Palm Sunday Reflection
Here he comes! The Messiah! Are you sure? Of course, I’m sure! Haven’t you been paying attention: this is the man who told the Samaritan woman everything she had even done as if he’d known her all of his life! I heard he even made a blind man see! I didn’t see it myself, but I understand he raised Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus from the dead! This must be the Messiah!
I can see him! I can see him! He’s riding on a . . . a donkey?! Who’s that behind him? Just a small group of men and women. I don’t see any weapons. But. . . this is the Messiah, isn’t it? He’s come to save us from oppression under Rome. Let’s run out to meet him. Let’s throw our cloaks on the ground to show him our support! Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the LORD! Hosanna!
But, a bit quieter, beneath the loud Hosannas, I imagine a rumbling: a donkey? No army? No shields, no swords? No trumpets leading the way --- wait! I hear music. . . . an accordion??!!* This is the long-awaited Messiah – this can’t be. This is foolishness. . . . Something isn’t right here.
Oh come on! Join the fun! It’s a great celebration! And everyone is saying he is the Messiah. This is probably just some trick to confuse the Romans. I’m sure it’s the Messiah. Salvation is coming to Jerusalem. What could possibly go wrong. . .
**St. Mark's Palm Sunday procession included David Plank on accordion!
“Let us begin the Fast with joy. Let us give ourselves to spiritual efforts. Let us cleanse our souls. Let us cleanse our flesh. Let us fast from passions as we fast from foods, taking pleasure in the good works of the Spirit and accomplishing them in love that we all may be made worthy to see the passion of Christ our God and His Holy Pascha, rejoicing with spiritual joy."
This is the Hymn on the 1st day of Great Lent as it is celebrated in Orthodox churches around the world. According to Fr. Nicholas Ceko, Dean of St. Steven’s Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Alhambra, California, “In the Tradition of the Holy Orthodox Church, the first day of lent is known as ‘Clean Monday.’ It is the day on which we, the Church, joyously begin Great Lent. The happy, springtime atmosphere of Clean Monday sets the tone for the Lenten spirit of repentance and self-control, as described by Jesus our Lord in the Gospel.” He continues to describe “Clean Monday” as a day in which many Orthodox Christians go “out to parks with their children, fly kites, and spend time outdoors in the natural beauty of God’s Creation” - a custom that “serves to break through our routine in order to take time for the simple things of life and see the goodness and beauty in all that God does for us!”
Growing up, I hardly recall my Lenten experiences as “joyous” – give up chocolate or, when I was a bit older, give up caffeine (talk about non-joyous deprivation!) – and this while I was yet a Presbyterian – a fairly austere lot to begin with! But even in the Episcopal Church, our Lenten observance is marked by a somewhat somber tone – flowers and other decorations removed from our places of worship; colorful vestments set aside as the non-descript Lenten array drapes over pulpits, lecterns, altars and clergy alike; and the ‘a’ word replaced by ‘paralegal’ or another 4-syllable word in choir rehearsals leading up to the celebration of Easter [sing the Celtic Paralegal].
But a few years ago, through Facebook, I learned of a movement in the Church of England called “Love Life, Live Lent” – a movement which since 2007 has encouraged nearly half a million people to take part in daily acts of generosity and caring, building deeper relationships with our neighbors, our communities and with God. This year, I discovered another UK Lenten movement called 40 Acts: Do Lent Generously – forty days of giving back, doing good and living generously. What I’ve enjoyed about both of these movements is that they really help me to remember the point of Lent: self-examination and repentance? Absolutely. Deprivation and austerity? Absolutely not. Norman Wirzba , Professor of Theology, Ecology, and Rural Life at Duke Divinity School, writes,
“The time of Lent is not about saying ‘No’ to anything made or provided by God. It cannot be, because everything God has made is good and beautiful, a gift and blessing that God has provided. . . If there is a ‘No’ that has to be said, it will be a ‘No’ directed to the distorting and degrading ways we have developed in appropriating these gifts.”
“Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons.’” So begins our gospel story this morning. The younger of the two sons says to his Father, “I want right now what’s coming to me” and upon receiving his inheritance, he “packed his bags and left for a distant country. There undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had” (that’s the way Eugene Peterson tells the story in The Message). I had to look up “dissipated” – it means “to spend or use up wastefully or foolishly.” With our critical eyes - some of you perhaps, with the wise eyes of parenting – we look at this young man and shake our heads knowingly. How stupid. How foolish. How careless. How wasteful. And then, perhaps if we are willing to be honest, we might look into our own critical eyes in a mirror and quietly whisper, “how like me.”
No, most of us haven’t squandered away all that we’ve been given, we haven’t been completely undisciplined and dissipated, throwing caution to the wind. Perhaps we are carefully saving for a rainy day, perhaps we are giving a percentage of what we’ve received to our church, perhaps we are living, on the whole, quite responsibly. And yet, might there be some ways in which we too are blind to the consequences of our actions? What choices do we make each day that have an impact on others in our global community? Do you know if the stores you shop at treat their employees well? What choices do we make each day that have an impact on others in our own households? How much time in your calendar is blocked off for your family? How willingly do we allow other appointments to encroach upon those precious minutes or hours of time? Lent – a time for self-examination and repentance, to be sure. And such an honest look at ourselves can be painful – something we’d rather avoid. And perhaps that is where our Lenten practice can feel a bit devoid of joy. And yet, what is the promise of that honest look?
For the undisciplined and dissipated son, such a willingness to look at his situation honestly was enough to turn him around, to send him back home to his father. And he went back home, expecting very little – hoping beyond hope that perhaps his father might bring him on as a hired hand so that he would at least get three meals a day. He even practiced his speech on the way home: ““Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” Perhaps he recited it as a mantra to guide his steps. “Father, I have sinned. . . . I am no longer worthy. . . . Father I have sinned. . . .”
But before he even had a chance to say these words to his father, “while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” The son began his practiced speech, “’Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you’ . . . But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 4for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.”
How stupid. How foolish. How careless. How wasteful. How absolutely undisciplined and dissipated of our God. Thanks be to God!
“Let us” continue our Lenten “Fast with joy. Let us give ourselves to spiritual efforts. Let us cleanse our souls. Let us cleanse our flesh. Let us fast from passions as we fast from foods, taking pleasure in the good works of the Spirit and accomplishing them in love that we all may be made worthy to see the passion of Christ our God and His Holy Pascha, rejoicing with spiritual joy."
May this be a season when we take time to go outside to fly kites, to spend time in the natural beauty of God’s Creation, a time when we break free of our routine in order to take time for the simple things of life and see the goodness and beauty in all of the undisciplined and dissipated things God does for us not because we deserve them, but because God loves us and wants nothing more than to run out to us, put his arms around us and kiss us.
 Norman Wirzba, “Preparing for Joy,” Lent, vol. 46 in Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics, (Waco, TX: Baylor Universtiy Center for Christian Ethics, 2014), 12.
 Luke 15:11, NRSV.
 Luke 15:12-16, The Message.
 Luke 15:18b-19, NRSV.
 Luke 15:20b-24, NRSV.
“Abraham believed God.” Three simple words that make a world of difference. Much of our language about belief refers to “belief in.” A child might ask a playmate, “do you believe in the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus?” Politicians tell us whether or not they believe in global warming? Scientists are sometimes asked, “don’t you believe in creation?” Even our baptismal covenant, shaped as it is by the words of the Apostles Creed asks us “Do you believe in God?” But in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, there is no IN --- the text does not say, “Abraham believed in God;” it says quite clearly, “Abraham believed God.” Three words – not four – and it makes a tremendous difference.
Brian McLaren, the featured video-speaker at last Tuesday’s Lenten program, published a book in 2004 with the best title ever: A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished Christian. And by the way, I recommend the book for much more than its title! In it, McLaren describes the Jesus of his childhood - Jesus calming the sea, Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus, Jesus talking to the woman at the well - familiar stories told by women in Sunday School classrooms whose only props were flannel boards and felt-backed cutouts of big boulders, a simple home, and familiar Bible characters. But then he writes,
“When I reached my teenage years, though, I lost that Jesus as one loses a friend in a crushing, noisy, rushing crowd. The crowd included arguments about evolution. . . arguments about the Vietnam War. . . arguments about ethical issues like civil rights and desegregation and a hundred other things. I wondered if women were really supposed to be submissive to men and if rock ‘n’ roll was really of the devil. Were Catholics really going to burn in hell forever unless they revised their beliefs and practices to be biblical like us?”
This story comes to my mind, I think, because it strikes me as the difference between “belief” and “belief in.” Our childhood faith seems more like that Abrahamic faith of simply believing God. End stop. Whereas, once we start thinking, our faith often gets mired in matters of the type of God we believe in. It becomes less about relationship and more about dogma and doctrine. It’s too bad really; because, at the end of the day, which is more compelling? Or more importantly, which is more fulfilling?
In Abram’s encounter with God which we heard in this morning’s Old Testament reading begins with an invitation and a promise:
“'Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.' So Abram went.”
Abram didn’t stop to ask, “what kind of God are you?” Abram simply believed – Abram accepted the relationship and found himself blessed.
We can avoid many of the pitfalls of believing IN by simply believing God. When we believe in we engage in all kinds of divisive debates about the nature of God . . . the nature of humanity. . . creedal statements [riffed here, sorry readers] . . . when we believe, we are blessed --- by abundance, by grace, by love, by promise, by hope . . . by a future that is secure. So that when St. Mark's celebrates its 300th anniversary, may they write of us, "and they believed God."