Second Sunday in Easter

A New Song

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – ©2017

Second Sunday in Easter/A • April 23, 2017

John 20:19-31

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

What Do You Know?

“I know what I know if you know what I mean.” It’s a line in a song by Neil Diamond, recorded some years ago by Edie Brickell that has rattled around in my mind ever since. How do I know what I know? What do you know? How do you know it? 

I asked the ushers to hand out objects today so you’d have something to touch while we thought about this. After all, a basic way we know things is through our senses. So take a moment: touch what you have, feel it, is it sharp, smooth, what does it feel like? What does it smell like? I won’t ask you to taste it but if you’ve ever cared for a small child you know that we start out with no inhibitions about putting things in our mouths; is there any parent who hasn’t had to run at least once yelling, “Take that out of your mouth”? 

So we know what we know because we touch it or taste it or smell it. We connect those things with memories. If I walk into the house on a day Jacquelyn is home and smell garlic, I know we are having something Italian for dinner and I smile: not only because of the future food but because I remember how nice it is to have dinner with the family. Just the scent of the garlic is enough to bring on a whole raft of memories: I know what this time will be like in some way. 
Pictures can do the same thing sometimes.

The last few years have seen an explosion of photographs. There was a time when a standard 35 mm camera shot a roll of film with 36 exposures. So if you were out taking pictures you had to think: is this scene worth one of those frames? Now it’s common to shoot 36 exposures of the same scene just to make sure you got the shot. Why are pictures so important? Because they remind us of what we know. This past week, I went to see Taxi Driver, an old 1970’s movie about a lost soul in New York City in 1973. Sitting there in the dark, with the pictures of bell bottoms and vaguely Indian hippy clothes and the tawdry culture of pre-Giuliani New York, I felt as well my own memories, I remembered experiences of those times. I think that’s why our ancestors drew pictures of hunting on cave walls: it was their photography.  What do you know? How do you know it?

I’m asking this question today because it’s a core problem of the resurrection. Of all the things we know, one of the most basic is that dead is dead. Benjamin Franklin said in a letter to a friend once, “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” The resurrection flies in the face of that certainty. What are we to do with it? What are we to do about it? What are we to believe?

The Disciples and the Resurrection

This isn’t a new problem. The gospels depict Jesus telling his disciples several times that he would be crucified, die and then rise again. John has him saying,

So the Jews answered and said to him, ‘What sign do you show to us, since you do these things?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Then the Jews said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he said this; and they believed the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had spoken (John 2:18-22)


Matthew quotes this saying:

An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:39-40).

and then again,

From that time Jesus began to show to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day (Matthew 16:21).

One might have thought there would have been a crowd of witnesses at the tomb if his disciples had believed him. Evidently they didn’t since only the women go and they go to prepare a corpse, not acclaim a risen Lord. It’s only in the moment of finding the tomb empty and meeting Jesus again that the women believe in the resurrection and when they do, they tell the disciples, disciples who apparently don’t believe them. So if in your heart of hearts, you don’t believe the women, the Easter story, take heart: neither did the first people to hear it.

We Are Toddlers

The problem we have is the same as the one Thomas the Twin has. Remember him? In the reading today, he says,”Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Doesn’t that describe most of us? We want to see: we want to touch. Like a toddler with a toy, we only know what we can get our hands around, we only believe what we can get in our mouths. The resurrection flies in the face of everything we’ve ever been told or known or seen. “I know what I know,” we say to it, like Thomas. Want me to change? Show me something. I wonder if that isn’t the same problem many of us have with the resurrection. We are toddlers too: before we believe in something impossible, we want to see it, touch it.

Of course, no one saw the resurrection. Search the scriptures, there’s not a single eyewitness account, not one. Instead, what we have accounts, many accounts, of the experience of encountering the risen Lord. Paul says more than 500 people, both men and women, had such experiences. So the key to understanding what John is telling us may not be Thomas’ question but the earlier experience of the disciples. Remember that moment? They are locked in a room. Now there’s one reason we lock rooms: we’re afraid of something. The leader of this movement has been executed for a political crime; surely the authorities will be after his followers. They’re afraid, meeting secretly behind a locked door and suddenly there he is, the Lord, coming through the door. No grave can keep him down; no door can keep him out. “Peace be with you,” he says. And it is.

“I know what I know.” What these followers of Jesus know is simple: that when they get together, he’s still present with them. When they sit down to dinner, as they did with him, he’s still present with them. When they love each other, he’s still present with them. When they share his love with others, he’s still present with them. They feel it; they know it. Perhaps for Thomas it is seeing this acted out that matters. Perhaps for you it is and if that’s true, look around, look for him: he comes and goes wherever people live in love and remember him.

There is a game small children play at a particular moment: it’s called peek-a-boo. You’ve played it, we all have. You know how it works. You cover your eyes, say, “Where’s Maggie? Where’s Andy?” and then open your eyes or uncover them and there they are. The child does the same thing.

Peek a Boo

Peek-a-boo, it turns out, is a very important game. We don’t come believing the world is permanent; we don’t come believing things stay here when we are asleep or close our eyes. That’s one reason children cry so inconsolably at bedtime. Wouldn’t you cry if you thought the whole world would end when you closed your eyes? So we teach them. Look: it’s still here, I’m still here. Peek-a-boo. Close your eyes: it’s safe. Open them: still here. Over and over again, until they know it, believe it, until we don’t remember not knowing it.

It’s like learning a new song. One of the first times I went to my church youth group, Harry Clark, our minister sang a cool song called, “Dem Bones”. It has endless verses and no one ever wrote them down. It has a chorus: “Dem Bones gonna rise again: I knotted it, knowed it, knowed it, Dem bones gonna rise again!” I didn’t know that song but gradually, over years of listening to Harry, I began to learn it. I learned the verses and even though I’m not much of a singer, I learned to lead it. I knew I had it one day when I was a newly minted youth minister and I had to lead a song at a retreat and I started it up. “Dem bones gonna rise again”.

Learning resurrection life isn’t about pretending to believe some event hundreds of years ago. It is about learning to move to a new rhythm, sing a new song. It is like being a child who has discovered that just as the world doesn’t go away when you shut your eyes, God’s love doesn’t go away when you die. Peek-a-boo: still there, always there, permanently there.


Easter Sunday

Lost & Found

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Easter Sunday/A • April 16, 2017

Matthew 28:1-10

A few years ago, our family was driving from Omaha to Kansas City to attend a convention. When we got to the hotel, we settled in. For Jacquelyn, that means unpacking clothes; for me it means setting up the computer, getting online, setting up my iPod for music. I had one of the first iPod and it was a prized possession. So you can imagine how I felt when I discovered it wasn’t there—not there in the bag, not there in the car. What do you do when you don’t know what to do? You do what you know. I knew I’d had it on my belt in the car and I searched and searched, moved the seat back and forth until finally it dawned on me that somehow my iPod was gone. Then I remembered something. At a rest area where we’d stopped, there was an odd little thunk noise I’d ignored. With a sick realization, I suddenly knew the iPod was gone: left an hour or more up the road, gone for good. It was lost and all I could do was rant at my thoughtlessness and sputter in anger. I didn’t know what to do so that’s what I did.

When You Don’t Know What to Do

What do you do when you don’t know what to do? You do what you did last time. You do it whether it worked or not; you do it whether it makes sense or not. Most of our life is cooked up from a series of recipes. What should we do? Look at your handbook; look at your cookbook. But there’s no handbook for Easter, no cookbook for resurrection. We’ve just heard the story of two women in the midst of something unimaginable; one of those stories you read in the newspaper and wince about, one of those tales you hear and think, “thank God that’s not me”. Their friend, their leader, the man who guided their lives and gave those lives light has been crucified. They don’t know what to do so they do what they did the last time someone died: they’re on the way to bury him properly. But they’re about to experience an earthquake, they’re about to come face to face with the real Easter. This is the Easter story: you start out to bury Jesus and end up proclaiming his life. You lose your friend and find the Lord.

Can you see them on the way to the tomb? Like a group preparing a funeral lunch, like people setting up the tables and chairs, they’ve come to properly bury Jesus. They wonder about the difficulty; they’ve brought the things they’ll need. Ancient Palestinian tombs were places where families gathered for picnics, where they went to remember and they are going to get everything ready. They are following a map, as we do, the map of grief. We look at its ways, we check off its steps. They are not prepared for Jesus’ death; nothing prepares us for death. But they are prepared for him to be dead. They know what to do: they do what they did last time. Matthew tells the story with care. Everything is just as expected. It’s early, just after dawn; the soldiers are guarding the tomb, the world is quiet, Jesus is dead and buried. They are doing what they did last time.

At the Tomb

But at the tomb, everything changes. Matthew says there is a kind of earthquake; perhaps the true earthquake is the stunning surprise when their map suddenly disappears, when last time is no guide to this moment. For Jesus isn’t there. None of the gospel accounts tell the details of the resurrection; all the accounts agree on this stunning surprise: that the women went to a tomb, expecting the dead Jesus and found he wasn’t there. What they did last time, what they believed from their past, what they knew about things staying the same suddenly didn’t apply. Instead, they meet this strange angelic figure; instead, they are told three things: go, tell, see. Go tell his disciples he is going to Galilee, going home, and there you will see him. The surprise of Easter is that Jesus is not done with them; Jesus is not done with us.

It was, we are told, in the breaking of the bread that Jesus was seen. It is when we together believe and act from the faith that Jesus is not done with us that we will see him. Today, this day; tomorrow, and all the tomorrows, may you see him with you. For he is not buried long ago and if we seek him there, we will not find him. Instead, we should look where he said: going ahead of us, inviting us to follow, where he is going next.

An Easter Story

One of the great bedrock proverbs of our culture, a saying we hear in our heads and recite to each other is, “People don’t change.” But in fact people do change, people change every day and that is resurrection. In his book, New Mercies I See, Stan Purdum tells about a little baby that would not have survived if he had not had the right people in the nick of time.

Lucille Brennan had lived a hard life, but found faith in Christ in her mid-fifties and turned her life around. As a way of making up for being such a poor parent to her own illegitimate son, Lucille became a foster parent. The director of the Department of Children’s Services considered Lucille one of their best foster parents and asked her to take one of their sadder cases.
Little Jimmy, five months old, had been beaten unmercifully by his mother’s live in boyfriend whenever he cried. Jimmy had been so emotionally damaged that now he wouldn’t cry even when he was hungry or wet or cold. Everyone was afraid that the damage was permanent. Lucille determined that Jimmy needed to be held, and held a lot. So for weeks, Lucille did everything one-handed. Her other arm was busy cradling Jimmy, who remained silent as ever.
Jimmy wouldn’t cry to tell her he was hungry, so Lucille made it a point to feed him on a regular schedule. Lucille would get up in the middle of the night and check on him. Sometimes he was asleep, but other times he just lay there awake and quiet. When she found him like that, she picked him up and rocked him until he drifted back to sleep.
Of course Jimmy went to church with Lucille and the entire congregation heard the sad story of this baby who was too afraid to cry. On the fifth Sunday after Jimmy had been placed in Lucille’s home, the pastor was well into his sermon when he heard something and stopped talking. It was a little cry. And when people turned to look, they saw Lucille with a big smile on her face and tears pouring out of her eyes. But the crying sound wasn’t coming from her, it came from the bundle she held in her arms.
Eileen, who was sitting next to Lucille, stared as the little boy took a deep breath and started crying louder. Finally, Eileen couldn’t contain herself and in an action unusual for a bunch of quiet Lutherans, she exclaimed, “Praise the Lord.” At that same time the entire congregation broke into an enthusiastic applause – probably the first time in history that worshipers had applauded because a child cried in church.

Do you see that this story is the Easter story? A woman, a person, finds resurrection and lives her life from it, giving life to others. She embraces a baby who’s silent and dying. Through her embrace, Jimmy learns to cry. Now if you search the scripture, you will find this ever present reality: God hears cries. Whether it’s Hagar in the wilderness, or Jimmy in church, God hears cries and makes them the occasion for grace. Someone changed: someone loved, someone was saved by which we mean able to grow up into the person God hoped.

Resurrection Is Where We Are

We come to the tomb today. It’s important to recognize where we are today. It’s important to know this place. This is the tomb. This is the cemetery. This is the world. It may be pretty. It may be familiar. It may look nice and smell sweet but this is the tomb. The world is a tomb and our call is not of this world, our call is not in this world. We are called like the women of this story to get up and get going. Jesus is not here; Jesus is gone, Jesus is gone to Galilee, Jesus is gone to glory. Where is Galilee? It’s back where he came from; it’s back where we come from, it’s home. Resurrection is where we are, not some other time or place. So get up: don’t be afraid, if he could escape the tomb so can you. Get up: you’re not done, you’re not finished but you aren’t here to do what you thought, he has a new purpose and a different mission for you. Get up: go where he told you. Get up: go find him.

It was, we are told, in the breaking of the bread that Jesus was seen. It is when we together believe and act from the faith that Jesus is not done with us that we will see him. This is why we’re here together. It’s not just Lucille that taught Jimmy to cry; it was a whole congregation who loved and nurtured. Jesus never works alone; he always gathers people together. We are among the people he gathers. So in our going, we go together, helping each other, nurturing each other.

Today, this day; tomorrow, and all the tomorrows, may you see him with you. For he is not buried long ago and if we seek him there, we will not find him. Instead, we should look where he said: going ahead of us, inviting us to follow, where he is going next.

Finding Jesus

We will find him where he said: in the eyes of the homeless, in the service of the hungry. “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,” he says. We will find him when we make the resurrection of those around us as important the decoration of our tables. We will find him when we are more interested in following him than finding our own way. We will find him when, as Paul says, we have the mind of Christ in our own mind. Then,, then indeed, Easter will come not only for us, but from us. Then, our church, our lives, will proclaim this glad news, “He is risen!” for he will be risen, risen in us, and we will have found him.

We’ve been thinking about conversations with Jesus for six weeks. We’ve heard them, I’ve preached about them, we’ve imagined them. It’s time for our own conversation with Jesus. For if we believe he is alive, wouldn’t he still be talking with us, sharing with us, meeting with us? And here is the question we ought to be asking, all of us, every day: what now, Lord?


Right Here, Right Now

Conversations Before the Cross #5:What Now, Lord?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Fifth Sunday in Lent/A • April 2, 2017

John 11:1-45

Most mornings at our house begin the same. Waking up, getting out of bed, dressed while an excited dog runs back and forth, urging me on. We go downstairs, hook up the leash, out the door and then open the garage door to reveal the day. This past week, several of those openings have revealed a cold, rainy backyard. Now Lucy hates rain, hates being wet. There she is, straining at the leash, pulling me forward until she comes to the rain. I see her look out, recognize the situation and then she just stops, as if to say, “I’m not going out there in this.” Every moment is a gate between the past and the future; every moment comes with a context and holds possibilities. Today we’re invited into this final moment before Jesus comes to Jerusalem, today we are invited to face the darkness of death and see the possibilities of resurrection. Today we are asked to stop in this moment and consider our own lives in the light of these other lives. What then? What now?

Conversations Before the Cross

Throughout this season of Lent, we’ve been overhearing Jesus’ conversations. We heard him talk to Satan, responding to each temptation to live from his own needs with God’s Word and a determination to live that Word. We heard him tell Nicodemus about new life by being born from above, from living as a child of heaven. We heard him offer a woman at a well in Samaria living water, flowing from the love of God, baptizing her in a way that opened the way to new life. We saw him heal a man born blind and the conflict it caused when his eyes were opened and he believed in Jesus. Now we come to this story and there are so many people, so many conversations going on that it’s hard to hear Jesus directly. What do you hear in the story?

Dealing With Death: Avoidance

See how carefully John invites us into the scene. Bethany is a suburb of Jerusalem. Mary and Martha are gathered there; Lazarus, their brother, is deathly ill. I know this scene and perhaps you do as well. It’s played out in hospital waiting rooms every day. Right now, at Albany Med, at St. Peters, some family is gathered, waiting, talking, worrying. Nothing has changed; nothing is different, then, now. Their brother has been sick, perhaps for a long time. Everything has been tried; nothing has worked. Now they try one more thing. Jesus has a reputation for healing and he’s their friend. So someone, another friend perhaps, is sent to get him. Imagine their hope, their last hope, that Jesus will swoop in and save the day.

But he doesn’t. In fact, after the messenger arrives with his frantic plea, Jesus doesn’t rush off, Jesus doesn’t interrupt whatever he’s doing, Jesus stays where he is, the text says, two more days. The story invites us into an irony that reflects our own fears. When the messenger arrives, asking, begging Jesus to come to Bethany, his disciples are afraid. “The last time we were down there, people rioted and we barely got out with our lives!”, they remind him; that’s what it means when it says they were stoned. At the moment Jesus is asked to intervene and prevent Lazarus’ death, the disciples urge him not to go because they’re afraid of death. Here’s one response to death: avoid it, stay safe. Before death, use your mind to escape death.

Jesus doesn’t listen to them. When his disciples were discussing the man born blind, he told them, “I am the light of the world.” Now he gives them an example of living in the light and makes his way to Bethany. There he encounters first Martha and later Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, and each one confronts him with an accusation: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They are grieving, they are hurt, they are angry and their anger and faith have mixed into a bitter blindness. Swirling around this entire conversation is a group of other mourners as well and emotions run high. Jesus is himself caught up in the moment; the text tells us “Jesus wept.” So here we have a second response to death: weep, mourn, grieve. If the rational process of avoiding death fails, the emotional process of grieving offers a path.

Jesus at the Grave

Now I imagine we’ve all been to a funeral and probably to that time before the service, calling hours, wake, different names for the same moment. Usually there is a casket or an urn at the front of the room and a line leading to it with a grieving family off to one side. I don’t know what you think of as you wait in that line but for many, it’s what to say to the family. What comfort can you bring? What story can you share? So I imagine this scene like that: the family and friends gathered around as Jesus, Lazarus’ great friend, comes forward through the crowd. See him walking slowly? See him weeping? Now he comes to the opening, he tells them to roll away the stone and they object: the odor of death will escape. But the grave is opened and suddenly he speaks, he says what no one imagined or expected, what none of us would say: 
“Lazarus, come out.”

Jesus shouts: “Lazarus, come out”, the same word is used at his entrance about the way the crowds shout “Hosanna!”, the same word is used days later when the same crowd shouts, “Crucify!” The crowd changes from moment to moment; Jesus never does. His voice doesn’t come from an impulse. This is what we often miss about Jesus. I don’t believe he suddenly decided to talk to Nicodemus or the woman at the well; I don’t believe he suddenly decided to heal the man born blind. And he doesn’t just call Lazarus out of the tomb because they are friends. Jesus lives from who he is. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” This is the quality of his life that inspired and continues to inspire: he doesn’t act like resurrection, he is resurrection; he doesn’t act like he loves, he is love.

Now he calls Lazarus: “Come out!” And now there is a faint noise from inside the tomb, now there is the sound of stumbling feet, now there is a shadow moving, moving toward the light from the darkness, just as the man born blind moved from blindness to sight, just as the woman at the well moved from her loneliness to love. “Come out, Lazarus!” And Lazarus stumbles forward, wrapped still in the linen cloths with which bodies were bound in that time. Jesus offers a new command: “Unbind him and let him go.” And they do. Notice that in each command, Jesus invites others to take action. He tells others to move the stone; he doesn’t pull Lazarus out of the tomb, he calls him out; he doesn’t unbind him, he asks the whole group there to do this. Jesus works through a community around him, commanding, inspiring, calling, showing them what to do and inviting them to do it.

A Third Way: Calling People to Life

We’ve seen two ways to deal with death: avoidance and acceptance. Jesus offers a third—faith in the resurrection, faith in the power of life, faith in the love of God so that even in the midst of death, we remain alive to God, as Paul will say later, transformed. That faith can bind us together into a people gathered in the name of Jesus. Just being a church doesn’t guarantee that; there are plenty of churches who are gathered around a shared culture or a determination to preserve the past.

The fundamental Christian mission: to go to where the power of death is working and call God’s children to life, to go to darkness and bring light. Perhaps a story from almost two thousand years ago is so distant it seems irrelevant. But there are still times when Christians are called to go into tombs and bring life. In 1940, Holland was overwhelmed by a German assault and captured almost in a few days. Soon the Nazi focus on eliminating Jews made itself felt. In Amsterdam, a large theater was gutted and used as a detention center and nearby another called the Creche, was used to gather Jewish children. A small group of Dutch resisters, both Christians and Jews, began to work to save these children. Despite the increasing risks, for the next three years they organized networks to smuggle children out of the creche to homes in northern Holland and other places where families would hide them and help them. The creche was meant to be the first stage of a tomb for these children and so it was for thousands. But thanks to the efforts of these who walked into that tomb and spirited them out, hundreds of children were saved.

Facing the Darkness

But it’s not simply a story of heroes and happy children. Many of the group were lost to the Gestapo, arrested, tortured, murdered. Darkness is powerful; death does not give up. The only power greater than death is resurrection, the only thing that can keep the light alive is the power of God’s love. All along his journey, Jesus has faced conflict and threats. We saw the anger of the Pharisees last week when he healed the man born blind. We know that the charge, “He eats with sinners,” was frequently used and that included people like the woman at the well certainly. Beyond the reading for today, John tells us that the raising of Lazarus leads directly to the plot to arrest and execute Jesus. Remember how Jesus’ conversation with Satan ended. Satan did not say, “I give up”; instead, we’re told, he left him for a more opportune time. Now that time is coming. The darkness is closing around him even as he himself brings light. I wonder in that moment what his followers thought; I wonder what we would have thought, what I would have thought. I read this story and I want to rejoice but it scares me as well. I wonder: what now Lord?

Called by Jesus

For the story of Jesus calling someone to life from death isn’t just history; it is the present too. Over and over in my ministry I have seen this happen. Some person, nurtured by a congregation, comes alive. Perhaps it was a woman whose life had been bound by walls of oppression; perhaps it is a man who turns a life around. Perhaps it is someone who only comes to church for a little while and then moves on. This is what sustains me on my journey. I’ve seen Jesus call people to life. I’ve felt Jesus call me to life.

Every moment is a gate between the past and the future; every moment comes with a context and holds possibilities. As we go out each day, we have to choose among those possibilities. How will we choose? The power of resurrection comes into our lives when we face the day, face the possibilities, face the choices with this question first: what now Lord? What now? If we ask, surely he will answer; if we ask, surely he will show us how to walk in the light, how to live following the one who is life. Amen.

Note: The account of the Resistance group working to save children is found in The Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage

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.”


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”?