Monday, April 10, 2006

A Different Kind of Parade

Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29; Mark 11: 1-11
******** United Church of Christ
April 9, 2006 (Palm Sunday)

We aren’t given many opportunities to make procession in today’s world nor do we create many opportunities for them, either. The closest thing would be a parade and even then we save those for holidays and special occasions. One way that our nation still uses to honor someone is to give them a ticker tape parade in New York City. Astronauts, presidents, and other public figures have ridden in a shower of shredded paper through the financial district. And when someone dies they are honored with a procession to the grave. Listen to this account of a funeral procession.

For more than six hundred years the Hapsburgs of Austria exercised political power in Europe. When Emperor Franz-Josef I of Austria died in 1916, his was the last of the extravagant imperial funerals.

A processional of dignitaries and elegantly dressed royalty escorted the coffin, draped in the black and gold imperial colors. To the accompaniment of a military band’s somber dirges and by the light of torches, the funeral procession descended the stairs of the monastery. At the bottom of the stairs was a great iron door leading to the Hapsburg family crypt. Behind the door was the Cardinal-Archbishop of Vienna.

The officer in charge followed the prescribed ceremony, established centuries before. “Open!” he cried.

“Who goes there?” responded the Cardinal.

“We bear the remains of his Imperial and Apostolic Majesty, Franz-Josef I, by the grace of God, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, Defender of the Faith, Prince of Bohemia-Moravia, Grand Duke of Lombardy, Venezia, Styrgia…” The officer continued to list the Emperor’s thirty-seven titles.

“We know him not,” replied the Cardinal. “Who goes there?”

The officer spoke again, this time using a much shorter and less ostentatious title reserved for times of expediency.

“We know him not,” the Cardinal said again. “Who goes there?”

The officer tried a third time, stripping the emperor of all but the humblest of titles: “We bear the body of Franz-Josef, our brother, a sinner like us all.”

And with those words, the door swung open, and the body of Franz-Josef was admitted to eternal rest.

Today we remember a procession not for an emperor but a peasant king, riding not on a horse, a symbol of power and might, but on a colt that had never been ridden before. And it is the task of two of the disciples to acquire this colt for Jesus. It is such a mundane and humbling thing to do, like the person whose job it is to follow the elephants in a circus parade. But the disciples should be used to these prosaic requests of Jesus by now: distributing food to the multitudes, collecting the leftovers; being sent out two by two, taking nothing with them except a staff; finding food and lodging and securing a room for the Passover feast. Perhaps Jesus even sent James and John to fetch the colt, those two who were quibbling just one chapter ago over who was going to sit at the right and the left of Jesus when he came into his glory.

When I was ordained into the Christian ministry, I heard the words that Jesus spoke to the disciples when they heard about what James and John had asked of him: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles dominate them, and their great leaders exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must first be your slave.” And with those words I was invited to come forward and make my promises as a servant of the Church.

I had no idea that being a minister meant finding child care for a meeting, setting up chairs and tables then taking them down, driving to St. Louis in a van full of young teens listening to “Smashing Pumpkins”, knowing where the unity candle holder was kept, buying ashes for Ash Wednesday, washing dishes and the stinky feet of junior high kids at a moving ceremony at the end of a week of camp. Being a part of church life sometimes means doing the stuff no one else wants to do but without it, it wouldn’t be the church.

NPR commentator Richard Rodriguez, an editor for New California Media, points out that in our nation’s debate over illegal immigrants, those who do the stuff no one else wants to do, the talk has been all about what more do these people want from us. Haven’t we given them enough already? Should we give them a green card? Grant them amnesty? Forget all this generosity and send them packing? But, he says, not two relevant words have been said about what they do for us, so he says them: thank you. He then goes through a litany of “thank-you’s” for all the mundane, ordinary, thankless, boring, tiring, demoralizing, even dangerous jobs that illegal immigrants do in this country:

“Thank you for turning on the sprinklers,

thank you for cleaning the pool and scrambling the eggs and doing the dishes;
thank you for making the bed,
thank you for getting the children up and ready for school;
thank you for picking them up after school;
thank you for caring for our dying parents;
thank you for plucking dead chickens;
thank you for bending your bodies over our fields;
thank you for breathing chemicals and absorbing chemicals into your bodies;
thank you for the lettuce and the spinach and the artichokes, the asparagus and the cauliflower, the broccoli, beans and tomatoes and garlic;
thank you for the apricots and the peaches and the apples and the melons and the plums and the almonds and the grapes;
thank you for the willow trees and the roses and the winter lawn;
thank you for scraping and painting and roofing and cleaning out the asbestos and the mold; thank you for your stoicism and your eager hands;
thank you for all the young men on rooftops in the sun;
thank you for cleaning the toilets and the showers and the restaurant kitchens and the schools and the office buildings and the airports and the malls;
thank you for washing the car, thank you for washing all the cars;
thank you for your parents who died young and had nothing to bequeath their children but the memory of work; thank you for giving us your youth;
thank you for the commemorative altars; thank you for the food, the beer, the tragic polka. Gracias.”

Two weeks ago over 500,000 people in Los Angeles protested the latest proposed immigration reforms that would criminalize illegal workers. President Bush’s policy is that of a guest worker program. Germany tried that with India, wanting their technological brains at work in their country but would not give them anything that might lead to citizenship. The plan failed miserably. Indian citizens saw right through it: you’re good enough to work here but not enough to become a citizen of Germany and of the European Union.

On that Palm Sunday long ago the Hebrew people were also demonstrating against the powers that be. It was not just a procession to welcome Jesus. The people were shouting “Hosanna”, which means “Save us”, and they were shouting it to a poor rabbi on a colt, with cries that hailed the coming kingdom of their ancestor David, a kingdom diametrically opposed to that of empire and all that it entails.

The Romans barely tolerated the Hebrew people as residents of their own country and as second-class citizens of the Empire. They were a bug to be squashed should they become an irritant. They were the slaves and the servants, the little people in their own country. The procession that we celebrate today, as evidenced by what the crowd proclaimed, was a small but noticeable protest march against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire and a celebration of the Hebrew people’s hope and trust that God would one day redeem their demoralization and their slavery.

The beginning of the gospel of Mark starts with the preparing of the way of the Lord. Reading Mark’s account of Palm Sunday through this lens gives us insight. Preparing the way of the Lord means we who follow Jesus do so in the role of a servant and a slave and joining with those who are treated like servants and slaves and second-class citizens and non-citizens. Preparing the way of the Lord means us as individuals, as citizens, and as a nation recognizing our role in the continuation of our American empire. Preparing the way of the Lord means that all our mundane tasks and those of illegal workers are ultimately about the ministry and work of Jesus.

When someone washes your car, they are doing the work of Jesus. When someone roofs your house, they are doing the work of Jesus. When they fill your glass, they are doing the work of Jesus. When someone keeps a public bathroom clean for you to use, they are doing the work of Jesus. When you make the coffee, you are doing the work of Jesus. When you lick stamps, write your check for your pledge, put a few dollars in the plate, count the money, pay the bills, set up tables and chairs, clean the kitchen, take out the trash, turn off the heat and the lights and lock up, when you visit someone who is not able to come to church, drive someone to church, listen to a complaint, a sad story, or a request for prayer, when you serve on a committee, you are doing the work of Jesus. You are preparing the way for him, as though you were laying down palm branches and the shirt off your back for him.

And probably no one will ever throw a parade in our honor because of doing the work of Jesus. We may do more than we think is our fair share. Many a time we may not even hear a “thank you”. But without doing this mundane work that is the work of Jesus, the church would not be the Church. And the way of the Lord would not be as prepared; we would not be prepared for the Lord’s way, which is love, which is the cross, which is resurrection.

So in this coming Holy Week, go the extra mile. Do something that no one else may feel like doing; you might not feel like doing it either but without it, the church would not be the Church. And when we’re all serving and doing and being the Church for each other, we make a procession of witnesses preparing ourselves to follow Christ, even unto the cross. And remember, whatever you do in the Church, at least you’re not following the elephants. Thanks be to God.

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