Saturday, April 18, 2020

“Improvising the Kingdom” - April 5, 2020, Palm Sunday

Text: Mark 11:1-10

This is week three of our live streaming worship experiment, and it really is an experiment.  It reminds me of what we always said back in the chemistry lab: “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be research.”  We have had a somewhat different setup each week and we are learning a little each time. 

But we have given up any illusions of trying to recreate a “normal” worship experience.  But this unsettling season has provided some wonderful opportunities.  It is good to have people join us who may live far from Ames and could not be with us on a “normal” Sunday. 

And so we have joined together again this morning on one of the great days of the church year.  Many churches have a palm parade for children on Palm Sunday, but I love it that we have folks of all ages participating and waving palms as we process to a great hymn.  When it is nice outside we have assembled outside for this.  When it is cold and rainy or possibly snowing – which is most years – we have all started in the narthex, which is not exactly social distancing, but it works.  And then this year we had our first virtual palm procession. 

Along with the joy and excitement and just plain fun of Palm Sunday, we usually read a portion of the passion narrative, which tells of the arrest and trial and crucifixion of Jesus.  It can be a jarring experience to go from the joy of the triumphal entry to facing the reality of the cross, all in one service.  We are reminded that crowds that welcomed Jesus with “Hosanna” wound up shouting “Crucify” later that same week.

This year I decided not to read from the passion narrative this morning.  For one, it feels like we have been living in a Good Friday world these past few weeks.  The world feels heavy with loss and pain, and we are experiencing it in real time.  But maybe more than that, I expect that a good number of folks will want to join in our Maundy Thursday service, where we will be reading some of these passages.

And so this morning we will look at the Triumphal Entry itself.  As I read this familiar story, something stood out this time.  A small thing, a small detail maybe, but it stuck in my mind.  Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed colt. 

He sent two of his disciples to get it; we’re not told who exactly.  But they would find this colt as soon as they entered the village ahead, and if anybody asked about it, they were to say, “The Lord needs it and will bring it right back.”  We will come back to this in a minute.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was filled with meaning.  Pilate, the Roman governor, came to Jerusalem during Passover week to personally make sure that order was kept.  Passover, of course, was a celebration of the Israelites’ escape from bondage in Egypt.  It was a perfect time for revolutionaries to talk about overthrowing the Romans.  So there was Pilate with his entourage, along with large numbers of Roman soldiers there to keep the peace and enforce Roman law.

Someone like Pilate would have likely entered Jerusalem in a chariot pulled by impressive stallions.  A king would have rode in on a powerful horse draped in finery.  Roman soldiers entered Jerusalem on horses armed with displays of power.  And then there is Jesus – riding on a colt, or a donkey as reported in other gospels.  Jesus is on a young donkey – what do you call that, a donkling? – a donkling outfitted not with finery but with the coats of people who stood along the road.

What this was, was prophetic and political speech.  Jesus as well as many in the crowd would have been familiar with the prophecy of Zechariah chapter 9:  “Behold, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 

Jesus is offering a clear alternative to the power of Rome.  The crowds did not necessarily understand the kind of kingdom Jesus was bringing into being, but they were filled with hope and excitement.  They respond by shouting “Hosanna,” which literally means “Save us now.”  

But for Jesus to make this dramatic statement - for the triumphal entry to work - he needed a young donkey.  And you know what?  He did not own a donkey, or a horse, or any other form of conveyance – not even a scooter.  Apparently, neither did his immediate circle of followers.  If Jesus was going to enter Jerusalem on a donkey, he would have to borrow one.

So what we have here is Jesus challenging the religious and political powers that be, announcing that a new kingdom was coming.  And he challenged the powers of this world by means of a borrowed donkey.

We shouldn’t be surprised.  This would not be the first or the last time Jesus depended on something borrowed.  It has been noted that Jesus was born in a borrowed place and laid in a borrowed manger.  As he traveled, he had no place of his own to spend the night.  He rode into the city on a borrowed donkey.  He ate his final meal in a borrowed room. He was crucified on a borrowed cross and when he died, his body was placed in a borrowed tomb.

Jesus didn’t own a lot.  He traveled lightly and lived simply.  After he was arrested and condemned, the soldiers threw dice to see who would take his clothing.  That seemed to be all that he had worth taking.

He asked the same of those who followed him.  You may remember that we read the passage from Mark chapter 6 several weeks ago.  Jesus sent out his followers and ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money, just the clothes they were wearing.  

Jesus knew that what he needed most, and what we need most, are not things that can be purchased.  What we need most are gifts of God: love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, joy, patience, power, grace.  God would provide what he needed and God will provide what we need.  The rest of it, we can more or less improvise.  We can borrow a colt, or we can figure it out with what we have.

If you are like me, there has been a whole lot of improvising going on lately.  Figuring out how school is going to work.  Figuring out how working from home is going to work.  Facing the reality that we are pretty much stuck at home for now.  Figuring out how the family budget is going to work, given new realities.  We have been kind of improvising church every week.

Faith, I think, so often has to do with improvising in the moment.  And in some ways, we have been improvising, figuring it out along the way, all along.  We have to improvise because the world around us is always changing.  The phrase “What would Jesus do?” is basically a guideline for improvising in the moment. 

Do you remember Chesley Sullenberger?  He was the pilot who landed his plane in the Hudson River after it was hit by a flock of geese.   He has just taken off from New York with 150 people on board, and his engines go out.

What does he do?  Well, this is not the moment to get cute or try to be clever.  And it is not the time to panic.  It is the time to fall back on your training and what you know, what you have practiced hundreds of times.  So he improvises.  He looks around, sees the Hudson River, and he thinks, “I can put it down there.  I might hit something, but it’s a lot better than landing in the middle of Manhattan. I’m going to give it a try.”

Faith is like that.  We don’t know what each day might bring.  There are moments we could not possibly prepare for.  All we can do is fall back on what we know to be true: God is with us and God loves us and God will sustain us. 

Jesus traveled light and he urges us to travel light, so that we may be reminded of our dependence on God.  Jesus says that the people who are truly blessed are those who don’t have much: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who are hungry for food and thirsty for righteousness.

The blessed ones, says Jesus, are those who hold on lightly to all that they have, for they know that everything in life depends on the generosity of God.  Those are the people who have everything they need.

Again and again, Jesus was faced with challenges, questions, problems, massive need, and he had to figure out what to do and how to respond in that moment.  The way that works is that you focus on what you know.  And what Jesus knew better than anything else was the deep, deep love of God.

Filled with that love, Jesus gave himself for this world.  On this festive day, he rides a borrowed donkey into the city that will ultimately reject him.  A person with few possessions, he empties himself of all that he has.  And it is all for us.  Amen.

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