Sermon for Palm Sunday - March 16, 2008
Holy week is an emotional roller coaster. It usually goes something like this: Triumph on Palm Sunday (when Jesus marches into Jerusalem and is greeted by enthusiastic crowds). Solemnity and nostalgia on Maundy Thursday (as Jesus shares his last Supper with his closest friends). Anger and rage on Good Friday (as the crowds turn against Jesus), followed by sadness and grief (as he is executed on a cross). Fear and uncertainty on Holy Saturday (as the disciples hide and ponder their shattered purpose). Then finally, joy and again triumph on Easter Sunday (as Jesus returns, having conquered death and hell). But there's one emotion missing from the story: What about humor?
It's subtle, but I think you'll find some in today's scripture reading. I'll be reading from the NIV translation. Oh, and I'm not talking about the "New International Version" here, but rather the one I use with the teenagers when we talk about the bible: The NIV, or "Neal's Improvised Version." I've been told it's quite different from the original text, and has a tendency to exaggerate or stretch the limits of the story. To which I invariably reply, "Everything I say is 100% true. If you don't believe me, check it out for yourself and see." And that, incidentally, is how you get a teenager to actually read the bible.
Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Beth-phage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent his two best stealth-ninja disciples into town, saying to them "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her." The disciples said, "Whoah dude, Jesus is using those psychic powers again." Jesus said, "Hey guys, we're in 1st century Jerusalem. If we were in 21st century Frisco, and I told you to go out to the parking lot, and immediately you will find an SUV with a pick-up truck next to it, would you still be impressed with my psychic powers? The stealth-ninja disciples, whose training did not include rigorous mental exercises, said "Oh." Then Jesus said, "untie the donkey and the colt, and bring them to me. And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, The Lord has need of them...and then run...really fast." Then Jesus winked at them. And they said, "Oh."
So the stealth-ninja disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them. They brought the donkey and the colt, and threw their clothes on them, rather like you throw some clothes on in the morning before you go out. The donkeys, who preferred Abercrombie and Aero-Postale to black stealth-ninja robes, were not amused. So Jesus rode into town on a well-dressed but lowly donkey, and a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others (who were not so much into public nudity) modestly cut down branches from the trees, and spread them on the road.
Then the crowds cried out, saying: "Hey, here comes our savior -- the Son of King David! Save us, mighty King, Save Us! Move over, let me see! No, you get out of the way! Look, I can almost see him! Here he comes...This is so Awesome! Hey, what's that he's riding? Battle Stallion? War Horse? Ummm, let me see. Looks like...oh. What?? Ummm...he's riding a donkey. No seriously, what's he riding? Thoroughbred? No, I'm pretty sure that's a...yep--it's a donkey. Eee-awww.
And when Jesus had come into Jerusalem, all the city was greatly moved, saying..."ummm, who's *that*?" So the multitudes said, "This is Jesus, that prophet from Oklahoma. Nothing good ever came out of there, now, did it?"
This is the word of the youth director (thanks be he's leaving!).
So, yeah, I might be stretching a little. But I really do think Jesus is going for funny here, or at the very least, a little bit mischievous. And that's a huge contrast with the city he's entering. Jerusalem at Passover was a very tense place -- the Jews are occupied by an oppressive Roman Empire, and Passover is a celebration of Jewish victory over Empires. Palm branches, contrary to popular belief, are not symbols of peace, here. They're symbols of Israel. Think Eagles, Stars and Stripes, or Liberty Bells -- People are waving the unofficial Jewish Flag, prepared to rally behind anyone bold enough to take on the Roman Empire. They're spoiling for a fight, and the Romans know this. And into this situation walks Jesus, tense expectations on every side.
There's a 1970's Paul Newman film called Slapshot -- It's about a hockey team, and in one scene during a game, a fight breaks out on the ice (surprise). One of the players, instead of joining in the brawl, starts stripping his clothes off. The other players start laughing and the fight ends. Tense situation diffused by humor. See where I'm going?
There are basically two responses Jesus could have made in answer to the question, "Are you the king we've been waiting for?" He could say "yes," and now he's the leader of a rebellion against the Roman Empire...which would proceed to squash him and the Jews as they had done many times before. Or, he could say "no," in which case the eager, desperate crowd would squash him as an impostor and a fraud. It's a trap, like all the other times he's confronted with the silly people of this world, and their silly beliefs and expectations. What does he do? Same as always...he takes the third way, the one that turns everything upside down. He says to the crowd, "Yeah I'm your king -- how do you like my royal donkey?" Jew or Roman, I would have laughed, I think, and maybe said, "Yeah, that Jesus guy...he's something else." Of course, five days later he gets squashed by the crowd AND by the Roman Empire.
And we really don't like that part, do we? We, Americans, who cannot stand to lose. Thank God for Easter and the resurrection, or else how could we possibly worship a Jesus who surrenders his life without a fight? That's so un-American. You see, I think the crowd on that first Palm Sunday got the joke, but maybe we're the ones who don't get it. We're still looking for a power messiah. We still celebrate Palm Sunday as a "triumphant entry" and we sing songs about Hosanna, All Glory Laud and Honor, and Here is Our King, here in the most powerful country on earth (with our mighty Armies and 850 Billion Dollar Defense budget), where 80% of our citizens consider themselves "Christians"...and HOW can we POSSIBLY claim to understand what Jesus meant when he said that "the last will be first and the first will be last?"
I've noticed a trend in recent pop-Christianity books: Jesus, CEO ... Jesus, Coach ... Jesus, Entrepreneur. Not to knock these books -- I'm sure they talk about Jesus as a leader of people, and he was certainly that. But we sure do admire CEOs, Coaches, and Entrepreneurs. How many people in our culture would buy a book called "Jesus, Garbage Man ... Jesus, Maid ... or Jesus, Illegal Immigrant?
I'm reading an interesting book right now -- it's called "The Fear of Beggars" by Kelly Johnson. Apparently beggars actually enjoyed a fairly elevated (or at least respected) status in most great civilizations of the world -- until ours. We really, really don't like to see them. In fact we pass laws against panhandling, and we think we're doing good when we build them homeless shelters that we can send them to, and not have to actually see them anymore. As opposed to Ancient Greece, where the law said you were supposed to take them into your house. Why do we dislike beggars so much? Because they're weak. Vulnerable. The opposite of what we aspire to. Consider our heritage: We're the land of rugged individualists, where you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and where anyone can "make it" in the world. Of course, that runs totally counter to our faith, which says that "everyone misses the mark." When our nationalistic pride collides with our faith, which one do we give allegiance to?
How do we perceive Jesus, then? If you ask most Christians today who Jesus is, you'll probably get this simple answer: He's the Son of God. And he was--Peter called him that, and he claimed the title for himself once or twice in the Bible. It's a good title: Son of God. Impressive. Powerful. But it wasn't his favorite title. Over and over, throughout the gospels, Jesus refers to himself by another title -- his favorite -- Son of Man. Son of mankind. Human. Weak. Vulnerable. Just like you. Or maybe a beggar.
I think all of this is why we much prefer to celebrate Easter -- it's the victorious Jesus, who "conquers" death and hell to save us ('cause it's all about us, right?). Easter makes salvation easy -- all we have to do is acknowledge his death for us, and that someday we'll be resurrected too. There's our happy ending. Easy, right? I think easy salvation is what the crowd was looking for, too.
But the Jesus of Palm Sunday is harder for us to like than the Jesus of Easter -- he's not a "winner." He's a comedian, who subtly mocks us, and challenges us to abandon power, abandon wealth, abandon comfort and even safety, and all the other things that we spend our lifetimes acquiring, protecting, defending, and insuring. He challenges us not only to abandon our stuff, but to give it to...the poor. And not just to give them our stuff -- but then to actually spend our time among them, sharing life as well as wealth.
Philip set a good example for us, I think, spending every Monday morning down at the Frisco Family Services food pantry. And when he left, Terri Simmons picked up his shift. And there's the Simmons, the Stovalls, the Willinghams, and the Junkins, who volunteered to open their homes to children from Uganda two weeks from now, when the Ugandan Orphans Choir comes to Faithbridge. And then there's Dannah Walter, who spends Thursday mornings at the Stew Pot in downtown Dallas, where she hangs out with homeless people, and they paint pictures and talk about art, and sometimes religion. I'm just standing here talking about all this -- these are the people in our church who are out there actually doing it. Don't just thank them, congratulate them, or admire them, or wonder how they do it. Let's just join them. Make the time, because in the grand scheme of things I think that's way more important than faithfully attending church every week. Dannah told me that last week at the Stew Pot she mentioned church, and one of the homeless guys laughed a little bit. She asked him if he went to church, and he laughed again, and said, "Do you really think they'd let someone like me in?"
We might. But maybe we shouldn't even be waiting for them to come to us. Jesus just went to them. Jesus actually spends very little time in church during his years in ministry -- and half of those are confrontations. He did spend a lot of time showing us how to live outside the church, though. Most of the things Jesus teaches aren't easy to do. Or even hear. But he does it with a smile...riding on a donkey. And if you can take a joke, if you can laugh at yourself just a little, maybe Palm Sunday isn't just for the crowds of Jerusalem. Maybe it's for us...for the powerful, and for the weak. For the "house-poor" rich...and for the house-less poor. May we open our eyes, open our hearts, and open our homes. And as we welcome Jesus into town this Palm Sunday, may we welcome those he loved most as well.