Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, "His steadfast love endures forever." Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD. The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethpage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 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. If anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'" They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, "What are you doing, untying the colt?" They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" 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.
A man says: “I bought a big house. It didn't make me happy.” A woman says: “All my life I have acquired things. Lately I have been divesting myself of things.” We meet here in groups—men's groups, women's groups, mixed groups and classes, and we do complex discernment about our lives at different stages and ages, regarding what it's all about; what's of real and true value. The arc of life stimulates such questioning. What we might call “the conventional way” or conventional wisdom makes such discernment more difficult—convention being the way we live mostly-- what our dominant culture teaches as the smart or accepted way to entertain ourselves, and achieve, and think and dress and act and be.
When we are able to step back and pause, we can sometimes get a sense of what the poet Jennifer Hoffman writes about when she says:
“How can we possibly realize that
In our hearts, in our lives,
The Tree of Life is burning without
Unless we linger and linger.
The Real only reveals itself
If you look long enough.”
Jesus knew about the conventional way, for it exists in all times and places. He taught an alternative way, a way less traveled, less easy to navigate than the broad way, but infinitely more rewarding. He understood the next lines of Hoffman's poem:
“The world is, really,
On fire with divinity.”
Teaching and exemplifying this way, being a spirit person, he became a different kind of hero. This Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Let's look at what he conveys.
Jesus enters the largest city in the Jewish world at the time of its premier annual festival to huge crowds and cheers. He looks at first some like a conventional celebrity: noise, crowds, people yelling “make way,” cheering. People craning their necks for a better view, taking pictures with their smart phones, texting others about this cool parade. Some of it is particularly of the culture, like throwing cloaks on the ground for Jesus to ride over, a gesture of great respect. It was definitely a heavily Jewish affair. There may have been some Presbyterians present; Mark doesn't give us that detail, so we'll just have to imagine.
Look closer, because Jesus is a master of street theater and at getting across a message. Mark tells us that Jesus sends the disciples on ahead with careful instructions to find a donkey-colt, previously not ridden, for him ride into the city. What's that about? Why a donkey? These are ordinary beasts of burden and not what the ruling class or the Romans ride. To be on a donkey and be hailed as a hero is like somebody selecting a down-market car for a big parade, instead of a Lincoln or a Mercedes.
Marcus Borg, our Lenten theologian, says some research suggests Pontius Pilate may have been making his own entry into Jerusalem that day--for sure this would have been by Mercedes—that is, on horseback, with an impressive retinue both on foot and horse, with armor and pennants flying, reminding everyone who's in charge. Here's Jesus on a donkey-colt, down-market car, in ordinary clothes, telegraphing, “I am not that,” yet daring to receive the cheers of the crowd—who themselves understand his home-boy-different-kind-of-hero, street- theater symbolism and attitude. They like it, but even as they're texting, it's a bit disappointing to some who expect more—something to show the Roman garrison what real conventionally heroic Jews look like.
Jesus also sends a deeper alternative message for those who understand, from the essence of his spiritual life: humility and integrity in the presence of acclaim and worldly power: Perhaps he has in mind the Psalm for this morning: “the stone the builders reject has become the corner stone.” Or maybe a passage from Zechariah, “your king comes to you…riding on a donkey on a colt the foal of a donkey.” That message the priestly class surely gets, and do not like at all. It thumbs a nose at their premier annual showcasing of conventional power.
Jesus comes as a different hero as he deals humbly and authentically with crowds and rulers. He is unexpected, courageous, dangerous. He's right there in the flesh, no more distant from cheers or jeers than you or me. He never loses sight of who he is, what he is about, the Spirit in whom he lives and moves and has his being. Everything else—cheering crowds with palm branches; unsmiling temple guards, priests and Romans—is secondary.
Mark's story is not finished. After the celebratory entry is over, Jesus goes to the Temple with the disciples and looks around. Then he leaves the city, apparently quietly and on foot. Dr. Keith Wagner notes, “There was no party, no coronation banquet, no awards ceremony, no photo opportunities, no prize, no Oscar. At the end of the ride, Jesus and the disciples quietly walked away, went to Bethany and retired for the night. At the very time the crowd wanted to make him a king, Jesus slipped away into the night.” What kind of hero behavior is this?
Every now and then a different kind of hero steps into the limelight. The film the Hunger Games currently enjoys a huge box office. Its different kind hero, Katniss Everdeen, is thrust into gladiatorial combat when she volunteers in place of her sister who is selected as part of a national lottery. Everdeen volunteers out of love. She refuses to join in the cruel spirit of the games that take place in a wooded setting, being telecast to a huge audience. Day after day she strives only to survive, but tries every bit as much to preserve her capacity to care, to love, to be decent--as does the young man who is the other tribune from her district. They reach out to each other and to others. They refuse to play the conventional game. Because of that, both of them, but especially she, becomes a surprise hero for the millions who watch the Games on TV.
From the start, Jesus is different. In the beginning of Mark's gospel, after his baptism, the heavens open and a voice announces that this is the Son; the Spirit is well pleased. One might expect that Jesus would immediately present himself as the next new prophet. But he goes into the wilderness, to be tested alone. As theologian Marcus Borg tells us, Jesus returns to teach subversive wisdom, the alternate path.
We are invited to consider what following Jesus means in terms of being different ourselves, and following his path of differentness—being willing to handle not only blessing but being in the wilderness and being tested ourselves; marching to a different drummer; being a different kind of hero when others see us as successful and desirable.
Success, status, celebrity, the demands of behaving and thinking or performing like we should: these things can indeed be consuming for any of us. Remember Wordsworth?
“The world is too much with us.
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”
Jesus shows us how to approach it differently. He takes his moment of greatest popularity seriously in his way, not in the world's way, and for his own purposes. And he does it in humility and obedience. He embodies the truth that Teilhard de Chardin expressed: “Our faith does not cause us to see different things, but to see things differently.”
Palm Sunday is our time to consider humility. Look at this different hero; how he handled the crowds, the adulation. What Jesus showcases that day, and continues to for the rest of his life, is the alternate path, the path shown to us in his aphorisms and parables--“the Kingdom of Heaven is within you;” “build your house on rock, not sand;” “what if you gain the world and lose your soul.” He takes actions, such as healing the sick, and riding into Jerusalem in a way that distresses the authorities. Throughout, Jesus maintains his primary relationship with the Spirit, which sustains and guides him.
To quote Keith Wagner again, “to be a person of humility requires something more profound than just letting our hair down, advocating peace or being inclusive. Jesus illustrated it by riding a donkey that day on his way to Jerusalem. This was the Son of God entering the city that would soon see him put to death. Jesus knew that was about to happen. Riding on that donkey was a self-fulfilling prophecy which was symbolic of Jesus' commitment and faith. It meant surrender. He surrendered himself completely into the hands of God. There was no turning back, no denial of who he was, no wrestling with other options.
There is no greater lesson of humility than surrender. The alternative path is one based on humility and surrender. When we surrender we are saying to God that God is in total charge of our lives. We want only what God wants and nothing else…the day we surrender is the day our ego becomes as clay in the potter's hands. Its not the size of our egos that matters, its the willingness to give it away.”
On this Palm Sunday consider what following him means for you in terms of willing to be different. Follow his path of differentness; march to that different drummer. The Spirit is with us to sustain us, as it did Jesus, in all of our dealings, whether we are navigating a moment of high success and popularity or something completely other. The Spirit is our trustworthy companion through and in the midst of whatever life moment you or I are in, sustaining us, reminding us what is real, who we are, what we are about, in our essential being.
The Spirit's presence enriches us greatly but things still happen. Three days ago, I sat with my friend Kim not long after her latest chemo treatment. We spoke of work and family and friends and grace. She said, “I have learned that I receive the grace that I need.” Also that “whatever time I have here is the right time.” She has learned that the Spirit is there for and with her. It did not protect her from cancer but is with her, a comfort and a presence, as it was for Jesus, riding in obedience into the city, to his suffering and dying.
Let us both hail and follow Jesus, this different kind of hero, learning humility and integrity as we do. Remember what Jesus faces today. Whatever your own challenges, know this: the Spirit is with us, with you, and will never leave you.
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