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Sermon for April 17, 2010 -- Palm Sunday

Lent: Letting go of Death
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As Jesus and the disciples approached Jerusalem, they came to the town of Bethphage on the Mount of Olives. Jesus sent two of them on ahead. “Go into the village over there,” he said. “As soon as you enter it, you will see a donkey tied there, with its colt beside it. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone asks what you are doing, just say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will immediately let you take them.” This took place to fulfill the prophecy that said,
“Tell the people of Israel,
‘Look, your King is coming to you.
He is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.’”
The two disciples did as Jesus commanded. They brought the donkey and the colt to him and threw their garments over the colt, and he sat on it. Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road ahead of him, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Jesus was in the center of the procession, and the people all around him were shouting,
“Praise God for the Son of David!
Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Praise God in highest heaven!”
The entire city of Jerusalem was in an uproar as he entered. “Who is this?” they asked.
And the crowds replied, “It’s Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” -- Matthew. 21:1-11

In case you did not get the save the date card in the mail, Jesus is returning on May 21, 2011. At least according to Harold Camping. Harold is the president of Family Radio, a company that owns 150 Christian radio outlets across the country, including our area. He claims that he’s mathematically uncovered the date May 21, 2011 as the time of Jesus’ return. Here’s how it works: May 21 is exactly 7000 years since Noah's flood. Why is that important? Well, because Jesus said that his coming would be like in the days of Noah, and since the flood came in 4990 B.C. (according to Camping’s calculations), and since Noah was on the ark for 7 days before the flood came, and since one day with the Lord is as 1,000 years to God, 7 days God’s time or 7,000 years human time, is the waiting period before judgment. Subtracting one year because there was no year “0″ brings us to May 21, 2011. Oh what a tangled web.

I read a story about one convert who is so convinced that Harold Camping is correct, she moved to North Carolina to spread the word. Allison Warden says her family is so sure of this date they're putting up billboards announcing the return of the Messiah on May 21, 2011. Why North Carolina? Of all places, don’t you think Christian in North Carolina would have heard about this by now? As it turns out, Camping’s radio show broadcasts in 38 states -- but not North Carolina. So Allison Warden moved her family there to spread the word. She even set up a website to warn people.

Oh . . . Did I forget to tell you that Harold Camping previously predicted that Jesus would return in 1994? Of course, Jesus did not come. Don’t get mad at Camping though. He just did the math wrong. This has not stopped people from converting to his message.

If you can’t tell, I think people like Harold Camping are nuts. I also think they are dangerous. They use fear to make religious converts. When faced with the prospect of eternity in Hell, people like Harold want to scare converts into following his punishing, judging Jesus.

In response, we liberals grow uncomfortable with all this conversion talk. And rightly so. We have seen people manipulated, marginalized and mind-controlled through religion. Some of us have been on the receiving end of it all. But I wonder if we gave it up the concept of conversion too quickly. After all, conversion is about change, not of who you are, but of how you experience life. Conversion doesn’t mean that you’ve turned into another form of protoplasm. You’re still human, but you’re not quite the same, either. You experience life differently. You understand God’s spirit in a new way. The presence of God feels more real. Can we have these experiences without becoming dangerous?

I wonder if you’ve ever experienced such a change – a time when Christ called you to a new place in your life – a time when you sensed God leading you to turn your life around and to do a new thing. In other words, have you ever experienced a moment of conversion? Some people think conversion is something that happens at a religious revival or as a response to a call to get saved and come to Jesus. In the world of Evangelical Christianity, people speak of being born again. They are usually referring to the moment when they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior . . . when they were, in effect, converted from old life to new birth. There is a definite process involved in this conversion: stop sinning, express genuine faith, accept Christ, be filled with the Spirit, get baptized and join a church. A person who is a wastrel repents, gives his life to Christ, and becomes a street corner preacher. An insolent teen druggie gets saved and becomes a Christian rock star. A chain-smoking, poker-playing grannie accepts Christ and begins a Christian Praise Aerobics class in the town. People get converted and begin signing their letters “yours in Christ.” In a decision of faith, people hear the call of God, they leave behind their old life, and they became born again in Christ. Many people think about conversion in this manner. It is instant and identifiable.

There are others of you here today who were baptized as infants and raised in the church and you don’t have a conversion story that sounds anything like what I just described. You have never experienced a moment when decided to accept Christ and were “born again.” For many of you, there’s a sense of having always believed in God. The life of faith has not been defined by a moment in time, but rather by an ongoing process. An uneasy tension always arises between those who have had a life-defining conversion moment with Christ and those who have enjoyed a slow and gradual relationship with God. The born-agains are seen by the traditionalists as pushy hurricanes who hammer religion down everyone’s throat. The traditionalists are seen by the born-agains as stagnant water in need of some serious stirring. Both sides say “My way is God’s way.” Both points of view refuse to believe that God will do anything other than what one’s personal experience dictates. Caught in the middle are those who want to turn, and change, and grow in Christ -- to be neither hurricane nor puddle, but filled with the life-giving water of Christ. Maybe we all need a conversion -- a turning – a change of perspective.

Here is the reality of my life. Even though I can pinpoint various conversion moments in my own experience, I don’t live a life of 24-hour peace, joy, and victory. I guess I committed my life to Christ with the expectation that Christianity would be like living in a new Eden. But, many times, my life feels like a dried up river bed. Sometimes I still get anxious. I still struggle with some bad habits and defeating attitudes. Much of my faith journey feels like wilderness time– struggling with temptation and trying to fathom the meaning of what life is throwing at me at any moment. I bet that for many of you people of faith, no matter how you got here, life may be the same. Life is lived in the neutral zone.

Our culture knows little of how to prepare us for the waiting involved in the neutral zone. We are eager to use medications and entertainment, distractions and remedies, to help us avoid the pain and helplessness that the neutral zone imposes. But, maybe our conversion comes from waiting, and reflecting, and even dying in this neutral zone. Suffering is, I am sorry to say, the most efficient means of transformation. Grief especially has unparalleled power to open our eyes and open our heart, but only over the long haul. After all, new beginnings come only after an ending. New life only comes after death. True conversion has to turn from something in order to turn to the life to which God is calling. If this is all true, then maybe conversion is a single moment AND a process, but never just an end. Conversion is a beginning point, and a daily re-orientation to the things of God. Maybe God is continually renewing us and calling us to turn from death to life, and from old to new.

Maybe conversion happens when we admit that God can work in us however, whenever, and through whatever means God chooses. Maybe conversion is not a one-size-fits-all garment. Maybe Christian conversion is worked out by each individual within the community of faith.

Palm Sunday symbolizes the kind of conversion I’m talking about. Gentle Jesus, riding on a donkey to the cheering of crowds, is about to enter the neutral zone. Jesus may have been uneasy with the cheering crowds. The word “Hosanna” does not mean “Hip hip hooray.” It means “Help us! Save us!” Some of the onlookers call out for Jesus to rescue them from Roman domination. Others coax Jesus on, hoping that he will overstep the law. As soon as Jesus enters the city, he immediately attacks the Temple. Some people in the city see him as a trigger for their revolution against Rome. Others see Jesus as a threat to the order of the Jerusalem. Others may be city dwellers who don’t understand why a nobody from Nazareth is entering the City of God as a war hero on the back of a donkey. In the midst of it all, Jesus rides on to death, going where God leads him, facing the neutral zone of Holy Week. He will be tempted to turn away. He will be falsely accused. His friends will leave him. He will die as Rome’s public example of what happens to those who defy the Empire. And on a cross, his arms will stretch to embrace the world. Jesus will die, and he will lie in the neutral zone of a tomb for three days. New life will come, but not right away. Easter doesn’t come without some waiting, and some suffering, and some reflection on conversion from death to life.

On this final Sunday of Lent, what might happen to us if we let go of our fear of death and allow God to form us in the neutral zone? Sometimes, God visits us with a light so dazzling that we cannot help but be changed. But often, God's light shines more dimly, in ways and places we will not see unless we're keeping our eyes open for them. Just don’t rush it. Allow God to work. Sometimes it takes a while to move from death to life. It takes time to go from seedlings that are being hardened off to the winds of the world to fruit-bearing people. We cannot create conversion in ourselves or in others. But we can keep our lives open for the daily ways God invites us to be born anew.

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