|Sermon - April 1, 2012||| Print ||
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Mark 11: 1-11
During one of my many meetings in Toronto during the last few years, I particularly remember the day I attended a workshop on inter-culturalism (or to be more specific, how to become a more inter-cultural church). Adele Holiday, a staff person of the United Church of Canada, tried to explain to us the concept of culture. The definition she gave to us is: “culture is what everybody knows in a room without being said aloud”. Many of us did not understand immediately what she meant by this. To illustrate her point, she opened her bag and pulled two stacks of Styrofoam cups. Immediately there was a big reaction in the room because we cannot use Styrofoam cups in the United Church of Canada. This is an absolute no-no in our midst. It goes against everything our Moderator is trying to teach us about being good stewards of God’s Creation. There must be a section in our doctrine forbidding this. Without saying much, Adele actually showed taught us what she meant by something that everyone knows in a room without being said aloud.
This morning we celebrate Palm Sunday, one of the stories that can be founded in the four Gospels of the New Testament. If you ask people in the pews, they would probably say they know about this day when traditionally children process in churches waiving palm branches (which, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with the Gospels; it is something totally invented by the hymns we sang in churches). Every year we read to story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into the city of Jerusalem, fully aware that it is the beginning of the final countdown. We know this is where his road would eventually end. We know that those who acclaimed him as a hero had not problem a few later to demand the release of a common criminal and to shout, "Crucify him!" We also know the upcoming narrative of Christ’s Passion and crucifixion. Often we view today’s story only as the necessary introduction for the much important stuff that come after it.
Personally I believe it would be a mistake to jump the gun and not give the full attention this story deserved. After all, this passage from the Gospel according to Mark is located after Jesus’ successful ministry in the region of Galilee, which was filled with healing stories, miracles, and powerful teaching moments. As a successful preacher, Jesus had reached the high of his popularity. He could not really ask for more. His trip to Jerusalem could be nothing else that a normal desire to celebrate the festival of Passover with his friends and fellow Jews. Like thousands of pilgrims, Jesus founded his way to the holy city to remember of how God saved his ancestors from their time of hardship and oppression in Egypt.
Still, Jesus’ walk to Jerusalem was not completely depleted of intentions, something we can see through the apparent unimportant observations and details this story offers. One might ask why it is so important to mention that the colt has never been ridden? What is the big deal with remembering that people put their cloaks and branches on his road? The answer could be: culture; what everybody knows with being said aloud.
That day, Jesus wanted to make a powerful public statement. As the one who came to fulfil messianic prophecies and expectations, he played on the images and the knowledge of the people of his time and place to make his point. He did not decide to walk into Jerusalem like the other pilgrims. Rather he sent his disciples to go to the village and collect a donkey, a colt that has never been ridden. This choice provided some sort of ceremonial aspect to his procession. It served to highlight his sacred task because it referred to images found in the sacred books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, which talk about an “heifer that never been put to work or has never borne the yoke”. His actions echo the words of the prophet Zechariah who wrote, “Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion! Shout for joy, daughter of Jerusalem! Look, your king is approaching, he is vindicated and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”, as well as the words of Zephaniah and Isaiah. Jesus probably fully understood very well the symbolism of his act. He went as a king to take possession of Jerusalem and to establish a new kingdom.
The people living in Jerusalem, who were part of the same culture than Jesus, understood exactly all the symbols and the codes displayed in front of their eyes and they reacted according to them. They welcomed Jesus as a triumphant national hero or the equivalent of a rock star. They greeted him with expression of respect similar to those used to welcome victorious warriors. They spread their cloaks and leafy branches that they had cut in the field in the same way it was done for the ancient king Jehu (a story found in the second Book of Kings) or when Simon Maccabeus regain the Citadel in Jerusalem about 100 years before. On that day, everyone played its part in Jesus’ triumphal entry because everyone fully understood what was going on.
If we could ask the people living in Jerusalem back then, they would probably answer that they were convinced that this Jesus of Nazareth, this new king, this new ruler, would establish a new kingdom, in which all of Israel enemies would be kicked off the land. They were expecting that the final battle that would free them from those pesky Romans would be led by this new leader as king David led his people against foreign nations as recorded in the Holy Scriptures. The heir to David’s throne would take his rightful place and restore the glory of the past. So “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!”
Everything was working exactly according to plan until Jesus went to the Temple. Once there, he looked around and then left because it was already late. Jesus pronounced no speech, sermons or parables. He did not talk about his new kingdom nor appealed the crowds to revolt. Nothing happened. This oddly anticlimactic finale to the triumphant entry is a major source of controversy because it did not measure up to the expectations of the people. The new king did not follow the established pattern. The new leader the crowds welcomed did not deliver. Jesus did not follow the rules of his culture, something that was high problematic for his people.
Sometimes we are so sure we have the right answers and the right solutions. We are convinced that our opinions are the right ones. If only everyone could listen to us, all the problems of the world would be solved. Balancing the budget, waiting times in hospitals, conflict in the Middle East, that is easy. We know the answers. All that is missing is the right leader, a splendid hero, a warrior who would be unafraid to take the right decisions. So we look for this individual and when we find someone who displays all the abilities required, who says the desired words and uses the symbols we want to see, we begin to acclaim this individual and we are ready to give him or her the keys of the city.
The same could be said about the church. Some of us are totally convinced that we know exactly how to attract youth in our congregations or to fill the pews on Sunday morning. All that is missing is the right minister who would have the charisma to preach the gospel with emotions, the wisdom to follow traditions and the knowledge to answer all the questions about the Bible. If this genial teacher would accept to come to our congregation, all our problems would be solved. We could simply sit down and enjoy.
However, like the people in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, we often discover the hard way that life does not always work as we planned. Sometimes the perfect leader shows up but we are not able to recognize her or him. Sometimes the Messiah who enters our life is not the Messiah we expected or even wanted. Sometimes the kingdom we are offered is not the kingdom we are ready to received. Sometimes our convictions and our culture get in the way.
Just take the example of the actual conflict in Syria. Everybody would assume that the United Church of Canada has made a public statement telling everyone on which side we should stand and which side should be blame. And when the United Church refused to make such a statement, the people began to complain, accusing us from moving away from our Social Gospel history and our commitment to resist evil in our world. The truth is that the United Church wanted to make that statement, but the Christian Churches in Syria told us, ‘Please do not do that because it would cause us more harm than good. If we really want to help us, say nothing.” We decided to go against our culture to speak up on every issue and we shut up and we began to listen.
This morning we come to the final days of Jesus' ministry prior to his arrest and crucifixion. As Jesus entered triumphantly into Jerusalem, everyone assumed to understand exactly what was going on, even us. However, Jesus decided to break the pattern and to go against the culture of his time and his people. He wanted to debunk assumptions and certainties. By walking a different path, he laid the ground for a new way to be with one another. He opened us to different kind of truth. He led us where we not expecting to end up. That day, Jesus made a very powerful statement. It is now up to us full understand its meaning for our lives. Amen.