Archive for April, 2012

April 22, 2nd Sunday of Easter

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer.
Today, I thought I’d start things a little differently, by speaking about our Psalm. As you know, Psalms were originally songs – sometimes of praise, sometimes of lamentation, sometimes of joy, sometimes of sorrow. As such, they were frequently written with instructions for the director of music. Of course, we use the Psalter for our reading of the psalms, so we miss these directions. But this week, while I was preparing for today, I went to our pew Bible, just to see what was written there, and this is what I read: For the director of music. With stringed instruments. A psalm of David. Now, not all psalms are described as “written by David”. In fact, most of them seem to have no particular author. But this one is quite specific. Not only that, if we look at the Bible, rather than the Psalter, we see, after the second and fourth verses, the word: SELAH, which, quite simply, means: stop. Stop, and think about things. Stop, and smell the roses. Just, STOP. And you know, that could apply to ministers and to worshippers. It seems to me that we are always in a rush, always trying to get from one place to another – preferably in the least amount of time. I have a friend who was complaining the other day about the fact that a train trip she is planning is going to take 18 hours. She is fretting about wasting all that time, instead of treating it as a time to relax.
Even in worship, we are constrained by time. We have an order of worship, which must be followed each week. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if we were in some places where Sunday worship lasted three hours, at a minimum. I think that people may not like that too much.
I remember, in Labrador, our time of Sunday worship changed annually. You see, the building was shared by two denominations, which meant that there were two services each Sunday – one at 9:30, and the other at 11:30. If we were at the 11:30 one, it meant that we could sleep in a bit, but it seemed then as though the rest of the day was spent playing catch-up. The 9:30 time, however, even though it meant that we had to be earlier getting up and ready, was better because we had the rest of the day to do what needed to be done, plus we would get to the restaurant before anyone else so we could have a nice Sunday brunch.
If we stop, if we take time, we may not get to places when we think we should. But, if we look at the fourth verse of the psalm again, we can see what could be the theme for this psalm: When you are angry, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Ponder it, and be silent. We could all do with more of that, I think.
As most of you know, I was away last week, on retreat. If you looked at the programme for the retreat, you would probably be surprised to see that FREE TIME was built into the structure of each day. This was done intentionally, as we felt that we needed this time to digest what had been discussed, and to think about it. Often, the next session began with questions resulting from the first one. And sometimes, the three of us just spent our free time together, especially if we had gotten into a really good conversation, and didn’t want it to end. But the point is that we HAD this free time, this SELAH, when we were not expected to do anything.
During this church season known as Eastertide, we should all take some time to digest the words of Scripture. We need to ponder what we have seen and witnessed during and immediately following Holy Week. We should also consider the holy disturbances which God sometimes places in our lives. Without thinking about such things, and trying to figure out why they happen, we will never understand God’s purpose, or what lesson we are expected to learn. This pondering is something we need to learn, just as the disciples did. It often took them a while to figure things out, so why should we be any different?
Just as we often need reassurance, so did the disciples. Incredible as it may seem to us, they didn’t recognize the risen Christ until he did something to spark this recognition. In today’s reading, for instance, the disciples thought that he was a ghost, until he ate a piece of broiled fish. Interestingly, in the section just before this, when two of the disciples were on the road to Emmaus, they also didn’t recognize Jesus until he ate with them. It is easy for us to identify with the disciples. Too often, we fail to recognize Jesus in our midst, because we are so caught up in the everyday things of life. But, again like the disciples, we have all longed for that recognition, for that moment when we share a meal with our risen Lord.
Throughout the Gospels, we read stories about Jesus sharing meals with his followers. But each of the stories tells us more than the simple fact that they were hungry. We read about Jesus’ observance of the Passover, or about a woman pouring expensive oil on Jesus’ feet when he was a guest for dinner. We all know how he fed the 5000, with just a few loaves and some fish. We have even been told that Jesus was criticized for eating instead of fasting. And of course, his choice of dinner companions was often not approved of by the religious leaders of the day. Regardless, food played an important role in Scripture, both before and, more importantly, after the Resurrection.
Today, food plays an important role in our lives as well. Of course, we know that we must eat a healthy range of foods, to keep our bodies functioning as they should. But there are times, times when I am worried, or stressing about something, when I toss Canada’s Food Guide out of the window, and seek comfort food. This can be different for each one of us. For some, it can be homemade macaroni and cheese; for others, it can be meatloaf. I know someone who, whenever he is feeling sick, nothing hits the spot quite as well as a grilled cheese sandwich. But I don’t know anyone whose comfort food of choice is a broiled chicken breast with a green salad. This is what we SHOULD eat, but it just doesn’t give the comfort and security that the other foods do.
We, here at St. Andrew’s, know all about the comfort that food brings. We share in fellowship every week, with something to drink and eat. When we have pot-luck meals, the variety is amazing, and the calorie count is through the roof. When a family is hurting, what do we do? We bring food. When a family is celebrating, what do we do? Again, we bring food. Whenever we lack words, or when we know that words are not enough, we bring food. We bring cookies, cakes, and casseroles.
For the past few months, my cousin and her family have been living with her parents, due to Renee’s failing health. So many people brought food that they had to buy two extra deep freezes. And it was good that they did this, because Renee was not able to tolerate the smell of food cooking, even though everyone else had to eat. My aunt was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support they received, and are continuing to receive, now that Renee has died. Aunt Edith said that every dish was seasoned with love, and garnished with hope.
And hope is what the resurrection is all about, which is why those post-resurrection meals are so important to us as Christians. Jesus broke bread while walking on the road to Emmaus, and today, he shared fish with other disciples. In doing this, he is sharing fuel for the body, but, more importantly, in verse 45, he opened their minds to them so they could understand the Scripture. So, in addition to food for the body, he provided food for their souls, which is thing we all crave more than anything. Even those people who are unchurched are craving this. We can see this every time we go into a bookstore, and see all of the books on self-help; all of the books on spirituality; all of the books offering to explain why a particular path is the only one to follow. There are seekers, people who are looking for what we already have – a knowledge of, a belief in, and a love for God almighty.
The disciples, if you will remember, were afraid after the crucifixion. They had not yet received the Holy Spirit – Pentecost is still some weeks away. But, after that meal on the beach, they were empowered and equipped for what they had to do. Even though Jesus instructed them to stay in Jerusalem until they would be clothed in power from on high, they still knew that they would be able to do what was required. They took their faith, and shared it, until it was spread over the entire world, as they knew it. And because of that, we are Christians today. Because of that, we share in the great heritage that was started on that beach; or in the Garden on the first Easter; or on the Mount of Calvary; or in a stable in Bethlehem. Whenever and wherever it started, it has come down to us, and we are also empowered and equipped through word and meal.
But many of us are still like the disciples BEFORE the resurrection, BEFORE they accepted the fact that Jesus had risen. We shrink away from much of what Jesus says – we don’t want to hear about carrying the burdens of others; we don’t want to hear about suffering for love; we don’t want to hear about giving up family and home for the sake of the gospel. Nor do we want to hear about how good people, people like Jesus, have to die before they can become fully alive. None of this is GOOD NEWS for us, just as it wasn’t good news for the disciples. But it should be.
We hear Scripture every Sunday, and some of us even read it at home on other days. Our spiritual comfort food comes to us in the form of the Lord’s Supper, when we share bread and wine, a meal that is low in fat and calories, but high in God’s mercy and love.
Now, back to the disciples, the people who still weren’t sure if the resurrection had really happened. Jesus appeared to small groups at a time, almost as though he was trying to take it a bit easy on them, as though he thought they would be less fearful if there were fewer of them each time he appeared. He didn’t criticize them for being skeptical, but just set about to prove that he was no ghost, that he was the embodied Christ, risen from the dead. He encouraged them to touch him, and when they still remained skeptical, he asked them for something to eat – proof positive that he still had a body. It’s as though he said to them: See, I told you that I’d come back, and I did. You can really believe what I said to you.
In his book, Luke for everyone, theologian N.T. Wright says: “People often ask me, ‘What after all is the point of Jesus dying and rising again? It’s no doubt very nice for him to be alive again, but what does it have to do with the rest of us?’” Think about that for a minute. What DOES it have to do with the rest of us? What is the point of the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and why are we here today? Are we here because we were raised in the church and because this is what we do on Sunday? Are we here because we are from another place, and maybe feeling lonely for home? If we look at the Gospel reading again, we will find the answer to that WHY question. and he said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” Just 42 words, in our translation, but they not only contain our reason for being, but also a call to action for each one of us to be witnesses to the things.
But you know what is interesting? So many of us see this as an individual all to action, instead of a collective one. We are ALL called to be witnesses. We are ALL called to repent of our sins, and to forgive those who have sinned against us. We ALL must turn from destructive ways, and to follow the path that leads to salvation. We are to look for life in the valley of the shadow of death, to move forward when things seem darkest. And THAT is why we are here, in this church, in Quebec City, more than 2000 years after Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Here we will receive forgiveness AND give forgiveness. Here we will support each other in community, AND gather strength from community. Most importantly, here we will soon push each other out of the door to be witnesses of these things in the world. In the Small Catechism, Luther wrote: “We are called, gathered, empowered and sent,” by the Holy Spirit, into the streets, with the message of God’s amazing Grace. Christ is Risen. Can you remember the response from Easter Sunday? He is risen, indeed. Thanks be to God.

April 8th, Easter Sunday

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer.
Well, it’s finally arrived – the high point of the Christian year. Today is Easter Sunday, and, before the procession today, we recited the classic response, when I said: Christ is risen, and you replied: He is risen, indeed. I never realized how ingrained this has become with some people until one year, when I was preaching at St. Brigid’s. It was just after Easter, and I happened to use that phrase in my reflection. I was not prepared for the small congregation to respond, since it WAS part of the sermon, but they did. Now, you need to understand that some of the worshippers at St. Brigid’s have been unable to communicate for years. And yet, somewhere, deep inside, was the response to the sentence, and when I said my part, they replied, without hesitation. This is the great statement of our faith, the fact that he IS risen, that he DID rise, and that we will rise with him.
Easter, as we know it, has come to have many symbols associated with it over the years. The lilies, which you can see in the sanctuary today, are a symbol for several reasons. The patriotic hymn Battle Hymn Of The Republic begins with the words: In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me. So here we have the lilies associated with Jesus’ birth. Of course, we ourselves tend to associate lilies with death, as they are often the flower of choice at funerals. If we put these together, we cannot help but think of Jesus’ death and resurrection – a rebirth, if you will, into the glory that was always his. From my own point of view, the lily, along with other early spring flowers, reminds me that, each year, no matter how long winter is, spring comes again. It is a symbol of hope, a symbol of the joy which is waiting for us, when we are reborn into eternal life.
The symbol I used as part of the children’s story – the egg – is also a symbol of birth. In orthodox denominations, the egg is a huge part of the Easter story. Members of the congregation are given dyed eggs at the conclusion of the Easter Saturday Vigil, and eggs are traditionally served after an Easter Sunday sunrise service. A special Easter bread is made, in which a whole egg – still in the shell – is baked into the dough. When I was a child, and later, when my own children were young, we used to make a big deal out of emptying the egg by carefully punching a hole in each end of the egg, and blowing out the contents. This empty egg, then, was a symbol of the empty tomb which Jesus’ followers discovered on the first Easter morning.
And, of course, let’s not forget the rabbit! The rabbit, along with the lamb, are both connected with Easter. The lamb, aside from being born in the spring, represents Jesus himself, whom we refer to as the Lamb of God, and the Paschal Lamb. As well, the first Easter happened at around the time of Passover, when orthodox Jews would have eaten lamb flavoured with bitter herbs, as a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt. And the rabbit became part of the Christian celebration simply because it is also a symbol of life.
How this all translated to chocolate is something that has never been explained to me, but I would assume that it was clever marketing on the part of chocolate makers everywhere, and it has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Which brings us to food. Food seems to be one of the central connecting forces in our church life. Every Sunday, after worship, we gather together for fellowship and food. We have started having regular luncheons, and on special days, we have a potluck, when everyone brings food to share. Communion is another type of meal, based as it is on the Last Supper. And it is obvious to me that food is a central theme in Scripture as well. Our reading from Isaiah on this Easter certainly proves this, as the Lord is promising a feast for all peoples. Note, NOT for the CHOSEN people, but for ALL peoples. Reading it almost makes one ask “What’s for dinner?”
On Easter Sunday, as on other special days throughout the year, many families gather together around a groaning table. If you were to look in just about any woman’s magazine for the month of April, you would find recipes for Easter dinner, and let’s not even talk about what we can see on The Food Network or on any of the cooking shows on network television and other cable channels. You will find recipes for glazed ham with scalloped potatoes – a traditional Easter dinner. For the not-so-traditional diners, you can find recipes for salmon served with assorted salads. And, of course, let’s not forget the hot cross buns, which, in my family, were a staple of Easter breakfast.
According to Isaiah, the meal prepared by the Lord will be no less satisfying than any of the foods we serve at home and in the Kirk Hall. For he will make a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. I noticed, in particular, Isaiah’s elaboration on the food to be served. Not only was it to be rich food, but rich food full of marrow. Now, we in the 21st century tend to avoid eating marrow, because it is not particularly healthy. But, in ancient times, Marrow was essential to a healthy diet, providing as it did, fat which was not available elsewhere. And the wine was not to be just any wine. Rather, it was aged wine, well refined. You see, new wine is not especially tasty. It is sharp to the taste, and should really be left to age so that the taste is more pleasing to the palate. So the Lord is planning to serve a first-class feast to all people, which includes us.
What is so interesting about this text is its placement in the Book of Isaiah. You will remember that Isaiah is actually three books, and the first section, from chapter 1 to 39, is the only one which scholars now believe to have been written by Isaiah himself. In this section, known as Proto-Isaiah, we hear prophecies of doom and gloom; we hear dire warnings. And then, suddenly, Isaiah switches to a hymn of praise, and to a promise that God will swallow up death forever. This is an odd statement to make, especially in the wake of what we know about death. While medical science has found ways to prolong life, we know for sure that it will come to each one of us eventually. Not one person sitting here now will get out of life alive. But Isaiah said that God will swallow up death. Which is exactly what happened on the first Easter, when Jesus rose from the dead.
In our reading from 1 Corinthians, we see proof of this, as Paul talks about the events on that Easter morning, but he doesn’t just leave it there. Rather, this chapter presents the resurrection as the first in a series of events. First came the resurrection, and then appearances to various people, until, in verse 26, we can read: The last enemy to be destroyed is death, and in verse 54: Death is swallowed up in victory. This means that death no longer has any power over God’s people, for we have now become an Easter people.
You will no doubt have noticed that our Gospel reading today ends before the end of Mark’s Gospel. It is believed that this was the original ending of the Gospel, with the women running away from the tomb, full of fear. For us, as an Easter people, this is not completely satisfactory, and some of the early church fathers must have agreed with us. You see, at some point, some member of the Marcan community added another 11 chapters, detailing the early appearances of Jesus. I have often wondered why this was done, and think that maybe it is because Mark wants us to focus on the cross, rather than on the resurrection. After all, the resurrection was more to give us hope. But the cross was the means of our redemption.
Throughout our readings from Mark during the past few months, I have several times mentioned the rapidity with which things happened. It seems that the whole point of the first 13 chapters was to get us as quickly as possible to the passion and death. In fact, Mark’s gospel has often been called The Gospel Of The Cross, because of its focus on the crucifixion. In the book, Preaching Through The Christian Year B, Fred Craddock suggests that Mark’s “accent” on the cross is the very reason that he didn’t include resurrection appearances that might pull focus away from it as the meaning of discipleship: “For Mark, the resurrection served the cross; Easter did not eradicate but vindicated Good Friday”. In all of our Easter finery, in our celebration and our Alleluias, in flowers and white cloths, it jars our sensibilities to be reminded of Good Friday, to think that we worship an “executed God”.
You will have noticed that the reason the women came to the tomb that morning was to anoint Jesus’ body with the spices that were traditionally used for burial It had not been done at the time of burial because there was just no time to do it. They did not expect Jesus to have risen, and they were his devoted followers. Here, as is typical in Mark’s Gospel, we see what is referred to as OUTSIDERS – the women standing near the cross, watching Jesus die – suddenly become INSIDERS – the first to know of his resurrection, and the only ones who were brave enough to venture to the tomb. Remember, Jesus’ followers were also open to persecution, simply because they WERE his followers. So I have to ask myself WHY would they do this? Remember, they had just witnessed a particularly brutal form of execution. Those of you who have seen The Passion Of The Christ will realize that there was nothing pretty about a crucifixion. Most of the pictures and statues of the crucifixion of Jesus don’t come near to capturing the horror of that kind of death.
As followers of Jesus, they must have been totally confused. Whatever they expected from him, this wasn’t it. They had regarded him as their saviour, and now that he was dead – they had no idea what would happen. Remember, they were not yet an Easter people, not yet a people who knew about the resurrection.
So, they go to the tomb, to do the things that need to be done, to show the proper respect for the dead body. But there is no dead body. The tomb is empty, and they are the first people to whom the resurrection is revealed. Again, I can only imagine what they must have been thinking. And you know what? It is no wonder that they ran away. This was something which was completely outside of their experience, something which they could not have possibly imagined. Today, we talk about soldiers returning home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after some horrific experiences, and I would also apply that term to explain the women’s reaction. They just wanted to get away as fast as they could. They wanted to put this all behind them. They saw Jesus die, and now the tomb is empty. Their whole world had changed, in more ways that they could have thought possible.
Let’s leave them, running away in terror, and turn back to the tomb, which had been closed by a large rock. While the women were approaching the tomb, they were discussing this rock among themselves, and wondering whom they could ask to roll it away for them, because it was very large. Mark thought that it was important that we know this about the stone; otherwise, he would not have mentioned it. We can view it as a metaphor for everything which keeps us from faith, for every stumbling block which is put in our way. For each one of us, the stumbling block may be different, but it is something which we all have, or have had at some point.
Theologian Megan McKenna says: we may not want to see or face certain things, but all of us need to remember the path that has brought us this far, and the failures we experienced along the way, just like the disciples so long ago, whether they were cowards, or just clueless, or worse. Remember, after the crucifixion, they huddled together in an upper room, afraid for their very lives. And we, in the 21st century, we may think we know this story of the resurrection, because it is so familiar, so central to the life of the church and the life of faith, but somehow we’ve lost the passion of our youthful enthusiasm for God, no matter what age we became Christians. Mark, McKenna writes, “summons us to return to the intensity of our first commitments”.
When this intensity fades, one of two things can happen. People can start to take their faith for granted, or, worse, they become cynical, and full of doubt. They question things which they once accepted, and don’t seem to be able to move beyond that. No matter how hard they try, they cannot become an Easter people. But there is a way to move from this apathy, this cynicism. Look at the story of the resurrection with fresh eyes. Look at it with the eyes of faith, and God will bring back to life that which has died. What we believe, what we accept with faith – it is that which shapes us, and makes us the people we are. What we believe can open us up to the power of God, or it can blind us to what we can be and to what God can do for us. God can bring good out of evil, love out of hate, and hope out of despair. This is what we believe. And because of what we believe, we are an Easter people! Thanks be to God.

April 5th, Maundy Thursday

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer.
On the night before he died, Jesus ate with his disciples in what we have come to call the Last Supper. On four Sundays and on Maundy Thursday, we in this church, celebrate what we call the Lord’s Supper. As Jesus and his disciples did, we share in this meal. But, for us, it is not the LAST supper, but one which we will continue to do, to remind us of that supper over 2000 years ago.
There are many things connected with this day, and tonight, I want to share some of them with you. The word MAUNDY comes from the Latin mandatus, meaning commandment. It was on this night that Jesus gave us the commandment to love one another as he has loved us.
Maundy Thursday is the night on which Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. In some denominations, this practice is still followed. Here, we do the washing of the hands, so that they will be clean when we share in the bread and wine. Water is used to clean, and, in the church, it is a powerful symbol of cleanliness. It was through water that the world was destroyed at the time of Noah, and Jesus was baptized in the water of the river Jordan. Water was used many times in both the old and new testaments to cleanse lepers, and Jesus changed water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana.
Some churches, on this night, consecrate oil which will be used for anointing throughout the year. Although anointing is a part of the Presbyterian liturgy, we, in this church, do not do this, and I obtain my oil elsewhere. This anointing reminds us of the woman who poured expensive oil over Jesus’ head and feet. When the disciples reprimanded her, Jesus told them that she had anointed his body for burial, and that she would always be remembered for doing this.
On this night, we have shared in the Lord’s Supper, which is called by different names, depending on the denomination and even on the custom of the individual church. It has been called the Lord’s Supper, Communion, Eucharist, Mass, Sacrament of the Altar, Lord’s Table, and the Breaking of Bread. It has been referred to as a sacrament and as a sacrifice. My question to you this night is, “What is this meal?” What does it mean to you?
According to Living Faith, the Lord’s Supper is a joyful mystery, whereby Jesus takes the bread and wine to represent his atoning sacrifice. It is also thanksgiving to God. By taking part in the Eucharist, we pledge allegiance to Christ as Lord; we are fed as one church; we receive the signs of his love; and we are marked as his.
But what is it for you? Is it a gift from God or a meaningless ritual? Does it unite you with the crucified and risen Christ or is it a relatively uninspiring time of fellowship?
Most importantly, it is a meal, but a meal unlike any other we ever eat. It is a meal with meagre portions for the physical part of us, but our spiritual side is filled to overflowing every time we take part in this celebration. It is a memorial meal. Jesus said: Do this in remembrance of me. Many of us share in a special meal on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, of on the birthday of one who is no longer with us. And what more special person to remember in this way than our Lord and Saviour? It is a holy meal, one which is consecrated by Jesus’ own words. The very words he spoke, the words of institution, are used by Christians all over the world when we celebrate this sacrament. It is a meal of forgiveness. In the Roman Catholic tradition, there are two kinds of sacraments – sacraments of the living, and sacraments of the dead. They consider Communion to be a sacrament of the living, and believe that it is necessary to confess their sins in order to take part. We, as Presbyterians, believe that it is through sharing the bread and wine that we share in the forgiveness that was won for us on the cross. It is a family meal. Once a year, on World Communion Sunday, we share with all Christians this celebration. And whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper in this church, our family of faith grows stronger, comes closer. When we eat this meal together, we enter into unity with one another. On this day, when we all tear a piece from the loaf, we can see clearly this concept of unity. We are all one when we share communion. We celebrate our oneness of faith, oneness of doctrine, and oneness of purpose together.
We have removed the trappings of the feast, and left the altar bare and cold, for tonight is the night of betrayal, and tomorrow is the day of despair. But even in despair, we must not give up. For on Sunday we will celebrate his triumph over death, in the sure and certain knowledge that we, too, will rise. Like the disciples, he has called us his friends, and we must watch with him, and “not fear, though the earth be moved, and the mountains shake.” (Psalm 46.2) We must watch and pray that the bond of charity may hold us firm as his friends, and friends of one another. The fruit of the vine is crushed in the press, but we shall drink the wine new with him in the joy of his risen kingdom. Thanks be to God.

April 1st, Palm Sunday

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you this day, our Rock and our Redeemer.
You have often heard me speak about the paradoxes in the church. This is one of those days when it seems that the minister must choose between two radically different ways of approaching the day – from the lectionary readings to the focus of the sermon. If you will notice, even the bulletin this week contains contrast, as this day is called Palm/Passion Sunday. What are we to choose to emphasize? Do we focus on the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, or do we regard this as the start of Holy Week, surely the most solemn time in the church year? Some of my colleagues choose to use this day as the beginning of the passion story, and they have sound reasons for doing so. Many people who come to church on Sundays will not come to the service on Maundy Thursday, so there will be no opportunity for them to hear the passion. Therefore, ministers argue, they go from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the joy of the Resurrection, and skip over all of the STUFF in between. Well, personally, I need the triumph of Palm Sunday, because I know what is coming this week. I know about the Last Supper, and the Garden of Gethsemane. I know about the betrayal, and the trial. I know about the crucifixion and death. So if I choose today to focus on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, it is not because I want to gloss over the other events of this week, but because – for just a few minutes – I want to put them aside, and see my Saviour as a king, but as a king with a difference, a king who came among us.
I was watching the news the other day, when I heard a truly unusual story. A couple in Manchester, John and Frances Canning, were married, but, like most couples, had sent out wedding invitations some time beforehand. One of the invitations had been sent – on a whim – to Buckingham Palace, inviting Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip to attend. To their amazement, the royal couple, who were in the area to visit the Manchester University Hospital, actually made an appearance at the wedding reception. And now you are asking yourself what on earth this story has to do with Palm Sunday, right? Well, I’ll tell you. Just as the Queen and the Prince showed up at a very ordinary wedding, so does Jesus show up among us. The difference is that , in the wedding story, the ordinary life of two people was temporarily altered by the royals. On the day of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, the King of Heaven came in a very ordinary way – riding on a donkey, one which had not yet been ridden.
For me, one of the most important things about this donkey was that it was borrowed. Jesus’ whole life was a history of borrowing, starting with the place in which he was born. Joseph and Mary weren’t in their own home, or even in their own town when the baby arrived. Later, when he was a wandering preacher, he said to a man who wanted to follow him: Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Even the room in which the Last Supper took place was borrowed. A little later in Mark’s Gospel, we will read: On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him: Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover> So he sent two of his disciples, telling them: Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. Say to the owner of the house he enters, The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples? He will show you a large upper room, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there. The cross on which he was crucified was not his own; nor was the crown of thorns his detractors put on his head. And, even after he died, his body was placed in a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea.
In the reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians which we read today, we are enjoined to make our attitude the same as that of Jesus Christ, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. In other words, he gave himself away completely for others. And he expects no less of us. If you will recall, when he sent the disciples off to preach, he instructed them to take no money with them, not even an extra tunic or pair of sandals. In other words, he expected them to be as dependent on others as he was himself.
More than that, he knew, as we should, that preaching the Good News doesn’t require a lot of STUFF. In my former life, as most of you know, I was for many years a teacher of English literature. And all I really needed to teach the courses was the book and my voice. Other subjects demanded all kinds of stuff – computers, videos – props, if you will. Likewise, some churches seem to rely on props. They have electronic music, video screens flashing pictures which are meant to centre the congregation. Preachers pace up and down, exhorting the faithful. Materialism infects a lot of otherwise Christian people. Some churches buy a lot of fancy equipment to razzle-dazzle the crowds. They crank up the volume to amplify what they say. They put on a good show because they have been seduced to think the Gospel depends on having a lot of toys. But today we remember how the Savior of the world is the One who borrows a donkey to ride downhill to his cross.
And when Jesus preached, he sat down. In fact, throughout the Gospels, this is often a clue that something profound is about to be said. Whenever we read that Jesus sat down, we can brace ourselves for a lesson – one which we sometimes don’t want to hear, but which we need to hear. He obviously didn’t have all the props. But he did have the message – the message for all humanity. This message, while aimed at everyone, targets specifically a particular kind of person, the kind we hear about in the Beatitudes, and if we listen to just some of them, we will know who Jesus’ target audience is. Blessed are the poor in spirit, he said, and blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who mourn, and blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Those who have nothing, these are the ones Jesus targets.
While, to the disciples, this meant giving up everything they had to follow him, it means something slightly different in this 21st century. For us, it means knowing that everything we have depends on God. It means that all of our THINGS don’t really matter. Monks and nuns take a vow of poverty, which means that, actually, they own nothing. When outsiders questioned this, one Benedictine monk said: If your closet is empty, there is more room for God. I would ask you to think about that next time you can’t find anything to wear in your own bulging closet, or when your child complains because she doesn’t have the latest, most necessary kind of shirt. Or the next time you look at your bulging bookshelves, and your DVD and CD collection, and complain about being bored – ask yourself if Jesus was ever bored. People in other cultures seem to have much less than we have in North America, and they don’t seem too concerned about it. There is a beauty in simplicity which many of us cannot appreciate, because we just can’t see beyond our THINGS. When we are not concerned with THINGS, then we have more time for people, and for God.
This past week, the Manse suddenly became filled with many more things. I still haven’t figured out where to put a lot of them, but, despite the overloading of many rooms, I am not terribly concerned because they are not MY things. And I know that, eventually, the boxes and boxes of stuff in the basement will find a new home. And the things that belong in the Manse will stay here, long after I am gone. So I am detached from them. Now all I need to do is to get detached from the things I brought with me.
Jesus didn’t seem to need to learn detachment. Like many people of his time, he owned very little, and most of what he did own was in his head and his heart. He had a great knowledge of Scripture. If you will remember, just a couple of weeks ago, we read that he spoke as one with authority, and that all were amazed at what he said and his knowledge of the ancient texts. As well, in his heart, he felt a great love for all people, especially for the poor, the ill, and the downtrodden. This love showed in his willingness to give what he could of himself to those around him. And, even though he did care particularly for those on the fringes of the society of that time, he also cared for the rich, as evidenced in his curing of the centurion’s daughter. As we have read in Scripture, Jesus emptied himself which is a pretty amazing thing to do. Most of us have no trouble loving our families, or our friends. But when it comes to the rest of the world – thanks, but no thanks.
Not so with Jesus. Not so with the Jesus who humbled himself to ride a lowly donkey. Interestingly, his mother also rode a donkey, so Jesus began and ended his life in the same way. And today, we remember this ride into Jerusalem. We remember Jesus, on a borrowed donkey. He rode into the centre of a city which would soon reject him, with no possessions other than his love. He did all this because of his saving love.
Saving love is something which we can often attribute to heroes, and that is how I want to view Jesus today, as the hero who saved us. It is hard for some people, especially the crowds who cheered Jesus on his entry into Jerusalem, to see him as a hero. What kind of hero is betrayed and summarily executed? To the crowds, it must have seemed as though Jesus was a failure. They expected a conquering king, and got a crucifixion. In that sense, Jesus did not meet their expectations. But in every other sense, he far exceeded them. Parents, lovers, patriots – all often disregard their own desires for the sake of those they love. Are they heroes? Of course, they are. In just such a way is Jesus a hero. He was afraid. He begged for the cup to pass from him. But in the end, he did what he was made to do, which was to save us, if not quite in the way that people expected.
But then, did the people act as we would have expected either? Who could have foreseen that, after welcoming Jesus so enthusiastically, they would turn on him just a few short days later? And we – we sit here on Palm Sunday, thinking to ourselves: Well, I would never do something like that. I want to tell you about a choir director I once knew who did unusual things with his choir. One year, they were rehearsing for the Holy Week services – of which there can be many, depending on which denomination you belong to – and one of the hymns they were rehearsing was: Were You There When They Crucified My Lord. But the choir director changed one word, which sparked many discussions. What was on their score, instead of what they had always sung, were these words: Were You There When WE Crucified My Lord. Just think about it for a minute. Move away from the triumph of Palm Sunday, away from the joy of the resurrection, and think about it. . . . . . . .
There is a proverb which goes: Today’s rooster is tomorrow’s feather duster. Are we as fickle as the crowds in Jerusalem? Today, we shout with them: Hosanna! And next Sunday, we will cry: He is risen indeed! But what about the in between? What about Thursday, when we re-enact the Last Supper? After it is over, will we stay awake and pray with him? Or will we be like the disciples, his followers, and let him pray alone? And on Friday, will we be at the cross?
Even more importantly, what will we do after Easter Sunday? Is it possible that we are so unmoved by Christ’s message of Good News that we don’t bother to share it? Or could it be that we are made so uncomfortable by it that we will do whatever we can to avoid it? Will we, with the crowds, put him to death, rather than change? Because we must change – our ways and our attitudes.
Night after night on the news, we can hear stories of child abuse, battered spouses, genocide, starvation, assassination and illegal incarceration. It has reached a point where many of us don’t even react to these stories. Dorothy Sayers, theologian AND novelist, calls this: psychic numbing, and says that the logical continuation of it is that it is curious that people who are filled with horrified indignation whenever a cat kills a sparrow can hear the story of the killing of God told Sunday after Sunday and not experience any shock at all. After reading this, a pastor wrote: I know that I can stand in here and sing praises to Jesus one day, and walk by on the other side of the road as he lies in a gutter the next. I know that I can be lost in wonder and praise at the gracious mercy of God one day, and then turn around and make the most callous judgment of someone the next day, just writing them off, rejecting them entirely without showing any sign that the grace I have been shown has begun to rub off on me. I know that some days I can sing in here “Brother, sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you,” and then walk out and treat you as though I was born to rule and you’re lucky to have me in your company.
Sometimes we wave the palms, but at other times, we are the ones calling out: Crucify him! Crucify him!
This Sunday is called Palm Sunday, but it is also called Passion Sunday. Last year, many of us made our palms into crosses, heightening the paradox of these names. The instructions are included in the bulletins again, just in case you have forgotten how to make them. It is easy for us to say that we had nothing to do with Christ’s death, because, after all, we were NOT there when he was crucified. But, as you make your palm into a cross, accept the responsibility that is yours, which led to his crucifixion for us, by us, and because of us. This is the only way we can move from the triumph of today to the tragedy of Thursday and Friday and back to the triumphant shouts on Easter. This is the only way we can share in the joy that is Easter. Thanks be to God.