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
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.
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”?