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Where are you headed?
Where are you going? How did you get here?
You probably walked or drove your car to get from home to church, but I’m talking about the broader sense of “here.” How did you get to where you are today? Physically, emotionally, spiritually…
Will you continue in that direction or is it time for a change?
Back in the first week of Lent we were asking the question, “Who will you listen to?” On our journey of seeking God during this season of Lent, who have you been listening to? Who are we following?
Almost 20 years ago, when my family first moved to South Carolina, our church was having a theme day, encouraging everyone to wear shirts that represented their favorite sports team. Having just arrived from Los Angeles, we had no team shirts of any sort, so we went to Walmart where there were t-shirts for the local colleges and high schools. I didn’t care which team’s shirt I wore. I just wanted one that wasn’t some horrible color. As I was taking a shirt off the rack, a woman I’d met at church the previous week happened by. “Is this for next Sunday?” she asked. I said it was. “Well, then you don’t want to wear that one. You’d better go with one of these.” And she handed me an orange shirt. So I put back the maroon shirt I’d been about to buy, the one that represented UnivSoCarolina, Clemson’s rival, and bought the Clemson shirt, thankful that she had shown me how to be acceptable in our new place.
I didn’t know then that I would end up attending Clemson. I didn’t know anything about the rivalry, or even, at that point, all that much about football. I just wanted to fit in and be welcome in our new church. I was just going along with the crowd.
Is that what’s happening in our gospel reading today from Matthew 21? Verse 10 says, “The entire city of Jerusalem was in an uproar as [Jesus] entered.” The people were asking, “Who is this?” We tend to assume that the uproar was all about Jesus, but the question the people were asking tells us that’s not quite true. Crowds were arriving in Jerusalem because it was Passover, one of the major festivals for which people came from all over Palestine. When people saw a man riding down the main road on a donkey, they figured he must be someone important, especially when those who knew Jesus were cheering and waving branches. Some of those who cheered, though, were probably just going along with the crowd.
That reminds me….the bigger the crowd, the more people show up for it.
In the book “The Last Week” by theologians Marcus Borg and John Crossman, they invite readers to consider the possibility that there were actually two parades occurring simultaneously in Jerusalem on this day. From the east, Jesus entered on a donkey. From the west, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, entered with an imperial guard. It’s entirely possible. Pilate didn’t live in Jerusalem. He lived in a city on the coast. He would come to Jerusalem for the major Jewish festivals, mostly to ensure that they remained peaceful and orderly.
In the book, Borg and Crossman describe the two crowds. People of status and means would be sure to come out to welcome the governor Pilate as he rode into town with his garrisons of soldiers. Those following Jesus would be more likely to be peasants. People may have been in the street that day for all sorts of reasons, some to see Pilate, some to see Jesus, some to be seen, and some who just got caught up in the excitement on their way to get settled in for Passover.
The juxtaposition of these two parades is the subject of our visual art piece for today.
Artist and pastor Lisle Gwynn Garrity titled this piece “Power Play.” She was inspired by Matthew 21, and by Borg and Crossman’s book “The Last Week.” (Mentioned above.)
The book talks about the two displays of power: “Jesus’ procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.”
Borg and Crossman invite us to imagine that “Two processions entered Jerusalem on that day. The same question, the same alternative, faces those who would be faithful to Jesus today. Which procession are we in? Which procession do we want to be in? This is the question of Palm Sunday and of the week that is about to unfold.”
The power of empire or the kingdom of God. Which parade are we cheering for? Which crowd would we be in?
These two processions were happening during what was known as the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. It was a 200-year period during which Roman imperialism reigned supreme. They kept the peace through strength and oppression. Any uprisings were quickly suppressed with brutal violence, and thousands who challenged the order of the day were crucified. That’s the kind of peace that Pilate represented as he traveled surrounded by armed soldiers.
We see that today in the nations where a totalitarian ruler maintains power by controlling what the people hear and see, and by imprisoning and killing any who threaten that power. Maybe a similar avenue of thought is in those who say the answer to quelling gun violence is to have more guns so people can fight back.
Jesus, in contrast, enters alone, with no soldiers, and no weapons. Later in the week, when Jesus is arrested by priests who bring a garrison of armed Roman soldiers, Jesus doesn’t fight back or even argue. He surrenders. A different way of peace.
One of the hardest ideas for me to wrap my head around is that Jesus, the son of God who created all people, would in his divinity know all those men and wish the best for them. God sent Jesus because God loves the whole world (John 3:16), not just those who were following Jesus. After Jesus had been nailed to the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
We often say these days how deeply divided our country is politically. Sometimes it feels like that’s something new, but it’s not. Deep divisions happen throughout history, and we can mark the seasons of history with the wars that were fought over those divisions. The divisions existed in Jesus’ time as well, and were a factor in Jesus being crucified. And yet he prayed for those who were crucifying him, just as we are called to pray for everyone. 1 Timothy 2:1 says to pray for all people, and then verse 2 specifically says to pray for those in authority so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies and for those who persecute us. (Matthew 5:43-46)
But we’re naturally more likely to keep the peace by surrounding ourselves with people who think like we do, people who agree with us. That’s much easier than figuring out how to stay calm when someone offers an opposing idea.
I like to think that I’m good at staying calm in the face of opposition, but this week at our presbytery meeting I was reminded that I’m not any better at it than the next person. At this meeting we were voting on amendments to our denomination’s constitution, our Book of Order. We use Roberts Rules of Order to keep our discussions orderly, and those who want to speak for or against the amendment can do so in turn. Our moderator, Jeremiah Lange, made sure we had equal number of statements for and against. In those statements I found that not everyone had things to say with which I agreed, and some said things I flat out didn’t like. I was so glad that I’m not the moderator anymore, and I didn’t have to manage any of this.
I was impressed with our Transitional Executive Gail Doering because she is the pastor to all the pastors and the churches, in a sense, and she has to work with all of us, whether she agrees with what we’re saying about these amendments or not.
We often say that about the leadership of our churches, as well. I’m to be the pastor of all of you, whether we agree about everything or not. I pray for you all and I care about you all, even though we don’t agree about everything. Our example is Jesus who prayed for those who were persecuting him. He also didn’t shy away from doing what he came to do, regardless of the opposition he encountered. He did all the good he could do in the time he had:
- healing people, feeding people, serving people,
- telling people about God’s love and grace and peace,
- encouraging people to turn to God.
I’ve painted a picture, borrowing from Borg and Crossman, and today’s art, of two avenues of peace, one achieved through strong shows of power and brutal violence and oppression, the other through servanthood, love, and surrender. I think we might all agree that the second way is what Jesus teaches, though we might not all agree about how to put that into practice.
This week again the news was full of shootings, prompting our denominational stated clerk, the Rev. Dr. J Herbert Nelson II, to urge all of us to speak out about gun violence. Here is some of what he said:
“It is not just a problem for the government. It’s a spiritual problem as well. The church needs to speak out. Every pastor needs to preach about this issue from the pulpit. Ruling elders, deacons and members must call for action from the government. How can we love one another when we are packing pistols to kill one another? We have to be more vigilant in the church, and that means more than just preaching. It means more than just taking back old guns through a buyback program.
“Today, someone we don’t personally know is gunned down. Tomorrow, it could be one of our children or someone else we love. We are in a time where any of us can be a victim of random violence, whether we are out shopping, in the yard playing with our children, any time we send our children to school or get in the car and drive down the street. We don’t have control of it until we take a major step in changing the laws of this land.
“Pray endlessly for comfort and love for the community scarred by this latest incident. Pray that God will work in the lives of those who have the authority and power to make real change. May our country once again turn to God for guidance and direction.”
We will pray together later in the service about this, and I pray about this a lot and I encourage you to pray about it too. I also write our state and national representatives about this and other issues. But what else can we be doing? Whatever we do, we’ll be stronger if we do it together and with God.
Maybe there were two processions that day in Jerusalem, or maybe there were two different ways of seeing the one. Sometimes we see what we want to see. Sometimes we see what people tell us to see. Sometimes we may just going along with the crowd.
Which brings us back to our question for today: “Where are you headed?”
Jesus was headed toward the cross where he was crucified and died. On this road he was the servant of us all. As we follow Jesus, may we do the same.
I will close with the lyrics of a hymn that was written by a songleader in New Zealand named Richard Gillard.
Will you let me be your servant?
Let me be as Christ to you
Pray that I may have the grace
To let you be my servant too
We are pilgrims on the journey
We are travellers on the road
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load
I will hold the Christ light for you
In the night time of your fear
I will hold my hand out to you
Speak the peace you long to hear
I will weep when you are weeping
When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you
I will share your joy and sorrow
Till we’ve seen this journey through
Will you let me be your servant?
Let me be as Christ to you
Pray that I may have the grace
To let you be my servant too
 Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash
 Image By: Jean Louis Degienne
 By Wilhelm Morgner – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=155912
 “Power Play” by Lisle Gwynn Garrity Inspired by Matthew 21:1-11 Silk painting with digital drawing and collage
 Borg, Marcus J. and John Dominic Crossman. The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem. (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006). 2.
 Borg, Marcus J.; Crossan, John Dominic. The Last Week (Kindle Locations 556-558). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
 Photo by Cdoncel on Unsplash
 Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash
 Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, “Stated Clerk Calls On Churches to be More Vocal about Gun Violence” March 28, 2023 https://www.pcusa.org/news/2023/3/28/stated-clerk-calls-on-churches-to-be-more-vocal-ab/?fbclid=IwAR2HpCN_gcWREhJ054xTeC2qusoXjkMNi8W5MCTug-GbBhCKe3Cd-FeD_2E
 Photo by Clint Patterson on Unsplash
 Writer: Richard Gillard https://www.last.fm/music/David+Haas/_/The+Servant+Song/+lyrics