Hitting the Road

A version of this sermon was preached on March 20, 2016 (Palm Sunday) at the First Baptist Church of Hyattsville. The Scripture readings were Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29 and Luke 19.28-40.

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Last September, Kristen and I took the girls to Colonial Williamsburg. They were studying the American Revolution in school, and we wanted them to see one of the main stages on which that history unfolded. Plus, there would be horses – so even if Mary and Emma were completely underwhelmed by the history of the place, we couldn’t really go wrong.

We drove down on a Saturday morning to meet friends we hadn’t seen in awhile, and see the sights. The College of William and Mary was playing a home game, so the roads were crowded. Green and gold flags fluttered on passing cars and you could smell the first traces of Fall in the breeze.

Bruce Springsteen wafted through the open window of a pickup truck. I am pretty sure it was “Dancing in the Dark.” I know it was Springsteen, though, because I remember thinking the tune was both apropos and ironic: one American icon being played on the streets of another, both espousing the spirit of our nation – but telling very different stories.

We walked down the Main Street, peaked in the shops, ran on the green; put the girls in the stocks; bought food and souvenirs and pack of AA batteries. We snapped pictures and, yes, petted every horse between the parking deck and the capitol building. And everyone around us was doing pretty much the same – milling about at their own pace, seeing what they wanted to see as it suited their fancy.

Until 1:00 p.m. At one o’clock, the streets cleared, and the sidewalks filled up. Everyone could hear the rumble in the distance and we half walked, half jogged down the sidewalk to find a good spot. The fife band was coming and everyone wanted to see them march.

Their flutes and drums filled the air with 18th century patriotic music. You heard them whether you wanted to or not. Even some of the costumed workers, who must have seen this spectacle dozens if not hundreds of times, stepped out of their shops to catch a glimpse of the parade.

Steadily and in perfect time to the beat, they made their way from the capitol toward the palace green. A few tourists kept pace with them as they went but many, like us, stood still and watched them go, following them with our eyes and our iPhones rather than our feet. Then, as quickly as they had come, they had gone – and we ambled back into the street to resume our strolling and browsing. Like the sea absorbing the wake of a passing ship, there was soon little evidence that they had passed through – other than the distant echo of their drums.

I imagine a similar scene must have unfolded just outside Jerusalem as Jesus made His way into the city – though the home team wasn’t just playing any game that week. Passover was coming, and the streets of Jerusalem would have been teaming with pilgrims from all over Mediterranean and the Near East, along with military reinforcements from Rome sent to keep order in a city swelling both with people and nationalist zeal.

Many travelers would have been welcomed as they entered Jerusalem. According to some rabbinical writings, priests read the words from Psalm 118 as a blessing over the caravans of pilgrims as the passed through the gates of the city in advance of the major festivals of the Jewish calendar.

But then, just prior to this one particular Passover celebration, this one particular pilgrim and His disciples arrive. And their caravan is different.

People have heard of this Jesus: His teachings, His healings, His deeds of power. And they flock to see Him. In Luke’s telling, a crowd of disciples begins shouting – but they aren’t shouting, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” They are proclaiming, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”

As they make their way, people begin  cutting branches from the trees and waving them in celebration. Others spread their cloaks on the ground in front of Him. Yet, this king is riding on the humble colt of a donkey rather than a noble horse.

Something interesting is going on here. And it must have been quite a spectacle indeed.

The religious authorities are quite put out by what they are seeing, and hearing. To the Pharisees’ eyes and ears, the behavior of Jesus’ disciples is blasphemous, not to mention vulgar. We might wonder if the patrolling soldiers heard chants that bordered on the treasonous. And so a group of Pharisees decide to say something. They tell Jesus to tell these people to pipe down, be quiet. Be more respectful of the occasion for which you are making your pilgrimage

But Jesus is having none of it. Not only does He tell them He will say no such thing, He declares it wouldn’t do any good even if He did. “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out” (v. 40). So, as He makes His way into Jerusalem, Jesus and His followers are already turning Passover on its head. And the Pharisees ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

But as we sit here today, and recall this story; as we hear Jesus’ words of reproach to those stuffy, mean ol’ Pharisees we shouldn’t be too quick to wave our palm branches in their face.

Because, just like a Bruce Springsteen song, the upbeat rhythms and melodies of Palm Sunday carry a lament for an uncomfortable reality. If we’re not careful, we can get so caught up in the tune that the beat masks the message.

Christ isn’t coming to Jerusalem just to silence the Pharisees. He isn’t coming as a conqueror already victorious. He’s coming to die: to be crucified on orders of an imperial magistrate, based on the recommendations of a kangaroo court, convened to preserve the status quo under the guise of upholding the law.

And Jesus is coming to die on that cross because Pharisees and Roman magistrates are hardly the only ones who have gone astray, who have missed the mark; who don’t get what’s going on, who don’t understand what all this spectacle is really about. The people chanting psalms and waving palms all around Jesus don’t fully understand, either – and neither do we. Not really. Not if we’re honest. And to a degree, we can’t understand – no matter how hard we try. Because what God is up to defies all earthly understanding and precedent. Luke says as much, albeit subtly.

Embedded within the words the disciples are chanting is an allusion to the song sung by the angel choir over the fields of Bethlehem at Jesus’ birth: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2.14).

Here the chorus is similar – but notice earth no longer figures into the equation. “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19.38)

Christmas is about heaven and earth colliding, as God came to Bethlehem in the person of Jesus Christ. But on Palm Sunday, heading toward Good Friday and onward to Easter, earth is being caught up fully in the arms heaven. There is no earthly reference point for what God in Christ has arrived in Jerusalem to accomplish.

And regrettably, whenever God does something new, God’s people tend to miss it, either because we fail to see or refuse to see. Sometimes  we even actively resist it, along with those whom God sends to speak and act in God’s name.

And so, immediately after Jesus rebuts the Pharisees, He weeps over Jerusalem. He weeps over the entire city, not just the religious establishment or their political overlords.

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes (Luke 19.41).

No doubt He is weeping over us, too, as we sing our Hosannas and wave our palm branches. Because just like the disciples of long ago, who came out to celebrate Jesus when He rode into Jerusalem, too many of us will simply return to our strolling and browsing after He passes through.

But if we are disciples, that’s not why we should come out and the side of the road isn’t where we should stand. Even if we do not and cannot fully understand, just like Peter and Andrew and James and John before us, we can follow.  That’s what Jesus calls us to do: follow Him. And to follow, we have to hit the road with Him, walking where He walks and going where He goes.

And Jesus is going all the way to Golgotha – not just to the Cross, but through it. That’s where we have to go, too, denying ourselves and taking up our own crosses with the willingness to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel (Mark 8.34-35).

That’s why Palm Sunday isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a stand alone observance. It’s only the beginning of something bigger, deeper, and more profound. It’s the beginning of a journey – the journey that will transform us into new creations in Christ. And we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

So, as Jesus passes by in front of us, let’s not stand still, looking on proudly and snapping a picture or two.  Let’s join the parade. Let’s hit the road with Jesus. Let’s follow Him this Holy Week all the way  to the Cross, and even through the Cross. Because that is why Jesus rides into Jerusalem today: that we might share in His death, so that we might share in His divine, abundant, and eternal life.

Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

Amen.

WWJD?

Yesterday, I went in search of this meme that I remembered seeing on Facebook some months ago.

WWJD Temple MemeJohn’s account of Jesus “cleansing” the Temple” is the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday. Not only is this spin on WWJD? hilarious, it prompts us to reconsider the tame, saccharine image of Jesus so often portrayed in popular culture. This Jesus challenges systems in direct, uncomfortable ways.  Funny captions that spark serious questions are how social media memes function at their best.

My Google image search also revealed this meme, which I had never seen before.

no_dinner_for_obama_croppedI clicked on it to make sure I was reading the thumbnail correctly. Sadly, I was.

This meme appears to have circulated on social media in 2012 in an attempt to persuade Cardinal Timothy Nolan to uninvite President Obama from the annual Alfred E. Smith Dinner, where the President and Mitt Romney were scheduled to speak. Presumably, the meme’s creators disagree with various aspects of the President’s politics and felt the Cardinal’s invitation amounted to a blessing of his policies (never mind the dinner’s long-standing tradition as a forum for both Presidential candidates in election years).

Whatever the partisan politics of the moment might have been, this meme is as abhorrent as the WWJD meme is provocative. The idea that faithful Christians don’t eat or otherwise associate with those who aren’t also faithful Christians is about as Christian as Obama is Muslim. (Jesus had a slightly different take on the subject). It flows from a mindset that says: if you believe differently from us (or we think you believe differently from us), then you are the enemy. You must be isolated and ultimately defeated.

Such rationale is nothing new. It is the basic syllogism of fundamentalists in every religious, ideological, and political camp. Southern Baptists succumbed to it in the 1980s and -90s. The poles of both the Republican and Democratic Parties are rife with it today. Theofascist groups such as ISIS and the Taliban embody its most extreme forms.

Tragically, it is also a mindset now infecting elements of the US criminal justice system. The Justice Department’s investigative report on the August shooting death of Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson has confirmed the infection many have long suspected. Like a parasitic worm, a fundamentalist rationale has wrapped itself around the entrails of the Ferguson police department as well as local courts. The report’s findings include:

“Blacks make up 67 percent of the population in Ferguson. But they make up 85 percent of people subject to vehicle stops and 93 percent of those arrested. Blacks are twice as likely to be searched as whites, but less likely to have drugs or weapons. 88 percent of times in which Ferguson police used force it was against blacks and all 14 cases of police dog bites involved blacks.”

“Blacks were 68 percent less likely to have cases dismissed by Ferguson municipal judges and disproportionately likely to be subject to arrest warrants. From October 2012 to October 2014, 96 percent of people arrested in traffic stops solely for an outstanding warrant were black.

“Blacks accounted for 95 percent of jaywalking charges, 94 percent of failure-to-comply charges and 92 percent of all disturbing-the-peace charges.”

The Justice Department also uncovered damning emails from within the Ferguson police department. Again, the mindset is the same as the Alfred Smith Dinner protest meme, but the content too extreme to be circulated in the media.

One [email] says Obama will not be president for long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.” Another says a black woman in New Orleans was admitted to a hospital to end her pregnancy and then got a check two weeks later from ‘Crime Stoppers.’ “

These are the patterns and communications of a system that believes African-Americans are the enemy, and they must be isolated and defeated.

Reading the Ferguson report is nauseating, but we need to recognize the infection for what it is and take this twisted system on – head on.  Awareness of such a fundamentalist mindset is the first step in treating the parasite and reversing its effects. Healing will take time, and require a medicinal cocktail of procedural overhauls, training improvements, and changes of heart. This last piece of the prescription will be the most difficult. Ironically, the Alfred E. Smith protest meme provides a path for affecting such changes of heart – not unlike a spiritual form of penicillin.

We need to break bread with those who are different from us.

To break bread with someone is to invite them into relationship with you. When we eat together, we talk. When we talk, we get to know one another. The space around a table is intimate space, and sharing food is an essential component of hospitality.

Jesus understood that, which is why it’s really not the least bit surprising to find a Table at the center of the Christian faith narrative. He may have overturned some tables in the Temple, but Jesus gathered His disciples around a Table on the night He was betrayed. He offered them bread and wine. In so doing, He offered His very Self. That simple meal constituted a new covenant with each of them – different though they were. Even His betrayer was included. Re-enacting this meal, sharing in the bread and the cup together, is still how Christians of different races, ages, sexes, economic backgrounds, education levels, and theological persuasions find (and demonstrate) unity with each other in Christ.

In Bishopville, SC, another kind of meal is specifically bringing black and white football players together across a deep gulf of historic racial division. Click here to read the article from the Washington Post.

Southern Football and Race Relations in the SouthBishopville is no racial utopia; many of its problems and issues are identical with those in Ferguson and elsewhere.  But Bishopville’s mindset is the antithesis of Ferguson. This small southern town is making strides through consistent effort and intentional practice that is as simple as having boys from different backgrounds who share a common interest in football sit down and share a common table as well.

As we continue to digest the Ferguson report and grapple with its findings and implications, may Bishopville serve as an example – not only that things can be different, but how.

WWJD?

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