A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sermon (March 20/Palm Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "For Real!"

     As I was driving down the road one day, I noticed a new church that had been built.  They had an attractive church sign that had four words describing their church. Each of these four words began with the letter, “R.”
     Relevant.  Relaxed.  Relational.  Real.
     It was that last “R” word which really got my attention.  “Real.”  It’s what people are looking for these days.  We want a heavy does of reality.  We see it in TV shows in which we get to peer into the lives of real people.  We have U Tube on the internet and we get to see the crazy things that real people do.
     One of the criticisms that people have of the church is that it’s irrelevant and out of touch with the real world.  Too much “pie in the sky” kind of thinking, I guess you could say.  A lot of people see the church as so heavenly focused that they aren’t any earthly good.
     Sunday after Sunday, we come to church and we hear bible stories that many of us have probably heard over a hundred times.  Sometimes, the more we hear these stories, the more we lose sight of just how real they are.
     This morning, we have just heard read for us the longest scripture reading of the year and it always occurs on this Sunday – Passion/Palm Sunday – the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as well as his suffering, and death on a cross.
     Of the four Gospels, Luke is best known for his historical detail.  He begins his Gospel by letting us know that he has undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events of Jesus.
     And here, in this long passage of scripture, we are given a close up view of the final days of Jesus’ life.  In his wonderful ability as a writer, Luke draws us into the events of Jesus’ passion, Jesus’ suffering.
     A colt carries a longed for Messiah into Jerusalem.  A final meal ending in a heated discussion.  A lonely prayer in a garden.  A sword is drawn and an arrest is made.  A man cries after denying his closest friend.  False accusations.  The release of a murderer.  A man forced to carry a cross.  Words of forgiveness spoken from the lips of a dying man.  Some women standing at a distance.  A body placed in a tomb.
     Welcome to Holy Week.  Welcome to Passion/Palm Sunday.
     Can it get any more real than this?
     Every Sunday morning when we gather for worship, I try to remind myself that I will be preaching to real people, who have real lives, who deal with real problems, and who celebrate real joys.  We come here to be reminded, even if it’s only in small doses, that God is real, and that God wants to speak a real word to us.
     In one of his books, the great preacher, Frederick Buechner, gives us a glimpse into what is going on behind the scenes on a typical Sunday morning at church.  Buechner writes:
     “So the sermon hymn comes to a close with a somewhat unsteady amen, and the organist gestures the choir to sit down. Fresh from breakfast with his wife and children and a quick run through of the Sunday papers, the preacher climbs the steps to the pulpit with his sermon in his hand. He hikes his black robe up at the knee so he will not trip over it on the way up. His mouth is a little dry. He has cut himself shaving. He feels as if he has swallowed an anchor. If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, he would just as soon be somewhere else.
     In the front pews the old ladies turn up their hearing aids, and a young lady slips her six year old a Lifesaver and a Magic Marker. A college sophomore home for vacation, who is there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with his chin in his hand. The vice-president of a bank who twice that week has seriously contemplated suicide places his hymnal in the rack. A pregnant girl feels the life stir inside her. A high-school math teacher, who for twenty years has managed to keep his homosexuality a secret for the most part even from himself, creases his order of service down the center with his thumbnail and tucks it under his knee . . .
     The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher.”
     Annie Dillard, in her book, “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” gives us this perspective on just how real our faith is when she writes,
     "Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions.  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does not one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake some day and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.”
     Annie Dillard is reminding us of the explosive reality of our faith.  If you were to pick a Sunday to forget to wear a crash helmet to church, you wouldn’t want to choose this Sunday or any other day in Holy Week. 
     The pace of the week is fast and furious.  Things unravel quickly after our palm branches are thrown down on the dusty road.  When it finally becomes obvious to us that Jesus is not a sword bearer but is instead a cross bearer, we become disappointed and even angry.  Our Messiah is supposed to overthrow the Romans, not be killed by them. 
     The real world is about strength, domination, competition, and power.  No wonder Peter denied Jesus three times and Judas betrayed him with a kiss. 
     Someone needs to take matters into their hands and make something happen.  But instead, we are left to watch Jesus take one punch after another.  We watch him as he is lifted on a wooden cross between two criminals.  We see him breathe his last.  We watch him die. 
     These are the events that we experience in Holy Week.  One disappointment after another. 
     Several years ago, I took my portable Holy Communion kit to one of the homebound members of the church I was serving at that time.  It was during the Season of Lent, and so I read a portion of this long scripture and half way through the reading, she interrupted me and she said, “I don’t want you to read that anymore.  I don’t like that part.”
     Truth be told.  I don’t like that part either.  When push comes to shove, there’s a part of me that wishes that Jesus would have lifted the sword at some point during that week. 
     “Jesus, you’re taking this whole thing too far.  It’s time to at least defend yourself for crying out loud.   Look, there are two swords propped up against that wall.  What if we just go ahead and…”  “That’s enough!” he says.  And with those words, we find ourselves following him to a garden where he prays.
     It’s pretty clear that Jesus’ ways run counter to the world as we know it.  It makes sense to defend yourself.  Jesus offers his life.  He could have had it all.  Instead, he gave his all for others.
     But not all is lost.  Luke gives us a glimmer of hope toward the end of our long Gospel reading.  Immediately after Jesus dies, of all people, a Roman centurion, takes one last look up at Jesus hanging from the cross, and offers a prayer to the God of Israel.  And then he says, “Certainly, this man was innocent.” 
     From the most unlikely person, the Gospel writer, Luke points us to the reality of our faith.  Jesus is who he claims to be, the long awaited Messiah who offers his life for the salvation of the world.
     An Anglican Priest in England took a group of people from his church on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. One of the people in his group wasn’t a member of his parish and wasn’t even a Christian, but he had always wanted to visit the Holy Land, so he went with them.
     They visited the various sights like the place where Jesus most likely delivered the Sermon on the Mount, the place where Jesus turned water into wine, and where Jesus would have met the disciples for the Last Supper.
     After they visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which is located on the sight where it is believed that Jesus had been crucified and placed in a tomb, the person who was part of the pilgrimage but not a believer came up to this Anglican Priest and asked him,
     “Is it really true that Jesus was a real person who taught and healed people? And did the Romans really crucify him on a cross and place him in a tomb? Do you believe that God really raised him from the dead and that he is alive today? Did all of this really happen?
     And the Anglican Priest said, “Why, yes, I do believe all of these things really happened. Jesus was a real person who lived, and died and rose again.”
     And this man said, “Then, I want to become a Christian.” This man ended up being baptized and started to going to church.
     Palm Sunday and Holy Week remind us that our faith is for real.
     A pastor was celebrating the Sacrament of Holy Communion one Sunday at church.  He had probably served about 100 people by having people come forward, receive a piece of bread, and dip it into the chalice.   One by one, they came forward to be fed the Sacrament.
     When it was time to offer the benediction, the pastor raised his arm to bless the people when he felt a drop of grape juice running down from the palm of his hand and trickling down his arm. 
     Holy Communion was never more real for that pastor than the day that he felt Jesus’ blood roll down his skin, for he was reminded in that moment, that Jesus had died for him.
      So find a crash helmet and grab a life preserver. 
     Jesus might have you pray during a dark hour.  Or maybe someone will ask you if are one of his disciples.  And who knows, you might be the one to carry Jesus’ cross.

     Why?  Because you and I are real people, who are real sinners, and who are in need of a real Savior.

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