Mark 11.1-11; Matthew 21.1-11
Plymouth Congregational, United Church of Christ
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, 2saying to them, "Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' say, 'Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.'" 4They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. 5Some people standing around said to them, "What are you doing, untying the colt?"6They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. 7They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. 8Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. 9Those in front of him and those following were shouting, "Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!"11Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.
Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 39636-39644). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
I begin today with a story about standing in line at the grocery store, a mundane, routine, probably recent, event for all of us. But no matter how routine grocery shopping may be, it has taken on palpable and deeply poignant resonances for us in the aftermath of the King Sooper shooting in Boulder this week. When I was the interim pastor at Community UCC in Boulder in 2013-2014, I lived part of the week at a parishioner’s house nearby that King Soopers and shopped at that store. Community UCC is just up Table Mesa Road from the King Sooper’s shopping center. As I share my brief grocery store story with you today, I am sensitive to where our minds may go with just the mention of grocery stores. And as I begin this sermon, my heart is breaking and praying for the people of Boulder, particularly those in the Table Mesa and Broadway neighborhood, for Community UCC, as well as for our country which urgently needs to change the use and role of guns in social structure.
Some of you may remember, as I do, the spring of 1999…all the dire predictions beginning to be made about the Millennium, what would happen on December 31 as we turned the time corner into a new century. I was still living in Connecticut that spring, anticipating the move to Colorado in July. I was a full-time Divinity school student and full-time mom. As I stood in line at the grocery store one day with a cart full of supplies for the week, a tabloid headline caught my eye. I make it a practice to avoid the tabloids, hoping in a ridiculously self-righteous way that if I don’t even acknowledge them in the grocery store line, I am contributing to the downfall and bankruptcy of the tabloid industry. You can see how well that has worked! But this one jumped out at me – “Millennium Predictions! - Jesus May Have Already Returned!”
“Yeah, right,” I thought, “I wonder who he is this time? How will we recognize him? Why has he come now?” Just then it was my turn to dump my groceries on the conveyer belt and I forgot my theological musings, paid for the groceries and headed off into my day. But I think of that “prediction” each year at Palm Sunday – “Jesus May Have Already Returned!” If he has, where is he present? How will we know him? What is he up to?
The Palm Sunday story tells us each year in the story of Jesus’ unusual entry into Jerusalem that he is coming! His reputation as teacher, healer, prophetic activist precedes him and as he enters the city gate riding on the colt or donkey, depending on which gospel account you are reading, he is proclaimed by his followers as prophet and king. Or perhaps, by some in the crowd, he is seen as a radical and dangerous fool.
Let’s picture the scene…The city of Jerusalem is swelling with tourists and visitors coming the Passover Festival. (Remember the crush of crowds before social distancing?) They are filling the market at the gate where the road from Bethany and the Mount of Olives comes into the city. Passover begins in three days…people are shopping and preparing…picture the grocery store on the day before Thanksgiving – or just before our recent snowstorm.
Suddenly down the road from Bethany marches this rag tag army of joy, a procession of people singing and shouting at the top of their lungs. It’s a joyful, non-violent protest scene! People are strewing palm branches and cloaks across the road in front of a guy riding on a colt, or a small horse, or maybe it’s a donkey – who can tell from this distance? They are shouting and singing…. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! Blessings on the coming of the kingdom of our ancestor, King David! Blessings on the Son of David! Hosanna, Hosanna!” What is this all about?
In Jesus’ day it was traditional for pilgrims coming to the Passover Festival in Jerusalem to greet one another with words from Psalm 118, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” But what is all the Hosanna about? And hailing this one as coming in the name of King David? That is dangerous talk…could be seen by the Romans, who are the conquering rulers of Israel and Judea, as seditious talk! Can you imagine the crowds’ whispers? “What are they saying? The coming kingdom of our ancestor David? This scruffy guy on the donkey? A Son of David? Yeah, right….” Some think he is the anointed One come to lead our people…” “Don’t let the Romans hear you say that! Who is this guy anyway?” “It’s the prophet, Jesus of Nazareth.” “Who?” “You know the prophet, the teacher, the healer, Jesus of Nazareth.” “Oh, Nazareth, right….nothing good ever came out of Nazareth!’ “But didn’t you hear? Last week in Jericho, he healed a blind man! I’ve heard he’s healed lepers and raised a man from the dead. And the stories he tells….well, you double over in laughter and then he hits you with the real punchline….about God’s love and forgiveness and inclusion of all people…women and children and blind men and cripples….I’m telling you, I think he could be the real deal!” “Oh, go on! He’s just another itinerant, radical rabbi…playing on the hopes of poor and ignorant people. You don’t really think he amounts to much do you?” “I don’t know….maybe…”
That’s the scene at the city gate, in the marketplace and the streets as Jesus returns to Jerusalem for Passover. Some are hailing him as the anointed one, a king in the line of David, sent to save the people. Some as a prophet, healer, teacher, man of God. Some as fool.
We don’t trust king figures hear in America. Kings are figureheads with no real power. Hopefully we have learned not to trust political figures that want to act like kings, obscuring justice in the process. And prophets? They are a bit sketchy as well, if we see them merely as fortune tellers predicting futures that are either too dire or too rosy. We have a bad habit of assassinating social justice prophets like Abe Lincoln, MLK, Jr., Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy. We may see them as wise in their moral vision, but are they foolish in their radical, risk-taking methods of proclamation? Wise fools? We won’t follow kings, we are iffy about prophets turning the tables on the status quo. We certainly don’t want to follow fools!
Starting with the earliest gospel writer, Mark, Jesus is seen as prophet and king and this is at the heart of the matter in the gospels for God’s good news of liberating love. To understand Jesus as king and prophet, is to understand how him as Anointed One, the Christ. In the 21st century, we like our leaders, our saviors, new and improved with ideas and solutions never heard before. The people of the first century who first heard the stories of Jesus liked their saviors old and unchanging because that is how you could tell a true savior from a false one. A true savior fulfilled the prophecies of old.
Jesus comes riding into Jerusalem on a donkey because that is how the ancient kings, the ones anointed by God, like David, always rode into the Jerusalem. They came to bring God’s peace, not to bring the oppression of control and domination like the Romans who came riding on warhorses. And the crowds spread branches and cloaks because that is what you do for kings in the line of David, a king who was not raised in a palace and educated by the state…but raised instead with the poor, the regular people. Those who claim Jesus as king are tax collectors and blind beggars, lame men and cast-off women and children, lepers. He is a king and a prophet who tells stories about God’s realm being like mustard seeds and yeast. He hangs out with fishermen as some of his closest friends. When asked about his “state policy”, he say, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant…Let the children come to me, for you must become like a child to truly enter the kingdom of God…Love God with all your heart and soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” This is how Jesus has earned his acclamations as a king and social justice prophet.
Is Jesus a fool, as well? If so, he was a fool for love who told stories and turned tables that upended the status quo so that all would receive the love and justice of God. In the events of his last week, we see him open himself so fully to the power of God’s love that he walks straight into the face of pain, humiliation and death in order that the world, that we, might know that God is with those who suffer, who are oppressed and those who are dying. In speaking of Jesus, the apostle Paul reminds us that “God’s foolishness is wiser than our wisdom and God’s weakness more powerful than our power.”
So, here we stand at the beginning of a fateful week. The tumult at the city gate is growing louder and stronger, spreading through the marketplace, public places of influence and power, to the temple itself. People in high positions are asking questions. “Who is this man?” Others are shouting praise. By the end of the week the voices will swell to a conflicting crescendo. Shouts of anger will triumph over shouts of joy. Prophets are rarely welcomed in the own neighborhoods. Many will decide this is not the savior king or prophet they thought they wanted and stand staring skeptically at a mocking headline on a cross that says, “The King of the Jews.” “Some king! He’s a fool! Can’t even save himself!” “Can’t or won’t,” we might ask ourselves.
Jesus returns again and again, each year in the stories Holy Week. His presence is palpable. And it is palpable in the world around us. In Asian Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter protests and vigils. At the southern border of our country where unaccompanied immigrant minors searching for new life are held in detention. In hospital rooms where people struggle to breathe, to live, and others struggle to care for them. And yes, in grocery stores and schools and movie theaters and places of everyday business where gun violence erupts and interrupts peaceful life. Wherever there is pain, suffering, oppression, death, Jesus returns to us again and again. Another question for us, “How will we receive him?”
Hosanna. Blessed is the One who comes in the name of God!
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
When was the last time you saw someone’s appearance change radically? It seems to me that something phenomenal — or at least peculiar — happened on the mountaintop, either to Jesus or to the disciples who were with him. Did Jesus undergo some sort of metamorphosis that caused him to be radiant? to shine like the sun? to have an aura? to beam? Or do you think that he was always radiant, but people didn’t notice until his followers — Peter, James, and John — go up to the mountain and literally see Jesus in a new light. I suspect that all of us have at times observed the change visage of a friend or loved one after they have had a life-changing experience. There are outward manifestations of inner changes in us that our friends and families notice.
Assuming for the moment that Jesus did change, why is that important? Does it mean that he was surrounded by the divine light? Did something in his life shift at the moment he began to glow? Does it mean that this was a moment of transformation for him, as was his baptism by John? God speaks at the moment of transfiguration, just ask God speaks at Jesus’ baptism, saying, “This is my son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased,” using exactly the same phrase.
Christians are asked to be baptized as Jesus was, but has anyone asked to go through some sort of metamorphosis or transformation? Maybe? When we join Plymouth, we commit to give ourselves unreservedly to God’s service, which is a big deal, but it isn’t quite asking us to be transformed. In a few weeks, you will hear that thorny line in John’s gospel, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, [John 3.7, NRSV], or in the language of the King James Version, “born again.” No, I’m not about invite you to come forward for an altar call, and I’m also not going to dismiss the idea of you having a spiritual transformation or many spiritual transformations. I’m not going to try and tame the idea of your having a metamorphosis.
Marcus Borg writes, “The metaphor of rebirth, being born of the Spirit, is an image of radical transformation. An old life has been left behind and a new life has begun…Being born again is utterly central to Christianity, one of the main images for the goal and promise of the Christian life. It describes our transformation and, ultimately, the transformation of the world, for those who are born of the Spirit of God as known in Jesus share God’s passion for a more just and peaceful world.” [Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian (SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 2011), p. 169.]
By a show of hands, how many of us really want to be changed, transformed, pushed out of our comfort zone by the spirit of transformation? It’s not easy, and it’s not without consequences. Transformation means changed hearts and changed lives. What would you expect if you, yourself, saw Jesus in the flesh? Would you expect it to be a transformative experience?
Many years ago, I was in a therapy group for Adult Children of Alcoholics in California, and for me it was a transformative experience, and helped me to get a fresh start on my journey, and it marked a new beginning. I know others of you who have gone through the process of recovery, and it can be an incredible transformation. What are the moments of transformation in your life that have turned you in new directions or offered you a fresh start? It doesn’t have to be recovery, it could be the birth of a child, starting a new career, finding a hidden talent or a new avocation. But having a fresh start on life because of a new relationship with God is something incredibly powerful and different.
Most of you know Plymouth’s mission statement that says “It is our mission to worship God and help make God’s realm visible in the lives of people, individually and collectively, especially as it is set forth in the life, teachings, death and living presence of Jesus Christ. We do this by inviting, TRANSFORMING, and sending.”
That middle element, transformation, can be difficult, don’t you think? …especially if we think that we’re done transforming into new persons or that we simply have no need to change. The Kingdom, or "realm," of God is about transformation of THIS world into the world as it would be if God were immediately in charge, instead of the forces of Empire. Doing the work of justice is about transformation. Loving the unlovable is about transformation. Moving away from self-interest and radical individualism is about transformation. Giving yourself to something bigger than consumerism and acquisition is about transformation.
We cannot try and tame transformation without taming the Kingdom of God. And we won’t be part of the Realm of God unless we are transformed and born of the Spirit. And that requires openness to new beginnings, to change, to transformation of our lives, to letting go of some old burdens, to adopting some fresh practices and ways of being Christian.
We are about to enter the 40-day season of Lent, which mirrors Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness; it was a period that was anything but tame: a period of radical transformation for Jesus, even without the radiance he experienced later. Wilderness can be a place for transformation, where we come face-to-face with our truest selves. Perhaps rather than being seen as a period of penitence, we can see Lent as a transformative journey into the wilderness, a time of gestation, of metamorphosis, of new beginnings, of being within the chrysalis — ready to emerge reborn. And it isn’t something we have to do alone…we have companions on our pilgrimage of transformation.
I invite you to open yourself as we finish this season of Epiphany and walk together into the season of Lent next Wednesday evening. I invite you to join all of your sisters and brothers at Plymouth on a pilgrimage of transformation as we walk through the wilderness for these 40 days.
May you be transformed in the midst of your life, knowing that new beginnings are possible.
May you see change as an opportunity instead of a threat.
May you be blessed as you uncover new truths about yourself.
May you know that you are journeying with kindred spirits through the wilderness.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.