The procession probably felt similar to when we have watched floats and marching bands pass by the church for the Franklin County Fair parade; or the parades held in Boston after one of our regional teams won a national title; or like the crowds gathered for a presidential inauguration. We know what that energy and fun feels like in our bones. This kind of procession has an air of triumph and provides a common bond amongst the gathered people.
Yet we know where this journey through Holy Week will take us. It will be this same crowd, or a very similar one, who days later will be crying out, ‘Crucify him’. After the storming of the capital on January 6, we know all too well how a crowd’s purpose can shift in an instant, from boisterous enthusiasm to deadly violence.* Maybe because of our own recent experience, it is easier for us to imagine how the crowd could have shifted from one extreme to another so suddenly.
It is also worth remembering the larger power dynamics at play in the wider culture. Just as Jesus is making his own triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, the Roman governor is arriving into the city with all of the pomp and circumstance of a royal parade.** The governor did not normally hang out in Jerusalem, but it was clear to those in the city why he was there that week: Passover.
Passover is one of the most significant holy days for the Jewish people, where they remember, and tell the sacred story of how God saved them from a similarly oppressive empire. The best way to squash any potential revolutionary ideas was to make the empire’s presence overwhelmingly known. And that is exactly what the governor was doing.
While there is much to reflect on with regard to these competing processions into the city (and I will post a link to Molly’s sermon from last year which covers this subject more thoroughly) or even to play with the dynamics of the crowd, I’d rather spend the rest of our time today focused on a different, maybe more subtle, part of the story.
What drew me in this year was that darn colt. After Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethphage and Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, he sends two disciples ahead of him to collect something he needs. A colt. Jesus says to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately’” (Mark 11:2-3).
When the two disciples arrive, they find a colt tied up outside on the street (Mark 11:4). When some bystanders notice what’s happening they ask, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” (Mark 11:5). The two disciples told the bystanders what Jesus had said, and “...they allowed them to take it” (Mark 11:6).
This section of today’s gospel lesson begs the question:
What does God need from us right now?*
Surely, Jesus could have provided his own colt. After all, we know that earlier in Mark’s gospel, Jesus:
At this point in the game, present day readers and disciples alike have a pretty good sense that Jesus of Nazareth is somehow God’s love made incarnate. Jesus seems to be able to do things the rest of us could not even imagine trying. So why on earth does he need his disciples to commit the antiquity equivalent of grand theft auto?
The gospel lesson begs us to consider:
What does God need from us right now?*
For many this question might be a tinge uncomfortable. Maybe it pokes at the outer edges of our struggle to understand our own self worth. After all, what could the Creator of the cosmos need from any one of us? What could the Architect of the universe possibly need from our parish family? The colt is a poignant reminder that relationships with God are not passive, whether they be personal or communal.
Genuine relationships demand that all parties are actively engaged, with real give and take. God is not a spiritual soup kitchen dishing out enough spiritual soup for us to get by until next week. God is living and breathing and engaged with us, even when we are tuned out. Our Creator yearns for us to be fully present with God and our community.
Think of one of the most valued and important relationships in your life. What makes it work so well? What makes you feel seen, loved, valued, and cared for in that relationship? How can you tell the other person feels the same? Healthy relationships require all parties to show up, to be there for one another through all the joys and challenges of this life. There is give and take, and it is beautiful when done well.
This darn colt is a reminder that God needs and wants us as much as we need God. It also means we each have something of value to offer God and her Church. Which begs the question, what does God need from us, right now?
And when we ask this same question in the context of community life, it is even more powerful.
What does God need from James & Andrew, right now?
In the coming week, you’ll be hearing from the clergy and vestry about when we hope to begin resuming some limited in-person worship. Meaning we are on the cusp of another transition, and transition is a holy time for collectively leaning into God and simply listening.
What does God need from James & Andrew, right now?
What might God need from our community at this particular moment?
We might begin exploring this question by simply noticing.
As a community of faith, we are uniquely poised to help the wider community during this tender moment, and there are any variety of ways the Spirit may call on us to engage.
As we make this journey through Holy Week, and prepare in the coming month to resume some limited in-person gatherings, I invite us to engage in the pregnant pause of this very moment and ask God:
What do you need from me right now?
What do you need from James & Andrew right now?
* This connection was first drawn for me in the Spreading Our Cloaks: Preaching Palm Sunday episode of Prophetic Voices: Preaching and Teaching Beloved Community Podcast.
** Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan, in The Last Week: What the Gospels really teach about Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem cover this topic thoroughly.
The psalm we have read together this morning, the first part of Psalm 51, is a very Lenten psalm, a Song of Lament. It’s attributed to King David, a cry of sorrow and repentance. It is subtitled within the collection as being David’s response after being confronted by the prophet Nathan of having slept with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah.
The poem expresses deep repentance, echoing the pain that comes of the burden of guilt. If it was, indeed David’s response to his wrongdoing, we can understand the depth of his remorse. The psalm calls for forgiveness and for cleansing.
Repentance and forgiveness are, of course, important Lenten themes; I invite you to think with me about them today.
Often the sorrows we suffer have to do with things that have happened TO us, things we haven’t been able to control, like losses, hurts, and disappointments. There are plenty of psalms that lament this kind of experience, bemoaning life’s general unfairness and the wickedness of others.
When wrongs are done to us by others, the unresolved hurt and anger can become a continuing burden that weighs us down and stands in the way of our living full and abundant lives.
The words we’ve read this morning, however, echo a different kind of pain.
In a moment that probably all of us have known at one time or another, the poet is confronting his own responsibility for that which brings him great sorrow:
I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,
When we pray the confession each week, we acknowledge the repeated ways in which we fall short of God’s will for us. Most of our failings are not so much a matter of malicious intent, as they are the result of laziness and inertia – taking the easy way.
As David did, though, most of us also carry a few places of deep regret where we are burdened by our more serious errors – the choices that linger in our memory and, when we dwell on them, stand in the way of living with joy and freedom.
One of the themes to which we are called, in Lent, is that of repentance. In the call to repentence, the Christian tradition has often emphasized the judgment, shame, and guilt that we hear it in today’s psalm:
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
The repentence Jesus called for, I would argue, is not primarily about shame and guilt, but about turning away from small and self-serving ways of thinking and living.
The gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims a message of acceptance, of affirmation and love that lead us to be outward-looking and life-affirming, loving because we understand ourselves to be loved.
But letting go of shame and guilt is not always easy.
Regret may be especially difficult in modern life because technology has enabled us to control so much of our experience. Technology allows us so many ways of enjoying “do-overs” that save us from having to live with our mistakes: we can just hit that little arrow and erase the words we’ve just typed; we can defriend and unsubscribe. Watching the lives of the rich and famous (as the media encourage us to do,) we know that some can buy their way out of many problems.
But the wrongs we can’t undo, the errors that result in broken relationships and harm done to others, cause us deep despair.
Let me suggest that painful as it is, a certain measure of regret and remorse can be good for us. They remind us that we can do better, they give us the incentive to repent, to recommit to who we want to be and how we want to live.
Further, experiences of remorse and repentance help us remember what matters. They put things in perspective and help us to see with clarity what is trivial and what is important.
The danger in regret, remorse, and shame is, as I’ve said already, the way in which they can disable us. They’re good when they remind and motivate us to work harder. When we cannot let go and move beyond remorse and shame, however, we become captive to painful memories that prevent us from experiencing joy, from exercising the giving parts of ourselves.
And, it seems to me, this is where this morning’s words from Jeremiah come in.
Jeremiah assures spoke to the people of Israel of God’s deep concern for God’s relationship with us. God expresses heartache over the sins of Israel, but looks toward time to come when God’s covenant will be written in people’s hearts – when relationship is not built on rituals and sacrifices, but on people’s genuine knowledge of and trust for God.
The last line in the passage is the important one here, in the context of thinking about repentance:
I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
God promises forgiveness. Even more unbelievable, God chooses to forget.
Like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, God awaits us with open arms, ready and longing to celebrate God’s love for us.
God chooses to forget. God wants to wipe away the shame and guilt that shadow our hearts, so that our hearts may be open to God’s grace.
How much different would our lives be if we could forgive and forget – both one another and ourselves - as fully as God does?
As we approach these final days of Lent, preparing to travel with Jesus the final journey, anticipating the empty tomb, I encourage you to do some inventory-taking this week.
Where are the areas where you want to live with deeper commitment to the life of generosity and love to which we’re summoned?
What burdensome memories do you carry of your own mistakes and failures that still require forgiveness? Ask God to help you believe that you are forgiven, and ask God to help you forgive yourself.
What burdensome memories do you carry of wrongs done to you that YOU would like to let go of in order to lead a fuller, more free, more joyful life? Ask God to help you with these, too.
In the name of the One who spared no cost in giving himself for our redemption.
I sometimes imagine God’s dream for creation is like a very large piece of marble, and that as stewards of God’s creation, we have been charged with doing the sculpting. As stewards, our job is not to decide what the marble block will become, but to faithfully chip away at the marble so the sculpture, God’s dream, might become fully unveiled. Each generation has slowly chipped away at the marble. As the block takes on different shapes, we sometimes believe we have figured it out. Surely this is God’s dream. Yet as we chip away, the block begins to show a fuller picture, and we find ourselves once again saying surely, this is God’s dream. From generation to generation, when we show up to sculpt, we gain new insights into God’s dream and our faith evolves.
When we have texts like today’s gospel lesson, I think it’s particularly important to remember all that we’ve learned about God’s dream in the nearly two thousand years since this text was written. Our understanding of God and the world has shifted immensely, and yet, we know God is still speaking to us through this text.
Here are some learnings we need to take into our reading of the text, as they inform the context with which we read it:
I realize that is a lot for us to hold as we meet today’s lesson. Yet I walk us through these shifts in understanding as a reminder that we must meet the scriptures and traditions we hold dear with reason. We are called to take and apply all that we have learned about God’s creation and dream every time we meet them. And maybe most importantly, that we must never stop learning. Our posture towards God must remain open and willing to grow as a people of faith.
Alright, now to the text itself (and I promise I’ll try to keep it short).
Today’s gospel lesson takes place early in John’s gospel when Jesus is in Jerusalem for Passover. During a visit to the temple, Jesus was so upset by the busy marketplace that he began flipping tables. Following this stunning display, one of the high ranking Jewish leaders named Nicodemus visited Jesus in the middle of the night.Nicodemus recognized something of God within Jesus, and he was heavily confused by it all. In the verses that lead up to today’s gospel, there is a pattern of Jesus speaking and Nicodemus misunderstanding. Then in today’s portion of the encounter, Jesus shifts into a monologue.
At the core of the speech is Jesus challenging others to see his role as God’s agent to save the world through the way of love:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his Child, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Child into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (3:16-17).[modified Son to Child]
In the eyes of God, we are beautiful, we are beloved, and yet we are also broken. An eye opening and humbling reminder that we are in need of God’s saving love. The passage addresses both who Jesus is and the complexity of who we are. As God’s Child, Jesus is the embodied manifestation of God’s love. Through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, followers of the way of love are invited into an encounter with divine love.* The point of the encounter is not our happiness or solving our problems, it is about a transformational encounter with divine love that will turn this world upside down and right side up again.*
Meanwhile, we are imperfect; and selfish at times. One of my favorite quotes from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is the opposite of love is not hate, but selfishness.
This passage, this Lent, we are invited to examine our own complexities. In the last year, when have we chosen ourselves over God, creation, and our neighbor?
And please note, I’m not talking about self-care. That is not selfish--that is good stewardship of God’s creation.
I am talking about the times we know we were in a position to be a force of love in the world, and instead we chose not to.
These questions are not meant to make us feel horrible, but rather to invite some rigorous self-awareness and honesty about where we need God’s love to keep growing as beloved, beautiful, broken children of God.
As we continue our journey towards Holy Week, I invite us to make time this week for self-reflection and prayer as we examine our own complexities and follow the way of love. Amen.
*Inspired by Rolf Jacobsen in Working Preacher’s weekly podcast.
You remember it – “If I speak with the tongues of humans and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Lots of people like to read this passage at weddings, but Paul was actually not writing about romantic love, as that context would suggest, but rather, about the love between believers in the community of the Church.
Paul’s letter is also well known and much beloved for his discussion of spiritual gifts, and his likening the community of believers to the body, which has many members, all with different roles to play, but all equally important.
This morning we have heard another passage that is especially pertinent for us in Lent, as we prepare to face Jesus’ death on the cross in Holy Week. Today’s reading is a theological gem, acknowledging the fundamental paradox and mystery of the cross.
But let’s start with the bigger picture. Paul spent about a year and a half in Corinth during his second missionary journey, somewhere between 50 and 52 CE.
Corinth was a large, international metropolis, probably not too much different from any urban environment today. It was a place of diverse religious and cultural ideas and practices, and its population represented a wide spectrum of social and economic backgrounds.
During his time in Corinth, Paul was instrumental in nurturing and growing the small Christian community there, and he developed deep ties with its members.
When he departed to travel on to Ephesus, Paul remained in touch with his friends in the Corinthian church, including through the letters that the Church preserved, one of which we listened to today.
Paul had learned that the Corinthians had fallen into bad habits – they were making bad choices, as parents and teachers say today. This is not surprising, given the larger context of being situated in a city where a wide variety of ideas and practices were continually vying for adherents.
Members of the church were visiting prostitutes and eating food given to idols at local temples. Worse than this was the bickering. Disputes over proper moral practice, as well as clashes between those in the church loyal to Paul and those who favored Apollos had splintered the congregation. Community members were suing one another.
Paul’s thinking is that the elitism and class hierarchies of the larger society had snuck into the dynamics of the Corinthian church: the “haves” were refusing to wait on or welcome the “have-nots”, even at the Lord’s Supper.
In response to all of this bad news from Corinth, Paul reminded his friends of the foolishness of the cross.
The supposed “wisdom” and knowledge of the world and its value systems has been overturned by God in Jesus’ surrender to the world’s power on the cross, Paul tells his friends.
It’s no surprise that the wisdom of the cross may have been – and, for goodness’ sake, still is – a hard claim to entirely get on board with.
In his homily last week, Bill Hattendorf reminded us of the role and realities of crucifixion in the world of the Roman Empire. As he pointed out, crucifixion was not only a cheap and common means of execution, but also served as a political deterrent to those who would challenge the authority of the state. Crucifixion was ugly and debasing, which is why Jesus’ disciples repeatedly rejected his teaching that he would die and that his followers must “take up their cross and follow.”
No wonder the world beyond the Christian fellowship in Corinth did not see wisdom in the cross. The worship of a god who had been crucified was mocked in non-Christian society.
The earliest-know (presumed) depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion is a graffito – a single image of graffiti – that was found scratched into a plaster wall near Palantine Hill in Rome, in a building that was used as a dormitory for imperial page boys.
Dating from somewhere between the 1st and early 3rd century, it has an image of a figure on a cross: the figure is human but has the head of a donkey or mule. Standing next to it, looking on with a hand raised, is another human figure. The caption reads “Alexemenos worships his God.” Apparently, an early example of middle-school bullying.
(A worthwhile postscript to this story, however, is the fact that in a nearby room in the Palantine Palace is another graffito that reads “Alexemenos is faithful.” It would be nice to think that this one was Alexemenos’ own self-affirmation.)
It is to this theme of others’ contempt for what Christians’ faith in God’s saving love that Paul re-directed the quarrelling church members in Corinth. The world saw belief in the power of the cross to be foolishness, Paul knew.
The assumptions of the world and its wisdom are not the wisdom of God, he reminds them. The privilege systems of the world that have found reflection in the life of their church community are not the life to which God was calling them.
It is the cross in all of its apparent weakness where God’s love enters the world in its fullest expression, and where God’s love transforms the world.
In his commentary on this passage, Presbyterian Pastor Adam Hearlson observes that in his missionary work Paul was teaching that the crucifixion and Christ’s resurrection had ushered in an entirely new age, and that the assumptions and identities which had been thought to be “innate and immutable” in the old age must now be re-evaluated and re-valued.*
Hearlson reflects how very hard it is to revalue identities that we have assimilated as deeply truthful and essential. To illustrate this in a way we will recognize, he offers an analogy that I found to be incredibly striking.
“As whiteness has slowly (sloooooooowly) lost some of its privileges, resistance and anger have risen among those who feel the value of whiteness changing.”*
Observing and understanding this phenomenon in our own context can perhaps help us to understand the back-sliding that was going on among the Corinthians.
And so, what about for us? We can listen to Paul and invite his words to the Corinthians to speak to us.
How fully are we willing to believe and commit to the power of the foolishness of the cross?
How often do we fight to overcome what the larger society tells us is weakness, and instead adopt what the world’s wisdom says is strength?
Where do we, like the Corinthians, work to maintain the structures and hierarchies that, in fact, divide us?
As we continue traveling the road to Jerusalem this Lent, may the Spirit give us her wisdom, open our eyes to see, and fill our hearts with the grace to change.
Meet our Preachers
Rev. Heather Blais,
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm, Associate Rector