Sunday, April 13, 2014

A little dark-haired girl who hated Palm Sunday: a sermon on Matthew 21:1-11

Once upon a time, there was a dark-haired little girl who hated Palm Sunday.  She loved church, and she loved Holy Week best of all, but oh she hated Palm Sunday, and this is why: she hated how her church read the story of Jesus’ passion.

Every year the narrative would be broken into spoken parts, with a Narrator and a Jesus and a Pilate and a Peter, and she always wanted to be one of them; but too many years she was just part of the crowd, the rest of the congregation, that shouted Hosanna! at the beginning and Crucify him! at the end.

She hated it.  Because she wouldn’t have shouted it.  She wouldn’t have given in with everyone to betraying Jesus.  She didn’t want to shout Crucify him.

But as that dark-haired little girl got a little older and learned a little more about life and death and heartbreak, she realized that’s the point, isn’t it -- it isn’t something we want to admit, but it is the truth -- that we can be everyone in the story.

We are the crowd.  We began worship alongside them, with palms in our hands and praises on our lips.  We are the crowd that gathers to meet him on his way into Jerusalem.  There are those among us who whisper:  he’s fulfilling a prophecy!  He’s showing himself to be the rightful king by coming, not glorified and majestic on a stallion, but humble and meek, on a donkey and a colt.

We have heard the stories of this Jesus, the great prophet, the healer, the teacher.  We have passed the story excitedly to friends:  have you heard what God has done?  We cry Hosanna, Blessed, Hosanna -- words from an old psalm that have suddenly taken on new meaning.  We call Jesus the Son of David, meaning that he is the promised Messiah -- one who has come to liberate Israel and the world from the hands of sin.

Too, we are sometimes the owner of this borrowed donkey.  We are bewildered and honored when the followers of Jesus appear, saying that the Lord needs us -- us! -- needs our humble little donkey.  We hurry to brush her, to whisper our pride in her ear, to hand her over.  There are times when we are glad, even honored, to give what we have because we see what it will do.

On Thursday we will hear of the disciples borrowing something else:  a room, furnished and ready with food, for the Passover meal.  And here we are too.  We are the honored hosts of the Passover meal, tripping over our own feet in excitement.  When we see a new family and rush to greet them, to learn their names, to make sure there are enough crayons and bulletins, to invite them to communion and to Spark and to bunco night -- there is pride and excitement in that, an honor in getting to share what has long nourished us.

And of course we are the disciples:  excited, convicted, passionate, and totally confused.  We are walking beside this donkey, amazed at the crowd, the shouts and praises for our master.  When we speak of Jesus, and of the kingdom of God, we are stumbling, we stutter and stammer, we forget things we remember later, and yet when we speak of love and peace there are people who listen.  When we sit across the table at Caribou from someone and listen -- really listen -- sometimes we see hearts opened and eyes filled and minds that wonder at this miracle that is grace.  And we are amazed.

Yet we are also sometimes the scribes and Pharisees.  We challenge Jesus.  We worry about him.  We aren’t sure about this message of compassion and mercy.  It seems -- fuzzy.  Too much grey, this loving-your-neighbor business, when we sometimes long for black-and-white boundaries, for clear-cut rules, for an “us” and a “them” to make things easier.

And we are Judas.  Judas has been by Jesus’ side almost from the beginning, and yet something happens in Jerusalem that changes everything.  He has trusted and hoped and had faith in Jesus and then in the course of just a few days it is all over.  This is the thing that little girl hated: how our expectations can break us.  How the moment that something we thought we fully understood, controlled, had a grip on can fall apart like sand through our fingers.

Some days it is impossible for me to understand how Judas could be so close to Jesus, could be there at the Last Supper and have his feet washed and then walk out, only to return hours later with soldiers in tow.  But every time I’ve had my heart broken or a hope dashed or a dream lost, I’ve understood a little better how easy it is to move from feeling betrayed to becoming a betrayer.

And every time my expectations have fallen through, I understand the crowd a little better.  Today we repeat their cries of praise, shouting Hosanna and waving our palms in celebration and expectation.  They were welcoming their coming Messiah.  But their vision of a Messiah and Jesus’ vision were very, very different.  The crowds pouring into Jerusalem for the Passover celebration though the Messiah would come to throw out the Romans, to break the chains of oppression and persecution, to cast out all the non-Jewish pagans and sit on the throne of David forever.  They were celebrating the coming of a warrior.  And when they see him, in a few days, whipped by Pilate and condemned by their religious leaders, they are heartbroken.  Isn’t this the Messiah?  Shouldn’t he rise up, destroy the Romans who beat him, silence the hypocrites who speak against him?

As a little girl I hated Palm Sunday, because it told the truth about us.  That we can be one of a crowd that turns so easily on something we thought we loved.

That we can be the Roman soldiers, uncaring and unconcerned; that when someone is brought before us with a label of Criminal, of Rebel, of Dangerous, it can be so easy to accept it.

That we can be Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, and every single one of the disciples who denied him and fled.

That we can be the women who watch Jesus’ beating and crucifixion and death only from a distance, transfixed and heartbroken.

Palm Sunday, as it leans into Holy Week, tells the truth about us.

And into all that comes a king, riding on a donkey.  Into the truth about our ability to believe or to reject, to love or to betray, to cheer or to condemn, walks Jesus.

God is not revealed in a tearing of the clouds, a booming voice echoing in every ear, a shout and a demand.  God does not gallop into Jerusalem on a stallion like a conquering king.

God comes as human, sends the only begotten Son, riding on a young colt into our midst.  God comes as human, as Jesus, born in human likeness, humble in the face of our praise, quiet in the face of our anger.

There is a frustration in this:  that when we cry God, fix this, change this, spare me from this, sometimes what we find is not deliverance but companionship.  We do not get a God who protects us perfectly from pain but a Son who walks beside us, in every person we are.  We get a God who became a servant, who washes our feet, who feeds us with his body, who welcomes us home every time we wander.

This is who God is -- that no matter where we are, no matter who we are, no matter which of the many voices in this story of the Passion are ours, God comes for us.  God comes and says:  I am not afraid of your anger, or your pain, or your heartbreak, or your fear, or your betrayal.  I am here for you.  I live among you.  I know who you are and why you are and I love you.  I love you, I love you, I love you.

Hosanna.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Amen.

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