Save Us: Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2017

An audio version of this sermon may be found here, or as a podcast on iTunes here.

Back in Advent, when we were getting ready for the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we read the story of John the Baptist. You might remember John. He lived out in the wilderness and ate locusts and honey and wore the camelhair clothing. He was sort of this eccentric character who told everyone to “prepare the way of the Lord” and get ready for the birth of a new king.

The song we sang during the children’s time in December reminded us of that. I won’t sing it, but remember how it went? “Prepare the way of the Lord, prepare the way of the Lord, and all people shall see the salvation of our God.”

That was the beginning of Jesus’ life. The faithful telling us to get ready for Jesus, and to get things ready for Jesus.

Fast forward to today, the start of Holy Week, the most important time in the Christian year. And while John the Baptist is gone by this point in the Gospel story, he words ring back and ring true: “prepare the way of the Lord”. Get ready, because he is coming.

All those years ago, as Jesus was starting what would be his last week of life, he and his disciples made their way to Jerusalem, the holy city. And the people heard he was coming, and so they went out and they lined the road. And as Jesus entered on a donkey they threw down what they had in front of him, including palm leaves like the ones you have today.

pexels-photo-207239.jpegNow, up here in New England, we don’t have palm branches all around us. We have to order them in, and the Fed Ex guy brings them to us neatly packed in a cardboard box. This always cracks me up because I grew up in Florida and we had palm leaves everywhere. When you did yard work you had to get rid of these things, and they are big and bulky. You couldn’t give them away.

I had no idea we could have sold them to y’all in northern churches.

But that tells you a little about what was happening in Jerusalem. These were not wealthy people and they didn’t have much. But they knew there was something about Jesus and they wanted to welcome him. And so they used what was readily available, and free; things like these palm leaves, and they spread them out on his path.

Had Jesus come to New Hampshire, we wouldn’t have been welcoming him with palm leaves. This time of year maybe we’d throw out road salt instead, thawing the ice on the road in front of him. Maybe we’d wave empty branches. Or maybe we’d throw our Red Sox hats and bring him Dunkin coffee.

Who knows? The point is, they were doing what they could with what they had. And that wasn’t a lot. Because back then, in Jerusalem, the Jewish people were not in a good place. The Roman empire was occupying Jerusalem and oppressing the people. And many of the religious leaders, like religious leaders in every faith, were not a whole lot better. They would exploit others and work in their own best interests, and not that of the people.

And so when word about Jesus started to spread, when it became clear that there might be something about him that was different, they began to hope. Maybe this was the one that Scripture called the “Messiah”. Maybe he would be the one to break the stranglehold that Rome had on Jerusalem. Maybe he would purify a Temple that had become a house for money changers. Maybe he would bring change.

That’s why they lined the streets and cheered as he rode into town. And that’s why they shouted “hosanna!” which literally means “save us”. “Save us, Jesus, because we need help.”

Last year the Rev. Quinn Caldwell, a friend of mine who also writes for the UCC’s Daily Devotionals, wrote a piece for Palm Sunday about a custom I’d never heard of before. In Latin America there is a tradition of preparing “alfombras” for Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Alfombra literally means “carpet”, and these are elaborate carpets, of a sort, that are created in the streets. People use materials like sand and sawdust and flowers, and they work for days making the beautiful, intricate displays. Some are as much as a mile long.

They do this because during Holy Week processions take place through the streets, and often Jesus is depicted. And so, like the people who threw palms in his path, and like John the Baptist said, they are preparing the way for the Lord. They are putting something beautiful and soft in front of him as he travels on to his hardest days. And with every grain of sand laid, every flower put in place, they are saying “hosanna”…”save us”.

Today we wave our palms, and we say the same thing too. But we don’t do this just as a reenactment. This isn’t just something that happened two thousands years ago. This is real life, and this is about the salvation that we need too.

The situation is different for us. The Roman government is gone and we don’t have money changers in the Temple, because now there is no Temple. But if we look around, we might find that there’s plenty that might look familiar to the people who lined the roads.

Because even two thousand years later, we human beings still look for salvation in the wrong places. We yell “save us” and there are plenty of people and things who are ready to tell you they can do it. But in the end, no politician will save you. Nothing you buy will save you. No drink or drug will save you. No new job or big promotion will save you. That’s not how salvation works.

Instead, salvation looks like this. It looks like Jesus riding into Jerusalem, not down a red carpet, and not pulled in the finest coach with a team of horses, but over palm leaves and on the back of a donkey. And, to put it in modern terms, it doesn’t come by the sword, with Jesus on top of an armored tank division, taking the government by force, but rather by this man who was ready to face down the forces of death unarmed.

Jesus really doesn’t look much like a man who could save the people. In the end he can’t even save himself. And yet, it is in his dying that the stage is set for his greatest triumph. It is in his resurrection that we are given new life.

The work of salvation that was started all those centuries ago still goes on because Jesus didn’t suddenly change everything as expected. He was much more subversive, and much more powerful, than that. And because of that we get to be a part of it too.

And so, like generations before us, we prepare the way for what Christ is doing now. We build our own alfombras for him to travel over, creating beauty and meaning as a pathway to a better way. We shout “hosanna”, “save us”, by our very actions.

We stuff our Heifer boxes and send them off, and we prepare the way. We take care of our earth and all of God’s creation, and we prepare the way. We take care of the sick and suffering, and we prepare the way. And we gather here week after week, worshipping God and loving one another, and we prepare the way.

As I told you earlier, after worship ends we are going to stay in the sanctuary in order to take a quick all-church photo. I know it’s tempting to get down to coffee hour or get out the door to start your Sunday, so I promise this won’t take long. But please, stay. Choose to be in the photo.

The picture we are about to take is one of a community that has gathered together not because we are the same, but because we love Christ the same…and so we love the world in the same way too. This is our own alfombra, beautiful because each of us is a piece of the mosaic. And it is our own “hosanna”, our own call to Christ to use us in his saving work.

We all are called to prepare the way. And we all need the reminder that we are not alone in that.

When All is Not Well Where You Live: Sermon for October 2, 2016

The following is the first in a three part sermon series on Faithful Citizenship.

Lamentations 1:1-6
1:1 How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.

1:2 She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.

1:3 Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.

1:4 The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.

1:5 Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the LORD has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.

1:6 From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty. Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.

I grew up in a rather patriotic family. Most of my family members had either served longterm in the military or government, or married someone who did. And so my parents flew an American flag for all the federal holidays, they taught us about the patriotic symbols of this country, and when we were old enough they took us to Washington, where my dad grew up, to see Congress, the Museum of American History, and all the monuments.

The idea of America was important to my parents. And they always taught that if you did nothing to make it better, you weren’t allowed to complain. And they were especially adamant about voting. The way they saw it, if you didn’t vote, you shouldn’t be allowed to say a word about anything political issue whatsoever.

I’ve been thinking about their example this fall because, as you cannot have helped noticing, we are in the midst of election season. And this year it is particularly nasty. There’s always a sense of vitriol that comes out in particular election years, but in this one in particular there is an exceptional bitterness.

It’s in this atmosphere that today we start a new sermon series on what it means to be a faithful citizen. And I want to assure you upfront that this is not about how you should vote. It is never the place of churches to endorse candidates or parties, and I’m not about to start now. But when I asked about sermon series for this fall, this was the one that generated the most interest, and I don’t think that’s so surprising given what’s happening around us.

And so, over the next three weeks I want to talk about what it means for a Christian to be a good citizen. This week I’m going to be talking about living in a divided country. Next week I’m going to talk about how to make it better. And the last week I’ll talk about what it means to give your ultimate allegiance not to the state, but to God.

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Today we begin by reading this text from the book of Lamentations. As the name implies, this is a book of laments, full of sad poems. What happened was that Jerusalem, the promised land, the place where everything was supposed to be great, had been devastated. The city had been ransacked by King Nebuchadnezzar, the Temple, the holiest place in town, had been destroyed, and most of the people had been taken from the city to Babylon to live in exile.

The writer says that the city is like a lonely widow who “weeps bitterly in the night” and “has no one to comfort her”.

And as I was reading the text this week, I thought about how this was written about Jerusalem, but how for many in our country today, the word “exile” might just describe how they feel about things. Because all is not well in our country. There is pain and anger and hopelessness on every side. And it doesn’t matter how you phrase that disillusionment, at the bottom line all of it means that you believe this country is in some way broken.

And if you believe we are broken, then you also believe that we are somehow in exile. This may not be a literal exile, the way that the people of Jerusalem were physically taken from their land and moved to another one. But this can be exile nonetheless. Because when you believe that your country should be one thing, but it is another, then you are talking about an exile from the place where you are meant to live.

The only thing is, unlike Jerusalem, that perfect place has never existed. At least not yet. Or, at least not for all of us.

I believe America is a good country. But I know that it is an imperfect one too, and one in which justice and equality are still evolving. I knew that four years ago when I was just married and I was completing my taxes for the year. I remember looking at my wedding ring, but then having to check “single” on my federal income tax return because my marriage was not yet recognized by the government. I remember feeling confused by this country that my family had taught me to love, the same one whose flag was sewn onto the sleeve of my firefighter’s uniform. It didn’t feel right. It felt like exile.

But that’s minor compared to other exiles. When I was in Atlanta last week I went to two national historic sites. One was the Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield, and the other the Martin Luther King, Jr. historic site. And in the first place I thought about this country that had been torn in half, and the two sides who were then literally killing one another. And in the second place I thought about how over 100 years later, that war was in real ways still being fought. And how it’s still being fought today.

I thought about how I can love my Jerusalem, because I’ve made it to the city. But there are others who never made it in their lifetimes.

And then I thought about lament. That is what this text is about, after all. It’s about speaking words of sadness and pain. It’s about telling the truth about division and disunity. It’s about being honest, and saying that the Jerusalem you know is broken.

That’s not unpatriotic. That’s faithful. That’s faithful to the fact that the Jerusalem you know is not the city it could be yet. And that’s faithful to God’s will that all of God’s children would find a home and a welcome in that city.

But before that happens, we have to tell the truth.

In a real way, that’s the job of Christians as citizens. We have to look around, see what is broken and who is excluded, and tell the truth about it. We have to learn to use our voices, and yes our votes, to advocate for the healing of a place that is in exile from its best ideas. And we have to use our prayers, and our hearts and hands, in order to do the work of building and rebuilding our own Jerusalem.

The first role of the Christian is to tell the truth about what is broken in order to know how to fix it. And the second is to be invested in our neighborhoods, and country, and world enough that we can join in that work. Not every four years, but every year, and every day. There is no such thing as a Christian who lives in exile from their community. A Christian must be planted in the place where they live, and must work for the good of all of their neighbors, everywhere. That’s Christ’s clear commission to us when he tells us to love our neighbors. We’ll be talking a little more about that next week.

But as I wrap up, I want to return to that story about my parents from the beginning, and how they talked about being good citizens. From the way I described them, you might think that they shared a lot of political opinions, too. But the reality is that if you ever saw their ballots, you’d find that they generally aren’t voting the same way. But somehow, for 56 years now, they’ve made it work.

In a time when this Jerusalem where we live is so divided, it’s small examples like that that give me hope. We don’t all have to agree in order to want better for our country.

We began worship this morning by reading the words of the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln. This country, this Jerusalem, was never more exiled from itself than in the days of the Civil War. This very church is said by some to have been the site of the first meeting of the Republican Party, which was first organized to work for the abolition of slavery. Meanwhile, down South families like mine sent sons off to war dressed in gray.

150 years later, in this sanctuary sit people with Rs on their voter registration cards, and people with Ds. And plenty of Is too. There are descendants of Union soldiers here, and descendants of Confederates. And together we see clearly the evil of slavery for what it was. That would be pretty remarkable to the people who sat in these pews 150 years ago.

But at the time, it was that small group who gathered here as people of faith, and decided the time had come to push the issue of abolition, that saw clearly when others couldn’t. It should never be lost on us that they were acting in the public arena because their faith compelled them to not be silent. And thank God they were not.

150 years from now, when the people sitting in the pews look back, will they remember this time in our history, and will they ask “What did the people in these pews back then do?” For the sake of our memories, but more importantly, for the sake of our own Jerusalem, I pray that God compels us all to do the right thing. Amen?

Save Us: Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2016

Palm Sunday is, at first glance, a strange tradition. Once a year you come through the doors of the church and the usher hands you not just a bulletin, but a palm frond. If you didn’t know about it in advance, you’d probably think it was pretty odd.

On Palm Sunday we remember Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We remember how he rode into the city on a donkey, and the crowds were waiting for him. They had heard about him. They loved him. They threw their coats on the ground, and spread their palms out on the road, and they cheered as he came in. They were looking for the Messiah and they were sure it was him.

All these centuries later we Christians gather in churches and collect these palms and wave them. We celebrate a great parade that took place long ago, the coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem.

Along with the palms, though, there is something else we do on Palm Sunday that we don’t do through the year. We shout this odd word, “Hosanna”. It’s the same word that the crowds shouted to Jesus as he entered the city. Hosanna has come to be understood as a sort of joyful cheer, like maybe you’d hear at a sports event or political rally. A sort of “hurray” or “huzzah”.

But, it’s important to note that this word we hear today, hosanna, wasn’t exactly one of celebration. It meant something more dire to the people who lined Jesus route. Hosanna comes from the Psalms, something the people of Jerusalem would have known well, and it doesn’t mean “yay” or “isn’t this great”. It means, literally, “save us”.

Those people who lined the route to the city and welcomed Jesus in, lining his route with palms, they were calling out to him, shouting, “Jesus, save us…we need help.”

There was plenty to need saving from for the people who lined the route. They lived under an oppressive Roman empire, one in which their safety and rights were constantly under threat. For some who shouted “hosanna”, they believed that maybe Jesus had come to end all of that. It’s one reason why the Roman officials were so scared of him. They thought he would bring political upheaval. And so they yelled “hosanna”…save us.

For others that day, Jesus represented another kind of hope. They had something going on in their own lives and they thought maybe Jesus would help them. They were sick, or destitute, or maybe just hopeless. And so they too yelled their “hosannas”…save us.

That’s what happened in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago. But, what would happen if Jesus came down Front Street in Exeter, New Hampshire today? What would we be doing if he rode up the center of town on a donkey and stopped there at the bandstand. What would we be shouting out?

The reality is that if Jesus came to town today, he probably wouldn’t be riding a donkey. I’m not sure what he would drive, but maybe a plain old Ford or Chevy, Honda or Toyota, as common and unexciting today as a donkey would have been back then, would bring him up Front Street.

And you and I would probably not be waving palms either. They’re not exactly native to our region. Maybe we’d be out there with pine boughs, or the branches of trees that haven’t quite bloomed yet. We would use whatever was handy. Some years we’d probably be waving snow shovels about now.

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Palm Sunday at the Congregational Church in Exeter.

It would look a lot different from Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. But what wouldn’t be different is this: we’d still have reason to shout “hosanna”.

The reality is that probably almost all of us have something from which we want saving. Maybe we are sick. Maybe we are feeling hopeless. Maybe we are wandering and feeling alone. Maybe we are uncertain. Maybe we are worried for our community, or our country. Whatever it is, we know we can’t fix it alone.

But, at the same time, as much as those who lined the streets in Jerusalem, we believe that maybe someone can. And so we cry out to Jesus, to God incarnate who has come to our very town, “hosanna”. “Save us”.

Hosanna is the word in which both humility and hope collide. It is simultaneously a confession that we can not fix it ourselves, and that we believe that God can. Hosanna is one of the best statements of faith that we can make.

It’s also a statement that flips everything on its head. And that’s because when we call out to Jesus to save us, we might know expect the way he will do it.

When Jesus came to Jerusalem, the people prepared the road for him. They laid out palms and their own clothing so that he could walk into town. They were trying to prepare a procession for a conquering king who would save them from the hard lives they knew. They were probably expecting a regal king riding in on a sturdy horse with his entourage.

Instead, they got this guy on a donkey.

Today it would be a little like waiting for a liberating army to arrive in a tank and instead seeing someone roll up the street in a jeep. It wouldn’t exactly be confidence-inspiring.

And yet, Jesus did hear the calls of the crowd to save them. And he did. The next week in Jerusalem would turn everything on its head. That’s what we will be celebrating next Sunday when we gather back here for Easter.

But none of it went down the way that the people lining that street expected. And none of it happened immediately. Even when they found the empty tomb on Easter morning, the work was not done. In fact, even 2,000 years later, you and I are still responding to the calls that Jesus heard that day. You and I are still working as Christ’s disciples to change this world.

And that’s really what the life of faith is like in some ways. It’s acknowledging the cries of a broken world, and it’s responding to them as Christ’s own disciples.

When the people on the street cried out “hosanna” that day, the Pharisees and the religious officials told Jesus to make them stop. But he refused. He told them, “even if they were silent, the stones themselves would cry out”.

That’s true. Even if we don’t shout our “hosannas”, the world already knows what is not right. Even if we don’t cry out in humility or hope, others will. Those same cries for justice, for liberation, for life that were raised from that crowd 2,000 years ago are being echoed today, all around us. The hope comes in the fact that they have not gone silent and underground. They are still being shouted today.

And so, how do we line the streets? And what do we wave to welcome Jesus into our town, and into our hearts? What can we use to welcome him? And how can we work with him to respond to a world full of “hosannas”.

That’s the question we ask ourselves every day as the church. How do we bring hope to a world where there is often pain? And how do we shout our own hosannas until they can never be silenced?

I can’t tell you exactly how that will happen, but I can tell you that we will be in good company. Today our crowd grows a little bigger. Today we welcome fifteen new members to this church. That’s fifteen more people who will stand with us and shout “hosanna”. And fifteen more who will hear the hosannas of the world and respond.

Sometimes “hosanna” is all you can say. Today I give thanks that we can say it, and hear it, together. And, palms raised, that we are ready to welcome Jesus to our town. Amen?