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.
Rev. Carla Cain began her ministry at Plymouth as a Designated Term Associate Minister (two years) in December 2019. Learn more about Carla here.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Let’s talk about…Jesus.
Now, you may say to yourself, Hal you talk about Jesus almost every Sunday, and that’s true. But how often do you talk about Jesus with your family, your kids, your friends, even with your friends here at Plymouth? I’m guessing not very often.
When I was younger, it seemed that in my church we talked about “Christ” as a more refined, less emotional kind of a figure. It’s easier to make “Christ” conform to your own norms and standards than it is when you think about “Jesus,” the Galilean peasant who preached regime change to overturn the Empire and the forces of this world in favor of the kingdom of God.
It’s also because of the rise of anti-science, anti-gay, anti-woman evangelicalism in the 20th century that led to the Religious Right. It’s because we don’t want to be associated with the televangelists who talked a lot about Je-ee-sus (with three syllables). That Jesus is perceived by some as having one purpose: to get you into Heaven by being saved through a profession of a personal relationship with him as your personal Lord and savior. That theology invites radical individualism (it’s about me and Jesus) and it is centered in the mistaken perception that Jesus’ reason for being here in the first place was to die a bloody and agonizing death on the cross so that believers receive a get-out-of-jail-free card in the hereafter. If Jesus — that Jesus — doesn’t care a fig about social justice, then it’s all about reaching the pearly gates. I imagine that is the Jesus many insurrectionists in DC were praying to on January 6. Don’t you wonder what they would do with the words of the historical Jesus: “Blessed are you who are poor.” “The kingdom of God is among you.” “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God; it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And sometimes we in the mainline churches talk about the Christ of faith as the “post-Easter” Jesus, the one who rose from the dead and is seated at the right hand of God. (That’s a metaphor, by the way.) We speak of Christ whose presence is with us today. And that’s really important…but there is more.
But I have an invitation for you. We are going to be hearing a lot from the Gospel According to Mark in the lectionary this year (with a detour into John’s Gospel during Lent), and Mark provides a punchy, no-nonsense, early account of Jesus, the historical Jesus, who lived, walked, talked, preached, healed, proclaimed, and died in the Jewish homeland. Mark gives us a sometimes raw and unvarnished vision of who the Jesus of history was.
You may ask why the historical Jesus is important. The big theological answer is the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus, but I’ll set that aside for now. Jesus set an example of what it looks like to live a life fully in congruence with what God intends for humanity. In the version of the Lord’s Prayer we often sing, John Philip Newell writes “May your longings be ours,” which is another way to say that what mattered to the historical Jesus should matter to us…because it matters to God.
The historical Jesus is not so easily bent and contorted to fit our American vision of what a messiah should be. Instead, he was a disturber of the religious and political status quo, a sage of alternative wisdom, and a healer. The Jesus of history is an antidote to Christian Nationalism that co-opts the Christ of faith by putting words in the mouth of Jesus that he never spoke. He never said a word about abortion or same-sex love. The historical Jesus is also the yardstick by which Christians can and should measure our theology, whether it is our idea that God is still speaking or whether it is someone claiming to be a prophet thinks the former president should still be in the Oval Office. If you want to measure your message from the Holy Spirit, see how it looks in comparison to the life and teachings of the historical Jesus, and if it doesn’t measure up, it’s more likely to be your superego talking than it is God.
So, here is the invitation I extend to you: I invite you — no I implore you — to start talking about Jesus. Talk about Jesus and what he said about the poor, what he did in healing people without charge, what he meant by the phrase “the kingdom of God,” what Jesus was trying to do through his ministry and his public witness. As I watched the events of inauguration day last week, it occurred that we have entered a new era for progressive Christianity with a president informed deeply by Catholic social teaching and the social gospel. And in this morning’s New York Times, there is an article, “In Biden’s Catholic Faith, an Ascendant Liberal Christianity” that quotes Dr. William Barber saying, “Birth pangs require one thing: pushing.” Are you willing to push?
Have you ever noticed that the Black church has never had a problem talking about Jesus? We have something to learn! And the Jesus they talk about is most often the Jesus who blessed the poor, healed the sick, and stood up to empire. Can you push yourself outside your comfort zone to talk about Jesus? It’s a new day, and it’s time for us to claim our faith: to show people that the stereotype of White evangelicals doesn’t describe all Christians, and it doesn’t mean our view is exclusive of other faith traditions.
At the end of last year, I received a very thoughtful email from one of our members who wrote, “’We stand on the side of love’ or ‘Come just as you are’ constitute nice sentiments, to be sure. But how do they move us forward? Rather, perhaps we should say: ‘Come just as you are…but don’t expect to stay that way.’ Expect to be challenged and changed…and, occasionally, to be made a bit uncomfortable — that is how growth and progress occur.” YES! This is exactly the centerpiece of Plymouth’s mission statement that describes inviting, TRANSFORMING, and sending. The word you heard in our text this morning, REPENT, in Greek is metanoia, the shift of our hearts, minds, and actions toward the things that mattered most to Jesus. And it’s hard. Transformation is hard!
You may think that it’s hard to talk about Jesus…so just try it! What have you got to lose? People probably think you’re a bit of a crackpot for belonging to this church anyway! Try it! That’s my challenge to you this week.
And if you think talking about Jesus is difficult, imagine for a moment that you met Jesus, and he said to you, “Follow me and leave your classroom or your law practice or your small business or your retirement behind. I’m going to make you do something new that involves changing peoples’ lives!” What would you be willing to leave behind? Would you abandon your career? Your assumptions? Your fear of talking about Jesus? Your wealth? Your family? Imagine him speaking one-on-one directly to you.
It takes an incredible amount of trust in Jesus to take big steps. But here is something I know about you as a congregation: you have big hearts that match your big minds. Once something grabs you, you’ll give it your all, not just for a day or a week or a month. And if we really trust Jesus, we can take big risks for the kingdom.
So, what do you think Jesus is asking you to do as a person? What do you think Jesus is asking us to do as his followers? Where do you think Jesus is calling Plymouth in this new year? As we eventually leave the pandemic behind and we can come back together, what do you think Jesus wants us to do together for God’s world?
These words of Amanda Gorman are worth repeating:
“For there is always light if we are brave enough to see it,
If only we are brave enough to be it.”
Let’s be the light.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org 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.