March 25, 2018
Rev. Dr. Alan Baughcum
Day’s Ferry Congregational Church, Woolwich ME
Zechariah 9:9-13, John 12:12-16
Last week I went to a meeting of clergy colleagues up in Waldoboro. Six of us meet each month to share with and help each other in our pastoral ministries. We do that taking turns talking about what is happening in our lives and in our churches. We seek advice from each other and we seek strength from one another. We do that by being honest with each other about the good stuff and the bad stuff, and we encourage each other.
I arrived a little early and parked on the street on the side of Broad Bay Congregational UCC. I took advantage of the time to make a couple of phone calls. While I was on the phone, my friend, Rev. Nancy Duncan, pastor of the church, arrived and parked behind me. When she saw me talking on the phone, she waved and gave me a huge friendly smile.
Now I was sort of in a grumpy mood, and I thought to myself, “why is SHE smiling?” Then I caught myself up, gave myself a dope slap, and thought, “Great, here she is injecting the love of God into my life on this beautiful, sunny day, and I act like it’s an intrusion! Just terrific!”
I went inside to her office where my friend, Josh, welcomed me by saying “Alan, it is good to see you. You look great. Have you lost weight?” Well, I was flummoxed …. just did not know what to do with that unexpected compliment. My friend, Nancy, saw my confusion and said, “Just say, ‘thank you,’ Alan!” Which I did.
Now, that is an example of just not being prepared for the moments of grace that happen to us when we least expect it. I was wrapped up in my own business and in my own head and just was not open to what came my way. In a way I was protecting myself with my own stuff, trying to pretend like I had control of my life and my work when all of a sudden real life interrupted my pretense, and grace caught me by surprise.
Now, when Jesus came into Jerusalem, he was not caught by surprise. He knew what was going to happen. The Gospels tells us that Jesus had taught his disciples that he must be crucified and rise on the third day. Matthew specifically included Jesus’ prediction, just before he and the disciples entered Jerusalem, that Jesus would be crucified there (Matthew 20:17–19):
Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”
The disciples just did not know how to take that information in ….. and they were afraid to ask him about it …. they thought that Jesus would be like Zechariah’s Divine Warrior who brought peace forever.
Jesus knew all of this. He did not ride into Jerusalem on a donkey by accident. He knew that the people were familiar with the ancient prophecies. He also knew that people were excited and whipped up by the raising of Lazarus from death. He wanted them to rejoice and he wanted them to believe.
It’s just that Jesus knew more about the Messiah than did the disciples or the crowds. The Messiah was not a warrior or a king in the ways that people expected. He was going to have to show his followers the power of vulnerability, the power of what most people think is weakness. He knew it, and he knew that it was going to take some time for people to figure out what was about to happen.
Our hearts are like that city of Jerusalem. When love comes to us, we want to welcome it. But we want to welcome it on our terms. We want to lift up palm leaves and wave them. We want to make the path of love into our heart smooth. Not because we are concerned about love …. we don’t want our invulnerabilities and defenses disturbed. We want love to come to us on our terms.
That is not the way it works. In our hearts, just like in the city of Jerusalem, there is a betrayer. There is a plot to kill love, just as there was to kill Jesus. We have to kill love because it upsets all of our careful arrangements that help us pretend we are in control.
I have been reading recently about Caiaphas, the high priest in the Temple, and Pontius Pilate, the procurator of Judea. They came into power at about the same time and they lost power about the same time. They had worked out a very good quid pro quo.
Pontius Pilate trusted Caiaphas to control the Jewish people so that Rome would not be bothered by excessive violence or rebellion. Caiaphas trusted Pontius Pilate to keep his soldiers visible and ready to act while Caiaphas was free to run the Temple as he chose, including raising large sums of money and emphasizing the importance of the people obeying the rules and regulations of the Temple authorities.
Jesus was a problem that had to go away. Jesus attacked the money-making activities of the Temple explicitly. He also preached in such a way that the people might conclude that Jesus was the new Temple, the locus of God’s teachings for human beings ….. not the old Temple that Caiaphas ran, the new Temple of Jesus where people were less dependent on all that ecclesiastical apparatus.
Caiaphas set about to enlist the Romans in making Jesus go away. The way to do that had very little to do with religion. Pontius Pilate had already ceded that authority to Caiaphas. Caiaphas knew that the only way to get the Romans to kill Jesus was to convince them that Jesus was someone who wanted to throw out the Romans and set himself up as King. Proving that Jesus thought of himself as King of the Jews was critical.
And of course Jesus did think of himself as King of the Jews. But it was a King of a very different sort. Jesus did not seek temporal, secular power. He simply wanted to be the way by which the people found their way back to God.
Jesus was part of an entirely different sort of power than that represented by the Empire and the Emperor. And yet they used very similar language. If the Emperor is the Son of God, how can Jesus be the Son of God? If Rome appoints the kings in the Middle East, how can Jesus independently claim to be King?
Jesus had to die. He knew it. And he accepted it. Because he knew what was going to happen after his death on the cross.
We are reluctant, like the powers that were in Jerusalem, to accept the arrival of love in our hearts. And for exactly the same reason: we do not want to lose the power we tell ourselves we have over our lives.
[What I am talking about here is very much related to what Brene Brown presents in her TED talks. She is a Professor at the University of Houston. I recommend those talks to you.]
Over the years I have had parishioners come to me and tell me that they a very hard time being on the receiving end of grace. They are very comfortable, they tell me, with being the giver. But being the receiver makes them very anxious.
What those good people, and they are very good people, don’t know is that they are preaching to the choir. I have a very hard time when people are gracious and giving to me. I told you the story of how confused and flummoxed I became when I got a compliment last week. I just do not know what to do with that. I want to make a joke and wave it away.
That is because I want to be invulnerable. I want to be perfect. Because I think that the only way I can be a worthwhile human being is to be in charge, to be mistake-free. Like most of us, I too often confuse vulnerability with weakness. That is hard for a man.
It is hard for a woman as well but women have a somewhat different problem. Displaying weakness is not so much their problem. Rather, women have to be fully competent as mother, wife, career woman, social chairman, and so many other competing jobs …. without breaking a sweat!
Jesus says: give it up. Give up the pretense. Give up the effort to be in charge of what we cannot possibly be in charge of. Give up the effort to be perfect. God is in charge. Only God is perfect.
Jesus knew that: he humbled himself and was obedient to the will of God. That is the way to life, true life. It is the only way to true life.
We have to let go of who we think we should be in order to be the person God meant for us to be. We have to give up the pretense of vulnerability and control. It is an illusion anyway. It is only when we acknowledge our vulnerability and brokenness that we can be truly loving, compassionate and joyful. Henri Nouwen writes in Life of the Beloved, “Our brokenness is truly ours. Nobody else’s. Our brokenness is as unique as our chosenness and our blessedness. As fearsome as it may sound, as the Beloved ones, we are called to claim our unique brokenness, just as we have to claim our unique chosenness and our unique blessedness.” Brene Brown says that what makes us vulnerable also makes us beautiful.
We have to be willing to say, “I love you,” when there is absolutely no guarantee that the other person is going to respond in the same way. And we have to continue to love them even when we are rejected, even as Jesus was rejected.
We defend ourselves from our vulnerabilities in a number of ways. We overeat … we overdrink … we use drugs of all sorts …. we get addicted to all sorts of things, from computer games to pornography and beyond.
Another way we numb ourselves and protect ourselves from feelings of unworthiness is to pretend to certainty in the face of uncertainty. We might for example get very rigid on matters of religious belief. Well, of course Christians have to be Trinitarian …. or, Christians have to agree with the Nicene Creed …. or, well, so many things we can pretend to be certain about.
We do that to protect ourselves from our fears.
The problem is that when we numb ourselves to protect ourselves from our fears …. well, that numbness keeps us not only from the bad stuff but from the good stuff. We numb ourselves to all the stuff that tells us we are not worthy …. the problem is that the numbness cuts us off from joy and connection and community …. from the ability to truly love our God and our neighbor.
Jesus tells us we are loved. Jesus tells us we are worthy because we are God’s. And we do not like that because our whole lives are built around the proposition that our loveliness, our worthiness, is based on what we have done or what we accomplish.
The next time someone is kind and loving to you, accept it. You need it. I need it. Desperately we need it! It is by accepting that grace that we can grow it and pass it along to someone else.
Fully embrace the fact …. THE FACT … that we are not in control. Jesus did. What makes us think we ought or can be any better than Jesus? Accept the love of God and the love of others so that we can live up to our life’s purpose, communicating the love of God to others.
When love arrives, let’s not pretend we don’t need it. When love arrives, let us welcome it. Let us work to accept it, not on our terms but on the way God sends it to us. And let us nurture it and pass it along to our sisters and our brothers.
Let us pray: Dear God, thank you for your steadfast love. Thank you for your love that comes to us in ways that are unexpected, in ways that may even be disturbing to us. Help us to welcome and accept your love. Help us to nurture it. Help us to share it with others. Amen.