Sunday, April 17, 2011

Who is this?

The monthly sermon post! This is a sermon for Palm Sunday, that I first used on my preaching class with Dr. Gary Simpson at Drew. Today, I preached it at Bernardsville United Methodist Church in New Jersey, where I have been preaching once a month as part of my supervised ministry. It is a very small congregation, and the people are so wonderful and friendly. I thank them for their support of me as a student pastor and will be sad to go, since this was the last Sunday I will preach there. But that means supervised ministry is almost over and I will have some time to write something for my blog other than a sermon!

Scripture: Matthew 21:1–11 (from the Inclusive Bible translation)1

As they approached Jerusalem, entering Bethphage at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent off two disciples, with the instructions, "Go into the village straight ahead of you, and immediately you will find a tethered donkey with her colt standing beside her. Untie them and lead them back to me. If anyone questions you, say, 'The Rabbi needs them.' They they will let them go at once."

This came about to fulfill what was said through the prophet:
"Tell the daughter of Zion,
Your sovereign comes to you without display,
riding on a donkey, on a colt---
the foal of a beast of burden."

So the disciples went off and did what Jesus had ordered. They brought the donkey and her colt, and after they laid their cloaks on the animals, Jesus mounted and rode toward the city.

Great crowds of people spread their cloaks on the road, while some began to cut branches from the trees lay them along the path. The crowds--- those who went in front of Jesus and those who followed--- were all shouting,
"Hosanna to the Heir to the House of David!
Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Most High!
Hosanna in the highest!"

As Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred to its depths, demanding, "Who is this?"

And the crowd kept answering, "This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee!"

Sermon: “Who is this?”

I saw Godspell at Bernards Township High School a few weeks ago. It is one of my favorite musicals--- I prefer hippie musicals. And, though the song "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord" is a John the Baptist song, calling people to repent, I always hear this song and think of Palm Sunday. If you have seen the musical live, you may associate the rushing forward in the song--- which at the high school due to that large cast sounded like a herd of elephants--- with the forward motions of the crowd, proclaiming as loudly and joyously as you have to do to sing "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord."

And so this is the image I have in my mind of Palm Sunday, a rushing forward, a joyous preparation of Jesus coming to Jerusalem to assume his role as King, really. The occasion is one of such brightness and color that we almost skip over that verse, the one that is foreshadowing the events coming later in the week. You see,

As Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred to its depths,
demanding, "Who is this?"

Who is this guy riding a donkey with her colt alongside her into our city? Who is this person that has so invigorated the masses? Who is this and what does he want? What does he want with us?

Will you pray with me?

Gracious God, Patient Teacher, we ask your presence among us as we gather here. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts bring us closer to understanding who is this Jesus and how can we become better followers of him. Amen.

Thoughout my study of this passage this week, the question I kept coming back to was that "Who is this?" question. The text, though, makes it pretty clear who this is. In the beginning of the passage, we see Jesus as a great teacher, as one who gives instructions that are followed, as one who says "you will find a tethered donkey" there and it is so. And the author of this gospel tells us that this happened to fulfill what was said through the prophet. So who is this Jesus? The Promised One. The One the people have so longed for. The sign of this king was not a warhorse, not chariots drawn as Caesar would have it, no the sign of this promised one given to the people by God through the prophet was that a simple man would ride in without display on a dinky old donkey, still tied to her young colt. The people are clear that this man on the donkey is prophesying a change, and that is why they shout Hosannas.

I think the scene was one so like what we saw in Egypt. The people so overflowed with joy at the thought of their freedom. They stood in Tahrir--- which means liberation--- Square, together surging forward with a vision of the end of oppression and the beginning of a new way to be Egypt together. The whole city stirred to its depths is the world, people glued to the TV wondering what will happen next, asking who are these people?

But too often the asking of the question who is this? is the signal of fear. It is clear from the passage that Jesus has come to Jerusalem to change some things--- we can say that before he even overturns the tables in the Temple, which in the Gospel of Matthew, he does the same day as his entry into the city. A Palestinian man, who must be obviously poor, obviously dusty from extensive travel, sits on top of a donkey, rides through the streets, and is given the welcome of a great king. This is frightening for those in power; this is the time when their fear translates into a need to quash the uprising. Yet others are out in the streets shouting Hosannas.

The whole city is stirred to its depths as it is presented with a choice, to continue with the old way of living, the way of warhorses, or to try to do something new. To follow this strange man on a donkey.

The Who is this? question is really one about what truths we will admit to ourselves, about whether or not we are willing to let the God who is stirring us to our depths do something new in our lives or whether we are going to quash it within us, close our eyes, turn our backs on the processional.

We all have these who is this? moments in our lives, these moments when we see God and know who God is but we have to ask if we are willing to admit that to ourselves.

One of the most important Who is this? moments for me in my life happened when I went to Bosnia and Herzegovina on a mission trip for the first time. My sister and I were picky eaters, but we certainly were nowhere near starving, but our host, a tiny firey woman named Saja decided we were wasting away and so whisked us away from the rest of the group, bringing with us one of our translators named Ðana since Saja herself knew little English, to the home of her friend for a special dinner. Now, I was sixteen, out of the country for the first time, sitting at a table outside a home still riddled with bullet holes and shrapnel from the war, listening to three strange women chatting in Bosnian. Bosnian is not a language like French or Spanish where a lot of the words are similar to English either. But despite the confusion of the situation, my sister Kate and I just sat quietly, absorbing it all. Ðana became quiet soon too, and then she reached over to Kate and I and told us she loved us. She had known us for two days, and here she was telling us she loved us.

Who is this?It had to be God. I had known the woman for two days. I had lived an extremely sheltered life and spent my childhood planting pumpkins in my backyard that didn't grow until the year we moved, playing with kittens, and writing science fiction. Ðana spent her childhood hiding from the Serb and Croat armies. Her father was killed during the war and every day she leaves her house she passes the marker along the road where he had been murdered. She had never spoken English outside of class before she met us, and the only Bosnian word I knew at that point was the number 8 because it sounds like the word awesome. She was a Muslim whose people were targeted by Christian genocidaires and I was a USAmerican Christian in a post- 9/11 world. And yet the God within her reached out to me beyond all of those barriers and loved me.

And this is one of the moments in my life where I did recognize God, and that I still today rely on as the assurance that God loves me. Me of all people. This is what I imagine those folks along the road that day celebrating. Of course, my who is this? moment is not completely parallel to that of Palm Sunday. There, God had given them this radically different picture of kingship, but in that picture they felt God saying, as I felt in Bosnia, I love you. And I have a better way of living planned for you.

But with this recognition comes a call to a change. Are we going to be those people shouting Hosannas, or are we going to insist that we do not know the answer to the question Who is this?

Of course, even when we are in that crowd, shouting Hosannas on a Sunday,

where do we end up that Friday?

For sometimes we shout Hosannas on Sunday only to go into hiding Friday or even become the bloodthirsty crowd. We must remember that not all revolutions end peacefully. Right now many of us are praying for Libya, mowed down by a dictator. This is not another Egypt revolution, which though it did come under siege briefly by Mubarek's thugs, was overwhelmingly peaceful and joyous. But Libya resembles less this joyous parade to Jerusalem than it does the way Jesus left Jerusalem on Good Friday. We read in Matthew,
On their way out [of Jerusalem], they met a Cyrenian named Simon who they pressed into service to carry the cross. Upon arriving at a site called Golgotha--- which means Skull Place--- they gave Jesus a drink of wine mixed with a narcotic herb, which Jesus tasted but refused to drink.

Once they had nailed Jesus to the cross, they divided his clothes among them by rolling dice; then they sat down and kept watch over him. Above his head, they put the charge against him in writing: "This is Jesus, King of the Jews."2
Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is a scene of rich color and vibrance, not the darkness pressing down on us of the scene of Jesus leaving Jerusalem.

Both scenes are full of topsy-turvery reversals: in the first, a man is given the welcome of a king, though he comes without display, riding a donkey; in the second, a man is named a king mockingly as he is killed as a political criminal. But this Jesus is just as much our king here in this Good Friday scene as he is on Palm Sunday. This Good Friday scene is a fulfillment of that Palm Sunday picture. It shows that the answer to the Who is this? question is the one that got him killed.

We are in our last week of Lent, a time of renewal, a time of bringing life from ashes. We are spending this season of Lent, particularly this Holy Week, preparing ourselves for the Way of the Lord. And when we are preparing ourselves for the Way of the Lord, we have to prepare ourselves for those Fridays too, prepare ourselves to be willing to answer the question Who is this? even when we are stirred to our very depths.

1Matthew 21:1-11, The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, Priests for Equality (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., A Sheed and Ward Book, 2007).

2Matthew 27:32-37, The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation.

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