Sermon

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; John 12:12-26

Rev. Dr. Heather G. Shortlidge

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So there was some marching yesterday…

People processing through the streets,
waving poster board rather than palm branches
chanting modern hosannas of “enough is enough.”

Bill was a little braver than I,
right off the heels of a week-long trip to Haiti,
taking an early morning train into Washington.
I elected to sleep in a little
and meet up with folks here in our courtyard.

When I walked outside the Kinhart Center doors,
there were about 50 of you ready to rally—
the air thick with the smell of Sharpie markers
and an undeniable energy.
It was one of those clear moments when I said to myself,
“God, I love this job!”

The Kempton’s were there, marching as a family.
Caroline held a sign that read:
“arms are made for hugging.”

Judy Dryden was there,
calling out elected officials with a sign that said:
“These kids show more maturity than Congress.”

The Williamson’s—
two of the most non-confrontational church people I know,
held up a huge sign that said:
“Grab ‘em by the ballot box!”

Pat Spencer quietly displayed one of my favorites—
a picture of George Washington, captioned:
“Muskets didn’t fire 950 rounds per minute.”

Gathered right outside this holy sanctuary
there were 90 year olds who have been marching for over half a century
and there were those who had never marched before.

Now I doubt yesterday’s teen organizers had Palm Sunday on the mind
when they scheduled the date of their protest,
but as a pastor working on a sermon all week,
the parallels between what happened yesterday
and what happens in today’s Gospel text,
are pretty uncanny.

Because contrary to what the rest of the world thinks,
Palm Sunday is not really about egg hunts and Sunday brunch.
Instead, the story of the Palm Sunday parade
that shows up in all four Gospels
is the story of a protest march.

Dissatisfied with the world as it was,
Jesus, was agitating that day—
lampooning the emperor and claiming to be king,
offering a different vision for the world as God wanted it to be.

Many of us around here
have been learning a thing or two about community organizing.
In the world of organizing, we’re taught that every action has a reaction.
And therefore you carefully plan your actions
around the reaction you are hoping to get.
So you start with the reaction you are seeking
and then plan an action that will help you achieve that particular reaction.

Jesus was trying to provoke a reaction—
riding into Jerusalem,
the city that some would call God’s home address.
He was agitating that day
and calling BS on Roman imperial power.

But this kind of confrontation,
this kind of agitation,
can make church people a little nervous.

Because who hasn’t been told a time or two
that church is supposed to stay out of politics—
that faith is strictly about spiritual ideas, not political things—
that we should spend more time on heavenly thoughts,
rather than earthly concerns.

But if you want to believe that, if you need to believe that,
than you’ll have to get rid of all four Gospels.
Because it’s simply not the Jesus we get on Palm Sunday,
not from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

200,000 pilgrims had descended upon Jerusalem,
ordinarily a city of 40,000 residents.
Think about Annapolis during boat show or commissioning week.
People had traveled from all over to celebrate the Passover Festival.
So the city was already buzzing with a current of energy.

When the crowds hear that Jesus is there,
they can barely contain themselves—
shouting their hosanna’s, a word that literally means “save us,”—
For they knew that the world was broken
and in need of change.
And they knew this,
because they were the ones who everyone else had passed by—
the ones who had watched the powerful get all the perks
while they were blamed for not working hard enough.

And they cheered Jesus on, and waved their palm branches in the air,
hoping he might be the one to finally turn things around.

Meanwhile, the Pharisees,
the educated and privileged elites,
were nervously watching this political spectacle unfold.
And they’re more than a little uncomfortable
with Jesus egging on the powers that be.

The lectionary text for today ends before we really hear from them
and I have to wonder if that is intentional.
Because if you read further, if you read through verse 19,
it’s not really a sound bite to be proud of.
It’s one of those moments when you hope the cameras have stopped rolling
and the audio is no longer recording.

“Now is NOT the time for action,” they lament.
“And not the way you bring about change—not like this!”

The crowds were on fire,
but the Pharisees were the naysayers—
the ones who simply had too much to lose.
And they tried to block Jesus at every turn,
questioning his tactics and his timing
and his fierce focus on the mess of things on earth
rather than the spiritual perfection of things in heaven.

Your 8th and 9th grade confirmation class
had the privilege of worshipping with Asbury United Methodist Church,
a historically black church, last Sunday morning.
And if you see one of them, you should give them a pat on the back.
Because this service started at 11am,
and it didn’t end until a little after 1:15pm.
In other words, their worship muscles got a pretty intense workout.

It wasn’t planned this way,
but it just do happened that it was Confirmation Sunday for Asbury.
So 6 kids were joining the church—
two of them who first needed to be baptized.
Similar to our process,
there were also 6 adult sponsors who stood with them.
But Asbury’s pastor, Rev. Dr. Carletta Allen,
did something as part of their confirmation service
that I thought was rather stunning.
[If you don’t know her, you need to—
she’s my favorite preacher in town.]

She looked her young people in the eye… and apologized.
Because she said the church doesn’t always understand them.
That the church doesn’t always listen to them.
That the church would often rather tell young people what to do,
rather than hear from them what they want to do.
So she stood there in front of the entire congregation and apologized.
And she asked her young people to be patient
and to bear with the church.

She was telling her young people
that she didn’t want to be a Pharisee
—a naysayer with too much to lose,
an institution too invested in the old regime
to see the ways in which Jesus is building a new regime.

I’ve never really heard a pastor apologize to youth before
It was a pretty stunning moment for me.

Sometimes I think we can be more like the Pharisees
than the people in the crowd waving branches and asking to be saved.
The elite ones with education and privilege,
invested in a system that serves us pretty well.

I know I really want to be one of those people in the crowd,
when I hear this story
but so often, I think I’m really more like the Pharisees,
coming up with all kinds of excuses as to why something won’t work,
or how this is not the right way to go about doing it.

And yet Jesus parades into Jerusalem calling BS—
saying now is the time to lift up the lowly and attend to the least;
now is the time to hang out with the prisoner and welcome the stranger;
now is the time to take down the tyrants and clothe the naked.

It’s one of the reasons he ends up getting killed.
Because he said over and over again,
the world as it is,
is not the world as it should be.

That choice wasn’t so hard for the palm waving crowds
who had so little to lose.
But for those privileged Pharisees,
it was a much harder sell—
this choice between the way things have always been
and the way God intends them to be.

***

Virgil Smith was one of five people
to receive the Citizen’s Honor Award on Thursday.
Known as VJ, he looks and acts like a typical 13-year old —
soft-spoken, sports-obsessed,
who loves playing online video games with friends.
 

But when VJ’s hometown of Dickinson, Texas
was drenched by Hurricane Harvey last August,
this shy teenager made a choice—
choosing to wade into the flood waters
to help save friends and neighbors.

At the time of the storm,
he was locked in an online video game matchup with his friend Keshaun.
But when his mother opened the door of their first floor apartment,
water began pouring in, rising to nearly above their heads.
In a panic, they grabbed as many things as they could and got out,
swimming to a stairwell and finding refuge
in a neighbor’s apartment on the second floor.

Once there, though,
VJ received a cellphone call from his friend Keshaun, pleading for help.
Keshaun and his family were stranded by floodwaters in their apartment,
about 50 yards away and across the courtyard.

VJ raced down the stairs back to his apartment and sprang into action.
Wading through water that was up to his head,
he went to a closet and grabbed a full-sized air mattress
that his family used for guests
and swam with it in the darkness
toward the back door of Keshaun’s apartment.

He dragged the air mattress to the back window of Keshaun’s building
and began lifting people onto the mattress one by one.
Then he steered the air mattress full of neighbors to safety.

With fire ants crawling all over him,
he plunged back into the floodwaters with his air mattress,
swimming toward screams coming from another submerged apartment.
An elderly woman in a wheelchair and her grandson were trapped inside.

VJ piled both of them and their small dog, locked in a crate, onto his air mattress.

“About 10 minutes after that,” VJ told a reporter,
“my air mattress burst."
But not before this 13-year old had helped 17 people to safety. [1]

***

Jesus asks people to make a choice.
Riding into Jerusalem on a donkey,
thumbing his nose at the authorities—
asking people to pay attention not to the powerful,
but to those on the bottom, to those on the outskirts.

I have to admit,
with all the conversation about the march in Washington this week,
I’m embarrassed to say that I completely missed
what black kids in Sacramento were up to this week.
Much of the national media missed it too. Or maybe just didn’t care.

Police fired over 20 bullets into Stephon Clark,
who was holding a cell phone, not a gun, in his grandparents back yard.
Enraged African American youth decided that enough was enough.
So with no money from Oprah or George Clooney,
no songs from Lin Manuel, nor letters from Barack and Michelle,
these black youth shut down both ways of the I-5 during rush hour.[2]

And yet hardly anyone noticed, myself included.
And yet Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day
saying the world as it is, is not the world as it should be,
that a world in which black voices don’t matter
is not the world as God intends it to be.

Jesus rode into town that day
asking the crowds, asking the Pharisees, asking us to make a choice;
saying loud and clear that following him
was not about getting into heaven;
it was about somehow getting a little piece of heaven into each one of us;
it wasn’t about playing it safe in a second floor apartment,
it was about wading into the stormy floodwaters.

Marching can be worship
and poster board signs can be preaching
and children prophesying can be Holy.
But our work certainly does not stop there.
Instead, Jesus comes to town to agitate, to get a reaction, to force a choice—
asking us to fight for the world as it should be,
rather than getting too comfortable with the world as it is.

When Jesus comes to town this week, where will you stand?
And will you stay there, when everyone else cuts and runs?