Monday, March 30, 2015

Palm Sunday Sermon, March 29: The Unexpected God

Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
You’d think that the longer I’m a Christian, the less surprised I would be by Jesus, but it just keeps happening. You know, you come to faith and you start reading the Bible and you expect a clear picture of who Jesus is, all majestic, riding a stunning white horse with hair flowing behind him or whatever, but that’s not what you get. What you get is Jesus on a donkey. What you get is a Jesus who runs away from home, who gets angry, who says things that don’t match our preconceived notions of who he is. What we get is a God who shows up in the most unexpected places.
And so I got to thinking this week about the unexpected ways I’ve seen God at work, the unexpected people God uses to accomplish God’s purposes. I was just reading an article about the young actor who plays Brick Heck on the show, “The Middle.” Have you seen this show? Brick is a weird character—he reads incessantly, is scared of bridges, and generally just incredibly awkward. And the interview with the actor was about his faith, about how he is a churchgoing Christian in Hollywood, and I have to tell you, with apologies to the youth among us, I didn’t expect to find myself moved by an interview with a kid who has made a name playing a quirky character, but here he is, witnessing to his faith, an unexpected blessing from an unexpected person.
Or I think about someone like Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador, the champion of the poor, who was assassinated 35 years ago this week. You might expect an archbishop to be used by God, but Romero started his career standing against those in the church who said that Christians ought to work for the well-being of the poor, saying there were other more important issues for the faithful to deal with. It wasn’t until a friend who had worked with the poor was, himself, assassinated that Romero said, “If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I, too, must walk the same path.” And he did, spending his final years advocating for those closest to God’s heart, in the face of intimidation from the ruling junta. And it wasn’t twenty-four hours after he preached a sermon encouraging soldiers to stop violating the basic human rights of El Salvador’s poor that he was murdered, right in the middle of church, as he stood behind the altar. And his death galvanized the whole country. Oscar Romero started his career opposing reforms that would help El Salvador’s poor, and yet God used him anyway.
Of course, these might be unexpected people in some ways, unexpected vessels for the work of God, but even then, I’m not a celebrity. I’m not even an Archbishop. I’m just a guy with a car note and a job and a family to support. I hear these stories, see these great things people do, and I’m liable to just sort of crumple, to say, why bother. What could God possibly do with me?
Have you wondered that? Have you wondered what God could possibly do with you, with your limitations, with your baggage, with your pain? I think it is a pretty common question for those of us who live in the real world, who come up against real problems that make us feel real small.
And it’s why I love the story that Hannah read this morning. Yes, the triumphal entry is nice, yes, the parade is nice, and the laying of cloaks and all the rest. But you know what has my attention? The donkey. The donkey! It’s what Jesus rides when he is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s on his way there with his disciples and he tells two of them to go to the village ahead of them where they will find a donkey who has never been ridden, tied up just inside the city. And this is what they do.
Now, what really kills me about this story is that Jesus tells them that if anyone asks why they are stealing a donkey that doesn’t belong to them, they are to say, “the Lord needs it,” as if the excuse of “God told me to do it” has ever worked in the history of the world.
Yet, this time, it works. They go to this unlikely city and find this unlikely donkey and offer this unlikely excuse, and it works. The bystanders allow them to take the donkey.
They bring it to Jesus, and they throw their cloaks on it to make it at least a little more comfortable, and so it was that the savior of the world climbed on a donkey and rode it into Jerusalem as throng of people threw their coats on the ground and waved branches and shouted ““Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Now, it wasn’t totally out of the ordinary for somebody to ride a donkey in a parade. It wasn’t common, but it was a symbol. When a king wanted to enter a new place in the name of war, he’d ride a horse. But if he wanted to send the signal that he came in the name of peace, he’d ride a donkey. The symbol in and of itself wasn’t too strange. But what was strange was that by every discernable measure, what the people needed wasn’t peace, but war. We read the Bible in the context of our contemporary democracy, but that wasn’t what Jesus and his contemporaries experienced, of course. We forget that the story of Jesus takes place in occupied territory, with oppressed people in horrible conditions. The Romans were dominating the local Jewish people, and so what makes the donkey thing so weird is the idea that peace could solve the problem, as if one guy on a donkey could save the world.
Why, it’s so crazy that it just might work.
That’s not to say that the business of saving the world is all peaches and cream. This was not a parade that would end in triumph. The people were fickle. They may have shouted Hosanna on Sunday, but by Friday, they were shouting “Crucify him. Crucify him.”
Perhaps it is the most unexpected part of this whole story that what we are dealing with is a parade leading to a crucifixion. Sunday’s palms lead to Friday’s thorns.
It’s like Romeo and Juliet in a way. You know, the whole story points to a happy ending, not that it’s easy, but it points in the direction that everything’s going to work out, and Juliet drinks a potion to fake her own death so that they can be together, but Romeo thinks she’s died and so he drinks poison, and when she wakes up from her slumber to see that he has died, she stabs herself with a dagger. Here you think, oh, a love story, how wonderful, and this is what you get.
Or you may remember the news story a few months back of a family who were on their way to Disney World, driving all the way from Texas, when the teenage son fell asleep at the wheel and, all of a sudden, a celebration turns into tragedy. It’s the last thing you expect, and yet there it is.
I don’t mean to suggest that the story of Jesus is all tragedy. We know how it ends, and it has a happy ending, a powerful ending, but I just can’t get past the fact that an integral part of the story of God is that he dies, that he is executed like a common criminal. It seems so normal to those of us for whom this is not our first Palm Sunday, who have heard this story again and again. But in our familiarity with this story, we have to remember, there is perhaps no twist ending, no surprise in all of literature as profound as this one, that as Jesus was waved into the city as a hero, as a king, he was really on the road to his death. Here we have the son of Man, the one we hope to be the savior of the world, and he doesn’t even save himself.
It is the last thing you would expect, that the almighty God would know what it is like to walk towards his own execution, to suffer, to die, but then, this is the kind of thing God does. God suffers and dies so that we might know that when we suffer, even when we die, God is with us. It shows us the depths of God’s love. It is unexpected, but it is so needed.
This is how God works. Not just the crucifixion, not just on Good Friday and Easter, but all the time. God shows up in the most unexpected places and in the most unexpected people: the kind of people we might write off as obnoxious, or strange, or not worth our time. I remember about a year ago we had a guy come in off the street clearly dealing with some sort of psychosis, and in those situations you don’t really know what you’re dealing with so you want to be careful, so I shut the door to the church office and sat with him in the welcome center, and he didn’t need food, he didn’t want financial assistance, he just wanted to play the piano for a little while. I was busy so I felt completely inconvenienced by this, but I figured it couldn’t hurt much, so I went and got my computer out of my office and sat down within earshot so that I could try and get some work done while he sat in the fellowship hall and played the piano.
And it’s not like he was Mozart or anything. Clearly, if he’d had lessons, they’d been twenty years prior. Some of what he played didn’t make any sense. But I want you to know that I sat out there for a full hour listening to him, and it was strangely beautiful. It fed me on a day I didn’t even realize I was hungry. This is how God works. Not just the crucifixion, not just on Good Friday and Easter, but all the time.
I’ll tell you one of the most profound examples I’ve seen of this kind of recently. I’ve been following the Kelly Gissendaner case pretty closely. She’s the woman who was scheduled to be executed late last month down in Jackson, Georgia for encouraging her boyfriend to kill her husband, nearly twenty years ago. Never mind that the guy she paid, who actually committed the murder, was given life in prison instead of being put on death row. You should know that while I know we don’t all agree about this, I feel very strongly, and this is a position rooted deeply in my faith, that the death penalty ought to be abolished in all instances, but even then, this case is different. Kelly Gissendaner had been through a program through my alma mater, the Candler School of Theology, that offered certificates in advanced theological studies to inmates. It’s pretty much a seminary-level deal, and through those studies, Kelly Gissendaner got to a place where she decided to reorient her life around the teachings of Jesus, she asked for forgiveness, and she became a source of strength for other inmates, who started calling her Mama Kelly because of the way she cared for them. None of this undoes the evil act of conspiring in her husband’s murder, but it does, in my mind, matter. If we are talking about the God who shows up in unexpected places and unexpected people, I don’t know of many more unexpected people than inmates on death row waiting to die.
Now, you may remember that there was a lot of activity around this case. I know a lot of people who knew her personally, so I heard a lot about it, and, in fact, our pastoral residents here at the church were involved in some of the demonstrations and vigils that took place in those days. We prayed that the payroll board would grant her clemency, which they did not. We prayed that the Governor would ask the board to reconsider, which he did not. I don’t usually find myself wrapped up in these kinds of cases, but I couldn’t get her out of my mind, this unexpected vessel of God in the most unexpected of places. I joined many others in praying for a miracle, for any miracle, and as the hour of her scheduled execution passed, as I was ready to give up praying, the strangest thing happened. Word started to trickle out that she was still alive, that she hadn’t yet been executed. Come to find out that as she and her legal team waited to hear if the Supreme Court would step in, the pharmacist had discovered a problem with the pentobarbital solution they were going to inject her with.
You can’t buy this stuff off the shelf, as all the drug companies in the United States have stopped making it, because they have no interest in being involved in killing people. So states have to hire specialty pharmacies to mix it up, and on this day, in this case, the pentobarbital appeared cloudy. They couldn’t use it. They’d have to postpone the execution, indefinitely.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened that night, the cloudy lethal injection, as we celebrate Palm Sunday, as we wave palm branches at what is functionally a parade that will lead to an execution. It doesn’t always happen like this, so when it does, you sit up and take notice. One of my seminary classmates who was at the vigil outside of the prison that night said, I think pretty profoundly, “We know that one of the images in the Bible for the Holy Spirit is a cloud. It was as though the Holy Spirit showed up as a cloud in that drug.”

Talk about God showing up in unexpected places! In this season that moves so quickly from celebration to execution that it can make your head spin, this is important to remember. God can show up in what seems like the most unexpected, the most hopeless of circumstances. In fact, as we prepare for Easter, I can’t think of a more important message than that, because while it is true that we are marching towards the horrible events of Good Friday, it is likewise true that the journey does not end there, for in the kingdom of God, we find majesty in a donkey, salvation in an execution, life in a tomb. Perhaps this is cause for celebration, after all. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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