Sunday, March 25, 2018

After the Parade

After the Parade
Mark 11:1-11
            Today is Palm Sunday.  Churches celebrate today in many different ways.  Some hold an outdoor procession, complete with palm branches.  Some processions include a donkey, either led by someone or with a Jesus figure on its back—or both.  Other churches celebrate by bringing palm branches down the aisle during the opening hymn.  For some reason these processionals often feature children, though how children got to be the center of attention on Palm Sunday I do not know.  Perhaps it’s because many of our Palm Sunday hymns talk about children.
It’s interesting that only one gospel writer mentions palm branches.  Matthew and Mark say the disciples (and onlookers) cut branches from trees.  Luke doesn’t mention tree branches at all.  Only John specifically identifies them as coming from palm trees.
The type of tree is interesting for both geographical and theological reasons.  Geographical first.  We know Jesus entered Jerusalem by the eastern road, coming down from the Mount of Olives.  The trees would have been (no surprise here) olive trees.  It would have been difficult to find a palm tree along that road.
Theologically, both palm trees and olive trees make sense.  Olive branches have long been a sign of peace.  Jesus rode on a donkey, another sign of peace.  Cutting olive branches and placing them on the road reinforces the idea that Jesus is coming in peace.  He is not a conqueror—at least not the military kind.  He has no intention of starting a coup—at least not the military kind. 
Contrast his entrance with the one Pilate would have made into Jerusalem with his troops. They came to ensure no trouble would occur during Passover.  He would have appeared astride a white horse—a symbol of military power.  He (or someone in his entourage) would have carried a palm branch—another symbol of imperial power.  Nothing would have been spared to impress the people with Rome’s dominance.  He was there to keep the peace—by force if necessary—not to bring peace.
I believe John had a theological reason for identifying the branches as those from palm trees.  For the Jews the date palm branch was a symbol of resurrection.  John wanted to impress on his followers that Jesus came to bring life—eternal life—both for him and for all those who follow him
Holy Week has begun.  Jesus’ life on earth is in its final days.  This time next week we’ll be celebrating the resurrection.  But what happens between these two Sundays?  The gospels make it clear.  Jesus is there to complete his earthly mission.  The fact that it will cost him his life means less than nothing.  He has a task, one that he must complete in four days.
Mark tells us Jesus goes to the temple, looks around, then returns to Bethany for the night.  The next day, Monday, he returns to the temple and drives out the moneychangers and those who sell animals for sacrifice.  Remember, these persons were not there to provide a service to out-of-town pilgrims.   They were making an illicit profit.  Jesus makes it clear that God’s house is a house of prayer, not a place to gouge people who have nowhere else to turn for sacrificial animals and Jewish coinage.
The rest of the gospel account is not separated into days, so we don’t know what happened each day.  What we do know is that Jesus spent the remaining time until his arrest making the case for his version of the kingdom of God.  That meant confronting the religious leaders and their incorrect version of the future. 
Jesus didn’t shy away from conflict; in fact, he seems to have sought it out, spending his days in the temple speaking the words God had given him regardless of the consequences.  In so doing, he established the pattern by which we must live our lives.

Sunday, March 18, 2018


Ephesians 4:1-3
            “Lord, give me patience, and I want it now!”
            I don’t know about you, but that has been my thought—if not my prayer—far too often over the years.  I am not by nature a patient person.  I want what I want when I want it.  I’m not good at waiting.
            As I’ve gotten older I’ve begun to realize the need for more patience when I drive.  I know my reflexes aren’t as sharp as they once were, and even though I drive a pickup truck with a large eight-cylinder engine, I can’t always make it through those openings in traffic as I used to—and shouldn’t have tried even when my reflexes were better.
            So I pray.  Every morning during my devotions I visualize the general route I’ll be taking that day and ask God for patience.  I think it’s working.  At least that knot in my stomach isn’t as big when I get behind a driver whose concept of proper speed is slower than mine.
            But I know this is only the beginning.  There are many other areas of my life where I need to increase my patience quotient.  Conversations is one of the big ones.  I become disturbed when I realize the person I’m talking to isn’t really listening.  Instead he’s already framing his response to what I’m saying.  While this most often happens in a heated discussion (argument?) it can also occur in one of those exchanges of stories where people are trying to get to know each other better. 
You know how it works.  I tell you a story, then you tell me one, then it’s my turn again, and so on.  You can tell by the look in the other person’s eyes if she’s listening to your story or trying to come up with one that will match or top yours.  I become very unhappy when I sense this happening—until I realize that I’m doing the same thing back.  Oh, the horror of seeing our sins in others!
John Dewey said, “The most useful virtue is patience.”  Good salespersons know this.  They’ll let you take infinite time to make up your mind.  They try to get you to sell yourself rather than talk you into making a decision.  When I find myself working with someone like this I’m inclined to buy more, because I feel I’m being listened to and not rushed.  We once bought two cars from such a salesman, when we only intended to buy one.
I suspect our natural inclination is toward impatience.  Whatever we’re doing, we want to get it done so we can move on to our next task, our next project—even our next pleasure.  The alternative, the truly patient person must be trained—or train himself.  I remember watching a man change a watch battery for me.  He moved so slowly and carefully I knew he was taking the same infinite care with that simple task as he would have repairing the most expensive watch.  The fact that his patience drove me crazy was my problem, not his. 
Paul does not appear to have been a patient person.  He seems to have been much more a man of action than of repose.  But now he finds himself imprisoned.  He was under house arrest; he couldn’t go out.  He had to wait for people to come to him.  He had to learn to be content in quarters far more cramped than the vast expanse of the Gentile world he was used to roaming during his missionary journeys.  Yet here he is encouraging his friends in Ephesus to walk, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love…”  That must have been learned behavior for him.  But it is sound advice.
Someone once said, “God gave everyone patience.  Wise people use it.”  Wise counsel indeed.

Sunday, March 11, 2018


Mark 10:17-34
            The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are journey stories.  Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, travels around the area preaching, teaching, healing and casting out demons.  At a crucial point, Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem.  Knowing his time has come, Jesus journeys to the place where everything will come to a head.  He may not know every detail of what the next few weeks will hold, but he knows what the end will be.
            And so he tries to prepare his disciples for his torture, execution, and resurrection.  Three times he tells them what lies ahead.  The first happens (Mark 8:27-39) after Peter confesses him as the Christ.  Peter gives a bold answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”  Jesus counters with the announcement that he will suffer, be rejected by the religious leaders, and die.  Peter hears this, but not that Jesus says he will be raised in three days.  He rebukes Jesus, who rebukes him in return.
            The second time comes after Jesus heals a boy with epilepsy (Mark 9:14-32).  Peter, James and John have just witnessed the transfiguration—Jesus glorification and conversation with Moses and Elijah.  As they return to the foot of the mountain, a crowd surges toward them.  The disciples who remained behind have tried to cast a demon out of the boy and failed.  They can’t understand how this could happen, since Jesus had given them the power.
            Jesus heals the boy, then tells the disciples that this type of demon requires more prayer and faith than they are capable of at that moment.  Shortly after, he tells them a second time that he will be killed, and after three days will rise from the dead.  They still don’t understand.
            Farther along the road to Jerusalem Jesus encounters a man who wishes to assure his place in the age to come.  Jesus tells him he must divest himself of his considerable wealth and join him on the road to Jerusalem.  The man cannot bring himself to meet Jesus’ conditions, and sorrowfully turns away.
Jesus tells his followers once more what will happen when they reach Jerusalem.  It is clear from the following passage (Mark 10:35-45) they still don’t understand what Jesus means. 
We wonder, from our lofty vantage point 2,000 years on, how they could have been so blind.  Before we condemn them we must first recognize our own short-sightedness in following Jesus, and admit we wouldn’t have behaved any better.
            In each case Jesus ties the prediction of his death and resurrection to an event which, had the disciples been paying attention, would have served as an illustration. 
Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah.  Jesus connects that confession to Isaiah’s description of the anointed one as suffering servant.
Jesus casts out a demon, figuratively (at least) bringing the boy back to life.  Jesus connects his raising of the boy to his own resurrection.
A rich man will not give up his possessions to attain a higher reward.  Jesus tells his disciples he will follow his path to the end even though it means his death, because the final reward is worth it.
This is great storytelling.  Mark tells a tale illustrating Jesus’ power, then Jesus uses it as an object lesson to create a teachable moment for his followers.  It is less important that the disciples understand than that the lesson is presented, because we know, in the end, they will understand. 
And so will we.

Sunday, March 4, 2018


Matthew 25:14-30
            The parable of the talents.  How often this story has been used incorrectly, defining the word talent as an ability, with the speaker urging his audience not to bury their talents but to develop them.  It’s not a bad way to use the story, but it’s not what Jesus had in mind.
            A talent was a sum of money worth about twenty years’ wages to a common laborer.  This would be more money than a servant would earn in his lifetime.  Five talents—even two would be a fortune beyond his comprehension.
            Yet here is the master, giving large sums of money to three of his servants—we assume the most trusted ones—to care for while he is away.  What will they do with it?  How can they repay their master for his trust in them?
            We know the story.  The one who had received five talents used them to double his master’s money.  Now there were ten talents where there had been five.  The man who had received two talents did likewise, turning his two into four.  The master was pleased with their industry, their business acumen, and, of course, the results.  Because they had been so productive they were given increased responsibilities in their master’s kingdom.
            It should be noted here that Matthew tells us early in the parable that Jesus said the money had been distributed to each of the servants “according to his ability.”  We can assume that the servant who received one talent, while trusted by his master, had less ability than the other two.  Nevertheless, the master clearly valued this man, and assumed he would succeed as well as did his more able colleagues.
            But he didn’t.  He was a cautious fellow, and, not wanting to incur his master’s wrath if he lost the talent, he buried it.  (This is the place in the sermon where the preacher warns about burying your talent.)
            When he told his master what he had done the lord was furious at his lack of ingenuity and effort.  He had been given a great opportunity and he had wasted it.  Harry S. Truman once said, “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of opportunities, and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.”  The third servant definitely fits the pessimist category. 
            How often do we miss an opportunity for service because we’re afraid to take a chance?  Jesus set the standard for risk taking.  He knew what his ministry would cost him, but he also knew he had been given a great opportunity, and he didn’t waste it.
            We also miss opportunities because we’re looking in the wrong direction.  Alexander Graham Bell, himself a risk taker, said, “When one door closes another door opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”
            Every day God gives us is an opportunity for service.  Every morning begins another day when, if we’ll look in the right direction, and be prepared to take risks, opportunity will be waiting for us, holding open a door that God is calling us to go through.
            And that brings us to a third reason we miss opportunity.  This appeared in the National Safety News, January, 2006.  “Opportunity is often missed because we are broadcasting when we should be tuning in.”
            God is always broadcasting.  Are we tuned in enough to hear?