Sunday, April 17, 2011

Seismic Activity

Matthew 21:1-11, 27:50-51, 28:1-2
Palm / Passion Sunday
April 17, 2011
William Carter

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” (21:10)
Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. (27:50-51)
And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. (28:2)

My friend Harry grew up at Disston Memorial Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Every year, he said, Palm Sunday "reeked of sameness."

Two Palm Sundays were all you needed to figure out the pattern. The first year you experienced it. The second year you lived it all over again. Every year, on schedule, the local florist delivered the same standing order: two large leafy plants in gold foil pots, one on each side of the pulpit. Lang's Floral Shop annually called them "the Presbyterian Palms."

Every year, the minister began the service the same way. He said two ancient lines from scripture. "Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord." The congregation mumbled back, "Hosanna in the highest," just like last year.

There were three Palm Sunday hymns in the green hymnal. At Disston Memorial Church, they were always sung in the same order. To hear my friend Harry tell the story, that's just what the people wanted, because it was just what the people expected, because that's just what the people experienced each Palm Sunday.

Of course, what the people really wanted and expected was for Ethel Willard to sing a solo. She was a soprano, the closest thing Disston Memorial Church had to a soloist. And for 28 years in a row, she stood to sing Faure's "The Palms." Nobody ever came to church on Palm Sunday to listen to the preacher. No, they came to hear Ethel Willard.

One year, a new organist tried to play the solo a little faster, but Ethel didn't budge. She was the seasoned expert, after all. She knew how slowly it was supposed to go. After worship, the throngs dashed forward to greet her. With one voice, they declared, "Ethel, it wouldn't be Palm Sunday without you singing "The Palms.""

In the memory of my friend Harry, that's how it was. Year after year, the same.

I can tell a story like that. Maybe you can, too. In the church where I grew up, I don’t remember anybody sang "The Palms." I had to wait until I was a pastor in my first church before the tune arrested me. But we always did the same old thing. We sang the same three Palm Sunday hymns in the same order out of the same old green hymnal every year.

Every year, there's something the same about Palm Sunday. It's the only worship service when Protestants feel comfortable handing out props. We don't normally do that. But year after year, this day is special. In some churches, they are developing the custom for everybody to gather outside the building. At the appointed hour, people parade into the sanctuary. We tried that here one time, but nobody joined in. They wanted to sit in the same old pews.

That seems so comforting. Whether or not there's an annual parade, annual props, or annual solo, Palm Sunday is the same exciting day, year after year after year.

All the Palm Sunday stories in the Bible sound much the same. Jesus climbs on the back of a humble donkey. The disciples lead the way. Since it's Passover time, they are surrounded by a large crowd. To hear Matthew's account, we don’t know if the crowd is there because Jesus is present or because the Passover holiday is at hand. It is not clear.

What we do know is what they sang as they traveled. As Father Joseph Fitzmyer says in his commentary, they sang the same, old Passover song every year: three lines from Psalm 118.

The first line went, "Save us, O Lord!" To put that in Hebrew, the word for "save us" is "Hosanna!" That word Hosanna is a prayer that stretches back to when Israel was in Egypt, and God turned them loose. Now, after hundreds of years of living under the thumbs of Syrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and now Romans, they sang hosanna in weary hope.

The next line they sang was, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord." That’s the blessing of a Savior. After praying to be saved, now they prayed for a Savior. They never saw actually one, year after year, but they kept praying.

And then, in case people didn't remember how to do a Passover parade, the third line of the old song said, "Bind the festal procession with branches." (Psalm 118:25-27)

As far as the song was concerned, Father Fitzmyer says, they sang it every year. It might as well have been "The Palms," sung for the 28th year in a row.

But then, in one particular year, in the year Jesus rode his donkey into town, the people sang that song and the whole city shook.

Matthew says it was a seismic event. The verb “shook” is the verb “seismos.” He uses earthquake language to describe it. It's curious, since Matthew is normally a straight-shooter who doesn't talk in metaphors. Yet when he says Jerusalem was "shaking," he means to say that Jesus came to town and suddenly it was 9.7 on the Richter scale! The whole city shook. And that's not what we've come to expect on Palm Sunday.

My friend Harry remembers Disston Memorial Church; nothing ever shook on Palm Sunday. Not even the rafters. Well, maybe when Ethel sang "The Palms," she shook a little bit. It was often noted that, as Ethel advanced in years, the depth of her vibrato grew deeper. Sometimes it sounded like she was singing in two different keys simultaneously. But everybody loved the song, and she had sung it so many times that no one seemed to care.

What if Palm Sunday promises more than the same, old songs and the same, old prayers? If today is Palm Sunday, the whole city should be shaking, for Jesus Christ is coming to town.

When I got started as a preacher, I thought my whole business was to shake people up. I thought my job was to start a series of earthquakes, to the glory of God. Give them some new idea. Upset some established custom. Shock the religious sensibilities. Sometimes I would look for a strange scripture passage they had never heard before and preach it. "How about the 3rd chapter of Leviticus?" As I looked out upon a sea of glazed eyes, I was right: they had never heard that before.

It slowly dawned on me that religious people are quite adept at handling such shake-ups. They anchor themselves to the same pews, cross their arms, and wait out the windstorms.

Then one fateful day, I remember waking up to discover I had become as institutionalized as the people I was trying to shake up. Even though I enjoyed everything fresh and new, I was boring. I drove the same routes and took the same shortcuts. I went through the same motions. Perhaps all of us have our customs, our manners, our ways of coping with chaos. We need routines to repeat, rituals to replay, and songs to sing over and over again.

Such things provide a firm foundation. They offer order. They give stability and coherence. Change for the sake of change can be a terrible, unsettling thing. The cruelest thing we can do is to turn out the lights in someone's favorite room, rearrange the furniture, and leave people to bump around in the dark. That's not cultivating faith; that's destroying it. Faith grows best when we know where the furniture is.

It's hard for whipper-snappers like me to admit it, but it's true. As we get older, our innovations become habits. Our new ideas become annual traditions. That's not all that bad. Sometimes it gives us great security.

Jesus told a parable about two different people who went into the construction business. One of them built a house on firm bedrock. The other built a house on shifting sand. The same rain fell on both houses. The wind blew on both houses. The storms beat upon both houses. One house stood firm, and the other house blew to bits. Guess which one kept standing.

We need some bedrock to build our houses on, some rote practices to get us through the day. Have you noticed how many people are brought closer to God by singing brand-new hymns? Not many. I hate to admit it. If a hymn is in the new hymnal, it's fair game. Let's sing it!

What do we really want to sing? What do we need to sing? The old favorites. The songs we've been singing for 28 years. We need Ethel Willard singing her song.

But we need Jesus, too. And Matthew says that when Jesus appeared on the scene, the whole city shook.

It's not the first time that happened, you know. Way back in chapter 2, some wise men from the East came knocking on King Herod's palace. "We've come to worship the king," they said. Herod said, "Well, here I am. I'm the king."

"No, not you," they said. "We're looking for a brand-new king, who rules over the world. Even the stars in the sky have begun to worship him." When King Herod heard about King Jesus, he and his whole city began to shake.

After Jesus rode into that city, he made a beeline to the Temple. He discovered an institution full of more commercialism than K-Mart at Christmas. So he tipped the tables and drove out the souvenir vendors. The only profit the moneychangers saw that day was the prophet Jesus. And they began to shake.

Then Jesus gave sight to the blind, and dancing lessons to those who couldn't walk, and he heard some children singing. The rule keepers and the holy rollers saw it and heard it. And they began to shake.

Then Jesus went out to the suburbs to spend the night. Traveling back to town, his stomach began to growl. He passed by a fig tree that looked as fruitless as the temple. It made him mad. And even that fig tree began to shake.

If we come every year to see Jesus ride into town, he looks like a gentle prophet on the back of a humble donkey, surrounded by a crowd of people who sing the same old songs. But let’s not be naive. When God sends Jesus into town, there is a whole lot of shaking going on.

He looks so gentle, riding on a farm animal, but he confronts the selfish.
He comes to cure the sightless, and makes the self-righteous to lose their sight.
He comes to make children to rejoice, and curses the fruit tree that refuses his doxology.

A shaken city asks the same questions that will always shake us: Who is this Jesus, and what does it mean to welcome him into our lives? It can be an unsettling place to stand. My very foundations may tremble at the power of God.

The truth of Palm Sunday is that we can never stand totally secure in our own strength. We can never declare ourselves free from God's interference and influence in our lives. It means that we are provoked by two continuing questions, namely: Who is this Jesus? And what right does he have to shake us up?

Those are the questions posed by Palm Sunday. They quickly heat up Holy Week. And they are the questions that ultimately put Jesus on a cross to die.

Please understand this: the people who put him on the cross chose stability over shaking. For them, there was only one real alternative: get rid of Jesus. What else could they do? It took about a week. Plans were made after dark. They had to find an insider to pay off, line up a goon squad to arrest him, trump up some charges, and convince the Romans.

By Friday, they were pretty sure that he wouldn't interfere with anybody ever again. It took a few hours to make sure he was really dead. And then – do you know what happened? At the very moment of his death, the earth shook and shuddered. The rocks split. The tombs opened. The temple tapestry ripped in two. Finally it was quiet. They took him down and sealed him in a tomb. Everybody thought, "Jesus will not ever bother anybody again."

It was a comforting thought. I know a lot of people who hope for that. More than anything else, they want their lives to be free from any act of God.

There's only one problem. After a day of rest, some women went to the tomb on early Sunday morning. And just as they got there, the ground began to shake.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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