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Welcoming Jesus

April 14, 2014

“Welcoming Jesus” Matthew 21:1-11 © 4.13.14 Palm Sunday A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Peter was on cloud nine. His latest upload to Jew Tube had gone viral in no time. People loved the healing of the two blind men in Jericho. All that shouting and crying! And the close-up of Jesus’ face as he responded to their plea to be given back their sight! Wow! In addition to his own videos, CNN—Canaan News Network—had cut away from its constant coverage of the search for a missing caravan long enough to show some footage. Couldn’t have asked for better publicity.

Excitement was in the air, despite the tight security and the inconvenience it brought. In the run-up to Passover, a Zealot suicide bomber had attacked Pilate’s headquarters, and now the whole Roman garrison was on high alert in full battle dress. There were checkpoints everywhere. But Peter wasn’t going to let such annoyances spoil the moment for him.

The apostle hoped he wasn’t overloading the Twitter feeds of those who regularly followed the progress of Jesus and the disciples as they made their way to Jerusalem. #Jesusjourney. #Jerusalembound. It seemed he was online all the time now. If not tweeting, then posting to Faithbook and Instagram.

Now they were nearing the Holy City. The apostle checked his Iota Phone for the schedule. Bethphage was their next stop. This visit would put the little town on the map, making it more than just another suburb of Jerusalem. The vendors should be ready now with the T-shirts that said “I Was There: Triumphal Entry” and “Jesus Christ!” along with the bobble-heads and other assorted memorabilia. Starters were in place with instructions on when to cut and lay down palms, encouraging others to do so.

The crowd should be pretty good. There had certainly been plenty of interest expressed in Jesus’ visit, judging by the comments on Faithbook and the number of people who liked their page. The independent pilgrimage website hosanna.com was giving the event four Stars of David, which meant “don’t miss this.” There people could view videos of Jesus’ miracles in other places, see where he was at any particular moment by downloading the “Jesus tracker” app or e-mail a message to him. Great marketing tool! Worth every penny of the price Peter had negotiated.

Thank goodness, too, for Donkey Finder. He had gotten the app from the JT&T store. Using an implanted GPS chip, it pinpointed the location of every animal within a specified radius and provided a contact number for the owner.

Peter snapped out of his reverie when a tone on his phone alerted him that Jesus, accompanied by his other senior staff people, Andrew, James, and John, was just about ready to go. Showtime!

You’ll forgive my little fantasy, I hope. But I wonder if the event might have happened that way if today’s communication technology had been available. The reality, of course, is not so grand. Rewind 2000 years to the spring day when Jesus and his followers made their way from Jericho through the village of Bethphage on the famous Mount of Olives. Though he was the Son of God, our Lord was riding the lowliest of animals. Though he was a monarch of the greatest power, he did not come with the trappings of kingship and military victory; he had no riches and there were no official delegations of dignitaries to greet him and give him the key to the city. Indeed, even the animal he rode was borrowed, just as his tomb would be. His followers sought to show their devotion by laying down before him the very clothes off their backs, along with branches they cut from the surrounding trees. Hardly the entrance of a celebrity in the style of our day, or indeed of any era. Yet that day Jesus came into Jerusalem was the beginning of the most important week in human history, when the drama of salvation would be fully played out and brought to its completion. The account of the event may have gotten buried on an inside page of the Jerusalem Press in favor of a piece about the latest decrees of Pontius Pilate, but it was news, writ large.

So that’s the story. But what does it mean for us? Maybe a clue is in the response Jesus told his disciples to give anyone who questioned them about their commandeering of the animals. They were to say: “The Lord needs it.” This is in some way a text, then, about responding to the call of our Lord to minister to him. In the first century, answering that summons could mean giving him a donkey to ride or, like the apostles, trying to ensure his comfort as he rode. Later, it would mean wiping his bloody brow in a brutal procession through the streets of Jerusalem or carrying his cross when he stumbled or volunteering a newly hewn tomb for his body. Today, Jesus himself said he is with us in the most vulnerable among us, namely, the poor, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned, the ill-clothed, and the left-out. When we seek to meet their need, we are ministering to him. So the question we must ever be asking if we are to live this Palm Sunday text is “what are the needs of those in whom we meet Jesus today”? Will it be clean water or food to eat? A decent, affordable house? An understanding ear or a voice raised in advocacy? Will it be money to support a cause or hands to help after a disaster? How will we respond when we hear “the Lord has need of it”?

But there’s another theme here worth considering. There were some risky acts of devotion going on in the story. One was cutting branches and placing them in the road. Sounds innocent enough, but in Israel such branches were used to welcome a victorious monarch. So the people were making a subversive political statement: Jesus is King, not Caesar. Dangerous to do under the watchful eyes of swarthy Roman soldiers armed to the teeth.

The other act was the laying out of cloaks to welcome Jesus. I’m taking the cloak as a symbol of everything that brings security. Consider: the cloak gave protection against sun and against cold. It was against the law to take a person’s cloak as collateral for a loan unless you gave it back by nightfall, so essential was the garment to survival. In Isaiah, a cloak is deemed as necessary as bread. The prophet Ezekiel imagines God covering Israel with God’s cloak to hide Israel’s nakedness and shame. To give up one’s cloak, then, to lay it out before a leader, however temporary the gift, was to say that you offered up your very survival into his or her hands; you depended on that person for your well-being. That which meant life itself belonged, in this instance, to Jesus.

It was the disciples who made the first gesture of that sort. And that’s instructive, I think. In every congregation, every organization, there are people who set the tone, who lead the way. They may be invested with formal power, like elders. Or they might be folk who by the strength of their example, the depth of their spirituality, the authenticity of their lives are the pacesetters. In some places, some communities, the tone set might be only a discordant competition among voices vying for control. But in the best and most effective churches, the example set by the leaders is one of energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. They are the ones who show their dependence on God, who lay out their cloaks.

But laying out cloaks did not merely belong to the disciples, and today it’s not only the act of leaders. It was and is for everyone. So what will you lay before Jesus today? What will I? Whatever we cling to for security and comfort, will we place it before Jesus, entrusting to his care that which we depend on most? Will we say “I belong to you, Jesus. I can depend on you”? Or as the hymnwriter simply put it: “I surrender all.”

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