Sunday, April 13, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Colt Surfing"

Matthew 21:1-11

When they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave two disciples a task. 2 He said to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter, you will find a donkey tied up and a colt with it. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anybody says anything to you, say that the Lord needs it.” He sent them off right away. 4 Now this happened to fulfill what the prophet said, 5 Say to Daughter Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt the donkey’s offspring.”[a] 6 The disciples went and did just as Jesus had ordered them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and laid their clothes on them. Then he sat on them. 8 Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord![b] Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up. “Who is this?” they asked. 11 The crowds answered, “It’s the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Common English Bible)

“Colt Surfing,” Matthew 21:1-11

The images are a gallery of injuries—amputations, lacerations, surgical scars…not to mention the invisible but still insidious injuries like perforated eardrums and post-traumatic stress.  But upon their injured bodies, survivors of the Boston marathon bombings had inked personal messages of sentiment and hope as they posed for portraits at the marathon’s finish line—for many of them, it was their first time back to the site since the bombings.

Two days from now, on April 15, we will arrive at the Tuesday of Holy Week, but we will also arrive at the first anniversary of the Boston marathon bombings.  And one portrait from the finish line comes from Elizabeth Bermingham, a special education teacher in nearby Watham, who inked the word “resilient” across her arms. She said, in the caption to her photograph, this (in part):

How do you find resiliency day to day?  How do you find it in the big picture?  How do you become healthier, more normal, more typical, how do (you) come back from something like this, a tragedy?

I’d say in terms of resiliency and coming back and training for the marathon, and even coming back from having something happen to you and trying to feel more normal, it’s less physically centered and it’s more in your brain almost.  That it’s like your brain has to learn how to communicate again.  It has to bring this experience, put it into memory.  They’ve explained to us a bunch of different times in our group that flashbacks, and pieces of that, is your brain not quite communicating and not translating this experience into your normal memory.  That takes a long time, and it’s really difficult, and so as you run…what I’ve found as I’m running and as I’m out on the course, I find myself both thinking about last year’s marathon and then next year’s marathon, and trying to replace in my head the images of horror with images of triumph.

The second photograph of her in the collage is of her opening up the palm of her left hand, upon which another message is inked: Love wins.  How appropriate an expression to encapsulate a story beginning with searching for resiliency and ending with the transformation of horror into triumph.  Scarcely little else on earth possesses the power to do such things beyond love.  It is why we are willing to move heaven and earth for one another.  It is why, ultimately, Jesus is willing to come to Jerusalem to teach and to heal and to pray and to die.  It is because love, His love, wins.  And that triumph of love and life eternal over death and destruction begins here, today, on Palm Sunday.

The exposition of Palm Sunday is pretty straightforward for most of us—Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate the upcoming Passover, and He decides to make a statement with His entrance into the city by, basically, having a victory parade.  Only without the victory just yet.

Jesus’ victorious entry into Jerusalem is depicted by Mark, Luke, and Matthew—whose version we will be studying today.  And it’s pretty standard fare—Jesus sends His disciples to Jerusalem to boost a colt from its rightful owner (you think “grand theft donkey” was a thing back then?  Imagine if we used that excuse today… “Hey, where are you taking that Ford Mustang?!” (Since that's probably the closest thing we have today to a tied-up colt, right?) “The Lord needs it!” Yeah, that’ll end well).

The disciples come back with the hot-wired…I mean borrowed…donkey, and Jesus rides it into Jerusalem as crowds of people gather to shout Hosannas to His name and to literally lay down their clothing on the ground before Him so that Jesus does not have to ride in the dust and dirt.  But how Jesus does the riding is…well, it depends on just how literally you take Matthew’s words here.

Matthew’s larger point in verses 4-6 is that Jesus is fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy, specifically from Zechariah 9, of a coming king.  To Matthew—and to us—Jesus is that king.  But Zechariah writes his prophecy in verse.  As the Presbyterian pastor and professor Thomas Long put it:

Now, superficially, it may appear the Zechariah quotation describes two animals—a donkey and a colt.  Actually, though, only one animal is meant.  “On a donkey, on a colt” is a textbook example of parallelism, a common device in Hebrew poetry where something is said once and then repeated for emphasis in a slightly different fashion.

Matthew, though, is writing his Gospel account in prose, not verse.  So, in order to cover all his bases, Matthew decides to report that there was both a donkey and a colt, and that Jesus “sat” on them both.  What that looked like—or how Jesus managed it—is your guess as much as it is mine.  Let it be an object lesson to us in trying taking the poetry in Scripture too literally.  Matthew is, which honestly understandable--if you are making a theological argument like that Jesus fulfills Zechariah's prophecy in whole, you might as well go all out) and as a result, he is depicting the Son of Man coasting into town half on a donkey, half on a baby donkey.

Which might make the whole thing seem a bit more comical to us—and that may well have been the point, since, as you may remember from previous Palm Sunday sermons I have given here, Jesus is in no small part modeling his entry after the triumphal entrances into Jerusalem by conquering foreign warlords like the Babylonians and the Romans, and He is, in a way, satirizing those triumphal parades by entering not on a great warhorse, but, again, on a donkey and a baby donkey.  There’s majestic, and then there’s…well, humble.  And I’ve never heard a donkey be called majestic.

Rather, it is not the steed in this case which requires the aura of majesty, but its rider.  Which, therein, lies still further irony.  Jesus is not decked out in His finest armor with a broadsword, scabbard, and helmet.  He is still the dirt-poor itinerant carpenter that His human form has always been.  The outward majesty comes not from Him, but from the respect the Jerusalem citizenry proffer to Him by way of refusing to let even the hooves of his mounts touch the dusty ground.

And there really is a profound sort of majesty in that level of humility, of putting the cleanliness of an animal’s hooves before your clothing’s well-being.  Your cloak probably doesn’t look too good afterward, but it is the humility behind the gesture that gets captured today in immortal images and photographs.  Think of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling in penitence before the memorial to the Holocaust-era ghetto in Warsaw, Poland.  Think of the survivors of the Boston marathon as they take their pictures, artificial limbs and scars and all, at the finish line that could have claimed their lives.  Think of the beleaguered crowds in Jerusalem and their beleaguered Savior, to whom they cry out, Hosanna!  It means, simply, “Save us now!”  The expectation of salvation comes not from majesty in this case, but from humility.  Not from power, but from heart.

And so as we enter this week of passion, may God in all His wonder and splendor save us through the humble majesty exhibited by a nobody whose extraordinary life and resurrection made Him the greatest somebody to ever grace this earth.  Because one week from today, that nobody will have been rescued from the clutches of death itself.  Should we choose it, the destruction will be over.  And the great work of saving one another can begin again.

Hosanna, Hosanna in Excelsis!  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 13, 2014

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