Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday

The following sermon was given by Bishop Larry Benfield at Christ Episcopal Church.

When was the last time that you got the opportunity to name a church? In my entire life I had never given it a thought until this past week. Churches simply exist; you find one by driving by it or hearing about it or looking it up on the Internet, and then you go to it. But this past week I found myself working with Episcopalians in Maumelle as we begin formally turning that group of people who gather each Sunday into a congregation. That group now needs a name, and names are important. Whom do we honor in a name? What are we trying to say about who we are? What are we trying to say about who we want to be in the community in which we find ourselves?

I will not burden you with the discussions that we are having in Maumelle, but in reading today’s gospel about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, it struck me that St. Matthew’s might be a great name for a church that is able to admit that sometimes we get it wrong in our absolute reliance on fact and thus miss something larger that we cannot understand. Matthew wants every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed. In other words, he is one of us; he can miss the larger good news because he so desperately wants to get it “just right.” In so doing, Matthew on occasion can make Jesus look, well, ridiculous. Before you get mad at me for saying that, remember that all of us sinful Christians have that tendency as well. The health is in acknowledging it.

You may have missed what I am talking about when you heard the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry. After all, we tend to hear what we want to hear. When Matthew writes his gospel, he is sitting at his desk trying to make sense of the Jewish prophets and how their writings relate to this Jesus of Nazareth. He turns to Zechariah, who talks poetically of a the king coming in “on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” But Matthew cannot deal with poetry; he cannot deal with what he cannot understand. He gets stuck in the trap of literalism, in this case stuck with two animals that he needs to use. So what does he do? He says that Jesus rides both of them into Jerusalem. Those words change the image of Jesus, so long envisioned in art as humbly riding on a donkey, into a Jesus who is perhaps more like a circus act, the guy who straddles two horses as he comes into the center ring. It is no wonder that people were excited. Matthew, as dedicated as he is, momentarily turns Jesus into an entertainer, good news eclipsed by spectacle. Matthew is like one of us, for we all love religious entertainment.

The story of Holy Week is a story as vast as the universe. It is not spectacle, but rather the story of unconditional love for all of created order, a love so enormous that we cannot contain or imagine it. The love of God for Jew and Gentile, women and men, poor and rich, a love for those who feel so terribly enslaved and those who feel as free as a bird, a love that even steps into the abyss of death. It is a story so enormous that we cannot make sense of it in its totality, so we take apart that story, we take apart Christianity, and divide it into small pieces that we can make sense of. Some examples: God rewards good people at the expense of the not so good. God loves those who help themselves. God has St. Peter at the gate of heaven checking off lists of who is in and who is out, or as Paul Simon sings in his latest album, in the presence of the heavenly light “You got to fill out a form first.” Talk about how to mess up the totality of the biblical witness! We ARE Matthew.

I recently sat in on a church discussion that interwove the beliefs of progressive Christianity (let’s be honest and call it the Episcopal Church), fundamentalist Christianity (call it the televangelist form of the church), and Islam. For an hour’s worth of discussion I heard a debate about who would get into heaven. It seemed so much like Matthew making Jesus look ridiculous in today’s triumphal entry narrative. I wondered why we have such limited imaginations, why we must be so literal. Why are we so much like Matthew, trying to get everything to fit into our notions of what we want God to be, as if Divine love were a jigsaw puzzle and the first thing to do is establish the border? Can’t we accept the poetry, accept the vastness of, a kingdom that is simultaneously here and not yet here, that is beyond anything we can imagine? Will we always be doomed to make God look so ridiculous? Can we not be comfortable with mystery?

Matters of the heart are a mystery, and we will never be able to explain them. Ask anyone who has fallen in love or out of love or who has found himself unloved. There is an enormity to love that is irrational, indefinable, inexplicable. I remind you of that truth today because what we commemorate this week is irrational and indefinable and inexplicably lovely. A man goes into the great city loved, and within five days is left by himself to die. It is a dark and mysterious story. What he does is irrational and world changing, and we will never be able to contain it primly and precisely and logically. We can’t make sense of this story because we think too small, too selfishly. We cannot contain God’s love. We want to make the story fit our own desires, our own preconceptions, and doing so marks us as sinful human beings. We are just like Adam and Eve, who want to know it all, people who cannot live with ambiguity and mystery. We end up looking ridiculous.

Matthew wanted to get it on paper perfectly. And he made Jesus look a little bit foolish in the process. It is what we do as well. With all our good intentions, we still manage to make this Jesus of Nazareth look a bit foolish. Our broken lives are testimony to that fact, and we must remember that embarrassing truth in Holy Week. Perhaps a church with Matthew’s name on the sign outside its door could be a reminder to us of what we have in common with the saints, that we are people who sometimes get it wrong but whom God loves just the same and who are called by God to be witnesses of such love. For proof of that last statement, return next Sunday and see what happens in spite of our blindness. Amen

And may the peace of the Lord be always with you.

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