The Story That Tells Us…

A Sermon Preached on Palm Sunday
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Mark 11:1-11, John 12:12-16
Preached by Diana R.G. Trautwein at Montecito Covenant Church
April 5, 2009

I want us to think together today about story: the power of story, the wonder of story, the wisdom and elegant simplicity of story, the aha!-that-rings-so-true-ness of story. And there’s a reason that I want us to do this today, of all days, this day… this Palm Sunday, this last Sunday of Lent, this first day of Holy Week… this day. Primarily, I want us to do this is because we are – you and I and all those around this world and across time and history who follow Jesus, the Carpenter from Nazareth – we are people of story, of the story, of God’s story.

Sometimes, I think we forget that. Or perhaps, more accurately, we get so very used to it that we allow the wonder of it to somehow fall away, we allow it to become humdrum, routine, old hat. And sometimes, I think we shy away from it, we shy away from the very story-ness of it all, preferring instead to somehow synthesize the sweetness and simplicity of the story-that-speaks-such-power-and-truth into something that more closely resembles dogma, or doctrine, or a set of assumptions or a collection of perfectly correct behaviors to be checked off of some kind of cosmic list in the sky that will magically transform us into particular kinds of rule-followers, rather than story-followers, or even more specifically and definitively, Jesus-followers.

But today – this day, this Palm Sunday, this last Sunday in Lent, this first day of Holy Week, this day – I want us to remember that right here, and right now, we find ourselves at the heart of the story – not the center of a list of doctrines and not in the middle of any humdrum, ‘old hat’ sort of tale, either. No. Today, we are at the center of it all. And unless we are, somehow, by the goodness and grace of God, able to jump, headlong, with both feet, all-or-nothing, willy-nilly, right into the midst of this story, God’s story of creation and salvation and community, as Eugene Peterson has summarized it; God’s story of love and action and decision and sacrifice and mystery – unless we are able to jump right in there, to embrace the story, to believe it, and live it –then we, of all people on earth, are most to be pitied. For it is in engaging with, entering into, re-telling and re-living and re-interpreting the story for ourselves today – right this minute, in the here-and-now, Palm Sunday of the year of our Lord, 2009 – that we discover again the core of our faith, the reason for our existence, the joy of our lives, and the amazing truth that lies at the center of the universe.

So, let me invite you in – come right on in – to the story – God’s story that begins at the beginning and winds its wondrous way through the early pages and the middle pages and the later pages, and then invites us to consider the glorious end, which is, of course, still to come, yet is, most assuredly, already written. At the place where we find ourselves in the story this morning, we can surely hear both echoes and intimations. The echoes call to mind earlier parts of the story, for we can see in the plot and the characters before us this day – two versions of which you heard read just moments ago – that there are leitmotifs, themes and ideas and images that we’ve seen and heard before. We hear words that we’ve heard before – the very words of the ancient psalm we listened to at the top of the service, are repeated almost verbatim in each of the two gospel readings. And we can picture images that we’ve ‘seen’ before. Branches and boughs and palms are tossed in all three pieces of the story that we’ve heard today.

And people are traveling to Jerusalem – specifically, traveling to the temple – in all three pieces as well – in Psalm 118 and Mark 11 and John 12. All of those pilgrims are traveling to the very centerpiece and heartbeat of their story as followers of Yahweh, God Almighty, Creator of the Universe, Storyteller and Storymaker Extraordinaire. Yes, the story, as we join it today, has these echoes, these reminders that we are joining an adventure already in progress. There is a backstory, so to speak, of hundreds of years of relationship and estrangement between God and God’s people, of trial and error, of joy and sorrow, of trying and failing and beginning again. At the point we jump into the story today, we find that the people of God are in a painfully familiar place, living in the land promised and given to them, but living there under someone else’s authority and oppression. And they are good and tired of that authority and that oppression. They’re exhausted by it, in fact, and they are ready, they are oh-so-ready, for something to change, for something to ‘give,’ for someone to show up and bring that change, even force that change, and to restore: their fortunes and their place in the world, their image of themselves, and their deep desire for freedom and autonomy and national integrity and deliverance.

And we can identify with that, can’t we? It’s at this point that ‘their’ story becomes also ‘our’ story. For even though geographically and politically we are blessed to live in a land of ‘freedom,’ there are still so many things that speak with far too much authority into our lives, people or events or conditions that oppress us in some fashion or other, even here, even now – things from which we need to be rescued. Fear is tops on the list just now, I have a hunch. Fear and uncertainty, perhaps even dread, as the news around the country and around the world continues to be grim and grimmer. We live in a time of fear and hopelessness, about money, about war, about violence, about too much government or too little government, about life in general. And of course, there is a long list of other oppressive and invasive things in our lives as well – things like expectations – our own and others,’ or addictions – our own and others,’ or physical pain or illness, or relational pain or illness, or occupational or educational or mental or emotional pain or illness. We, too, are looking for hope, for deliverance. This story includes us, right from the get-go. We are there– with our fears and our expectations and our addictions and our pain and our illness and our longing.

And then, the central character arrives on the scene, the lead actor in this story,
the one with the best lines,
the one on whom the crowd focuses their fondest hopes and dreams,
the one who leads the way into the city,
the one who climbs up on the donkey he has specially ordered for the occasion,
the one who accepts the praise and adulation of the crowds,
the one who steps dramatically right onto center stage, willingly and willfully riding into Jerusalem –
that place of seething enmity and anger,
that place where all those who fear and hate him are gathering and plotting and planning,
that place where a mere six days from now, he will once again hear cries from the crowd, only those cries will have morphed from songs of joy and adoration into screams of hatred and accusation,
that place where all that is hard and dark and evil in this world will come face-to-face with all that is gentle and light and good in this world, and the outcome of that face-down will change the direction of history forever.

For THAT’S were we are in this story of ours, this story of God’s. this story of ours and God’s. We’re right on the brink, at the edge, in the liminal place, the ‘thin place,’ where earth and heaven meet and astounding things can and do happen.

This day in the life and calendar of the church is called by two names – Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. You can probably figure out why. We remember the palms – those symbols of victory and national pride and exuberance and hope. And we remember the passion – which, at its root, means suffering. We remember the passion of our Lord. And we could very well end our service this morning by reading out the whole long passion/suffering narrative as recorded in the gospel of John, for that is an alternate text for this Sunday’s reading. Palm Sunday. Passion Sunday.

Palm Sunday – a day of celebration, great hopes and even greater expectations. “Has the Promised One in our grand story come to save us?” the people wonder. “Hosanna!” they cry. “Save us now!” it means. “Rescue us from these hateful Romans, who rule over us with such violence!” “Bring us victory and freedom, at last!” Ah, that’s what they wanted! A hero, a shining knight clad in special, powerful, God-given, supernatural armor of some sort, able to leap tall buildings with a single bound, willing to strike fear into the hearts of the enemy. Someone powerful, militant, a warrior-king. That’s what they wanted, that’s what they expected, that’s what they dreamed about, that’s what they hoped for.

But then…But then…there is also Passion Sunday – a day with the looming shadow of a cross spreading its way through every hour. And here’s where the intimations come into our story today, for while there are, as we have already noted, those echoes of the earlier parts of this story ringing through this day, there are also hints, signals, pointers toward what comes next. There are hints that expectations are not going to be met, that hopes are going to be dashed, that rescue, deliverance, salvation is going to be dramatically re-defined.

There is the donkey, of course. The quiet, domestic beast of burden, which was also at that time a widely-accepted symbol of peace, as opposed to war; a picture of welcome, as opposed to conquest. There is no stallion here, surely an animal far more suitable for the warrior-king of their expectations. And then, there is the anti-climax in Mark’s gospel, where the end of this particular parade is nothing much at all. Jesus arrives at the temple, he looks around at everything there, notices it is getting dark, he and his friends leave. The end. Not what might be expected at the end of all that shouting and palm tossing. And finally, there is the clear statement of misunderstanding in John’s telling of this event. The statement that even the disciples are not seeing the hints that are there, they fail to see their rabbi as the kind of fulfillment he truly is, the living, in-the-flesh, suffering-servant, peace-loving, non-conquering king that their faithful prophets had predicted. They see only what they want to see at that moment, just like the people in the crowd. Just like you and like me.

For we, too, have certain expectations for Jesus. Certain dreams, definitions, hopes – certain boxes within which to lodge him, or wedge him, or lock him. We may not picture a 1st century warrior-king, but I know we imagine a different kind of Savior than the one we are meeting in the story – in this strange and beautiful and horrible and mysterious story that will continue to unfold all through the week ahead. We might rather imagine a Savior who will heal all our illnesses, and guarantee us great grades, and bless us with material success, and bring us a great relationship, and keep our children clean and sober and safe, and spare us the indignities of old age, and not embarrass us with all that talk about sacrifice, and carrying a cross, and the first being last, and the last being first, and dying to self in order to live a real and holy life. We’re not so very different from those folks by the roadside who later become that mob by the courthouse. No, we’re not so very different.

Are you finding yourself in the story? Are you taking a good, honest ‘read’ of the hero? Are you surprised by any of it? Are you amazed at the power of it? Overcome by the sadness of it? Astonished by the meaning of it? You do know what it means, right? It means everything. It means that all of us who long for deliverance can find it, that all of us in need of true rescue will receive it, that all of us looking for salvation, will see it – if we have eyes to see! For the question being asked of us by the story is this one, and Jesus, himself, is asking it: Will you welcome me, just as I am? Or are you only willing to receive the one you wish I were, or the one you think I should be?

For the point of this remarkable story, is, after all, to tell us that the God who created us, the God who called us, the God who chose us, is, in fact, the God who promises to save us – not from Rome and not from all the bad and hard things that happen to the human race precisely because we are the human race. No. This God promises to save us from ourselves – because that is, in truth, the most urgent kind of salvation needed by each of us and by all of us.

Indeed, we are living today in a time where hope is in short supply. Indeed, we are living today in a time – much like the time depicted in this story – when whatever hope there is takes on all kinds of shapes and permutations and distortions, all of them focused on political or financial or physical deliverance/ rescue/salvation – so much so that we allow little or no space for a deeper and more real understanding and experience of what hope and rescue can be, what salvation truly is.

For Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that donkey to begin the final leg of his journey to deliver us from our very worst enemy, the enemy within our own spirit, our own soul. He comes to save us from the dreadful, unceasing warfare within that is caused by our unending proclivity toward sin and self-destruction, and, by extension, the destruction of everyone around us. For we are, left to our own devices, incapable of defeating this enemy without help. And help is what it’s all about. This ride into Jerusalem is a signal that Help is on the way! And it is coming in a way that none of us could expect, or even explain. But coming, it most definitely is.

And this table, my dear friends, this table, spread before us again today, is a living, enacted parable of that help. This table is a picture of the story –the story we’ve been invited to engage with, enter into, re-tell and re-live and re-interpret for ourselves today – right this minute, in the here-and-now, Palm Sunday of the year of our Lord, 2009. It is here – in the story and in the table – that we discover again the core of our faith, the reason for our existence, the joy of our lives, and the amazing truth that lies at the center of the universe. Hosanna! Hallelujah! Amen.

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