Lent Six: In the Crowd

Reflection on Matthew 21.

This year as I hear the Palm Sunday texts, I find myself wondering about the people who were there welcoming Jesus. Who were they and what were they thinking? There were likely a variety of people there as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Many had gathered in Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover. The city was full.

As Jesus entered Jerusalem, as the people prepared for the major religious festival of the year, it has been said that something else was going on as well. The Roman Governor was entering the city from the other gate (Rev. Jerry Lawritson, New Testament Scholar/preacher). If this is so, it tells us a lot about the people who laid palms at Jesus’ feet and sang Hosannas.  The people who celebrated Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem were the people of little to no social standing, who would not be missed at an official welcome of the governor.

I wonder who the people who welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem with palm and song thought Jesus was. Did they think he was the Messiah come to meet the Roman occupier/governor? Did they think him a spiritual leader come to the temple for the holy days? It hardly matters for whichever of these the people believed,  the end result is that they recognized that a change had come, the world was about to shift. And they were brave enough to proclaim it.

The people who welcomed Jesus were a people who hoped. Who believed that occupation and oppression could not last forever and were brave enough to say so. They were people who believed that God would respond even to those whom the world did not respond to.

This holy week I think of the people who may not always be missed at the major social functions. I think of the people who live on hope. I think of the people who risk all they have to proclaim that another way is possible. I marvel at their faith.

 

 

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A Star and Dreams More Powerful

Today is Epiphany, my favorite day of the Christian calendar! It is the celebration of when the wise leaders, religious  leaders, scholarly leaders of the world acknowledge the humility of God-among-us-in-the-flesh. It is the great revelation of the world acknowledging God–even as a small helpless babe.

In the narrative of the wise men (Matthew 2) God is found because the learned, the insightful, the sought-out-for-advise-giving saw a star rising in the East. These leaders, the wise men, saw a new star and followed through foreign lands in the hope of seeing the greatest of a kings–a babe asleep in his mother’s arms. I wonder what the other wise men said as they packed their bags for the long  journey. Were they laughed at? And if not why did only three make the journey? What would they have told the border guards as they crossed from nation into nation? Surely, telling them you were going to see a new king would have raised suspicions. Is that why Herod called them to meet with him? Come to think of it, the wise men surely knew Herod was among the most ruthless of rulers in the ancient world, and THAT is saying something. And still the wise men had the courage not only to cross the desert on their journey, but to risk their lives in crossing Herod because they held onto the hope that the child beneath that star was more powerful than the most feared ruler of the world.

One of the things that always strikes me in the Christmas-Epiphany narratives cycle is the role of dreams. Joseph is encouraged in a dream to remain with Mary rather than dismiss her in her pregnancy. The wise men are warned in a dream after seeing Jesus the infant, not to return to Herod, and they go home by another way. And finally, the dream seldom heard as more that a footnote, is Joseph’s dream in which the angel again comes and warns him to take Mary and Jesus and flee into another nation. We live in a world where we seldom make decisions based on dreams, at least the ones that come in sleep. In the modern world we are more apt to follow the big dreams that come to us by way of national pride or Hollywood. These are not the dreams of the biblical narrative. The dreams of the wise men and the dreams of Joseph are, rather, those dreams that come to us seemingly out of nowhere when we have gone inward enough to still ourselves and discern the will of God.  It is often God’s dream for our lives that leads us on journeys more powerful than we could have imagined, even if it is not a journey that follows the screenplay we ourselves had envisioned.

What dream has God put into your heart, that frees you from the tyranny of oppressive forces, and calls you onward to great journeys in search of the promised hope of justice and the personal opportunity to behold God and know, beyond all doubt that no matter the cruelty of the world, that God is with you, and indeed all of us?

God Bless the Child

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God.
Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven.
For God will give you evermore the name, ‘Righteous Peace, Godly Glory’.
Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look towards the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them.
For they went out from you on foot, led away by their enemies; but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne.
For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.
The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God’s command.
For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.

—Baruch 5:1-9

The Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Eastern churches include Baruch in their Bibles but it’s a Deuterocanonical book; not really part of the Hebrew canon and not quite Christian. As a Protestant Christian I have only occasionally skimmed its text. Still, these verses were familiar to me because the writer saw himself in the tradition of Hebrew prophets – Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah – who also wrote of returning exiles, and Isaiah, who wrote, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

Maybe Baruch’s message this Advent season is for those who have lost their young people to drugs or depression or mental illness, to prisons or cemetery plots, or even just to family dysfunction or the pursuit of instant gratification and material wealth. No matter how much we love our children, no matter how hard we try to protect them and teach them right from wrong, we really have no control. Ultimately, they are responsible for themselves. It reminds me of the song made popular by blues singer Billie Holiday:

Them that’s got shall have
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have
Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

God knows such families need peace of mind. They need the assurance that “the valley of the shadow of death” that has become all too familiar will be filled, lifting them into the light of God’s love. They need the assurance that the mountains they’ve had to climb, gaining a little ground only to continually slide back, can be conquered.

Like those earlier prophets, the message of Baruch is for the nation or the community, not for an individual. Every hurting parent and grandparent wants to believe that her or his child will be restored from whatever exile has claimed it, but the story may not play out for every lost child exactly the way we want it to. Still, there is something to hold onto: See your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them. The good news is that regardless of how far our children may stray from us and from the ways of righteousness, the Holy One is still watching out for them and loving them with an everlasting love. In that assurance may we find peace.

God’s People Are Comforted

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

—Isaiah 40:1-11

In this scripture I hear a conversation between characters from Winnie the Pooh. Owl, the wise one starts: “Comfort is coming, Israel has served her term and now, she will be redeemed. The loving Lord has given her new life. It has been long, and hard, but we have persevered and stayed faithful (even though we grumbled!) and now we will rejoice in God’s favor.”

Then the sweet, open, innocent voice of Winnie the Pooh: “Make way! Clear the brambles from the road, smooth the mountain passes, the Lord has shown God’s glory and soon we will all be able to see and feel it. God has spoken to us!”

And yet, in spite of the good news Eeyore complains: “Who cares? Everything is ruined anyway. The grass has withered, the flower has faded. We are like the flowers, withered, tired; God has come too late for us. Woe, woe, woe.”

Winnie answers him: “No, my friend, the grass may be withered and the flowers may have faded, but…can’t you see?  God’s word is forever! Come up here, on the mountain with us, and see. Sing praise to God with us. Proclaim with us, “Here is our God!”

And Owl sums it up, “Rejoice, indeed. Our Lord comes in might, with strength and protection and reconciliation. God will gather us as a shepherd gathers his sheep, and God will carry us, lead us, gently, into life.

Our world right now seems dusty, barren and barely livable. Many in the United States and more around the world live without enough food. People are still warring against one another; women and the poor are oppressed, still. It does seem as if life is withered and faded. We hear very few hopeful stories in mainline media. We receive so little nourishment; our souls may feel withered and faded.

The media get a lot of footage and pictures out of the barrenness of the world. That withered grass is good press; the soulnessness of humans is good press. Those are the news reports that lead the evening news; those are the front page articles in the newspaper and in magazines. We often get a lot of mileage out of pouting and proclaiming gloom and doom. It is so much easier to complain about the hurt we have received, to moan about how much we have suffered and how much we don’t have. But does that really feel better than joy? Does it nourish our soul as much as recognizing God’s gifts?

The story of Advent is this: Jesus is coming! Jesus IS coming! The One who encourages, reminds, prods, enlightens us is coming! Our God is coming to breathe air into us, to water our parched souls, to show us how to create with God a world of potential, a world where God will gather us, and feed us, and lead us gently into life. Our God is full of love for us, God weeps with us at the sorrow in the world, God yearns to share our lives, to fill us with love and teach us how to share that love.

How many times do we hold on to the memories of the bitterness and the times of hardship, keep our eyes and hearts closed to the potential of forgiveness and reconciliation, keep ourselves from reveling in the love of God, who, after all, is all.

My prayer is that this advent we remember the voice of the herald, O come, O come Emmanuel.  God with us (forever), God within us (always and forever).  Alleluia, Amen.

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Terri Gibbons is a member in discernment in the United Church of Christ. She is a graduate of the Claremont School of Theology and plans to serve her ministry as a Chaplain for end-of-life care.