Palms Beneath My Feet – Sermon on Mark 11.1-11

Mark 11.1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 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. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back immediately.’ “ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

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Weekly Chapel Time requires a willing and humble spirit. What we do here on Sunday mornings carries an air of sophisticated and focused liturgy. But when I bring the Preschoolers in during the week… there are no rules. When we worship together most of us have fairly decent attention spans, but the 2, 3, and 4 year-olds need to be consistently bombarded with images and ideas in order to stay focused.

I’ll freely admit that I treat our preschoolers the same way that I treat our worshippers (I’ll let you decide whether or not that is a good thing) because we are all working toward the same goal: a greater awareness of God’s love and mercy in the world.

Anyway, this week, in preparation for Palm Sunday, we gathered the children in the sanctuary for their lesson. They sat in the pews up here in the choir loft, with their little legs dangling in the air, excited and nervous to keep learning about this guy named Jesus. I love quizzing them on previous stories because they are fascinated by scripture. For instance: If I could get all of us to be as excited about Zacchaeus, the wee-little man, climbing up a sycamore tree, just imagine how faithful we would become.

I shared with the children that Jesus needed to get to a strange place called Jerusalem to do something incredible for his friends. They gathered together outside the city and Jesus sent two men to find a donkey for him to ride on. The closer the came to the gates, more and more people gathered palms from the surrounding area and waved them in the air, and placed them on the ground all while shouting “Hosanna!” which means “save us!”

I then had all the children line up with their own palm branches in the center aisle and we were going to recreate the story. I found a young boy to be Jesus and when I asked who they thought the donkey should be they all emphatically yelled, “You Pastor Taylor!” I’m not sure how I felt about them so quickly identifying me with that particular animal, but I let it go.

So there I was on my hands and knees with a child saddled across my back making our way into Jerusalem. I had instructed all the children to either wave their palms or place them on the ground and shout “save us!” to the boy on my back. The entire journey down the center aisle took longer than I thought because I did not want to drop the Jesus on my back, but as I walked forward and saw the palms beneath my feet I was struck by the Holy Spirit.

The children continued to scream and beg for their salvation, the Jesus on my back kept kicking into my rib cage to make me go faster, but all I could think about was what the donkey must have experienced when he carried Jesus into Jerusalem, what it must have been like to deliver the Lord to his death.

The following is an imaginative retelling of the story from the donkey’s perspective…

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With palms beneath my feet, Jesus, there are so many things I wish I could tell you. Carrying you while the crowds scream on our sides, I wish I could share all the things I have seen and heard. This might be the only chance I’ll get, and it already feels too late.

I was there Jesus. I was there in the manger when you were born. Your parents had come into the tiny room and your mother looked like she was about to burst. I was but a young foal back then, but I remember. They were so afraid and alone when they cuddled together holding you close. While they were filled with fear, I was filled with joy. I knew from the moment I saw you that you were special, that you were the Son of God. The other animals could feel it too, and while your family fell into the familiar rhythm of sleep, we gathered around you to share our warmth. I watched you sleep all night and I could feel that our lives were connected, and I knew that I would see you again one day.

You left from Bethlehem but as the years passed I heard stories about your life. I would be in the marketplace, or moving about the village and rumors would fall upon my ears.

When you were a child they said that you stood apart. Other children would spend their days running around and getting into mischief, but you would sit in the synagogue and teach the elders. Your command of the scriptures spread before you even started your ministry. I would watch the people while they talked about you and they were filled with such hope. Words like “messiah, lord, and savior” were used to describe you and I could tell that the Lord was among us.

Then it came to pass that you were baptized by your cousin John in the Jordan river. Witnesses said they saw the sky open up and they heard the voice of God. While others denied the claims, I knew it was true, I could feel that your ministry was about to begin and that everything would change.

You traveled throughout Galilee proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. You healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, and restored the outcasts to their families. Everywhere you went stories about your love and mercy traveled ahead and the crowds grew larger and larger. You fed the multitudes by the sea, you walked on water, and you brought Lazarus back from the dead. You spoke of mustard seeds, prodigal sons, and good samaritans. You ate with sinners, worked on the sabbath, and argued with the Pharisees. Some say that even just a few weeks ago you were on the mountaintop when Moses and Elijah appeared and you were transfigured.

This morning I was tied up near the door when two of your disciples came close. One of them spoke to my owner and said, “The Lord needs him” and they brought me to you. I knew the time had come when we would be reunited, but the joy I expected to feel has been mixed with trepidation.

Jesus, how I wish you could hear me, how I wish I could tell you all I have seen and heard. We departed early this morning and the crowds gathered around us. It feels as if the closer we get to Jerusalem the people grow louder and more eager to cry out. Do they know what they mean when they say, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”?

I’m beginning to worry Jesus. I don’t think they know who you really are. The people sound more like an angry mob waiting for you to overthrow the Romans than a faithful group waiting for the kingdom of God. They want another Moses to lead them out of physical bondage, they want another David who can lead them into battle, they want another Solomon to build a giant temple.

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These people have suffered but they believe in you. Did you see them take off their cloaks and place them in the road? I have been walking over garments for hours. Did you see them rush into the fields for palm branches to wave them in the air and create a royal pathway? The palms beneath my feet are a sign of how much these people believe in you.

What are you going to do Jesus? I can hear people murmuring about your coming mission, some are saying that you are going to the temple and you are going to overthrow the tables. Some are saying that you are going to lead the rebellion and kill the chief priests and scribes. Some are saying that you are going to destroy the temple and then build a new one.

Jesus I’m afraid for your life! These people don’t know who you really are and what you’ve come to do. They shout “Hosanna, Hosanna!” but I fear their shouts will soon turn to “Crucify, Crucify!” They are only concerned about themselves. Even your disciples on either side of us, I can smell their fear.

Jesus, I was there when you were born. I felt God’s presence in you and I knew you would save the world. But please Jesus, let me take you away from this place. Jerusalem can only bring about your death. We still have a chance to turn around and head home.

Or is it too late? 

The crowds are starting to thin Jesus. The people are beginning to head home. We are stepping through the gate and the palms are no longer beneath my feet. I want to believe in you and what you are doing. I want to believe this is God’s will. But I’m so afraid.

Jesus, I am an old donkey and I don’t know how much further I can carry you.

It’s just us now and the sun is beginning to set.

What will happen? What are you going to do?

If this is the last time I will see you, I wish I could talk to you. I wish I could warn you about what is to come. I wish I could stop you.

You swing your legs around and are standing right before me. Your eyes contain the same hope they did the day you were born in the humble manger. As you pet my old matted fur I can feel all the people you have already touched and healed. I can feel the sick children and parents, I can feel the blind and the lame, the last, least and lost.

What a privilege it was to carry you today my Lord. I knew that we would meet again, I only wish I could do something to warn you.

You’re now leaning in close to whisper in my ear. Is this goodbye? Is this the end?

You said, “No my old friend. I know exactly what I am doing. And this is only the beginning.” Amen.

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Believing Is Seeing – Good Friday Homily on Mark 15.33-39

Mark 15.33-39

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

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This is a day unlike any other. In the entire history of the world there has been nothing quite like what we remember today, and there will never be anything quite like it in the future. Millions upon millions of people have been killed unjustly and prematurely; but only this death has to do with the salvation of the world.

Look around at those who have gathered together with you tonight. Most people, of course, are not here. They are out doing what they do on any ordinary Friday night – dancing, drinking, eating, driving, laughing, loving. It has always been like this…

When Jesus was marched up to the place called Golgotha, which means the skull, most people did not even notice. Crucifixion was such a common activity that people were conditioned to avert their gaze from the bodies hanging on crosses. Many people were preoccupied with their own problems, which might help to explain why Jesus was so abandoned by his closest friends.

So, on this strange night, a night unlike any other, we gather together to remember the death of a man who was, and is, God in the flesh.

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All week long I have been wearing my clerical collar. I know this might seem like a fairly Catholic thing to do, but it is traditional for all clergy to wear such things. For years I have been warned by other pastors about the dangers of wearing this collar: “No matter wear you go, people will assume that they can talk to you about all their problems.” “You can never prepare yourself for all the glares you will receive.” “It is a relic of the past, if you want to connect to people of today, ditch the collar and find something contemporary.” For me, I simply wanted to wear it this week to mark the occasion of Holy Week, and on another level I wanted to wear something that would force me to act like a Christian in public. You can’t get away with cutting in line at the grocery store when you’re dressed like this.

So I initially chose to wear it this week to honor this special time in the life of the church, but it slowly became an experiment here in Staunton. After hearing all of the stories about what this collar can bring in terms of interactions in the community, I was excited to see what might happen. I had plenty to do this week, but whenever I had the chance, I would go somewhere publicly; I worked on a sermon at a coffee shop, played drums for the Stonewall Brigade band, went to Walmart, the Staunton mall, Food Lion, I walked up and down Beverley street. I went everywhere that I could think of.

I was anxious about all the conversations and judgments people might make of my appearance, but I went out anyway. And you’ll never believe what happened… nothing.

I walked around this whole town and I received absolutely no response about my appearance. No one asked me about it, no one pointed and whispered, no one even looked at it. Now I know I’m not the best looking guy, but I’m used to people tat least taking a glance my way occasionally; its something we all do out of habit. But for the last few days I have felt largely invisible.

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So I decided to take it one step forward… Today, at noon, I arrived at church to begin carrying our cross all around Staunton. The cross that the confirmands so diligently decorated and created dug into my shoulders as I departed from the church and walked toward downtown. I walked from the church to Beverley Street, went up both hills on either side, and eventually made my way back toward the north end of town. I walked for two hours, and you know what happened? Nothing. 

Now, of course, walking with a 8 ft long cross will gather attention, I noticed a handful of people driving and walking who began to stare at the object on my back, but the moment I smiled, made eye contact, or waved, they diverted their attention to something else. Two couples actually switched what side of the road they were walking down in order to avoid my trajectory. For two hours I walked in silence and contemplation, every greeting I uttered was met with a blank stare, and just like with the clergy collar, I felt invisible this afternoon.

That was until I was standing next to a man waiting at the light by the library. I noticed that he kept looking at my cross, back to the ground, back to the cross, and back to the ground. Finally I heard him mutter, but loud enough for me to hear, “Jesus H. Christ.” To which I replied, “Actually its Taylor C. Mertins, but thanks for the compliment.” He did not think it was as funny as I did.

While walking across the lawn to put the cross back in the sanctuary I began to wonder if this is what Jesus felt like when he carried his cross. I wonder if what was most tragic was not the fact that he died, but that he died without anyone really caring or noticing. How strange that God chose to save us in this way, in the death of his Son abandoned by his friends on a cross.

Today, as it was in the time that Jesus died, many of us believe that we need not look at the cross at all. Here in our sanctuary all we have is this tiny cross on the altar. Many of us are far more familiar with the idea that, “God so loved the world, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” In that verse we are told not to look, but merely to believe.

We so desperately want to skip over the suffering of Friday and jump straight to the glory of Sunday. Thats why more people attend church on Mother’s Day than Maundy Thursday and Good Friday combined. The cross is a harsh message. We want to divert our attention away from it. We want to hear good news. We want to laugh in church. We want to walk out feeling better about ourselves and the world. 

Yet, to ignore Christ’s death on the cross is to be tempted to believe that we are no longer in danger. But my friends, even Christ’s death does not mean we get to escape death, but only that even in death we will not be abandoned by God.

Looking on the cross and believing God are inseparable. Perhaps we have grown so accustomed to seeing the Christian cross that we now largely ignore it. Or we really know what the cross means so when we see it we, like the contemporaries of Christ, avert our gaze. But, Christ died on the cross. He hung up there for hours. He cried out to God. He suffered. He died.

This good Friday we are called to open our eyes to what Christ did, to look on the cross and live, to realize that believing is seeing.

How very strange of God to save us in this way, and how much stranger that we are to look on Jesus’ death if we are to have life.

Amen

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Devotional – Psalm 118.26

Devotional:

Psalm 118.26

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord. 

Weekly Devotional Image

When Robert Griffin III came to Washington DC he was greeted as the new messiah of the Washington Redskins. For too long had the Redskins failed to procure a franchise quarterback, a leader that could take them to the playoffs and eventually the Superbowl. Finally, it seemed, the organization had made a bold move for a young quarterback who contained all of the qualities necessary for returning the Redskins to their former glory.

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His first season behind center was remarkable. RGIII was named Offensive Player of the Week numerous times, he set records for the highest passer rating by a rookie quarterback and highest touchdown to interception ration, and he led to the team to the playoffs  after winning the NFC East Division.

After sustaining an injury toward the end of the season, many fans and sports pundits speculated whether or not RGIII would be able to compete in the same fashion during the following season. This past year, the Redskins returned to form posting an embarrassing 3-13 season, the worst record for the team since 1994. Many people, of course, blamed RGIII’s limited mobility, improper coaching decisions, and lack of enthusiasm from other players for the disappointing season.

Within a year RGIII went from being the hailed messiah, to a questionable concern. Favor and optimism was quickly replaced with skepticism and doubt. Of course some of the die-hard fans remained committed to this young quarterback, but a large portion of fan favor was quickly turned in the opposite direction from one season to another.

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The crowds yelled “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” when Jesus enter Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. This man was their Messiah, the one they had been waiting for. They were so enthralled by this Son of Man that they pulled palm branches from the fields and placed them on the road as a sign of worship, devotion, and adoration. Incredibly, those shouts of “Hosanna! (Save us!)” changed to shouts of “crucify him!” within a week. The incredible favor of the crowds changed from dedication to destruction.

Our favor and devotion for the many messianic figures in our lives can change on a dime. How often have RGIIIs and others been hailed and rejected within such a short period of time? Yet, for us, our Messiah, the one who died for the sins of the world never gave up on us when we gave up on him. He rode on the back of the donkey knowing good and well what would take place by the end of the week, mounted the hard wood of the cross with the shouts of “crucify!” ringing in his ears, and loved us nonetheless.

Today, as we begin to approach Palm Sunday and Holy Week, I encourage you to consider the people in your life that you once supported and then gave up on. I’m not just talking about public figures such as RGIII or politicians, but also people close to your heart. Who have you given up on? Perhaps in these final weeks of Lent it is time to reach out to those who have fallen out of our favor. Maybe today is the day that you can reconcile a broken relationship and truly live into God’s love here and now.