Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, Corinne Vonaesch, 2001
Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29; Mark 1: 1-11
******** United Church of Christ
April 5, 2009 (Palm Sunday)
They were there for varied reasons. Some of them were family. Some were traveling alone. Some had business in the city, others were just visiting and many were going home. What they didn’t expect was that their lives were about to change. They didn’t know that they were going down that day; that their journey might lead to death but that they would also live.
Though this might easily sound like a description of the crowd on that first Palm Sunday, it could also pass for US Airways flight 1549 that landed in the Hudson on January 15. I don’t know about you, but for me, this is not old news yet. There have been other crashes, other disasters, even since Flight 1549, but that one was a surprise. When the captain on a commercial jet informs the passengers to brace for impact, one thing that is not expected or assumed is survival. In fact, one prepares for just the opposite.
Though we would want to survive such a disaster as this, we all know the statistics and they’re not encouraging. We would be checking for the nearest exit but we would also be looking at wallet photos, perhaps twisting a wedding band, saying whatever prayers and snippets of scripture we could remember, holding the hand of the person next to us, watching our lives flash before our eyes, so the cliché goes. We might set our faces toward that mysterious door that leads us out of this world and into the next, not entirely sure what will be on the other side. Or we might just close our eyes and brace for impact.
Those who knew Jesus best, and even they didn’t know him that well, knew that Jesus was going down, that he was headed toward death, and that they would have to brace for the impact that his death would have on their lives. Their lives were about to change again, in ways they did not expect. They might have assumed that they too were going to die but in fact they would live and live for the risen Christ.
The account of Palm Sunday in the gospel according to Mark is not terribly high on drama. Mark was the first gospel to be written, so there are times it seems he is simply reporting on what happened and letting the reader put the meaning behind the words. This is also one of those occasions when much of the drama has already happened in the previous chapter. The events before Jesus enters Jerusalem are our ‘flight recorder’, to help us understand the context in which this motley parade takes place.
Things start to get really heated about half way through chapter 10. Jesus has just told a rich man what he must do to inherit eternal life: that he must sell all that he has, give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus. The rich man turns and walks away grieved because his possessions are many and they weigh heavy upon him.
The disciples are astounded that those who are wealthy will have difficulty entering the kingdom of God. In their world, the wealthy do as they please. If they cannot be saved, then who can, they wonder. Jesus tells them that for God all things are possible, that there might be a loophole of grace yet for that rich man.
Peter, formerly a poor fisherman, now an even poorer disciple of Jesus, loses it: “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” We can hear the assumptions, the expectations in his plea. Isn’t there a reward? Don’t we have an advantage over others because we left everything to follow you? Jesus leaves him with his infamous conundrum: Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
And if that wasn’t enough to send his disciples over the edge, Jesus then tells the disciples for the third time exactly what will happen to him when they get to Jerusalem, that he will be handed over to the chief priests; that he will be condemned to death, that he will then be handed over to the Gentiles. He will be mocked and spat upon, flogged, and killed. And after three days he will rise again.
As if they hadn’t heard Jesus, two of the disciples, James and John, then insist that Jesus do for them whatever they ask. They have the audacity to request that they sit at Jesus’ right and left hand when he is in glory. Jesus tries to explain to them that they don’t know what they’re asking for, didn’t’ they just hear how he will come into this glory, and that it is not for him to grant these places of honor but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.
Of course the rest of the disciples are angry with James and John. All this jockeying for position reveals their own assumptions and expectations about Jesus and their relationship with him. Jesus calms their squabbling by reminding them that whoever wishes to become great among them must be their servant and whoever wishes to be first among them must be slave of all. And the one who truly understands all of this is a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, who calls out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” The faith of Bartimaeus makes him well, and he then joins Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.
We have all this backstory, all this drama as Jesus prepares to enter the holy city of Jerusalem, everyone assuming they think they know what is going on, everyone’s expectations being played close to the chest. The anxiety level of the disciples tells us that they are right about one thing: the end of the world as they know it is coming.
Entry into Jerusalem, Danila Vassilieff, 1947
Yet we also have this cheering, exuberant crowd that welcomes Jesus as the Messiah, as the one who will save the people of Israel and free them from the Roman occupation. It is a triumphant day. Jesus comes in peace, entering the city of his death the same way his mother traveled to the city of his birth. Fear, anxiety, excitement, hope, and a great deal of unexpressed assumptions and expectations: does any of this sound familiar?
Most of the time we human beings are more able to convey our emotions than we are able to articulate our assumptions and expectations. And when we keep those assumptions and expectations to ourselves, we create an atmosphere that is ripe for conflict.
At the beginning of an interim period, the congregation and the interim pastor may be walking on eggshells, unsure of where the anxieties lie, what the plans may be, where this all might be headed. How much change can we all handle? When will the changes occur? Are we up to the challenges that face us?
In the coming weeks ahead I would like to schedule some cottage meetings and use the adult forum time on May 17 to ask some questions and to listen to your answers. These meetings would also be a time for you to ask questions of me and of each other. It would be a time for all of us to give voice to our assumptions and expectations that we have about this new phase in the life of this church family. After we have these meetings I will write up a reflection, communicating what you told me, what I think about it, and what our priorities will be.
So here’s a head’s up about the questions I am going to ask in these meetings. I will also post them on my online blog, publish them in the Chapel Bell and send them out in a blanket email to the congregation. I would like you to reflect on them, discuss them with each other, write down your answers if you wish and bring them with you. If you cannot make one of the meetings or the adult forum, I ask that you communicate your concerns and questions directly to me, in a conversation if at all possible. One of the tasks of the interim period is learning how to communicate in a healthy, positive manner.
Which of these five interim tasks is a priority for this church: owning your history, discovering a new identity, leadership changes, renewing ties to the UCC, or commitment to a new future?
What are the strengths of this congregation?What are the challenges of this congregation?
What three things would you like to see changed?
What are three things you would like to keep? What is it that you would like me to do?
What is it you’re afraid I’m going to do?
By what criteria will we evaluate the interim period?
Think on those, mull them over, chew on them, pray on them. And be aware that your answers can also change over time. Be open to that possibility.
In the meantime, let us remember the importance of this week in our faith and in the faith of this church and allow our faith to inform our concerns and questions. The events of this week created witnesses for the risen Christ, changed their lives in ways that they could not have foreseen, and galvanized what would become a worldwide movement of forgiveness, compassion and justice that continues to this day, in this very place, within you.
Like that Palm Sunday crowd of long ago, some of you may feel like you’re going down for the nth time. Others of you are excited about the future. Perhaps you are biding your time, waiting to see how it all falls out. I hope you’re not checking where the exits are. Maybe you feel like you’re with family, maybe you feel like you’re traveling alone.
We're going to make mistakes. We'll be experimenting, finding out what works and what doesn't. We'll have our share of failures but also our share of successes. All of us are headed for the cross. And we all know how that ended. Yet it’s why we’re also looking for Easter and for signs of new life.
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Though we may want to brace for impact when it comes to seemingly life-threatening change, when it comes to Jesus and our life with him, we may just want to brace for a miracle.
(As I was preaching the sermon, when I came to the part about how I would communicate these questions in other ways, I added that failing all else I would also post them on my office door. One of the parishioners responded with the comment, "Cynthia Luther, huh?")