NOTE: Sermons are aural events; they are meant to be heard, not read. The text below — which was not delivered exactly as written — may include errors not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation of which the listener might be unaware and with which the preacher is unconcerned.
The sermon on Palm Sunday was cut short by a medical emergency involving one of our members attending worship. She was taken by ambulance to a local hospital. We pray for her wholeness and healing, and are thankful for the members of our congregation who tenderly cared for her while waiting for medical help.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
A couple of years ago, I read a book called, American Savior, A Novel of Divine Politics. At the beginning of the book, we meet Russ Thomas, a TV reporter, who is sent to cover a story of a young child who had fallen three stories, seemed dead, and came back to life when a stranger came up and touched him. Some people were calling it a miracle, but Russ remained skeptical. Later, he’s sent to a hospital where the same stranger has visited a young girl and seemingly cured her of a chronic illness.
The stranger becomes known as “The Good Visitor,” and he turns out to be Jesus Christ. One day, Jesus calls Russ and tells him that he’s running for President of the United States and would like for Russ to work on his campaign. Russ is not convinced at first, but finally agrees when Jesus visits Russ’s girlfriend in a dream.
Jesus assembles a ragtag campaign team and heads out on the road as the candidate for The Divinity Party. Jesus runs an unusual campaign – he doesn’t criticize his opponents and he’s always available to take questions. I know – very unusual, right? Jesus’ chances of being elected seem slim as he faces skepticism from both ends of the political spectrum over his platform of kindness and goodness and the fact that he names his mother as his running mate.
At the end of the book, a woman in a crowd screams out her accusation that the candidate is not really Jesus.
“I might not be,” he said slowly. “I might not be. But my question to you is this: would you know him if he came into your midst? If he came into your midst and did not look the way you expected him to look, and did not speak as you expected him to speak, would you know him?”
Maybe I am the only one who thinks like this, but the gospel stories of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy week, seem as inadvertently satirical as this intentionally satirical book I’ve just described. Unlike a polished politician who spends his or her early career amassing money and connections, and crafting a carefully cultivated public image, Jesus has spent most of the gospel narrative up until today recklessly abandoning his home, family, reputation, and safety. Instead of ingratiating himself to the powers that be, Jesus has become a scandalous figure in the eyes of the temple authorities. and a terrible pest to the state. Everyone else who meets Jesus wants to claim him as being on the side of their particular cause, their particular tradition, theirparticular theological view.
But Jesus refuses to be boxed in by human expectations. Jesus goes through life on the side of nobody but God, which often puts him at odds with pretty much everyone else except those that nobody else will claim and whom God seems to always side with — marginalized, sick, despised, and forgotten people. Those are the kind of folks who will throw their lot in with Jesus because they have nothing left to lose.
But on this Sunday, Palm Sunday, it seems as if Jesus has finally woken up and gotten with the program. It’s high political drama, Jesus entering into Jerusalem, greeted by the crowds of people who want him to be their king, to save them from Rome, and be their shiny new Messiah.
But Jesus will have none of it. He soon turns his back on the shouts of “Hosanna!!” It’s like he didn’t even hear the roar of the crowd. And once they sense that this Jesus is not the candidate they’d been hoping for, the crowd becomes disillusioned. Pretty soon, their enchantment with Jesus will morph into anger, which will finally boil over into shouts of “Crucify him!”
Nothing will change Jesus’ course. Not the fear of disappointing his public. Not the heartbreak of leaving his friends. None of that can stop him. He keeps walking and walking as everything keeps getting darker and darker, but Jesus doesn’t stop walking until the very end.
In this text from Philippians, Paul tells us why Jesus ignored every opportunity to save himself and take over the whole human operation. Because Jesus had the mind of God, Jesus had to give himself away completely, to give himself completely over to love. Jesus had to turn his back on the power that could have so easily been his by getting down on his hands and knees to serve people who couldn’t do a thing for him in return and abandoned him in the end. Jesus ends up dead because that’s what usually happens when power meets a threat it cannot master or tame. There’s nothing more threatening to power than genuine, self-giving, self-sacrificing love that is the mind, the very essence, of God.
Jesus resisted any attempt to make his message or ministry the private domain of a particular culture, government, or group. By being on God’s side, Jesus was on everyone’s side. As this became clear, the crowds begin to melt away.
Holy Week always makes me feel a little uncomfortable because I know that I do not have the mind of Jesus. Holy Week makes me feel uncomfortable because I know I would have a difficult time resisting the impulse to grab the power that Jesus had at his fingertips and strike back against the tyranny of the Roman Empire. Holy Week makes me uncomfortable because I know I would be one of those people who shouted Hosanna on Sunday, and leave Jesus on his own in a garden a couple of days because this suffering servant has let me down and it’s becoming much too scary and dangerous to follow him. Any fool could see what was going to happen to Jesus. Holy Week always makes me uncomfortable because I know deep down that I am an amateur at love, that I will fall asleep when the going gets tough, that I will not answer his call when it really matters, and I will abandon him if it means I have to give up my own assurance of being right about everything.
Holy Week makes me uncomfortable because it reminds me that walking with Jesus all the way to the cross means I must not only have the mind of God, but also be of the same mind of others who seek to walk the same road. I can’t claim Jesus as the one who supports my views, my opinions, and my preferences as if that’s all that interests Jesus. I have to think about other people first, and care more about them than I do for myself. I have to shed my own little ambitions and my own little prejudices. And once I do that, what will be left over for me?
This discomfort came into sharp relief for me this week when I was sitting with a group of pastor colleagues talking about a vote on same gender marriage coming up in May at a meeting of Pittsburgh Presbytery. Although it has already received support from enough presbyteries to change the wording about marriage in our Book of Order, the presbyteries that have not voted on it yet are still required to do so. I have sat through pretty much every single meeting of the presbytery over the past decade. I have been to three General Assemblies where this topic has been front and center. I have heard pretty much every endless and heated public debate, and countless private ones, on the matters related to homosexuality and the PCUSA. By my count, I have suffered at least 32 migraine headaches as a result of listening to the arguments. As I am sure many of you do, I have a very specific point of view on the topic. But when it comes to how we talk with one another in these gatherings, I find those debates nothing short of soul-sucking awful, no matter the result.
As I sat with my colleagues this week, I wondered out loud: Can we do this differently this time? Instead of talking past each other on the floor of presbytery, could we instead seek to honor one another? Could we look not to our own interests, but to the interests of someone else? Could we intentionally reach out in humility and maybe love to those with whom we disagree? Could the headline in the Post-Gazette on the Friday morning for once not be, “Pittsburgh Presbytery approves or disapproves gay marriage after a bitter battle,” but “In a Surprising Turn of Events, Pittsburgh Presbyterians Love One Another.” Or, “In Surprising Turn of Events, Pittsburgh Presbyterians Unite To Devote Their Energy to Mission and Ministry Instead of Dividing?”
Wouldn’t that be the craziest thing ever? I’m pretty sure my colleagues wondered what I’d been drinking.
But this is why Jesus’ divine politics made people so mad during Holy Week. After the parade ends, nobody can claim him as their own personal Messiah. Jesus openly refuses to side with anyone. Not with the religious leaders who hear his claims and see his actions as intentional blasphemy. Not with the disciples who can clearly see how badly this project is going to end and will deny that they ever knew the man in order to save their own skin. Not with Pilate who despite endless contortions to try to keep Jesus off the cross cannot make a deal with this guy. Not the crowds who had started out screaming for Roman blood and are now shrieking for the execution of this faker who led them on with his healing and feeding miracles. Where’s the bread now? Why won’t Jesus save us, all of us, the way we want to be saved?
If anyone could claim to know the mind of God, it was Jesus. And what we see in Holy Week is a God who is driven not by power or by might, but by love and mercy so deep, so wide, so broad that it cannot be contained by one side or another, but is poured out for the sake of everyone. And that makes Holy Week uncomfortable for us. It should make us uncomfortable and if it doesn’t, maybe we’re doing it wrong.
I’ve spoken to you before about a great pastor named Will Campbell. Will was born in the very poor deep south of Mississippi. He was ordained at a local Baptist church when he was seventeen and eventually played a central role as white activist on behalf of African Americans, working with most of the civil rights leaders of the time. For example, in 1957, Campbell was one of four people who escorted the nine black students who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School, and he was the only white person invited to attend the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership conference by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But as the years went on, Campbell began to feel uneasy about his work. He realized that he was beginning to hate those redneck bigots who hated. Campbell discovered how easy it is to play favorites and to oppress the oppressors. He realized that after 20 years in ministry, he had become little more than a social activist, which is different from being a follower of Jesus. He had created a God in his own image.
What happened was that he realized Jesus died for bigots as well as the people whose civil rights Campbell had spent his life fighting for. Campbell said, “Anyone who is not as concerned with the moral soul of the dispossessor as well as the dispossessed is being less than Christian.”
Acting upon this conviction, Campbell reached out. On the night before the Grand Dragon of the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan was shipped off to Federal prison, Campbell celebrated communion with him. Later, he ministered to James Earl Ray who had murdered his friend, Martin Luther King, Jr. When people asked Will Campbell if he really expected to save the souls of such men, Campbell said he thought it would be presumptuous to think so. He said, “They might, however, save mine.”
Campbell made civil rights activists uncomfortable because did things like becoming friends with bigots. Campbell made bigots uncomfortable because he stood with civil rights activists. But in the end, following Jesus meant more than comfort to Campbell.
The bad news of the Gospel on Palm Sunday is that God will never be God on our terms. God will never be the answer to our own, self-defined questions. God comes to us in Christ and demands that we let go of our questions and instead answer God’s question. And God’s question to us is simply this: “Who do you say that I Am?” Who is this man who lives life wholly for others, who makes himself nothing, who does not regard equality with God as something to be held onto, who empties himself, who though he was rich for our sakes was made poor, who having loved those who were his own, loved them to the end even when they turned their backs on him.—who do you say this person is? Who is this one who loved infinitely?
The answer the church gives is that this man who lived wholly for others is God incarnate.
But for us to say yes to God, we must submit ourselves to the severe mercy of having our hopes dashed. This is the lesson of Palm Sunday: that only when we have our hopes dashed are we set free to receive the saving grace we do not expect. And if its costly grace and not the kind that comes cheap, it will most certainly make us uncomfortable.
Palm Sunday is a reminder to us that God came, not to fulfill our hopes, but to bring them to nothing, and that by so dashing our hopes, we will receive more than we could ever ask or think.
In this week’s issue of Christian Century, John Buchanan writes: “We become fools for Christ because Jesus was still loving and forgiving even as men were driving nails through his wrists and ankles. Because of Easter, we dare to believe that the resurrection drama points to God’s ultimate power and authority. Death did not defeat Jesus. The power of empire, human hatred, cruelty, and bigotry did not prevail on that dark Friday because three days later, there was Easter.”