Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29 and Mark 11:1-11
A friend of mine, half apologizing and half complaining, repeatedly tells me: “religion would be easier for me if God were clearer about the life I am to lead.”
I tease him in response: “what you really mean is you’d believe in God more if you were sure God believed more in you.”
You see, my friend suffers for not having been a bigger role to play in the world. Actually, he’s not rejecting some humble calling he’s recognized. Rather, at almost my age, he’s still expecting to discover that he was really meant to be some sort of King of the Universe. It’s as if he’ll only be satisfied when he figures out to be some sort of super hero.
Tim’s not sure what exactly his world-changing role might be. But his dilemma isn’t unfamiliar to me…
When I was a much younger man, I was hoping to be grabbed by some incredible passion that wouldn’t let me go. Or swept away by some historical moment. Carried on some rocket-ride of a trajectory that would suddenly transport me from all the uncertainties, self-doubts and questions of young adulthood and, instead catapult me — sign, sealed and delivered — into the BIG life I was predestined for. Tired of all the seemingly endless and mostly minuscule decisions that I didn’t know then almost imperceptibly over-time add up to a life, I longed for some never-turning back Road to Damascus experience. One moment in time, a fire and brimstone conversion after which there’d be no turning back.
I imagined something grand. It’s sort of embarrassing to admit now, but it was true then. But it wasn’t just pride showing. At that phase in my life, to be certain what it was I was supposed to do was an attractive fantasy! I quite wrongly thought, “how much easier it must be… involving fewer decisions and offering clear goals and a straight path for getting from here to there… for those who make a historic walk across the stage of time.”
A big, public life that would make a difference. Not just the quiet sort of difference all of us can make in the lives of a few, mostly those who are near or dear. But a “my name up in lights” sort of difference. In the history books. Or at least so my time would recognize me and be thankful.
Trouble was, I never figured out what my grandiose fate was meant to be! Was I to write a great novel that would change the world. Make some discovery after which human life was never the same. Lead a social movement that would be seen as transformative and making history…
My glorious fate continued to elude me. But in the meantime, a funny thing happened. I just kept making all those myriad, lesser decisions. So fast and furious that sometimes I wasn’t even aware that I was making them. And the years passed (as they do!). I was so busy, even with my life that was turning out to be smaller and less significant than I had imagined, that I forgot to remember my titan’s calling.
Changing diapers became schlepping me sons to play dates, and eventually to the opera chorus and basketball practice. And there were always bills to pay, calls to return, and those taxes to try and get done on time.
And handling hundreds of minor details as a pastor! Despite the hype about the big issues of life and death, and all those seminary recruitment posters about making a career that really matters, mostly being a pastor, at least in the everyday, is more often than not — like the rest of life — about details. In this case, making sure the right envelopes are in the pews, setting up tables and chairs, unstopping the toilet and remembering making copies for a meeting.
Somewhere along the line, as tempus fugit, I stopped waiting and hoping and believing I was to play a leading role on the world’s center stage. I was just too busy trying to keep up with my life, smaller, quieter and less noticeable than I imagined, but engaging nonetheless. It’s turned out to be a handful too. But also rewarding.
I became comfortably a nameless member of the chorus. Recognized that even when other people don’t recognize me, God still does. And that God’s does have a role for me to play, albeit perhaps a bit part
Mark’s rendering of Palm Sunday story has me thinking of all this. It’s one of the stories that all four Gospels recount. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each retell Palm Sunday. But not all in exactly the same way. Each offers his own details or emphases. Even style. Like people, the various Gospels provide their own distinctive, peculiar and valuable insights, additions and richness to what happens.
For example, John’s Gospel has Jesus enter Jerusalem on foot. Only when the crowds get themselves whipped up into a nationalistic frenzy, does, in John’s version, Jesus himself grab the colt as a hopeful reminder that he’s not any great nationalistic gender or explicit political radical… so much as a suffering servant and prince of peace. John’s Gospel is also the only one to actually mention Palms.
Mark’s focus centers in on how Jesus sent two disciples to get him a colt. I realized as I reread the story this week — you might go back and read it after church to check what I’m suggesting — you’ll see, almost 2/3 of Mark’s recounting revolves around the mundane details of securing Jesus’ mode of transportation.
Where to find the animal?
What kind of colt to seek?
How to take it?
what to say to the anyone who questions you?
Imagine you’re the disciples sent on this errand. “How’d I get stuck on donkey detail?” Wouldn’t many of us worry and fret: our plan to stay with Jesus is being thwarted (by Jesus himself)! And our path is taking us so far from the main stage. Not only are we going to miss the spotlight; we’re going to miss all the action too. “It’s embarrassing, but I’d hoped for a more important role on a day such as this.”
Mark doesn’t say, but I like to think the donkey detail was James and John. Remember them? Just hours earlier, they’d come to Jesus asking that he grant them the two highest seats of honor in his Kingdom– one at his right hand and the other at his left.
Jesus responds by teaching all his disciples that to be great is to be the servant of all. Probably they all needed to hear that one. James and John might not have been the only ones jockeying (pun intended) for position.
Later that same week, in John’s version of the story, at the common meal on Thursday, Jesus acted out a similar point by washing the disciples’ feet and giving them a new commandment, that they love one another to such a degree and in such a way that no one could be more important than anyone else.
Do you see what I’m getting at here? It’s Jesus trimphant (though not triumphal) entry into Jerusalem as Messiah. He’s the Messiah. None of the rest of us are. Not even the human super heroes. There’s great reassurance, comfort and permission in that.
And any of us who’ve ever even had a faint inkling of a messiah complex… or even just hoping to be at the front of the parade or even hangers-on in the procession… well, we’re to see that our role is different. Yes, we still would like to share, even if second hand, in some of the glory. And it’s always nice to bask in the limelight, even if it’s only reflected our way from Someone far greater than all that we are or can hope to be…
But our humble positions, our human nature never means that our work is unnecessary. Or that God doesn’t need us. It’s just that for most of us… our efforts fit into a picture that is much larger than us and our lives. So big, in fact, that sometimes it’s hard to get a good perspective on the whole view. (That’s what church is to help us with.)
So we go through life without always recognizing the value and effects of our efforts. Our ministry on red letter, mountaintop days (not to mention the unexceptional “every days”) is, for almost all the disciples — I suspect even the BIG name ones — not to be so glorious. It’s often more of the “getting your hands dirty kind.” Or dragging an unbroken and stubborn pack animal, getting the work horse to where it is needed, but probably doesn’t want to go. Sometimes our needed ministry might end up leaving us looking a bit like horse thieves. And, beloved, you can bet, there was manure involved somewhere along the line. There’s always manure!
Why? Because human lives aren’t of the meteoric type, shooting like a star across the pages of time and history. Maybe that’s what an angel’s existence is like. And, certainly, there are the Mahatmas and Martins, the Madame Curies and the Mother Theresas. But for everyone of them there are, quite literally millions or even billions, of the rest of us. Who are librarians, EMTs, homemakers, teachers, shopkeepers, nurses… not to forget the out of work, the underemployed and the retired…
And in our various walks of life, not just our professional lives, but also our personal lives, we have to figure out how to live out our lives — be they unnoticed or headliner — hoping still to make something significant of them.
Church, the question might be: “is it possible to grasp and make well all the little choices such that over time that add up to something significant?” Despite the scattered nature of our existence, can it make a difference and have an effect?
I remember hearing of a woman who remarked, When I look at so many famous and powerful people, I thank God I’m a little person. And I remember how Mark opens his retelling of the Jesus’ story. Let’s here it again:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
Yes, there are leading rolls and game-changers. But, thank God, for us who are lower visibility, the apparently nameless and faceless who on this day make up an adoring, welcoming crowd… we create the welcome and the procession for the Messiah’s arrival in Jerusalem.
Our lives, on their own, unlike Jesus’, will never turn the world upside down. But your humble effort put together with my little effort, and all our efforts adding up over time… The Gospel promises, all these matter immediately and even more ultimately. You don’t even have to be the drum major or a baton twirler…
Jesus disciples… sure they are sent to preach and heal. But think about how much more often they’re having to do lesser, more detailed tasks. Fetching a donkey. Trying to find Jesus– either where he is or actually what he means. Counting how much food is on hand. Setting a table big enough for everyone. Gatekeeping to offer Jesus some rest.
Jesus, in offering us advice about how to get through all lives multiplicities and ambiguities is pretty straightforward and just right for a parade day: “Follow me.” Like the 4 different Gospels, there are even different ways of following…
And while the world goes on ranking all the differences in all sorts of hierarchies of importance, in the Gospel, in the Reign of Heaven, well, let’s just say, before the glory of God, even humanity’s stars sort of pale. And the widow and her mite matter as much as the rule. The Roman Centurion and the Syrophonecian woman and the adulterer the the tax collector are actually closer to the mark than the Pharisee.
Who we are, even how humble our efforts are… these don’t deter God. Even when it seems all our fire has just plain gone out. Or never really got lit.
God in Christ needs all of us and what we can do to move this procession ahead. I was reminded at Thursday’s Silent Pray Walk through the airport (to lift up the needs of silenced unemployed neighbors): any sort of public demonstration or gathering or community, there are endless, seemingly insignificant details that nonetheless need to get done and make a difference. Add up. Matter. Like every last person in the procession.
Beloved, if you have any clue about where or how you have been called to serve– on the world stage or almost unnoticed (at least by your peers), Palm Sunday encourages and invites us to apply our creativity to living out that call…
Whether it’s opening a whole new door to the Kingdom, or if it’s mucking the stalls back at the stable, God has a place for you, a need for you. It takes a village… or better in this case, the whole city. You are needed too!
Of late it’s become popular to say that “the Devil is in the details.” But that’s a corruption of Mies van der Rohe’s original phrase which was “God is in the details.” Whatever we do, it should be done thoroughly and for all that it offers others, the world and God.
Because God is in every back stage and mucky stables, on the forgotten corners and dead end streets. And wherever crucifixions are taking place. As well as parading amidst the busy midday crowds of Market and Broad Streets.
So now, let’s get back to work, to service, to following Him. Amen.