March On

(sermon 3/25/18 – Palm Sunday)

March for our Lives crowd

Mark 11:1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

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Yesterday was a very important day in our nation’s history.  Certainly, by now all of you have seen images and video of the different “March for Our Lives” events around the country, especially the one in Washington D.C It was an amazing day. I was thinking about that, and several things really stood out to me about this series of events. The first thing is that this was truly a youth-driven thing. In Washington, there wasn’t a single speaker at the podium, there wasn’t a single speech given, by anyone over 18 years old.  In my generation, they used to say don’t trust anyone over thirty; this generation is tightening that down even more. I hope you had a chance to hear some of the speeches, and to hear some of the passion, and to see just the raw numbers in Washington, and Boston, and Los Angeles, and everywhere – 800 different events, most in this country, but worldwide as well. And it struck me that this is a generation of young people, who frankly, we’ve failed. And they’re taking the reins. They’re saying “Enough!” It amazed me that this is all youth-led. Now, were there adult organizers involved? Obviously. There were individuals and associated organizations that helped them to handle the logistics. I mean, if the initial attendance estimates are correct, this was the largest single-day protest gathering in the history of our country. Those kinds of events normally take even professionals a year to plan, not a month. So the logistics of this thing were amazing, and yes, they clearly had the help of organizations and talented people who knew how to make this happen, but those organizers stayed out of the limelight, and they let those kids say what was really on their mind – what the country, what the world really needed to hear.

Another thing that really struck me about the event was that you didn’t hear “The Republicans this,” or “The Democrats that;” or red-state/blue state; and all of that partisanship. Yes, I’m sure if you saw video of the crowd, there were probably some outlier signs that were partisan, but by and large, the overall message, and the speeches, were absolutely, completely non-partisan. They stuck on-target, on-topic – because this is not a partisan political issue that these young people were protesting, that they were lifting up for the world to see and pay attention to. As they said, “No longer” and “Not any more;” no more of these school shootings, no more mass violence.

But what struck me the most about what was happening was the feeling, the mood, the attitude. You heard those kids, and you heard the adults, and you listened to so many of the crowd interviews, and the overarching spirit was one of optimism. It was hope. It was positive. It was optimistic for the future – that this was going to be the tipping point; this was a Selma moment; this was a Stonewall moment; this was the tipping point for this generation. In that crowd, there was joy. There was elation, over the hope, the promise, that this day’s events gave to these people – to this country. And there were certainly people there, and at other events around the country, who will remember being a part of this day, of this event. They will tell their grandchildren, “Yes, I was there that day. I heard Emma Gonzalez speak. What a day.

Now many of us look at those events with eyes older than theirs, and with hair thinner and greyer than theirs, and we know what is possible. We know what may very well happen. Sad to say, but as the news cameras cover this for a few days, and then they move on to cover the next shiny thing in the news cycle  – and everyone gets bogged down with making sure that the bills get paid this month, and getting the kids to soccer practice, and all of the other distractions – that the hope, the excitement of yesterday is going to fade. And if politics continues its normal trajectory, in all likelihood, will fade, and dwindle, and very little will be done – that’s if the normal script is followed. And if that happens, you will have a generation of young people in this country who may become disillusioned, and bitter, and dejected, and angry, and hurt. And let’s face it; the odds are pretty good that that’s what’s going to happen. And yet, even after the hurt that is probably, unfortunately inevitable, in the long haul these young people are going to win. Their cause is just, the time is right, the long moral arc of history is bending in their direction. They are going to win this battle, even though in the short term they are in all likelihood going to face setbacks. They’re going to lose battles but they are going win the war. They are going to have hurt, but they are going to win. They are going to be validated; they are going to be vindicated in the end. An hopefully, enough of them know that, and they keep on pushing when the hurt comes, when the disillusionment comes, and hopefully enough of them will keep the courage, they will keep the faith and they will keep pushing, and moving, until they do, in fact, win, and they are going to win.

As I thought about all that, I saw a parallel between what is in all likelihood going to unfold as a part of this March for Our Lives, and what we’re observing here today. Imagining Jesus on that donkey, heading out from Bethany on the Mount of Olives, making that short ride, even being able to see Jerusalem, just two and a half or three miles down the road, coming around that path along the side of the hill, looking down into the valley and back up the other side, seeing all of Jerusalem spread out before him, and having his spirits lifted, his spirits buoyed, by the people surrounding him. Shouting his praises, singing his praises. Laying out their version of the red carpet for him. Their savior is coming; their king is coming, they’re going to push the occupying Romans out of Jerusalem. God’s kingdom is finally going to be once again established on earth, here in Jerusalem. Oh, happy day! People behind him in the procession, people ahead of him in the procession, people laughing and giggling and giddy with joy, and they’re taking selfies with Jesus on the donkey in the background, and they’re going through all of this. And still, Jesus sits on the donkey, seeing Jerusalem laid out ahead of him, and he knows that all of these people who are supporting him and singing his praises this day are going to vanish. His support is going to vaporize like a cobweb getting hit with a blowtorch as soon as the pressure comes, as soon as the heat comes bearing down on Jesus, they’re going to disappear. “What, Jesus? Jesus who? Never heard of him!” Jesus knows that at the end of this week stands the cross, and what this crowd will see as the end result of a failure, a fraud. Carrying along the resentment that they’ve been taken along for a ride by this fake, this phony. He knows all of this. He knows that this is coming.

Every time I think about that, every time I really consider that, and I put myself in Jesus’ place – I put myself on the back of that donkey, I cannot believe that I’d have kept going. I believe that if I were in that position, I would not have gone into the city. I’d have just turned that donkey around, and headed off toward the opposite side of the hill. I would have ridden off into the sunset, and said, “Folks, you’re on your own!”

But knowing full well what was to come, he did it. Being aware of all the events that would play out in the comings days, he did it. Because he knew that in the end, God would vindicate, would validate, everything that he had said, everything that he had done. It would all be validated through the resurrection.

And so that leaves us. Clearly not Jesus, and most all of us older than 18. We’re in the middle. And we think about our own life’s experiences. When we think about the things that we want in our lives – our hopes, our aspirations, our dreams, the things that we know are the way things should be, and for whatever reason, they aren’t quite that. And as people of faith, we come to God, and we ask God, we petition God, we ask for God’s intercession for these things that are not right. Medical fears. Relationship fears; that person who came into your life who you thought was God’s blessing to you, an answered prayer, has now disappeared on you, and you begin to wonder if you were mistaken, or if God is just cruel. There are times in your life when things aren’t going right, and you’ve been taught from the time that you were an infant to pray to God, and God hears and answers your prayers. And yet, as someone who has been around a while, you know that in all likelihood, in many of these cases, the answer to the prayer that you lift up is not the answer you’d hoped for. You can feel deserted, rejected, abandoned. In that sense, we do sometimes feel like Jesus riding on that donkey. We feel like so many of those youth are going to feel the first time some piece of legislation gets tabled, or not even introduced at all. We know that in all likelihood, in so many of these cases, there is going to be a feeling of abandonment.

How do we square that? We certainly know, as followers of Jesus, that as Jesus was himself, we play the long game. We know that that long moral arc is indeed bending toward our intended goal. We know that eventually, God is going to vindicate, God is going to validate, our hopes, our prayers, our aspirations. The day is coming. I don’t know when, and I don’t know what the details are in your own given circumstances, but I do know that vindication is coming. I can stand here and say that boldly and without qualification, because of the things that happened from the time that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that donkey, and through that following week, and into the resurrection.

We have this hope within us, that when things aren’t going exactly the way we’d planned, we know where it’s all headed. This day, it’s headed, on the back of a donkey, down the road, around the bend, down into the valley and back up the other side, into Jerusalem.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

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Christ-Song (sermon March 29, 2015 – Palm Sunday)

palm_sunday_silhouette

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

  – Mark 11:1-11

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I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of poetry. It’s my own fault, I’m sure; I suppose I just haven’t been exposed to enough of it. A lot of what poetry I have seen seems to be either as sappy and simplistic as the rhyme in a budget-priced birthday card; or some long, rambling free-form thing that doesn’t sound very poetic and doesn’t really convey anything other than making you wonder if the writer had been smoking peyote when they wrote it. Let’s face it; even poetry lovers will admit there’s a lot of bad poetry out there.

One poem that’s always stuck with me, though, is one by Ralph Waldo Emerson called “Hamatreya.” It talks about how generations of people have come and gone, and each one has parceled up the land, and bought and sold it, and put their names on it, and held it, and took pride in saying that the land was theirs and that they had control over it and that it yielded itself to them. Emerson writes about these people, calling them

Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs;
Who steer the plough but cannot steer their feet
clear of the grave.

A little further on, there’s actually a kind of poem within a poem, called “Earth-Song,” where the Earth itself responds to the pridefulness of these people who claimed to be in control of things. The Earth says,

Mine and yours;
Mine, not yours.
Earth endures;
Stars abide –
shine down on the old sea;
Old are the shores;
But where are the old men?
I who have seen much,
Such I have never seen….
… They called me theirs,
Who so controlled me;
Yet every one
Wished to stay, and is gone.
How am I theirs,
I they cannot hold me,
But I hold them?

The Earth’s, or Emerson’s, ironic point about the Earth ultimately having the last word, the word of the grave, regarding the pride, power, and control of things is a sharp stick poked in the eye of the way people understood the world and their importance in it, in his time and in our own.

In today’s gospel text, Jesus is very much using that same sharp stick to poke the supposed powers that be, and for a similar reason. Of course, this is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, when we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in the days leading up to his arrest. Sometimes we call it the “Triumphal Entry,” and in a broad, counterintuitive way I suppose it was that, but to have been there, to have experienced it as it happened, it would have seemed like anything but triumphal. The oddness of it would have seemed like a joke. Or, the more you thought about it, not a joke at all, but that sharp stick in the eye of those in positions of power.

The people in Jesus’ time were very familiar with the impressive way kings or generals or other powerful people arrived in a parade. Full of official pomp and circumstance, with banners, bands, military escort, wailing sirens, riding on big, strong, armored war horses; black SUVs full of Secret Service agents more heavily armed than some small island nations. And out ahead of them were the crowds – clapping, cheering, holding up signs and waving their hoodies in the air over their heads. That was how a VIP came to town.

Jesus certainly had the crowds. But he didn’t bring any of that other baggage with him as he entered Jerusalem, and a big portion of that was by design.

Many of the most memorable and transformative events we experience look spontaneous, when in reality they were very carefully thought out and orchestrated. Whether it’s something as simple and harmless as a flash mob orchestra showing up one person at a time on the plaza until they’re all there belting out a rousing version of Ode to Joy, or something more serious, like Occupy Wall Street, or an ACT UP protest, or a lunch counter sit-in or selecting Rosa Parks to be the person who refuses to give up her seat, all of these things were very carefully thought out to maximize their impact. And in this gospel story, Jesus does the exact same thing. He and his disciples have been wandering all over Judea and Samaria and Galilee and beyond for several years, and apparently doing pretty much all of it on foot. Now, all of a sudden, Jesus needs some four-footed transportation to get to Jerusalem – a distance that’s about as far away from Bethany as the high school is from us. It was a walk he’d normally have made without thinking about, or even breaking a sweat.

And the writer of this gospel spends a lot of time on Jesus’ instructions about how and where to get it, and what kind to get. In fact, there’s far more detail about that than Jesus’ actual arrival into Jerusalem, which he treats almost as an afterthought. There really does seem to be something important about this little colt.

It seems like Jesus is using it to make a carefully calculated statement. When he rides into town on this weak little animal, it isn’t like the other VIPs from the Roman Empire, who are oppressing the people. This is his way of poking a stick in their eye, tweaking their noses, making fun of them. He’s telling them that real power, and control, and authority, don’t need all those outward trappings. The real King doesn’t need the security detail and all those other things. In this bit of street theater, Jesus is saying there’s only one real King, and it isn’t Caesar.

It’s a very radical, revolutionary statement that Jesus is making here, mocking the Roman occupiers. It’s a very political statement. It’s most likely what got him killed. And the statement that he’s making is that those people who would claim to be in control, and to have power over them, are wrong. They aren’t the power that people should give their loyalty to, and any power that those people use to put them down or oppress them is illegitimate.

A large part of Jesus’ entire earthly ministry revolved around teaching that God’s love, and God’s kingdom, radically contradicts the message coming from all earthly powers and systems that would unjustly try to control or diminish us. The kingdom of God frees us from that, and calls us all to grasp onto that great truth of God’s love and acceptance. This is the good news that Christ came to share with us – that you don’t have to accept the judgment of those who would consider you less worthy, less human, because they don’t like the color of your skin, or your age, or your sex, or how good-looking you are or how smart you are or who your parents were or where you went to school or where you live, or anything else. Christ riding into Jerusalem on that little colt says that God considers us good, and precious, and worthy of justice and love – you, me, all of us; all those other would-be powers literally be damned. Emerson had his Earth-Song; I suppose you could call this the Christ-Song. The people cheering out in front of Jesus thought that he was going to change things and set this new reality into motion, and they were right about that as they sang the Christ-Song, even if they didn’t quite understand how. Today, from our perspective, we can all grasp onto that good news for ourselves, too. We can be singing that same song, and cheering, and waving palms in front of Jesus as he comes riding into Jerusalem – or is it Auburn?

Thanks be to God.