Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday: The Agenda

Thanks to Kathryn Matthews Huey for her guidance and the especially helpful quote from Marcus Borg.

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.”

Isaiah 50:4-9a
The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens — wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.
It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?

Philippians 2:5-11
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This is the Word of the Lord.

I don’t think you could have fit another person into Jerusalem with a shoehorn that day. Passover was in full swing, after all, and people had come from all over the known word to bring their sacrifices to the Temple, to eat the Seder meal together, to remember the night, fifteen hundred years ago, when the angel of death passed over the Children of Israel, striking terror into the very souls of the Egyptians, clearing the way for their freedom.

Freedom was very much on everybody’s mind, make no mistake. For seven hundred years, one foreign power or another had controlled Judea. Not since Zedekiah had Israel had its own ruler, and many felt it was high time to overthrow the Romans and take back their country.

So when the rumors started flying around, saying that Jesus of Nazareth was on his way to Jerusalem, you remember, he was that prophet who had opened the tomb of a man dead for four days, and had raised him? Well, naturally they went to get a glimpse of him, to perhaps be witness to the next King of Israel coming in to claim his throne.

Now, they weren’t the only ones craning their necks to watch for Jesus to top the hill from Bethany. Plenty of people had heard about Lazarus, and had heard about how this Jesus fellow had opened the eyes of a man born blind, and had heard about how he fed thousands and thousands of people with just a few barley loaves and fish. Maybe they’d see him do something interesting, maybe he’d say something entertaining.

I guess it all started like these things usually do. Someone in the crowd started waving a palm branch and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” as Jesus and his band of disciples crested the hill.

Now, what they expected to see, I can’t tell you. Perhaps the people looking for entertainment expected him to come prancing over the hill, turning water into wine, and passing out sandwiches. Perhaps the people hoping to overthrow Roman rule once and for all were looking for a rider on an armored steed, bloody sword drawn, leading a mighty army into the city to take his throne by force.

What they saw was a man, on a saddle of cloaks, riding a donkey, its colt not far behind.

Some were let down, no doubt. But many remembered the words of the prophet Zecheriah: “Rejoice, O people of Zion! Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem! Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—riding on a donkey’s colt.”

And shout they did! The “Hosannas” grew to a crescendo, and people began cutting palm branches off of trees, throwing them on the road in Jesus’ path. Others even put their cloaks down, so the royal donkey’s feet wouldn’t touch the dirt. It was amazing to see, a joy to be in the midst of!

But how soon the words that crowd shouted would change!

We’ve been talking for a few weeks now about the ways in which different people misunderstood Jesus. Nicodemus misunderstood Jesus when he spoke of being born from above. The woman at the well misunderstood Jesus when he spoke of living water. The people who followed Jesus for the free food and entertainment value, as well as those who expected Jesus to overthrow the Roman government and establish an eternal earthly kingdom misunderstood Jesus as well.

And it’s a misunderstanding which persists to this day.

Today, one week before Easter, we celebrate Palm Sunday in the life of the church. Many churches, including, in the past, ours, combine this day into Palm/Passion Sunday, taking care to balance the celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem with the horror of the Crucifixion. The thought behind this move was that, unless people were careful to attend Holy Week services like Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, they would go from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the triumph of Easter without experiencing the darkness and pain in between.

It’s a valid argument. Especially for Western Christianity, we seem to spend far too much time acting like those people outside of Jerusalem, hoping for free food or entertainment from Jesus. All too often we treat God like a loving but slightly forgetful grandfather, or a heavenly vending machine. We pray most attentively when we need something, and judge our faith and the faith of others by how prosperous we are.

And especially for Western Christianity, we seem to spend far too much time acting like those people outside of Jerusalem, hoping to see Jesus riding on a war horse, hip deep in blood, slaughtering the oppressive Romans and claiming his rightful throne. We think that God agrees with our politics, supports our country over any other, and especially likes the same football team we do.

But Jesus’ triumphal entry wasn’t prancing before the crowds, providing bread and circuses. He was silent as he rode in.

And Jesus didn’t ride a warhorse. He rode a donkey, a symbol of peace.

The thing about Jesus was that he was so in love with the Father, so committed to being completely invested in the will of God and about the work of God, and that made him so radically different from any other person who had ever walked the planet, that, invariably, Jesus did the unexpected.

He didn’t waste his time on an earthly kingdom, because that would have been nothing more than regime change. His agenda, God’s agenda, was justice – both that the poor, the sick, the forgotten and the despised would be recognized, healed, and brought in to community, and that God’s ultimate justice, the reconciliation of humankind to God, would be accomplished through the cross.

Perhaps we do run a risk with going from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday without including a Maundy Thursday or a Good Friday. By the same token, without Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, there would be no Easter in the first place, would there?

You know, with the words Jesus was saying, the miracles he was doing, the attention he was drawing, well, even if his agenda hadn’t included being the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” his execution was inevitable. And make no mistake, Jesus did not merely die for us, he was executed, killed by a ruthless society using the most horrifying of methods. You see, this king who enters Jerusalem riding a donkey represents something more frightening to the Roman authorities than a thousand legions of enemy soldiers: He represents hope. And because the Temple elite served (and prospered) at the whim of the local Roman leadership, Jesus represented to them something more horrifying than a pig on the altar: the dissolution of the status quo.

It’s no secret that Jesus turned the tables on the halls of power and upset the status quo. Marcus Borg says that by laying down his own life, Jesus denied “the temple's claim to have a monopoly on forgiveness and access to God....God in Jesus has already provided the sacrifice and has thus taken care of whatever you think separates you from God.”

Borg concludes that the death of Jesus, then, is “a metaphor of radical grace.”

This radical grace that God gives, this wildly extravagant love that God has, this egregious infatuation with mankind that God shows is sealed and made sure by the Resurrection.

Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us. How, then, shall we respond?

The only possible response is to, as the Apostle Paul writes in the Letter to the Philippians, “Let the same mind be in [us] as was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself…” – the NIV translates that phrase as, “…he made himself nothing…” Our agendas, our enrollment of God into our own passions and ideals, our co-opting of God into our plans and as a member of our particular political party, all of this must be laid aside in the stark light of God’s abundant, unfathomable love.

Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us. Will we respond?

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