Delivered at Ames UCC on March 25, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read.
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LOOK AT THE FLOOR
Look at the floor, if you would.
Compare the floor under your feet with the floor under the pew in front of you. What do you see? The first is worn out, blonde from our soles and our weight. The second is still dark, still shiny. It has been protected from us for decades. It is untrod and clear.
Every Sunday I think about this. Where I sit in the front pew used to be the second pew. I understand that my immediate predecessor, your interim pastor Terry Hamilton-Poore, took the original front row out because it was just too crowded during Holy Communion. So every Sunday, from where I sit, I see clearly the evidence of paths loved down to a nub.
It’s the path of the Palm Sunday parade.
Technically the path of the Palm Sunday parade was the road that came into Jerusalem from the back side.
The whole thing is a superb example of political theater: “Nobody” Jesus comes through the back gate on an ass with regular people waving foliage, while Governor Pilate comes through the front gate on a steed and with a full complement of Roman soldiers and regalia. No wonder it made the local authorities so upset!
Based on the story in John, though, I don’t think most of the participants knew they were taking part in a direct action. John says that people had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover and heard Jesus would be there, too, so they went out to join him. It’s not that they went to Jerusalem because of Jesus.
Some of those people had seen and known Jesus earlier, when he brought his friend Lazarus back from the dead. They spread that story among the Passover pilgrims and residents, which brought even more people out, people of many religious traditions. So, the crowd is a mix of devoted disciples and followers, those already on their own pilgrimage, and curiosity seekers, lookee-loos, and skeptics.
This is one of those weeks when the original story feels almost less important than the over 2,000 years of retelling that story. It sounds like it would have been pretty easy to take part or get caught up in the first Palm Sunday parade. It did not require much beyond curiosity, happenstance, and proximity.
The original participants also didn’t know what would follow: betrayal, death, mystery; 300 years of religious oppression; 1,200 years of religious imperialism; 400 years of Protestant protests and factionalism; and now a solid 100 years of decline in relevance!
But we do. We know all of that. We know how hard the story is going to get and all that will be asked of us. We know how badly we will fail. And still we come. Why?
WHY ARE WE HERE??
Surely not just for the political theatre.
Though I know our organizing for justice is a compelling reason for many of us to be in a church like ours—and I hope you saw the good news regarding mental health care and housing in our newsletter—it cannot be the only reason. Social change movements do not require any talk of God to be inspiring and successful, and with a history like Christianity’s there’s plenty of reason to believe we would be the antithesis of justice workers.
Then there’s Jesus’s concluding statement in today’s passage:
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.
Remember, always, that John is the newest of the canonical gospels, meaning the gospels preserved in the Bible. Having had more time for the retelling before being written down, John’s gospel is the most consistent in terms of the character of Jesus, and the clearest in terms of narrative arc. The author or authors of John will never leave us with the questions or doubts or room for interpretation that the other gospel communities do.
Jesus clearly explains that he has to die and why: It’s time for my glory. In order to be productive, the wheat—I—must die. In order to be with me in eternity, you must hate your mortal life.
This makes me flinch.
It’s the setup for Jesus as a sacrificial lamb—which God says God does not want—throughout the rest of the Bible, and it sets us up to obsess about an opaque life hereafter rather than attending to the mortal one we know now. The passage makes God bloodthirsty and us anxious.
So, again, how is it that we are still here wearing away at these poor floorboards? To make more room for Holy Communion.
We have only two sacraments in the United Church of Christ, two practices that we officially proclaim as visible expressions of the invisible grace of God: Baptism and Communion.
Communion is the ritual reenactment of the story we will turn our attention to on Thursday night across the street: After the parade, Jesus and the disciples retreat to a garden. One disciple betrays their location to the local authorities so that Jesus will be arrested.
But before that all happens, Jesus pauses to offer them bread and wine, asking them to see the first as his breaking body and the second as his poured-out life, the two comprising a renewal of the ancient covenant between God and humanity. Not a sacrifice to atonement for our sins, but an offering of love over death, for those who are steadfast in love and those who falter out of fear of death.
I believe that we are here because we hunger for love over death. On the morning of Palm Sunday last year an Egyptian church was lethally bombed. In Austin this month, five different bombs went off, with two fatalities. And you know all of the other violence that has happened in between. Political death, preventable death, death inspired by hate—they are all around.
In Dr. King’s final Christmas sermon, he preached:
I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear.
Hate is too great a burden to bear.
It is so great a burden that we recognize that even as we work directly and with a fair amount of agitation for the betterment of our world, we cannot do it without an ethic of the table, lest we start to hate just like the forces we are trying to upend.
We come here to learn how to set the table wider for the hungry and for those who do not believe in feeding the hungry. For women and for those who do not believe women. For queer people and those who believe that queer people should be put to death. For Black men and for those who refuse to believe how we constantly deny them life.
We come here to learn how to be in Holy Communion with those who love us and those we are tempted to hate, because otherwise we will never see an end to bombings, shootings, lynchings, or crosses. And because we know that without the table, we are just one political parade away from becoming betrayers ourselves.
Yes, we have good reason to stay away from Christian churches, hundreds of years of reasons. Our choice is much harder than that of the original Palm Sunday parade participants.
But looking at these old floorboards, I know that they do not just represent habit and tradition, but radical, personal, and institutional transformation inspired by the love of God’s table and the love from God’s table. So, I’m inspired not only to continue to work on mental health care and housing, but also to take up my palm frond again and proclaim Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed are all who come in the name of God’s love!