Saturday 31 March 2012

Friday 30 March 2012

Palm Sunday

A sermon for Palm Sunday. The readings are: Isaiah 50:4-9 and John 12:12-16.
This might not be a sermon I'd preach at this time next year. But it's the word I have to bring on Sunday.

Today I want to share with you about the disgrace of the triumphal entry.

Because the triumphal entry, as we ‘headline’ the narrative as. Is a narrative in which assumptions are turned upside down. And it is a narrative in which everything that one might expect to happen, doesn’t happen, or at least, doesn’t happen in the way expected.

It may happen in the way prophesied long before.

But it doesn’t happen in a way that everyone can really understand.

Because the triumphal entry is the moment.

It is the moment when all the different strands of Jesus’ life get woven together in a way that some rejoice in and some are confused by some. Some are hopeful about. And some are bemused about.

The triumphal entry isn’t necessarily a triumph in the way the people of Jesus’ day, or indeed, the way that we, think about a triumphal entry.

So today I want to make three points.

The first is that the triumphal entry is the moment when the different strands of Jesus’ life are woven together in the public eye.

The second is that the triumphal entry is only a triumphal entry because it is a disgrace leading to a disgrace.

The third is that triumphal entry provides a model for us, as to how we could live our lives.

So the first.

Up until this point in his life Jesus has lived a life of love for others. He has willingly given up any hope of creature comforts and security, to live a life as a poured out offering to God.

Jesus has given of himself in his love.

In his energies, spent with the poor.

And his time spent with the broken.

The unclean.

The diseased.

The forsaken.

The forgotten.

The despised.

The outsiders.

The ritually impure.

The unwanted.

The unloved.

The despairing.

The dirty.

The depraved.

The villains.

The disassociated with the culture and the empire.

The powerless.

The power holders.

This is the life that Jesus has led.

And these are the people that Jesus has loved.

There is no doubt that Jesus’ actions were often with the forgotten.

The Liberation Theology movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s in South America would have us believe that Jesus had a “preferential option for the poor”.

That Jesus’ preference was to serve the poor. That his love was preferentially focused on the poor.

I can see how liberation theology gets to that point.

But I think they might miss the point.

Jesus’ preferential option, is for everyone.

There is no one outside of the remit of his love.

The centurion. Or the bleeding woman.

The tax collector or the rich young man.

It would be easy to say that Jesus had a preferential option for the poor, but I think that is a misread.

Jesus spent so much time with the poor and broken, not only because he loved them and had hopes for them, and cared for them, and wanted the best for them and wanted to love them, and for them to find shalom, but Jesus also spent time for the poor as a model of how the rich, the Pharisees, the ruling elite, should live, side by side with the poor.

In relationships of mutual love and respect with the poor.

Jesus’ preferential option was for everyone, and he knew that for people to really live, to embrace life in all its abundance, their and our, standards and expectations would have to be turned upside down.

That the dreams they had would have to be turned upside down.

And this is exactly what is enacted in the triumphal entry.

The threads of Jesus’ life of loving the poor. Of living to different standards. Of living by different expectations. All of these things. All of these aspects of his life are in some way evoked by the triumphal entry.

Certainly, there are prophecies that predicted that the Messiah would enter Jerusalem on a donkey, on a colt.

The prophet Zechariah had prophesied how Israel’s true king would approach the city, ‘Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ (Zechariah 9:9)

This prophecy hung in the air, like radio static, a background noise in people’s minds, ringing bells for them.

But there is also an expectation associated with past experience. That expects something vastly different. That holds onto the prophecy, but expects to see it played out very differently.

As he approached Jerusalem the people began shouting, “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”.

Most of the crowd were excited, it was Passover time after all and the people were ready to praise God for the arrival of the last true king. They shared the sense of occasion, the excitement and anticipation. Many in the crowd knew Jesus, he’d been to Jerusalem before and he was returning, riding a donkey.

Jesus the king was coming.

Culpepper suggests that, ‘Jesus was a king, but no ordinary one – the king of fishermen, tax collectors, Samaritans, harlots, blind men, demoniacs and cripples. Those who followed Jesus were a ragtag bunch, pathetically unfit for the grand hopes that danced in their imaginations.’

Over the years Jerusalem had seen plenty of kings and generals arriving in triumph.

And the arrival of kings and generals pretty much always followed a standard pattern.

Whether celebrating the return of a victorious general after a battle or welcoming a new conqueror, taking over the city, four things would happen.

1. The conqueror or ruler would be escorted into the city by its citizens or the conquerors army.

2. The procession would be accompanied by hymns or announcements of greatness.

3. There would be elements of the procession that depict the authority of the ruler.

4. The entrance would be followed by a ritual act such as sacrifice which takes place in the temple, so the ruler symbolically takes ownership of the whole city.

But Jesus does not enter Jerusalem as a conqueror, a warlord, or a returning general, on a grand war horse, covered in armour, followed by a huge army.

Jesus approached Jerusalem on a donkey. Not as a conqueror, but as a servant.

The truth is, Jesus’ triumphal entry had more in common with travelling through the slums with the poor than it did with parading towards an enemy with a vast and experienced army, expectant of military victory.

Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem had excited noise and clamour, but in Luke’s account of the narrative, in the midst of it Jesus wept, heavy with the burden of pain yet to befall Jerusalem. Unlike a world champion boxer entering a ring expectant of an easy victory, Jesus’ heart is heavy. Heavy but determined.

Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem was one in which the true and righteous King entered the city with an attitude of servanthood, rather than as commander in chief surrounded by state of the art military equipment ready to take the place by force.

Jesus’ triumphal entry tied up all the threads of his life, into one visual, prophetic act that would stand as a metaphor and symbol of his values and purpose.

The second point I want to make is that the triumphal entry is only a triumphal entry because it is a disgrace leading to a disgrace.

We find in our Isaiah reading, words of prophecy. And prophecy is a complicated beast. Prophecy in the Old Testament doesn’t necessarily relate to just one event or occurrence. So in our reading today we have one of the three pictures of the Suffering Servant given in the book of Isaiah. And the suffering servant in this passage, refers to Isaiah himself, a man carrying the burdens of speaking unwelcome words to a community who don’t want to hear what he has to say.

But this prophetic image of the suffering servant also relates to Christ and his sufferings on behalf of so many.

And so we read in Isaiah 50:6, of Isaiah and Christ, offering their backs to those who beat them, that they won’t hide their faces away. Instead they will be open to the Sovereign Lord’s call to be vulnerable.

And Isaiah 50:7 states, “Because the Sovereign LORD helps me, I will not be disgraced.”

Christ will not be disgraced.

Christ will not be disgraced even though he will set his face towards Jerusalem and willingly walk towards his death. Ultimately Christ will not be disgraced, as he will die, be resurrected and then will come the time for the ascension. In the end Christ will not be disgraced.

As Jesus enters Jerusalem, it’s clear that his way is not the anticipated way. Many of the different factions of the crowd would have been expecting different things from this king, many would have been expecting him to negotiate with the Roman rulers, entering in victory, many would have been expecting him to enter Jerusalem with a great army, ready to take back the temple for God. Many of them would have been expecting Jesus to take on a key role within the temple, to reform the temple practices.

Instead, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, is to them a disgrace: instead of military victory, or religious victory or political victory, Jesus brings with him a donkey he rides as a fulfilment of a prophecy, and Jesus arrives with a rag tag group of the poor, the unclean, the socially excluded.

Rather than arriving in a fashion everyone expects, Jesus turns the expectations of standards upside down.

Rather than arriving to preach in a cassock alb, or cassock and surplus, as expected, Jesus stands in an old T-shirt, marked and dirty. Turning the standards of the world upside down. (By the way, just to be clear, I’m not suggesting I’m Jesus!)

But for Jesus, even in this social disgrace of his arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus is still cheered, there is still a hope with the crowd, for Jesus.

But notice, only a short time after, that before Pilate the crowd have turned and deserted him, calling instead for his crucifixion. And then, at the cross, the crowd have deserted Jesus in his final disgrace, the ultimate disgrace, crucified like a petty criminal amongst other petty criminals.

In a worldly sense, it’s hard to see anything but disgrace here.

As Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove suggest, the way of Christ was not the way of a conquering king, instead, “Here was a king who ruled with a towel rather than an iron fist, a king who rode a donkey instead of a warhorse, a king who carried a cross rather than a sword.”

 Instead of a military triumphal entry with pomp and ceremony. We encounter a Christ whose triumphal entry is that of a servant. A triumphal entry shadowed in disgrace.

The third point I want to make is that the triumphal entry provides a model for us, as to how we could live our lives.

Quite simply, Jesus enters Jerusalem with his face, “set like flint” as Isaiah puts it. There is a task to be done. There are people to serve. There is a new kingdom to pronounce. There is hope to enact. there is resurrection to await. there is the knowledge that in the eyes and mouths of many Jesus will encounter in Jerusalem, they will be disappointed with him, their perceptions shattered.

But for so many others, there are hopes fulfilled and dreams set ablaze. Jesus enters Jerusalem resolutely. And he enters Jerusalem to serve. And he enters Jerusalem with hope.

And these characteristics of resolute, hopeful servanthood can be for us a word to challenge, encourage, and refresh us, even in the discomfort that we might come to encounter.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Dialogue, the Purpose of Preaching and the Toothless Walrus.

Recently I have been experimenting (prayerfully - I hope) with how I preach.

For me preaching is a life long journey, and with preaching comes the opportunity to experiment creatively, but also to break your back with false aspirations.

At times I have preached from full scripts.

At other times I have preached from scripts much more weighted in the style of popular theology books.


Sometimes I have preached using only three words as markers.

Markers in the sand. (OK, enough with the pop. theology style....
..... For now.)

Sometimes, when I haven't been able to prep a sermon and only have a post-it note to preach from I have felt like kicking myself.

But then, that's idolatry.

What matters is the motive, and the discernment, and the hope, and the prayer.

Recently I have been thinking through the interaction between blogs and preaching.

Occasionally I will post a sermon on this blog after I have preached.

I generally only do this if I have a full script written (if that's right or wrong, who knows, another question to contemplate).

But the point is, when do I post these blog sermons? Usually, after I have preached them in church.

And that's interesting, I did that by default. I do that by default.

I preach and then I post the preach.

But ultimately I want a dialogue about my sermons, about God. I want to talk to people about sermons. But by posting the sermons after the preach.
After they have happened. I naturally limit the dialogue.

In an ever moving culture especially a digital fast paced blogosphere (see how outdated that feels already, "blogosphere????") people move on to the next thing.
If I blog post a sermon I preached yesterday, why should I expect people to engage with it?

And if I want a person to person conversation (whatever that means) with a blog reader then it will always be after the preach has occurred. After the "final word" from the pulpit,  "six feet above contradiction" is preached.

Two things happen off the back of this:

1. the first is that a conversation partner's voice is always heard after a message is given to a wider audience in the act of preaching. Therefore, the discussion naturally becomes something of an addendum, or an appendix to the preach.

2. the second is that, as a preacher, I implicitly close myself down to being shaped by the input of others. Basically I present a, "yes I'd love to hear what you think, but not in a way that might shape what I think, and actually, what I will say in my preach." I am closing myself off from the other, but doing so, whilst appearing to be open to embrace the views of the other.

But only one of our speech will be publicly shaped by this for the immediate time.

So why don't I blog my sermons before I preach?

Mainly because I like the sting in the tail, I like the surprise, the twist, the anticipation. I like to challenge people to think differently, to be gripped, to be excited by the word of God. Which itself, is not a bad thing.

But two things implicitly come from this as well:

1. the first is that I fear that if someone knows what is going to be said, they won't engage. That they'll be like, "yeah this is the bit when he says that the triumphal entry is a disgrace, yadda yadda yadda."

But surely there is a lesson to learn from theatre here (@nedlunn ?). When you go to see the production of a play at the theatre, in many cases you know how it ends. And not only that, in many cases, you know the precise words that will be used to get you to the ending.

But you are still excited. I remember seeing a theatre adaption of Orwell's 1984, it was a touring production and an adaption. I knew what was going to happen in the end (as ultimately we do with sermons - in the bigger story at least - Jesus? Restoration? Forgiveness?).

But actually, in the case of 1984, how the playwright got us to that point, the words used, the choreography of actions and words. That was all unexpected.

But even in a play that you may know word for word, like, Romeo and Juliet, the theatre director and ensemble still have the power to shock, and surprise you, they can still draw you into the story.

2. the second is that if a visitor to church comes to church on an off-chance and hears the sermon (they probably wouldn't read the blog or even know about it), but I speak to them from a position of relative power: not that I am a powerful preacher. But because I have had time to pray, read commentaries, lectio divina, live the passage, ask questions about it. And distill into the allotted time a reflection on this.

Now the hearer could check the lectionary/sermon series and research the passage and so be informed of the passage. But they wouldn't get chance to see my reflections on it - like being told the resulting data of a scientific survey, but without being told the conclusions and actions that come from it.

But in the case of the spiritual seeker who may have stumbled across the church, what I am doing is modelling a way to engage in discussion from a point of power. I am refusing to actually engage fully in their legitimate questions, and instead I am very definitely avoiding deep conversation and their research and genuine queries, in the hope of a simple, uncomplicated, conversion where I don't give them opportunities to ask the real questions on their heart.

So what about the toothless walrus? Well, perhaps I am scared of being the toothless walrus, stood in the pulpit, with everyone knowing what I'm going to say next (not that many folk read this blog!)
Perhaps I am scared that folk won't engage properly. Perhaps, I am scared that my already-read-once-words would appear flabby and without real conviction. That the "power" would have gone from them. That I can't just breeze people in to believing something without chance to either reflect on the words, or talk about them.

And that's where I am the real toothless walrus, and deserve to be named as one. When I am too afraid of discussion, in case I might be shaped and my views challenged.

Long live the toothless walrus.