Palm Sunday – The One

Matthew 21:1-11 (NRSV)

21 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying 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. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“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.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd[b] spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The 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!”

10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

My mom gives Enoch and Evy all kinds of Christian books.  They have many “my first Bibles,” pre-school Bibles, and “big kids” Bibles.  We actually have two copies of My Very First Easter Story. 

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Oh, though it’s only 2 pages, Enoch and Evy filled in the details.  Evy said it was all about friendship.  Enoch said that it was a horse (some versions say this).  Evy said they had laid the palm branches and cloaks down because they didn’t want Jesus to walk in the mud.

You see, all of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) have this story.  They included different details but the same overarching story.

I have chosen to stick with the Palm Sunday text.  You see the lectionary texts for today give us the options of choosing the Palm text and the Passion text.  I normally do some mixture of the two, however, I wanted to be intentional about sticking to the text and journeying through this week with Jesus.

The hesitancy of pastors is that if people only attend on Sundays, you get the celebration of Palm Sunday back to back with the Alleluias of Easter.  High point.  Even higher point.

You miss why in just 5 days the same people that shouted “Hosanna” and waved palm branches, shouted “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  You miss Jesus ticking off the Pharisees in the temple when he turned over the tables and called them a brood of vipers.  You miss them plotting to kill him.  You miss Jesus’ teaching the disciples you have to be last to be first as they witnessed him washing their and their friends’ feet.  Their Rabbi that they had followed for three years, getting all of his radical dust on them, as he continually flipped the script.  Doing what is always least expected.  Who else would have people waving palm branches praising him and wanting to kill him less than a week later?

He was the One they had waited for.  He was the One whom the prophets foretold.  He is the One Herod was so afraid of that he slaughtered all of those innocent children.  He was the One who preached in his hometown and they said, “Who is this kid?  Is he Joseph’s boy?”  He was the One who called Peter, James and John just a bunch of fishermen and said they were the best of the best of the best as he asked them to be his disciples.  He was the One who cast out demons, healed the paralytic and the hemorrhaging woman, called Lazarus forth FROM THE GRAVE.  He was the One even the wind and the waves obeyed.  He was the One.  Not just Neo from the Matrix or Frodo from the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, but THE ONE.  And the people were PUMPED until … they realized he wasn’t a political or military conqueror.  He was not going to ride in on a float and wave and provide good sound bites.  He was not going to incite a revolt among people groups.  He was not going to be boxed in to a certain tradition.  He was not going to maintain the status quo or social norms.  He came to flip the script.  He came to set ALL people free.  He came to set us free from BOTH sin and death.  He came to set us free from all of the burdens and shackles of this world.

I spent the week talking to Donal Hook about salvation.  He was recounting what Harry said two weeks ago about Jesus wiping the slate clean and I said that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love and we’re all worthy, enough, and chosen.  He said he was like the man saying, “Help my unbelief!” I appreciated his honesty as I relate to the man and the words as well! Remember the story.  It’s immediately after the transfiguration and the disciples are in a tizzy.  In Mark 9:19-24 he says to the disciples, “19 “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.”  24 Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” I believe; help my unbelief.  We had many discussions over the past week and a half.  Most of the time it boiled down to me saying, that’s what’s so amazing about grace!  We have faith that God’s grace is real and ever abundant to cover anything we throw at God. I brought up singing “Amazing Grace” on Sunday night when I visited him, but I was too embarrassed to sing in front of his family, some of whom I had just met, with my off-key voice, but  I ended up singing it on Tuesday with his son Michael and Michael’s wife Marlene and that became our theme song over the last couple of days.  That and Psalm 23.  I frequently have Psalm 23 rolling around in my head as I pray.  It epitomizes to me the fullness of life.  God making us lie down in green pastures, anointing our heads with oil, and as I said to Donal and praying with he and his family, Jesus is the One who walks with us even through the darkest valley of the shadow of death.  Don joined the great cloud of witnesses yesterday and he is at peace and at rest.

You skip right over that lonesome and dark valley when you go from the triumphant entry of Palm Sunday to the glory of Easter and Resurrection.  You don’t get the dark days in between of doubt, fear, frustration, anger.  You don’t get the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus asking God to take this cup from him.  You don’t see, hear, or feel his pain as he’s betrayed, denied, beaten, stripped, crucified.  You don’t get the agony and anguish or the simple humanity of it all, the muck and mire.  He was the Human One.  Not a super hero that could leap over buildings.  He took on the form of a baby, both fully divine and fully human.  He felt everything we feel and even when he was on that cross he was thinking of us as he says, “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.

If you don’t journey towards the cross, you miss out on the struggle and the deep pain of what it means to have an Emmanuel – God with us – even on the darkest night of our souls.  To have a savior who suffers right along with us.  Who knows the full extent of our pain and then some…

I encourage you to read the stories this week and meditate on them.  I encourage you to walk this journey towards the cross.  On Thursday we’ll gather here with Isle of Palms UMC for a joint Maundy Thursday service where we’ll celebrate Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.  On Friday we’ll have our Good Friday Tenebrae service.  If you’ve never been to a Tenebrae service, I encourage you to do so.  The word “tenebrae” comes from the Latin meaning “darkness.” The Tenebrae is an ancient Christian Good Friday service that makes use of gradually diminishing light through the extinguishing of candles as scriptures are read of that encompass the entire fullness of Holy Week.  This increasing darkness symbolizes the approaching darkness of Jesus’ death and of the hopelessness in the world without God. The service concludes in darkness and worshipers then leave in silence to ponder the impact of Christ’s death and await the coming Resurrection.  As Bob Goff, author of Love Does says, “Darkness fell.   His friends scattered.  All hope seemed lost.  But heaven just started counting to three.”

I invite us to count to three together as a faith community as One body.  We rejoice with one another.  We weep with one another.  We share in the mountaintops and the darkest of the darkest valleys and that is why it’s so special to have shared in this Holy meal together these past Sundays of Lent.  We have gathered bread, sustenance, strength to face together whatever life throws at us.   When we feel like giving up, when we need a helping hand or an encouraging word, we are there for one another with Jesus ever in our midst.  We live, move and breathe in Christ, our Rabbi, our One with us.  The One who calls each of us worthy, enough, beloved by God.  The One we celebrate when we celebrate this Holy Sacrament of Communion….

Zacchaeus – You Need a Reject but we’re ALL Rejects

Today, we’re talking about Zacchaeus and this particular chapter of Len Sweet’s 11 indispensable relationships you can’t be without, our sermon series this Fall, asks the question – “Who’s Your Zacchaeus?  You Need a Reject.”

Did you ever climb trees as a kid?  We had a magnolia tree in a neighbor’s backyard that was perfect for climbing.  If you know anything about magnolia trees, their branches are close together, which makes it an easy tree to climb. We spent many afternoon of my childhood climbing trees.  That’s why the story of Zacchaeus has always fascinated me.

Not to mention the song we learned in Sunday school, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.  He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.   Jesus said, “You come down for I’m coming to your house today, for I’m going to your house today.”    I can’t believe after all these years I still remember that.  Which leads us to our scripture reading for today…

Luke 19:1-10

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Jesus and Zacchaeus

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Sweet says, “One of the oddest people Jesus ever befriended was a short, wealthy, self-made entrepreneur named Zacchaeus.  He was the chief tax collector which made him one of the most hated people.  Have you ever heard people say nice things about the IRS?  And Biblical tax collectors were even worse.  If there were pictures with definitions of words, he would be the one with the caption “ostracized.”    Are you surprised that Jesus decided to go over to his place for lunch?  Not at all.  Jesus was at home with social outcasts, lepers, women of ill repute, AND the chief tax collector.  Jesus didn’t care much for the hyper religious or the wealthy.  So this was not out of the norm for Jesus.  But have you noticed that it always disturbs/upsets the crowd.  They are surprised every time.  What company do we keep?  Would the crowd be surprised with whom we hang out?

Most of the characters within the series have something to give us – Jethro – the butt kicker, Jonathan – the true friend, Deborah – the back coverer.  But Zacchaeus is different than these.  It all begins with fully seeing Zacchaeus for what he is, and inviting him down from the tree.  If we let them, the Zacchaeus’ of our lives help to illuminate our own need for grace.  Because we’re all in fact a little bit messed up.  Not one of us is perfect.  Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  All of us are walking and talking “steaming cauldrons of moral failures and ambiguities.”

Zacchaeus doesn’t need to be told he’s a sinner.  Society’s already made that clear.  He doesn’t need people to tell him he’s an outcast.  He already feels it.  Most people know that the Inuit have a hundred words for snow.  The English word sin is used to translate at least six Hebrew and seven Greek words.  Soren Kierkegaard defined sin this way.  “Sin is the steadfast refusal to be your one true self.”  That is a very different understanding than the typical definition of sin.  Evigras of Pontus’ understanding of sin is that sin is a “forgetfulness of God’s goodness.”  Hmmm…Jesus actively sought out sinners and made room at the table for them, maybe he was searching them out reminding them of God’s love specifically for them.

Jesus didn’t seem to mind that he was getting a “reputation” for hanging out with tax collectors and prostitutes.  Everyone that he encountered, he saw as a person in need of God’s love.

There are no outsiders because no one is out of the reach of the love of God.  Nothing can separate us from it, actually.  Romans 8:38-39 says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Jesus taught us to see others not as “others” but as “one of us” as “oneanothers.”  So y’all don’t know about my LOST obsession.  Scores of students were subjected to this madness as sermon illustrations poured forth each week for years and years.  They had the ability to weave their way into my sermons.  Josh alluded to it on our Fall Retreat but you’re about to see a clip of Jack’s live together, die alone speech.

I imagine Jesus would have given a similar speech and he would be befriending con man Sawyer and criminal Kate.  What made LOST special was that it delved into the messy-ness of the survivors lives.  It showed in real and tangible ways the flaws of each one.  Characters were never pure evil or purely good.  But they were REAL.  And you pulled for their redemption.

This episode ended the first season.  And it was here that a motley crew of people triumphed.  A community.  Michael and his son Walt, and their complicated relationship of abandonment and reunion.  Jin and his wife Sun – their evolution as characters from Jin working for Sun’s father to their estrangement and to their eventual homecoming.  The reason that LOST worked so well for those who watched it and dare I say were obsessed with it, was because you bought into the characters’ stories, and you saw a little bit of yourself in each of them.  It helped to have a full orchestra that performed each score – conveying emotions!

We have quite a few “characters” in our lives.  People that are either larger than life or a bit peculiar or a bit “off” or those that march to the beat of a different drummer.  What “characters” do we have at Gator Wesley?

Often we have to find the Zacchaeus’ of our lives.  Sweet writes, “We have tried to “live in” rather than “live out” the gospel.  It is time for Christians to “Get out more,” to try alfresco forms of faith and community.  The Christian church is too “in here” and not enough “out there.”  Late fourth century philosopher Caius Marius Victorinus was afraid to show up in church with his pagan friends and said this about the church, “Do walls make Christians?”  That’s the reason for Wesley lunches on Tuesday and Friday, Love Campaign, and leadership team discussing whether to do Evensong on the Plaza of the Americas once a month – TO GET OUT OF THE BUILDING!  This outward focus is a natural part of the Christian faith.  We are to be the church in the world.  SO WHY ARE WE NOT OUT THERE?

In essence, moving from inward to outward is central to the revelation of Christ by the church to the world.  John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, called the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion an “outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.”

Thus leading us to an obvious segue to Communion that we celebrate each week.  But I want to make sure you get something.  It bears repeating.  Zacchaeus’ are obviously “out there” – the social misfits, the anarchists, the people on the fringes or outside society’s norms, BUT there’s a bit of Zacchaeus in all of us.  We’re all Zacchaeus.  Jesus would have come into the world for any one of us.  Like the parable of the good shepherd who leaves the 99 to find the one lost sheep.  All for one.  So this scene from the Rise of the Guardians is a turning point.  You see Pitch, the villain in the movie, has wiped out the whole world’s belief in the Guardians (Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, the Sand Man, and a new guardian Jack Frost) and only one boy is left that believes.

All for one.

I’m not saying all of those things are real, even though Enoch and Evy believe them to be, and I find it problematic that as parents were supposed to enlighten our children one day that they’re not real, however saying at the same time that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit also that they can’t tangibly see – are real?  I’ll let you know how that conversation goes down.  However, I know what I will say, that God will give you the evidence you need to help you believe.  Like in Luke 9:24, when the man of the child that Jesus is healing says to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.”  Just ask.  Jesus desires a personal relationship with each one of us.  That’s why before we even have understanding of it, God searches us out and draws us to God’s self in God’s prevenient grace.  We recognize we’re in need of God’s grace – that that grace is for us – in justifying grace.  God doesn’t leave us where we are in the mire and the muck.  In God’s sanctifying grace, God helps us to grow and mature as Christians.  Growing in grace and growing the depth of our faith that the world may see and know that our God reigns and God’s grace is available to them.  Tax Collectors.  Prostitutes.  You and Me.  Amen.