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.

=====

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

https://i2.wp.com/www.shortnorth.com/DooDah1.jpg

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.