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Sermon for April 9, 2006

Passion or Palms?[i]
Mark 11:1-11

With vacation season right around the corner, I came up with my own itinerary of CT attractions that I might drag my family to see. We will load up the camper and do a weekend tour of unique state attractions. Here’s what I think: We begin in Stratford at the Garbage Museum to learn about recycling and visit the dinosaur 24-foot long dinosaur sculpture created out of household garbage. While in Stratford we will stop in Boothe Park. In the early 1900’s the wacky Boothe brothers decided to put together a park of attractions. Buildings from all over the world were re-constructed and appear haphazardly around the park. The Boothe boys would appear in parades dressed as Uncle Sams and other interesting characters. The park also holds three log toll booths disassembled from the old Milford tollbooth, replicas of presidential birthplaces, a windmill, and a funky clock tower building.

From there we go to Waterbury to visit Holy Land, USA. For two decades, Holy Land USA has been a post-nuclear Road Warrior vision of the Holy land, perched on a bluff overlooking Waterbury. It’s a fascinating and horrifying wonder of neglect. The creator built hundreds of structures, and grottos using discarded plywood, tin siding, chicken wire, cement and fragments of religious statuary. Holy Land USA was a legitimate vacation destination for families in the 1960s and ‘70s, drawing as many as 44,000 visitors a year. It recreated a miniature Bethlehem, impenetrable assemblages of junk, creepy tunnels and blasted out buildings, stories of gang murders and a mysterious order of nuns. It is now gated up, but I here you can still see it from the perimeter gate.

By now the car will be dirty, so we will stop in Cromwell at the Wacky Car Wash. Then we head over to the Old Statehouse in Hartford to see the Museum of Natural and other Curiosities. In the early 1800’s, collector John Seward found albino critters, a two-headed calf, exotic birds, a giant lobster claw, and a pageant of taxidermy marvels. Next, we travel to Willimantic on July 4th for their annual Boom Box Parade. In 1986, when a local resident heard there would be no parade that year because the high school had no marching band, she went to the local AM radio station, talked them into broadcasting a couple hours’ worth of marching band music on July 4th, obtained a parade permit, and rounded up a bunch of friends to dress in red, white, and blue and carry portable “Boom Box” radios down the main street. It is still an annual event. We end our trip in New Haven with lunch at Louis’, birthplace of the hamburger. The burgers are made from fresh ground meat, and served with only cheese, tomato, and onion, NO KETCHUP. I suggest everyone gets there, but not in August, they are closed for the annual spoon inventory.

Of course, there will be packing to do. We will have to find a campground or two, get some good maps, save up some funds. A journey, even as strange as my little road trip, is a major event.

Today we embark upon another journey together. This week, our worship services will give us a chance to listen to Scriptures that take us from a field near Bethany to Jerusalem, from Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives, from there back to Jerusalem, and from Jerusalem to Golgotha. Finally there’s the journey from Calvary to the tomb. Each one of these journeys is a major event in itself. Each new path taken seems to draw us deeper into the darkness. Death and burial beckon us. The Holy Week services will only reinforce this reality. Perhaps that’s why many of us avoid Holy Week. We like happy endings. Let’s skip the pain and get on with the joy! Let’s wave the palms and cheer Jesus on, but avoid the pain of the passion that follows.

The Palm Sunday story begins with a donkey in a field. The donkey is of the most neglected characters in the Palm Sunday story. Donkeys are conventional beasts. They love doing things the same traditional way. The donkey is obviously a congregationalist. “Adventure” and “donkey” just don’t go together. It lives in the same field, treads the same path, and eats at the same hour-day-by-day, year-by-year. Then one day, strangers enter the field, put a halter around the donkey and pull it away. Most donkeys would resist. Donkeys can be very stubborn. It is one thing to be called to do something within the context of the life we enjoy. Journeys of faith are something else. Leave adventure to those odd folk who seem to have nothing else to do but get involved in a cause!

The handlers take the donkey to Jesus and they put clothes on it’s back. Had the donkey been able to speak it might have loudly objected that it was good enough as it was. It didn’t need dressing up. “I don’t come to where Jesus is to be changed. I come for comfort. I come for recognition, for affirmation. To be told that I am alright.”

Jesus sits on the donkey. No one ever rode that donkey before. It’s awkward for the little donkey to carry people around. Leave that to horses. In the ancient Middle East, kings could enter a city in two ways. Horses were used for war. So if the king road on a horse, it usually meant trouble. If they came in peace, they would ride a donkey, a humble act. Try telling that to the donkey. It might have done what donkeys do, reared, and kicked, and tried to throw its human cargo off. After all, carrying Jesus around is for religious fanatics, but surely not for us. We don’t come each Sunday to carry the yoke of Jesus around. What would our friends think? If we are asked whether we have given our lives to Jesus, we may prefer subtle denial.

So, the journey into Jerusalem begins and the crowds cheer and gave a ticker tape welcome (using palms instead). Maybe the donkey thought the cheers to be in honor and praise of donkeys! After all being a Jesus-carrying donkey was an extraordinary achievement. “What a unique donkey am I,” this animal might have thought. If it had attempted to acknowledge the crowds, Jesus might have been tossed aside. Instead the donkey plodded on to the place where Jesus would die.

All through Holy Week we find people drawn to Jesus. They hear him, but then they resist him, or try to change his message, or avoid what he asks people to do. Or they denounce him. The crowds who wave palms and cheer Jesus on, later cried “Crucify him!” Religious people plotted his death. Most of the disciples ran away rather than face suffering and death. They just didn’t like the way the story was working out. They feared reality. Peter denied him. He was scared. He couldn’t risk arrest. After all, Jesus put him charge. In the end only Simon of Cyrene was conscripted to be a faithful donkey and carry the cross, only the faithful and brave women and John the Disciple stood and watched the reality of a barbaric execution. Only Joseph of Arimathea was brave enough to offer a tomb.

Each of these journeys draws us into a world of darkness, of betrayal, of naked power, of cowardice and of death. Those of us who love a brave new world, inevitable progress, a comfortable pew, joy, peace, and love . . . Those of us who find illness, separation, betrayal, the use of naked force, darkness and death offensive, may be uncomfortable by this day and the days that now are before us. In 1974, a cultural anthropologist write a Pulitzer prize-winning book called The Denial of Death. Becker’s studies led him to believer that human beings are mortal, and we know it. Our sense of vulnerability and mortality fosters anxiety, even a terror, about our situation. So we devise all sorts of strategies to escape awareness of our mortality and vulnerability. This denial of death is one of the most basic drives in individual behavior, and is reflected throughout human culture. Indeed, one of the main functions of culture, according to Becker, is to help us avoid awareness of our mortality.

But Christian faith never offers an escape from reality. It draws us into the reality of this world as Jesus, who is one of us, confronts and submits to the worst humanity has to offer. Jesus dies. He really dies an agonizing and dreadful death. In that agony, Jesus dies to all the acts of betrayal, false ambition, power, authority, evil and corruption that lies within the human race and within each of us.

Today we begin a journey. It begins with palms. But those must be put down as remember the passion. For a few hours, when the last journey is over, we will be left with a dead Jesus in a tomb. There’s no Easter in the lessons today. Nor will there be all week. Unless we can walk these paths, leaving our comfort zone, our self-satisfaction, daring to walk beyond safety into the darkness of evil and death, carrying Jesus to the tomb, we will not even begin to grasp the power of the Resurrection.

[i] Based on “Palm Sunday,” by The Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier

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