Message by Rev Jenny Carter
April 9, 2017
(Based on Matthew 21:1-11)
Holy Week begins. We have journeyed through Lent and now find ourselves in Jerusalem on the side of the road with the other pilgrims – waiting for Jesus to enter the city. We stand amid the bustling crowd, standing on tip toes, peering off in to the dusty distance, hoping to catch a glimpse of the one who would save us.
While words like “saving” and “salvation” have fallen out of favour over the years – somewhere in our hearts we know that we need some kind of saving. Life is hard. The planet is warming. Relationships are often a challenge. The church is in decline. And the world seems to be an often cruel, violent and unjust place – and we wonder how it is all going to go? We wonder just how it is that the peace and love and justice that Jesus talks about might happen in our own lives – our own towns and nations and state – and we long for a better world.
And so we who live in the modern era find ourselves amid the bustling chaos of the 1st century crowd, and the longing of our hearts causes us to look into the distance waiting for… something. Perhaps we don’t really know what it is we are looking for, or longing for, but somehow we trust that we will surely know it when we see it.
Then here he comes. Riding on a donkey, looking like anything but a mighty saviour. Yet there is something about this man Jesus – and so we join with the crowd and we cheer and wave palm branches as a sign of welcoming the one who is going to save us all. We sing and dance even though we are somewhat in the dark as to just how this is all going to unfold, and what changes he will bring to us and to this world.
It would be easy to miss the power and significance of this story if we simply view it as history, or even as a nice story about Jesus. We are in danger of misunderstanding it, if we think that if we were actually there, we would be cheering the loudest because we know that he is the Son of God – and that history will be on his side. That come Sunday we would be able to worship him and pray in his name, and everything will be as it should be.
Yet this is a story tells us the opposite. This is a story about starting a fire. It is not a comfortable story – nor is it a cute story. This is a story of the power that is unleashed when people of good heart stand up to the powers of this world that are oppressive. The powers of greed, hate, individualism, nationalism, faith reduced to dogmatic practices and beliefs, and the need for control over others – and all the other things that keep this world in darkness. You see, Jesus wasn’t entering Jerusalem so that he could experience the cheering of the crowds, and adoring adulation. He wasn’t seeking the first century equivalent of a photo op. Jesus was entering Jerusalem to confront the powers that oppress.
Jerusalem. That city where the power of the religious elite ruled, and around which the economy revolved. A city where King Herod lived and ruled at the leisure of the Roman occupiers. A city that had forgotten what life was supposed to be about – what faith was supposed to be about – where love of neighbour was a worthy notion – but not seen as practical or wise. A city where the governor Pilate had the power of life and death over regular people who did not obey blindly.
This was the city that Jesus entered into. He was entering the city to confront the entrenched powers that worked against the purposes of life. He was entering the city to start a fire. The first “spark” was how he chose to enter riding on a donkey – a political statement that would escape no one there, since it was how the messiah was expected to enter the city. The second “spark” was the cheering crowd – it made both Rome and the religious elites nervous – popular uprisings upset the status quo after all. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Jesus’ first stop was the Temple – where he stormed in with whips and overturned the tables and chased the money changers out – this third “spark” threatened the economic system. And all during that week, he left more and more sparks – knowing that some of them would ignite and start a fire that would bring change.
And that’s why they killed him. But that is a story for this Friday.
Today we are remembering his entry into Jerusalem. Remembering how he looked so alone and so vulnerable riding in to the city on his little donkey – ready to face the biggest powers of his world and hold them to account – yet how the people cheered. Today we remember that Jesus – social prophet, wisdom teacher, and mystic, son of man and God, and teacher of faith – went to Jerusalem to start a fire.
I don’t think he was under any illusions that through his actions the priests of the Temple, or Pilate and his Roman legions, or King Herod, would suddenly say, “Oh my goodness, we’ve been doing this all wrong! We better change!” I don’t think that is why he went to Jerusalem at all. I think he went to Jerusalem for the people. The people just like us. He went so that we might see the sparks he ignited and fan the flames into a mighty fire of change – so that the people and the world, might live in more excellent ways.
Jesus did what he did for us. To show us that even when we have no gold, no weapons, no official powers, we can still change the world. This story reminds us that faith is not meant to stay on the sidelines – relegated to a one hour live event on a Sunday – but is meant to be lived in the everyday – especially in the dark and shadowed places of our lives and our world.
You see, this story about Jesus entering into Jerusalem is ultimately a story about choosing the path that brings life – even if it takes us to some death dealing places. It invites each one of us, when faced with situations that hurt, or are wrong, or are difficult – to ask ourselves, “what do I need to face here? What do I need to understand? What can I do to bring light to this situation?” And then, ultimately, choose the action that brings the most light – the path that brings the most love, most justice, and most peace. Not just for ourselves, but for others as well.
One of my favourite theologians – Bruce Springsteen (The Boss himself!) has a song called “Dancing in the Dark”. Now, those of us “of a certain age” will remember this song. We used to listen to it with our big 1980’s hair, neon shirts, and plastic jewellery dangling from our ears – and we danced to it in nightclubs, and in our living rooms when it came on MTV. Catchy tune, fun video and like most of his music, a deeper meaning than the words would suggest.
The first verse goes like this: “I get up in the evening, and I ain’t got nothing to say. I come home in the morning, I go to bed feeling the same way. I ain’t nothing but tired. Tired and bored with myself. Hey baby, I could use just a little help.” You can’t start a fire, you can’t start a fire without a spark. This gun’s for hire – even if we’re just dancing in the dark.”
While I don’t know what Bruce Springsteen thought he was saying in this song – when I hear it I can’t help but think of how life is calling us all to more – more life, more love, more justice – but that so often we are simply going through the motions of living. We get up, we go to work, we come home, we go to bed. The world’s problems are too big, our own problems too absorbing, so we tend to remain on the sidelines – content to let the world have its way.
But this is no way to live. We were created for more.
We are the ones who are to start the fires. That’s what it means to follow the one we cheer on Palm Sunday. The sparks are already there. Jesus has left the sparks and shown us what flames to fan so that our world might change for the better. And even if it seems like we’re not making a difference, even if it seems like the powers are against us – even if it seems like we’re doing nothing but “dancing in the dark” and we feel vulnerable and alone – if we simply keep dancing, the spark will turn into the fire of life.
To Gloria, Denise and Erin [all welcomed today through baptism, profession of faith or transfer], welcome to the dance! And to all of us – let’s dance along with them. So dance in your living rooms! Dance in the church! Dance in the streets! And as you join in the dance, may you fan the flames of life, which Jesus has already sparked inside of you.