Expectations



[Our service began with a procession of palms from the Fellowship Hall, accompanied by an accordion, a fiddle, and a sousaphone].

We began today with our procession of palms, as is our tradition. We may have broken that tradition somewhat with the additional musical accompaniment, but it was fun, right? The goal was to recapture some of the excitement of the original event, which is a little hard to do since we are not waiting for a warrior king to throw out our government.

Not only that, we know the whole story. We know that in the first Procession of Palms, Jesus entered the city gates as the righteous one of God.  We know that because of him, we entered these doors as the righteous ones of God. That’s not to say that we are inherently good or better than anyone else. That is to say that we know the burden of our sin, and we know that God has given us the opportunity to be free of it.

We know that we are still able to be involved in what God is doing in the world, no matter what we’ve done or what’s been done to us.

Yet, there is something about this day that pulls us back from diving too far into the Easter basket too quickly. There is something about that line in the Psalm about the horns of the altar that gives me pause. We, of course, do not have an altar. We have a table, and it’s not even ours! It’s the Lord’s table. It is a table that reminds us that there is no need for sacrifices except for those we make in response to God’s grace.

The idea of the altar still sticks with us sometimes, and the horns of the altar are important on a day like today. In ancient times there were horns on the corners of the altar, and they were the ultimate “safe space.” For no matter what you had done and whoever was after you, if you made it to the horns of the altar, no one could harm you.

Now, you couldn’t stay there forever. Depending on the situation it might buy you some bargaining time or the opportunity for penance, but for us I think it serves to remind us that mercy is the way that we know that God is God. Even though the Psalm speaks of victory, the true revelation it offers about God is found in mercy.

So, we have this procession of Palms for the One who comes in victory, riding the foal of a donkey. The crowd is charged, they are jacked, they are ecstatically throwing clothes on the ground and ripping palms from trees. This is the rock star status moment for Jesus, and he pretty much just lets it happen. There is not a lot of commentary about it in the Bible itself, so it’s as though Jesus just realizes that it’s what the people need to do for themselves.
It’s definitely a politically charged moment. For those that get frustrated over the intersection of faith in politics I can’t help but point to Jesus on this one. It is what it is. The people wanted him to be their version of a savior. They wanted him to, dare I say, make Israel great again.

How awkward it must have been. Instead of an acceptance speech, he looked around, yawned, and said, “It’s late. Let’s go to Simon the Leper’s house – in Bethany. It’s not far, and he’s got room for us. You know, since people shun Lepers…”

Then the next day there’s the weird scandal with the fig tree that wasn’t even in season that he cursed – and his disciples heard it! And you know the rest. Instead of receiving a temple blessing, he gave a temple condemnation, and then through the whole Passover there was this awkward tension between him and all the religious leaders.

That awkward tension is what fills the space between the crowd that shouts, “Hosanna!” and the crowd that shouts “Crucify!” You know that, for the most part, we assume these to be the same crowds, right? You see, in reclaiming the excitement of the original procession – even in some small way – we have to reclaim the awkwardness and the accountability of the same event.

That’s why the story of the fig tree matters. It’s not just about a cranky Jesus who did not get the quality of service expected from his stay in Bethany. It’s about a man with a donkey. Yeah. You may remember that when the disciples went to get the donkey they were told that, if anyone asked what they were doing, they should say, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.”

Likewise, later in the week, they were instructed to go find a guy drawing water – which literally could have been anyone – and ask where the Master was to bring his guests. And that guy showed them to a room that was all set up.

So, he came upon the fig tree just before he cleared the temple. Cursing it wasn’t really about hunger or seasons. Cursing it was a way to say that the established system of religion wasn’t able to do what it was intending to do. It was the foil for the guy with the donkey and the one with the water. They just said, “OK,” and delivered as asked. Jesus “asked” the fig tree by inspecting the leaves, but… no figs, which is no surprise, because it wasn’t the right season.

Now, here’s one of those times when we have to be careful about a theology that rejects Judaism as a viable faith, and we have to stick with what we know to be true. What we know is that Jesus was rejecting the authority of the religious leaders, not the faith of the people or God’s selection of the Hebrew people as God’s own. What we know is that Jesus used this fig tree to show his disciples that faith is not dependent on our limitations.
Not only that –  he used it as a way to say that God will even move mountains for them if they ask and expect it to happen. Well, if we weren’t embracing the awkwardness of Palm Sunday yet – there it is! How many prayers have we asked and been denied? How many miracles have been claimed in the name of sports and yet how many seem to fall flat in the face of actual human suffering.

This question always reminds me of my friend, Meg. There’s a candy bowl on my desk that she made for me when we were in seminary together. It’s a nice bowl, especially for an amateur potter. A practiced eye will notice inconsistencies, but that’s also part of its beauty. We were studying a passage on healing one day, and she said, “I hate these.” When I asked why, she gave me that look that only a friend can give to a friend who has been a clueless jerk.

She gestured to her insulin pump. “You really think that I have this thing because I don’t pray enough?” That was the first time I realized how razor sharp these words can be when we pick them up and toss them around without thinking about them first.

What Meg and I came to realize is that not every mountain really needs to be moved, and that sometimes – like her bowl – there is great beauty in things that are imperfect and fragile. That may be little comfort when our loved ones suffer, but it helps me to see that even suffering doesn’t separate us from God’s grace.

In fact, the only thing that might separate us from God’s grace, according to Jesus, is our ability to forgive. Did you notice that little mic drop at the end? Oh, sure. Ask God to move a mountain – as soon as you move the mountain of grudges you have built around your own heart.

That’s where the rubber hits the road. In this day and age of finger pointing, we have to remember the human being at the other end of our finger – even if they are more concerned with cursing us than blessing us. In this culture of confusion over nationalism that coats politicians in some kind of moral and ethical Teflon as long as they get the job done in a way that makes “my life” seem better, we have to expect fruit that is pleasing to God or root them out. In this time of anxiety where even children march in protest of violence, we have to be willing to find solutions with short term compromises and long-term results. That means recognizing that even though laws will not fix the problem, we are a society based on the rule of law and on a faith that rejects living by the sword.

Perhaps the most important part of this talk about mountains and faith and palms and psalms has more to do with how we as a congregation of believers demonstrate our faith together. In fact, I think it means that we even have to look past all of the good works that we do and ask ourselves if we are the fig tree or the guy with the donkey.

That is the true gift of Palm Sunday and of Holy Week. It is the invitation to grab hold of the horns of the altar and say that we know God is present because of the mercy that we have received. Palm Sunday is the opportunity to recognize Jesus as the one who gives us a reason to shout for joy!

It is also an invitation to consider, even as we move toward the cross, if all that we do and all that we are is truly a response to God’s grace. And in that space, we have to consider where forgiveness is needed still. We have to consider where we as individuals need to forgive – even if there are those that we as a community must forgive.

In the end, where and when are we able to find peace between us, we will move mountains – just as we have in the past. We’ve started non-profits to care for needy. We’ve housed other organizations with similar goals. We’ve served countless meals to the aged, championed families in need, encouraged the faith of generations of college students, and networked with other organizations to support ministry in our community and around the world! And right now, we have our sites on setting up some partnerships to provide clean drinking water in Cuba.

So, yeah, we’re going to move some mountains, but only by God’s grace, only through the cross, and only by starting with the one thing that we can’t do without – forgiveness. It’s just that simple, and it’s just that hard. And we’ll have to do it over and over and over until the Kingdom becomes complete.

Now, may the desire to forgive be the wind that sets our sails, even as it leads us to the cross, to self-denial, and even to the Easter promise of resurrection and restoration in this life and in the life to come. Amen.

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