Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, April 13, 2014
Crescendo of Grace
[Psalm 38:9-22; Matthew 21:1-17]
Today is special in several ways. First, we remember Jesus’ final entry into the capital city of Jerusalem, during the final week of his earthly life. Jesus could have avoided Jerusalem but he voluntarily faced his opponents head on in a life-and-death struggle to reveal WHO GOD IS.
The tension builds this week to a fever pitch… and on Friday…we will gather around the cross, pondering the deepest meaning of suffering, as an integral, though mysterious and at times incomprehensible part of the Christian faith. There is no Easter resurrection without the betrayal of Judas, Jesus’ sorrowful prayer in the Garden of Gethsemene, and the tragic mis-judgments of the religious leaders, political authorities and fickle crowds.
As Jesus rides a donkey down the hill overlooking Jerusalem and into the cesspool of human sinfulness, we must also look in the mirror at ourselves to see our guilt and complacence. Jesus died for our sins also, not just for the sins of that generation. As they were complacent in the face of human need, we also fall asleep or turn our heads away from the glaring responsibilities which we face to alleviate suffering in our communities.
The beauty of this week’s unfolding lesson is this: even though people disappointed Jesus and their sins increased exponentially during Holy Week, grace abounded all the more. Likewise the deeper we dig our own graves, the higher the mountain of grace rises, because that’s who GOD IS. GOD’S GRACE abounds. The crescendo of God’s grace silences the insidious sins of the human race. And all we can say is “Praise God!” “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.” “Hosanna to the Son of David.” We are left speechless in God’s presence. We are in awe as God’s love washes over us. We put on the wedding garments of God’s grace and feast at the table of the Lord.
The drama unfolds like this. Jesus asks the disciples to go and get the donkeys to fulfill the Scripture in Zechariah 9:9. Although we have been taught through the years that this was a HUMBLE entry to Jerusalem, the fact that he rode a donkey rather than walking on foot was symbolic of royalty. A pilgrim walks… but a king sits… as he enters. The disciples and other followers in the crowd lay down their cloaks, another sign of Jesus’ authority. All Jerusalem was astir and the Scripture tells us the city was in turmoil, using a word that literally means “the earth shook” – and it was the same type of quaking that occurred when Jesus breathed his last breath on the cross and the same shaking that startled the guards at the tomb when the angel appeared to them.
One commentator suggests that “something astonishing, hopeful, and frightening was happening. Tectonic plates are shifting.” The ground trembles and shakes. If you have ever experienced an earthquake tremor, that’s what people felt in Jerusalem… If we are properly MINDFUL of WHO Jesus is and what Jesus means for our lives, the earth under our feet begins to tremble. The crescendo of grace is beginning… and no human has the power or authority to stop its progress. We cannot crucify the One who LIVES and REIGNS forever. We can nail him to a cross, lay him in a tomb and seal that tomb with a huge stone, but the crescendo of grace prevails!
There are two more scenes in this Scripture after Jesus enters Jerusalem. In the second scene we see Jesus’ holy anger at the religious leaders in the Temple. The humble and gentle Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves! He also drove out all who were buying and selling and announced: “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.”
This is not the Jesus we expect or readily welcome into our places of worship either. He confronted those considered the most “religious” – the most “knowledgeable” and the most “faithful.” He challenged their practices and judged the intentions of their hearts. What was it that offended Jesus so much? After all, the Old Testament required the people to purchase animals for sacrifice. Many of the people had made long pilgrimages to Jerusalem and had to change their money from foreign currencies to purchase animals or doves for their religious sacrifices. They were literally “obeying the commandments” by doing these things, so what ticked Jesus off that day? Why did he turn over the tables?
What would offend Jesus about us today? How is our worship “less” than what Jesus would expect? Would he turn over some of our pews? What was Jesus looking for when he entered the temple?
We must all wrestle with this question. There is no simple answer. I imagine Jesus was looking for a “difference” between what was happening OUTSIDE the temple and what was happening INSIDE the temple. He was looking for an oasis of prayer and hospitality. He was looking for God’s values to be “lived out”… in that sacred space where God was worshipped. He did not want to see “more of the world” in the place that was set apart for God. When people enter St. Pauls Presbyterian Church –whether the sanctuary or the Fellowship Hall, the Sunday school classrooms or hallways and offices in between, does a person encounter God?
I just finished a book called Kindling Desire for God, by Kay Northcutt, a professor of preaching in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She talks about the role her mother played in her own spiritual development: because she was always pointing to the presence of God in nature, in people, and in everyday circumstances of life. She tells how her mother would look through church newsletters to see if there were any references to GOD and GOD’S PRESENCE. She would pore over each article and if there were no references to God or what God was doing in the life of the church, she would put a big black ‘X’ over the newsletter, saying: this could be a report of the Rotary Club or some other social organization, people caught up in doing “God’s work” – yet God seems strangely absent.
I wonder if that’s how Jesus felt in the Temple that day. Everyone was BUSY doing God’s work, but God was strangely absent.
The last scene in this Scripture shows Jesus healing the blind and the lame in the temple. Apparently there were also children present, who were shouting: “Hosanna to the Son of David!” How did the chief priests and scribes (whom we might name the ministers & elders of the church) react to these healings? Instead of celebrating WITH the children, they challenged Jesus to CORRECT the children… saying: “Do you hear what these are saying?” Apparently, the children were able to recognize that Jesus was someone special. They saw him healing people and were dancing with joy over it. But the somber faced religious leaders wanted to “correct the children” for calling Jesus “the Son of David” – which is EXACTLY WHO JESUS WAS!
Jesus replied lightheartedly: “Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies, you have prepared praise for yourself!”—a reference to Psalm 8! Even when the religious “elite” fail to praise God… creation will open its lips and cry, “Glory!” And that is how our New Testament passage ends this morning. Jesus left the Temple and spent the night with friends in Bethany.
Friends, I don’t know about you, but I want to be among those children in the Temple who shouted praises to God and rejoiced when Jesus healed the lame and the blind. I want to be one of those infants and nursing babies who squeal with delight when Jesus is present in our midst.
I mentioned earlier in the service that we need to take some time to look in the mirror at our own guilt and complacence, so that we do not inadvertently walk in the footsteps of the religious elite of Jesus’ day. How have we “failed to see human need” and “failed to behold” the presence of God in our world?
This morning we are receiving the Presbyterian Women’s Birthday offering and part of our worship service incorporates the words of Irvin Porter, who is pastor of the Indian, or Native American Fellowship in Tacoma Washington, on the Puyallup Indian Reservation. He is also the associate for Native American Congregational Support for the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Porter tells us a story about a particular group of Native Americans, called the Nez Perce people of north-central Idaho. When Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery were searching for passage to the Pacific Ocean in 1805, they came upon this group of Native Americans and shared their Bible with them. The explorers promised to send missionaries to tell them more about Christianity.
By 1831 the Nez Perce had received no missionaries or teachers, so they sent 4 of their best warriors to find missionaries in St. Louis. Unprepared for this call, the churches in St. Louis promised to send missionaries as soon as possible. Those 4 warriors were discouraged and felt they had failed their people and 2 died on their way back to Idaho.
Finally in 1836 the Presbyterian Church’s Board of Foreign Missions sent Henry and Elisa Spalding to work among the Nez Perce tribe. Thus began our denomination’s work and today there are 6 Nez Perce Presbyterian churches on the Indian reservation in Idaho.
Unfortunately along with the missionaries came greedy, vicious and heartless people who did not respect the traditional practices and ways of life of the Nez Perce people. Many Native American people, not just the Nez Perce, have been betrayed by our so-called Christian culture, because even though they welcomed “new immigrants” to a land they had occupied for thousands of years, they were herded onto reservations, stripped of familiar lands and with their conversion to Christianity, they were often stripped of all their traditional, God-fearing practices.
Our Old Testament Lesson, Psalm 38: puts into words the desolation that came to many Native American people at the hands of “Christians” and God continues to hear their cries: “Do not forsake me, O Lord; O my God, do not be far from me; make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation.”
We receive the Birthday Offering of the Presbyterian Women today which goes to people who need a “hand-up” for whatever reason. You can read on your bulletin and see in the inserts some of the causes which the Birthday Offering supports each year.
Today’s service reminds us of our Native American brothers and sisters who also feared and honored God, even though they had different names for God than we do. They called God: “Creator, Great Spirit, Great One, Hinuwat, Wakan Tonka, Josh and Mahalo.” However, they also had deep respect for all of creation and were often much better stewards of God’s creation than we are in our culture of consumption and waste.
As we receive the Birthday Offering this morning, I pray that our blindfolds will come off and we will be willing to gaze on the human needs around us, as Jesus did when he healed the blind and the lame in the Temple. I also pray we will be able to behold the presence of God in our midst, so that our response will be “Hosanna! Blessed is the One, and blessed are the Many who come in the name of the Lord!” The crescendo of grace… is stirring….the ground is trembling beneath our feet. Let us pray.
Creator God and Great Spirit, the Presbyterian women have prepared a meal for us today. We ask your blessing upon it. We are mindful of the loving hands of the Presbyterian Women who prepared this meal and of the people who will benefit from this Birthday Offering. May we be mindful of our Oneness in Christ with all people! Lest we be guilty of dutifully throwing a few coins in an envelope, open our eyes to one another. Give us gratitude for fellowship around the table and for your holy, healing presence in our midst. Amen.
Mary Hinkle Shore, “Exegetical Perspective of Matthew 21:1-11,” Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew Vol. II, p. 145.