The Rev. Dr. Seth E. Weeldreyer
Sixth Sunday in Lent
Matthew 21:1-11; Philippians 2:1-11
I saw a sort of parade in our nation’s Jerusalem. On my way to a church conference about this time last year, I borrowed a car from a friend in D.C. I flew to Baltimore and arrived by train at Union Station with a little extra time. So I headed toward the Capitol, about to cross Constitution Avenue … helicopters arrived overhead and sirens blared down the hill toward the Washington Monument and the White House. A large motorcade—dozens of police vehicles and black Suburbans appeared on the street strangely clear. About 30 seconds later a small cluster of emergency vehicles with at least one ambulance followed. When I described it to my friend, he affirmed: Yep, that was the President. You can tell by the ambulance, he explained with a nonchalance of normal routine. I don’t remember where the President was going. Surely travel plans were unannounced. No one lined the route. I felt lucky – in the right place at the right time. Maybe for some among us who’ve worked in D.C. it’s no big deal. For this relative country mouse in the big city, it was a bit thrilling. And I remembered that moment nine months later as bleachers and barricades appeared for the inaugural parade of our new President.
Compare those processions of the powerful in our time with Jesus on Palm Sunday. The way Matthew tells the story, it’s all more than mere luck. It’s a calculated and choreographed display at the religious highpoint of the year. Jesus sends two disciples to borrow the vehicle. The rest of April 9, 2017 Sixth Sunday in Lent Matthew 21:1-11; Philippians 2:1-11 Participating in the Parade The Rev. Dr. Seth E. Weeldreyer the twelve presumably start the word of mouth marketing campaign. His parade looks much different than the one in D.C. No black tinted bullet proof truck with several decoys, Jesus rode a donkey. No motorcade of support vehicles, Jesus had branches and the coats of people’s back. No secretive empty streets in one instance or bleachers and barricades in another, crowds of ordinary people lined the way for this unexpected procession.
For people who followed Jesus that day, or first Christians celebrating Palm Sunday, the message was clear. This parade is a holy parody. It combines visions of Hebrew scripture with a familiar cultural scene. It’s a reinterpretation of well-known symbols. It’s street theatre enacted as sacred caricature to make a point. Our annual Hosanna pageantry began as proclamation of faith by political provocation. This guy is the one with power. He is our source of hope. He is our Savior, not Roman and religious authorities. And his vision, his priorities, his power are as different as donkey and warhorse or Suburban.
The crowd lining the route seems thrilled. Passover energy fills the air. It’s their celebration of salvation. Yet not many really comprehend Divine purposes and saving power in Jesus. Only a few have caught the spark of grace and given their heart to the holy presence revealed in him—in his message so compelling, his love so complete. “Who is this?” people murmur astonished. Tremors of wonder, joy and fear ripple through them. Matthew uses the word for seismic quakes, as if stone walls of the city trembled. Society gets shaken to its foundation with upheaving contradictions. The city which embodies all that’s right in faith and good in culture becomes the center of deadly opposition to Jesus. To who he is; how he lives; his vision for life in the fullness of God’s love.
Friends, as Matthew tells the story, the question is where would be? What would we feel, and say, and do—today, through the week ahead, through the rest of life to come? If only living faith was as simple and easy and pleasing as children waving palms with broad smiles, in a safe and beautiful sanctuary. We know differently, don’t we? Our favorite team isn’t always the one riding on top of buses holding the trophy amid swirling ticker-tape. The candidate for whom we voted isn’t always in the presidential motorcade. Life isn’t always the picture of joy and innocence like a child framed on a streamer-clad bike in a July 4th parade.
And friends, it’s not just misfortunes, fates not going our way. For instance, as one who married into a Duke family, I assure you no one picked North Carolina to win on Monday night! It’s not just the reality that there’re always good people rooting for the other team, voting for another candidate. “Some of my best friends are UNC fans!” Even ministers! Our faith does not promise: do right and all will go our way with perfect bliss. No. At the heart of our living faith is the truth of the cross. Amid unjust suffering and sacrificial service and uncertainty and fear, precisely amid the hardest, most difficult wrongs in life, that’s where the human finds the divine. That’s where God promises to be with us—when we’re lonely or lost and it’s hard to trust … as much as we feel grateful for holy blessings in the good times.
That’s what the Palm Sunday parade is all about, here at the pivot between Jesus’ life and ministry, and his unwavering continuation to crucifixion. Palm Sunday is as powerful and meaningful as all the people transformed by his healing touch, by his teaching insights and preaching inspiration, by his mere presence and conversation and compassion with so many in society who others shunned or condemned. I like to imagine that along with his closest disciples, people lining Jesus’ Hosanna-heralded way into Jerusalem included the hemorrhaging woman who touched his cloak, the Canaanite woman and Samaritan woman he met at a well, the men who were blind and lame and had a withered hand, Nicodemus, Lazarus, Zacchaeus, and the thousands he fed by the sea. Who knows, maybe even those magi at his birth rode the retirement home bus and made it back again! The way I imagine it, people stood along the road with barely enough room for Jesus’ donkey to get through, intimately grasping hands, and peering into eyes, as he always did. And after he passes everyone turns and joins the throng to follow him. It’s like a comet’s tail for the light of the world. Or maybe as if they are all his great flowing royal robe trailing along behind—those loving relationships through which God enthroned him.
You see, far better than me just gazing with momentary thrill at a presidential motorcade, more than just watching it all pass by, God wants us to participate in the parade. Another Bible text sticks with me today to help Matthew and Philippians make sense. “Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.” (2 Cor 2:14) Richard Rohr explains in the book we’re reading for Lent: more than some magical blood price Jesus had to pay to appease an angry God, the way to the cross is where loving as Jesus did leads us too, as we feel the pain of our beloved family, friends, all people in the world, and we respond. The Spirit calls us to live and serve in the pattern of his death, trusting we’ll be transformed through the power of his resurrection. You see, in this Spirit, Jesus invites us to join “the great parade.”i
Friends, the point is, faith is more than just observing and reciting what Jesus did for us. It’s so much richer than a vision of God’s anger magically turned to love and benevolence toward us, doing salvation to us. “Thanks Jesus, we’re fixed. Now we can get into the New Jerusalem in the sky.” That’s not the extent of what I believe Jesus tried to preach and teach and embody. That’s not the vision for life in Christ that I believe Matthew, Paul, and earliest Christians encouraged.
As crowds line his way, then sweep in to join all those following en masse, the parade grows with every person who walks his way. Right in here in Kalamazoo as the New Jerusalem. That’s how Paul tries to get the earliest Christians in Philippi to live faith. If there is any encouragement in Christ … that’s just it, isn’t it? Isn’t that really what we all need and long for? Encouragement. Consolation in love. Compassion, sympathy, complete joy. Be of the same mind, Paul urges. More than mental rumination, it’s really about attitude, orientation, motivation expressed in all we do. How is Jesus’ way of thinking, feeling, acting, serving as the template for our own lives? Are we prepared … to set aside our own interests? To empty ourselves in service, empowering others even at our own expense. To resist all ambitious use or abuse of power and influence for personal gain? To seek equality with the Holy One only manifest in humility? When we are thus in Christ, it shows in the character of our life. It flows from the source of life in the Spirit, beyond our own powers, abilities, perspectives. It grows and grows in the face of all conflict and difficulty, pledging allegiance to God’s order of generosity, equity, mercy, and peace.
Friends, a parade began two thousand years ago when Jesus entered Jerusalem. And it didn’t end at the Temple Mount that first Palm Sunday. And it didn’t end in the upper room or in Gethsemane or on Calvary or in the tomb. The parade goes on in this sanctuary, in our living rooms and places of work or pleasure, wherever our city streets and superhighways and country roads may lead. The parade goes on as we live faith, facing the challenges in our personal lives, our community and world. The parade goes on and that’s what really matters to God. That’s where Jesus Christ gets enthroned among us. That’s where the holy power of love brings new life. That’s where sacred grace transforms hurts into healing, conflicts into compassion, all our problems into the fullness of peace. Dear friends, don’t just watch Jesus goes by and feel a thrill in the moment. Participate in the great parade. We don’t need helicopters and blaring sirens to notice the unwavering continuation of that grand processional of grace right here in our Jerusalem.
We lay down our love, as good as the coat off our backs, as parents sit up late at night and change family patterns for their infant’s needs, and as a spouse or friend gives up cherished activities to care for a beloved, counting pills, keeping appointments straight, keeping spirits up. We pick up our palms when all of us from youth and young adults to retirees seek meaning and purpose in life beyond personal accomplishments or the value of our bank accounts. We join the crowds lining Jesus way as literally dozens of us serve meals on Wednesdays and Sundays, and just as nourishing, sharing a warm smile and conversation. We wave our palms as tutors and classroom companions teaching how to read, or professional leaders creating jobs, or modern medical miracle workers healing … and really empowering other people of all ages with love, value, and hope. We cry Hosanna alongside every one of God’s children needing salvation in a long lineage of people making a proclamation of faith with a touch of provocation if necessary. Alongside earliest Christian martyrs and sisters and brothers we joined in the park this morning, we seek God’s way for our world when it isn’t quite right—like Rosa Parks sitting on a bus and marches on Washington D.C. for many causes over the years; like good neighbors in our community creating a foundation for excellence, sharing resources to benefit all; like welcoming refugees from the worst war-torn places in the world; like finding any way we can to reduce poverty, erase prejudice, and empower all creation to live abundantly.
This parade of ordinary life matters to God as much as a motorcade with dozens of police vehicles and black Suburbans. We know Jesus did not seek a throne in halls of power. He sat in living rooms like ours. More than election, he aimed for devotion. Because God’s reign comes most in our normal routines of life and relationship, loving service wherever we live and work and bear humble confident witness to holy peace. That’s where true power comes alive. More than mere luck, being in the right place and time, it’s matter of filling our minds and hearts with the right amount of grace in all times.
Today, as we begin to walk this holy week with Jesus, our Palm Sunday procession really poses a question. As we hear the crowd ask about Jesus: “Who is this?”, ultimately dear friends, we must answer: who are we? Will we participate in the great parade of living faith, with the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus, even if this way of love leads us to the cross? And when, inevitably, we do only watch a moment an opportunity for action pass by, betraying again our fearful indifference, or ignorance or arrogance, when our conflicts and provocations and imperfections end in crucifixion, will we feel the pain, and respond with penitence and trust, watching with hope for resurrection?
I pray … so may it be, dear friends, with all thanks to God. Amen.