I received a call on Thursday to preach on Palm Sunday at Rowe UMC (Milan, NY) and Red Hook (NY) UMC. I used Isaiah 50: 4 – 9, Philippians 2: 5 – 11, and Mark 11: 1 – 11 as the Scriptures.
Several years I ago I received a request on a Thursday to fill in on the following Sunday. For a number of reasons I choose to open with the image of a baseball game in the bottom of the 9th inning and the outcome on the line. With the opening of the baseball season, at least from the standpoint of the St. Louis Cardinals a few days away, it would have been quite easy to do that again by using 6th game of the 2011 World Series, when the Cardinals were not one or two but three moments away from ignominious and shameful defeat (hey, I’m a Cardinal fan!). But because this is Palm Sunday I thought of another instance that was and is more appropriate for the moment.
As you can see from the three stripes on my robe, I hold a doctoral degree. If I had worn my hood, it would tell you that the degree is in science and that my school colors are black and gold. To be more specific I hold a doctoral degree in science education from the University of Iowa. And just as I am a fan and follower of the St. Louis Cardinals in victory and defeat; so too, am I a fan and follower of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes in victory and defeat.
In 2009, the Hawkeyes opened the football season with a home game against the University of Northern Iowa (or UNI). This was a typical home game where a big college invited a small college to come and play so that they, the big college, could achieve an easy victory. The small college accepted the invitation, knowing that defeat was inevitable but that it would come with a large check for the privilege and honor of being handily defeated.
That may have been the attitude of the Hawkeyes that day; that they were going to easily win this game and prepare for a more important game the following week against Iowa State University. Unfortunately someone forgot to tell the players from the University of Northern Iowa and, as the game progressed, the inevitable victory of the Hawkeyes over the Panthers seemed more and more unlikely.
And so it was, with seven seconds left in the game, the UNI Panthers found themselves trailing 17 – 16 but with a 1st down and the ball within easy field goal range. VICTORY was in their grasp! The ball was snapped; the holder quickly and precisely placed the ball; the kicker kicked the ball towards the goal posts and it appeared that an upset on the opening day was accomplished. But, wait, an Iowa defensive lineman got his hands on the ball and the ball was blocked. And as the Iowa fans cheered for the fantastic season saving play, the ball rolled on the ground until it was covered by a UNI player with one second left on the game clock.
As I wrote in my blog then (“Plays of the Day”), there was 1 second on the clock and the Iowa fans were jumping up and down cheering and celebrating. Those in the stands from UNI were probably cursing the football gods. But then a hush fell over the stadium.
The referee announced that, by rule, that UNI, not Iowa, retained possession of the ball. And now the UNI fans are cheering and the Iowa fans are cursing and booing. It is announced that the play is under review. Here’s the key to this – you have two football officials who are on the line of scrimmage. One of their responsibilities during a kick (punt, field goal, or try for point after touchdown) is to make sure that the ball crosses the line of scrimmage. If it doesn’t, then the kicking team can recover the blocked kick and retain possession. And guess what! That’s exactly what happened. The ball was blocked before it passed the line of scrimmage and it never crossed the line. So, by recovering the ball, UNI had another opportunity.
Now, with 1 second on the clock, Northern Iowa lines up to try another field goal. Remember that it was 1st down when they tried the first attempt so it is 2nd down for this attempt. And as before, the ball was snapped, the holder placed the ball, the kicker kicked the ball, and the Hawkeyes again blocked the kick. This time, the Iowa players fell on the ball and victory was achieved.
For me, that brief period in a football game some three years ago is much like this particular week in the life of the church. There is cheering and jubilation on Palm Sunday, slowly replaced by anguish, shock, dismay, and anger during the week, but culminating in cheering and jubilation on Easter Sunday. But were those who cheered on Palm Sunday really the ones who jeered on Good Friday; perhaps not.
Some notes that I came across while preparing this message suggested that the events of this day were the only time that Jesus organized the event. In the past, Jesus has always shied away from such celebration. But as Mark pointed out in his Gospel, this time He told His disciples to go and find the young colt for Him to ride into town. It would be logical, I hope, to then assume that those who cheered Jesus on that day were among those whose lives He had touched and changed during His three year ministry. Clearly they would not have been among those in the courtyard on Good Friday calling for his crucifixion and death.
Undoubtedly, there were some on Palm Sunday who turned against Him. There was a substantial presence in Israel at that time who sought a political king, someone who would lead an army in opposition to Roman authority. We know that two of the disciples, Judas Iscariot and Simon the Zealot, held such beliefs. And it was the realization that Jesus would not be the political king so long sought that may have pushed Judas, already angry at Jesus because of the anointing He had received a few days before, into the plot of betrayal. But Simon, though a Zealot and one who would have preferred the political solution, probably choose to wait and see what would happen. After Pentecost, tradition tells us that Simon would take the Gospel message to Persia where he would be martyred.
There were others as well who observed Jesus throughout the three years and perhaps wondered why He focused His ministry on the least of society, the outcasts and the shunned. We know from the reading of the Gospels that Jesus’ actions in cleansing the Temple on Tuesday of this week will be the tipping point, the time in which the political and religious authorities will seek to arrest Him.
We know, from the Gospel stories, that there were many who questioned Jesus when it came to His association with the beggars, the prostitutes, the poor and other sinners. Surely, in their minds, Jesus could not be the Son of God because God does not associate Himself with those types of people. The temple was for the best of the best, the most righteous and if you did not meet such standards, then you had no business being there. And Jesus worked against that very idea. It would be only natural that they would be in the courtyard on Good Friday calling for the death of Jesus. It would restore the world to its natural order.
Let us move the pages of time from 33 A. D. to the present. Let us put ourselves into the places of the people on the side of the streets as Jesus is prepared to enter the city. Which side will we be on? Will we be cheering or jeering?
Right now, the United Methodist Church has received a Call to Action, a call to restore the church and turn around decades of decline and loss. Staring at the possibility that the United Methodist Church (and other mainline Protestant denominations) may very well die of, for the lack of better term, old age, the leadership of the denomination has called for a revitalization of the church.
There are two groups cheering right now, those who are glad that someone realizes that we have strayed from the path that was laid down by Christ and John Wesley and those who are glad that something is going to be done to save the church that they grew up in. But many of those in this latter group have no clue what means to be Methodist and no understanding of the role Methodism has played in the history of society over the past two hundred years.
They see no relationship between the Methodist church they have been a member of for the past fifty years and the Methodist church in the next town, the next county, or even the next state. They have no idea what drove John Wesley to begin the Methodist Revival in the mid-18th century. They just know that some rabble rousers and troublemakers want to let “those people” into their church. (See Dan Dick’s comments on the new book about Methodism – “God Bless You, George C. Hunter III!” and my thanks to John Meunier for providing the information – “Contagious Methodism”.)
There are many who have left the church of today because the church no longer seems responsive to the people and is more concerned with its own survival and existence. I will admit that there was a time many years ago when I would have left the United Methodist Church for many of the same reasons given today. Everything said and done is so much in contradiction to what Jesus taught and much of what Paul wrote about. But I didn’t leave because there were those who showed me that the church could be a force for good, a force for justice, and that it was possible to be a representative of Christ on Earth. It would be very difficult for me to leave today just as it is very difficult for me to watch others tell the word that the Gospel is about the rich and the powerful, the mighty and privileged.
Pete Townsend, guitarist and singer for “The Who”, wrote a song called “Somebody saved me.” I am not sure why he wrote it but part of the chorus, the part that sticks in my mind is, “Somebody saved me, it happened again. Somebody saved me, I thank you my friend.” For me, that friend is, was, and will always be Jesus Christ. But if I had not had the church and the expression of those in it that the Gospel message was true, I might not have found Jesus. And I would have nothing to cheer about today.
There has been for some years a counter movement (which has become known at the Emerging Church movement), a desire to bring the church back to what it was meant to be, more in line with the movement that spread outwards from Galilee and Jerusalem two thousand years ago. It was the church before Constantine, one that might be in the homes of people rather than ornate and stately cathedrals. It is a church not often known to many people today. It was a church that made sure that all who were hungry were fed, all who were naked received clothes, all those without shelter found a place to stay, all who were sick received medical care, and those who are oppressed receive justice. It is a movement that is found at Rowe with its support of Grannie Annie’s kitchen and at Red Hook with its Sunday afternoon food closet (which for the readers of my blog now supports at least 35 families and is watching its numbers rise each month).
It works through those who have been called to preach the word of God. Yesterday, I was in Ridgefield, CT, for the closing of the District Lay Speaking School. In the closing service in which we commissioned thirteen new local lay speakers, our District Superintendent, Reverend Betsy Ott, offered this benediction, found in the wedding ceremony in the back of our hymnal. Tonight I close the 2012 Lenten School in which seven new local lay speakers will be commissioned. Reverend Ott will be there for that event and will probably use there as well (a note – she did).
Bear witness to the love of God in this world, so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in you generous friends.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. AMEN
We celebrate and cheer that there are twenty individuals who have heard the call to take the word and message of the Gospel out into the world. We know that despite the despair and gloom that will come on Good Friday, that the Resurrection will come next Sunday. And so we cheer.