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

A woefully abridged timeline

We’re in the fifth week of a confirmation class at church, and I (unwisely) decided to teach a class on the first 1500 years of Christian history. I never thought I’d forget just how much happened in those 1500 years, but apparently, I did. So, I grabbed my church history books and a timeline I xeroxed once, and I ended up compiling this woefully abridged list of important stuff. What are the odds we can talk about all of this in an hour?

64 Rome burns down. The crazy Roman Emperor Nero begins a longstanding habit of blaming Christians for every bad thing that happens to the Roman Empire. Around this time, tradition holds that the Apostles Peter and Paul executed in Rome.

c. 155 Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, is martyred under the Emperor Trajan’s guidelines for dealing with “atheists.” Christians were considered “atheists” because they didn’t worship the Roman Gods. Persecutions were sporadic over the first few centuries of Christian history.

270 Antony decided to become a hermit and runs off to the desert so he won’t be disturbed in prayer. His example becomes quite trendy, leading to the development of monasticism.

313 The soon-to-be Emperor Constantine has a vision to put the first two letters of “Christ” on his shield before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. He wins the battle, becomes Emperor, and promulgates the “Edict of Milan,” which ends the persecution of Christians.

325 The Council of Nicea convenes, the first “ecumenical” council of bishops from near and far. Among other things, the council rejects Arianism and affirms the Trinitarian doctrine that Christ is “begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.”

387 Augustine of Hippo (after many years of disappointing his mother, Monica) converts to Christianity. His writing becomes the basis for the Western presentation of theology.

405 Jerome finishes the “Vulgate,” the Latin translation of the Bible, which becomes the industry standard until those Protestants started reading in their own languages a thousand years later.

432 Patrick, once taken captive by Irish marauders, returns to Ireland as a missionary and leads many to the Christian faith, including several local kings. Nowadays, people get pinched if they don’t wear green on his feast day.

451 The Fourth Ecumenical Council convenes in Chalcedon and affirms the doctrine that Christ is both fully God and fully human. The Council is wisely silent on how the heck this works.

529 Benedict of Nursia founds his monastic order (the “Benedictines”) and writes the “Rule” that becomes the standard for Western monasticism. Unlike those pirates, his rule is more than just “guidelines.”

590 Gregory the Great becomes pope. He earns his nickname by advancing the power of the papacy. Tradition says that a little bird taught him some music called “Gregorian chant.”

732 Charles Martel leads the winning side of the Battle of Tours, which halted the Muslim invasion of Europe. The Muslims retreat to Spain and hang out there for a long time.

800 Charlemagne crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III, a sign of the power of the papacy, which rose and fell over the years. Charlemagne is the forerunner of the “Holy Roman Empire,” which existed in one form or another for about a 1000 years beginning in the mid-900s.

1054 The Great East-West Schism, centuries in the making, finally happens. The Catholic church develops in the Latin-speaking West, the Orthodox church in the Greek-speaking East.

1095 Pope Urban II proclaims the First Crusade to wrest the Holy Land from the hands of the Muslims. Over several hundred years, the crusades caused a lot of senseless death and achieved no lasting objective.

c. 1150 The universities of Paris and Oxford are formed, leading to renewed scholarship, theological inquiry, and fledgling scientific enterprise.

1206 Francis of Assisi renounces his wealth and, to punctuate his point, removes all his fancy clothes in front of the bishop. His early followers embrace a simple life of poverty. Francis had a love for nature, which is why so many Christians have his statue in their gardens.

1215 The Fourth Lateran Council affirms the doctrine of “Transubstantiation,” that the bread and wine mysteriously become the actual Body and Blood of Christ during the Eucharist.

c. 1380 John Wycliffe is exiled from Oxford for such strange positions as (1) the Bible should be translated into the vernacular and (2) Christ is present in the Eucharist, but it’s still bread. Basically, Wycliffe showed up for the Reformation 150 years early.

1456 Johann Gutenberg’s printing press produces the first printed Bible. All the monks copying the Bible by hand in scriptoriums across Europe cheer. (Okay, I made that last sentence up.)

1478 The Spanish Inquisition begins under Ferdinand and Isabella. The Inquisition uses brutal tactics to root out heretics and force the conversion of people of other religions. 500 years later, Monty Python spoofs the Inquisition. (“Our chief weapon is fear! Fear and surprise!”)

1517 Martin Luther nails his 95 theses (points of contention with church practice) to the church door in Wittenberg, inadvertently sparking the Protestant Reformation.

So, my questions are these: what do you think I left out that I shouldn’t have and what did I put in that I shouldn’t have?