“A Celebration”


Here is the back page for the Palm Sunday Bulletin (Sunday, March 25, 2018, Year B) for Fishkill United Methodist Church.


I heard a comment a while back that said that at the very moment Jesus was entering Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, Pontius Pilate was entering on the other side of the city.  The contrast in the two parades is obvious.

On one side of the city, Pilate, the Roman political and military governor, no doubt astride a beautiful white stallion, entered the city, accompanied by a massive display of military power, all designed to remind the people that they were a conquered and enslaved people.

On the other side of the city, Jesus entered on a young donkey cheered by people who saw him as the liberator from the very military and political power on display on the other side of the city.

We know how this will all play out.  By the end of the week, the political, religious, and military establishment will have exercised their power and the status quo will remain.  All those who cheered for Jesus on Sunday will be calling out for his crucifixion on Friday, seeing him as a failure to fulfill the mission they thought he was undertaking.

But Jesus’ mission was never about this day; it was about next Sunday.  Over the next few days, the status quo will be, first, challenged, and then changed.

We celebrate Palm Sunday because we know that the world is going to change in a few days.  We celebrate Palm Sunday because we understand that our lives change when we make the conscious decision to let Jesus Christ become our Savior.  We celebrate because, through Christ, we are no longer an enslaved and oppressed people.  We celebrate because we can help bring the freedom of God’s Kingdom to this world.

~~Tony Mitchell


The “back page” will be taking a hiatus during the Season of Easter.  We will be using other materials for the back page and I will be focusing on some other writing projects.

Why Are We Cheering?


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.

Why Did He Do It?


Here are my thoughts for this Palm Sunday, 5 April 2009

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As we come to the end of our Lenten Journey and our focus turns to the coming days of Holy Week and the events that will transpire, perhaps the foremost question on our minds should be “why did He do it?” Why did Jesus enter Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowd knowing full well that the crowd would be against Him and calling for His death by the end of the week?

Now, it is entirely possible that those who called for His death on Friday were not the same ones who were cheering for Him on Sunday. But it is certain that most of those who cheered on Sunday were probably not there on Friday.

And we know that even Jesus had His own doubts about what was to take place as we recall the words from Mark that described that Thursday night in the Garden

They came to an area called Gethsemane. Jesus told his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James, and John with him. He plunged into a sinkhole of dreadful agony. He told them, “I feel bad enough right now to die. Stay here and keep vigil with me.”

Going a little ahead, he fell to the ground and prayed for a way out: “Papa, Father, you can—can’t you?—get me out of this. Take this cup away from me. But please, not what I want—what do you want?”

He came back and found them sound asleep. He said to Peter, “Simon, you went to sleep on me? Can’t you stick it out with me a single hour? Stay alert, be in prayer, so you don’t enter the danger zone without even knowing it. Don’t be naive. Part of you is eager, ready for anything in God; but another part is as lazy as an old dog sleeping by the fire.”

He then went back and prayed the same prayer. Returning, he again found them sound asleep. They simply couldn’t keep their eyes open, and they didn’t have a plausible excuse.

He came back a third time and said, “Are you going to sleep all night? No—you’ve slept long enough. Time’s up. The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up. Let’s get going. My betrayer has arrived.” (Mark 14: 32 – 42 – from The Message)

For as much as Jesus was the Son of God, he was also human and it was those human traits that brought forth the fears and doubts that He would be able to complete the task before Him. Too many of us, I fear, let the fears and doubts prevent us from what we are called to do as Christians. In some ways, we are like Robert Jordan, Clarence Jordan’s brother.

Clarence Jordan, as I hope you know, was a Southern misfit. Raised a Baptist in rural Georgia, he came to question the hypocrisy of a church that could sing “Jesus loves the little children; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight” on Sunday and yet segregate those same children and their parents on Monday.

In the late 1940’s, Dr. Jordan established the Koinonia Farm as a way of showing the world how to put Christ’s words into action. Needless to say, this integrated Christian community was not well received by the white Christian community. And on more than one occasion, from its founding through the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950’s and 60’s, it was firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan.

After one incident, Dr. Jordan asked his brother Robert (a lawyer who would later become a Georgia state senator and state Supreme Court justice) to be the Koinonia community’s attorney. Robert declined, stating that to do so would destroy his political ambitions and cause him to lose everything, his home, his job.

In challenging his brother to do the right thing rather than that which was expedient, Clarence Jordan reminded his brother of the day they both answered the altar call and accepted Christ as their personal Savior. In response, Robert Jordan said that he followed Christ but only up to a point; to just before the Cross but certainly not to it.

This is how I think too many people are today and the value that they place on this Sunday. They are willing to celebrate Christ’s Kingship on Sunday but they are not willing to go to the Cross on Friday.

Now, Clarence Jordan suggested that his brother should go back to the church where they had first accepted Christ and tell everyone there that he was not a disciple of Christ but rather a very good admirer. Robert replied, in effect, that if everyone who felt like that did what Clarence suggested, there would not be much of a church left. Clarence only asked if he, Robert, even had a church that he could go to. Later on, Robert Jordan would become a true disciple and work for the betterment of society. (Adapted from Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs – Saints and their stories by James C. Howell)

Clarence Jordan wrote, “It is one thing to enter ‘the narrow way’ of discipline and complete dedication to Christ and the kingdom; it is another thing to keep on climbing this upward trail.” (Adapted from Sermon on the Mount by Clarence Jordan, Chapter 13) We see a lot of people who come to Christ full of ambition and enthusiasm. But when things do not go as they should, these are the ones who stop by the wayside. Perhaps that is why churches who preach the current “Gospel-lite” are successful and why they keep growing.

After all, if you don’t mention what comes next or what is around the next corner, there is no reason to give up or stop one’s journey. If the promise of the Gospel is a fancy car and riches beyond belief while you are on earth, why would you even think of tomorrow and what might lie ahead? The message that Jesus brought implies that the future will not be an easy one. The Good News that Jesus proclaimed involved sacrifice and effort on our part.

We live in a world where there are too many admirers and very few true disciples. We have changed the meaning of discipleship from what it once was into something entirely different. We have taken the translation of Matthew 28: 19 (“go into the world and make disciples of all the nations”) to mean that we can force people into being Christ-followers. But those who are forced to do something will quickly forget how to do that when the pressure is removed. But if we understand that this same passage can mean “make students of all races and initiate them into the family of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to live by all that I outlined for you,” (from the Cotton Patch Gospel translation by Clarence Jordan) then we can offer people a better alternative to the world around them.

There are admirers of Christ who would close the doors of the church to anyone who is not like them. They want the church today to be exclusive, to deny membership and acceptance to those whose life is somehow different. They would change the community that is found in Christ.

There are those who say that religion is superstition and mysticism and should be removed from society. No secular philosophy addresses the fact that we are born alone and we will die alone. It is in our nature to seek the solace of divine truth amidst our mortal suffering. To be an evangelical Christian is to offer hope and peace.

To offer hope and peace in a world of violence and despair is a radical new way of life. It forces us to walk another way.

The world outside the walls of this church is a hostile world, one not receptive to the thoughts we have. The world of the early disciples was also a hostile world, a world in which a public pronouncement that one believed in Jesus Christ could lead to torture and death.

Because of His own arrest, torture, and crucifixion, Jesus knew what the disciples would encounter. He also knew that if He did not go to the Cross Himself, then no one would and the mission that He began three years before would fail.

We are not called to die on the Cross for Christ for Christ died so that we would not have to do so. Yes, there are going to be those who are going to die for Christ in the course of working for Christ (we call those individuals martyrs) but they did not go looking for their death. And those who look for death will be sadly disappointed in the results of their efforts.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and, if you will, martyr for the faith, wrote,

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called. Luther said, “The challenge of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone . . . I will not be with you then, nor you with me.”

But the reverse is also true: Let he who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you. Luther also said, “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer they [the fellowship] suffer with me. (“Life Together”)

For Clarence Jordan, evangelism was the declaration that God, right now, is changing people and changing the world. This, he said, requires not only preaching, but also the living out of the kingdom of God “in community” and in social action.

So why did Christ do it? Why did He enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday knowing full well that he would be arrested, tortured, and crucified on Friday? Because He also knew that on the following Sunday, next Sunday, Easter, that the Promise of the Gospel message would be fulfilled and revealed and that He would conquer sin, death, and the grave. He knew and understood that His death on the Cross on Good Friday would give us the freedom that we seek.

We are not called to die on the Cross; we are called to the Promise of the Resurrection message of hope to the world. But we must understand that Jesus had to die for us first. That is why we have today.

Moving Forward


This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for Palm Sunday, 13 April 2003.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 50: 4 – 9, Philippians 2: 5 – 11, and Mark 11: 1 – 11.

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Our celebration of Holy Week is perhaps one of the most contradictory celebrations I know. We begin on Sunday with a parade and a celebration and end with the execution of the person the parade was celebrating. And it is made even more contradictory by the fact that those who cheered the loudest on Sunday where among the loudest calling for the execution on Thursday.

But the problem is that very few of the people cheering on Sunday understood what the week was to bring. Most certainly his disciples, the twelve people closest to him, the twelve who had spent the better part of three years listening and learning, did not. Even though Jesus told them rather emphatically three times what the week was to bring, they still did not understand. In fact, their response on each occasion made it evident they had no idea what this week was about. It becomes more amazing when you hear their comments in which they claimed to understand and yet still engaged in divisive competition amongst themselves for the honored seats in the kingdom that was to come.

They, like the crowd who cheered that first Palm Sunday, were seeing the end of the mission, the end of three years of hard work before the mission was over and most certainly before they, for whom the three years had been training, had even began to walk the walk. It should have been obvious, given the fact that new king was triumphantly entering into Jerusalem, not on a great white steed in front of a conquering army, but on the back of a small and lowly donkey. Was the irony of this not caught on those who watched?

We must be careful this Palm Sunday of how we cheer, for we might fall into the trap of cheering for a hollow victory as did those people in Jerusalem so many years ago. We may cheer the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and his possible death and we may say that freedom has come to a long oppressed people. But like other countries and other peoples who have been oppressed, the death of a dictator or the collapse of a totalitarian regime does not guarantee a just and lasting freedom.

One need only look at Germany in the 1930’s or even Russia today to know that the freedom gained when a dictator falls is not the freedom we know today. The freedom we have was gained through trial and hardship and most certainly not just handed to us. Those who experience the momentary freedom of today are like those who are given a drink of water. The thirst is quenched for the moment, but there is no well from which to draw the next drink. And without the well to draw from, the thirst gets stronger each time. The well from which a newly liberated people drink must be dug and we must understand that we have to help them dig that well, not simply give them drinks of water every time they are thirsty.

The democracy that Germany experience in the 1930’s was quickly replaced by the nationalism and then tyranny of Adolph Hitler because the victors in World War I exacted a very stiff price from the German people for the victory. The freedom that replaced the tyranny of communism and state control on one’s life in Russia has been replaced with a tyranny of economics and with a government sharing an uneasy truce with a crime syndicate that makes organized crime in America look childish and foolish. Yes, the Russia of today is a lot better off that it was even during the Cold War but it is a freedom reminiscent of Germany so many years ago, with the powers of nationalism ready to rise up in a new totalitarian form.

Our own recent history is full of incidents where we have sought freedom for others but we have not been willing to carry out the complete task. For many people do not know what freedom is and simply removing the bonds of slavery does not help the formerly enslaved develop freedom. We may wish for freedom in this world but if we are not willing to work for it, we will see the past repeated many times over.

The cheering in Iraq today will be short-lived unless we understand that working for peace does not stop when the war is over. If anything, one must worker harder peace when there is no war. We cannot impose a peace on people, for it will exact a rather stiff penalty. For if conditions allow dictators to rise and let situations develop that allow individuals to utilize nationalistic feelings for their own benefits will continue to exist, all the efforts in the world to bring peace to the world will be left behind.

We can cheer today for freedom in the world but we must not gloat. Freedom is only found when there is peace, and peace will only come when there are no conditions by which conflict can arise. We must make sure that our efforts have a peaceful world continue and we must seek to remove those conditions that would seek to enslave and oppress people. The cause for peace does not end when there is no shooting; rather, it begins even more in earnest.

Freedom carries a price with it. But it is not a price easily determined. All we need to do is remember what happened to our own John Wesley. He knew and understood that freedom from the slavery of sin could be overcome through Christ. But he himself could not find the freedom he thought through the imposition of a strict set of rules and behavior. His early attempts at ministry here in America some two hundred and sixty years ago are clearly evidence of what happens when you try to impose a strict set of rules on someone; it will not work. And though he was supremely confident that he had found the way to true freedom when he came to America, he left feeling a complete failure and questioning not only the nature of his own work but the nature of his own faith and beliefs.

As Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem amidst the cheering and hosannas, he knew what lie ahead for him and for those that followed him. He knew that his ministry would not be measured by the loudness of the cheers on Sunday but rather by his death on the cross on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter morning. Jesus also knew that his disciples would be tested and challenged during this week. He could tell Peter, the one disciple that everyone felt would never fall, that he would be the first to do so. But he was not condemning Peter for what he was to do but merely pointing out that the road that he, Peter, and the others would have to walk in His place was not an easy one. The kingdom for which they cheered on Sunday would be theirs but at a price they could not yet comprehend.

It may sound contradictory but the price of freedom from sin and death is found in the death of Christ on the cross and obedience to God. Now, some may say that obedience to God is not true freedom but we have to look at what Christ had to do. Christ did not have to die on the cross, as Paul noted in his words today. He was God’s son and His place in heaven was established. But his ministry on earth could not have been accomplished that way. If Christ had not been obedient to God, our assurance that there is no freedom could never have been accomplished. He showed us that obedience to God must be first in our lives. If we are obedient to God and our work on this earth is guided by his presence in our lives through the Holy Spirit then true peace and freedom will be found.

Yes, the price of freedom is exacting and there are going to be times of stress and need. But as Isaiah wrote about the suffering of Christ, when the pain of the times is too great, we will always know that God is with us, beside us and part of our life. There are going to be times in our lives when what we seek is not easily gained or when others do not accept what we say or believe. There may even be times when we are forgotten or rejected because of what we believe. For us, the cheering will have stopped. But if our faith is true, if our obedience to God is certain then there is hope.

On that Thursday before He died, as the disciples gathered with Him for the Last Supper, Jesus gave one more lesson in the price of freedom. As each disciple sat down to eat, Jesus washed his feet. This was a reminder that Christ’s ministry begins with us as humble servants, not as jubilant victors. And as we come to the table this morning in anticipation of the great victory banquet that awaits us, we should remind ourselves that we can come as free people because Jesus died for us on the cross.

We should also remember that Jesus’ ministry did not end with the cheering on Palm Sunday but began because of his resurrection on Easter morning. Jesus knew that he must move forward from Palm Sunday into the week that was to come; so too must our ministry move forward throughout the coming days as we celebrate Christ’s presence and victory through our words, our deeds, and our actions.

Unfinished Business


This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the Palm Sunday, 16 April 2000.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 50: 4 – 9a, Philippians 2: 5 – 11, and Mark 11: 1 – 11.

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A number of years ago, I went back to Truman State University for homecoming. For some reason, perhaps because Truman is a Division II school, the team that Truman was to play that day was not the typical homecoming opponent. Basically speaking, you schedule someone you know you can beat for homecoming in order to please the alumni and, thus, have a happy crowd. But this year that wasn’t the case, or maybe it was just that the other team didn’t want to roll over and play dead that year just the coach could win the game, please the alumni, and save his job.

So it came down to the final minutes of the game and Truman fighting back to take the lead in the final minute with a very long, forty-yard plus field goal. The crowd, naturally, went crazy and there was cheering and celebration on the sideline and in the stands. The only problem was that there was still some thirty seconds left in the game and Truman had to kick off.

The details of that final thirty seconds or so are lost in the passage of time but there was an excellent runback of the kickoff and one, or perhaps two, perfectly executed passes. And with some two seconds left on the clock, the opponent that day kicked an equally as long field goal to win the game and to cause a hush to fall over the previously jubilant students and alumni.

To me, Palm Sunday is a lot like that game. The Sunday before Passover, the crowds are cheering and welcoming the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem. Just as was the case with the cheering at the Truman State homecoming game those years ago, the cheering during Palm Sunday was premature.

The words of the crowd celebrate the seeming coronation of the new king. But within days of the cheering and celebration, the crowds will be jeering and calling for his crucifixion. And, more to the point, it was for something that wasn’t the case anyway. Yes, Jesus was to be king but not a king in the sense that many of the people who welcomed Him that Sunday wanted. And when they began to realize that Jesus wasn’t going to be the earthly king that they desired; when they began to realize that what He was asking them to do, the reason for his entrance on the donkey, they began to turn away from him.

It would seem that even then God’s people had a reputation for making great starts but not for completing them. And in this we are not alone. Many times in the Old Testament, the people of Israel are exhorted to continue onward.

Follow the whole way that God has laid out for you; only then will you live long and prosperous lives. (Deuteronomy 5: 33)

In the book of Jeremiah, which we read from last week, the people are exhorted to “Follow right to the end the way that I mark out for you.” (Jeremiah 7: 23)

Even Jesus warned his disciples about beginning a project without considering the cost. “Can you walk with me the whole way?” He asked Peter, James, and John in Matthew 16: 24.

Our journey in Christ is meant to end in celebration and there are going to be times when we wonder when that celebration is going to occur. We know what the cost of what Jesus asks us is; yet, we don’t always want to pay it.

Even, as we read in Mark 14: 66 – 72, Peter, the most vocal of the disciples, the one upon whom the church was to be built, felt so discouraged by the turn of events that he ultimately denied Christ three times. And Judas Iscariot felt so disillusioned by what Jesus really meant that he betrayed Him.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul was encouraging the young Christians at Philippi to behave in a manner appropriate to the gospel that they claimed to believe. In the text that we read today, Paul helps them to understand what it means to live the Christian life as he points to Christ as the ultimate model for our lives. As a servant Jesus focused on the needs and hurts of others; he listened to them, showed compassion for them, loved them. And he provided us with a model that allows God to build in us an attitude of service.

The prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament reading for today pointed out that though there were times that he wanted to quit, God was there to help him. There were many times when Isaiah wanted to quit but he did not turn back. Whatever was thrown in his path, he found a way to overcome. In the end, Isaiah was able to ask, “Who will contend with me? Who are my adversaries?”

Jeremiah said, “I have stayed in God’s path, following his steps. I have not turned aside.” (Jeremiah 23: 11) Just as there are examples of God’s people not finishing the task before them, there are many visions of people who can and did go the whole way. King David was a man who finished the tasks before him (ask Goliath). He wrote in Psalm 110: 7 “Drinking from the stream as he goes, he can hold his head high in victory” and “Happy the pilgrims inspired by you with courage to make the ascents” in Psalm 84: 5.

Though we can cheer today, and we should cheer today, because we know that the King is coming, we must also realize that our task does not end today. Jesus knew that His business did not end on this day but rather at the end of the week. The same is true for us today.

When John Wesley began his ministry after Aldersgate, he had a confrontation with Joseph Butler, Bishop of Bristol:

Butler – “You have no business here. You are not commissioned to preach in this diocese. Therefore I advise you to go hence.”

Wesley – “My lord, my business on earth is do what good I can. Wherever therefore I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so. At present I think I can do most good here. Therefore here I stay.“ (Frank Baker, “John Wesley and Bishop Butler: A Fragment of John Wesley’s Manuscript Journal)

The cheering will stop but that should not mean that work of the Lord remains unfinished. The challenge for us this day, as we walk with the Lord throughout this week and our own personal journey of life, is to complete that unfinished business.


Running With the Crowd


Here are my thoughts for Palm Sunday.
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As you probably know by now, I am a Southern boy, born in the South and raised by a Southern momma. To repeat the traditional saying, I am Southern born, Southern bred and when I die I will be Southern dead. But just because I grew up in the South doesn’t mean that I held onto to the traditions of the South.

Segregation was still the tradition and the rule when I was in the seventh grade in Alabama and when I was a junior and senior in high school in Tennessee. I was in school in Colorado and Missouri the years between since my father was in the Air Force at the time. So I was affected by the rules and traditions but I also saw other ways of living as well.

It used to be a tradition that one stood during the playing of “Dixie”, especially during football games (football has its own set of traditions in the South but we won’t go into them today). “Dixie” is an interesting song in that everyone thinks it is a Southern song but it was written by a Yankee in New York City and, during the Civil War, it was apt to be sung by both sides of the fight. During those first few times that it was played, I stood primarily because everyone else stood. But as this was repeated in other games, I was very uncomfortable doing so, because it wasn’t out of homesickness or loneliness that the song was played (as was the case one hundred years before); rather, it was often played out of defiance and I had to question the justification of acting in defiance because you didn’t like someone changing traditions, such as segregation. But it wasn’t easy not standing, as anyone who has gone against the crowd or popular notion can tell you.

To some extent, that is how some people celebrate Palm Sunday. There is a celebration at the beginning of the week as Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph but there is no celebration and the cheering is replaced by jeers by the end of the week. I think that Christianity is very much like that at times. We want the celebration of the kingdom but we do not want to face what entering into the kingdom is all about.

Though I may have said it and written it in the past, I am not sure that everyone who cheered on Sunday was in the crowd at the end of the week who called for Christ’s crucifixion. But many of those on Sunday undoubtedly were in that Friday crowd and were among those who called for Christ’s crucifixion. It is the nature of people to go with the crowd. And if some of the crowd is cheering, then most of the crowd will do likewise. If some in the crowd are jeering, then the rest of the crowd will probably do the same. It is only natural.

Did some of the people cheer Jesus that first Palm Sunday because he went against the traditions of the time? Did they cheer because he went against the crowd? I would hope so. As Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, Jesus took the form of man even though He was in the form of God. (1)  And in the human form, He took on the role of slave, humbling Himself on the Cross. How can that not be going against tradition? How can that not be going against the crowd?

There were those who did not want to see Jesus succeed, among them the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They were the ones who feared that people would see the truth; that the way to salvation and freedom from sin and death came through Christ and not through the rigidity of society that they fought so hard to maintain and control. There are those today who do the same; they do not want you or me to go against the crowd and see the truth. They would rather that you let them lead you, rather than let you travel your own way.

It is clear that some in the crowd that first Good Friday were there to incite the crowd, to get them to demand the release of Barabbas rather than Jesus. It is clear today that many of our modern Pharisees and Sadducees feel the same as their ancient counterparts. Too many churches today go with the flow, accepting the negative views of the world and offering nothing that remotely resembles the Gospel message that Jesus gave us two thousand years ago.

The message of today’s society is very clear. Follow the crowd, cheer when the crowd cheers, and jeer when the crowd jeers. It is okay to think you are an individual, just as long as what you think as an individual is the same as everyone else thinks.

I do not know how many of those who cheered on that first Palm Sunday cried on Good Friday when the crowd called for Jesus’ crucifixion. I do not know how many of the crowd cried when the Roman soldiers pounded the nails into His hands and feet. Some certainly did, for Jesus gave them hope, Jesus told them that tomorrow would be different.

We have to make a choice this Palm Sunday. It is alright to cheer today but that is because we know how this week will turn out. But many who cheered that Palm Sunday some two thousand years ago wanted an earthly kingdom, a promise that riches and glory would be theirs. They were the ones who called for crucifixion on Friday; they are the ones who called for Barabbas to be set free. They are the ones who cheer today but will finish the week in sadness and grief. Their hopes and dreams die on the cross.

Where will you be? Will you walk away, saying “He saved others but He could not save Himself?” Will you walk away, turning your back on the hopes and promises that the Cross means? Or will you be there when they crucified Christ, when they drove the nails into His hands and feet? Will you be there at the tomb next Sunday morning, celebrating the ultimate victory over sin and death? Or will you wonder what the celebration is all about?

Sometimes, it is nice to be with the crowd. I am sure that the crowd on Palm Sunday was a happy and joyous one. It is a crowd we all want to be a part of. And I don’t think that anyone of us wants to be a part of the crowd that gathered outside the palace of Pontius Pilate and called for Jesus to be crucified. But we can easily be swayed by the crowd around us. We already know that there won’t be much of a crowd next Sunday crowded around to see if He is still there. But that is where we should be and it doesn’t matter if the crowd we are with today is there or not. Will we be a part of the crowd that cheers on Palm Sunday and jeers on Good Friday? Or we will be part of the crowd that cheers on Easter? That is the choice we have this week.


(1)

Philippians 2: 5 – 6