First Congregational Church
March 28, 2021
From all Four Gospels
“The Palms and the Passion”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
In all the world, there is really only one Palm Sunday joke. So apologies for repetition. It was Palm Sunday but because of a sore throat, 5-year-old Annie stayed home from church with her mother. When the rest of the family returned home, they were carrying palm fronds. Annie asked them what they were for.
“People held them over Jesus’ head as he rode by on a colt,” her father explained.
“Wouldn’t you know it,” Annie fussed, “the one Sunday I’m sick and Jesus shows up and offers pony rides!”
Before we get into the weeds of this morning’s scripture, a couple things. The first one is to draw your attention to the half-page bulletin insert this morning - the side with the map. As we enter into this holy week, I’m thinking that we don’t always get a grasp of how things related to each other.
So on the map, there are two cities that sound very much alike: Bethphage and Bethany. Not only do they lie so close to each other, they are within walking distance to Jerusalem, as in one way - was halfway - from here to Benzonia. The reason I point this out is that at we may not get all the back and forth walking that accompanied all that transpired that last week, which, of course, required additional energy for all involved.
The second part of of the insert is the timeline of Christ’s last week - beginning on the other side - with what would have been this past Friday in our week. Just days before this timeline began, Jesus had raised his best friend, Lazarus, from the dead.
Not on this insert is the description that the Greek author Plutarch gave us on how Roman general, Aemilius Paulus, who won a decisive victory over the Macedonians, returned to Rome - a triumphant procession that lasted three days.
The first day was dedicated to displaying all the artwork that Aemilius and his army had plundered. (Interesting that art was so valued even then.) The second day was devoted to all the weapons of the Macedonians they had captured. The third day began with the rest of the plunder borne by 250 oxen, whose horns were covered in gold. This included more than 17,000 pounds of gold coins. Then came the captured and humiliated king of Macedonia and his extended family.
Finally, Aemilius himself entered Rome, mounted on a magnificent chariot. Aemilius wore a purple robe, interwoven with gold. He carried his laurels in his right hand and was accompanied by a large choir singing hymns, praising the military accomplishments of the great Aemilius.
That, my friends, is how a king entered a city back in the day. But the King of Kings? That’s a different story. There was a crowd, like that for Aemilius. But beyond that, not so much.
Scripture J11:55 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. J11:56 They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple courts they asked one another, “What do you think? Isn’t he coming to the festival at all?” J11:57 But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him.
K11:1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, K11:2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. T21:2, with her colt by her. T21:2b Untie them and bring them to me. 21:3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
K11:4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, K11:5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” K11:6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go.
T21:4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: T21:5 "Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
J12:16 At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.
J12:12b The great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. T21:8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.
L19:37 When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: L19:38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
K11:10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
L19:39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” L19:40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
J12:17 Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. 12:18 Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him. J12:19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”
L19:41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it L19:42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. L19:43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. L19:44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
T21:10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” T21:11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
K11:11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.
Thank you, Jim. As much as we get a slightly different mental view of that day with what has been read, there is still so much more underneath the surface, beginning with the palms. Because we don’t always grasp the political electricity of that time, we don’t necessarily appreciate the palms as part of a rebellion against the sitting king Herod. In fact, they are far more like placards of resistance without words. Hosanna doesn’t mean horray. It means “Save us!” It’s not a cry of triumph but a plea in desperation. Aimed at a leader who can protect us, it becomes an affirmation.
Putting cloaks and other clothing down for the underdog donkey to walk on was much more akin to people underwriting their support of the leader who carried all their hopes of change and betterment. Those very acts were as much joy as life-threatening to their own selves. There is far more passion with those palms than we really understand.
I can’t tell you what the video was about, but sometime on March 18th, I watched a high school student who was appearing before some legislative body, making a case for whatever the subject matter was. Obviously the subject was secondary to this viewer, because what caused me to make a note about that day was this young lady’s passion. She said that her passion was to be a civil rights lawyer because her father’s passion was that whoever wanted to be an entrepreneur should be able to do so. She was well spoken, bright, and you could just feel the energy coming from her for wanting to help people.
This past Thursday I got to attend my first high school basketball game in person in a really long while. So I’d forgotten how Frankfort’s Blake Miller is a real-time video of passion when he gets keyed up - for winning and being part of a team. With March Madness all around us this weekend, there is no shortage of opportunities to see passion in action. Just this morning, Rick Steve’s was interviewing Wade Davis, author of Magdalena: River of Dreams: A Story of Columbia. His passion for the South American country put visiting it on my bucket list.
The question then becomes, what is your passion? What is mine? With just the fleetest of glimpses, I realized that whatever passions I have, they’ve been a little less energetic lately. As always, I say this not to gain any sympathy, but to give space and even permission for others feeling the same way to admit their situations. In any other time, teachers and medical staff, performers and travel industry workers can struggle in day-to-day situations. Throw a little pandemic on them, and it becomes almost a different scenario. There are more than a few folks wishing for the merry-go-round to stop for three seconds, just to take a breath.
And then we are reminded about Christ, and his last week, which he could have avoided with some divine loophole or other, I’m sure. But his passion was people, us, you. He wasn’t necessarily going to slap the gym floor before sprinting from the bench into the game, but he went where he knew he needed to go, even when that path didn’t seem all that bright and sunny.
For some individuals, life hasn’t been all that tough as of late, so for Christ’s passion and last week, there is great gratitude and appreciation for all that he took on on our behalf. For others, hopefully there is some encouragement to keep on keeping on, because just as it was for Jesus, so will it be for us, that it will get better - even better than we can earthly imagine.
Sometimes we need to ask for help with our passions, as Christ did when he asked the disciples to pray with him in the garden his last Thursday night. Okay, so the disciples didn’t do well in their help, but that didn’t stop Jesus from asking. And as he hung on the cross, understandably, potentially a little caught up in his own pain, Christ saw an opportunity to help not only his mother, but the disciple whom he loved. When no one would have blamed him for keeping his mouth shut or focusing on something completely different, Jesus went about his passion for the hearts and souls of people in joining his mother and her new son.
So what’s your passion? Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf. “I have but one passion; it is He, He only.” What is it that you are willing to “put down” in your support of that thing/person that you know is right and good? What is it you would wave palm branches at? If that passion is flagging a little, take Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem as your palm branch this week, and allow his determination and passion to inspire yours, as we begin with prayer.
Passionate and Encouraging God, thank you for never giving up on us. Thank you for giving us an example of your passion in our Savior. Forgive us when we’ve thrown down towels and tantrums of frustration. Forgive us when we’ve been short-sighted. Empower us in this coming week to meet the challenges that come before us, with the calmness of heart you gave Jesus - and the passion to follow him - that you’ve got all that is needful in your hands. As you are lauded and glory given to you, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
March 21, 2021
Fifth Sunday in Lent
“When Up Is Down and Down Is Up”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Pastor Nelson and Pastor Olson were fishing on the side of the road. They thoughtfully made a sign saying "De End is Near! Turn yourself around now before it's too late!," and showed it to each passing car. There was one car that passed didn't appreciate the sign and began shouting at them: "Leave us alone you religious nuts!" All of a sudden they heard a big splash, looked at each other, and Pastor Nelson said....."You tink ve should yust put up a sign dat says: 'bridge out' instead ?”
Surviving a birth in 1567 that brought him into the world two months early to both noble parents, St. Francis de Sales is said to have said, “Some men become proud and insolent because they ride a fine horse, wear a feather in their hat or are dressed in a fine suit of clothes. Who does not see the folly of this? If there be any glory in such things, the glory belongs to the horse, the bird and the tailor.”
That list of prescribed scripture passages called the lectionary has sure been jumping around this year. The season of Lent has brought us Mark 1, Mark 8, Mark 9, John 2, John 3 and today, John 12. I’m sure that the composers of the lectionary were rubbing their hands as they created next Sunday’s list - which contains, not one, but four gospel passages - 2 for the palm and two for the passion sides of the day- one of which is the section of John right before the one that will soon be read. One really needs a score card.
That being said, 21st century Christians, and certainly Congregationalists, are able to roll with the punches, and so we get to John 12:20. This passage occurs after the Palm Sunday parade, probably taking place on the Tuesday of Jesus’ last week, so before his last supper and arrest. And remember, Jerusalem was in full holiday mode as it was Pentecost - the festival celebrating God saving the Jewish people while in Egypt. In fact, think Frankfort, Fourth of July, pre-covid, on a weekend.
Scripture John 12:20-33
Jesus Predicts His Death
20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.
23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.
27 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!”
Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.
30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up[a] from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.
Thank you, Robin. If you were asked to name an instance in the Bible where God actually spoke, I have a feeling that this instance would not make the list, even especially so as we aren’t told that it was specifically God speaking. When one thinks about God speaking - there’s Jesus’ baptism and God speaking to Moses at the burning bush and lots of notable instances like those. But this one doesn’t seem to get the same air time as some of the others.
Retired Methodist minister, William Willimon refers to this passage as Jesus’ last will and testament. Willimon and various other preachers sited that they have often seen a plaque or carving in or on pulpits, visible to the preacher alone, that quote verse 21: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Willimon went on to say that it may be one of the major reasons people come to church on Sundays. “They want to get a clearer picture of Jesus: who he is and what he means. And yet when we see Jesus, looking through the lens that the Gospel of John provides us, what we see may not be immediately self-evident. What we see may be confusing, hard to describe, beyond what words can say.” So true, Rev. Willimon!
A couple weeks ago, when the scripture passage was from the first chapter of John, I presented the case that John, setting the scene of Jesus clearing the temple in the front end of his gospel - rather than the chronological backend placement of the other gospel writers - was to present the thesis of the whole book - of Christ as Messiah and Redeemer. In the mark of a good writer, John carries that theme into Christ’s last will and testament. Last wills and testaments are usually rather intentional.
So there is that interesting bit about the kernel of wheat falling to the ground and dying - that it’s a “life” to emulate because of the greater harvest that will be produced. Which of course brings us to Death on the cross as the sign of Jesus’s fruitful work. Those who lose their lives “will keep them forever”? Thanks, God, Christ, John, but seriously, I’ve had plenty of life being upside down lately, and I’ve not lost my home or business or friend or family member like so many others have this past year.
Except, maybe that may be exactly the point? If we all can put aside our political and lifestyle persuasions for a moment, this past year of refraining and isolating has been a sort of falling into the earth, metaphorically, individually and collectively. And like the crocuses and daffodils poking their heads up, we are are beginning to raise our faces to the sun - stretching and unfurling ourselves to this new season before us. Unlike the bulbs, we have the opportunity to determine that into which we will grow. And how interesting, that this moment comes as we journey closer to the foot of the empty cross and tomb.
Right before the words about the kernel falling to the ground, Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Jesus goes on - not to save his own life - but telling God to glorify God’s own name. Then the words from heaven: ““I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” Glory. Glorified. It isn’t explicit, so it could be the glorification of God. But it could also certainly be understood that Christ’s birth was the first glorification and that his resurrection would be the second. We get the glory idea well enough around Advent and Christmas, and around Easter. But right before the crucifixion?
Martin Luther once said that we have the cross to keep rebuking anybody who claims fully to understand God. The cross is that inexplicable wonder that shows the depth and the mystery of God, and the lengths to which God will go to reconcile us to God. That marvelous pastor over there at Frankfort Congregational Church says Christ tells us to take up that inexplicable wonder, depth and mystery of God.
German Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard. Scottish Presbyterian pastor, theologian and author, Samuel Rutherford: Christ's cross is such a burden as sails are to a ship or wings to a bird. American Methodist theologian and philosopher, Georgia Harkness. The cross: God's way of uniting suffering with love.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Senior, was a doctor. As such he was very interested in the use of ether. In order to know how his patients felt under its influence, he once had a dose administered to himself.
As he was going under, in a dreamy state, a profound thought came to him. He believed that he had suddenly grasped the key to all the mysteries of the universe. When he regained consciousness, however, he was unable to remember what the insight was.
Because of the great importance this thought would be to mankind, Holmes arranged to have himself given ether again. This time he had a stenographer present to take down the great thought. The either was administered, and sure enough, just before passing out the insight reappeared. He mumbled the words, the stenographer took them down, and he went to sleep confident in the knowledge that he had succeeded.
Upon awakening, he turned eagerly to the stenographer and asked her to read what he had uttered. This is what she read: "The entire universe is permeated with a strong odor of turpentine."
William Phelps taught English literature at Yale for forty-one years until his retirement in 1933. Marking an examination paper shortly before Christmas one year, Phelps came across the answer: "God only knows the answer to this question. Merry Christmas." Phelps returned the paper with this note: "God gets an A. You get an F. Happy New Year."
Maybe the early Congregationalists had the right idea of not decorating their sanctuaries with crosses - or any other signs, symbols and art - so that the mind might be freer to see past the cross to the glory that awaits in eternal life. But maybe the wisdom of having crosses and art in so many places is to remind us that that which is worth a great deal is worth the difficulty of getting to the end.
Not knowing personally, maybe babies are worth the agony of pregnancy and birth. Highways may well be worth the occasional roadwork and detours to make them better. Planting bulbs in cold dirt in October and November are definitely worth the trouble come spring. Holy Week is worth the time of intentional worship to more fully embrace the glory that is resurrection.
I read that when the Betty Crocker Company first began selling their cake mixes, they offered a product which only needed water. All you had to do was add water to the mix which came in the box, and you would get a perfect, delicious cake every time.
It bombed. No one bought it and the company couldn’t understand why, so they commissioned a study which brought back a surprising answer. It seemed that people weren’t buying the cake mix because it was too easy. They didn’t want to be totally excluded from the work of preparing a cake; they wanted to feel that they were contributing something to it. So, Betty Crocker changed the formula and required the customer to add an egg in addition to water. Immediately, the new cake mix was a huge success.
A lot of people make the same mistake when it comes to "packaging" or presenting Christianity. We try to make the call of Christ as easy as possible because they’re afraid people won’t "buy it" if it seems too hard. But we all have hard times in our lives. We all have times when we’d do most anything for a cake mix that requires just water. And while we’re at it, forget making the cake. Just pick one up at the store already.
Except that we all know the difference with a homemade cake or handmade cards. We appreciate the work that goes behind so many things that make them so unique and special. So it is with faith. If it were easy, it would be called easy. But it’s called faith, so we determine to do the best that we can with what we’ve been given that it may bring glory as much to God and Christ and the Spirit as it does to those around us and to our very own hearts. So we pray.
God of all eras, we can appreciate your concept of time being but the blink of an eye in your world. And we realize you can appreciate how long the road of time can seem in this world. For those times we whine and make excuses to shirk what we know we should do, forgive us and redeem our failures. For those opportunities we’ve missed that would have brought you and so many others - glory - we ask that your Spirit make silk purses from missed opportunities. When intimidation or laziness tempts us, remind us of the mystery that is called the cross and give us added impetus to do what you have need of us. For the gift of your Son, his journey to death and new life, all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.