In the Crowd: A Homily for Palm Sunday, 2015

Mark 11:1-11
11:1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples

11:2 and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.

11:3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'”

11:4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it,

11:5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”

11:6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.

11:7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.

11:8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.

11:9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

11:10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11:11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

The first time I ever heard about Palm Sunday, I was confused. I’ve talked before about how I didn’t really grow up in the church, so I went to my first Palm Sunday service during my senior year of high school.

You might remember that I grew up mostly in Florida. And we had palm trees everywhere. We had a bunch all around our yard, and we would climb them the way kids in other places climbed oak trees. At Christmas some people even put their Christmas lights up on them. And when it was time to clean up the yard, we had to cut those branches down all the time. And I remember there being so many that we would fill up trash bag after trash bag and then haul them to the curb for the trash truck.

So, to be honest, growing up I thought Palm Sunday must be some sort of local Florida celebration like a Blueberry or Apple Festival, and I had no idea why we were celebrating it in church.

18124_920677677984831_3958351675566877247_nI understand what Palm Sunday is all about now. I know it’s the entry into Holy Week. And, because there are no palm trees here in southern New England, every Lent we pay a company to send us a box of palm fronds. The same kind we had way too many of in my neighborhood growing up. That irony is not lost on me.

But palm leaves, they’re an essential part of this story today. Scripture tells us the Palm Sunday story in two places, John and Mark, both of which we read this morning. And in them we hear about how Jesus, who had been preaching and teaching all over the surrounding towns for the past few years, gaining followers and generating excitement, was finally walking onto the biggest stage of all, the one where he was set to become a legend in his own time: Jerusalem.

And the people there had heard that he was coming. They wanted to be a part of it and they went out to meet him. And they greeted him like this: they threw their cloaks in front of the colt he rode in on, and they took palms from the nearby trees. And as he rode in they waived them and they shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Now, it may not sound like much to us today, those palms and those shouted “hosannas”, but back then they were greeting Jesus like he was a rock star. He was unlike anything they had ever seen before. Because the palm fronds they were waiving were more than just green leaves. At that time you waived palms as a symbol of victory or triumph. They were literally signs of hope, being held high for Jesus and all to see.

And those shouts of Hosanna literally meant “save us!” Because the people who were gathered by that road, they needed saving. They were being brutally oppressed by the Roman Empire on one hand, and held down by religious leaders who didn’t always want what was best for the people on the other. And the people who were there believed that Jesus had come to change all of that, maybe even by force. They didn’t know what was coming, but they knew it had to be better than what they had always known.

I talked about the crowd greeting Jesus like a modern-day rock star, and that has some resonance for me. About six months after my first Palm Sunday service I went to see a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, the rock opera about the final week of Jesus’ life. And I was struck by something in particular. The performers who play “The Crowd” serve as a sort of chorus for the play. They are the ones who shout “Hosanna” during one of the first songs, yelling “Hey JC, JC, won’t you fight for me? Sanna hosanna hey superstar.”

But by the end of the play those same actors, that same crowd, is shouting something different. When Pilate tries to release Jesus instead of killing him, the same crowd that shouted “save us” on Sunday is shouting back “crucify him…crucify him” on Friday.

I don’t think that Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the scenes that way because he didn’t have enough actors to play two different crowds. I think he wrote them that way because he knew that sometimes, even with the best of intentions, our fears get the better of us, our hopes seem misplaced, and our loyalties fail us.

It was about the time that I saw that concert that I realized that it wasn’t enough just to refrain from actively participating in injustice. I realized that in order to be truly faithful, we have to make a decision to not just stand by and watch it happen. Because when we are a part of a crowd, and we do not speak up, in so many ways we may as well be yelling “crucify him” with the people around us.

When we see a bully terrorize someone, and we do nothing, we are not siding with kindness. When we watch someone being harassed, and we don’t dare to speak up, we are not being allies to them. When we see injustice happening around us, but we think we have no power to change it, we are a part of the reason that injustice can thrive.

I don’t know exactly why the crowd turned against him that week, but I wonder if it isn’t because of the same reason all of us fail to speak out when we know we should: they got scared. The one they thought was there to save them, the one they greeted with palm leaves and scattered coats, seemed to be just another disappointment. He didn’t overthrow the Romans. He didn’t fight back. He didn’t even say much. He just went to the cross without much to show for it. He didn’t save them

At least, that’s what they thought. But that’s a story for next Sunday. For now, though, I’ll just say this. He did not save them in a way that anyone expected. There were no weapons and no wars. But a victory was coming. One that deserved all the palm leaves in the world. But one that no one in the crowd that day could ever imagine.

So, for those of us 2,000 year later, in a place where our only palms are shipped in from another country, and in a time where with 20/20 hindsight we know how this story ends, how do we shout “hosanna”? And how do we welcome Jesus into our midst today?

Between you and me, while the palm leaves are nice to have, I don’t think Jesus much cares what we are waiving when we decide to welcome him. Here in New England we could do the same thing the people of Jerusalem did all that time back and just use what is handy. So we could use maple branches, or pine boughs. Or snow shovels, if you prefer. We could throw confetti or shoot off fireworks.

Or, we could do one better, and just open our hearts, and on this Palm Sunday, invite Jesus in. And we could say “hosanna”. “Save us”. From whatever it is we need to claim victory over in our lives, from whatever struggles we are facing. From whatever is keeping us as just one of the crowd, and from being a disciple. Hosanna, Lord. Save us.

Let’s start the welcome today. But let’s not end here. This week we will be journeying with Jesus through Holy Week, from today to Maundy Thursday, and from Good Friday until Easter Sunday. Step out of the crowd. Step into the hope of a victory that no one would ever believe. Join us. And together let us shout out a hope that will turn into a promise: Hosanna, Lord. Save us. Hosanna. Amen.

Unlikely Disciples and the Roadmap of Grace: Sermon for June 16, 2013

"Anointing His Feet", by Wayne Forte

“Anointing His Feet”, by Wayne Forte

Soon after I moved to Massachusetts, I met a friend whose Christian life really impressed me. She was involved heavily in her church and she did a lot of outside ministry work too And she carried herself with a humility but also a quiet certainty of who God was and who she belonged to.

I attributed it to the fact that she had grown up with a parent who was in the clergy. I thought surely that was what had shaped her faith and her interests. And one night we were talking and she was telling me about some of the ministries she was involved in. And one of the ones to which she was most devoted was a ministry to people in prison. And so, I asked her what had caused her to get interested in prison ministry.

She replied, simply: prison

What I hadn’t know until that point was that she herself had done time. As a young woman she had battled a serious addiction. And one night she made the choice to get high, and she stole a car. And she ended up going from a well-known New England prep school to serving several years in a Georgia prison

I was thinking about her when I was reading this text because this is the classic text about unlikely disciples. Jesus is invited to a Pharisee’s home to eat dinner, and you should always be a little wary of dinner invitations from Pharisees, because it’s probably less about getting to know you, and more about looking for what you’re doing wrong

And on this night, something scandalous happened. A woman, who was apparently known to be a sinner, came into the dinner party. She had a jar of expensive oils with her. And on the ground she wept and washed his feet with her own tears. And then she anointed them with the oil.

The Pharisees were aghast. This was all the evidence they needed that this man was not a prophet. If he were, he would have known who she was, and he would never have let her come near him.

But of course he does. Jesus lets everyone come to him. He allows her to bathe his feet with her own tears. Tears shed for a life ill lived. Tears shed for a redemption that is to come.

And he uses it to teach them.

Jesus asks Simon about a man who forgives two debts. One is small. And the one who is forgiven does love the man who does it. But one is big, and how much more does that person receive in the forgiveness? The one whose life is changed most drastically will become the one who most loves the one who forgives.

For the woman who was washing his feet, who probably was Mary Magdalene, there had been a life of bad choices. And yet she was one of the first to recognize the grace that was in Christ. So much so, that it is she, not the disciples, who anoints Jesus for the first time. Her debt had been large, and now she saw it being forgiven purely out of Christ’s love for her.

Sometimes the people who need grace the most are the first to really understand it when it’s offered. And sometimes they are the people who we never would have expected.

In college our chaplain was a man named Sammy. And he had gone to seminary in New York City during the 1950’s, but afterwards he returned back to south Georgia, where he had grown up. And one of the reasons he came back was that he wanted to work for civil rights.

One Sunday he delivered a sermon about segregation to his entirely white congregation. And afterwards someone came up to him and said, “some people aren’t too happy about your sermon.” And the same guy said, “you see that man over there? He’s the head of the Klan here in south Georgia.”

From that point on Sammy and the head of the Klan butted heads, and it was made clear to Sammy that he was not wanted there. And then, one night, he got a call. It was the Klan leader asking him to meet him out at a bar on the highway. This was the sort of bar where there was a lot of drinking and fighting and sympathy for the Klan, and he was a little worried about why he was being called out there.

But when he got there, the Klan leader was sitting at a table. And he was broken. And he told him how he couldn’t stop drinking, and how his wife was leaving him, and how his whole world was falling apart and now he was questioning everything about how he had lived his life. And he said to Sammy, “Reverend, would you pray for me.”

And Sammy looked around at the bar and said, “Here?”

And the man replied, “Pastor, don’t you believe in Jesus?”

This man whom he had disagreed with in every possible way taught him something about the grace of God that night. First, that no one is beyond it. And second, that Jesus is everywhere waiting for us to accept it. Even in that south GA roadside bar, and even to a Klansman.

Sometimes the best representatives of Jesus’s grace are not people who have led perfect lives. Sometimes they are people who have struggled to make the right choices. Sometimes they have a past. Sometimes there are things that seem shameful. But they are often the best witnesses to the fact that Jesus’s grace can find you, no matter where you are.

For the disciples this was an issue. They were already facing problems. And now the face of the movement, this man they followed, was letting this woman with a past touch him in front of the Pharisees. It didn’t look good. Surely there were “better people” who could attest to who Jesus was.

In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar the scene is played out like this, with Judas singing these words:

It seems to me a strange thing, mystifying
That a man like you can waste his time on women of her kind.
Yes, I can understand that she amuses,
But to let her kiss you, stroke your hair, that’s hardly in your line.
It’s not that I object to her profession,
But she doesn’t fit in well with what you teach and say.
It doesn’t help us if you’re inconsistent.
they only need a small excuse to put us all away.

Judas was right. They only needed a small excuse. But he was wrong about the rest. No one could preach to the grace of Christ more than this woman could. And so when he sings about “wasting your time on women of her kind” he couldn’t be farther off the mark. Unfortunately, that’s how society, and often the church, sees some people sometimes. As wastes of time.

But they are not wastes of time, but are often the best witnesses to Christ’s grace. Last week I told you the story of a ministry in Nashville called Magdalene House, and the business the women run called Thistle Farms. I didn’t tell you what some people in Nashville often said about this ministry. Things like, “Why waste your time and the church’s resources on these prostitutes. Use it on “nice” people.”

This church was the sore spot for the diocese. Never got funding, etc. They were sort of ashamed of it.  Yet this program changes lives. Women who had been left for dead are now self-sufficient, healthy, and full of hope.

And they also become witnesses.

I participated in a baptism service for them once in a river. You could almost feel the release of the past, and the river could have been their own tears. And I wondered, why are these women’s stories not plastered in every church in the diocese? This is grace. This is what the Gospel is all about.

We’re the church and this is what we do. We welcome people with a past. Because there are things in all of our lives that we regret. The ones who accept Christ’s grace belong here the most because they are some of Christ’s best witnesses to the Resurrection, because they themselves have been resurrected.

The thing that I’m always struck with about people who have truly been transformed by God’s grace is that they don’t deny where they came from. They may not tell you about it all the time, but they don’t deny where they were. Part of that is because they’ve come to realize no matter where they were, Jesus was already there. They never would have found a way out if he hadn’t been there, offering his grace.

Hhe was there in prison with my friend who served time. he was there in the roadside bar with the klansmen. and he was there on skid row in Nashville with the women who were trying to escape a life of addiction and being treated as commodities. And he’s there in all the dark places of our lives.

Our affiliation with the UCC teaches us that. The United Church of Christ has a slogan: No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. And that’s the truth of the Gospel. We are welcomed no matter where we have been. And we are welcomed because where we’ve been is not where we are ultimately going.

Our past brought us here today, and it informs our journey. But it does not dictate it. Only Christ does. And grace is our only roadmap on the journey of life.

If it can find the young woman in prison, the alcoholic at the roadhouse, and the women on the streets, then surely it can find us. And it is only when we truly receive that grace, that we can truly follow Jesus. Without it, the words of the Gospel are hollow. But with it, they are everything. May Christ’s grace illumine even the darkest corners of our lives, and bring us all to the table with him. Amen.

Journey Through Lent: Days 29-31

250jesuschristsuperstarWhen I was in college I saw a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical traces the events of Holy Week and I was struck by the crowd, the chorus of singers that followed Jesus. As they waived palms on one Sunday they shouted his praises and sung and called out to him. But as the week went on, they changed. And by Friday, those same people once shouting their admiration were calling for his death.

It’s always stuck with me. That change in feeling. I think of it every year during Holy Week. Jesus goes from the exalted one to the one who is offered up as a sacrifice by the crowd. There’s something fitting about the fact that in many churches the palms from Palm Sunday are saved until the following Ash Wednesday, when they are then burned and turned into the ashes we wear as a symbol of our humaness and fraility and mistakes. Sometimes we turn from Christ, and we get it wrong.

We don’t like to dwell on that. We don’t like to dwell on the reality that Christ was betrayed, and denied, and abandoned. We like to stick with the Palm Sunday and Easter joy, not the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday pain. And every pastor I know is aware that when we announce the extra services, there is a near-auditory sigh.

But the reality is that it’s the week between the two Sundays that really teaches us who we are, and who we can be. We can be the crowd that shouts loud welcomes on Sunday, but then stays away when times get hard. Or we can be the people who journey with Christ in the hardest times, and who never turn our backs on him. Holy Week is our chance to proclaim with our time who we really are, and it is our chance to get our priorities straight.  This is our chance to not just be the crowd, but to stand out from the crowd.

This Holy Week, take the challenge of walking the whole path. Make a complete journey. And you’ll find on Sunday that Easter will be that much more meaningful.