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On the Roller Coaster

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March 29 texts: Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29 and Mark 11:1-11

Can we have another “hosanna”?


This day, this Palm Sunday, is the gateway to what we call Holy Week. And much like our everyday lives, it is a week filled with swirling emotions –

joy today,
frustration and anger tomorrow,
confusion and confrontation on Tuesday,
care and betrayal on Wednesday,
comfort and anxiety on Thursday,
pain, suffering, death and grief on Friday,
despair on Saturday.

And then, a week from today, as the sun rises on Easter morning, another swirl of emotions – grief, confusion, joy, fear and finally, hope.

Roller CoasterTalk about an emotional roller coaster ride. It makes you just want to take this week and go to the beach and hang out. But if you are willing to ride the emotional roller coaster – and the spiritual roller coaster – there is a chance for insights into our lives and maybe even a sense of where God fits into all of this.

We’ll formally mark a few of these events here and I’ll say a bit more about that as we go along and I hope many of you can join us here on Thursday and Friday evenings as well as next Sunday morning.

Let me suggest, though, that all of us can enter into the spirit of this week by paying attention to the stories and to the emotions that go with them – and the emotions that fill our lives.

The stories I will refer to this morning all come from Mark’s account of the good news about Jesus. The other Gospel writers – Matthew, Luke and John – tell the stories in slightly different ways, but that’s only because their roller coasters each have their own set of tracks.

I think the stories speak to many human conditions and in watching Jesus ride this roller coaster, I think we get some insights in to his life and message and what that says to us.

But any good novel or movie or TV drama can take us inside the human condition. If Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, then these stories also tell us some things about God. That’s what makes them sacred stories.

Today’s story is pretty straightforward. Jesus has been working his way across the countryside towards Jerusalem. His reputation as a teacher and a healer – perhaps even as the long-awaited Messiah – had preceded him. There’s a great sequence in the days right before Palm Sunday.

People bring children to see him and his disciples tried to keep the kids away. Jesus had some stern words for his followers about that as he took the kids in his arms.

A rich came to Jesus seeking the key to eternal life. Surely Jesus must have a fountain of youth he could give this guy the secret code for, right? So Jesus told the rich man to give away all that he had and become one of Jesus’ band of itinerant followers. Nope, no can do.

But even Jesus’ followers still struggled with what being a disciple meant. James and John asked for a special place next to Jesus when he would come in glory. That, in turn, engendered anger and jealousy among the other followers. Jesus reminded them all that to be great, they must serve one another, not seek honored positions.

And so it went. Bring in the kids, give sight to the blind, give up what you have, serve one another. Then, it’s time to enter Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, not some majestic horse like Pilate, the Roman governor, coming into the city from the west. Jesus was coming from the east with a rag tag crowd cheering him on.

Notice their unabashed enthusiasm. They went all out for Jesus. They did not worry what others might think – the Romans who could threaten them, the temple officials who could banish them. They sang at the top of their lungs, waved branches.

Those who were with us last Sunday at Zion City Church experienced a bit of that enthusiasm. We’re pretty restrained about waving our arms or shouting out affirmations during a prayer or a sermon.

(Probably less so during an Elite Eight basketball game.) The crowd on Palm Sunday had no such restraint..

Now revisit the last lines of today’s Gospel. “Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.”

You get the sense something more is about to happen. As the dawn came on Monday, Jesus and his followers began to head back into Jerusalem. No mob scene this time, just a stroll towards the temple. Apparently his hosts in Bethany did not give them breakfast and Mark tells us that Jesus was hungry. He saw a fig tree in the distance and hoped to find a fig or two. But it was the wrong season. So he cursed the fig tree.

Do you know that feeling? The cereal box is empty, the line at the drive-in extends out to the street, the traffic on the Beltline is at a standstill. Frustration. Curses. Jesus knew that feeling. He did not hold back.

And he was just getting warmed up. He returned to the temple and began flipping over the tables of the money changers – the payday loan stores of his era, the vultures who were taking advantage of the poor and doing it right there in the sacred space of the temple with the blessing – and perhaps the enrichment – of the temple authorities.

This was more than personal frustration, like with the fig tree. This was full-on anger at the injustices in the world. Jesus knew there would be a cost to his actions. Mark writes: “When the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him.” Jesus knew there would be a cost. But he did not hold back.

On Tuesday, the mood is a bit calmer, the messages of Jesus no less pointed.

The day starts with Jesus’ followers walking past the cursed fig tree. It has withered away to its roots and that startles the group. What’s with that, they ask Jesus. He does not answer directly (confusing them even further) but talks about prayer and then about forgiveness – neither of which seemed to be in play when he cursed the fig tree. And that confuses us as well.
But we don’t get to linger in our confusion.

The temple leaders challenge his authority and he spars with them verbally, one-upping them time after time. This probably did not endear him to them, but they were trying to undermine his authority and get the crowd to turn on him. No such luck.
Finally they asked him, which commandment is the greatest? You know the answer – love God, love your neighbor as yourself. And the scribe who asked the question had to agree with him.

He denounced the scribes “who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market places and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Whew. Jesus is on a roll. He is not holding back. He tells his followers about the poor woman who gave abundantly out of her poverty, the persecution that his followers would face because they stood by him, the day when God would renew the earth and all would be well.

A day that began in confusion moved into confrontation and ended with Jesus challenging his followers about how they were to live, even when they faced rejection and danger. Hang in there, even when you’re confused, even when you are uncomfortable with confrontations, even when you face danger. Don’t hold back. Know that the roller coaster will keep moving.

On to Wednesday. There’s a dramatic contrast in emotions on this day.

Jesus goes to have dinner at the home of Simon the leper. In other words, once again he was hanging out with the wrong type of people, breaking bread with the outcasts. And he did not seem to care that others might think poorly of him for crossing the strict social boundaries of his era.

A woman enters, breaks open a jar of ointment and pours it on Jesus’ head. It’s a loving anointing, a sign of respect and care. So here is Jesus with a leper, anointed by a woman, embraced by those on the outside of the social structures of his day.

Judas, meanwhile, decides he can no longer cast his fate with Jesus. He goes to those in power and makes a deal – I’ll lead you to Jesus. They promise him a finder’s fee. And the plot is in motion. Care is being replaced by betrayal – that terrible feeling when someone you trusted turns against you.

This Thursday, there will be tables here in the sanctuary and we’ll gather around them with bread and wind, much as Jesus did with his followers at what has come to be known as the Last Supper. He washed their feet – a vivid symbol of service. We’ll wash each other’s hands. We’ll share bread and cup. We’ll sing. We’ll be part of the ancient Christian tradition of giving thanks together. There’s a wonderful sense of comfort in that.

Comfort, until we walk out to garden. We hear the clanking of the coins of betrayal. We hear Jesus words of agony, hoping that somehow, somehow, he will not have to face what he knows is ahead. His anxiety mirrors ours as we stare into one of those abysses of life, wishing we could avoid it, knowing we can’t.

Which brings us to Friday. You know the basic story of Jesus being executed on a cross, the Roman’s best symbol of how threats to their power will be dealt with. Ruling powers often have ways not just to eliminate perceived troublemakers but to intimidate others.

For the Romans, it was the cross.

For the white power structure from after the Civil War until well into the 1900s, it was the lynching tree.

For ISIS in our time, it is the horrible videos of beheadings.

The deaths are bad enough.

The messages they carry are horrendous.

So Jesus died on a cross. If he is the ultimate revelation of God to us, then God knows what it is like to be rejected, to be executed, to be turned into a symbol of intimidation.

On Friday evening, we’ll gather here and be part of a service built around the Psalm that Jesus started saying as he neared his death, Psalm 22 – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”

While his family and followers were in agony watching his painful death, he was feeling abandoned, even by the God in whom he had trusted. He did not hold back his emotions. He cried out.

But here’s the thing about Psalm 22. It does not end with a cry of abandonment. It goes on to discover hope. It says that God “did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted, God did not hide God’s face from me, but heard when I cried to God.”

Jesus’ followers were not so sure of that on Saturday. The world seemed like a pretty glum place. They were in despair, fearful of what might happen to them.

And then came Sunday. We know what’s coming then. But they didn’t. They clung to one another in their grief and tried to remember the promises Jesus had made to them.
That’s where I’ll leave the story for today. Come back next Sunday for the exciting conclusion!

I hope that during the week ahead, you’ll let the emotions of these stories, the emotions in your lives, swirl together.

And I hope you remember that part of what brings us together here is the story of Jesus –

a story rooted in God’s love
and sustained by God’s love,
a story of hope carrying people throughout the ages through all the hard times in life,
a story that recognizes that Jesus – the ultimate revelation of God – lived all those emotions
and offered us a new day beyond whatever constrains us now.

Let’s sing a hymn of gratitude in the midst of it all. It’s #212, “O Jesus Christ, May Grateful Hymns.”