Sunday, May 9, 2021

Mother’s Day – Expanding Our Perspective


Mark 3: 31-35
Roger Lynn
May 9, 2021
(CLICK HERE for the audio for this sermon)

It is a time honored tradition which has been around for as long as we can remember. It is, as the saying goes, as American as baseball and apple pie. We are, of course, talking about Mother’s Day.

Some of you may remember being in church on this particular Sunday in years now long since past, when there would be flowers for the oldest mother, recognition for the mother with the most children, etc. And, of course, the same wonderful woman was the oldest every year – because once you are the oldest, it is difficult for anyone to pass you up.

Mothers in general, and Mother’s Day in particular, receive a considerable amount of sentimental attention in our culture. Therefore, I will skip that particular side of the story, pretty much entirely. Not because it doesn’t deserve our attention. Most of the time, mothers are a pretty terrific addition to our lives and deserve far more recognition than they usually receive. But, on this day in particular, such sentimental recognition is already being taken care of quite well. So instead, I would like to spend a few moments considering some alternative perspectives.

It is important for us to remember that not everyone experiences Mother’s Day in a positive way. As the Church, we need to be sensitive to people for whom such holidays as this only serve as a reminder of pain or loss. On the other hand, this need not become the major focus of the day. In one of his books, Robert Fulghum wrote a piece about Mother’s Day. In one section he tells about a particular Mother’s Day when he was still preaching in a church. He decided to address the down side of the issue and proceeded to put forth a series of questions which served to remind the congregation that such times were not all hugs and kisses for everyone. Good idea – bad timing. The sanctuary was very quiet. One encounter sums up the reaction. “A visiting lady, who had “sainted mother” written all over her face, accosted me after church: “Young man, better men than you have gone straight to hell for suggesting less than what you said this morning. Shame, shame, SHAME for spoiling the day.” ”

Well, I’m reasonably astute when it comes to noticing lessons worth learning, so I would like to avoid that particular trap. Not every moment is the right moment for dealing with every topic, even when it is important. Being exclusive is not always a bad thing. There are times when it is very appropriate to focus on a person or group of people and give them their due. Mothers are such a group. Mother’s Day is such a day.

But what if we could go one better? If being exclusive is not always a bad thing, being inclusive is usually a better thing, if you can pull it off. What if we can take the good feelings of this day and then widen our field of vision concerning what we are celebrating? We can begin by looking carefully at what we are honoring on Mother’s Day. As important, and sometimes difficult, a task as giving birth to a child is, that is not the main reason for this special day. My sister used to send our mother a card every year, and my sister was adopted. Giving birth doesn’t even enter into that particular relationship. It has more to do with what happens between those two people after birth. It is less about biology than it is about relationship. And in that light we can begin experiencing a new up side to this whole business of Mother’s Day. It can encompass mothers and a great deal more as well.

From this new perspective we can begin thinking about all the people in our lives who have been mothers to us (or fathers or sisters or brothers). Have we offered thanks to God for the gift of such people in our lives? Have we said thanks to the people themselves? Why not send them a Mother’s Day card and really surprise them?

But there is more good news regarding this broadening of our perspective. We can also begin thinking about the people for whom we are, or might become, mothers (or fathers or sisters or brothers.) What are some ways we can share the gift of ourselves with someone else? How can we be nurturing and loving in their lives?

In the scripture from Mark which we heard read this morning, Jesus had some things to say about all of this. Often these words have been seen as being rather harsh. I invite you to listen this time with fresh hearing. “Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3: 31-35)

I don’t believe Jesus was being harsh and uncaring to his family. From the cross he made sure that his mother was taken care of. He was simply reminding all of us, once again, that our vision is often too narrow. A relationship is not determined by biology. A relationship is determined by the quality the connection which is shared between people.

Fulghum’s essay on Mother’s Day actually addressed all of this as well. The opening line is, “My son is a mother.” He says, “I call him a “mother” in that he does all those things that, once upon a time, mostly mothers did. I admire him for this.” He ends the article this way: “My Sunday obligations are over now. I am on safer ground in passing some advice on to my son the mother. Advice for his older brother as well, who is engaged and has the fecund look about him that tells me motherhood is not far away from him, either. . . You will never really know what kind of parent you were or if you did it right or wrong. Never. And you will worry about this and them as long as you live. But when your children have children and you watch them do what they do, you will have part of an answer.”
(from “It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It”, by Robert Fulghum)


So, celebrate this Mother’s Day. If you have a mother with whom you can share this day, rejoice and give thanks. If you are a mother, enjoy the gift of your children. But, regardless of your circumstance, expand your vision. Open your life to the touch of those who would share of themselves. Reach out and give of yourself to those around you with whom you share life. God has given us the gift of each other and we are called to share deeply, fully, and richly in each other’s lives. May we make this a Mother’s Day for ALL to celebrate.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

A House of Living Stone


John 14: 1-3 & 1 Peter 2: 4-6 & 9-10
Roger Lynn
May 2, 2021
(CLICK HERE for the audio for this sermon)

The world is often a frightening place these days. There are wars and rumors of war. Crime in our cities seems out of control. Violence continues to sweep through our schools. Poverty and hunger devastate lives around the world and here in our own backyard. Diseases of every variety leave a trail of victims in their path. Sometimes we are left feeling helpless and hopeless in the face of such overwhelming odds. What can we possibly do to make a difference? What can we do just to hold back the darkness? The problem, of course, is that we can’t. Not on our own. There are just too many problems and they are all too big. We find ourselves faced with situations which seem beyond our ability to understand, to say nothing about being able to doing anything about them. The temptation is to just shake our heads in frustration and confusion and give up.

That must have been something like what the disciples experienced in the upper room as Jesus began explaining to them about his forthcoming death. What had seemed such a bright and hopeful future had suddenly turned dark and forbidding. They thought they had found a reason for living. Now they were beginning to feel abandoned and alone. So Jesus tries to reassure them. He tells them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me... I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” (John 14:1 & 18) And then, as a way of giving them hope, he promises them a home. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2) 

In the middle of that dark night, when all hope and reason seemed to have fled, such words probably did little to calm the fears and dispel the uncertainties of the disciples. If they remembered it at all, the promise of a place in God’s heavenly house would have seemed beyond their grasp. It is difficult to think of heaven when the concerns of life here on earth are pressing in from every side. And so they despaired and finally fled in the face of what was to come. Not really so very different from we ourselves. We forget that just because something is beyond our grasp does not mean it is beyond God’s grasp. We forget to take into account our most valuable resource – God. Indeed, offering the disciples comfort was really the least of what Jesus tried to do that night in the upper room. His primary purpose was to point them beyond their fears to the challenge which lay before them. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12) And, 2,000 years later, his words remain vital. Like those first disciples, we are not called to be disciples of Christ only so that we might take comfort in his presence with us. Such presence, such a promise of a home with God, is to be our source of strength so we can be the Church in the world – doing God’s work wherever it is needed.

And that is where Peter picks up the story. That night in the upper room, the disciples could never have imagined there was anything beyond the promise of a place in God’s house. How could they have dreamed that what they were ultimately called to become was not residence in God’s house, but part of the very fabric of the house itself. “Come to him, a living stone, ...and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house...” (I Peter 2:4-5) God’s Church in the world is not made of wood and nails, bricks and mortar, pulpits and pews. It is not a static structure. God’s Church in the world is made of living stones – you and me and all those everywhere who claim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. You see, it is not about what we can understand or imagine or do on our own. It is not even about saying the right words or believing the right doctrine. It is about what God can accomplish with us and through us when we are in faithful relationship with God. “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (I Peter 2:9) On our own the world is indeed a frightening place. When we enter into relationship with Christ we become living stones fitted together into God’s Church which can accomplish miracles in the world. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (I Peter 2:10)

Comfort for our fear and promises of a future home with God are significant and important, but they are really only the beginning. We are God’s people – a house of living stone, and we have been called by name and empowered to make a difference in the world. There is much to be done. What are we waiting for?

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Abundant Life – A Test


John 10: 1-10
Roger Lynn
April 25, 2021
(CLICK HERE for the audio for this sermon)

As we live our lives we find ourselves faced with a variety of choices. Decisions must be made. Actions must be taken. As we seek to make those choices, whose voice do we listen to? Whose directions do we follow? Not just personally, but corporately – as a congregation, as a community, as a nation. And how do we know when we are on the right track? Put another way, what is the will of God for our lives? There are, of course, lots of answers to questions such as these. Both the questions and the answers are complex and not easily sorted out. In most cases what is required is a lifetime of striving to shape, refine, and then re-shape our responses. And in all of that, we will very seldom, if ever, find ourselves presented with clear-cut, black and white, 100% certainties. Life is ambiguous, and what we are called to do is show up and do the best with can in any given moment.

As we seek to discover how best to respond in a faithful manner, there are clues and guidelines which we can use along the way – tests which we can apply to our choices. Jesus offers one such guideline in the passage from John’s Gospel which was read this morning. In talking about the relationship between himself and humanity, he uses the metaphor of sheep and their shepherd. He contrasts this relationship with that of a thief whose only intention is to steal and kill and destroy. And to the unspoken question, “How can we tell the difference?” he lays out his own desire for humanity, and by extension, God’s desire as well. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) This statement is, in my opinion, one of the high water marks in all of scripture. It lays before us a guiding principle with which to measure the ways in which we go about living our lives. In the video series, “Questions Of Faith,” Hyung Kyung Chung, a Presbyterian theologian from Korea, responds to the question “What’s the use of the Bible?” by stating that the norm for interpreting scripture is to ask the question, “Is this life-giving for us or is this death-giving for us?” And at a very basic level, that is also the question which we must ask of all the choices we face – will this choice enhance life or encourage death? If we are truly seeking to follow God’s desire for us, then the decisions we make, the actions we take, the paths we choose, must be life oriented and life enhancing, not just for us but for the whole world. If they are not, then to the degree that they are not we have missed the mark of what it means to be the people God created us to be.

It is, of course, much easier to lay out this kind of broad, general principle than it is to apply such a principle to particular situations. As I said, life is ambiguous. Hard questions must be asked, both of ourselves and of the society of which we are a part. It will always be an ongoing process of learning and growing and adapting. It is painfully obvious to anyone listening to the news that there is much about our world which is not life-enhancing. Just in the past week the number of mass shootings around the country has left of many of us shaking our heads in confusion and frustration as we grasp for some sort of explanation. It all seems so senseless. But unless and until we begin to recognize that we live in an interconnected world where our choices and our actions make a difference the pattern will just continue. Whether it’s violence, or poverty, or human rights, or racial tension, or environmental degradation, or whatever else might show up on the list, nothing happens in isolation. We are all a part of the system which offers us death-giving choices rather than life-giving ones, and we can, therefore, also begin making different choices which will change the system. The change likely won’t happen overnight, but it won’t happen at all unless we take the first step. And we won’t get far on this journey unless we remember that we need not (cannot) go it alone. We have each other and we have God. We are all in this together.

I know it is not simple. There are often complicated questions with no clear and simple solutions. I seldom feel like I have definitive answers for such difficult issues, but at the very least the questions must continue to be asked. Is there a more life-giving response which could be made than is presently being offered? Am I really seeking abundant life with this decision? What are the implications of this choice, not only for my life, but for those around me and, indeed, for the rest of the world? Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” What are we doing to cooperate with that goal?

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Finding Christ In The Common Places


Luke 24: 13-32
Roger Lynn
April 18, 2021
(no audio this week)

One of the most remarkable things about the Christian faith is how ordinary it is. I suspect that if we were honest with ourselves, what we would really like, at least some of the time, is a God who is revealed in big, splashy, spectacular ways which can’t be missed! But most of the time that is not what we find. Instead we find the God who is revealed to us as one of us. And then not as royalty, but in poverty. Not as a mighty warrior, but as an infant. Not as a high priest, but as a traveling storyteller. When miracles do happen, they usually take the form of turning a little water into wine (and then not taking credit for it), making sure everyone has enough to eat, or healing a few poor sick people. One of the most significant symbols in the Church is a simple meal of bread and wine. Extraordinary events, but they occur within the context of the ordinary, everyday stuff of life. You have to be paying attention to notice.

The Gospels offer a variety of Easter stories which illustrate this pattern quite well. Early in the morning on the first day of the week, some of the women who had been followers of Jesus went out to the tomb where Jesus had been buried. There they encountered an empty tomb and an angel who told them that Jesus had been raised. But still they were surprised when they met him on the road back to town. It was an ordinary meeting – just Jesus greeting his friends. Later that same day, his disciples are surprised when they encounter Jesus behind the closed doors where they had gathered. And again, once you get beyond the fact that it is the resurrected Jesus who was greeting them, it was a rather ordinary meeting.

Then there is the story which we read this morning. Two men walking along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. As they are talking between themselves about all which had occurred in the past several days, they are joined by another man, whom they do not recognize. He joins in the conversation and helps them to see the events surrounding Jesus’ death in a new light. It is only when he joins them for dinner and breaks the bread that they realize it is Jesus who has been with them all day. 

As I said, it is remarkable how ordinary our faith is. It touches us in all of the common places where we live our everyday, ordinary lives. And it is, I believe, in this ordinariness that we find the true power and attraction of the Christian faith. It meets us where we are. It is about what our lives are about. It is not necessary to pretend that we are something other than who we are. At its heart, that is the message which is proclaimed in the whole of Jesus’ life – God seeks to be with us in the midst of life, whatever, whenever, wherever that might be.

Unfortunately, we very often forget that great truth. And thus we fail to be on the lookout for God. The women returning from the tomb were surprised when they were greeted by Jesus because they hadn’t really expected to meet him. The disciples meeting behind closed doors were startled by Jesus’ presence because they weren’t really looking for him. The men on the road to Emmaus spent most of the day with Jesus before they recognized him because he was literally the last person they thought would be with them on the road. And if we had been in any of those situations, we likely would have reacted in very similar ways. We say we believe that God is present everywhere, that Christ is always with us, that the Holy Spirit is in all of life, but most of the time we only believe that in the abstract rather than in the particular.

In Jesus’ parable which we often call “the Sheep and the Goats,” the point is made that Jesus is fully present in the lives of anyone who is in need – whether that be from hunger, or illness, or poverty, or whatever. When we encounter such people we are encountering Christ among us. And in the parable, both those who responded with compassion and those who failed to respond with compassion had one thing in common – they were surprised to learn that Christ could be found in those situations. That is not where they expected to look for God. And neither do we.

The reality is that God is all around us all of the time. There is evidence everywhere we look. Whenever I manage to remember that remarkable truth it is confirmed – when the eyes of my heart are open to the possibility I am moved beyond words at the profoundly intimate and amazing presence of God I experience. And that is an important lesson for all of us to learn. No matter where we find ourselves in this life, no matter what has befallen us, no matter how painful the past or hopeless the future appears to be, we are not alone and we have not been abandoned. If we remember to keep our eyes open, if we remember to expect the unexpected, then we will discover God greeting us in the garden of our grief, meeting us behind the doors of our fear, walking with us down the roads of our living, and breaking bread with us at all the tables around which we gather. In the good times and the bad, the occasions of great celebration and deep pain, the moments when we are certain where we are going and those when we are sure we are lost, we will find God in the common, ordinary, everyday places of our lives. What an amazing gift to have a faith which is so ordinary!

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Letting Our Faith Become Personal


John 20: 19-31
Roger Lynn
April 11, 2021
(No audio this week)


It had been a tumultuous week for the disciples of Jesus. They had arrived in Jerusalem amidst the fan-fare and excitement of a parade. They had shared a Passover meal with Jesus. Then it had all gone wrong. Jesus was arrested, tried under very questionable circumstances, and executed as a common criminal. Life had seemed so full of hope and promise. But before they even knew what was happening it had all shattered down around them. And what made it even more difficult to live with was the fact that all of them had responded in such disgraceful ways – denying their association with Jesus and running away when things got tough. And then, as if they weren’t confused enough already, some of the women among them had come to them with a wild story about earthquakes and angels and an empty tomb. If their story was to be believed, and there was considerable debate among the disciples around that very question, then Jesus was not dead after all.

Such were the circumstances that found them meeting behind closed doors to discuss what was happening and what they should do about it. But even that did not go as planned. They were just settling in for a long night of arguing among themselves when their world was turned upside down yet again. There stood Jesus, very much alive and very much among them. At first they didn’t know what to think or how to respond. Jesus offered a blessing of peace, but he had to offer it a second time before they really began to calm down enough to hear him. Jesus was not dead! He was alive! He was still with them. And he still had the power to calm and center their lives. “Peace be with you!” was all he said, but it was so much more than words which he offered. It was the wholeness of a life which made sense again, through the power of the God who had not abandoned them after all.

Then Jesus did a most remarkable thing. He breathed on them. And just as his words of peace were more than merely words, so this was more than merely breathing. It was the bestowing of a gift – the gift of new life through the empowerment of God’s Holy Spirit. In one of the creation stories in Genesis, God breathes into the newly formed but lifeless humans and they become living beings. That is, in essence, what Jesus was doing here. The gift of the Holy Spirit represents nothing less than a new creation. God was reaching directly into the lives of these disciples and touching them with God’s very self. It is relationship at its most personal and intimate. And precisely because it is so personal, it is life-changing. Not only do they find the faith to accept and believe what seems so unbelievable, they also discover the power to carry on with Jesus’ mission and ministry of forgiveness. Jesus literally commissions them to take over where he left off – proclaiming and sharing in word and deed the good news of God’s grace which is at work in the world. And all of this became possible when they allowed their faith to get personal. It was more than an intellectual exercise. It was more than an abstract set of principles and beliefs. It was being embraced and transformed and empowered by the God of all creation.

But at least one of the disciples missed this first encounter. And his reaction tells us much about what is required for vital faith to be experienced. For some reason Thomas was not there that night, so of course the other disciples were excited to share with him the news that Jesus was alive. But such news cannot simply be told. It must also be experienced. So, Thomas was not prepared to be convinced merely on the basis of someone else’s story. He instinctively knew that he needed more. He just didn’t yet understand what would be required. So he declares that he is not going to be convinced until he can see and touch and feel for himself. Under the circumstances he responded quite well. “I’m going to have to experience it personally before it will change my life,” is what he was saying. And for someone who was used to thinking and living in concrete terms, experiencing it personally meant being able to see it and touch it with his senses. As it turned out, he was right and he was wrong. He did need to personally experience the risen Christ, but it was an experience which touched his soul rather than just his senses. When invited to do exactly what he said he would need to do – touch the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side – Thomas instead chose to respond in faith. Once the experience became personal, the proof he thought would be required became unnecessary.

2,000 years later we are in much the same position as were those first disciples. If this last year has taught us anything it is that life can become very painful and confusing at times, and things do not always go according to our plans. It is easy to feel lost and overwhelmed, and faith is put to the test. If our faith is based solely on intellectually abstract ideas and concepts, or old, hand-me-down beliefs, then we are likely to find it rather hollow and largely empty of power to sustain us in the midst of a crisis. But if, on the other hand, we have managed to allow ourselves to be touched by the living presence of God in our lives, then we will discover a faith which is capable of both sustaining us in the present and empowering us for the future. As it was with Thomas, it is not something about which others can convince us. It is not even something about which we can convince ourselves. Vital, life-giving faith requires that we enter into an active, personal, and intimate relationship with Sacred Presence. And as with any relationship, it can’t be forced. It takes being open to the opportunities when they present themselves. And because God is always present, such opportunities are all around us all of the time. Like the disciples meeting behind closed doors on that first Easter evening, when we least expect it we will discover God’s presence in the midst of us. The only question is, will we allow our faith to get personal?

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Believing Is Seeing (Easter)


John 20: 1-18
Roger Lynn
April 4, 2021
Easter
(CLICK HERE for the audio for this sermon)

“While it was still dark.” That’s the way John’s Gospel begins the story of Easter morning. And the darkness which John references was about more than simply the fact that the sun had not yet risen. Darkness had filled their lives for three days. All meaning and purpose had been stripped from their existence. The most important person in their lives had been taken from them, and all their hopes and dreams for the future had been shattered. Jesus was dead, and for all intents and purposes they might as well have been dead too.

But then something extraordinary happened. The God of Light and Life found them and brought them out of their darkness and death. It didn’t happen all at once. Faith is often an emerging process. But light was dawning in their darkness. It was not seeing that helped them believe, but rather believing that helped them to truly see. And even their believing was not their own doing, but was itself a gift from God.

After running to tell the other disciples about the empty tomb, Mary returns, but waits outside, crying. Even her brief encounter with a pair of angels does not help her to recognize the light that is shining into her world. She is seeing, but not believing. Not even when she finds herself face to face with Jesus does she recognize the truth. She thinks him to be the gardener. But then (and this is one of my very favorite moments in all of scripture) he calls her by name. He calls her back to her true self – the self that God created her to be – the self that is capable of seeing a world beyond the darkness – a world which is filled with the light of new life.

2,000 years later our lives continue to be described by phrases such as “while it was still dark.” Over the past year, in many and various ways from the pandemic to racial tensions to political turmoil, our lives and our world have been filled with darkness. We still have need for the light of God to drive back the shadows. We do not have the opportunity to run to the empty tomb, at least not literally. But that doesn’t really matter. Those first witnesses to the resurrection had no real advantage over us. For them, as for us, it is faith which is required to truly encounter the risen Christ and experience the power of God’s new life in our lives. And it is important to remember that even faith comes to us as a gift. We need not (indeed cannot) conjure it into being by sheer force of will. All that is necessary is to be willing to receive the gift. God’s light is shining in our lives even now, and we are being called by name. We are being called back to our true selves. May our hearts be opened and our lives be filled as we allow ourselves to receive God’s gift of faith. May we discover God’s presence which has been here the whole time, just waiting for us to notice.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Hallelujah!

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Triumph or Tragedy? (Palm/Passion Sunday)


Mark 11: 1-11
Roger Lynn
March 28, 2021
Palm/Passion Sunday
(CLICK HERE for the audio for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for the whole service)

It’s funny how you can learn so much in one day, and not even realize what it is you’ve learned until years later. I was there that day – the day he came riding through the gates. I was in the crowd, shouting and waving branches, acting as if I knew what I was doing. But, it would not be until much later before I began to have even a glimmer of understanding about what I learned that day – about myself, about the world, about God, about how all those things fit together.

It’s difficult to describe what happened. Everyone was so caught up in the euphoria. The mood swept through the city like a flood, carrying along everyone in its path. It was amazing. I never really thought of myself as the fanatical type, but I certainly got carried away that day.

It has always confused me when I try to tell this story. I want to tell the whole thing at once, because to tell any one part of it is to tell it wrong. Starting at the beginning has always seemed so inadequate to the task, but I’ve never come up with a better way, so at the beginning is where we will begin.

Rumors had been filtering in to Jerusalem for months about a young itinerant rabbi named Jesus. He was wandering about the countryside with a small band of followers, preaching and teaching and, some said, even healing. The reactions to these rumors were mixed. Some said he was the long awaited messiah, come to save us all. Some said he was Satan, come to damn us all. There were a variety of opinions, but very few people seemed to be without some feelings on the matter.

Then one day the rumors began to change, or maybe I should say they began to grow. They sounded more first hand. They sounded closer. Jesus was coming to Jerusalem and he would be here very soon. The excitement built. The tension built. Street corner discussions became public debates. If I had been Jesus, Jerusalem is not where I would be coming right then. But still the rumors persisted.

Then came the morning of that day. People were running through the streets, shouting and screaming and waving branches. Jesus was right outside the city. He would be riding through the gates at any moment. God’s Messiah was coming to God’s holy city! Whatever dissension had been present in the days before seemed to fade into the shadows in the face of the excitement which was surging through the city. If there were folks who weren’t excited, I guess they just stayed off the streets that day. I soon found myself being carried along with the crowd and caught up with their enthusiasm.

I have heard others tell this story, both those who were there and those who have only heard it third and fourth hand. Often when it’s told, Jesus’ entry into the city is referred to as the triumphal entry. Over the years I have had very mixed feelings about that title. At the time, and for a few days following, it certainly seemed to be a triumph. Jesus had come through the gates and was welcomed by the accolades of the crowd. Shouts of “hosanna” were on everyone’s lips. It was a victory celebration! Even the skeptical were beginning to believe that this might really be the messiah, and the fact that Jesus was riding on a donkey instead of a war horse didn’t seem to cut into anyone’s sense of exhilaration.

Well, as I said, that sense of triumph lasted for a couple of days, but the mood of the crowd changed all too quickly. After they arrested him on the evening of Passover, people reacted very badly. I’m ashamed to admit that I was one of the many who were caught up in the “anti-Jesus” sentiment which was being encouraged by some of the Pharisees and other teachers of the law. After all, they were our spiritual leaders – the ones we looked to for guidance and leadership. It was amazingly easy to fall right in with this latest mood of the crowd. As we gathered in front of Pilate’s palace that night, shouting for Jesus to be crucified, I remember looking around and seeing many of the same faces who had been present the Sunday before when he came riding through the gates. The same voices were shouting again – only this time they were shouting in angry, hateful tones. And mine was one of the them. The sense of triumph was gone. Tragedy hung in the air like a fog, clinging to us so closely that we didn’t even realize it was there.

For a very long time after that I couldn’t understand how everything could have gone so wrong. How could someone who claimed to teach about God’s love come to such an end? How could such triumph end in such tragedy? How could we have misunderstood so badly?

And then one day, years later, something happened which brought all my questions and confusions into a sharper focus. I encountered Jesus as someone more than a wandering rabbi. I became more than merely one of the crowd. I met the Christ – and in that meeting many things became clear. As I said in the beginning, “It’s funny how you can learn so much in one day, and not even realize what it is you’ve learned until years later.” That day when he came riding through the gates really had been a triumphal entry. It really was God’s messiah entering God’s holy city. We had not been wrong – but we had not been right either. We missed it because we were looking for a different sort of messiah. We wanted a savior who fit our expectations, rather than one who fit God’s generous and grace-filled intentions. I learned that things are not always what they seem and yet, sometimes, they are exactly what they seem, for all the reasons we could never guess. I began to learn to let God be God, because only then will we begin to find triumph in the most unexpected of places.

I was there that day – the day he came riding through the gates. I was in the crowd, shouting and waving branches, acting as if I knew what I was doing.