Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Sermon for April 9, 2017 | Palm Sunday

“Who Is This Man?”

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” ~ Matthew 21:1-11

Where is the most troubled place in the world? According to the Global Peace Index, Syria tops the list. After the news of the past week, it’s not hard to see why as the country continues to be ravaged by a civil war considered to be the deadliest in the 21st century. It is a place of conflict and confrontation. Syria is also a place of deep significance to Christianity. Jesus gave his greatest and most memorable sermon, the Sermon on the Mount in Syria. Jesus was transfigured on a mountaintop before the eyes of his disciples during a meet-up with Moses and Elijah in Syria. Syria is the home of prophets and the cradle of civilizations. It is now in a serious storm of killing and violence, a place begging for peace even as it is destroyed from within by its own government and from the outside by the tussling empires of the world.

Some think that Jesus is not done with Syria. In the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad, there are writings called, “The Book Pertaining to the Turmoil and Portents of the Last Hour” which say, “... Allah would send Christ, son of Mary, and he will descend at the white minaret in the eastern side of Damascus wearing two garments lightly dyed with saffron and placing his hands on the wings of two Angels.”  In other words, Islamic prophecy predicts the return of Jesus in Syria. While some Muslims understand prophecies like this as literal, many other Muslims have never taken prophetic predictions as fact. With regards to the return of Christ, one Imam commented, “… to me the second coming of Jesus represents a coming peace between Muslims and Christians to establish a kingdom of peace and justice on the earth.”

As I prayed for Syria this week, I imagined that tide of peace. I imagined Jesus the anti-warrior in a Palm Sunday parade, not to Jerusalem but to the most troubled place in the world. I imagined Jesus returning to Damascus to the cries of Hosanna! Save us! I imagined people waving palm branches, the symbol of victory, the symbol of triumph, the symbol of peace, the symbol of life. When weapons often become the final arbiter of a fight, when violence seems to have the last word, I imagined Jesus riding to Syria and speaking the ironic words inscribed on the hilt of Mohammad’s sword, “Forgive him who wrongs you; join him who cuts you off; do good to him who does evil to you, and speak the truth although it be against yourself.”

As I prayed, my imagination took me to a place where Jesus, as the Christ of cosmic, universal love, entered Syria from all directions at once: north south east and west simultaneously —  a multi-directional protest. Sounds crazy, no? Then I read a similar idea by Ken Sehested of the Baptist Peace Fellowship. He proposed this idea years ago: Find a group of faith leaders from around the world—Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith traditions, and any and every religious tradition. Gather those so moved by the horror unfolding in Syria that they’re willing to take serious risks in response. Divided this unlikely entourage of faith leaders so that one group goes to Turkey, on Syria’s northern boundary; another group to Iraq, to the west; another to Jordan in the south; and the fourth split between Lebanon and Israel in the East. At a predetermined time, each of the four groups pushes past border checkpoints into Syria, banners flying and songs chanting, demanding that all conflicting parties — both within Syria and international backers — come to Damascus, be locked in a room and not allowed out until the framework of a negotiated process were reached. What if these leaders pledged to complete this mission even if it meant dying in the process?

Ten years ago an interfaith group of Christian and Muslim women in Liberia did just this sort of action and extracted from those warring political leaders a political framework to end the civil war. Is it crazy to think about hundreds, maybe thousands of national and international religious leaders converging on Syria from every point on the map? Is it too unrealistic to even imagine? Maybe. Is it any less far-fetched to think that cruise missile strikes against Syrian government forces will lead to a pause in the conflict and negotiations for a permanent settlement?

What if Palm Sunday emboldened a legion of those who, with the same courage and character of Christ, followed a wild and untamed God into the jaws of destruction for the healing of the nations, and for the children of Syria?

The very thought of it terrifies me … so now I’m ready to accept the message of Palm Sunday.

Look at the history of the world — the wars, fighting, and the protests throughout the Middle East — and you will recognize the turmoil that fills the heart of humanity.  Look at the turmoil in our own lives, and realize that we don’t have to march into the war-torn areas of the world to find cruelty. We can experience it in the fear and uncertainty of our future, the loss of financial security, a broken marriage, estrangement between parent and child, a disease that interrupts life’s plans. Each of us could name and describe our personal chaos. Think about a time when the foundations of your world were shaken; when your beliefs where challenged by turmoil; when the way you always did things did not work anymore and it made the way forward unclear. When our lives get turned upside-down, we mostly want life, people, God back to the way it was before. Some will pray to God to fix the problem and end the mayhem. Others will come to church seeking answers or an escape from the turmoil of our world.

Here is something I’ve been wondering. What if Jesus rides into our lives to create turmoil instead of soothing it? What if Jesus has been creating turmoil since the day he was born? I’m uncomfortable even saying it. If given a choice, I want the tame Jesus who brings comfort and security and makes life easy and happy. Read the Gospels closely, and we realize that comfort and security are not what Jesus is about. His life, his teaching, his behavior all caused turmoil. Palm Sunday is no exception. Jesus knew how to create chaos to find peace.

When people talk about peace, it is often about making our inner life at ease. Instead of being in a disturbed state, we wish to be calm. But the very process of trying to make our egos comfortable means navigating the process of discomfort. If we try to force ourselves to have inner peace, we lose our peace. A person who is trying to be peaceful will never actually be peaceful. Why? Because the peace that she achieves is only about making herself comfortable, and that comfort is temporary. Maybe you go to the shore to find some peace, because that is a place where you can relax. For a while, it works. You are peaceful. Suddenly lifeguards warn you to get out of the water because of sharks.  What happens next? All your peace disappears. Life is in turmoil again. It’s actually better to be disturbed at that moment. If you are in turmoil, you will respond to the warning. If you remain in a meditative trance in the face of chaos, you become complacent in the face of danger. Turmoil is not the problem. Complacency is the problem, and ego-worn paths to peace lead to complacency.

Waving palms and shouting “Hosanna, Save us!” will neither hide nor relieve the turmoil if those who praise peace are not also willing to confront the powers that create chaos. Those palms in our hands are the artillery of peace. They help us shake and agitate, disturb and disrupt. The palms branches in our hands point us to contradiction of Jesus’ identity and leave us asking, “Who is this?”

Jesus is not sweet baby-in-a-manger of Christmas card fame. Jesus is not our buddy and our pal. Jesus is not our copilot. Jesus is a life-giving, God-revealing, peace-creating man of turmoil. “Who is this?” How is he going to save us?  Doesn’t he know that if we follow him, we will all get into trouble? Does he really know that cost of choosing to bring human life into alignment with God’s life. Who is this? He is the one who teaches us the intimacy of washing feet and sharing a cup of wine. Who is this? He is the one who breaks open our lives, as if breaking bread at table with friends. Who is this? He is the one who shows us that to be powerful we must become powerless. Who is this? He is the one who says the only way to genuine hope and success of humankind is love and humility, not oppression and force.  Who is this? He is the one who calls us to die before death comes. The turmoil Jesus brings is the chaos out of which the hope of peace will be born on Easter Day.

Who is this and what has he done to us? He is the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord. Today Jesus is entering the most troubled place in the world.


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