Are You Able to Drink the Cup of Jesus?

Preacher: Micah Bales

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

A beginning is a very delicate time. At the start of a long journey, it seems like any route is possible. In a story’s introduction, the reader can imagine any outcome. But as we walk further down the road we begin to discover what the journey really looks like. Slowly but surely, our story becomes less about what we imagined it would be, and more about what is actually happening.

Jesus’ first disciples were very young. Quite possibly teenagers, or at most in their early twenties. Jesus, the man they looked to as teacher, lord, and future king, was just barely in his thirties. The Jesus movement was a young people’s movement. A movement quite literally fresh off the boat. A movement of people with very little past and an enormous horizon for a future.

It is a wondrous and fearful thing to be a young adult. Just out of school. In that first job. Or out on the road. Exploring the world. It seems like anything is possible. Young people have no idea what’s coming, but the world of their imagination fills in the gaps. The future is so wide-open, anything is possible.

The disciples were ready for anything. They were primed for adventure, to become the heroes that Israel so desperately needed. To break the yoke of Roman occupation and restore the Davidic kingdom in Jerusalem. To make Israel great again.

The disciples didn’t have much in the way of personal history or life experience, but they had tradition. They had a cultural context to draw on. They had the shared story of the Hebrew people. And this story told them that they should expect a new king, a messiah, a strong man like David to emerge and to restore Israel to its former glory.

They believed that they had found this man, this new king, in Jesus. These young disciples gave up everything they had – walking away from family, friends, and jobs – to follow Jesus wherever he went. In retrospect, this seems very brave and self-sacrificial. But at the time, it was probably a whole lot more self-interested. They believed that Jesus was the messiah sent by God to restore the fortunes of Zion. Jesus was going to be the big man in charge, and the disciples were going to be his inner circle.

It’s kind of like joining an early stage startup, if you can imagine that. Sure, you’re expected to work long hours for low pay. But you’ve got equity. You own a part of the company. And if the company takes off, you get rich. All that hard work will be worth it, because you invested your life into the shared project.

For these early disciples – who we see from today’s text were really quite ambitious people – the Jesus movement was a lot like that. It was a startup, and the disciples were basically equity partners. Sure, Jesus didn’t look like much yet. Just another Rabbi wandering through the Judean countryside. But when he became king of Israel – oh, boy! Peter and Andrew and James and John and all the others were going to be sitting pretty. They’d get to command armies, serve as top officials, and generally be very important people. That initial public offering was going to be huge.

In this morning’s gospel reading, we see that the disciples really have the wrong idea about how this startup is really going to work. They’re still at the beginning of the road, and imagine it can lead exactly where they want to go. They’re still reading the novel’s prologue, imagining the happy ending that must lie at the end of the story.

They don’t understand yet. They don’t realize what it means that they’ve been given equity in the Mustard Seed Startup. They can’t wrap their heads around how this story really ends. They still think they’re going to be lords of the earth alongside their king Jesus.

They’re all thinking it. All of the disciples have their youthful ambitions and imaginations, pushing them forward into a glorious destiny. And as with any group of ambitious people, there’s a fair amount of tension within the community as the internal pecking order gets established.

All of this unspoken jostling for preeminence comes to a head in the tenth chapter of Mark. Most of the chapter is about Jesus trying to get the disciples to understand what this movement is really about. The empire of God isn’t what they expected. It’s nothing like the empires of this world, based in relationships of domination and submission, the rule of the strong over the weak.

Jesus teaches the disciples that only those who become like little children will enter the empire of God. He reveals that it is almost impossible for the rich to enter the empire of God; only by surrendering everything can they hope to enter it. These two teachings, one right after another, upended all the common wisdom about who was good, important, and worthy to rule.

Even more so than today, children had virtually no rights in the ancient world. They were at the bottom of the pyramid – better seen and not heard. The vision that we get from Isaiah, that “a little child shall lead them” was almost too ridiculous to be believed. Leadership was for the strong, not for the weak.

The rich, on the other hand, were supposed to be blessed by God. In the ancient world – including in the house of Israel – there was always a strong strain of prosperity gospel teaching. The idea that if someone was rich, it was a confirmation that God was on their side. Those who are on top of society are there because they deserve it somehow.

Today’s society has pretty much the same idea, even if we use different words. Maybe we’d say that the rich worked hard, made good choices, and were really smart – so maybe that means that one percent of the world’s population deserves to own half of the earth’s wealth. In ancient society, it was common wisdom that the wealthy were rich because of God’s favor. The world is as it should be, and rejecting the rule of the strong, the rich, the powerful, was fighting against the divine order.

In just a few short lines in the tenth chapter of Mark, Jesus overturns the tables of the money-lenders at the heart of establishment religion. “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” It says that the disciples were amazed at Jesus’ words. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. So he repeated it, to make sure they understood. “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Many who are first will be last, and the last first.

This isn’t what the disciples signed up for. They joined up with the Jesus movement in order to be part of the new Judean 1% in the empire of God. They were ready to be rich, powerful – people blessed by God.

So even when Jesus told them all these things directly, the disciples were having a really hard time hearing it. As Upton Sinclair famously observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Perhaps even more importantly, it’s difficult to get a person to understand something when their hopes, dreams, and worldview depend on them not understanding it. The disciples were so full of their ideas about how the story should end – about the triumph and glory that should be theirs as charter members of the Jesus movement – that they just couldn’t wrap their heads around what Jesus was actually saying to them. So Jesus tried again. Mark says:

Again [Jesus] took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

And it’s right after this – after Jesus has told them to be like children. After he’s told them that it’s the bottom rung in society, not the top, that will enter the empire of God. It’s after he’s tried to shatter the disciples’ startup mentality and wake them to the trials and suffering that are coming, that James and John approach Jesus to ask for a bigger share of the company.

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“And what’s that?” asks Jesus.

“Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

I can just see Jesus face-palming at this point. “You don’t know what you’re asking.”

You don’t know what you’re asking, because you still think that this path is about glory. You still imagine that the road of discipleship ends at power, honor, and prestige in the eyes of the world. You still don’t understand suffering. You don’t know what it means to give up everything to follow me. You haven’t surrendered your naive ambitions and lust for control.

James and John think they do understand. “We’re ready,” they say. “We can be baptized with your baptism and drink the cup you’re going to drink.”

And then Jesus says what are probably some of the most ironic words in the whole Bible: “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

The disciples came to Jesus asking for the best seats in the house, but Jesus knows what it means to sit at his right and his left. Those aren’t seats. They’re certainly not thrones. They’re crosses. Those who will sit at Jesus’ right and left are those who will be crucified on either side of him. The disciples still can’t imagine it, but the inauguration of the empire of God is Jesus’ execution. His throne is the cross. His crown, of thorns. Jesus reigns from a throne that is completely opposite and diametrically opposed to the throne of Caesar. The king of Israel reigns from the cross.

In our reading this morning, Jesus calls us out of our youthful foolishness, out of our enthusiasm and imagination of what grand deeds we can accomplish, what heights we can ascend. The gospel invites us to join Jesus in the Desert of the Real. We discover victory in surrender, redemption in suffering, glory in submission and service to others – including our enemies.

This is not the path any of us signed up for. Just like the disciples, we haven’t been ready to hear it. But Jesus is telling us now, clearly. It’s time to wake up. It’s time to embrace the savior that Isaiah talks about, whose life was made an offering for sin – whose sacrifice wipes away our transgressions.

This same Jesus, this crucified king is inviting us to join him. To become like him. To allow our lives to become a sacrifice that, together with Jesus, redeem the world and usher in the empire of God.

This is good news. The simplistic, selfish minds of our youth may reject it, but the way of Jesus is one of hope, liberation, and joy. The gospel of the cross requires us to experience two seemingly contradictory realities at the same time:

First: The way of God is marked by suffering and loss.

Second: The way of God is one of triumph and peace.

These are both true. And we can’t have one without the other. No cross, no crown. No loss, no victory. No suffering, no peace. The prophet Isaiah describes this double reality so beautifully:

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to surrender our will to power – our insatiable desire to be the best, the brightest, the strongest, the most honored. Becoming like Jesus, we are invited to bear the sins of many, to make intercession for the transgressors, to become priests of the new covenant – cleansing the world through the life blood of Jesus.

As we enter into a time of waiting worship, let’s ask God to uncover all the ways that we use our religion as a mask for our own unexamined ambitions. Holy Spirit, come be in our midst. Show us our hidden darkness and bring us into the light. Make us people who are like your son Jesus – able to drink his cup and be baptized with his baptism. Make us people who bless the world through our obedience, sacrifice, and love.

WHO ARE “ALL”?

Matthew 25:37-40, Acts 2:42-47

Faith Westdorp

In today’s reading we see the beginnings of the first church.

Matt Skinner writes that this passage “describes a community of faith that operates in the power of God’s Spirit. The virtues of justice, worship, and mutuality are not accomplishments of extraordinary folk; they are signs of the Spirit within a community of people who understand themselves as united in purpose and identity–not a dispersed collection of individual churchgoers.”

Working for BNP and for a church is pretty amazing. One of the biggest surprises to me when I started and over the course of the past six months has been how God shows up at Brethren Nutrition Program. It is astounding. Items that we need seem to appear out of thin air, volunteers come through at the last minute with donations of materials and their time. We feel God’s presence in other ways too, in the gratefulness of our guests, in the simple way that things work out day in and day out, even when they shouldn’t. These are, I believe, “signs of the Spirit within this community of volunteers and guests who understand themselves as united in purpose and identity”.

The community described in Acts 2:42-47 consisted of God-fearing Jewish people who had come to Jerusalem after hearing of Jesus’ resurrection. Together, they witnessed the wonder of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when a wind blew and suddenly people who spoke different languages could understand one another. The first church consisted of people from vastly different places, cultures, and backgrounds who were united in faith.

These people sold their possessions and pooled their resources in order to better care for one another. Isn’t that beautiful?

Do you think that there were forms to be filled out in order to confirm and establish that Sarah really needs that loaf of bread, or that David needs a new shirt? I know some of y’all are sitting there like “Wellll these people were prob illiterate so… no there weren’t any forms because no one could read”.  That’s not my point. The point is that this passage illustrates needs being met, no questions asked.

 Why then is it so much more comfortable for us to create processes and systems for helping others? Why do we create systems and bureaus for interacting with the needy instead of connecting with each other, and folding everyone in?

Raise your hand if you remember the first time a stranger asked you for money. I do. I was six.

A year later when I was in first grade my family moved to Gaithersburg, Maryland. My mom commuted into DC and would take my brother and I in with her on days that we had off from school so that we could stuff and seal envelopes at her office. The highlight of working in my mom’s office for my brother was always competing with himself for how many envelopes he could label in a set amount of time. For me, it was a trip to the Chipotle of the ‘90s, Baja Fresh (they had BLUE Hi-C in their soda fountain). On our way to DuPont Circle from my mom’s office a man sitting on a stoop asked us for change and my mom ignored him, or maybe didn’t hear him, or more likely was so accustomed to these requests that she didn’t even register it. But at 6 years old I heard him and saw him in full, and I stopped to open my red, heart-shaped purse to give him my dollar bill. My mom quickly came over when she saw what I was doing and gave me a “stranger-danger” lecture as we walked away. I felt like I had done something wrong by helping someone in need.

My mom isn’t a bad person, and she definitely had a strong influence on my path to BNP. A year before this, she had encouraged me to run a penny drive at our church to benefit a children’s charity. She obviously took on a lot of the associated work because I was 5 and mostly remember being annoyed that people had contributed silver coins to our PENNY drive.

These two experiences have stuck with me because they are reminders that we are all taught who to help, and how. Through my Psychology coursework, I was introduced to a slew of psycho-social phenomena that are useful when analyzing how and why we’re taught to help some people, and not others. One theory that’s applicable when thinking about why and how we help or don’t help people in need is in-group/ out-group theory. An ingroup is defined as a social group to which we think we belong, and an outgroup is a social group that you do not think you belong to. The strength of our attachments to our multiple personal “ingroups” varies. For example, my sense of belonging to “women” as a group is much stronger than my sense of belonging to “soup kitchen managers” as a group.

Social scientists have shown that we feel more positively towards people we perceive as members of our ingroup. On the surface, this is another classic example of psychology confirming something we already know to be true: we like people we can relate to, who are like us.

The unfortunate outcome of our tendency to gravitate towards people who are like us, is what it does to how we think of people who are not like us, AKA members of our various outgroups. An outgroup that social scientists have found to be among the most likely to be thought negatively about and discriminated against are people experiencing homelessness.

One study using MRI/ fMRI scans to map people’s brain activity as they were exposed to different pictures of people and things drives home this point. In one picture, a study participant sees a chair. And in the next, they see a picture of someone belonging to their ingroup. In the last picture, they see a picture of someone experiencing homelessness. Participants’ brains’ responses to pictures of people experiencing homelessness are closer to how they perceive a chair than how they perceive a member of their ingroup. Essentially, when we see people experiencing homelessness we process them as furniture instead of as people. This process is referred to by psychologists as “dehumanization” and is the nasty mechanism behind some of humanity’s greatest atrocities, like the Holocaust. 

The practical implication of this is that we don’t notice and don’t see people who are members of outgroups. People who are homeless. Our brains override our view of them. In other studies, social scientists have shown that we perceive the pain of people belonging to outgroups as being less severe than our own (which, as an aside, has been used to explain why doctors under prescribe women’s pain meds). Dehumanization causes us to literally not see people in need, just like my mom walking by the man on the stoop.

There’s a big advantage to not seeing the suffering of people who are different from us. It allows us to focus our mental and emotional energy on our ingroup, a pool of people who presumably share more genetic information with us than members of our outgroup do. Positive affect or “feelings” for people who are like us aids in group cohesion, which in turn strengthens familial bonds that support the propagation of our own genetic lines. Beyond that, city and close-quarter living would be unbearable if our brains processed every person we see the same way we process our loved ones. Can you imagine the exhaustion that would ensue if we greeted every person we saw like they were our best friend?

But Jesus DID see each and every person as if they were one of his best friends, his loved ones. He is and was perfect, saw society’s castaways and tended to them with compassion. A life modeled after Christ must include compassion and love for those who are vastly different from us.

My favorite bible quote is found in Matthew 25:37-40 (NIV)

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

The ways in which we come to view others, between “ingroup” and “outgroup”, “stranger” and “friend” are all learned.  If the first Christians, through the power of the holy spirit were able to overcome lack of a common language in order to “give to one another” then we have the power to open our hearts wider, to love deeper, to widen our circles to include people we haven’t before. We can break bread with more people, and we can strengthen the bonds that we have and bring more people in.

https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=52

GLORIFYING THE STRENGTHS GIVEN BY GOD, FOR GOD

Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42, Psalm 95

Emmy Goering

I’ve just returned to D.C. after spending the last week in the Chicago area at the Brethren Volunteer Service retreat. There, I was able to get some much needed rest and was able to connect with the friends who I’d bonded with at our orientation. While we shared stories about our service experience, this sermon loomed in the back of my mind. As we were giggling and groaning, crying and commiserating, lamenting and laughing with our fellow BVS’ers, this sermon taunted me throughout the whole retreat. What was I going to write about? Was it going to be good enough? Would I have anything worth speaking to you about?

 Don’t get me wrong–I accepted this task willingly, and I am very glad to be here speaking to you today. But as you can tell, I’ve also been more than a little bit nervous about today’s sermon.

My mom says that sometimes I’m an “over-thinker”, a worry wart, a nervous Nellie–and, she jokes, that she’s worried that I get that from her. But seriously, no matter how much I want to do something, I sometimes over-think it. I used to get so caught up in the “what ifs” that I was almost frozen with fear. Luckily, the more that I step outside of my comfort zone and try new things, the easier it gets. As I shared during my first address of this congregation at the beginning of my BVS term, I have come a long way, both literally and figuratively, from my hometown of McPherson, Kansas to my transplanted home here in D.C.  

But let’s get back to my recount of the retreat. Mid-week, we had a session with Dana Cassel. She introduced the idea of discerning our vocation. After conversing together in a circle about this topic, we turned to a screen that reflected the well-known “Ted” logo, signifying that we were all in for a treat. If you don’t know what Ted talks are, they are about a 15 minute speech given by anyone with an idea worth sharing.

 As long as that person has some sort of “innovative” idea, the talk can literally be about anything. The speaker who we watched was Elizabeth Gilbert, the #1 best-selling New York Times author of the book “Eat, Pray, Love.” As I watched Ms. Gilbert projected on the big screen, surrounded by fellow BVS’ers, I was inspired by her story.

Her very first book was an amazingly successful bestseller. As many of you can imagine, she felt pressure to follow up with ANOTHER amazingly successful book. At the beginning of her Ted Talk, she shared the comments that she received from friends and strangers alike about her creative future. “Aren’t you afraid that you’re never going to be able to top that? Aren’t you afraid that you’re going to keep writing for your whole life and you’re never again going to create a book that anybody in the world cares about…at all…ever…again?”

When faced with these negative expectations, Elizabeth Gilbert remembered that she’d   heard similar gloomy comments when she’d first shared her dreams of being a writer as a teenager. Now, this was the part of Ms. Gilbert’s Ted Talk that really sparked my interest.

I related to the same gloomy comments that she’d heard as a teen. When I first shared my dream of travelling the world to serve others, some people weren’t very receptive. Most thought that my plans were just a phase; others guessed that I’d give up when things got tough. None of them specifically set out to crush my hopes and ambitions. They were just worried about me.

 For example, when I was 15 years old, I told my parents that I was going to go to BVS after high school. They’d always encouraged me to pursue my passion for service, so they were happy to hear of my plans. But when I went on to say that I also had the rest of my life planned out already, they were a bit concerned.

 I explained that there was no need to worry. I’d buy a van with my then-hypothetical  BVS best friends so we could travel the world for the rest of our days, serving others… {pause} until they reminded me that life doesn’t always work out the way that you plan. How would we support ourselves, they asked. Why, I answered, donations of food and gas money, of course. They then went on to point out that global service wouldn’t be an option if a van was our only means of transportation. Geography may not be my strong suit, but I am definitely passionate, and creative, about service! Just like the people in Gilbert’s life who questioned her ability to weather the demands of her intended career, people in my life were worried about my ability to withstand the tolls of service.

After hearing so many gloomy predictions, Gilbert began to wonder why people regarded anyone with creativity-based aspirations as doomed to fail. Gilbert questioned, why should anyone be expected to be afraid of the work that they feel driven to do?

She decided to do some digging on this tremendous burden placed upon creative people throughout history. She found something, that I believe to be, quite interesting.

She looked across time and at other societies for ways they helped people manage the emotional toll that’s often tied to creativity. Gilbert found that in ancient Greece and ancient Roman societies, people believed that creativity was a “divine attendant spirit from a distant source that came to people for some distant and unknowable reason.” Greeks called these spirits Damons. The Romans called this disembodied spirit a Genius. They believed that while someone was working creatively, a genius sat hiding in the corner waiting to give some inspiration and shape the outcome of the work. In this way, the ancient artist was protected. If their work was great, they were isolated from too much narcissism; if their work was a flop, they were isolated from the failure.

I think the idea of these genius spirits isn’t all that absurd of a conclusion. That genius, that creativity, was and is the work of God, the Holy Spirit. That being is there to guide you.

 God gave us all of these incredible gifts, and we are here to use them for God. As Romans 5:1-5 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

For me, as a young Christian woman trying to find my way to serve in this world, this scripture has lifted a lot of weight off my own shoulders. However, in my desire to make a big, life-changing difference right now, to want to plan out my calling years in advance, it’s something that I am constantly needed to be reminded of. Our gifts are God’s gifts. I’m here to use God’s gifts for His Glory, but on His timeline and in His way, not mine. {pause}

I was surrounded by incredible people this last week at the BVS retreat. All of them are following their calling by using their gifts and talents given by God. Finding what these gifts are and exactly how we are to use them, however, can come a lot easier for some than others. Learning to use these gifts to glorify God can be even more of a challenge. How do we glorify this almighty Creator who gave us life and love?

 As Christians, we can look to the scripture for guidance. Psalm 95 Says, “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.

Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.”

Recently, I saw the Disney movie, Moana, and it reminded me of this idea of serving the Lord on His timeline and according to His plans. The main character, Moana, is a young Polynesian princess whose island paradise is slowly deteriorating. Although Moana’s father expects her to remain on the island and lead their people as he has done, Moana believes that it is her unique calling to leave the island to fulfill the ancient quest of her ancestors and save their people. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, I highly recommend it. The ocean-based animation is breathtaking, the songs are amazing, and Moana’s silly little chicken sidekick named Hei-Hei is hilarious.

While Moana isn’t a Christian movie, I did find some interesting spiritual analysis by Christian movie reviewer Kevin Ott on the website Rockin’ God’s House. Mr. Ott spoke with Mark Hett, one of Disney’s main animators on the film, about Moana’s spiritual connections. Mr. Hett is also a Christian, and he says that although Moana is based on the Oceana/Polynesian mythology of their world and their culture, the film provides a lot to discuss in regard to a call that is from outside one’s self. To quote Mr. Hett, “I think the spiritual aspect of life is a big part of this film…that we’re in the world but we’re not of the world because we have a spiritual realm that we deal with and we live in.”

  Let’s think about that for a minute. We’re in the world but we’re not of the world. That is a major struggle for most Christians. How do we do God’s work in this world?

Much like the struggle that Moana faces when she challenges her village’s expectations for her life, we often struggle with our interpretation of what others expect of us.

 Elizabeth Gilbert faced criticism when she voiced her plans to become a writer. My choice to spend my first year out of high school in BVS rather than going straight to college was met with skepticism and misunderstanding by some.

 But just as Moana follows the call of the ocean, which is always there to support her along her journey, we must choose to follow our calling from God, who is always there to support us in our journey.

 Our path may not be normal, or easy. Our calling may not be typical, but it may not necessarily be earth-shattering, either. We may hear from naysayers who are simply concerned with our ability to withstand the challenges that we’ll face along the way. But as Christians, we must remember that we are in the world but not of the world. As we read in Psalm 95, we must sing for joy to the Lord; we must kneel down before the Lord our Maker.

 As we’re instructed by Romans 5, “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

 At the BVS retreat this past week, I was blessed to see the work of God through my fellow BVS’ers. I challenge you to see God through others–through their work, through the passions they bring, through their service to others, even if it’s not the typical path or the easy choice. The Spirit of Christ is within each of us.  Amen.

DAY ONE

Matthew 2:13-23

Jeff Davidson

I work at a 911 center that dispatches emergency and non-emergency calls for police, fire, and medical. Sometimes units will do what we call self-dispatching on a call. If an officer runs across a traffic accident before anyone has called us, they will self-dispatch, which means to enter their own call and mark themselves on the scene of it without going through us at dispatch. Any time any officer or firefighter does anything, it generates a call – even if they are just taking a meal break someplace. Obviously you have to have a way to keep track of and organize all those different calls.

One way that many centers organize them is by number. Each event number starts with the two digit year, so all of yesterday’s events started with 16 and all of today’s events start with 17. After the year, the event number continues with the ordinal date. In other words, the event number continues with what day of the year it is. Yesterday was the 366th day of the year, since it was a leap year. I think that they put presidential elections into leap years on purpose just to drag out the agony. Anyway, yesterday was the 366th day of 2016, so all the event numbers start 16366 and then they continue with 4 digits that say what number of event that day it is. At  many call centers today’s first event probably came a few seconds after midnight, and it was probably someone complaining about noise from fireworks or a party, and the number was 17 (for the year) 001 (for the ordinal day) 0001 for which particular event of the day it was.

Today is day one not just at my workplace, but for all of us. Today is day one of the year 2017.  The reality of it is that it’s not a particularly special day, not any more special than any other day. My life hasn’t dramatically changed since yesterday. I don’t feel particularly better or particularly worse. Nothing great has happened, besides getting to come and worship with each of you this morning. It’s doubtful that tomorrow will be all that much different, except that I’ll be going back to work and that traffic will be lighter than usual since it’s a federal holiday. If we stop and think about it coldly and factually, for most of us day one isn’t very much different than day three hundred and sixty six was or than day two will be.

But we don’t think about these things coldly and factually, do we. Our minds look for patterns and for significance in events large and small, and we have long established the pattern of the three-hundred-sixty-five day year (plus one for leap year) and of twelve months and of January 1 of a new year being a special day. The significance of day one is set in our cultural DNA and few if any of us can fully escape it even if we try.

This is the first Sunday after Christmas. While in our lives it’s been a week since Christmas, for Joseph and Mary and Jesus at the beginning of our gospel reading it’s been a couple of years. Although many manger scenes show the wise men kneeling and offering their gifts before the manger, it really took them a couple of years to find Jesus. I mention the wise men because that’s who “they” are in our scripture reading who have just left. 

Matthew’s gospel says in the beginning of chapter two that after the wise men visited King Herod, Herod became frightened that the newborn King of the Jews would overthrow him. This kind of political and military revolution is what Jews expected from the Messiah, as Micah talked about a couple of weeks ago. So in response to learning of Messiah’s birth within the last two years, Herod gave orders to kill all males under the age of two in the vicinity of Bethlehem. This is called the Slaughter of the Innocents. 

So here we are, with an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream and telling him to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt, to escape Herod’s wrath. As he was when an angel appeared to tell him that Mary was pregnant, Joseph is obedient and takes his family along the Silk Road to Egypt. A couple of years later, Herod dies and an angel appears to Joseph yet again to tell him it is safe to return to Israel. And once again, Joseph obeys. And once again an angel appears – this last time, it seems as if it’s starting to get a little routine. Matthew doesn’t even say, “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said yada yada yada” like he has before. It’s happened so much that Matthew starts to abbreviate. Joseph was afraid and “after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.”

What does this scripture, falling as it does on New Year’s Day, tell us about our day one? Well, there is danger about. Some people are ascribing danger to the coming presidency of Donald Trump, but really there would be danger about whoever was elected President. Dominant American culture is not and has never been the friend of true Christianity. Sure, there’s the cultural Christianity where saying “God bless America” at the end of a speech and singing “God bless America” at the seventh inning stretch and saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” is supposed to be a sign of faith, but we know that’s all just fluff. That has nothing to do with love, with justice, with grace, or with righteousness. Our economy is built on greed, which is a sin. Our foreign policy is built on what is in our interests, which is the exact opposite of turning the other cheek and loving your enemies. Our political system is built on access for those with money, which is completely turned around from what the Bible says that God’s system is built on. Trump, Clinton, Johnson, Stein – it didn’t matter who was elected President. We would be challenged by danger and by enemies anyway. The type and nature of those challenges and enemies might be different, but they’d all still be there.

So just as it was for Joseph and his family, day one is a day of action for us. Not just the action of loosening your belt after a big meal or of changing the channel to find the correct football game, but action of self-defense, of self-protection. Do I mean buying a gun? No. Do I mean demonstrating in the streets? Well, maybe. Do I mean taking political action or making a contribution of some kind? Perhaps. Instead of “maybe” or “perhaps” I guess I should say, “It depends.”

It depends because the first action you should take is to seek God’s will. That’s what happens for Joseph. He waits for God’s leading, which comes to him again and again in a dream, to take action. God spoke to Joseph in a dream, and he went to Egypt. God spoke again in a dream, and Joseph returned from Egypt. God spoke yet again, and Joseph went to Nazareth. God speaks, Joseph acts.

Is God speaking to you? I don’t know. Probably, but I admit that I don’t always know when God is speaking to me. I try to make time every day to listen to God, but just because I try doesn’t mean I succeed, and just because I am listening doesn’t mean I will hear, and just because I hear doesn’t mean that I will understand, and just because I understand doesn’t mean I’ll do it. That’s why the best I can do when I consider if God is speaking to you is “probably.” It’s also the best I can do when I consider if God is speaking to me. The more pertinent question is whether I am listening, and hearing, and understanding, and acting.

God may not be speaking to you in any particular way about Trump or Clinton or politics or social justice in the broad sense. Imagine that everything was perfect in our government, whatever that means for you. Imagine that all of your preferred policy prescriptions had been put in place and that, miracle of miracles, they had all worked even better than you had hoped they would. Imagine that in the political realm internationally, nationally, state-wide, and in your local community all is well.

Guess what. You’re still surrounded by danger. You’re still surrounded by sin. Whether it is brokenness in your family, or gossip at your workplace, or hatred and discord among neighbors you are still surrounded. There are still poor people around. There are still hungry and sick people around. There are still selfish people and violent people and hateful people to deal with. When I say those words your mind may have flashed on someone; are you ready to act? Are you ready to love them? Are you ready to turn the other cheek? Are you ready to forgive them, even if they don’t think they’ve done anything to be forgiven for?

Here on day one we as a congregation are surrounded by sin. No matter who becomes President on January 20th, there will be hungry people to feed on January 21st. There will be poor people and homeless people and sick people and there will be other people and policies that have helped to create the poor and the homeless and the sick. Not intentionally, at least not necessarily, but we all do things that harm others whether we are aware of it or not. We all do things and support systems in ways seen and ways hidden that create poverty and racism and violence at one level or another. Sometimes we do it intentionally, because it benefits us. 

Do I always buy fair-trade coffee or chocolate? No. Usually I buy plain old Hershey’s and Folger’s. Are they exploitative multi-nationals? Probably. Could I do better for the poor if I bought something else? Probably. Why don’t I? Because Hershey’s and Folger’s are right there when I want them. They’re cheaper. I’m used to the way they taste. Does that mean I am sinning? Yeah, probably. Am I going to try to do better? I hope so. Am I going to succeed? We’ll see.

We as a congregation are surrounded by sin and danger, we as individuals are surrounded by sin and danger, and as sad as I am to say it, we contribute to the sin and danger that surrounds us. Sometimes we do it unintentionally – hopefully most of the time – but if we’re fully honest then sometimes it’s intentional.

Today is 17001. Day one in the year 2017. Like Joseph, we are surrounded. Like Joseph, we need to listen for God, and then take action. Some days we will be like Joseph. Some days we will hear God and do what God calls us to do. On these days we will be building the kingdom of God. Other days, well, other days maybe not so much. But today, today is day one. Today is where we make the decision, today is where we set the pattern for the rest of the days of the year. But guess what? Tomorrow will be another day one, where we once again have to make the decision and set the pattern. January 3 will be day one as well. Every day is day one. How will we spend our day one? We’ll see. Amen.

CHOOSING A NAME

Isaiah 62:1-5

Jeff Davidson

I remember when we got our first dog when I was growing up. I don’t remember how old I was, but I know it was before first grade. I remember getting in the car and driving down to Dayton where my father knew someone who had dachshund puppies. Dad went inside to get the puppy while my mom, my sister and I waited in the car. Finally – it seemed like forever – finally he came back to the car with something wiggling around under his coat, and he got into the car and we took turns petting the puppy and holding the puppy and letting the puppy lick us. It was wonderful.

One other thing I remember about getting the puppy was choosing a name for her. We had chosen the name before we brought her home. Mom and Dad had brought home dog books, and showed us pictures of dachshunds and read to us about their temperament and everything. After we’d looked at pictures of dachshunds and learned about dachshunds we tried to pick a name that would go with a dachshund.

The puppy was a girl, and we had learned that dachshunds were German dogs, so we needed a German girl’s name. After a while someone suggested Fritzie. Fritzie. It sounded right. Fritzie.

Actually, the dog’s name was Fritzie Lou. I’m not sure where the “Lou” came from, but it doesn’t matter. Fritzie Lou Davidson.

As I was growing up we had more dachshunds. The next one was named Scooker. She came named, but she made a sound that kind of sounded like she was scooking, whatever that is. Then after Scooker was Max – a good German boy’s name. And then that was the last of the dachshunds while I was in Ohio.

Names are important. Names matter. There have been numerous studies where they show pictures of women to a large group of men. They’ll split the men into two groups, and show each group the same picture. They’ll tell one group that it’s a picture of a woman named Gertrude, or Hildegard, or something like that. They’ll tell the other group that it’s a picture of a woman named Roxanne, or Desiree, or something. Then they will ask each group to rate the attractiveness of the woman in the picture.

Even though it is the exact same picture of the exact same woman, Roxanne and Desiree always are rated as more attractive than Gertrude and Hildegard. When you take men’s pictures and two groups of women, the same thing happens.

I had a friend growing up whose name was Kim – K-I-M. He hated his name. He thought it was a name for a girl. I know it’s a unisex name, but it does seem to be more common as a girl’s name than as a boy’s name. And although we were good friends I never knew Kim’s middle name, because he disliked it so much he would never tell anyone what it was. At 8:00 AM on the morning of his 18th birthday, Kim was at the Courthouse to change his first name to Ken and his middle name to Roy, after his father.

Names matter to us. Names matter in terms of how people view us, how people think of us, how people evaluate us. Names matter in terms of how we think of ourselves. Names are important. Even in the Bible, names are important.

Names are important not just for what the name might mean, but naming things is important functionally. Naming something or someone is one of the key ways that you demonstrate control or dominion or power over it or them.

There is a controversy going on here in DC right now that illustrates this principle exactly. The name of the local football team is the Washington Redskins. Some people find that name racist and offensive. Other people think that in context it is not offensive. I’m in the former group, although I admit that it’s such a habit that I don’t always remember to omit the name.

You know who disagrees with me? Dan Snyder – the owner of the team. It’s his team, and that’s what he wants to call them. And there is nothing that you or I or anyone else can do about it. Even the federal government – they can cancel the trademark, but they can’t make him change the name. It’s his team, and he controls the name.

Fritzie Lou didn’t pick her name. She was our dog, so we picked it for her. And if Lori and I had come up with something that Mom and Dad didn’t like, they would have vetoed it since they were the ones paying for the dog.

I didn’t pick my name. When I was born, my name was Darrell Gebhard. I was adopted. My parents had thought hard about what they wanted my name to be. My dad never really like his name, first because it rhymes (Emerson Davidson) and second because with those six syllables it can have a sing-song feel to it. They made sure to pick a name that would avoid both of those pitfalls – Jeffrey Davidson.

That choice, that decision, was an expression of my parents’ legal control over me. Naming, whether it is at birth or after adoption, is an expression of control.

You saw that with my friend Kim. As soon as he was legally allowed to do so, he changed his name to Ken. He couldn’t do that while he was still under his parents’ control. He had to wait until he was no longer under their legal control and had the legal right to make his own choice about his name and to take control over his legal life.

You see that in the Bible. There’s a cartoon I’ve seen several times on Facebook recently. The first panel shows two guys in Biblical robes. The first guy hands the second guy a box and says, “Here you go! One thousand business cards that say ‘Simon the Fisherman.” The second panel shows the second guy standing in front of Jesus rolling his eyes, while Jesus says, “No longer shall you be called Simon; now your name is Peter.”

You even see it in the Old Testament. God gave Adam dominion over the animals, right? What’s the first thing that Adam did in his relationship with the animals? He gave them their names. In the Bible, in our own lives, in our relationships with people, in our business relationships, the ability to name something is a symbol of dominion or control over it.

Sometimes names are a sign of submission. Let’s go back to the Washington football team for a moment. I’m sure that there are football players who object to that name. You know what? Too bad. It’s not their football team. They don’t get to pick the name. What they do get to pick is whether or not they will play for that team. It hasn’t happened that I know of, but it is entirely possible that a free agent could say, “You know what? I think that name is offensive. I think that name is racist. I’m not going to play for Washington. I’m going to sign with the Arizona Cardinals.” If they want Washington’s money, then they have to submit to having that name on their helmet and their jersey and their football card or whatever. They can choose what they are going to do if they don’t like the name – either submit and accept it or walk away.

We can choose all kinds of different names. There are a lot of different names for Jesus in the Bible. We can choose what name we want to use for Jesus in a given situation. This isn’t us taking control over Jesus – we didn’t make these names up. They’re all in the Bible. This is us taking control over our situation by naming what it is we hope or need Jesus to be in the moment.

Maybe you’ve got some emotional problems or heartaches to work through. Then you might think of and pray to Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor. Perhaps your faith is being tested. In that case you might recall Jesus, the rock of our salvation, and that rocks make a solid foundation for your life. We often have to deal with things we don’t understand. Jesus was often called “teacher” – maybe a teacher is exactly what we need.

The name “Jesus” itself has a meaning – it means “Deliverer.” When we are feeling overwhelmed, when we think that we just can’t go on, when we are in fear for our lives, it may be some comfort to remember not just that Jesus is the deliverer, but that it’s his very name.

We choose not just names for Jesus, though. We choose names for ourselves. I have chosen the name “Christian.” I have chosen a name that shows my belief in Jesus as my savior, and my submission to Jesus as my master. That means that I have to live the way Jesus calls me to live, and that I have to put Jesus above everything else in my life. It’s hard to do, and I don’t always live up to it, but that’s the standard to which I have publicly chosen to be held.

I’ve chosen the name “Brethren.” If you believe the denominational tagline, it means that I want to continue the work of Jesus, peacefully, simply, and together with others. That’s how we define ourselves as a denomination, or at least that’s the shorthand for it. That’s what I am saying about myself.

I could choose some other names for myself if I wanted. I could choose the name “faithful,” or the name “loving” to describe myself if I wanted to. Those names wouldn’t mean much, though, if I didn’t live up to them. Think back to all of Jesus’s names. Jesus didn’t just say one day, “Call me teacher” or “Hey, call me counselor.” Those were names that described who Jesus was and what he did. Jesus was a counselor for folks, a teacher, a rock.

So if I, or if we, wish to be known as faithful, or loving, or generous, or praying, or merciful – whether it is as a congregation or as individuals, we have to do those things. We have to be those things. Those are names that we must earn.

Even my friend Kim had to act to get his name. He didn’t just say, Hey, call me Ken.” He took action to make that his name. He became Ken. Likewise, we need to become the name that we want for ourselves.

How well do we do that? It depends on what part of our lives you look at I suppose. Tomorrow is a day that is set aside to remember and reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr.  King claimed the name of Christian. He didn’t always live up to that name, and I think he would be the first to tell you that. You could focus on the parts of King’s life that fall short of the name of Christian.

But King also tried to live out of that name as best he could. King led his crusade the same way Jesus led his. Without violence. In the streets with the people. Willing to accept punishment, willing to suffer, willing to die. King did not live up to the name of Christian all the time – no one does. He did the best he could, though, and succeeded to a much greater degree than most of us do.

It is our job to choose and then try to live up to the name of Christian. It is our job to be followers of Christ – as individuals and as a congregation. There will be times we fail. There will be times we fall short. But we will keep trying to follow Jesus.

When we do, when we walk where Jesus wants us to walk and say what Jesus wants us to say and do what Jesus wants us to do, all of the other names we might want will fall into line. When we follow Jesus we will be generous, and peaceful, and loving, and merciful, and faithful. When we follow Jesus, we will be sharing Jesus’s way and faith and love and life with everyone we know. When we follow Jesus people will see us doing those things, and we will earn those names in their eyes as well. Amen.

SPEAKING THE TRUTH IN LOVE

Ephesians 4:1-16

Jeff Davidson

(note – BVS refers to Brethren Volunteer Service, a program where volunteers serve in a variety of assignments around the world for 1-2 years.  In today’s service a BVS orientation unit and a Senior High work camp were in attendance.)

For those of you who don’t know me, I work at a 9-1-1 center outside of DC. It’s shift work, for me from 6 pm to 7 in the morning. It’s a mix of days on and days off, and it’s a job where you often hear people at their worst. People don’t call 9-1-1 because they’re having a good day. They don’t call 9-1-1 because everything is fine and they are totally in control of the situation. People call 9-1-1 because the situation is beyond their control and they need help, because they have screwed up big time and they need help, because someone else has screwed up big time and they need help… you get the idea. People call 9-1-1 when things are not going well.

This means that people who call us are often rude, or impatient, or upset. They yell at us, curse at us, and they refuse to answer our questions because they don’t understand why we’re asking them. Not everybody, of course, and not even most people, I don’t want to make it sound worse than it is, but it only takes one or two of those kinds of folks to ruin your attitude for the night.

We can’t talk back to those folks, because it’s not professional, it’s not helpful, and it’s not the right thing to do. So sometimes we take that frustration and that anger that we feel out on each other. That’s the nature of the job, and everyone knows it, it happens to all of us at work at one time or another. We try to understand it and accept it and work through it with one another, because we are there for a particular purpose.

We are there to help figure out what kind of help the caller needs and to get them that help. We are there to try to keep the caller safe and to keep the responding units safe, whether it’s police or fire or medical services. We are there to provide a public service. And when we are focused on what we are doing, when we keep our minds on what we are there for, it is easier for us to move past the hurts and the tensions and the stresses that always will come up in a workplace like ours. When we all have the same goals, we can deal with the conflicts.

As a pastor, I have been through a lot of conflicts in congregations. Sometimes it’s been the congregation where I was serving, sometimes it’s been a neighboring congregation. Sometimes people have been able to work through their problems, and sometimes they have not. When they have not, it means that maybe the pastor leaves, or a number of people leave and the congregation is weakened and smaller. I have been the pastor that has left in those settings sometimes. Other times I have been the pastor that came in to try to help clean up the mess.

In my experience, the congregations that have worked through their conflicts successfully, the congregations that have learned and grown and come out on the other side stronger, are the ones that have been focused on their mission. They are the congregations that are united in knowing what it is they are trying to do and how they are trying to go about it. They are the ones that are trying to be servants of Christ and speaking God’s truth.

Paul talks about that unity throughout this passage. One body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God. We are bound together. Later Paul talks about us as a body being joined and knit together by every ligament with which we are equipped.

That image of ligaments is a powerful one here in DC. Even people around here who aren’t football fans have heard all about Washington’s quarterback Robert Griffin III, and even some of us who are fans are really tired of hearing about him. Real quick summary – Griffin started playing here in 2012, and he was fantastic. He hurt his knee twice in 2012, and he has not been the same since. There’s other stuff going on too, but really the injuries to his knee are what derailed Griffin’s career and have caused difficulties in figuring out how best to use him as a player.

The knee injury wasn’t a broken knee, it wasn’t a shattered bone or anything like that. The knee injury that took away some of Griffin’s physical gifts was an injury to his knee ligaments, an injury to the structures that connect bones to other bones. That kind of an injury happens when the knee is twisted, when the ligaments are not moving together in the direction that they are supposed to move. That’s an injury that happens when the ligaments are not in harmony, in unity in their movement and purpose.

We all have different gifts, Paul says, and we are to use those gifts to grow in the unity of Christ, and one of the ways we do that is by speaking the truth in love. In his book Wishful Thinking Frederick Buechner writes, “God was making a body for Christ, Paul said. Christ didn’t have a regular body any more so God was making him one out of anybody he could find who looked as if he might just possibly do. He was using other people’s hands to be Christ’s hands and other people’s feet to be Christ’s feet, and when there was some place where Christ was needed in a hurry and needed bad, he put the finger on some maybe-not-all-that-innocent bystander and got him to go and be Christ in that place himself for lack of anybody better.”

That’s what these brothers and sisters in town for the work camp are doing. That’s what these BVSers are doing. That’s what Estella has been doing with us and will be doing in Germany. That’s what Bryan did with the Office of Public Witness.  That’s what Katie’s doing with Going to the Garden. That’s what Care and Mary O. do. That’s what each of us are supposed to be doing. We are supposed to be going someplace and being Christ in that place. We are supposed to speak the truth in love.

The truth is that God wants peace. The truth is that God wants justice. The truth is that God wants abundance, and health, and wholeness. The truth is that God loves everybody. That’s the truth that we speak. Love is that attitude that we speak it with. Service is one of the languages with which we speak it. Growth in the unity of Christ is what happens when we speak it faithfully. Dissension and division are what happens when we forget that unity of purpose and that unity of service and that unity of love.

I said earlier that I admire each of you who are a part of BVS, willing to give a part of your lives to service, to speaking the truth in love. I admire each of you who are wrapping up your service with the work camp. I hope it’s just another of the ways in which you will continue to speak the truth in love. I admire each of you who look at their lives and try to name and develop your gifts, wherever you are in your life’s journey, and try to use those gifts to speak the truth in love.

God wants peace. God wants justice. God loves everybody. That is the truth that we speak when we serve God. That is the truth that binds us together. Amen.

Victor, King, Servant?

Victor, King, Servant? – Jennifer Hosler

Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11

Today is Palm Sunday, as we have already seen and heard and waved our palm branches. Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, is the name that the church has given to mark the events in Scripture which are referred to as the Triumphal Entry.  The Triumphal Entry, which we just read, involves palm branches waving and coats flying and people shouting, “Hosanna!” Something big is going on with what Jesus is doing: the people around him realize it and rejoice.

What is the Triumphal Entry, besides a fun excuse to order palm branches and wave them around in celebration? What does it tell us about who Jesus is? What does it mean for us as followers of Jesus?

I spent a few moments this past week musing on the word triumph. When we use a word or phrase phrase regularly, we can forget the meaning within. Triumph—the word indicates victory, glory, overcoming, winning. “Triumphal Entry”, then, isn’t just any old entrance. It’s not casually walking into a room or strolling into town on a whim. A triumphal entry is a victor’s entrance into a crowd or a setting or place.

What is a modern example of a triumphal entry? The first one I thought of involved sports teams, athletes coming home after winning a national championship.  It is usually a very big deal when the winning baseball or hockey team comes home: there are parades of victory throughout the streets.  The streets are decorated, signs go up. Everyone gets talking about the victory. Everyone is celebrating the glory of the team and of the city.  While this isn’t something that DC knows much about in recent years, we can all picture the excitement there would be if the Nats won the World Series or the Capitals won the Stanley Cup.

While DC might not be too familiar with sports team glory in recent years, DC does know another modern form of a triumphal entry. Every four years, the city rolls out an impressive extravaganza for the Presidential Inauguration. After battles in primaries and in the general election, the electoral victor is finally sworn in at the US Capitol building, surrounded by crowds and dignitaries. There is then a processional march from the Capitol to the White House down Pennsylvania Avenue. Thousands and thousands cheer and celebrate and strain their necks for a glimpse at the new President of the United States.

People in Jesus’ times were familiar with triumphal entries of leaders. In fact, there was a typical format each entry took: there was victory; the victor rode into the city on a steed and with an entourage; the crowds welcomed and rejoiced; the victor moved toward a temple or religious site, and then gave a sacrificial offering up to a deity (Losie, 1992, pp. 854-855). Small heroes and large entered cities in this triumphant fashion after military conquests, including renowned warriors like Alexander the Great and Judas Maccabeus.

For Jewish people in first century Roman times, triumphal entries had historic and cultural implications but also eschatological or end time significance. Since the end of the prophetic period (when prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and others preached to Israel), the Jewish people had been oppressed by Greek and Roman occupation. The prophets had spoken of a Messiah, a person sent from God to deliver the nation of Israel, to restore its faith, and to usher in God’s kingdom and reign over the whole earth. As the oppression continued year after year, the hope and longing for a Messiah grew and grew. Various people claimed to be messiahs and Jewish political revolts rose up and were crushed down. The words of the psalmist (Ps. 13) rang true for many, “How long, O LORD, will you forget us forever?” Some yearned for freedom from foreign occupation, some for yearned political domination and a Jewish empire, some yearned for the presence of YHWH to once again dwell in the temple.

When we meet Jesus in Matthew 21, Jerusalem was teeming with people. Thousands and thousands were making their way into the city from all over the country, in order to head to the temple for Passover. As DC tourist season is once again in full swing, you can picture what it means for a city to be teeming with people (especially if you walked along the tidal basin this past week). The temple was the center of the Jewish faith and Passover was the holiday most central to the peoples’ existence: Passover marks YHWH’s deliverance of the people from slavery in Egypt.

Jesus’ request of his disciples in Matthew 21 seems strange to us. “Go and get me a donkey, please.” Jesus isn’t tired of walking (but he probably should be, since they’ve come from 80 miles north in Galilee over many days). This donkey riding is “a deliberate act, meant to be noticed” (France, 1994, p. 931). Jesus knows his scriptures (as do the crowds, apparently) and chooses to finally present himself and claim the role that the LORD God has bestowed upon him. The prophet Zechariah had spoken long before that the future King of Israel would come riding on a colt (a young donkey). In the passage, the LORD proclaims that he will rescue Israel from warring and violence and that the LORD would reign through the Messianic King.

By riding into town on a donkey—and by coming into Jerusalem via the Mount of Olives, a place linked in Zechariah to YHWH’s deliverance—Jesus is symbolically claiming to be the King of his people, the promised heir of David, the Son of David.

We enter the scene in Matthew amidst the throngs of pilgrims. Jesus pulls aside and sends his disciples in search of a donkey, in a specific location. The colt is brought with its mother, the disciples place their coats on its back, and Jesus begins to ride to Jerusalem on a young donkey. The crowds around Jesus—probably pilgrims and disciples, interested people and hangers-on—recognize what this means and embrace his act. They throw their coats on the ground for Jesus to pass on, just as people did for King Jehu in 2 Kings 9. People grab palm branches and other tree branches and spread them out on the road and wave them in exaltation, shouting praises. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heavens.”

It is clear that the celebrating crowds were only a portion of Jerusalem. They may have primarily been people from Galilee, Jesus’ northern region that was not of the highest esteem. Matthew writes that “When [Jesus] entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” There was a commotion in the city. Not everyone knew who Jesus was but word spread quickly, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Mt. 21:10-11)

Throughout his ministry, Jesus was not always verbally open as to who he was. Jesus would heal the sick and raise the dead—but often stopped short of saying who he really was. With the Triumphal Entry, Jesus is openly declaring that he is the Messiah—but is also relying on people to make the symbolic connections from Scripture. The Triumphal Entry is a picture to illustrate that Jesus is the One whom the prophets foretold, come to deliver God’s people and to usher in the Kingdom of God’s reign.

The Triumphal Entry is theologically important because Jesus claims his role as the Davidic King. The Triumphal entry is also important because it shows us what type of King He is—not an oppressive king, not a violent king, but a servant king.

Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, has enthralled the world and media over his first year. He has chosen modest housing accommodations over a palace, simple garments over lace and gold and handmade shoes, and a twenty-year old used car over new, luxury models. These steps have been a welcome change by many who saw the Vatican as overflowing with wealth.

Yet perhaps the most meaningful actions by Pope Francis have been ones that diminish the distance between the everyday person and the Pope. Personal phone calls, unannounced visits, refusing to be encased in the Popemobile bubble, footwashing of prisoners, embracing a disfigured man: Pope Francis clearly tries to be a humble servant. Humble servants are not in large supply in this world and we are used to people using their power and privilege to support themselves and their own comfort. Pope Francis is a contrast to our dominant culture and values. People around the world are moved by his actions, by a person in power, with great means, who chooses humility, simplicity, and service.

Jesus comes into Jerusalem, not on a mighty steed or warhorse, but on a donkey. He comes as Lord and King not for his own privilege, but to serve and deliver others. Jesus’ ethic of service and humility can be seen throughout the book of Matthew, particularly in passages close to the Triumphal Entry and the Cross.

In Matthew 20, the chapter prior to today’s text, the mother of disciples James and John comes to Jesus with a request. Basically, “Give my sons glorious positions of power when you come into your Kingdom.” Jesus says no and the other disciples, when they hear about it, are furious. Jesus takes it as a teaching opportunity, “Rulers and kings lord their power over their subjects. But not so with you. Whoever wants to be great should be a servant” (paraphrased, Mt. 20:25-26). Commentary author R.T. France states that, “Not so with you well sums up the theme of this whole section of the gospel; the kingdom of heaven creates an alternative society which challenges conventional values” (1994, p. 930). Jesus’ Kingdom is defined by service, not privilege or power.

Another passage in Matthew 20 reminds me of Francis’ acts of caring for the sick (or rather, I should say that Francis reminds me of Jesus). On the way to Jerusalem (but before the donkey), the crowds are following Jesus and two blind men on the side of the road hear who is coming. The two men cry out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” The blind men realize who Jesus is. Yet the crowds shout them down: Jesus doesn’t want anything to do with you, blind beggars on the side of the road, literally on the margins. But Jesus doesn’t look at outward appearances and everyone is worthy of his care, his healing, his grace. The blind men are healed and begin to follow Jesus.

After the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, Jesus heads to the temple. He looks around and sees that the temple area (about 30 acres) was filled with money changers and animals for sale. These commercial activities were crowding out the main purpose of the area—worship, prayer—and were probably exploitative. Jesus clears out the money changers and merchants and, soon after, “the blind and lame” come to him there and he cures them (21:14). Jesus’ acts illustrate that he is a servant king, using his authority to bring justice and grace.

From the Triumphal Entry and the clearing of the temple, we move forward to the Upper Room on Thursday. Just a few days after arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus the Servant King holds a Passover meal with his disciples. In the book of John, we read that Jesus, knowing that he would be put to death, took the last opportunity to teach his disciples by choosing to humbly serve them.

In New Testament times, people would have their feet washed upon entering a room, probably by a servant. The disciples and Jesus didn’t come with servants and no one had apparently been moved to be the one to serve. So the teacher Jesus girds himself with a towel, bends down, and washes his disciples’ feet.

After he is done washing, Jesus asks his disciples, “Do you not know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:12-15).

As followers of Jesus, we are called to live out Jesus’ example of service. Our lives are meant to be defined by gratitude, simplicity, humility, and service, rather than clutching onto status or privilege or some authority that we might have. We are called to live our lives by Jesus’ ethic of service—and also to model his act together. This week, we worship together on Thursday for Love Feast, where we, like Jesus and the disciples, partake of the bread and cup, share a meal together, and wash one another’s feet. As we go through this week and as we join for Love Feast, may we meditate on Jesus our model, the Servant King. AMEN.

 

 

References

France, R.T. (1994). Matthew. In G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, & R.T. France (Eds.), New Bible Commentary (pp. 904-945). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Losie, L.A. (1992). Triumphal Entry. In J.B. Green, S. McKnight, & I.H. Marshall (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (pp. 854-859). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.