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The Road to Glory

March 25, 2018

Palm/Passion Sunday

Mark 11:1-11

“The Road to Glory”

Reverend Elizabeth Michael

 

In my biblical studies classes, we were taught to pay attention when the pace of scripture slowed way down.  Especially in Mark…Mark who moves the quickest of the gospel writers, whose favorite word is “immediately” and who rushes Jesus on from scene to scene with hardly a breath or extra sentence to spare…when Mark gives you details, you pay attention.

Mark slows the action down as Jesus and his disciples approach Jerusalem.  In great detail, he narrates Jesus’ instructions to the disciples to go and secure a colt for the ride into the city, and then he narrates those same details a second time as the disciples carry out the task.  In these short eleven verses, the colt—a donkey in the other gospels—gets as much attention as Jesus does!

Listen to Mary Oliver, who also slows down to pay attention to the donkey.  Her poem, “The Poet Thinks about the Donkey[1]”:

 

On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,

he stood and waited.

 

How horses, turned out into the meadow,

leap with delight!

How doves, released from their cages,

clatter away, splashed with sunlight!

 

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.

Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.

 

Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.

Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.

 

I hope, finally, he felt brave.

I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,

as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.

 

I am drawn to the image of this meek donkey, one who has been more spectator than participant in the activity and beauty that fills the lives of other, freer creatures.  The donkey whose days pass by rather unremarkably until he is called to play a part in a high drama he never auditioned for.  The donkey who never thought of himself as brave, who is unaccustomed to crowds, who by mere proximity finds himself caught up in a moment and a movement far greater than himself, but who yields himself to Jesus and so discovers there is a place for him in it.

Rarely do we orchestrate the circumstances in which we are summoned to sudden and courageous faithfulness.  Rather, as the witness and leadership of teenagers across the country yesterday showed us, there are times when unremarkable days turn abruptly into critical days, demanding that we offer ourselves and our bodies to the effort.

It’s the last line of that poem that holds that truth: The donkey, offering his body to the one who rides lightly upon it, lifts one dusty hoof and, “stepped, as he had to, forward.”  Presbyterian pastor Agnes Norfleet[2] first introduced me to this poem and drew my attention to that line.  She preaches about how often our celebration of Palm Sunday focuses on the triumph—the parades of choirs and the stately hymns and palm branches raised high which summon our spirits to the same heights.  But if we aren’t careful, all that triumph might cause us to forget about the great trepidation that hung in the air that day.

There is an inevitability to this march to Jerusalem.  In a way, Mark’s whole gospel has been pushing toward it.  No fewer than three times, Jesus has spelled out exactly what awaits them in that city: “The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him and kill him.”  (Mark 10:33-34).  But Jesus is resolute and single-minded in his pursuit of the at-hand kingdom of God.  And so knowing what awaits him in Jerusalem, he steps, as he has to, forward.

By the time he gets to the Mount of Olives, it’s not just his own resolve propelling him forward; it is the drama of everything all around him.  On that day we now name Palm Sunday, it’s as though the scenery itself is conspiring to push him onward toward the city.  There is the Mount of Olives, which had long been known as the place where the Lord would stand on the day of that final battle when God’s people would have victory over their enemies.  There are the palm branches, perhaps snatched from the same trees that had lined the city streets 200 years earlier, when people waved palms for the Jewish military general Simon Maccabaeus, who had won a revolt against the empire and come riding back into Jerusalem a hero.  And there is the city itself—Jerusalem, the city of David which had so long been the territory of Caesar.

The people start shouting about the kingdom of God rising right there within the kingdom of Herod.  They must have expected Jesus to lead that parade right onto the front lines of a battle, that the city would be theirs by morning, because every sign pointed toward him leading a military processional on its way to certain victory.

Every sign except for that donkey.  That small and humble animal who could lend no credibility to a military mission.  Some who read the Bible with keen imaginations have pointed out that, if Jesus was really riding a colt of typical size, it’s likely that his feet were dragging along the ground as the donkey clip-clopped forward.  Hardly a scene to inspire great confidence.

But if there were any in that crowd that day who had a passing acquaintance with the prophet Zechariah, they might have seen in Jesus a king.  Listen to what Zechariah cries out to the people of Jerusalem: “Look, your king comes to you.  He is triumphant.  He is victorious.  And he is humble, riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  In Zechariah, this humble, triumphant king comes with a very particular mission: to cut off the chariots and warhorses, to break the bows used in battle and to speak peace to the nations.

Mark brings all these symbols together—the Mount of Olives and the palm branches and the city of David—to construct a picture of Messiah just in order that Jesus and that donkey might subvert it.  Jesus is coming not to gather an army, but to destroy the weaponry; not to conquer a people but to win their hearts and minds.  In the words of theologian Ched Myers, “This king enters Jerusalem quite unarmed—and every bit as dangerous.”[3]

Preachers have long made something of a Palm Sunday sport out of castigating the crowds at that first-century parade.  Foolish crowds, looking for a Messiah and getting the description all wrong.  Frivolous crowds, shouting “Hosanna!” on Sunday but switching to “Crucify!”on Friday when that Savior doesn’t look like the one they signed up for.  But the truth is that much of the Christian life is lived in this Palm Sunday tension: looking for a Savior, and we are disarmed by this unarmed Jesus.  We feel ambivalent: both stirred by his message and wary of the way his way is leading.  We are not so sure that we want to step forward.

***

            Yesterday’s marches made me think of one of the finest fighters of gun violence I know—forgive me if I’ve mentioned her to you before.  Marcia Owen[4] was a mother of young children when she moved back to her hometown of Durham back in the 80s.  Eager to continue the work with AIDS patients that she’d been a part of in New York City at the height of the crisis, she found her way into a part of town few of her friends would follow her to.  AIDS wasn’t the only epidemic in that neighborhood; the women who opened their doors to Marcia showed her how they put their babies to bed in bathtubs, where they’d be safer from stray bullets that accompanied drive-by shootings.

Marcia’s heart was pierced by their pain; she committed to staying in that neighborhood, to being with those whose lives were filled with the trauma of violence.  One thing led to another, and Marcia and the friends she made along the way started holding prayer vigils when the families of murder victims invite them in.  Still today, people of every race and class and neighborhood in Durham bring their bodies to the site of a shooting and there they sing and pray and cry out and lament the loss of a child of God whose life was taken by violence.  And because they’ve learned that violence makes victims of its perpetrators, too, they’ve started forming faith teams around people coming home from prison, forming friendships with those re-entering society after doing time for violent crimes.

Marcia and her friends walk around the city quite unarmed, but in their own way dangerous.  Because those bodies that gather around places and people beset with violence become a force that cuts off the chariots and warhorses, breaks the bows used in battle and speaks peace to the city.

Once I heard Marcia share the theology that undergirds her work.  “God never dominates,” she told us.  “Sometimes I wish God would dominate.  I wish God would come in with force to set everything aright, but God never dominates.  The way of God is the way of love.”[5]

So often when I hear people talk about the love of God, it feels the stuff of candy hearts and calligraphy-laced Valentine cards —heavy on abstraction and sentimentality.  There’s a way of talking about God’s love that is so disassociated from the real world God loved that it belongs on the shelves of the clearance section rather than the lips of the faithful.  But when talk about God’s love comes from someone who has stood with a mother tracing her fingers around the bullet holes above her baby’s bassinet, I find myself listening.

Marcia talks about a love that is utterly disarming.  It carries no sword or shield or gun; it is wrapped only in frail human flesh.  It does not dominate or demand, but it bears, believes, hopes, and endures.  It surveys the pain that lays before it, it considers the cost, and still Love steps forward, ever moving toward the other.

It is curious that that kind of love could feel dangerous.  Curious that that kind of love could be simultaneously so unassuming and so powerful that it shakes an entire city; curious that people would look that Love in the face and see there something that must be stopped at any cost.

***

            My friends, there are Holy Days ahead of us.  Days of walking and weeping with the Love that humbled itself to ride on a donkey, humbled itself to the point of death, even death on a cross.  And some of those days we will rightfully spend in this sacred worship space, gathered with the community of the faithful to remember the cost of that love.  But this holy day belongs not to the sanctuary, but to the streets.

It is, after all, the city through which Jesus rides; it is the public sphere that is the context for the beginning of Holy Week.  And the crowds that gather around Jesus seize on the public nature of that ride and of his message, and they make themselves a part of it.  Might they compel us to do the same?  I found my own spirit convicted this week by the words of Presbyterian preacher Adam Copeland: he says, “I long for a church whose palms become protest signs, and not just Sunday morning trash.”[6]

Before palms were things we ordered from the Cokesbury catalog and carefully choreographed to the strains of “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” they were symbols of victory which that band of peasants waved because their hopes were high and their convictions were deep that the Kingdom of God was indeed triumphing.  They waved those palms in protest against the prevailing powers, insisting that freedom would overcome oppression and justice would overpower domination and life would have victory over death.

And so I wonder what would happen if these palms, instead of filling tomorrow’s trash bins, found their way to the streets.  Perhaps carried by hands here in this place, they could find the places where innocent blood has been spilled and the cold ground where many without homes make their beds; they could find the walls and fences and invisible boundary lines that keep one part of our community cut off from another, and the plots of earth which are scorched or flooded or otherwise bearing the scars of human abuse.  Perhaps if they found these places, those palms might line up in protest.  And then they might lay themselves down, blanketing the road for the Prince of Peace to ride on.

I hope—to borrow words from Mary Oliver—I hope that, finally, we feel brave.  I hope, finally, we love the one who rides lightly, the one whose being we bear into this world.  I hope we can follow in his footsteps this holy week, stepping—for we must!—forward.

 

[1] Mary Oliver, “The Poet Thinks about the Donkey,” in Thirst, Beacon Press: 2007.

[2] Agnes W. Norfleet, “A Palm Sunday Sermon,” in Journal for Preachers, Easter 2009.

[3] Ched Myers, “Say to this Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship.

[4] Story that follows is from Chapter 1 of Living Without Enemies, by Samuel Wells and Marcia Owen, Intervarsity Press, 2011.

[5] Personal notes from Sunday School class Marcia Owen led at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church of Durham in March of 2015.

[6] Adam Copeland, “The Power of Palms,” 3.21.18, http://www.adamjcopeland.com/category/sermon

Elizabeth Michael , Interim Associate Pastor

Email: elizabeth@upcch.org

Phone: (919).929.2102 ext. 112

Bio:

Elizabeth joined the staff in September of 2016 and counts it a tremendous privilege to learn and grow alongside the saints of University Presbyterian.A native North Carolinian, Elizabeth studied music and religion at Presbyterian College and received her M. Div. at Princeton Seminary. Her life and ministry have been shaped by work with Presbyterian churches in South Africa, a season of living in intentional community alongside the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, and the chance to be a part of a team welcoming home citizens returning from incarceration. Her spiritual life has been consistently nourished by immersion in the community of faith, most recently at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham, where she served as Associate Pastor for seven years.Elizabeth has a deep love for Christ's Church, a deep hope in the gospel's reconciling work in the world, and a deep joy in the life of ministry. At UPC, Elizabeth offers support to the church's caregiving and worship ministries, among others. Outside of work, she tries to take full advantage of her library card, the local food scene, national parks, and friends who live in places fun to visit.