Sunday, April 14, 2019

A Palm Sunday Reflection

The following is the reflection I shared at the April 12, 2019 Friday chapel service for Course of Study students at Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC. Since a number of those there requested a copy, I decided to share it on my blog.  

Course of Study Worship Service
Wesley Seminary Chapel
April 12, 2019 (Approaching Palm Sunday)
Text: Luke 19: 28-40

It is wonderful to be gathered in this space surrounded by those who have answered the call to dedicate their lives to spreading the Good News of reconciliation that is possible through our Messiah Jesus Christ. I got back to DC last night after a two-week marathon of participating in United Methodist mission conferences. The North East Jurisdiction held their annual Mission Academy, which I highly recommend you all attend next year. And, Global Ministries celebrated the bicentennial of Methodist mission societies with a phenomenal gathering of folks coming to reflect upon the past, present, and future of the missional activities of the people called The United Methodist Church. I come back from these gatherings with my cup overflowing. I testify to you today that the denomination we love is blessed with many, many brilliant servant leaders of all ages—both laity and clergy. I testify to lives and communities transformed as a result of United Methodists taking leaps of faith, crossing social and economic boundaries, and speaking prophetic words. I want you to know that these conferences were not fluffy don’t-open-any- closets propaganda events. They were spaces where we could celebrate and confess our past and present actions and inactions and where we could have the hard talks about what course corrections must be made in order to be better disciples.  

John Wesley taught that a Methodist preacher should be ready to preach, pray or die at a moment’s notice. So, when I received the message while at these meetings asking if I could preach at this service, I answered affirmatively. In lieu of a normal sermon, however, I’d like to share some reflections on how we preach on Palm Sunday and throughout Holy Week.

But first, a word for preachers about what Palm Sunday reminds us. The Gospel of Luke tells us that when Jesus rode into Jerusalem the “whole multitude of disciples” spread their cloaks on the road (knowing full well that their cloak—possibly their only cloak—could ruined by doing so). As Jesus approached “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, saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" (Luke 19:37-38)

One thing I’ve wondered for years is how many –or what percentage--of those who placed their cloaks on the road that day were among those shouting “Crucify him!” later that week vs how many of them followed Jesus to the cross and witnessed his clothing being divided by the soldiers. One of the reasons I wonder this because, as a second-generation Methodist pastor, I know too well that a pastor shouldn’t take at face value praise or rejection from one’s congregants. There is a strong probability that same person who lavishes you with praise at your arrival to the appointment—for you are so much better than that previous pastor—will be the first person to loudly complain about you the moment your ministry doesn’t match what they wanted you to do. While listening to feedback to become more effective pastors is important, we must also resist the temptation of prioritizing trying to be who the congregants want us to be over listening deeply to God’s call and being faithful to it.     

In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor critiques what she calls a “full solar Christianity,” and she lifts up the holiness of literal and metaphorical darkness. She asserts that too many of our churches focus solely on praising God, making joyful noises. We like our sanctuaries to be full of light and our music and preaching upbeat. But not every moment of our lives feels warm and sunny. For the person grieving, the person suffering, the person in distress stepping inside of a building where the unwritten rule is that you must plaster a smile on your face, that you must sing songs of praise, that you must ‘get over’ your grief quickly and be thankful for what you have or else you are somehow failing to be a faithful Christian—for these such persons solar churches merely heighten their feelings of alienation, of not belonging to the community of faith. Solar congregations do serious spiritual harm to those who most need acceptance and healing. We must, therefore, stop equating darkness with absence of God and learn to affirm and embrace the sacredness of the literal and metaphorical dark. [And, yes, the ways we continue to use words like “dark” and “white” in our churches does undermine our anti-racism efforts] We must become a church that recognizes that God is God in the morning, in the evening, and in the middle of the night. I want to share with you some of her words from this book.

“I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”  

“There is a light that shines in the darkness, which is only visible there.” 

“I wish I could turn to the church for help, but so many congregations are preoccupied with keeping the lights on right now that the last thing they want to talk about is how to befriend the dark.” 

“As many years as I have been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part. Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air. ... new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” 

“I always wondered why it took "three days" for significant things to happen in the Bible--Jonah spent three days in the belly of the whale, Jesus spent three days in the tomb, Paul spent three days blind in Damascus--and now I know. From earliest times, people learned that was how long they had to wait in the dark before the sliver of the new moon appeared in the sky. For three days every month they practiced resurrection.” 
Siblings in Christ, hear what is being said. Good News comes in many forms. Not every sermon you preach has to be celebratory.  There is a time to mourn, a time for doubt. There are times of suffering. The Good News is that love remains in the darkest hours, and not only does it remain it can be experienced more powerfully in those sacred times, for it is in the sacred darkness that miracles occur.