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Sermon for March 29, 2015 / Palm Sunday

From Exhaustion to Revolution

As Jesus and his disciples approached Jerusalem, they came to the towns of Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives. Jesus sent two of them on ahead. “Go into that village over there,” he told them. “As soon as you enter it, you will see a young donkey tied there that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks, ‘What are you doing?’ just say, ‘The Lord needs it and will return it soon.’”

The two disciples left and found the colt standing in the street, tied outside the front door. As they were untying it, some bystanders demanded, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” They said what Jesus had told them to say, and they were permitted to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their garments over it, and he sat on it.

Many in the crowd spread their garments on the road ahead of him, and others spread leafy branches they had cut in the fields. Jesus was in the center of the procession, and the people all around him were shouting,

“Praise God!
    Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessings on the coming Kingdom of our ancestor David!
    Praise God in highest heaven!”

So Jesus came to Jerusalem and went into the Temple. After looking around carefully at everything, he left because it was late in the afternoon. Then he returned to Bethany with the twelve disciples
. Mark 11:1-11
I wonder about something. Jesus riding on a donkey to the acclaim of a rugged crowd, spreading green branches before him as a verdant carpet over the dusty crossroads at the city limits. I wonder.
I wonder how Jesus feels right before this Palm Sunday pageant.
I wonder if Jesus feels exhausted.
I wonder if the chilling shadow of the waiting cross makes him want to turn around.
I wonder if he knows, in the face of what lies ahead, he is a person of secret innocence.
I wonder if Jesus knows no darkness can hold him, and that nothing can stop upcoming vicious events from unfolding, and that the only chance for peace is to face death on his own terms.
I wonder if the saying of the ancient Rabbis was going through his head: “We are like olives: only when we are crushed do we yield what is best in us.”
I wonder if Jesus knew that exhaustion contain the seeds of regeneration and renewal.
I wonder, as his parade enters Jerusalem, as a crowd chants, “Hosanna,” and covers the dusty path before him with a green blanket of new life; I wonder if, at the brink of the gloomiest moment, Jesus knows the light is almost ready to shine again.

I wonder . . .

Most of us have moments like that, don’t we -- a season of exhaustion, feeling like we can’t take another step forward, facing our fears, doubting our strength and courage to carry on? We face those seasons when life feels like a dried-up lakebed with nettlesome scavengers stalking the shoreline. Hard times dry up our spirits and host a flock of worries. Forget about growing or benefitting from such hard times. We wonder whether we can just endure, hoping to find enough courage to tap that wellspring of human endurance: hope.

Robert A. Johnson was a devoted student and scholar of Carl Jung. He put it this way: “… Exhaustion is ... sometimes the best tool for enlightenment, as it gets the ego out of the way. It finally just wears down so that the divine can pour through." Sometimes exhaustion means something new wants to be born through the eroded channels that scar the dried up lakebeds in our lives.

We have a term for this experience in Christianity – these moments when we respond to that which wants to be born anew in our lives. We call it conversion.

Some people have some hang ups around this word. Some people think conversion is something that happens at a revival or a Billy Graham Crusade. Sinners come forward at the altar call to repent of their past life and accept a new life in Jesus. The well-known writer and pastor Eugene Peterson, the one who wrote the Bible paraphrase called The Message, tells a story about conversion. As a First Grade student, Eugene Peterson was discovered by the school bully – Garrison Johns.  Garrison beat Eugene up daily, no matter what he did.  Eugene tried to find alternate routes home.  Garrison found him and beat him up.  Peterson told his mom. She told Eugene that he must “turn the other cheek” and “bless those who persecute you” -- Not what Eugene wanted to hear. When Garrison found out Eugene was a Christian, the bullying went to a whole new level.  After he would beat Eugene, Garrison would taunt him with names like “Jesus Sissy!” This went on for some time.  Until one day it happened.  Eugene writes, “I was with my neighborhood friends on this day, seven or eight of them, when Garrison caught up with us and started in on me, jabbing and taunting, working himself up to the main event. He had an audience, and that helped. He always did better with an audience. That’s when it happened. Totally uncalculated. Totally out of character. Something snapped within me. For just a moment the Bible verses disappeared from my consciousness and I grabbed Garrison. To my surprise, and his, I realized that I was stronger than he was. I wrestled him to the ground, sat on his chest, and pinned his arms to the ground with my knees. I couldn’t believe it—he was helpless under me. At my mercy. It was too good to be true. I hit him in the face with my fists … By this time all the other children were cheering, egging me on … I said to Garrison, “Say ‘Uncle.’” He wouldn’t say it. I hit him again … More cheering. Now my audience was bringing the best out of me. And then my Christian training reasserted itself. I said, ‘Say, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”’ He wouldn’t say it. I hit him again. More blood. I tried again, ‘Say ‘I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”’ And he said it. Garrison Johns was my first Christian convert.”

It’s an amusing story. It’s also kind of sad. For some, this is the image of conversion – people getting beaten into submission by Christians. So, let’s re-think the term for a moment. Conversion means, “turn around” Conversion is a change of perspective, not of who you are, but of how you experience life. You’re still human in your DNA, but you’re not quite the same, either. You experience life differently.

In the world of Evangelical Christianity, people speak of being born again. They refer to the moment when they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. The moment of conversion is instant and identifiable.

I’m guessing that many of us here today don’t have that kind of conversion. You may have never experienced a moment when you decided to accept Christ and were “born again.” For many, there’s a sense of having always believed in God and feeling at home in the church. Conversion isn’t a moment, as much as it is an ongoing process of growth. Here’s the reality of my own life: I’ve had both experiences. I was raised in the UCC, where we thought of faith as a process. I also had a come-to-Jesus moment as a teenager when I felt called by Jesus to turn my life around. And, if we are being honest, despite both of those experiences, I still don’t live a life of 24-hour peace, joy, and victory. Sometimes my life feels like a dried up river bed. Sometimes I get anxious. I still skirmish with bad habits and defeating attitudes. Does that mean I did not experience a conversion?

Or, does conversion mean something else?

Could it be that conversion means admitting that God can work in us however, whenever, and through whatever means God chooses? Is conversion an ongoing, moment-by-moment opportunity to turn away from fear and turn towards hope? Maybe conversion is a beginning point, AND a daily re-orientation to Jesus. Perhaps God renews us continually and calls us to turn from death to life, from old to new, and it’s worked out between each individual and God within the safe nurture of a community of faith.

I wonder about something. I wonder if conversion is really about revolution -- a cycle of forward movement that leads back to the original starting point. We tend to think of a revolution as a sudden, unpredictable, even violent change. But revolution is actually another kind of turning. The original meaning has to do with regular, repetitive orbits around a fixed axis … like the revolution of a wheel or a planet. So whether we are talking about conversion, or transformation, or revolution, the effect is the same. Moving from exhaustion to revolution has to do with endurance.  Every once in a while, God visits us with a light so dazzling that we cannot help but be changed. But most often, God's light shines dimly, in ordinary ways and unexciting places. We don’t always notice how we change over time. Slowly. Gently.

So don’t rush it. I just read a story about Crater Lake—the deepest fresh water lake in America. It was formed by a collapsing volcano. With no inlet or outlet, it has been filled only by rain and snow. Do you know how long it took to fill that parched basis with water? 250 years! I’m just saying, whether it’s conversion, transformation, or revolution – sometimes it takes a while to move from life to death, and back to life again. We cannot create conversion in ourselves or in others. But we can keep our eyes open for the daily ways God invites us to respond to the Spirit.

I wonder something. I wonder if Palm Sunday begins a season of preparation. Maybe today is the beginning of a process of growth for us – a time of conversion.

I wonder if Palm Sunday begins a season of strength. Perhaps today marks a season of courage as we face the unknown future – a time of transformation.

I wonder if Palm Sunday begins a season of truth. Imagine whether we can enter a time of honesty with ourselves and curiosity about what God wants from us in the days ahead.

I wonder if Palm Sunday begins a season of grace. I wonder if today we can stop trying so hard to earn approval and simply enjoy our connection with God’s unlimited love.

I wonder whether we have the bravery to allow God to change and renew us; perhaps a conversion from chaos to order; maybe a transformation from fear to courage, or conversion from exhaustion to revolution.

I wonder.

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