Let Them Sing by Paul Gleason

My friend Paul presented the Palm Sunday homily last weekend at our church. I really enjoyed it and I hope you do, too.

palm sunday

Readings: Isaiah 50:4-7; Luke 19:28-40

He’s finally here. Jesus has finally entered Jerusalem. His whole life has been leading him to this place. And he’s not the only one who knows it. For a year he’s been preaching in the country, gathering a multitude of disciples that’s following him now, into the city. And they have some pretty particular ideas about what this means. Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. He’s finally here, the king of Israel is finally here. What’s he going to do? Who knows? But we can guess. Chase out the Romans, restore the ancient Kingdom of David, the possibilities seem endless. And the multitudes of his disciples and the people of Jerusalem who are throwing their clothes at his feet and waving their palms in the air are ecstatic. And they began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice. Luke tells us they are saying Blessed is the king, but joyfully with a loud voice? They’re singing. They are so full of joy and hope that they can’t help but sing, because he’s finally here.

It must be said that Jesus doesn’t exactly disabuse the multitudes of this notion they’ve got. That he’s here to kick some Roman keister. Earlier in Luke he told the twelve what’s really going to happen, about how he’s going to suffer and die on the cross. But of course telling a secret to the twelve was like telling it to a brick wall. Huh? Anyway, Jesus sends two of them ahead to find him a colt, so that he can ride into Jerusalem on horseback, like a king. And the people who saw him approaching must have immediately heard the words of the prophet Zechariah ringing in their ears.

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O Daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you,
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

He will cut off the chariots from Ephraim
and the warhorse from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow shall be cut off.
And he shall command peace to the nations.
His dominion shall be from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.

And there he is at last, riding on a colt. Surely the Roman chariots and warhorses will be routed. The victory of peace is at hand. The prophecy is being fulfilled before their eyes, and so they celebrate in the streets of Jerusalem. They start the party. They sing for joy.

And it’s tempting to say, they’re deluded. They are deluded. Because they have no idea how bad it’s about to get. The ones who do are the Pharisees. So they try to stop the singing, end the party. They say, Teacher, order your disciples to stop. This isn’t just because they’re jealous of all the attention this new rabbi’s been getting. We don’t have to think of these Pharisees as part of that cabal of chief priests, scribes, and political leaders who are already plotting Jesus’ death. They’re worried about what the Roman response to this festival, to this sudden unexpected outpouring of worshipful, joyful song, is going to be. They are worried about what’s going to happen to them, to Jesus, and to all of the people of Israel, disciples of Jesus or not. And they are absolutely right to worry. Within a few days the king, who was finally here, will be gone. The disciples will be scattered. Rome will still stand and, within a few short years it will decide it has had quite enough of these annoying Israelites. Its armies will siege and sack their city. Its armies will burn their temple to the ground. The Pharisees, they can see it coming. And they’re right. They have taken an honest look at the world, they have seen it clearly, and they have concluded that there is nothing here to sing about.

And Jesus, he can see it coming, too. His own death, I’ve already mentioned that he knows about that. And Luke tells us, in the next chapter of his Gospel, that Jesus knows what’s coming for Jerusalem. But what must have been worse, or I think it must have been worse for him, was to know that while all of these people are throwing their clothes at his feet and waving their palms in the air, in a few days, an equal number going to be shouting for his death. He can see Rome and the scheming leaders of his day. He can see into the hearts of everyone around him. He knows how fickle they are, how many of his own disciples will abandon him. If anyone can see the reasons not to sing, it’s him.

And yet he turns to the Pharisees and says, I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout for joy. What I take him to be saying is that this feeling, this upswelling of joy in the people’s hearts is so powerful that it seems to be permeating the world around them. Like a failing dam if you stopped it up here it would just burst out over there. So what he says, in effect, is let them sing. Even if Rome won’t like it. Let them sing, in spite of their erring hearts. In spite of the fact that Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are coming, in spite of every good reason I can think of for them to stay silent, let them sing anyway.

Jesus, as Luke presents him in today’s Gospel, wants his disciples to feel joy and share it. And it is Jesus who brings that joy with him to Jerusalem and to all of his disciples wherever they may be. He’s finally here, and in Jerusalem like in Bethlehem he arrives unexpectedly and fills everyone around him with irrepressible joy. And here and now on Palm Sunday we commemorate and we share in that joy they felt in Jerusalem. The party finally begins, and then it is over, too soon. Thursday and Friday always come, so soon.

And it will be tempting to think that we in our joy were deluded, too. Lent after all is the time for reflection on our failures and shortcomings, the time in which we, like those Pharisees, are supposed to make an honest assessment of ourselves and our world. And there are a lot of reasons not to sing. If we’re particularly introspective, we might echo good old John Calvin, who in the second volume of his Institutes lamented that “No one can descend into himself and seriously consider what he is without feeling God’s wrath and hostility toward him. … All of us, therefore, have in ourselves something deserving of God’s hatred.”  If we find it easier to see sin in the world we won’t have to venture too far to find that, either. But the discovery will be no less painful. The German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher understood original sin not as a sin that we are born with but as a sin that we are born into. He writes “…the sinfulness which is prior to all action operates in every individual through the sin and sinfulness of others … it is transmitted by the voluntary actions of every individual to others and implanted within them.” In other words, the sins we see in our society are our sins, too, transmitted to us, implanted in us, operating through us, even if it looks like they are somebody else’s fault. I don’t mean to frighten you a lot, but I do submit that there will always be good reasons for us not to sing for joy.

And yet we do. Not because we can’t see our broken world or our erring souls clearly. I think we can. But we sing for joy anyway, because as Christians we proclaim that the spirit of Christ is present among us, present at our table. And his presence can act on us like he acted on the people of Jerusalem. It can move us to joy. As Christians we are called to see ourselves and our world rightly. Jesus spends too much time in the Gospels naming the evils he sees for us to doubt that. But we must also be ready to sing for joy. We ought to be known for our joy.

I’m pretty sure I’ve heard sermons that said Palm Sunday was a preview of Easter. And it’s true that Easter is usually the most joyful day of the year, when the fast of Lent is over, and spring is here, and the sun shines through the windows on the pews full of everyone in their brightest clothes. The brass choir plays and the people sing. He’s finally here, and it’s quite a party. Except, in the Gospels, he isn’t there on Easter.  Not like he was on Palm Sunday. He is risen, yes, but he doesn’t process through the streets of Jerusalem again. He appears elsewhere, in the country again, on the road to Emmaus. There was more confusion and awe and fear on that first Easter, if you ask me, than there was joy.

So perhaps on Easter we are actually celebrating like it’s Palm Sunday. Like he’s finally here. Like everyone on that road to Jerusalem we are hoping for that day when the chariots are cut off from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem. We are hoping for the triumph of peace at last, and for the day when his dominion stretches from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. And whatever our doubts and whatever our failings may be, we are moved to sing with hope and joy. Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

He’s almost here. Amen.

image source here.

March 3 Homily

I was asked to do the homily for March 3rd’s evening service at the church I attend here in Charlottesville. Now that it’s done (and I managed not to faint or run away from the podium), I thought I’d share it here. 

moses and the burning bush

Readings: Exodus 3:1-15, Luke 13:1-9

In today’s biblical texts, we can trace a clear progression. It has to do with human responsibility. But it’s not an obligation we place on ourselves. It’s one God has compelled us toward since his first meeting with Moses in the burning bush and maybe even before.

It’s a responsibility to personal growth that turns to action.

The Exodus passage begins with Moses going about his daily tasks. In the Old Testament’s typically understated fashion, the text tells us that Moses is suddenly quite curious about a burning bush that is not consumed: “I must turn aside and look at this great sight.”

The commentary in the New Oxford Annotated Bible notes that the motif of Divine Fire is common in this period and that it: “arouses dread, for divine holiness is experienced as a mysterious power that threatens human existence.”

So we can assume that Moses approaches with some understanding of what he’s seeing. When God tells him, “You will set your people free,” he doesn’t need to waste time figuring out if it’s God; he doesn’t doubt. He knows.

And he is so in awe of the Divine that he is afraid to look at God.

Though many of us have heard this passage before, it struck me this time in that it shows an incredible measure of trust on God’s part. Though he has seen the pain and struggle of his people himself, though he has the power to show himself in a bush that isn’t consumed, he tells Moses that HE will do it. God, knowing that perhaps he is unsuitable to act as liaison to Pharaoh considering a general “DREAD” of the Divine, in a sense needs a human to implement his plan. And Moses doesn’t seem to be a random choice. He is the right person for the job.

The first step we take in living within God’s will is one we don’t take at all. It’s an acceptance to let the blazing fire – the passion – of God be kindled in us and the moral diligence to not let it be consumed by doubt, apathy, worry, or self absorption. It’s also the confidence that this passion will lead us forward in ways that suit us, even if not in ways that make us feel comfortable.

And that brings us to Luke.

In the first part of chapter 13, Jesus addresses our human tendency to turn a blind eye to those we perceive as the Other. He confronts a bias born of privilege, one that states that My life is good because I’m a good person and gets reiterated every time someone other than us or our loved ones suffer.

Jesus extends the work of his father in Exodus, who insisted that mere humans feel the passion of his people’s pain and DO SOMETHING about it. He says, “unless you repent you will all perish as they did.”

You’re not better. You’re not more righteous. You got out for now, but you have to do something with that.

His parable ties it all together. God expects great things from us, but we’re just as led astray as a sterile fig tree. Jesus comes to us with grace. He gives us a second chance. He opens our eyes by coming not in the form of a burning bush that makes us turn away, but in the recognizable, comforting form of our own species. It had become clear that we were too consumed in fear to be consumed in God’s loving justice, so God became one of us to show us we could succeed. We see Christ and his mission and we don’t have to turn away – we can embrace it.

God came first with passion, with fury and movement and an impatient drive to protect his people. And he let one of us in. He gave us the power to do something and the motivation to do it. But, just like the disciples and Jesus’ listening crowds, we got lost again in our own concerns. And we saw suffering and only felt lucky not to be suffering, too. And we repeat the cycle daily.

But we aren’t better. We aren’t better because we’re Americans or Episcopalians or Liberals or Conservatives or Charlottesvillians or UVA students. We see suffering and do nothing. We aggressively consume products presented to us through slave labor – we ignore the bullying, prejudice, and apathy in our own communities and in our own hearts – and we consume ourselves in the process of curating and collecting things and experiences, gluttons to our wants. And we think it’s ok because we’ve told ourselves other people are worse than us. All the while, the burning fire God presented us with is burning out.

We know through today’s texts that we are no better than anyone else. We all come to this life as equals in both merit and guilt. We need this humility to see suffering and empathize with it. We also learn through Moses that God shows us suffering in the places where we have influence, where we can take action.

For instance, our lives as consumers have the power to change or destroy lives. Human beings – people like us – suffer long hours, poor wages, and poor working conditions in the futile attempt to make ends meet at the hands of American corporations fueled by American consumers. Instead of feeling lucky to be here, we should recognize that we aren’t better, that we are the same. And once that hits us, we should realize that WE have the collective power – and the moral obligation through the Bible’s teachings – to make changes to set the suffering free. We can only liberate ourselves when we liberate others.

If we shut down from the important moral responsibilities laid out before us, we deserve to perish. But we’re given a second chance because Jesus believes in us, believes that with a little prodding, we can bear fruit again, and stands by us as we turn away, as we deflate our egos, as we press on to equality and progress.

As Christians, we are tasked to do something with the fire of God in front of us, and through Christ, we can face it head-on and not turn away. We are commanded to “turn aside [from the things that distract us] and look at this great sight” of suffering on earth and change our habits, our minds, our hearts. To set the slaves of unethical values, consumption, trafficking, patriarchy, hatred, and false conceptions of God free. We can only do that if we see that we are all the same, and that God is with us as we move toward equality under the banner of Christ’s grace and love.

I encourage you to assess your values and priorities during the remainder of the Lenten season and to make positive, visible, DIFFICULT changes in your own life.

Image source: Illustration from the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us