Sunday, March 24, 2013

Cleave the wood and I am there (J. Barry Vaughn, March 24, 2013)

Rachel had flour in her hair, on her clothes and all over her arms.  Passover was only a few days away and she had to bake the matzoh, unleavened bread, for her large, extended family.  Timing was crucial; the dough could not be allowed to rise or it would have to be thrown out.  So, when she heard the noise of the crowd outside, she was annoyed.  But in spite of herself, she asked a passerby what the shouting was about.  "It's Jesus," hs said, "He's coming into the city".  "Who?" she asked, "Jesus?  Oh, you mean the prophet from Galilee.  That's just what we need... another prophet... someone else to tell us to repent and grovel..."  And Rachel went back to her baking.


Isaac was etching delicate details into a kiddush cup for a wealthy client when he heard the noisy crowd.  Like Rachel, concentration and timing were crucial.  He had promised that the cup would be ready for Passover, but curiosity got the better of him.  Isaac's shop was near the city wall, so he dashed up the nearby steps and peered out toward the Mt. of Olives.  As the crowd drew near the gate, he recognized the figure on the donkey.  "It's Jesus," he thought, "the one they say works miracles and casts out demons".  And he thought of his young daughter who experienced severe seizures.  "I wonder if he could cure her."  And without thinking again of his client's kiddush cup, he dashed out to meet the impromptu parade.


"Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord!"  "What?" Jacob thought, "What is this blasphemous racket?"  Jacob put down the stylus and rubbed his eyes.  Copying Torah scrolls by the light of dim oil lamps was tedious and gave Jacob headaches, but it was what scribes did.  "Boy," Jacob said to a young apprentice in the corner, "Run outside and find out what's going on."  The boy ran out and quickly returned.  "It's Jesus, sir; the prophet from Galilee."  "Prophet", Jacob spat the word.  "He's no prophet.  They say he eats with thieves and talks to prostitutes.  He's a madman and that's for sure."


Deborah was spinning fine linen.  Her son was to become a man this Passover when he read from the Torah scroll in the synagogue, and she was making him a new cloak.  Their house was near the street that led out to the Lion Gate, the gate that faced the Mt. of Olives.  Deborah heard the shouting and listened while it grew louder and nearer.  She stopped spinning and listened, got up, and went outside.  The crowd came down her street and she stepped back, so that she would not be crushed.  "Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna!" they shouted wildly.  "This is the messiah", shouted one man as he flung his garment before the donkey's feet.  But the man on the donkey had about him an unearthly calm that Deborah had never before seen, a calm that seemed to reach out and embrace her.  "Messiah," she thought.  "God's anointed... I wonder".


Prophet, miracle worker, madman, messiah... all partly true and all partly false. 


A prophet to be sure.  Jesus came to speak God's word, and in his stories and discourses he spoke God's word more truly than anyone ever has or ever will.  But he was more than a prophet.  "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God".  Jesus not only spoke God's Word; Jesus embodied God’s word in a unique way.


Miracle worker... even granting for some exaggeration in the telling, the miracle stories in the gospels cannot be dismissed.  The Oxford New Testament scholar, Austin Farrer, used to ask his students, "Just how ignorant was the average first century Jew?"  Men and women of the first century did not know about television and nuclear power, but they knew that the blind usually stayed blind, the crippled usually stayed crippled, and they certainly knew that the dead stayed dead.  But when Jesus appeared, the blind saw visions, the crippled threw away their crutches, and the dead came back from the grave.  "Go and tell John what you see and hear.  The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and the poor have good news preached to them".


Mad man... was Jesus mad?  By the standards of the world, one could argue that Jesus was mad.  "Blessed are the poor, those who mourn..."  The poor blessed?  The grieving special objects of God's favor?  Jesus turned the world's wisdom on his head.  If you want to find God, he said, go to the poor, the hungry, the homeless, not to the rich and successful. 


Messiah...  God's anointed... First century Judaism expected a messiah but not this messiah.  They expected a messiah who would put their enemies to the sword, not one who would tell them to love their enemies and do good to their persecutors. 


"Who do they say that I am?"  Jesus had asked his disciples.  Palm Sunday's spontaneous parade makes the question acute.  "Who is this stupendous stranger?"  There were many answers-- prophet, miracle worker, mad man, messiah.  "Hosanna to the Son of David" the crowds shouted, but did they know what they were saying?  Did they mean it?  The speed with which their ecstasy became anger tells me that the adoring crowd of Palm Sun. was as fickle as crowds always are. 


But we are not here to sit in judgment on the faithlessness of that crowd on the first Palm Sun.  For Jesus comes into our midst as surely as he came into Jerusalem two thousand years ago, and the question still has an edge to it:  Who do you say that he is?  Who do I say that he is?


Jesus no longer comes among us as he did on Palm Sunday.  He will not come down Maryland Parkway on the back of a donkey, surrounded by an adoring throng shouting his praises.  He comes among us in unexpected ways.


Jesus usually comes into my life through the lives of others.  During a summer I spent as a chaplain at large general hospital in Birmingham, he came to me in the person of a laborer from the country whom I initially dismissed as simple and uninteresting.  "A typical north Jefferson county coal miner", was how I described him to my supervisor, a description which earned me a well-deserved rebuke.  I was challenged to find out what made this man unique, to find out where, if anywhere, God was working in his life.  But then as I sat with him and listened to the story of how he struggled with a chronic illness and a broken marriage, I realized that God was there not in fullness but in emptiness.  God was there inviting me to experience mystery not in receiving but in giving.  God was there inviting me to experience love as I showed love to another person. 


Where and when does Jesus come into your life?  In your life's companion, your children, your friends and fellow workers.  We know with certainty that he is present wherever there is great need.  "Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me".


Jesus does not play fair; he never overwhelms us.  He always leaves open the possibility of refusal; he always comes to us in disguise and we may not recognize him. 


Ultimately, we can only recognize Jesus if he opens our eyes.  "Unless the eye catch fire, it cannot see; unless the ear catch fire, we cannot hear." (William Blake)


Many years ago I was in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and walked with hundreds of other pilgrims from the Mt. of Olives into Jerusalem.  It was, as Yogi Berra said, "just like deja vu all over again".  It was the route that Jesus had walked, and the other pilgrims, many of them Palestinians, were descendants of the crowd that had shouted, and thrown down their garments, and waved palm branches.  Now as then, Palestine is occupied by a foreign power; Israeli soldiers and their Uzi machine guns lined the route.


One thing was missing on my Palm Sunday in Jerusalem:  a humble figure riding on a donkey.  Or was he missing? 


One of the early non-canonical gospels has Jesus saying, "Cleave the wood, and I am there; lift up the stone, and I am there". 


He was in that crowd in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday just as surely as he had been two thousand years ago.  He was in the Palestinian mother whose son had been shot by an Israeli soldier; he was there in the seeking, questing pilgrims, from Africa, Asia, and Europe, who had brought their prayers and dreams to Jerusalem, hoping for a miracle, a vision, some clue that life has meaning, that God hears and cares for them.  And he was even there in this pilgrim.


And he is among us now, if we only have the eyes to see.  For he comes to us today, as he came among his own two thousand years ago.


You come to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, you came to those who knew you not. You speak to us the same word: "Follow me".  And you set us to the tasks which you have to fulfill for our time.  You command.  And if we obey you, whether we are wise or simple, you will reveal yourself to us in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which we will pass through in your fellowship, and as an unutterable mystery, we shall learn in our own experience, who you are.  Amen.