Saturday, March 28, 2015

Palm Sunday and the Vocation of a Church

Mercy Church, Sioux Falls, South Dakota 
Palm Sunday, 2015

It is often helpful to have a sense, at the beginning of a lecture or a sermon, of where it is going. Since many churches are celebrating Palm Sunday today, I want to talk about Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, which marked the end of one kind of ministry in his life, and the beginning of something new in the church. I take yours to be a congregation that is also in a time of transition, so I’d like to offer you some questions to help you think about the next stage of the life of this congregation. In simple terms, I want to take a simple feature from the Palm Sunday story – the palms themselves – and use them as a way of thinking about our vocation as individuals and as congregations.

If you find it easier to follow a sermon when it’s written out, I’ve put the text of this sermon on my blog, which you can find by going to the address on the screen or by googling “slowperc” and “mercy church.” If ever you wanted an excuse to look at your phone during church, this is it. I might ad lib from that script a little, but I’ll try to stick fairly close to it.


Let’s begin with reading the story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. It is recorded by all four of the Gospels. Here is John’s version:

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord-- the King of Israel!" Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: "Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!" His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. (John 12:12-16)

The story is simple: Jesus came riding into town on a donkey, and people held palm branches as he rode by. Matthew’s Gospel adds that the people laid the palm branches and their own cloaks on the road in front of the donkey.

The Gospels often tell us such stories without telling us what they mean. I imagine that when the Gospels were written, it would have been obvious what this all meant, but since we don’t have city walls, we don’t ride donkeys for transportation, and we don’t have palm trees, the elements of the story are not part of our ordinary experience. That makes it a little harder to grasp what is going on here, which in turn can make it a little harder for us to figure out what the story means for us.

There’s a lot in the story I won’t bother to try to unpack, but I’d like to connect it to how we think about the vocation of a congregation. So for now, let me ask you to hold the Palm Sunday story in the back of your mind, and consider another passage of scripture with me:

 For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2.10)

We know the body is made of different parts. Each person here has a different set of gifts. One body, many parts; one holy, catholic and apostolic church, many congregations; one congregation, many gifts; one calling, many different ways of answering that calling.

Students at my college often come to me asking me what I think they should do with their lives. I am reluctant to tell anyone what they should do with their lives, but I am always willing to offer them some questions that I think will help them to consider their vocation.

Not all of my students are Christians, or even religious, but I don’t think you’ve got to have a particular religion all sorted out before you can get a sense that your life might be charged with purpose. The questions I offer them are, I think, relevant for everyone. I believe they are also relevant for congregations like this one as you try to sort out your calling.

 Of course, there are some common and general directions for all of us who want to follow Christ: We are to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We should always do what we can to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. We are called and commanded to offer mercy, and not just sacrifice. Paul enjoins us to know Christ and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection of the dead. Orphans and widows in their distress are our family and we should give them aid and comfort. Jesus offers two simple directions to his disciples in the Gospels: “follow me” and “love one another.” For Christians, there is no escaping these basics.

But these commandments are also vague and general. It is one thing to commit to loving one another; it is quite another to get to work on the actual task of love, here, now, today. Being Christ’s student means taking the general lesson and making it concrete in our lives, putting the theory into practice.

Let’s turn back to the Palm Sunday story now, to consider some of its symbolism. First, Jesus rode a donkey. According to some sources, this was a sign of a king coming in peace. A king coming in conquest would ride a war horse; a king coming in triumph and peace would ride a donkey.

Second, the palms: these could also be signs of triumph, or of the celebration of a king. In the book of Revelation we read:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7.9)

There it appears that the palm branches were the appropriate way to greet a king on his throne. Perhaps they were also a sign of promise; if you cut down your palm branches, you might be giving up future productivity of your palm trees. You’d only do that if you were confident that you had reason to believe you’d be taken care of even if your trees produced a little less.

Whatever the symbolism of the branches, what we know from the Gospels is that the people who met Jesus coming into Jerusalem honored him with palm fronds. Once again, we live in a different time and place, and we don’t see Jesus literally coming into our city on a donkey, nor do we have palm trees. Nevertheless, Christ dwells among us, and we do have ways of honoring him.

I’ve been traveling a lot in the last few months, teaching in both Central America and Europe. Along the way, I’ve seen a lot of churches, and they’re all a little different. Each one is built using local materials, and decorated in local colors. Each one is designed according to a local style of architecture.

One congregation in Guatemala is full of wooden pews made from the neotropical forest nearby. The doors and windows are often open so the breeze filters through, and the concrete walls make it a cool building in a hot place. I often hear women singing in it as I pass by, and it houses the image of the patron saint of the town, San José, or Saint Joseph the carpenter, an image that seems to inspire a good deal of festivity and local pride.

Another congregation, I like to visit is the tiny Greek Orthodox monastery of Saint Paul in Lavrion, Greece. The ten nuns who live there have built their church with their own hands. The walls are being frescoed with icons, and the colors used in the frescoes come from minerals mined nearby. One nun told me a few years ago that this was a symbol of the way God takes the lowliest things and raises them up for the loftiest purposes. Not many people will ever see this church, hidden on a hillside, but those who do often find it to be a place of holy tranquility and refuge.

 In Barcelona, one congregation has been building a church that is taking so long to build that no member who saw it begun will live to see it completed. The very act of construction stands as a rebuke to haste and a reminder that there are things worth doing that will outlast our own lives.

Each congregation has different gifts, different opportunities, different visions. We all share a calling – to enjoy God – but we all have different ways of following that calling. If you have palm branches, then raise them. But if you don’t have palm branches, raise what you have. In the name of Christ churches have raised hospitals, schools and universities, homeless shelters and soup kitchens. They have raised funds for the poor, they have raised their voices against injustice, they have raised issues before legislatures. They have raised gardens for beauty, and vegetables to give away. They have raised children who will love God and their neighbor. They have raised missionaries who will refuse to neglect their neighbors who are far away, and they have raised students who will pursue their calling in their communities and live lives of goodness and love. For many centuries churches have raised artists who will give works of beauty not just to the wealthy but to anyone who would hear or see them. No congregation that I know of can raise all these things, but each congregation has something, some palm branch to raise to welcome the arrival of Christ. What will you raise?

This brings me to my conclusion. I promised you some questions. I’ll ask them quickly here, but let me urge you to continue to reflect on them in the weeks and months ahead.

1) What is the Sioux Falls equivalent of palm fronds? What do you have at your disposal that you can lay down before Christ to honor him?

2) How do you see Christ the king of peace entering our city? Jesus had been to Jerusalem before Palm Sunday, but on that day he entered the city in a different way. Are there new ways in which Christ is making his presence known to you?

When my students ask me about what to do with their lives, I ask them three questions, which I will now ask you:

3) What are you good at? What do you like? What difference do you want to have made in your life?

Take time to think about these questions as individuals, and take some more time to listen to one another and affirm one another. Remember that sometimes what we are good at is not something we like to do; and that sometimes the things we like to do aren’t things we are good at. And remember that this is okay. Offer your loves, and your desires to God with thanksgiving.

Remember that just as every person has different gifts and callings, so does every church. We are all called to follow Christ, but the way we follow Christ will depend on who we are, where we live, what we love, and what we are capable of doing. Just as we can ask those questions about individuals, we can ask them about congregations. What is this congregation good at? What does this congregation love? What difference does it want to make in this generation? Take time to offer these questions and the answers you give to God in prayer, with thanksgiving.

In the Palm Sunday story, as in our lives, it is God who enters, God who comes as the peace-bringer, God who brings about the new and surprising and beautiful order of things. The people do not make God enter; we respond to God’s entrance, raising up what we have at hand. Our calling is to use what we have to honor the Lover that has first loved us, the Peacemaker who has brought us peace, the Joyful maker who made us.

Hosanna in the highest!