Palm Sunday B – The Lord Has Need of It

The Lord Has Need of It

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Palm Sunday • March 25, 2018

Mark 11:1-11

Today is Palm Sunday, an annual celebration with so many memories for me. In other places, other times, I’ve often spent hours planning dramatic worship services. I’ve imagined and then helped churches gather groups to parade down the aisle, bought and handed out hundreds of bits of palm leaves. I’ve encouraged people to wave them, throw them, brought clothes in to simulate the things thrown on the donkey Jesus rode. I’ve never actually bought a donkey in a sanctuary but I’ve discussed it and once I even got close to having one ready to go. So today, in this place, on this Sunday, it seems a little quiet. But in this place, on this morning, what I hope is that we can look at the real Jesus, the real events, the real meaning. What does Palm Sunday have to do with Jesus? What does it have to do with us?

The first thing to understand is the setting. Jerusalem sits on top of a small mountain with winding paths up the slopes. Its tall walls were crowned with the glittering gold of the temple pinnacle and many of the temple walls were clad with white marble that glittered in the hot, bright Near Eastern sun. It’s almost Passover and pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean world are gathering in this sacred place, returning to the City of David to remember their heritage. 
The city is packed to capacity and religious fervor rises. Several years before Jesus and in coming years, that fervor led to riots, spurts of rebellion and the inevitable Roman reaction with red blood running in the streets.

On this day, the stream of pilgrims walking up the paths is pushed aside by a parade. Representing the Son of God, a contingent of Roman soldiers are marching to Jerusalem to enforce the Roman law. “Son of God” is one of the names Romans applied to Emperor Tiberius. For about fifty years, the Romans had seen their leaders as having a kind of divinity, affirmed by their power. Power, in this case, really meant the ability to kill people. Get in the way of Rome, violate Roman law, fail to pay your taxes, and the ultimate Roman answer was violence. From Persia to Spain, Roman law was built on the threat of Roman swords, Roman crucifixion, Roman slavery.

Now, up the western slopes of Mt. Zion, the Roman soldiers wind their way, Roman officers mounted on horses, Roman standards held high. It was a show meant to show off the threat of Rome. How the Jewish king, hated by his own people, must have loved seeing those banners. Worried rulers always love military parades.

Knowing this is going on, knowing the main event, we can turn to the other side of the city where there is also a procession. This one is small, this one is unruly, it has no standards and its leader is ridiculous. The Son of Man, a translation of a phrase that means the representative person, the humble person, is coming to Jerusalem on a donkey. It’s not even a sleek, cool donkey, this one is nursing a colt. Can you imagine it? Can you see it?

I’ve never ridden a donkey, have you? So I went online and it turns out there are directions there for riding a donkey. It says adults are too big for donkeys; so I imagine Jesus with his feet hanging down, dragging along the path. Donkeys have a slow, plodding walk; this procession isn’t going anywhere fast.

Behind Jesus, perhaps around Jesus, are the people who have followed him from Galilee. One writer says,

Jesus came into Jerusalem dragging the world in behind him. He’d spent most of his ministry with what the Pharisees regarded as all the wrong people in all the wrong places. He’d befriended women of dubious reputations, touched lepers, dined with tax collectors, done favors for despised Roman soldiers, held up Samaritans as heroes even as he turned Pharisees into villains. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, he had all of these folks in tow.
[http://yardley.cs.calvin.edu/hoezee/2000/mark11PalmSun.html]

It’s a strange group and here they are, slowly walking behind Jesus, walking behind the Son of Man on a donkey. I can’t imagine anyone is paying attention. After all, on the other side of town, the Roman general is riding a horse, sitting comfortably and grandly up there, with ranks of perfectly disciplined soldiers.

Now that we have the picture in mind, we come back to the story Mark tells and immediately once again to this donkey. What is it about the donkey that’s so important? Jesus makes a huge point of giving instructions about it. There’s endless argument: does he know what will happen or has he planned it? Does he know the donkey owner? Has it been previously rented by some advance disciple? What is the deal with the donkey?
The donkey is a reminder of the hope of God’s covenant. The prophet Zechariah had said,

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
[Zechariah 9:9]

There is Jesus, just as the prophet had said: this teacher comes as the Son of Man, so powerful he can look powerless. The Roman general needs his horse to look important; Jesus IS important. The hope he embodies is also in the testimony of Zechariah,

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
   and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
   and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
   and from the River to the ends of the earth. 
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
   I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. 
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
   today I declare that I will restore to you double. 
[Zechariah 9:10-12]

The symbols of worldly power, the arrogance of calling a man Son of God, is marching on the other side of Jerusalem. But here comes the Son of Man, riding on a silly donkey; he can afford to be silly—for God is riding with him. The armies of Rome are marching on the other side of Jerusalem, ordered ranks, swords showing. Nervous rulers always need military parades.
But here comes the Son of Man and his followers are all kinds of people: men, women, gentiles, Jews, sinners and they are together shouting, “Hosanna!” “Hosannah!” They are what Zechariah described as the prisoners of hope and they have been released; their cry of joy echoes from the hills. The Son of Man comes on a donkey: the Spirit of the Lord renews the covenant, the new covenant that invites us all.

This is where we come to the second meaning of the donkey: the donkey is a decision. Remember what Jesus says,

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. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’  [Mark 11:2-3]

Someone owns that donkey. Someone pays for that donkey, pays to keep it, pays to stable it, someone uses that donkey for work and getting places. Think of it as your car; think of it as yours.

Now some guys you don’t really know who have a strange accent come and start up your donkey. They sound like they’re from Texas; definitely not from here. Perhaps you saw them when you heard that young prophet from Galilee and you vaguely remember them. When you ask what they’re doing, they say, “The Lord has need of it.” What would you do?

That’s the heart of this story: it all flows from this moment, this decision. “The Lord has need of it.” The challenge of Palm Sunday is just this: whatever you have, the Lord has need of it. Like quilter assembling bits and pieces into a beautiful tapestry, Jesus takes the hurts and hopes of these people he has dragged with him to Jerusalem and makes them a covenant community, a caring community in the new covenant in his blood.

So now we come to our Palm Sunday and like the donkey’s owner, we also are told the Lord has need of what we have: what will we do?

Are you grieving? the Lord has need of it; those who grieve shall be comforted, he says. So bring our grief—his hope is for you, shown to the world in you.
bring him your grief

Are you joyful? Can you see the Lord in your life, blessing you, showing you the beauty of creation, helping you to feel God close and present? The Lord has need of it: 
bring your joy.

Are you hungry? the Lord has need of your hunger, because hungry people are ready to be fed. He’s already fed thousands and he means to nourish us as well, with the bread of life. 
bring him your hunger

Are you doubtful? The Lord has need of your doubts: bring them to him. He never asked anyone to go beyond where their faith would take them.
bring your doubts.

Are you guilty? the Lord has need of it: he’s bringing a new covenant, where forgiveness is the gate to go into glory. 
bring him your guilt.

This one man, whose donkey the Lord needed, became the doorway to a procession we remember down the ages, that we remember when no one but historians remembers the Roman soldiers. This donkey the Lord needed is remembered when the general and his horse are just a footnote.

The Lord has need of it: someone heard, someone said yes, and the donkey became a platform from which the Son of Man proclaimed the fulfillment of God’s covenant had come to Jerusalem. Now every day, every time, we hear the Lord saying about us, about our lives, our whole selves, the good parts and the bad, the hurts and the hopes, that the Lord has need of it. When we give him the reins, the same thing happens. The cries of Hosanna are heard; the procession goes forward. And the words of the psalmist come true: the king of glory comes in.

Amen.

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday Communion Table First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

Right Here, Right Now

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Palm Sunday/A • April 9, 2017

Matthew 26:1-11

To Hear the Sermon Preached, Click Below

“I love a parade”. It’s a comic line in the movie Life of Brian, sung as the bloody procession to the cross goes on. It’s a thought many of us have at times. I grew up going to parades on Memorial Day; the route passed in front of my grandparents’ house and it was always a big day; ranks of soldiers, some fresh from wars, marching, bands, military vehicles and the Trenton fire trucks, notable because unlike normal fire trucks, theirs were painted a sort of grayish beige. Later there would be a picnic and the men would play horse shoes and drink beer and eat oysters.

Do you love parades? For years many of us have come to Palm Sunday like crowds to a parade, waving bits of greenery, anxious for the happy sermon of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem after all the dark Lenten texts. We love the parade: but what is the purpose of the parade?

The Palm Sunday Parade

Perhaps if we pull back and see the parade in context we’ll understand it better. Jesus and his followers have mostly moved through small villages on their journey. Last week we followed him to Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem and into Judea where he has already encountered opposition. Now he’s going up to Jerusalem: up, because Jerusalem sits on a small mountain, Jerusalem because it is the capital city, the center of Jewish life.

Along the winding path are crowds of other pilgrims because it’s Passover. Well, parades always mean crowds, don’t they? They are singing the songs of Passover, of pilgrimage, they are looking forward to the celebration and the holiday and running underneath it all is the reminder of how God once defeated a mighty military power, Egypt, for that is the heart of the Passover story. Who knows when God might act against the Romans? We know that Passover often led to riots. Three thousand were killed in a Passover riot near the time of Jesus and these crowds are restless.

For this is not the only parade going on. At almost exactly the same time, Pilate is also coming to Jerusalem. Just like our parades of soldiers and military vehicles, the Romans used parades to show off their might. So on the other side of Jerusalem, there is another parade going on, Pilate and his Roman soldiers, banners in the breeze, swords at their sides, shields and spears held high, are marching into Jerusalem as well, a vivid demonstration of the power of the Emperor and the King he has appointed here, Herod Antipas.

The people around Jesus know about this other parade but they also know God has promised a King on David’s throne, not a puppet like Herod. They remember the words of Zechariah,

Tell Zion’s daughter,
 “Look, your king’s on his way, poised and ready, mounted 
On a donkey, on a colt, foal of a pack animal.”

Hosanna!

So when Jesus appears, riding a donkey, surely a shout goes up. “Hosanna!” Hosanna is a cheer; throwing your garments and greenery down is like putting out the red carpet, it is saying that this person is so important, even their donkey must not touch the ground. Hosanna to the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Now to us, this doesn’t sound so awful; often Palm Sunday celebrations include the shout. But to the Romans, to Herod, to the Temple Priests, it is treason. No Kingdom has two kings. Inevitably, one gets rid of the other. If Jesus comes as king, the reigning king will surely seek to kill him. Already, even before he arrives, there is a plot to arrest Jesus; even as he is acclaimed, others are seeking to destroy him.

The Lord Has Need of It

So here we are: crowds happily shouting, police plotting, Jesus riding, the disciples smiling, all moving slowly up the paths to Jerusalem. But how did we get here? We have to back up in the story to understand and perhaps to understand the whole story. There is Jesus, riding on a donkey. Where did that donkey come from? How does a man who owns nothing suddenly get a donkey?

Of course if you were listening as we read the story, you remember Jesus told two of his disciples to go to a village and get a donkey. Just like that: go to the village, you’ll find a donkey with a foal tied up, go untie them and bring them along. Now donkeys are the cars of the first century. So just imagine if I said to one of you on a Saturday night, “Hey, we need a car for church tomorrow. Go out to Slingerlands to this address and get one.” What would you say? How hard would you laugh? I wonder how the disciples reacted. Even more, I wonder about the owner of the donkey and the colt. These represent a substantial investment. I imagine somehow Jesus must have talked to him. There must have been a moment when he told this guy, “Hey, I need your donkey.” What would you say? What did he say?

“The Lord has need of it.” That’s what the disciples are told to say. It’s a simple phrase. “The Lord has need of it.” Think of the money in your purse or your wallet right now, right here. Imagine someone saying, “The Lord has need of it.” Now think of something more valuable. You know, we have a boat in Baltimore. I love that little sloop. Thirty five feet of classic water lines with a wood interior, sails like she knows the way with hardly any help. She’s a better sailor than I am, I just try to keep up with her. Now I tried to imagine hearing, “The Lord has need of it” about my boat this week. And I confess, I don’t know what I would say, how I would respond.

So I think about that donkey owner and I wonder if he had a bad night. I wonder if he was up early, peeking out, hoping against hope that the call wouldn’t come, that what he had been told wouldn’t happen. I imagine a quiet early morning as he looks out and sees the moving shadows the disciples, hopes they are going somewhere else, knows they are not. Finally they are at his gate; he opens it, they look at each other and say what they’ve been told: “The Lord has need of it.” It’s just the three of them and the animals and he has to make a choice. Right here, right now he has to decide.

“I have decided to follow Jesus,” we sometimes sing. But what about when it’s a decision right here, right now? Of course, in the story, he turns over the donkey and her foal and the disciples go off with them to Jesus and the rest, well, we’ve already talked about the rest: the parade, the entrance, the shouts as Jesus rides that donkey that he has because someone when it counted, right here, right now, said yes, met Jesus without Jesus even being present, met him in the decision to do what the Lord needed.

For the story of Holy Week, all the stories of Holy Week, from this parade to the other parade, the one that goes to Golgotha, are all about people meeting Jesus. We’ve been talking about the conversations before the cross and now it’s coming near and all these meetings, all these conversations, ask us about our own conversation with Jesus, about whether we are ready to meet him ourselves.

Meeting Jesus

Joanna Williams is a retired Presbyterian minister, who shared this story of meeting Jesus.

In the years that I’ve been a minister, I have known some winning churches and lots of winners in them. One who comes to mind is a young man in my first congregation, an advertising executive on the rise in his profession. Every Tuesday night he volunteered at the foot clinic for the homeless people who made their home in our church gymnasium. Robert was his name. He was the nattiest dresser I had ever seen. I can picture him now in my mind’s eye, wearing a crisp shirt, red suspenders.
I see him sitting on a stool before the chair on which one of our homeless guests is sitting. He takes the guest’s feet and places them in a basin of warm water. He takes a towel and dries the feet. He applies ointment to their sores. The ritual ends with the gift of a clean, white pair of socks.
I see the man in the chair, as he slips his socks on, brush a tear from his own cheek-a tough guy whom no one has touched with tenderness in a very long time.
I once asked Robert, the advertising executive on the move, why he came to the foot clinic every week. He brushed me aside, saying, “I figure I have a better chance of running into Jesus here than most places. That’s all.”
I watched him week after week. I realized as I watched him that I was developing my own sort of double vision. I was seeing Christ in the stranger that he served. I was also seeing Christ in the one who was finding deep meaning in his life through serving others.

Jesus comes to Palm Sunday riding a donkey but more importantly he comes because some disciple had the faith to say when the call came, “Yes, Lord!”

Right here, right now, we are being asked to meet Jesus, to follow him, to go with him throughout this week. We all have schedules to keep, things to do but this is what this story tells us about our time: “The Lord has need of it.” You’ve heard the conversations before the cross: now it’s time for your own conversation. Jesus has come to Jerusalem: has he come to you? Can you hear him say about your own time, your own life, right here, right now, “The Lord has need of it”?

Amen

Thine Is the Glory – Learning the Lord’s Prayer 6

Montserrat

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Palm Sunday • March 20, 2016

Copyright 2016 • All Rights Reserved

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever, amen.

We are drawing near the end of the Lord’s Prayer and the beginning of Holy Week, a time we remember the story of the final days of Jesus’ earthly presence, the days when he was first acclaimed, then reviled, then arrested, tortured, and crucified, executed as a criminal. Sometimes church tradition divides, like the Hudson flowing around an island. One stream of worship tradition celebrates today as Passion Sunday, reading and reflecting on this whole store of Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem. Another, and the one we follow today, focuses on his entry to Jerusalem, riding on a donkey.

Going Up to Jerusalem

So let us imagine that scene for a moment. The dusty trails have converged into a winding road, the road is filled with pilgrims going up to Jerusalem. The city shines before them quite literally: Herod Antipas rebuilt the temple with a golden dome that so brightly reflected the sun, it was said to be hard to look directly at it. The city is surrounded by imposing walls with towers at the gates and streams of people crowd together on their way to the city. Among them, Jesus’ followers are simply one group among many.

While the gospel accounts united in telling us Jesus comes in a kind of procession, there are various accounts. Matthew and Mark speak of branches being cut and laid down along with garments, which is the the reason we decorate with palms; Luke doesn’t mention these at all. I was brought up with a picture of Jesus parading, like the soldiers and bands on Memorial Day, with crowds standing aside and perhaps that’s how you imagine this scene. More likely, his followers are simply part of a larger crowd, noisy, happy, like spring breakers on the way to a holiday.

Jesus is not the only leader on his way to Jerusalem. Potius Pilate is also making a processional at the same time. Perhaps he comes in a sedan chair, carried by slaves; perhaps he rides a war horse, we’re not sure. Certainly he is followed by ranks and ranks of Roman legionnaires, their swords sheathed for now but a visible reminder that Rome’s rule, like all empires, is founded on violence.

Surely in the crowd there are other rabbis, like Jesus, and their followers as well and of course, more than leaders, military or religious there are simple people, people like you and I, going to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, going to a festival, going to a party. Have you been to Lark Street festival, have you been to Fourth of July in a busy place, perhaps the streets of Lake George on a prime summer afternoon? Then you know what this crowd is like, it’s like all crowds. Yet within the crowd, something unique is about to happen. The glory of the Lord is about to shine and no one has any idea.

The Story of the Donkey

Did you listen to the part about the donkey? It’s an odd little parenthesis in the story. We’re marching to the Jerusalem, you know, I know, we’re on the way and it’s frustrating to stop for this little detail. “Go get me a donkey,” Jesus tells his disciples, explaining where to go, and just to say this one simple phrase if asked: “The Lord has need of it.” So they go, they get asked, they say what they were told and they come back with the donkey.

That must have been quite a little trip: have you ever tried to lead an unbroken donkey? I wonder how many times they got kicked, cursed, had to stop and quiet the animal. Yet they do as they’re told: the Lord has need of it. Now Luke is anxious to connect this story to a prophecy from Zechariah that says,

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
[Zechariah 9:9]

Yet in the story is an amazing challenge for us as well. Imagine being asked for something with this simple explanation: “The Lord has need of it”. Suppose it is something you value, something you planned to use, hoped to have for some time. Now the request comes: now you have to decide. The Lord has need of it. What would you give?
 
We don’t think much of donkeys but the donkey is a symbol: throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, riding a donkey is a symbol of royal entrance. One writer, in fact, suggests that if Jesus had indeed come as Luke portrays, he would immediately have been arrested. Surely the people present understand the symbolism: it is the reason he is acclaimed, it is the reason he is cheered, it is the reason for the acclamation. For Jesus comes as a king to announce his kingdom, as he has from his beginning. Just like his beginning, according to Luke, it starts in the stable, with the owner of the donkey, giving it up, handing it over because, “The Lord has need of it.”

Now they bring the donkey to Jesus; someone no doubt is worried. What will happen when he mounts it? Will he get thrown? Somehow the one who stilled the seas quiets the donkey and suddenly, like a king, he’s riding at their head. Suddenly for a moment they can see: the kingdom is literally coming in the person of the king. The glory of the Lord is in that moment, when someone simply gives what they have because the Lord has need of it.

Thine Is the Glory

We’ve been following the Lord’s prayer line by line for weeks now, all through Lent. Today we reach the last line: “Thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever and ever.” The first question we might ask about this line of the prayer is why we say it at all. If you look, you’ll quickly find that neither Matthew nor Luke who give us versions of the Lord’s Prayer have this line. Our Bibles are translations of translations, documents handed down over generations, and the gospels come in two different flavors. One flavor had the line but the one from which the King James Bible and all subsequent English Bibles did not. Yet, we know from other documents that the early church added this line to the prayer early in its life. “Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.”

What does it mean to speak of the glory of the Lord? What does it mean to take seriously God’s power and acknowledge God’s reign? It begins from the first thing God told us to do in the garden, at our creation: to appreciate. The poet Mary Oliver says somewhere”Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Palm 29 says,

The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; The LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. 9The voice of the LORD makes the deer to calve And strips the forests bare; And in His temple everything says, “Glory!” 10The LORD sat as King at the flood; Yes, the LORD sits as King forever.…[Psalm 29:8-10]

It is a poor life that has no moment which is not touched by some appreciation for larger forces, something bigger, something we know is spiritual even if we don’t have the words to say what we have felt. The truth is, there are no words: there is only the experience, the act itself, the moment in which the glory of the Lord shines in your life. Theologians write whole books and preachers craft sermons but the true glory of God is glimpsed in the moment when God chooses, God acts, God comes to play.

God’s Glory Shines

This was such a moment and it’s the reason the story is told and retold and acted out and remembered all these years later. And the donkey? He’s not a parenthesis, he’s not an incidental detail. For the glory of the Lord comes enabled by some nameless person who owned a donkey and when told, “The Lord has need of it”, gladly gave.

We are together here the Body of Christ: we are the concrete expression of his life in this community, this place, this world. Our challenge isn’t to fill up these pews, it isn’t to make our budget balance, it isn’t to make the wheels go round in our organization. Our challenge is to help people see the glory of the Lord, feel the power of God’s love, see what it looks like when God reigns.

So when we pray, surely it’s right for us to ask this, say this, hope this: “Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.” How will we open the door to this prayer? Just like this story. For each of has talents, each of us has gifts. When we hear, as we each shall, “The Lord has need of it,” and we share those talents and gifts, then indeed, the prayer is fulfilled. Then indeed the reign of God is acclaimed. The need the power of God is obvious. Then indeed, the glory of the Lord shines forth. Then indeed, as the hymn says, “Thine is the glory, risen, conquering Lord.”

Amen.