(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
21When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
I find it funny that just as we have arrived at Palm Sunday, the day on which we celebrate Jesus’s royal entry into Jerusalem, many of my friends have caught a new-found case of royal fever. As I have said before, I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, and it turns out that the Times of London is reporting that on May third, 2014 Prince William, Kate Middleton, and little Prince George will be in Memphis next month for the wedding of someone I don’t know very well, but many of my friends do. And so they are all busy freaking out about this wedding, this trip to Memphis which, of course, will involve a trip to Graceland so that the royal couple can pay tribute to The King.
And all of this royal talk has got me thinking about what it must have felt like for the crowds we heard about in the scripture lesson, the ones throwing their cloaks on the ground and waving palm branches and shouting Hosannah, what it must have felt like for them to welcome the savior, this king, this great hope. For as much as my friends are tittering about in advance of the royal visit to Memphis, how much more electric must the air have been as the people welcomed Jesus into town, because while Memphis is not exactly the least corrupt place on earth, at least there is no great subjugation of Memphians. There is no abusive control, no foreign dictator bent on killing those who step out of line, no constant threat of death.
This is what it was like to stand on the sidelines as Jesus rolled into town: an oppressive regime. Rampant, just rampant hunger. Poverty like you would not believe. Foreign control, intimidation, corruption. We clean all that up when we bring the story into the church, wave the palm branches like we’re welcoming any old parade, but the people who lined the streets as Jesus rode into town desperately wanted a messiah, desperately wanted someone to stand up to the oppressive powers that kept them hungry and in fear. We clean it up, but to be there, to watch this, it must have been something.
We miss the fact that what people were so desperate for was a political leader, a king to lead them into battle, into victory over their oppressors, and I mean, you really can’t blame them. In all honesty, that’s kind of what they needed. They needed somebody to pull them from under the thumb of their oppressors. They needed somebody to stop those who would kill just to keep peace.
But that’s not what they got. For as much as this is a story of celebration, it is fundamentally a story of disappointment. Jesus was not the king they were looking for. Some savior: he rides triumphal into town, and ends up being executed, hung on a cross to die so that everybody could see just how powerful he was, so powerful he couldn’t even save himself, let alone anybody else.
You sort of get the sense of what it must have felt like, to be so hopeful, and yet so frustrated. It helps you understand how somebody can parade up the street yelling “Hosanna” one day, and “Crucify Him” the next.
And it is easy to leave it there, I think, to sort of leave this frustrated search for a savior in the past, two thousand years ago and miles away, but we’re not immune from the search. There’s this great line in my favorite movie, O Brother Where Art Thou?, in which the main characters, these three escaped convicts during the Great Depression, are sitting around a campfire eating a gopher they’d just found and roasted, when a huge congregation of people wearing white robes and singing a hymn starts to walk past them, straight into the river to be baptized. And Everett, the main character, sort of smirks as he watches this happen and says, “I guess hard times flush the chumps. Everybody’s looking for answers.”
I don’t know what it is that you come to church, and I hope you understand that I’m including myself in this category, but maybe it really is true that hard times flush the chumps? Maybe it’s true that everybody’s looking for answers. Everybody’s looking for God.
I mean, this is what it means to be the Church: to search together. Religion isn’t about following rules, or about trying to screw up as little as possible so that we can get into Heaven, or even about helping people so that we can feel good about ourselves. Being a Christian, following Jesus is more like what one of my favorite theologians calls a sense and taste for the Infinite. We are journeying together for what which we long for, for that which is beyond the humdrum of our lives, for just a taste of the Infinite, for an experience of the risen God who defeats death and embodies love.
It is no surprise, then, that we are drawn to spectacle, to parade, to big, momentous things, to fireworks, to slick advertising, to huge churches with better looking pastors than the one you’ve got, to money and power and prestige. Here we are just sort of chewing on gopher, just going about the humdrum of our lives, waiting for the next responsibility, the next chore. But we are not robots who thrive on millions of little details, but blessed people made in the image of God, who share a sense and taste for the infinite! It is no surprise that we want something and someone to rescue us from the minutia of being human.
But what if, what if those millions of details and the search for God weren’t really opposites? What if, in the interest of getting beyond the humdrum, mundane aspects of our lives we’re actually standing on the side of the road, waving a branch, waiting for some sort of spectacle, when God has been right under our noses all along—and it turns out that we were just looking for the wrong thing? What if what we thought God was supposed to be was, in fact something else entirely?
I was cooking breakfast the other morning and needed something to distract Emmaline a little bit so that I could get some pancakes made without her, like, drooling in them, so I flipped to the movie, The Sword in the Stone. Do you know that movie? It is a retelling of the story the boyhood of King Arthur, the way in which Arthur came to be king.
And it is a silly movie, with a talking owl named Archimedes and the wizard Merlin and bumbling soldiers and all the rest, but young Arthur is really just a nobody, a kindhearted kid who serves as squire for his older, stronger brother, but who really can’t do anything but get in the way.
And the movie is centered around the death of Uther Pendragon in the sixth Century, and the fact that there was nobody to succeed him as King, so all of England descended into violence. And this monument of a sword stuck in an Anvil appears, with an inscription that says “Who so Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of All England,” and for years people try and try, but nobody can get the sword out of the stone. So it is basically forgotten, just a monument that sits there, sort of taunting England for having no rightful king. And one day, young Arthur comes along, having forgotten the sword he was supposed to have with him, and without even reading the inscription sort of haphazardly pulls the sword from the stone, and everyone around bows at his feet and hails him as the new, rightful king. Here, they’d spent all this time looking for a warrior, but what they got was a King.
I mention this to you, because it is not such a farfetched story. We come to church, come to religion with so many needs, so many desires, so much that we expect from God: please let these be the winning numbers. Please let me get this promotion. Please save me from this God-awful meeting. Please don’t let my partner die.
We come to God looking for something of a genie to grant our wishes, or a King to free us from oppression, or as hired help to keep us from having to wash the dishes and change the diapers and keep the trains running on time. I don’t know what you heard in the scripture lesson this morning, but if that is the God you are looking for, you’re going to be looking for a long time.
We tend to turn God into something God is not, and so it is no wonder we spend so much time looking for God; the God we think we’re looking for doesn’t exist. I think about this a lot when I hear people who have made their mark as public atheists talk about how silly it is to believe in a God who causes car crashes and changes the weather and that sort of thing. When I hear these arguments, I want to say, “The God you say you don’t believe in is also a God I don’t believe in. I believe in a God who rides a donkey rather than a war horse, who became human rather than just come down to earth to wow everybody, who understands when I suffer, because he suffered, too.”
If you’re looking for a political leader, a King, somebody to give you a life of cupcakes and unicorns, you can lay your cloak down in the center aisle and wave the branch all you want, but don’t be surprised if you soon find yourself so frustrated that rather than shouts of hosanna, all you can muster is a whispered “crucify him.”
But if you are looking for God, if you are really looking for the real God, maybe you shouldn’t disregard those humdrum parts of life. Maybe you shouldn’t spend so much time trying to get to the new exciting thing, because if I have learned anything from being married, it’s that love is much less about the wedding reception than it is about the mundane, the everyday moments, the moments of playing with the kids on the dining room floor, the unexpected smile, the gift of the everyday.
Likewise, the message of Palm Sunday is that God’s power isn’t like traditional power. It doesn’t swordfight or rely upon opinion polls. It doesn’t grandstand; it’s not flashy. Rather, it is patient. It is kind. It becomes human, not so that it may impress you, but so that it can understand what it means to be human, so that it may be something you can embody and share with others. It suffers and dies upon a cross, and when it is taunted as too weak to come down from that place of death, it chooses to die as one last witness to the lengths God will go in order to reach God’s people.
It is a power that, in the final analysis, is so strong that it need not ride a horse, or defend itself with violence, or be afraid of death, for it is much stronger than death, and thank God for that. Amen.