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. 

IMG_7704

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….

Psalm 23 Sermon

I picked two scriptures from the lectionary today, we will explore one first and then the next.  The first one is Psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

It was one of the scriptures my mother made us memorize when we were little and it is a familiar refrain in the Bible.  Ryan talked about it last week, we, as sheep, tuning in to Jesus, our good shepherds, voice, tuning into our Master and Lord’s voice.  In this particular passage, “He restores my soul,” is actually a statement of conclusion. In other words, green pastures and still waters are the way God restores our souls. And if we stop long enough to let God speak to us, we’ll discover that our souls need restoring.  Especially at the end of the semester with the last three of days of class.

“He restores my soul” literally means He causes my life to return. The word restore means replenish, to return to its original state. Restoring my soul means God keeps me going and gives the enjoyment of life back to me. Notice it’s not some general or physical restoration—“He restores my soul.”  I would always get sick at the end of the semester, whether it was over Christmas break or if it were May.  My mom would say that I was running on adrenaline all during the semester, and if I didn’t take little moments to recharge then I would eventually burn out.

Those who really know God, also know God “makes” us lie down sometimes. We’re not smart enough or willing enough to do many things for our own good. But our Shepherd will do what the Shepherd needs to do to get us where we need to be—in green pastures—so God can restore our souls.

Soul is a very important word in the Bible. The Hebrew term nephesh can be translated soul, life, heart, or mind. Nephesh is the word used in Genesis 2:7 to describe what happened when God breathed into the clay figure He had made: “The man became a living creature [or soul].” Soul refers to the immaterial part of you that will survive beyond this life. The central thing that is most you about you is your soul. Your soul relates and responds to God.

So, if God continually “restores my soul,” how does God do it? First, “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” In Hebrew, “green pastures” literally means the tender grass. In sheep terms, it’s rich, lush feeding places from which the flock need never move to be satisfied. What do we do to get fed?  What do we do to get our God fix?

Psalm 63 verses 1-4 talks about it this way, “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.  So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.  Because your steadfast love is better than life my lips will praise you.  So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.”

“He leads me beside still waters.” God says, What are you doing over there? C’mon over here. This is where the water is quiet. This is where you can be refreshed. My living water is deep and plentiful. And it restores your soul. Sheep are scared by troubled waters, and so are we. God provides the still waters of God’s thirst-quenching presence. God can satisfy your deepest longings every time we turn to God.

A bit of poetry from Wisdom Path by Jan Richardson,

God of the waters,

help me to know

that there will be wilderness,

but the wilderness

will turn to green land;

that there will be desert,

but in the desert a spring;

that in the heart

of the rock

of my life

will begin to flow

a river

washing through the chasm of my soul;

and that I will walk

wet with memory

when again I touch

dry land.

Don’t you love that imagery.  Through the chasm of my soul…  I have the memory ot water even when I’m on dry land.  In the original text, notice the word beside. This isn’t some down-to-the-river-and-out-again experience. Beside the still waters is where you can live your life. It isn’t a monthly or a weekly thing; it’s a daily, continuous replenishing. The psalmist of Psalm 121  wrote, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains — where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.”  You’re walking with Christ beside still waters, walking in his ways, letting him lead and guide you as the good Shepherd he is. You’re alone with God, not thinking about the time. It’s quiet . . . and God’s restoring you.  God actively seeks to restore your soul.

After my grandfather died, my gandaddy because I was the first grandchild and I couldn’t say my r’s when I was little, we gathered in his hospital room, all of his extended family.  He had a heart attack and because it was so sudden we were all in shock.  He was one of six boys and they were all farmers at one time or another.  He went to Clemson when it was a military college and he was stationed at White Plains in El Paso where they were doing nuclear testing.  He was a long-time educator in Williamsburg County, one of the counties off of the I-95 corridor, first as a math teacher and then as a principal.  He loved Clint Eastwood movies and he challenged me to not use empty words like “cool.”  He was our rock.  Our constant.  He lived #blacklivesmatter before it became a thing to stand for.   For that matter, he stood for #alllivesmatter.  And when we all crowded in the hospital room, we all joined together in saying Psalm 23.  I’m so glad my mother made us memorize it as children.  It comes in handy.  When I don’t know what to pray.  When I don’t know what end is up.  When I just need some Jesus in my life.  I pray it.  I encourage each of you to write it on your hearts because when the rubber hits the road, it will come back to you.  Lyrics to a song…Scripture passages you’ve memorized…the Holy Spirit will give you a nudge or a loud clanging cymbal about where you should go and who you are.  Not only that, but whose you are.

Our other lectionary text for today is from Revelation 7:15-17 talking about those who come out of the great ordeal.

15 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Tune in to the Shepherd’s voice even when things seem insurmountable and the entire deck is stacked against you.  Even when you barely hear the Shepherd’s voice, even when the shepherd’s voice is silent.  Keep reading scripture, keep listening, keep doing all you can to connect to the Source of life – God.  My prayer for all of you and for me is that God will give us the courage and strength to stand firm in the midst of every adversity, that Christ be our shelter and shield and he wield his sword of truth, and that the Holy Spirit blow over this place igniting anew and afresh our hopes, our dreams, our deepest longings.

You have below your seat a button and a card.  The buttons say things like “Praise God,” “You are Loved,” “Joy,” “Be You,” “Shine Your Light,” and “Be Love.”  I encourage you to “Be Love” because you are precious and Beloved.  The card is a great quote of Frederick Buechner, “Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things happen.  Don’t be afraid.”  The Bible, nor Jesus, nor I – don’t promise the road is going to be easy, but God promises to always restore your soul and Jesus promises to never leave you nor forsake you.

This benediction was used at Old St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore, Maryland in 1692.  It still rings true today.  “Go placidly among the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.  As far as possible without surrender be on good terms will all persons.  Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant, they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.  If you compare yourself with others, you will become vain and bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.  Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.  Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.  Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.  But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism

Be yourself.  Especially do not feign affection.  Neither, be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as grass.  Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.  Nurture strength of the spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.  But do not distress yourself with imaginings.  Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.  Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gently with yourself.

You are a child of the universe, no less than the tress and the stars; you have a right to be here.  And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.  Therefore, be at peace with God for he is greater than we can ever comprehend.  Whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.  With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.  Be careful.  Strive to be happy.”

Choose joy.  Be joy.  Choose love.  Be love.  Choose hope.  Be hope.  Amen.

IMG_4838 (2)

*The classic Dr. Seuss book “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” will be read for the graduating seniors.