What Happened When the Stranger Came to Town?

a sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown CT on Palm Sunday, March 28 2021

Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,  who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. 

And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Matthew 21:1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 

             “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, 

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

What went wrong?

Why did the Sunday crowds – the calls of support, the enthusiastic palm wavers – why was it all gone and forgotten by Thursday night?

We can’t just gloss over what happened, pretend it doesn’t matter,  and skip right ahead to the joy of Easter.  It matters; it changes the entire course of our understanding of what the world is really like and who Jesus is.

So – why did the raucous joy of Sunday die away into the disaster we know this week will be?

Is it because he was second-guessed by his companions, who were everlastingly saying “don’t say that, it’s dangerous” or “wouldn’t it be better if . . . “ or even “ when you’re in charge, promise to make my brother and me important people….”   Well, we surely do see signs of that, but it’s not his companions who kill him; not even Judas wanted him dead.  No, I don’t that’s it.  

I think it’s more basic than envy, or worry, or anything personal. 

I think it’s because he’s from Nazareth, and we know no good thing can come out of Nazareth? So Jesus was doomed to failure because of his background.  

Let’s look at this a little closer.  Does it ever happen that we discount people because of where they come from?  Do we listen to a broad Texas accent and assume that person is not well-educated?  Do we look at someone who’s just immigrated and assumed they didn’t know what they were doing?  If you’re a woman and a physician or a dentist, how often has a patient said they’ll wait for the real doctor?

And what if you’re really different… different enough that the police watch you?  Different enough that a store detective follows you throughout the store?  Does anyone look at you scornfully because you’re “from Nazareth”.  

If it’s never happened to you, can you imagine what it’s like for those who live this out every day?  Even here, even now,  it happens.  People get angry when they see  you.  People mutter, you don’t belong here…. you’re from Nazareth.  Or you’re poor.  Or you’re Black.  or a woman. . . Or you are Asian.  or you moved here from Hartford, or the wrong side of New Haven.  Nazareth isn’t just a place in Israel; it’s where people who are hated for existing live.  Gay people, bi-people, Black people, poor people, immigrants, and Asian massage parlor workers – they’re all from Nazareth, from a place where no one matters, where everyone can be treated like dirt by all the people don’t live THERE.

One minute Jesus was like Martin Luther King Jr at the Lincoln Memorial, with an immense crowd hanging  on his every word…. and the next, he was just another yokel from Nazareth, poor, powerless and nothing but trouble.

And they’re going to kill him for it.  

Because Jesus wants a world where everyone matters.  He’s not content with a world where “color doesn’t matter”; it’s not enough to say Asians love math.  He wants a world where everyone is welcome, as they are, without changing the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes, without doing their best to look like, act like, sound like, and even eat like, the people with the power.  

The Romans were as civilized as it got in their time… and they didn’t want to see Jesus succeed, because his teaching would destroy their empire.

The local power structure saw only another troublemaker from out of the boonies.  He was from Nazareth, not the big city and they didn’t want him opening eyes to the ways the world was wrong.

His own people feared his power, and one of them betrayed him.  No one gets away free from this one.  

Ibram Kendi says we are all putting down the people from Nazareth every time we close our eyes to racism and he’s right.  The person who sounds good so long as they’re saying what we want to hear became dangerous the minute they start naming the truth of discrimination.  

I’d already written and recorded last Sunday’s sermon when the news came of the shooting of Asian women in Atlanta.  Now, as I’m working on the Palm Sunday sermon, comes the news of yet another shooting in Boulder, Colorado.  Eight people, six Asian-American women, one week; ten more people the next.  Let’s be clear; we’ve not yet learned the lesson of Holy Week.  Hatred kills.  It killed then; it kills today.

Our Black Lives Matter banner made people nervous when we put it up, and I dare say there were people who wished we weren’t doing it.  It was a dangerous choice.  But the events of the past ten days should tell us that there is no other more effective way for us to lay right out there on Court Street that we want to shut hate down.  We stand against killing people…and hate kills.  

Jesus spent his ministry telling the truth.  It was his way of putting up a Black Lives Matter banner and it was dangerous then, as it is now, to say truth.  But it was even more dangerous then, and now,  to be the people from the Nazareth’s of our world.  We’ve begun to learn a lesson Black people, dispossessed people, have known forever:  you don’t even need to be doing something dangerous to be hated; people from the world’s Nazareths are hated because they exist.

Vice-President Kamala Harris spoke in Atlanta after the first shooting and she told truth: “Racism is real in America, and it has always been,” Harris said. “Xenophobia is real in America and always has been. Sexism, too.”  

We’d love to think we’re perfect, that whatever problems we have are minor faults and that none of us would do “that”, whatever that mean, short-sighted or greedy thing might be.  But Vice-President Harris is right.  Racism is real – and part of who we are – and that means those stuffy old Calvinists were right.  We are sinners.  We can work at our sins, but we can’t pretend they don’t exist.  

On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem with crowds calling his name; his followers saw all their dreams on the threshold of coming true.  The world, they all thought, was gonna change.  It did, of course, but not the way anyone wanted. 

The best person we ever saw was from Nazareth. And it got him killed, not because he’d done anything wrong, but because human beings were incapable of seeing the truth of a stranger come to town to tell the truth.

Jesus died for our sins.  And chief among them then and now is the sin of hating the stranger, the …the other.  So it was then, so it is now.

May God have mercy on us.

Amen.

Been Down So Long. . .

a sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown CT on March 21, 2021

SCRIPTURE READING:                                                                                     Ezekiel 37:11-14

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Maybe you, like me, remember when Richard Farina died.  If you do, you probably know more about him and his work than I ever did – I was in my country music stage in those days, but I was at least aware of Joan Baez and that Richard Farina was her brother-in-law.  I only heard of him when he died in a tragic motorcycle accident and probably the only reason I remember him at all is the title to his only book: “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me”.   And, truthfully, I’ve never read the book.  The title was enough.  I’d been down often enough to understand the truth of the words:  been down so long it looks like up to me.

I don’t know about you, but seems to me that there’s a sort of truth there, and it points towards something really important.  Most of us get through childhood before we discover that there’s going to be tough spots in life.  But whether we learn it in a childhood spent in the foster-care system, or when a sibling dies – or we don’t learn it until we’re adults and thanking God we got on at the Tampax factory, or discover that our PhD won’t get us the job of our dreams –or in some other way, we discover that life is not perfect.  Not by a long shot.

The smartest, happiest, most blessed kid in the youth group is struggling with her identity.  Dad has a drinking problem.  I can’t seem to get out of debt.  Well, I don’t imagine I need to go on.  We all know it, or suspect it – life is full of hard stuff, and it doesn’t all turn out right.

The question isn’t, does this happen; the question is where is God in all this?  And that leads me to this morning’s lesson, from Ezekiel.  The lesson is part of the story of the valley of dry bones; a place where Ezekiel experiences God bringing back life to what the people think is dead.  “[the whole house of Israel believes]. . .our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely. .”  

Well, I don’t know about you, but that sure describes my own experiences when the world is going wrong.  Left out, let down, losing everything important, alone, everything important gone in some way or another.  My bones are dried up and my hope is lost.

But Ezekiel doesn’t stop the story there; he re-tells God’s promise:  “Oh my people I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live. .”   Live, live with God.  But live in a way eternally changed by all that’s happened.

My sister died when I was three.  I never met her; she died the day after she was born.  And yet her life, and her death, continue to be a part of my life, decades later.  God did not bring her back; God didn’t – in my opinion – even give us much comfort in the days following her death.   Not that people didn’t try; it just wasn’t much help.  We all, each in our own way, turned away from God for a long time, and we didn’t all come back.  But as time went on, I began to understand God’s presence in our world and the ways that line could be true.  I don’t think that, at the time, it would have been comforting if Jesus himself had knocked at our door to comfort my parents.  And I sure would have been confused.

What helped me “get” how God comforts us?  As I grew older (remember, I was three when this happened) I saw that we weren’t the only folks this had happened to – my father’s parents had lost two of their five children.  I won’t bore you with the details but it was clear that they’d dealt with a number of disasters, and it was God who had brought them through.  They were in church every week; they sang the songs, served on Boards and Committees, made most of their friends there; and they found something there which kept them going.  

I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that Frederick Buechner in his comments about Job in today’s bulletin has the right of it.  There’s more going on than we’ll ever understand.  It’s not the understanding that’s the strength of our relationship with God – it’s the companionship that really matters.  In the depths of crisis, we’re probably not going to be able to perceive God’s presence, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.  The story’s told that when he was deeply depressed, Martin Luther, the great Reformer, used to remind himself, “I am baptized.” so that he could remember that in baptism, God had promised to be with him forever.  Baptism is the outward and visible sign of God’s promise to be with us forever, good times and bad.  

Our hope is that we will be prepared with a faith in God that can endure the toughest times;  but remember, even those who knew Jesus gave him a hard time when Lazarus died.  The best among us doubt when the worst happens.  If, when those bad times come, you cannot perceive God, you are not alone.  God is still with you.

We are never alone.  God is always with us.

Amen.