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Which Way?

Updated: Mar 25



“WHICH WAY?”

a message by Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens

Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.

March 24, 2024


Mark 11: 1-10 NRSV

1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”


Well our spiritual GPS has led us this far.  We are through with Lent, and into Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday, depending.  My memories are mostly of “Palm Sundays” and celebrations that Lent and all the “denial” I did was over – [ cough, cough, rolling eyes ].  Yeah, don’t ask, I’ll deny I didn’t deny myself anything.  But many churches now focus on “Passion Sunday.”  No, Jim, not that kind of “passion.”  In theological circles Jesus’ suffering is known as his “passion.”  It is the root of the word.  Any of ya’ll remember the “Black Hills Passion Play” they used to put on in Lake Wales back in the day?  It was an enactment of the last week of Jesus’ life, and his suffering and dying on the cross.  It’s a whole lot less cheerful than “Palm Sunday.”  The problem I faced this morning was which way shall I go with this service and this sermon?

         

I kinda bridged the two if you notice the altar.  I’ve got a stuffed Jesus doll with a stuffed animal donkey on one end and a crown of thorns on the other.  I hope I am not being sacrilegious or anything.  I just have a hard time deciding which way to go.  Isn’t that the problem in life?  Which way will we go?  Usually, I bet most of us would rather choose the fun way, the celebration way rather than the suffering and death on a cross way, wouldn’t we?  And who could blame us?  Choosing which way we will go about life is a daily, and often times confusing, tiring, exasperating challenge isn’t it?


One writer describes the way Jesus entered Jerusalem that day as a very different way from those in power approached the city [ John Petty, progressiveinvolvement.com, 2012. ] 


“Jesus was approaching Jerusalem from the east.  Bethany and Bethphage are just to the east of Jerusalem.  The Mount of Olives is just east of the Temple.  The reason this is significant is because there were two processions into Jerusalem during the time of Passover.  One--the Roman army--came from the west.  The other--those with Jesus--came from the east.


“The Roman army was coming to maintain order during Passover. The population of Jerusalem would swell from around 50,000 to well over 200,000 for the Festival.  Moreover, Passover was a celebration of liberation from Pharoah in Egypt, and Rome was uneasy about its anti-imperial content and associations.


“The procession of the Roman army would have been an imposing sight--Legionnaires on horseback, Roman standards flying, the clank of armor and beating of drums.  All designed to be a display of Roman imperial power.  Message?  Resistance is futile!


“Jesus comes to the city not in a powerful way, like the Roman army, but in a ludicrously humble way.  He incites not fear, as in the Roman procession, but cheering crowds who clear his way and hail his presence.  The procession of Jesus brilliantly mocks the Roman procession.  Sarcasm and irony are often the only mechanisms available for the oppressed to express themselves.”  I’m not sure the crowd went along with the joke, ultimately. 

         

I have shared this before, but it is an important point we may miss.  He reminds us, “The key lies, as I have said, in the word Hosanna originally from Psalm 118:25 “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!”  Isn’t that the most primal prayer ever prayed?  It is the most basic form of prayer. It is an expression of self-interest.  And it is not that self-interest is bad.  Perhaps it is our misunderstanding of what is in our best self-interests that makes us choose the wrong way.  We may think self-interest is best served by praying only “God save ME!”  And there are times, truly, when that is a perfectly appropriate prayer.  But most of the time I hear Jesus inviting us to choose a different way.  His way.  A way of putting others before self in our prayers, in our lives, in all things.  That sounds like a very hard way to go, doesn’t it?  Yet, Jesus keeps telling us it not only the best way, the way of real self-interest, but the only way to find life, real life.

         

I read a sermon a while back from a preacher who encountered a group of 7th graders [Scott Black Johnston, “Save Us,” day1.org, April 05, 2009. ] “to answer some questions scribbled on 3x5 cards that they wanted to pose to their pastors.  Four of the twelve cards asked: ‘Is Jesus the only way to salvation?’”  He wrote, “Being an annoying pastor, I told them that before I would answer that question, they had to answer one for me.  What do you think Jesus is saving you from?’  The first answer that came back was ‘hell.’  Jesus saves people from hell.”


The preacher said, “Now, I don't think this is a bad answer.  I actually kind of like it, but that is a topic for a Holy Saturday sermon.  … [certainly] a good portion of American Christians, think this is the (obvious and only) ‘right answer.’  In other words, I figured the youth were thinking:  Here is the preacher; the question is, ‘What does Jesus save us from?’ He must want us to respond, ‘Hell.’  It’s kind of similar to what happens when I go to see my doctor, and he asks, ‘So, have you been exercising?’ and I know what he wants me to say.”  


My colleague added, “Still, beyond being suspicious of people’s tendency to want to tell the pastor what they think he wants to hear, I have some theological concerns about this answer.  It is a complicated thing to ask, ‘What does God save us from?’  I am certain that the biblical witness supports me in this.  Take, for example, our Palm Sunday text.  I don’t believe that the people lining the streets of Jerusalem were primarily concerned about ‘hell’ when they were shouting out to Jesus.  If the gospels hint at the crowd’s motivation, it was that the people wanted to be ‘saved’ from the Romans.  They wanted deliverance from an occupying army.  All of this is to say, I decided to change tactics with our seventh graders.  ‘Let me put it this way,’ he said to them, ‘if God was on the ball, what would God save you from?’  Suddenly, our conversation got interesting--very interesting.  


“One of the youth raised her hand and said, ‘death.’  Another wanted God to help him out by saving him from an upcoming math test.  Then one of the seventh graders said, ‘Pressure.’  And another youth said, ‘My parents’ expectations.’  Another, shy individual, almost in a whisper said, ‘Fear.  I want God to save me from my fears.’  All of these answers struck me as more sincere than ‘hell.’  Although, I think you could argue that their comments gave a pretty clear picture of what ‘hell’ looks like to a 7th grader.”  I would add maybe to a lot of us long past 7th grade, huh?


Can we dip down into our souls and be as honest as these young people were?  When we wave our palms and boldly cry out, ‘Hosanna,’ do we dare imagine what we really want God to save us from?  Save me from anger.  Save me from cancer.  Save me from depression.  Save me from debt.  Save me from the strife in my family.  Save me from boredom.  Save me from the violence in my life.  Save me from humiliation.  Save me from staring at the ceiling at three a.m. wondering why I exist.  Save me from arrogance.  Save me from loneliness.  Save me, God, save me from my fears.”


But here’s the thing I think about that.  I suspect that what Jesus meant when he said, “lay down your life for others,” when he said, “anyone who wants to save her life must lose it,” and when he said, “love one another as I have loved you,” he was telling us that by losing ourselves in serving, loving, and helping others overcome their life challenges we will stop worrying so much about our own.  The real answer to “self-interest” is to be “other-invested.”  And that indeed may be the way to “salvation.”


The directions to go Christ’s way may not be available on your GPS.  Who knows, it may even take something like a revelation from God to get it.  The way to life is death, a cross for self, and a self-emptying for all those who suffer as much or more than us.  I have a revelation for you.  As hard as the way of Christ is, he promises his presence with us always.  And that is a revelation that just might save us.  AMEN.

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