Palm Sunday Sermon, 2009 by MCC Moderator Rev. Elder Nancy Wilson
What I love about preaching is finding the throw-away line, and letting it settle into your mind, bones and consciousness, until it does its thing, and finally gives you a sermon . . .
Can I have a witness?
I was supposed to preach three times this Palm Sunday, at New Spirit MCC/UCC/Disciples in Berkeley, City of Refuge UCC and MCC San Francisco. But, as some of you know, my partner has been ill, and I needed to stay home with her as she mends (keep those prayers coming).
I chose the middle of those three sermons to share with all of you instead. It is based on the throw-away line at the end of the story of Palm Sunday in Mark's gospel.
The story as we know it has colts and mysterious resources that Jesus seems to have, special friends, secret signals, and Hosannas! (Mark 1 - 10)
And then, this 11th verse, which sometimes gets left off:
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
Only a little over a year ago, I saw Jerusalem for the first time. I stood at the top of the Mount of Olives as we made our way down the side of the hill into Jerusalem.
It is not a very big place, and the route that day for Jesus was really quite short, though a little steep and winding. At the top are thousands of graves, crowded like I have only seen before in New York, and all facing the temple, poised, ready to be raised on that last day.
I picture Jesus, after the parade and Hosannas were over, exhausted, entering the temple, that beloved place, and looking around at everything, the familiar place. A place, in my mind, that felt like home to him. A place of joy and sorrow, of struggle and hope.
And, then the throw-away line. "as it was already late."
This story comes very late in Jesus' life and ministry. There is not much time left. The political and religious tensions and conflicts are building. This moment will not last forever, he knows. One commentary talks about Jesus going to Bethany to rest up for his "aggressive face off" with the authorities the next day. I also think they went back up and over the hill to stay with friends in Bethany because they had no money to say in Jerusalem.
Every year I try to read the entire gospel of Mark in one sitting, during Lent. Last year I tried it in Spanish, which was delightful. I know the text so well in English that it made reading the Spanish much easier than reading an unfamiliar text, and more confident in the reading.
In Spanish, it says, "como ya era tarde. . .:" "because now/ or already it was late/evening." The Greek uses either opsia or opse, "long after, late in the day;" or literally, "the hour being at eventide." Mark is written in simple, koine Greek, and mostly in the present tense.
But I like the Spanish, because it does an odd thing, putting present and past tense along side each other. Now, because it was already late . . .
Jesus had a sense of urgency, of how late it is, now.
If you have time, read the "late" Marcella Althaus-Reid's rich commentary on Mark, in the Queer Bible Commentary. It is on time. She speaks of a Jesus we know, who preached the reign of God in a very immanent, very contemporary, very now, queer way:
Jesus is a boundary-breaker, transgressing the purity codes of fundamentalists and challenging proto-heterosexual hegemony. He uses (hear the present tense!) provocative riddles, parables and symbolic acts to challenge religious normativities."
I feel Jesus' vulnerability in this poignant moment as he looks around a temple that in thirty years will be gone. As he must wonder how on earth God is going to use him and this moment in history. I wonder if time stood still for just a moment, as he looked around, as he thought about everything that had brought him to this point. Have you ever had one of those moments?
Marcella talks about an unemployed Jesus who "lives (present tense again!) his life among the marginalized (and) is not a man with a proper job. . .who represents a truly marginalized God." These are words of profound solidarity today, with global unemployment and economic uncertainty beyond what most of us alive today have witnessed. Jesus, the unemployed, who is with the unemployed, the under-employed, those who are afraid today of losing a job in the near future. Those who feel stuck in a dreadful job because it is too scary to leave. Those who have never had a real job, who live in places where unemployment levels are so high that some people never have anything resembling a real job.
It is late, now. Already. It is late for this troubled world we live in. It seems too late for so many who are on the edge today, of hunger and disease and war. Of homophobic violence. It seems late for kids so damaged by broken foster care systems.
Some say it is nearing the end of the world. But, it is always the end of the world for those who are in despair, whose dreams have been deferred or destroyed, for those who never felt worthy. Now, today, it is late, but not too late.
More than a decade ago, everyone thought it was too late for the nation of Liberia. Ruled by ruthless dictator, Charles Taylor, brutality, violence and suppression were the order of the day. But one woman got her women's group at her Lutheran church in Liberia to pray for peace. Then the whole church began to pray, and neighboring churches, and soon it was like a wildfire, and churches all over Liberia were praying. Then the demonstrations began, and a movement for change, and Charles Taylor was over thrown, and a new day of peace and democracy has a chance in Liberia.
How do we summon the faith to say, it is late, it is very late, but it is not too late? Are we willing to be in solidarity today with those facing impossible odds, for those who still dream impossible dreams?
We must be a voice crying out in faith that we will not let it be too late for lesbians and gay men in Pakistan, for our brothers and sisters in Jamaica, for kids in small towns and rural places where there is no safe space. . .
Stuart Bermudez had disappeared at MCC LA. He was not in his apartment, and none of his friends had seen him for weeks. We called hospitals and hospices, but no one had a record of him. Stuart was starting to show some signs of AIDS related dementia (like sitting on the front row when a guest Rabbi was speaking, shouting, "Thank you, Jesus!"). When someone talked about the dark roots showing under his shaggy blonde hair, he just said, "Oh, no honey, you have it all wrong, I dye my roots. . ."
Weeks passed, and one day, while visiting County Hospital, I guess I decided it wasn't too late, and on a hunch scoured the hospital, and when I got to the respiratory ward, walked into a room where a group of nurses and doctors were working on Stuart, who was obviously in bad shape. When he saw me, he started flailing his arms and legs, and I knew he was shouting ("Thank you Jesus?" with no sound), and the staff looked up at me, alarmed and tried to get me ejected from the room as I was obviously upsetting him. I put my hand up, and said, "Wait, no, its OK," and I stepped up to his bed and put my hand on his chest and he immediately calmed down, tears streaming down his face, I knew he was feeling "Finally, at last, someone has found me. . ." Instantly his breathing improved, and one nurse said, "OK, then, can you stick around a while!" as everyone took a deep breath, and laughed a little. Stuart got well enough to come to church again. He died in hospice a few months later, visited nearly every day by MCC friends. Two weeks later they called me, and Stuart had left the church the contents of his bank account, about $500. We bought him a plaque on our wall. We found him before it was too late.
Maybe we feel it is too late for us to say yes to ministry, or to a dream of service. Or too late to find love, or community. Maybe we "look around," and wonder what we have been doing with our lives.
Sometimes, overwhelmed by "the odds," it is tempting to consider giving up. But I say, giving up is easy, and, anyway, you can always decide to give up tomorrow. But, we were not born to give up - we were born to live and love and give ourselves over to the One who was one with that One who looked around the temple that evening in Jerusalem, who knew it was late, but not too late for you and me, and our hurting world.
Grace and peace
The Rev Nancy L. Wilson
Metropolitan Community Churches