Not Fade Away (2013)

Because I got the call to preach at the last minute, I dug through the “sermons and devotionals” folder on my hard drive and found two earlier occasions when I spoke on Palm Sunday. This is basically my 2009 sermon, with a few tweaks and a paragraph lifted from my 2002 sermon.

Mt. Lebanon UMC and Cannon UMC
Palm Sunday – March 23, 2013

Luke 19:28-40 (NRSV)
19:28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

19:29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples,

19:30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.

19:31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'”

19:32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them.

19:33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”

19:34 They said, “The Lord needs it.”

19:35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.

19:36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.

19:37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,

19:38 saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

19:39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”

19:40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

In 2005, I made my second short-term mission trip to Kenya. On my first trip the year before, we’d been working in the Kibera slums right outside Nairobi. But on this trip, we were working in a place called Ndonyo, in southwestern Kenya. It was a six-or-eight-hour drive for our team, which was riding in two weather-beaten vans.

It had been a long and grueling trip, on rough roads, and since none of us Americans knew exactly where we were going we really had no way of knowing how close we were.
Then, as we crested a hill, we saw in the distance a crowd of people jumping up and down excitedly. We were fascinated by this, but it took a few seconds for me and some of my teammates to realize exactly what was going on. We were looking at our destination, the New Life Church, and the people were gathered at the church, jumping up and down in celebration of our arrival. Some of them were holding flowers.
It was, without a doubt, the most amazing welcome I’ve ever experienced. I have to tell you that you feel a little embarrassed in a situation like that, as if you’re not quite worthy of the attention. I hoped that the people with whom I would be working would not be disappointed when they compared their expectations to the reality of our time there.
In our Bible passage today, we read about the remarkable reception that Jesus received on his entry into Jerusalem.
It was a common custom in many lands in that period of time to cover, in some way, the path of someone thought worthy of the highest honor, whether that was with palm leaves or – in the passage from Luke – cloaks. 2 Kings 9:13 reports that the people spread their cloaks for Jehu, son of Jehoshaphat, to stand on so that the could honor him in this way.
Of course, Jesus was entirely deserving of all power and glory, but the reality of his week in Jerusalem turned out to be quite different than the people laying down palm fronds might have expected.
No doubt, some of those who were so excitedly welcoming Jesus were expecting a political or military savior – someone who would rescue the people from the hated Roman occupation.
We know how this week turns out – we know it so well, of course, that I fear the story has lost some of its power.
By Friday of this week, there would be a crowd of people calling for Jesus to be crucified.
Of course, it’s common for someone preaching a sermon at this time of year to imply that it was exactly the same group of people, that the people who acclaimed Jesus on Sunday wanted to execute him on Friday. It makes a nice sermon illustration, but I don’t know that we can make that assumption.
At the time of Jesus’ life and death, Jerusalem had a population of about 80,000. But this was Passover week, and that meant there were a lot more people in the city than that. One Roman governor, 30 years after the time of Jesus, did a survey of the number of lambs that were slaughtered in Jerusalem during the Passover festival. The number of lambs was 256,000. Because there would have been at least 10 people at each Passover meal, that means there were more than 2 1/2 million people in Jerusalem for Passover.
So you can’t assume that the exact same people present for Jesus’ entry into the city were the ones crying for his crucifixion a few days later. If you read a story in the Times-Gazette about a Republican party banquet one week, and then the next week there is a story about a Democratic party banquet, you wouldn’t say, “Boy, those people in Shelbyville are sure fickle.” Those are two groups, and they were two different groups all along.
It could be that few, or some, or none of the people hailing Jesus’ arrival on Palm Sunday were also in the crowd calling for Pilate to have Jesus crucified on Good Friday. We just don’t know.
But one thing is clear – the people who hailed Jesus’ arrival on Sunday, whether or not they actively turned against him, they at the very least abandoned him. They did not follow through on their acclamation. When Jesus turned out not to be the political or military messiah they were expecting, the casual followers lost interest. And in some way, apathy toward God is even more of a sin, and more of a tragedy, than rejection.
When Jesus was taken into custody, and did not put up a fight, even his closest disciples abandoned him. Only one of them actively turned against him; the others simply ran away.
I think there’s a lesson there. Is the risk for us, here in the church in America today, that we will turn away from Jesus and start actively condemning him? Or is the much greater risk that we will simply abandon him – that we will become frightened or distracted or embarrassed and will turn away, or run away, or just lose our interest?
In the book of Revelation, John delivers prophetic messages from God to seven churches in Asia – and the only church about which he has nothing positive to say is the church in Laodicea. That’s not because they’re evil, but because they’re lukewarm, neither hot nor cold. “I wish that you were either one or the other!” God exclaims, in Revelation 3:15. God uses the extraordinary metaphor of saying that he will spit that church out of his mouth.
Today, in the United States of America, more than three quarters of the population, if they are asked by someone taking a survey, will identify themselves as part of the Christian faith. But for how many people does that faith make a meaningful difference in their lives? For how many of those millions is Jesus a real figure, as opposed to a drawing in a children’s book or a face in a stained-glass window?
It’s easy to be a part of a celebration, to wave our palm fronds in the air and sing songs. But the real work of being a Christian is about maintaining relationships – our relationship to God, our relationship to our family, our relationship to our church, our relationships to those around us who are in need. And those things take work.
Some people have a specific moment of religious commitment – a flash of light on the road to Damascus – while for others, their relationship to God develops over time. But even those who can’t tell you exactly when and how they came to know God can surely identify particular times or places where they felt God’s presence more strongly – perhaps it was a particular worship service, or a retreat, or a mission trip, or the Walk to Emmaus, or what have you.
At times like that, you welcome Jesus into your heart with the same enthusiasm and joy shown by the people in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
Usually, we come out of such an experience determined that things are going to be different now – we’re going to pray more often, do more for those around us, be less selfish or what have you. And we start out with the best of intentions, but all too often, we fall away from them.
On my first or second trip to Mountain T.O.P., there was a couple named Curtis and Elaine Piper among my fellow campers. Even though we were participating in Mountain T.O.P.’s adult ministry, Curtis and Elaine has brought their son Andy with them, and Andy worked in the kitchen at Camp Overton that week, under the direction of Mountain T.O.P.’s founder, and executive director at that time, George Bass.
On the last day of that particular camp week, I was asked to give a morning devotion, and the topic I chose was “the real world.” All too often, after you spend time in the intense Christian community of a retreat or a mission trip or an Emmaus Walk, people use the phrase, “well, it’s time to go back to the real world,” as if everything that happened over the week or the weekend was somehow false. I said, in my devotion that day, that it should be Christian community that is real, and we should try to take that reality with us out into the false world of self-interest and worry and division.
Today, 20 years later, Andy Piper is an adult working in Nashville. Some years ago, Andy paid me a great compliment by telling me that he still remembered that morning devotion, and he himself used it a few years later when he was a summer staff member in Mountain T.O.P.’s youth ministry.
We all have moments when we celebrate Jesus’ arrival in our hearts, the way that the people in Jerusalem celebrated Jesus’ arrival on that Palm Sunday. That, for us, should be real life. But then, we all have moments when we abandon Jesus – when what Jesus asks us to do is frightening or difficult and we run away.
The people who followed Jesus during Holy Week did not have, within themselves, what it took to follow Jesus. They abandoned Jesus at his hour of greatest need.
The great sadness is that we, also, don’t have within ourselves what it takes to follow Jesus. It’s true; we don’t. But the rest of the story is that God is willing to give us his spirit, his sanctifying grace, as we say in the United Methodist tradition, to call us to a life in him.
I spoke earlier about the trip I took in 2005 to Ndonyo. At the church in Ndonyo, there was a little orphanage, and right next to the orphanage there was a big concrete slab with twisted pieces of rebar sticking up out of it. The rebar had been bent over at odd angles, with no two pieces seeming to point in quite the same direction.
Pastor Joseph, from the church there in Ndonyo, showed us his plans one day. The slab was the foundation for a two-story Sunday School building. I looked at the plans, and I looked at those sad, twisted pieces of rebar, and I doubted that anything would ever be built.
But, you know what? Frank Schroer, one of my LEAMIS teammates, went back to Ndonyo a year or two later, and when I asked him about the trip he told me that they had actually built their Sunday School building.
To me, that’s a sign of God’s grace at work.
If we look ahead, beyond the events that we will mark this week, we know that Jesus will send the Holy Spirit to his followers. The same followers who, during Holy Week, abandoned Jesus in his hour of need would gain a boldness and power that would enable them to turn the world upside down.
In Psalm 118, verses 22 and 23, we read this: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.”
If we are to become faithful servants of Jesus, and if we are to celebrate his arrival in our hearts each morning, it must be the Lord’s doing, through the sanctifying grace that sustains us in our faith and pushes us on, kicking and screaming, towards perfection.
I want to quote now from the great theologian, the Rev. Dr. Buddy Holly.

I’m a gonna tell ya how its gonna be
A you gonna give a your love to me
I wanna love you night and day
You know my love a not fade away
A well you know my love a not fade away

Our devotion to God may fade away, but God’s devotion to us will not.
Just as Jesus was faithful to the end – to the moment of ultimate sacrifice that we will observe later this week – God is faithful to us even during the moments when we run away from him, waiting for us to realize our mistake and once again welcome him into our hearts with palm branches and cries of “Hosanna in the highest.”
God is worthy of our praise and devotion. Jesus told the Pharisees that if someone managed to silence his followers on that Palm Sunday, the very stones would cry out in praise.
When we came to the end of our week of work in Ndonyo, the same people who had welcomed us so enthusiastically sent us on our way with a touching example of love and service. Ndonyo, like much of Kenya, is at a quite high altitude, and many of us got winded quite easily. We had to walk up a steep hill from the church to where the vans were supposed to meet us, and many of the women of the church took our luggage and carried it on their heads up the hill.
May it be said of all of us that we have carried our burdens for Jesus and are as faithful to Jesus at the end of our spiritual journey as we were at the beginning.

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