Palm Sunday C 2010 Luke 19.28-40

There aren’t many stories you can read again and still feel the same excitement and suspense you did the first time you read it. Outside the church this morning, we heard the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem—again. We’ve all heard it before; so even as we were listening to it, we knew what was going to happen next, didn’t we.

That makes it really hard for us to imagine what it was like for the people who were there that first Palm Sunday. They didn’t know what was going to happen; they just knew what Jesus had done up until that time. Some of them hoped Jesus would save them. They praised God for him, crying out, ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace …!’ Others might have feared for Jesus’ safety; and yet others might have seen him as a threat. They tried to get him to silence the crowd.

As we try to recall this story right now, we’re doing our remembering while just having heard the whole of Luke’s Passion story. It’s as though we’ve camouflaged the Palm Sunday episode; it’s as though we’ve walked through an entire forest, and then turned round to try to peer through the trees to look at just one little grove in it. If we tried to retell the Palm Sunday story from memory, we might put in extra details that aren’t there, or leave things out that we think happened at a different time.

But to figure out what the Palm Sunday story really says to us, we need to be able to think about it just by itself; to think about what it was like for the people who were there. So lets think first about the people who walked with Jesus, and then the ones looking out from Jerusalem who watched him coming.

We met the people walking alongside Jesus as they approached Bethphage and Bethany. Bethany was the home town of his friends Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus; the one Jesus raised from the dead. Bethany is over the back of the Mount of Olives, just out of sight of Jerusalem.

Can you imagine the excitement?

The one who had raised Lazarus from the dead coming back to town! But he sends people ahead of him, asking them to arrange for him to borrow a colt that has never been ridden. So he has a sort of advance guard doing something odd. And when they’re asked for an explanation, they’re told simply to say ‘the Lord needs it’. People will wonder about this, and of course the advance guard will talk a little bit more than that were instructed to. They’ll pop in that detail about a colt that has never been ridden. Maybe someone can explain it to them?

People who know the scriptures might tell them that it’s about something sacred, and also something about a King “According to Num 19:2 and Deut 21:3, an animal to be used for certain sacred purposes must be chosen from those that have never been used for ordinary labour, and according to m. Sanh. 2.5, no one else may ride the king’s horse” (Tannehill, 282-283). Clever people will start putting two and two together. The one who resurrected Lazarus, the one who calls himself Lord, the one who does things foretold in the tradition, something about the holy one, about a King; the excitement will build and build.

And as they come up the back of the Mount of Olives and reach the top, Jerusalem, dominated by its gigantic Temple, slowly steals into view. He must be coming to take it. That’s what they’ll think; that’s what they shout; ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!’ It’s so exciting—surely they are at the centre of history in the making!

But what of the other side of the valley. What do they see? Naturally word will have gone ahead; Romans spies; Temple spies. By the time Jesus comes into view, they will know everything; all the details about the colt, all the speculation in the excited crowd.

The Temple Mount, looks out across to the steep side of the Mount of Olives—the triumphal procession will be like a slow-moving painting. The Roman headquarters, the Antonia fortress, commands a clear view both over the Temple precinct, and the Mount of Olives.
The soldiers will watch everything from their battlements. I don’t think they’ll believe it’s an insurrection—these aren’t insurgents. More likely it’s a factional battle brewing between groups of religious lunatics.

And the Temple authorities will be watching too, trying to measure the threat; preparing strategies to quench a dangerous new movement. If they don’t stop it quickly, there’ll be soldiers out on the Temple Mount imposing martial law before you know it. You can sympathise with all of them really; that is, until you think about the decisions some of them took.

What Palm Sunday calls from each of us is a decision. Luke calls us to decide whether we’re walking with the crowd of people who surround Jesus, or whether we’re watching him coming.

That’s not to say that we have to decide to feel exactly the same way those excited people coming through Bethany felt; nor that we should feel challenged the way the authorities in Jerusalem did. We can’t feel that way; because for us the story is mediated through the story of the Passion. We know that walking with the crowd is a walk to tragedy and remorse. We also know what resisting Jesus’ approach meant.

Yet the cries of the crowd tell us that Jesus’ approach is a challenge to achieve peace; heavenly peace. And we do have to make decisions about that for our own time. We have to decide what will make for peace within ourselves; peace between ourselves and others; peace between dominant groups and the people they control. God’s peace is always linked to justice.

The Gospel challenges us to enter Holy Week determined to choose for this just peace. For our parish particularly, this challenge has a special focus. We’ve spent the season of Lent studying the plight of Australia’s aboriginal people. It’s as though a procession is approaching us from another mount; the Mount of Uluru. And as we watch its approach, we have to decide what will make for God’s just peace in this land, and in our time. Amen

Lent 5 C 2010 John 12.1-8; Philippians 3.3-14

There are confronting things in today’s gospel; paradox and uncertainty. Mary of Bethany bowls us over with her extravagant gift, worth a year’s wages; but then comes the disturbingly understandable portrait of Judas; miserable and bitter. And finally Jesus’ words—so easily misinterpreted— about the poor being always with us; where do we turn?
I think to find where John is leading us, we first have to acknowledge that this gospel works at a number of levels. I’ve often said that John is a very sensory gospel—there’s lots of tasting and smelling and things in John. But often, if John says see or hear, it’s not only physical seeing and hearing that’s intended, but spiritual awakening and insight as well.
Take Mary’s gift of nard to Jesus. It’s strangely given; not given to keep and use; it’s squandered on Jesus’ feet. It’s given to everyone there in its perfume, but no-one will ever be able to use it again. It’s given as though there’s no tomorrow. What’s she saying? Where’s she taking us?
Earlier in the Gospel, we heard Mary’s sister Martha say who Jesus really was. Now Mary says it too. But she says much more: she also says what will happen now he’s come to Jerusalem; he’ll be killed. Martha told Jesus privately that he was the Messiah/anointed one.(11.27) Today, Mary proclaims it publicly and physically when she anoints Jesus. And there’s more; she also invokes the type of anointing that has to do with the dead. She does what we do when we know the death of a loved one is near. Before they die, we do everything we can to let them know we love them; to tell them who they are to us.
She knows where he’s heading, and yet she doesn’t try to stop him. I think of the children watering the wheat today as being very similar to Mary’s anointing of Jesus for his burial. They’re wasting it if we think of it as food; and that’s how we could see what Mary did with the perfume, if you think of it like Judas did. But for us, the wasted wheat and perfume are signs of hope for a new, life-giving life; signs that God’s abundance allows for death, but it also inspires us to look for resurrection to a new, wonderful life again.
So Mary’s gesture isn’t just extravagant; it’s prophetic, it’s a proclamation of who Jesus is—God’s anointed one—the one God’s people had looked for for a thousand years or more. It’s also a well-wishing; ‘Godspeed the feet of the one embarking on this perilous journey.’ It’s a sign—the last in John’s book of signs before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
Why can’t Judas be like Mary of Bethany? For that matter, why can’t all Jesus’ followers pour ourselves out like she did? Maybe like Judas, people struggle to come to terms with a God whose extravagance is so great that it blocks out even the terror of death—never mind tomorrow’s grocery bill. Poor Judas is trapped in the pragmatic world—one where you make sure you’re prepared for things—even to the point of dishonesty; where you keep enough fuel in the tank for emergencies; where you scrimp and save when you can, because you’re afraid of what’s round the corner.
Even though he’s one of Jesus’ disciples, somehow Judas can’t see who Jesus is the way Mary and Martha can. Surely there are good reasons for his mixed fear and zeal. But Judas tells us for sure that our convictions and our ethics can’t be the engine or the foundation of our faith. That only comes from discovering who Jesus really is.
That’s what Paul was saying in the epistle reading today. You could read Paul in a way that makes you think he’s driven by remorse for what he once was. But that’s not what he’s saying. Paul senses that Jesus has claimed him as his own, and he’s stunned with gratitude. So every bit of energy Paul expends; every struggle is because of Jesus’ grace to him. He’s not looking behind; he’s looking forward, ‘…driven by his own personal experience of grace; pure, unexpected, unearned, outrageous grace.’(Phil 3.14)
Outrageous grace demands an extravagant response; that’s just what Mary did; that’s Paul’s journey. But Judas, poor soul, couldn’t see the grace. And I’m sure he’s not alone. We all need more Marys of Bethany to tell us that the fear and suffering and misery of this world are not the defining realities of being. It’s so healing when we meet these reckless givers! They transform our world. The world needs more people to give confrontingly.
Our giving to the poor and needy, our prayers for the sick, the sad and the unloved; for those burdened with responsibilities they may have deliberately sought but which eat them alive—these, our gifts and prayers are strange if we think of them as inputs for which we expect outcomes.
But they make perfect sense when they are seen for what they really are; a response to the Jesus who has met us, has called us, who has shown us the way of self-giving, joyful abundant extravagance. We are to bless the world with a model of infectious extravagance that bubbles out of our thanks for God’s grace to us. To whom be glory and praise. Amen