Who is this Jesus?

Sermon for Sunday, April 9, 2017 || Palm/Passion Sunday, Year A || Matthew 22:1-11; Matthew 26:36 – 27:56

As we move in our service from the humble triumph of Jesus’ festive entry into Jerusalem towards his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, there is one question on my mind. It is the question asked at the end of the Palm Sunday Gospel reading. “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’”

Who is this Jesus?

At the end of today’s service, we will read the Passion Gospel; that is, the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, suffering, and crucifixion. It is a story that is at once beautiful and heartbreaking, and I cannot read it without being moved. Indeed, it makes me tremble, tremble, tremble, as the old spiritual says. Today, as we hear this powerful story of our Lord’s unbreakable love for us and for all creation, I invite you to listen to how Matthew’s telling answers the question asked in today’s first Gospel story: “Who is this?” Continue reading “Who is this Jesus?”

Three Parades

Sermon for Sunday, March 20, 2016 || Palm/Passion Sunday C || Luke 19:28-40; Luke 23

ThreeParadesIn our lovely, little town of Mystic, today is a day of parades. There’s one this afternoon that will get all the press – the St. Patrick’s Day parade will attract throngs of green-clad people to Main Street to watch and revel at a charming small town spectacle. The Highland Pipe Band will set the tone as they march off from Mystic Seaport towards downtown. Hundreds of people on floats, in cars, and on foot will follow, not to mention the real reason to go to parades, which is the fire engines. They say everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, and the same extends to Mystic’s parade four days later.

In addition to our town’s parade, we here at St. Mark’s remember not one, but two more parades today. In the first parade, a baby donkey walks down the Mount of Olives towards Jerusalem. A man rides on its back, and people hail him as the “king who comes in the name of the Lord.” In the second parade, the same man staggers out of Jerusalem under the weight of the cross, and people deride him with mocking shouts: “If you really are the king, then save yourself.”

These two parades – separated by less than a week’s time in Luke’s Gospel – couldn’t look more different. In the first, Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem with “the whole multitude of the disciples” praising God. In the second, Jesus stumbles his way to the place called The Skull, whipped and beaten, too exhausted to carry his own cross the entire distance.

But if we take a deeper look at these two parades, we discover they aren’t as different as they appear on the surface. In both parades, Jesus subverts expectations. He could have ridden into Jerusalem on the back of many a more respectable beast, but he chose a baby donkey. Why? Well, for starters there was Zechariah’s prophecy to fulfill:

“…Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey…” (9:9)

But beyond prophetic fulfillment, Jesus chose this humble farm animal to show the incongruity inherent in people’s expectations of their king. They wanted a warrior. They got a healer.

Jesus’ walk to Golgatha continues this subverting of expectation. “Save yourself,” people jeer. “If you are who you say you are, then break out of here and dispatch these Roman soldiers as you go!” What they don’t realize, however, is that Jesus has no interest in saving himself. He wants to save them.

In both parades, a vulnerable Jesus turns his face towards danger and death instead of running the other way. He had been saying for the entire journey south that Jerusalem was where everything was going down. This was high noon, and Jesus purposefully left his six-shooter at home. He rides into the city weaponless, with his deputies cringing and looking for likely hiding places. He chooses this utter vulnerability because it illuminates his innocence, the fact that he is put to death for no just reason. The second parade, the one to The Skull, happens because he continues defenseless. Pontius Pilate is just looking for an excuse to release him, and surely Jesus could have provided one. But no. Jesus is staring down the power of death itself, and he’s not about to blink.

Indeed, in both parades, Jesus has a grander agenda than anyone realizes. He is a king, but of a realm so much bigger than any physical location. He is locked in battle, but his enemy is so much larger than an intransigent religious establishment or even the entirety of the Roman Empire. He is going to die, but new life that triumphs over death will be the ultimate conclusion. The Pharisees want him to quiet his disciples. But Jesus says: You’re setting your sights too small. “If they were silenced, the very stones themselves would shout out.” The thief on the cross just wants to be remembered. But Jesus says: You’re setting your sights too small. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

These two parades show the beauty and glory of Jesus for who he is: the messiah who fulfills God’s promises in unexpected ways; the healer-king who puts himself squarely between us and the power of death; the savior who yearns for us to stop setting our sights so small.

There was a fellow way back in the fifth century who did just that. Like his Savior, he set his sights big – like entire island big. He had been captured and taken to that island in his youth and he had been made a slave. After many years in servitude, he escaped and returned to his homeland. He might have expected to live out his days in comfort after the trials of his youth, but Jesus is in the business of upending expectations. What’s incredible and beautiful is that this man listened to Christ’s call, and went back to the place of his captivity. Just like his Savior, he turned his face towards danger and death, despite his vulnerability. And he enlightened an entire island with the Good News of Christ. His name was Patrick, and a parade in his honor happens at one o’clock today. Hmm. Maybe all three parades have more in common than I thought.

Art: Mashup of “Entry of the Christ into Jerusalem” by Jean-Leon Gemore (1897) and “Jesus Falling Beneath the Cross” by Gustave Dore

The Unfair Fight

(Sermon for Sunday, April 1, 2012 || Palm Sunday Year B || Mark 11:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11 (NOTE: At my church, we read the Passion Gospel at the end of the service, so this sermon moves from Palms to Passion.))

I’ve always been struck by the incongruity of the scene. A crowd lines the dusty road leading up to the gate of Jerusalem. They are there to see a parade, but the spectacle is just a fellow riding a baby donkey. People spread their cloaks on the ground as a sign of respect. But Jesus isn’t stepping on the cloaks: the donkey is.

The crowd shouts aloud, “Hosanna! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” Now when David entered Jerusalem, he did so at the front of a grand procession – “all the house of Israel,” II Samuel tells us. They were carrying the Ark of the Covenant. There were shouts and the sound of the trumpet and the sacrifice of an ox and a fatling. And “David danced before the Lord with all his might.” David had just defeated the Philistines and his dynasty was assured. His triumphant march into the city was a victory march.

But when Jesus rides to Jerusalem, he rides alone. No army. No conquering legions. The people in the crowd shout for the return of the kingdom of David, but all they see is a lone man atop a baby donkey. As I said, I’ve always been struck by the incongruity of this scene.

Sensing something to be incongruous – to be out-of-place – means that there are expectations that are not being met. If you go to a job interview at State Street in a t-shirt and jeans, there’s a better than average chance that the interviewer will take one look at you and send you home. The interviewer has the expectation that you will enter the room in your best suit, and the incongruity of your casual clothes will trigger discomfort and then disapproval in the interviewer. But say that you wear your t-shirt and jeans to the park to throw a Frisbee with the guys. No incongruity there. The expectations match the scenario.

When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of the baby donkey, he is actively challenging the expectations of the crowd that is shouting “Hosannas.” They praise him while he rides in humility. They celebrate his arrival in the capital city while he knows the outcome of his arrival will be bloody. They show him the respect due to royalty. And all the while Jesus is boldly defying the people who have no respect for him, the chief priests and their lackeys, who have until now hoped he would keep a lower profile.

And in the greatest incongruity of all, the crowd shouts for the return of David’s kingdom; that is, a kingdom marked by a sovereign Israel, an Israel with no Roman occupiers. But Jesus frustrates this expectation, as well. In this case, the crowd is thinking too small. They have only their own country on their minds. But Jesus isn’t concerned with the Romans. They’re small potatoes. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of that baby donkey, he sets in motion events that will drive out, not the Romans, but the power of death, the grip of evil, all the forces of darkness. No wonder no one was expecting that.

Jesus hovers above the crowd, sitting atop the donkey as the beast shambles ahead. He remains above the crowd not for the glory of the exalted position, but in order that the powers of death, evil, and darkness might get a clear view of their target. And in seeing this small, humble human being, those powers underestimate their foe.

The powers of darkness do not realize that this Jesus riding on the donkey is someone they’ve met before, albeit in a more glorious form. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul tells us why the powers don’t recognize Jesus. Paul says, “Though [Christ] was in the form of God, [he] 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.”

The powers of darkness have their expectations too. The incongruity of Christ’s humanity throws them. They have no idea who they’re dealing with because Jesus acts in ways they never expect. While the powers of darkness would always seek to exploit, Christ empties. While they would always seek self-aggrandizement, Christ humbles. While they would always seek to get their own way, Christ becomes obedient to the point of death.

How could the powers of darkness possibly think they could win if they completely underestimate their opponent? And all the while, Christ is here on earth, learning all about the darkness, participating in the brokenness of people’s lives, bringing wholeness, bringing hope, bringing light.

And yet, the darkness sees the little man on the back of the baby donkey and wishes for a more impressive opponent, if only so the fight would be more interesting. But what the darkness fails to realize is that this is the most unfair fight of all time.

The powers of darkness bring all of their standard weapons to the ring: fear, mistrust, the desire to dominate. They expect Jesus to bring the same. But Jesus brings no weapons at all. Instead, he brings the willingness to sacrifice. He brings the love that gives him the courage to lay down his life. He brings the peace that passes all understanding.

They are David and Goliath, and David left his sling at home. Normal expectations would ask how Jesus could possibly win this fight. But we know the incongruity of God’s love. We know that God loves us even though we don’t deserve such an amazing gift. We know that God loves this broken, messed-up world so much that God sent God’s only Son to save the world. We know that God rejoices in letting us in on the secret that our expectations are always too small. God let slip this secret when the women went to the tomb on Easter morning.

But we’ll get there with them next week. First, the powers of darkness marshal. First, Jesus rides humbly into the teeth of the storm. First, the battle.

These Things Last

 (Sermon for Sunday April 17, 2011 || Palm Sunday Year A || Psalm 118; Matthew 21:1-11)

You may or may not have noticed that we skipped sixteen verses of today’s psalm. We read verses one and two, and then we leapt to verse nineteen and read to the end. Now, I don’t know about you, but the lectionary prompting me to skip things just makes me more and more curious about what I’m being told not to read. Perhaps this is the rebellious streak that never manifested in my adolescence finally coming out in bouts of unruly biblical interpretation. If so, I invite you to join me in my insubordination for a few moments.

Steve McQueen's Capt. Hilts goes to the "cooler" for insubordination about once every half hour of the legendary film "The Great Escape" (1963).

The opening verse of the psalm, which we did read, says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures for ever.” Other translations render “mercy” as “loving kindness” and “faithful love,” as in “his faithful love lasts forever.” The psalmist then moves from this declaration of love to the verses we skipped, which tell of a difficult military campaign. The middle section reads: “All the nations surrounded me, but I cut them down in the Lord’s name. Yes, they surrounded me on every single side, but I cut them down in the Lord’s name. They surrounded me like bees, but they were extinguished like burning thorns. I cut them down in the Lord’s name!” The psalmist continues with a victory shout: “The Lord’s strong hand is victorious! The Lord’s strong hand is ready to strike! The Lord’s strong hand is victorious!”

With the bloody, militant verses through, the lectionary picks back up on safer terrain for the final ten verses of the psalm. Isolated as they are in this morning’s reading, these ten verses depict an innocuous procession to the temple for some sort of sacrifice of thanksgiving. But the militant verses show this psalm in a different light than we might have otherwise expected. This is no ordinary procession to the temple; this is a victory march. This is the triumphant rally following a hard-fought war. The victors parade into the city with verse 19 on their lips: “Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter them; I will offer thanks to the Lord.”

A few verses later, we hear the chants of the crowd lining the streets as the troops pass: “Hosannah, Lord, hosannah! Lord, send us now success. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Wait just a second. We heard these same words again this morning, again from a crowd, again during a parade. As Jesus rides into Jerusalem, the crowds chant, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Could we have just heard the same story twice in a row? We sure did, but you’ll notice some glaring differences, which show that the story in the Gospel will soon come to quite a different ending, which we will hear at the end of this service.

In the psalm, the ones who come in the name of the Lord are the ones who cut down their foes also in the name of the Lord. In the Gospel, the one who comes in the name of the Lord is the prince of peace.

In the psalm, the speaker shouts that the Lord’s strong hand is victorious and ready to strike. In the Gospel, Jesus offers no retaliation upon his arrest and reprimands the disciple who lashes out with the sword. Jesus shows his power not in victory, but in sacrifice.

In the psalm, the speaker declares: “I won’t die—no, I will live and declare what the Lord has done.” In the Gospel, Jesus gives up his life in order to declare what the Lord is doing.

In the psalm, the people call out for success. In the Gospel, Jesus knows that sacrifice, rather than success, is his calling.

In the psalm, the parade “form(s) a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar,” where the blood of the animal of the ritual sin offering will be smeared. In the Gospel, Jesus takes on the role of sin offering and sacrifices his own life for the sins of the whole world.

Whereas the psalm tells this story of a parade as the end of a triumphant military campaign, the Gospel tells this same story as the beginning of a defeat so great that the subject of the parade is put to death and his followers betray him, deny him, and desert him.

And yet, we are left to wonder: which one is the true victory? Which parade truly tells the story that the first and last verses of the psalm proclaim: “Give thanks to the Lord because he is good, because his faithful love lasts forever.”

God’s faithful love lasts forever. The triumphant military campaign in Psalm 118 is fleeting. Those same victorious soldiers marching through the gates of the city will, sadly, march out into battle again. But the death of the one whose only crime was truth-telling, the defiance of the one who stands against the forces of darkness and domination, the sacrifice of the one who drew all the world to himself while being raised up on a cross – these things last.

Jesus says to his disciples, “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). Jesus modeled this commandment in his own magnificent defeat. But we know that this isn’t the end of the story.

Because God’s faithful love lasts forever.

Aaron’s story

Sermon for April 5, 2009 || Palm Sunday, Year B, RCL || Mark 11:1-11

Imagine with me the thoughts of a boy named Aaron whose family owns the donkey, which Jesus’ disciples borrow for his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

They came up to our farm this morning — two of them — while I was doing my chores. I don’t like mucking out the stable, but Father says it builds character, whatever that means. Mother says when I turn twelve next year, I don’t have to do it anymore. Then mucking will be Benjamin’s job. He’s only eight. We live in Bethany, which is really close to Jerusalem, and Father does a lot of trading there and sometimes he takes me with him.

Anyways, these two strangers just walked right up to Stony – that’s what I call him because he’s gray and hard to move when he has a mind to stay put. They walked right up to him and started untying him. Well, I came out of the stable with my rake and started shaking it at them. And they backed off because they didn’t want to get splattered. I held the rake like a spear and said: “What are you doing with Stony?”

“The Lord needs Stony for a little while, son, but we’ll bring him back soon,” says the first one, and I say right back: “I’m not your son, and you can’t have Stony. He’s mine.”

Then I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up and Father was standing there. “Actually, he’s mine,” he says. I gave the strangers my best smirk, but then Father says: “And you may borrow the colt for as long as you need.” I threw the rake on the ground: “But, but Father…”

“No buts, Aaron.” And I knew he meant it because he said it in his deep voice. I watched the two men lead Stony away. When they were gone, Father looked down at me: “And don’t ever let me catch you mouthing off to strangers again. You know the story of Abraham and the three men.”

“Yes, Father.” Then he walked back to our house and when he was out of sight I hopped the fence and started following the two strangers. I decided it would be a good idea to keep an eye on Stony, just in case.

They led Stony a little ways toward Jerusalem and met up with a group of people. Then they threw their shirts onto Stony’s back like a saddle and one of the other men got on him. I’ve tried to jump on Stony a lot, but he never let’s me stay on. He jumps and bucks and shakes until I fall off. It’s not fair, ’cause Stony let this total stranger ride him.

I followed the group while they walked to the city. I made it into a game, running from rock to rock and trying to keep out of sight. I ran ahead and beat them to Jerusalem. There was a big crowd lining the road leading up to one of the gates. The people spread more clothes and even some tree branches on the road. They were all shouting and cheering and waving, like at a parade. I didn’t know what was so special about this stranger…except that he could ride Stony without falling off.

I tried to push my way through the crowd to get to the front so I could see better, but there were too many people. I walked all the way down the crowd looking for an opening, and when I got close to the gate, I saw another group of people. They weren’t shouting or cheering or waving. They were in a tight little group talking to each other. They sounded really mad. I heard one of them say, “Who does he think he is, a king?” Then they all laughed, but it didn’t sound like they thought it was very funny.

Then I remembered something I heard from my Rabbi last week. He said something about a king riding a colt like Stony. I crawled under the legs of the crowd and pushed my way through the gate into the city. I ran all the way to my Rabbi’s house, and when he let me in, I asked to see the scroll we were using last week — the prophet Zechariah. He still had it open on the table, but first he made me wash my hands and feet because I was mucking out the stable earlier. Then he helped me find the right place, and I read the lines over and over until I had them by heart: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations…”

If that’s right, then Stony is in good hands, I thought. I left my Rabbi’s, and when I got back to the gate, all the people were gone. The parade was over, and I was really hungry, so I walked home. When I got to the farm, Stony was tied back in his place. I tried to jump on him, but he shook me off. I guess only kings can ride Stony.

But what is that stranger king of? Why would a victorious king ride on a smelly donkey and not a chariot or a big warhorse? I guess it might be because the king is supposed to cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem. He wouldn’t ride one if he got rid of them all. The chariots and warhorses the Roman soldiers ride scare me. I’m short, and they wouldn’t even see me if I was in front of them.

But if he is king, then doesn’t he need chariots and soldiers to fight all the people who don’t want him to be king – like the Romans and those other people at the parade? Doesn’t he need the battle bow? How can he become king without fighting? How can he command peace to the nations? The Romans always say they bring us peace, but Father says it’s not really peace. Father says we are like prisoners…only without a jail. If the stranger who rode on Stony isn’t going to fight the Romans, how will he bring us peace?

Maybe he’ll bring peace by not fighting.