripping over its edges, I sit here and write a blog post. It’s entirely possible, if not probable, that some good soul who won’t get their thing done today will see this, and they’ll ask If you’re so busy, how do you have time to write on your blog; or So do you mean to tell me that writing all that stuff is more important than me and my project? From their standpoint, they’re perfectly logical and reasonable questions, and the perfectly logical and reasonable answers don’t make me look good at all. The reality, though, is that some days I need to do this in order to get as much of the rest done as possible. It’s gratifying to know that there are some people out there who enjoy reading what I write. And it astounds me that, at least according to WordPress, at 3:00am their time there’s someone in Trinidad and Tobago who felt compelled to read one of my sermons. But the truth is that as much as I like sharing my thoughts, I realize that most of it is primarily for my own benefit. It’s the way I clear my head and my thoughts, burping out these words onto the screen to make room in my head and my day for other ones – so I can prioritize things as well as possible, and get as much of the most important things done for the most people, and if I don’t do this I’d upset even more people than I will by taking the time to write. In short, this is my morning devotional.

Compressing time began early this morning, as I multi-tasked during my morning bathroom ritual by simultaneously brushing my teeth and reading another entry out of the book Listening to Your Life – a series of brief excerpts, one for each day of the year, of the writing of Presbyterian minister, seminary professor, and author Frederick Buechner. I’ve been a Buechner fan for years, which as far as I can tell is a club made up of essentially everyone who’s ever actually read him. The following is an excerpt from the book – today’s and yesterday’s offerings, actually, since they’re connected. I think his words here are a pretty good explanation of why I think all the daily juggling and doing and failing and apologizing and empathizing and everything else is worth it all anyway – and why the world is a much better place because Frederick Buechner is part of it.

I hear the creaking of a chair being tipped back on its hind legs. “Sir, this is all fairly effective in a literary sort of way, I suppose, but since you have already put most of it in a novel, I’m afraid it’s a little stale.”

My interlocutor is a student who under various names and in various transparent disguises has attended all the religion classes I have ever taught and listened to all my sermons and read every word I’ve ever written, published and unpublished, including diaries and letters. He is on the thin side, dark, brighter than I am and knows it. He is without either guile or mercy. “You know, you were just getting down to the one thing people might be interested in,” he says, “because it is always interesting to hear why a man believes what he believes. But then instead of giving it to them straight, you started paraphrasing from a work of your own fiction. I’ve heard you do the same sort of thing in sermons. Just as you are about to reach what ought to be the real nub of the matter, you lapse off into something that in the words of one of your early reviewers is either poetry or Williams’ Aqua Velva. I would hesitate to use the phrase “artful dodger” if you hadn’t already used it artfully yourself. Why don’t you really tell them this time? Give it to them straight?”

God. Jesus. The ministry, of all things. Why I believe. He cannot possibly want me to give it straight any more than I want myself to give it straight, get it straight once and for all. For my own sake. I tell him this, and he brushes his hand over his mouth to conceal the glimmer of a smile.

“A question then,” he says. “Have you ever had what you yourself consider a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience?”

There are these things I have already mentioned – the monastery visit, the great laughter sermon, the apple tree branches. They all really happened, I tell him, and I don’t see why just because I’ve used them already in a novel I shouldn’t use them again now. And the dream of writing the name on the bar. I really dreamed it. God knows I know what he means about artful dodging, but what can be straighter than telling the actual experiences themselves? What more can he want?

“I just told you,” he says, “what I want.”

Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.

***

Driving home from church one morning full of Christ, I thought, giddy in the head almost and if not speaking in tongues at least singing in tongues some kind of witless, wordless psalm, I turned on the radio for the twelve o’clock news and heard how a four year old had died that morning somewhere. The child had kept his parents awake all night with his crying and carrying on, and the parents to punish him filled the tub with scalding water and put him in. These parents filled the scalding water with their child to punish him and, scalding and scalded, he died crying out in tongues as I heard it reported on the radio on my way back from of all places church and prayed to almighty God to kick to pieces such a world or to kick to pieces Himself and His Son and His Holy Ghost world without end standing there by the side of that screaming tub and doing nothing while with his scrawny little buttocks bare, the hopeless little four-year-old whistle, the child was lowered in his mother’s arms. I am acquainted with the reasons that theologians give and that I have given myself for why God does not, in the name of human freedom must not, by the very nature of things as he has himself established that nature cannot and will not, interfere in these sordid matters, but I prayed nonetheless for his interference.

“You were going to explain why you believe,” the interlocutor says, not unkindly.

I believe without the miracles I have prayed for then; that is what I am explaining. I believe because certain uncertain things have happened, dim half-miracles, sermons and silences and what not. Perhaps it is my believing itself that is the miracle I believe by. Perhaps it is the miracle of my own life: that I, who might so easily not have been, am; who might so easily at any moment, even now, give the whole thing up, nonetheless by God’s grace do not give it up and am not given up by it. There is maybe no such thing, old friend and adversary, as a genuine, self-authenticating experience of anything, let alone God. Maybe at the latter day my redeemer shall stand upon the earth and mine eyes shall behold him and not as a stranger, but in the meantime I behold him on the earth as a name which when I write it wakes me up weeping, as a joke too rich to tell on certain silent faces, occasionally even my own face; as a hand which I am able sometimes to believe that only the thin glove of night I wear keeps me from touching.