Tuesday, April 03, 2012

God's entirely unreasonable love

A Sermon
preached at Trinity Church, Fort Worth
Palm Sunday 2012
by the Rev. Bruce Coggin

Well, now!  Doesn't it feel great at last to be getting some buzz?  I mean about keeping Lent and Holy Week.  Some of us here have been plugging diligently along now for the past five weeks or so, doing the things Episcopalians do during Lent—coming to church Sunday by Sunday, giving stuff up, Stations of the Cross Fridays, soup and a parable Wednesdays—and up to now nobody beside us seems to have been paying much attention.  I mean, we have two big signs out front—Soup Supper Wednesday 6:00 P.M.—and so far as I know, not a soul has come in off the street to eat and study with us.  Maybe they were there just to remind you!  Whatever's the case, Christians have been keeping Lent for over a month now, and nobody's paid much attention.

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem Hippolyte 1842

But today that changes.  Today we're causing a little talk.  Of course, Trinity got written up in The Star-Telegram this weekend for calling Mother Carlye, but that's not what I'm talking about.  I mean . . . well, I don't know if you noticed or not, but while we were all spread out over the lawn getting our palms here a few minutes ago, I saw two or three near wrecks on Bellaire Drive, people on their way to the lake or the golf course or Christ Chapel, wherever, rubbernecking and gandering and getting back in their lane just in time to keep from hitting the next curious bunch.  Maybe they couldn't figure out why everybody didn't go on inside.  But at least they were looking at us.  Tonight you’ll catch a couple of Jesus documentaries on Discovery or National Geographic, a couple of news stories about churches and their quaint customs.  We’ve been mentioned on the telly!

St. Timothy's, where I was rector a couple of years, has certainly done the city a service in that department.  As you likely know, for years they blocked off Mitchell Boulevard and gathered up down the hill at the rectory, then trooped up the street with a sho nuff real donkey under a canopy—and a monstrance on its back one year, I'm told—a thurifer out front, and the rector and the deacon and subdeacon right behind.  The years I did it, there was some comment about having two jackasses in the parade.  But by golly, they did it year after year, all got up like Roman soldiers standing up on the roof of the church.  And people noticed.  Got on television!  Don't know if they're still doing that since most of the parish opted to go into the Roman ordinariate, but when they did it, folks at least stopped long enough to look.

My friend Owanah Anderson up in Wichita Falls tells about Palm Sunday at St. Mary the Virgin in New York.  Shoot, they march right out of the church onto Forty-Third Street and into Times Square.  She said people stopped, asked for palms, genuflected, crossed themselves.  Fr. Benko here's involved in Ashes to Go; maybe it's time for Palms to Go.  Who knows?

But it makes a lot of sense.  I mean, it's a great story with great drama and great visuals.  Makes a lot of sense that people can remember it and identify it and, when they spot it from afar year after year, at least point and say, “Oh, yeah, Palm Sunday.  That has something to do with Jesus, doesn't it?”  I mean, it all looks good, looks very brave and gallant and . . . well, kinda movie stuff, y'know?  Looks pretty good.  Looks right good.

And don't you guess it looked right good when Jesus did it?  I mean, the poor old Hebrews had been waiting for the messiah for several centuries by then, and they had plenty of applicants.  There was a Messiah of the Month Club.  Take a number.  First this, then the next fire-breathing zealot would get the messiah bug and scrabble up a little band of followers and go storming around the countryside outside Jerusalem or Capernaum or Sepphoris causing trouble, and before long the Romans would spot him and round him up and dispatch him in one of any great number of decidedly unpleasant ways available to them.  But Jesus had been around nearly three years by then, drew big crowds, did amazing things, said amazing things.  He had a little scrape with trouble now and then, but for the most part he was peaceable and strangely vulnerable.  So far he hadn't made enough people mad enough to sic the Romans on him.  And that day things started out just great.  He told them he was going up to Jerusalem for the feast and that meant to the temple and to the temple was messiah talk.  At last!  Big crowd, sure enough!  Lots of people.  And him riding on that donkey, everybody hanging onto him and trying to touch him.  People pulling branches off the palm trees and waving them and saying messiah stuff:  Hail the Son of David!  Bless him who comes in God's name!  Hosanna and hosanna and hosanna.  It looked really, really good.

Of course, some of it was a couple of bubbles off plumb.  I mean, the donkey, for example.  Would have been a little more impressive on a horse, don't you think?  Maybe when he gets up to the steps of the temple the donkey suddenly turns into Trigger and rears and snorts.  Like that.  And the palm branches.  God knows, spears would have been a lot more practical when you consider he'd have to deal with Roman soldiers.  And once he got there . . . well, he did something downright nutty.  Stalked into the temple and ran everybody out, all the decent people working there where they'd been working for years, selling the stuff you need to worship properly, the people who make it all run.  Ran 'em all out.  Said they'd turned God's house into a cash cow!  And then he let just anybody in and talked with them and listened to them.  They say he healed some of them.  Pretty nutty.  Downright scandalous.  And such a disappointment!  They'd had real hope in him.  Everything looked so good.

Well, now.  It's real easy along about here for a preacher to make some cheap points on the poor old Jews, how shortsighted and fickle and dishonest and disloyal they were, how mercenary, how given to a religion of gesture and show.  Running the streets before Jesus and hailing him as king on Sunday, howling for his blood on Friday.  And then the preacher pivots to making us all feel guilty for being fickle and dishonest and so on, because we are, and end up with a smug little finale about howwe know the rest of the story.  But y'know . . . ?  Give 'em a break.  How were they to know?  They didn't know the rest of the story, and they were going on what they knew or believed they knew and had been taught ever since they were big enough to think about things.  They were ready to rise up, take up arms, do anything to get the oppressors out and the Kingdom of God which meant the Kingdom of Israel in.  Serious business, dadgum it!  And this Jesus guy looked so good.  Well, looked good until he did something nutty, and then what's a zealot to do?  What they didn't know was that Jesus did exactly what he thought a messiah should do:  clean house and share God's love.  Well, lotta good that'll do ya with the Romans.  How they must have longed for God to “take a hand in things,” step in and knock skulls.  Hear a good bit of that kind of thing nowadays too, don't we?  Don'teven get me started down that road.  So they turned right back to Plan A which was Might Makes Right and went looking for the next tough guy on a tall horse.  Turned Jesus over to the Romans.  They knew how to handle fools like that.

It all looked so good there for a while . . .

Looky here.  Things are not always what they seem.  You can quote me.  Depends on who's doing the looking and how.  A bunch of you have been eating good soup here on Wednesday nights and staying on to read a parable and think about it, following the lead of Robert Capon, a priest of our church and a writer I greatly admire.  We learned that the parables aren't Aesop fables, little allegories where everything is a secret sign of something else.  They're nutty stories about very difficult concepts which are really easy to misinterpret, especially if you bring your own preconceived notions to the job.  Let me tell you some things we've learned about the Kingdom of God, that long awaited historical moment the Jews longed for yet dreaded when God would straighten things out, get rid of the stinkers, put everything in good order, something people can understand!

First, the kingdom is not put off.  It's now.  All the kingdom parables present the kingdom as already here, full blown, “from before the foundations of the earth were laid.”  The kingdom of God, Jesus said, “is in you.”  Is.  Not will be.  Problem is, we are so accustomed to looking for something sensible and . . . well . . . decent, respectable, Godlike y'know, that we act like it's something coming down the line—and pretty scary.  Not what the parables say.  They say the kingdom is now and that God absolutely adores it.  And everybody in it.

Second, who is in it?  Surprise surprise.  The kingdom is not exclusive.  The Jews thought it was only for them.  Lots of Christians think so too, good people, decent people, people who live good clean lives.  But the parables say that the kingdom includes everybody—red and yellow, black and white, good and bad, wheat and Johnson grass, benefactors and malefactors, and even the heathen Chinee!--everybody is in the kingdom by birth.  Goodness is not required; badness doesn’t always get you kicked out.  The question in the parables is not who gets in; it's what lengths you have to go to to get yourself kicked out!  But some do.

Third, the kingdom is hidden, veiled, not always easy to recognize in the surrounding mess of history and human fretfulness.  The kingdom is not, by our standards, even plausible, all that about love and self-sacrifice and meek and mild and loving your neighbor as yourself, loving God above and beyond everything.  God thinks creation is lovely?  We're all beloved?  Yeah, right.  Tell it to the Marines.

Jesus' message is simple.  It's the same message God has been sending since we first learned to listen for it.  Contrary to popular opinion, contrary to how things look, how we look at things most of the time, God is not mad.  Disappointed, maybe, but not mad.  In fact, God loves the world so much that he sends us Jesus; and when we trust Jesus we stop getting ourselves thrown out of the kingdom, we are “saved” from ourselves.  That's so because God's will which is God's love in action will be done.  Shall be done.  Is being done.  Right now.  In you.  And me.  The parables teach us that the kingdom exists in an apparently hostile environment to which God responds, to which we must respond.  But the response is not a cosmic temper tantrum.  When we disobey God, get ourselves kicked out of the kingdom of his perfect love, his response is usually—as it was to Adam and Eve, to the Israelites who wanted a king, is always—“Well, Sweetheart, have it your way.  When you come back to your senses, I'll be here.  And I'm not mad.”  God's love does not deal with evil; it overcomes it, folds it up into itself, supplies the love to make everything new.  Again and again and again.

Jesus' call to us is to believe that vision of life, to believe that it is the truth, even if what we see in our “real lives” is a portrait of Hell.  Jesus asks us to trust him, to pick up the cross of ourselves and follow him, and to live our lives loving God above everything, loving each other the way we love ourselves, seeking and serving Christ in everyone we meet.  Of course, that can get you in trouble.  Look where it got him.  Most of us do such a paltry bit of it there's little chance we'll cause much buzz, stop much traffic; but even the little bit we try can get us into plenty of trouble.  Been in any trouble lately as a result of your promise to live in the kingdom of God day by day?  Most of the time we do the sensible thing, the acceptable thing.  Nothing nutty.  Yet God's entirely unreasonable and not always respectable party is the only party in town.  What's a feller to do?

Is it any wonder the people who followed Jesus along his way to the temple were confused?  They had less to go on than we do, and we're confused a whole lot of the time.  The implications of today's dramatic liturgy are both comforting and challenging.  Comforting because, well, we do know the rest of the story.  We know that Jesus' nuttiness got him raised up on a cross and that he turned that cross into the throne from which he draws everyone to himself.  We know that God's good green earth is at least one of the apples of his eye, that we are his beloved children, that when we live that love out in our own lives the results can be scary at times but that nothing else will really do.  Everything shows us the way to eternal bliss in Abraham's bosomhanded to us, shaken down, good measure running over into our bosom.  We know that and we rejoice in it, find strength in it, cherish it.  We're here to inhale that pleasing aroma.

Were you here last Sunday to hear the three deacons talk about their vocation?  Deacon Dana mentioned the long tug of war between Christians who think worship comes first and good works flow from worship; others say people find God in good works done or done for them, then worship in gratitude.  A false dichtomy, of course, and Dana compared it to breathing:  do you want to inhale or exhale?

We've spent an hour inhaling the sweetness of God's victory.  Now comes the exhaling, and that's where today's experience becomes a challenge.  Those people driving by on Bellaire, gawking at us, maybe wondering, more likely chuckling, most of them don't have a notion of that sweet aroma that intoxicates our souls.  Not a notion.  Maybe not much concern, though who's to say.  What's for sure is that, whereas it's fun to cause a little stir, get a little buzz, the fact that thousands of people drive by this church every day who find us and all our falderal either mildly amusing or, worse, merely inconsequential.  We've been here over a century.  What have we not done?  Considerable, it seems, and that's a challenge.  That's a problem.  Pray about it.