Wednesday, April 16, 2014

“What Does It Mean to Come in the Name of the Lord?” (Matthew 21:1-11)

It was Palm Sunday but because of a sore throat, 5 year old Sammy stayed home from church with a babysitter.  When the family returned home, they were carrying several palm fronds.  Sammy inquired as to what they were for.

“People held them over Jesus' head as he walked by,” his father responded
“Wouldn't you just know it?” Sammy complained, ”The one Sunday I don't go and he shows up.” 

Today most Christian churches are on the same page in the bible—the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.   Matthew tells us that there is a little fanfare; a parade.  Jesus mounts a donkey over which the disciples have hung their cloaks.  Other people are laying their cloaks on the ground, or palm branches they have cut from the trees—all of this creating a welcome mat for this lovely man who has cared for so many people.  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” the people cry, “Hosanna in the highest.” 

A few people surprised by this outpouring of respect ask the parade crowd, “Who is this?”  After all, Jesus isn’t the most important person entering the city.  At another gate Pilate is making his entrance into Jerusalem on a large horse suited with armor and accompanied by a unit or two of physically strong battle-ready Roman soldiers.  There are a lot of Pilate worshippers there—their life depended on their allegiance to Rome. One might say Pilate’s parade was the real parade—the INSIDER’S parade.

Do you think they knew about Jesus’ parade?

Parade, the OUTSIDER’S parade, this way: “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Do you think that answer helped clear things up?

I like to tell the story about the first time I attended the Fourth of July parade in Joliet.  Like most communities it featured the police car, with sirens, the fire truck, with sirens, a few floats, a few persons riding horses or atvs, and then a few lovely cars toting politicians running for office.  It all was very lovely, but also very small.
So small that the whole parade went around the parade route twice.  Talk about déjà vu!

If Billings were Jerusalem, and it was a parade day…we’d be wondering why there was this little parade on a side street that hadn’t been scheduled… an anonymous parade on a much smaller budget…but with the same excitement.
It’s not every day that a group of people throw someone a parade.

But that’s the question I want us to sit with this morning.  Jesus is special enough for persons to throw him a parade and cheer him on.  What made him parade-worthy?  His face was the face of God; the face of love.  His life was a light to see our lives by.
I’d like to offer a few characteristics of Jesus’ life and ministry that not only elicited a response from people years ago, but also elicit a response from us today—we who have shown up to wave our palm branches:

1.           Jesus spoke the truth about God’s active presence in the world and God’s vision for the world no matter what it cost him. I recently read about a minister’s message with the children  on Palm Sunday.  He asked the children why people hated Jesus so much.  “I know why,” one child replied, “Because he asked people to share and they didn’t want to.”
Jesus made enemies everywhere when he put more emphasis on responding to human need than to human law—he made enemies when he taught that God was more powerful than human power—he even made enemies when he addressed humanity’s love of money—at the same time he also made friends with God.   That friendship proved to be his most reliable and powerful resource.

2.           Jesus had great compassion for people, especially those who were overlooked or ignored by others.  Many years ago when I was in seminary there was a very small, not quite so bright man who really, really wanted to be a pastor.  He could do the work; he simply didn’t “shine.”  His name came up one afternoon in a group discussion, with several of the more outgoing and popular pastors-in-residence voicing their opinion that this man shouldn’t be kept in the seminary pool.  A woman, who was prone to observation, spoke up and asked, “Who are we to judge?  Besides there are many churches with many needs.  There’s a church for everyone.”  I knew at that moment I heard the voice of Jesus in the room and it was something to behold.
3.           Jesus held community in great esteem. When people were not well, Jesus often reasoned that they needed to be returned, reconciled, to community.  There’s something about feeling shame and experiencing shame that disables a person. The opposite is also true.  There’s something about feeling and experiencing honor, or being of value, that enables a person.
Jesus preached the importance of being a neighbor, a neighbor who does something about the needs of others.  It’s simply not “about me.”  I truly believe that most of our current struggles in the world are rooted in humanity’s selfishness and preference for privacy; isolation.  What do you think?

4.           Jesus held communion (prayer) with God in great esteem.  When Jesus ran the moneychangers out of the temple, declaring that “God’s house was a house of prayer,” Jesus reminded the church that our first priority is friendship with God.  That’s what prayer is, friendship with God. When we get that relationship right, everything else falls into place.  We discover great peace within, and among.

5.            Jesus wasn’t afraid of the hard stuff—forgiveness of one’s enemies, service to others, speaking to abusive power, even crucifixion.  I’m currently reading a little book called The Wisdom of Donkeys by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.  The donkeys in today’s story are a metaphor for Jesus.  Thomas reminds us that donkeys are small but hearty; their little legs betray the weight they can carry.  Donkeys are much smaller than a horse but have much more endurance.  No horse could ever pace up a narrow mountain pass carrying a donkey’s load.  Horses are edgier, too, especially in tight situations.  They bolt whereas a donkey freezes.  You can usually cajole an anxious horse to do things against its better interests, frighten them into galloping along unsafe routes.  Not so with donkeys, who have a highly developed sense of self-preservation.  Thus a donkey’s perceived stubbornness.

Jesus came in the name of the LORD—his agenda was God’s agenda.  Palm Sunday asks the church to reflect on the way we are living our lives together—do we come in the name of the LORD—are we bringing about God’s vision, are we speaking up for the forgotten members of society, are we making friendship with God the main thing, are we staying grounded in compassion, are we fostering healthy community among us and around us, are we offering to do the hard work?

In the recent Partnership newsletter, Dr. Ruth Fletcher, our Regional Minister, tells the story of the United Congregational Church of Butte who focused on “how they could share the light of Christ as individuals and a congregation.”  They advocated for the Non-Discrimination Ordinance that provided them with a unique opportunity to “shine.”  On February 19, the Butte Council of Commissioners voted to pass the Anti-Discrimination Ordinance.  According to some people I know, it’s the best Anti-Discrimination Ordinance currently in Montana.

In a recent phone conversation a new church start pastor told me the story of how her small church took on the task of preparing, serving, and cleaning up at a soup kitchen one night a week. The soup kitchen kept telling us that we were too small, that we needed to come back when there were more of us.  We were about 15 disciples strong.  Well, we wouldn’t back down so they let us sign up to cook, serve, and wash the dishes.  We were so excited to be doing something so important.  We didn’t preach though, we had tee-shirts made up to let people know the light of Christ was in the building—we preached without saying a word.
This Thursday I am inviting you to join me in being a neighbor to the people and businesses within a short distance of the church.  I’m asking everyone to show up here at the church at 6pm with a flat of pansies (they’re hearty plants), potting soil, and some pots or mugs.  You’ll also want to bring either a wagon for pulling and walking—or your car—and some boxes to tuck our flower arrangements in.
The Diaconate is going to provide a light supper.  I’m going to provide a little note about the joy of living in community and a plant pick to anchor the note.

Together we’ll move out into our neighborhood.  The goal will be to introduce ourselves and learn names, and learn if our neighborhood is a great place to live—or to work—why or why not?  That’s it.  We’re going to be friendly and interested in the well-being of our neighbors.  Can I see a show of hands as to who’s coming?

This Friday (Good Friday) Jeff Anderson is inviting you to pray—to spend time with God—to strengthen that friendship.  There’s a sign-up chart in the hallway.  The prayer vigil begins at 8:00am and continues through 6:00pm.

Today Jesus gets red-carpet treatment from the many persons who have been inspired by his miracles, his teachings, and his sincere interest in the quality of their life, which will add fuel to the fire that burns in the eyes of the Judean officials and the Roman officials.  Neither of the two are interested in the competition; the hope Jesus is building in the hearts of persons who have been easily beaten into submission.  They detect an uprising—they who have profited from the downcast spirits of the least of these have a lot to lose in God’s re-ordering of the creation.

What will the Judean officials and the Roman officials do?
Will the God Jesus loves so much show up?

The plot thickens….

(This was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church, Billings, MT on Palm Sunday 2014.)

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