“It’s Our Turn"
The Sanctuary Sermon for Palm Sunday 2020
The Sanctuary Sermon for Palm Sunday 2020
“It’s Our Turn”
Good morning everyone. Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. I trust this finds you well and taking things day by day, always remembering that faith is larger than fear. Turn off the news and build a garden someone told me yesterday. We’ve got some plans in the works for Easter Sunday, we’ll keep you up to date as the week moves along.
The account of Palm Sunday is featured in all four gospels. The story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the story with the humble beast, the shouting crowds, the branches, the coats and cloaks spread like a carpet upon the road, this story has center stage in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Making the cut in all four gospels—well, that’s a big biblical deal. Just saying.
Christmas didn’t make it into all four gospels. Two of the gospels make no mention of the pregnant Mary for whom there was no room in the inn or the shepherds watching their flocks by night or the angels or the star or the wise men or the babe in the manger. Christmas only makes the cut in two gospels.
The Lord’s Prayer didn’t make it into all four gospels. The prayer that Jesus taught his followers, the prayer the church has recited over the course of more than two millennia, the prayer recited alike in Kenyan huts and European basilicas, recited by Catholic and Orthodox, by Protestant and Pentecostal, even Jesus’ own prayer—isn’t in all four gospels. It only made the cut in two.
The parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Prodigal Son appear in but one gospel.
The Beatitudes—blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor made it into only two gospels.
But the Palm Sunday story—the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem—this story does not just place or show, it wins in all four gospels.
Which makes me wonder if we’ve had something wrong all along. Christians have regarded Pentecost as the beginning of the Church, the Church’s birthday, the day the Church was born in wind and fire. But I’m not so sure.
I wonder if Palm Sunday isn’t the Church’s real birthday. Hear me out. Palm Sunday is the day the followers of Jesus grew up, found their voices, summoned their courage, and assumed their role as witnesses to God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
This is the day. Palm Sunday is the day Jesus’ followers stepped out onto the world stage, stepped out in earnest as players and protagonists in the realm of God.
Let’s set the scene. The ancient city of Jerusalem during the annual Passover festival swells with visitors from all over the world. The city is alive, abuzz, international, exciting. Every possible room is rented at a premium price. Grocers have stocked their shelves to capacity. Everyone is out of doors, sitting in windows or on the rooftop. The visitors and pilgrims are readily identifiable by their clothing and by their manners...by the extra bags hanging off their shoulders, and by the way they meander up and down the streets, pausing, gazing, pointing.
Merchants sell their wares, exotic foods, trinkets, brightly colored cloth on street corners and in public squares. Musicians and street performers gather knots of people who gape and laugh and applaud. The atmosphere sizzles and pulses. The whole exotic world has come to Jerusalem. Expectation is in the air. There is no self-quarantining this day.
To keep the peace, Roman legions, conscripts from Roman citizens are helmeted with armor gleaming, sitting astride noble steeds patrolling the streets.
Until this day, until this moment, until right now, the followers of Jesus had been just that—followers, largely passive, reflective. They had traipsed after Jesus all over Palestine.
When he argued with civil and religious officials, they watched, tense and riveted. When he defended a prostitute, they gasped. When he conversed in public with a woman from Samaria, they winced. When he defied the Sabbath laws, they cringed. When he declared that the last shall be first, the first last, and the rich poor, they glanced around guardedly to see who was listening. When he kissed lepers and healed those of broken bodies, they whispered in fascinated awe.
Until this day, this moment, until right now, the followers of Jesus had been just that—followers, largely passive, if keen observers of his ways. But on Palm Sunday, today, a shift occurs, a transformation begins. And the shift? It’s seismic.
When I was first discerning a call to ministry, there was a verse of scripture that really spoke to me. You might say it resonated with me spiritually. The verse has been associated with John the Baptist, “A voice cries out, in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
I can’t explain it, but for some reason that verse hits me right in the spine.
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight! On the one hand, I think, wow, what an amazing image, how amazing that God would call a human being to be a part of the divine story.
And at the same time, I think, what the what? Prepare the way—of the Lord? How are we supposed to prepare the way of the Lord? Aren’t we all supposed to follow Jesus, not precede him? Given the choice I would much rather have Jesus out ahead of me, leading on, not sending me ahead to prepare the way becoming subject to and perhaps falling into the potholes of life, we all know the roads here in Ohio.
I’m partial to the God of Psalm 23. The Lord “leads me beside still waters.” Yes, that’s the ticket. Jesus leads me… sounds good. Or perhaps you prefer that old “footprints” poem in which Jesus carries us during the hard times. That actually works splendidly for me.
But whenever I hear, “Prepare the way of the Lord” I’m reminded that sometimes Jesus doesn’t lead or carry us. Sometimes Jesus sends us ahead, calling us to journey into new places and do unexpected things.
Let’s take the disciples, for example. In Matthew’s account Jesus sends two of them to a nearby village to retrieve a donkey and a colt. But not to a village they’ve already been, not to a village where Jesus had just visited and the memory of him is fresh in their minds. No. Jesus says, “Go into the village ahead of you.”
Go to that place you haven’t been, go to that place I haven’t taken you yet, go to that place that’s still up the road a-ways. There will be a donkey and colt there, and if anyone says anything just tell them, the Lord needs them.
Now, we know that the disciples did what they were told; they went on ahead with these very cryptic instructions. But I have to wonder if they protested a little bit. They didn’t know what they would encounter there. Were there dangers on the road? They were close to Jerusalem—hostilities are starting to build, and thieves and bandits were known to be about, lying in wait.
Really, Jesus? Do we have to go to that village up ahead? Why don’t we go back to that village we just left? They know us there. I think I saw a donkey and a colt at old Eli’s house. We don’t know what we’ll find in this village up ahead. It’s unknown territory. Maybe they’re hostile to us.
You know what, Jesus? Why don’t you go on ahead and we’ll tag along behind. You’ll make a much more convincing argument than us anyway. We dropped our fishing nets in order to follow you, not to go ahead of you.
You see, it takes faith to follow Jesus. And we all are called to do that. But it takes irrepressible faith to walk down a road your feet have never walked on before. It takes faith to over come fear.
Finally, as the crowd swells and enters Jerusalem, the followers begin to assume the roles of leaders. They walk onto stage—onto the world stage of a capital city during a great annual festival. For the first time since they have known Jesus, they take up their roles as players and protagonists in the kingdom of God.
As Jesus and his band of followers enter the city, Roman soldiers gather to investigate the fuss—steeds snorting, armor gleaming, swords flashing, and crests bearing Caesar’s proud and commanding image.
Against this display of power and authority, against and in defiance of it, the followers of Jesus stage a street drama announcing that their hearts, their allegiance, their fealty belong not to Caesar, not to the Emperor of Rome—to that pretender god—but to Jesus, Prince of Peace. On the streets of Jerusalem in front of God and Rome and everybody, they announce and proclaim that their hearts, their allegiance, their fealty belong, not to the Pax Romana, an uneasy peace achieved by force—but to Pax Christi, a peace to which we are invited, but never coerced, a peace which emanates from the very heart of God, a peace that passes all human understanding.
This is the day they shout in public that they belong to God and not to Caesar, which, in their case is nothing less than an act of sedition.
For the past three years—from the day Jesus called them from their fishing nets until this moment—the commitment to follow Jesus, had been personal. It had been intimate and private; but today, this day, Palm Sunday, the commitment to follow Jesus becomes public and it becomes political.
Palm Sunday has pride of place in all four gospels because this is the day the followers of Jesus become protagonists, become actors and leaders in the kingdom of God. This is the day the church comes out of the closet. This is the day the church distances itself from the state and from all worldly power. This is the day, this is the moment, the hour that they absolutely and entirely renounce and renounce allegiance and fidelity to every earthly prince, potentate, state, and sovereignty and vow that they will and do bear true faith and true allegiance to Jesus, Prince of Peace, Son of God. This is the day the Church becomes the Church. This is the day we say, “It’s our turn, Jesus, and you have taught us well. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! You have shown us and taught us what God looks like. Thank you!”
It’s our turn now, our turn to show the world what God looks like, to show the world what love looks like, to show the world what it looks like to love your enemies, not only your enemies, but the immigrant and the alien, the stranger, and the other. Show the world what it looks like to forgive those who trespass against you, to forgive not once, not seven times, but seventy times seven times. Show the world.
In a manifestly violent world, it’s now our turn to show the world, to show our friends, our families, our neighbors, our colleagues, what it looks like to follow the Prince of Peace, to turn the other cheek. It’s our turn now.
In a merciless world, a dog-eat-dog and might-makes-right world, in a world of tooth and claw, it’s our turn to show the world what mercy looks like, God’s mercy. It’s our turn, now, today, to give witness to mercy.
It’s our turn in a land filled with fear and foreshadowing, in a time of incessant predictions of peril and perplexity of the future—it’s time to show the world what God looks like and watch, just watch. The world will turn its head.
As the self-quarantine continues and the words spoken by news presenters become more and more dire, I’ve become more curious about what worry really is. And I began to realize that, on some level, worry is nothing more than fear. Fear that either I will not get something I want or fear that something I have will be taken away. And both of those fears seem to be centered on finitude. The fact that nothing lasts forever. That everything comes to an end. And Jesus says who by worrying can escape this reality? But also, worry is kind of all about scarcity… because I don’t know about you, but I never once worried that there’d be a run on toilet paper or that I would have more money than I need next month. Hmmmph. I have never once worried that I might be happy and healthy and live a long life.
And we come by this fear honestly in a society in which a perceived state of scarcity is what drives the free market economy. But I think Palm Sunday points here to a bigger reality than that. A reality that Jesus calls the kingdom of God. A reality he always seems to describe as being like things around us that are common, and small and insignificant and unimpressive.
But the thing is, buildings, numbers, money, power – and other aspects of worldly success may indeed be signs of A kingdom, but they are not necessarily signs of THE Kingdom. I mean, were this church of ours a company, then for sure, investors would be scurrying for cover. But, people of God, maybe now is the time for us to take a hard look at the ways in which the Church has tended to judge our success on a set of values that perhaps we had no business buying into in the first place. Namely our American values of what success looks like.
If that’s the case, we came by it honestly. Swept up as we were, into having banked so much cultural currency in America. But those days have gone. They’re gone for now and may not return as the same.
And so, what are we left with if we are no longer The Sanctuary Church of 2019?
If I had been told that churches around the world would have their doors closed for weeks, possibly months, I’d have been like, “Rriiiiight…” What will the face of The Sanctuary be like when corporate worship returns on Sundays? Will we pick up where we left off in attendance? Will our ministries and outreach pick up and resume? Right now, the church isn’t empty, it’s just been deployed. To some this may be a sign that the “Church is dying” but to others it’s a sign that the Church is living. Perhaps our definition of success can shift more toward what is foolishness to the world and yet life to those in Christ. Buildings and budgets and social currency will fall away. But what stands is the kingdom of God. Which Jesus tells us is the Father’s good pleasure to give to us.
When the new normal resumes in some way, society will still have the Fortune 500 for profits, and non-profits for service and day care centers for children and the ELKS Club for socializing and Starbucks for overpriced coffee and many other things we, the Church may not ever be. But we should never judge ourselves as the Church according to these things because you know what the culture around us will NEVER do? Preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments and proclaim forgiveness of sins. You know why? That’s OUR job. That’s our main job and while we are free as the Church to participate in any number of other activities in the world that seem bigger and more impressive let’s remember: We are those who have been, and continue to be, entrusted with nothing less than the Gospel. And what I’m about to say is a bit snarky but in a world where people are constantly being fed spoonful’s of nonsense and told it is Jesus …we have a better Gospel. Given what we’ve been entrusted with, we cannot be distracted any longer by the kingdom of the world’s version of success.
So let me be the first to say, if in any congregation, regardless of size, prestige or property; if the Word is proclaimed, the bread and the cup shared, water is poured out and forgiveness of sins received, then congratulations, that congregation is a success. So when the world’s kingdom, number crunchers and church consultants say the Church is dying…may I suggest that we only say this when we forget what the definition of church is.
And when we forgot whose the church is.
Because as the prophet Isaiah said, the Word will do that for which God purposes it and people, regardless of what happens to institutions, and trends and property and budgets… God will continue to send the Word which God has always sent out. So, let’s step back from the worry of how possibly the Church is dying, because long after we’ve gone, the WORD will remain. Long after the beloved Sanctuary as we know it is gone, the church will not be dead because people will continue to gather in the name of the Triune God, hold up bread, and say it is Jesus and that it is for the forgiveness of sins and so it will forever be done until the time in which we gather around the throne of the Lamb.
But let’s remember this, people of The Sanctuary; that the Gospel isn’t just entrusted to you for you to proclaim, it is, to be sure, also intended for you to hear. So since Christians are a forgetful people and need to be reminded of that for which the church was even created in the first place, so…
People of God, do not worry about your life or what you wear because we have this Word:
That there is a God who created us and all that is, this same God spoke through prophets and poets, claimed a people to be God’s own and freed them from the shackles of slavery. This same God led those people through the wilderness to a land of milk and honey, and told them to always welcome the stranger and protect the foreigner so that they could remember where they came from and what God had done for them. Then in the fullness of time, and to draw ALL people to himself, God came and broke our hearts like only a baby could do and made God’s home in the womb of a fierce young woman as though God was saying, from now on this is how I want to be known. And as Jesus, God the Son kissed lepers and befriended prostitutes and baffled authority. Jesus ate with all the wrong people and on the night before he died, he gathered with his faltering friends for a meal that tasted of freedom. He held up bread and told us to do the same thing and he promised us so much: That he would be with us, that forgiveness is real, that we are God’s, that people matter and that death is done for because on the third day he rose again.
Which is to say, God chose to enter the finitude we fear– enter into the uncertainty and danger of mortal human existence in order to point to something bigger. Bigger than what is fleeting and finite. In the incarnation God has given us nothing less than a small measure of eternity through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ. Then he made us an Easter people—not people who vapidly pretend that everything’s ok—but people who live in the Christ reality of death and resurrection. People who live in the reality of a God who brings live things out of dead things.
If you were to hike in the desolate valleys of Cappadocia today, a land that for 1,000 years was populated with Christians it now is not. It’s unoccupied by the Church. That is to say, we are not the first group of Christians to worry about the decline of Christianity. Yes, the big, impressive, successful Byzantine Empire fell, and yet the Church of Jesus Christ did not die, because Christ is risen. That is a song that no matter what, will continue to be sung around the world. It may seem like Good Friday around the world, but do not worry little flock, the tomb is empty, and God will be praised.
It was on Palm Sunday that the followers of Jesus began to understand just how costly and rigorous the Christian life is. It was a week of incredible initiation for all. It went from being personal to a fulltime job, then it became a way of life. I submit that Palm Sunday has pride of place in all four gospels because it was on Palm Sunday, it was today, that the church was truly born—not in wind and fire—but in courage and in conviction.
This is the day the Church in its making found its feet, found its voice and swore allegiance to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. May the Church be born again today in me and in you.
Let’s continue to ‘go’ church, down roads and into places unfamiliar. Let’s continue to step up, step out and be counted as his.
It’s our turn.
This is the Word of the Lord for the day.