Palm Sunday and the One who comes in the name of the Lord!

Big Green Palm Leaves WP tangledwingBy Joe LaGuardia

Those of you who know Bob Bala also know he can tell a great story.  I’ve seen his grandchildren drop everything in order to sit with him whenever he utters the words, “I have a story to tell.”

This past week at a Relay for Life banquet, Bob told of a time when he was trying to sell a car to a Baptist preacher in the late 1970s.

The car was a 1978 Toyota Corolla, light blue station wagon.  Bob and the preacher could not strike a deal.  The preacher left, and Bob followed up over the next few days.

Finally, after the third or fourth call, the preacher told Bob, “God told me not to buy that car.”

Bob, in his unique way, was frustrated: How can any man–clergy or not–use God as an excuse not to buy a car?

A few days passed, and Bob made a deal with someone else who traded in a 1974 Toyota Corolla, light blue station wagon.

Bob called the preacher and told him, “Hi, Preacher, I’m calling you because God just sent me the car that he wants you to buy.”

Although that was not the end of the story, and we laughed for quite a few minutes after, I retell that story (with his permission, of course) because it reminds me of the politics of our day — Politics in the public square and politics in the pulpit.

I know that we pastors try to discern God’s will for churches and spend many hours in prayer, but even then I have never said to someone, “God is telling me x, y, and z.”

Now, that does not mean that I haven’t sensed God’s direction in my life or affirmed someone else’s experience with God, but I’ve never been so bold as to say with certainty what God has ever said.

We ministers–and the people of God, too–do not speak in place of God.  Rather, we only come to proclaim the One who comes in the name of the Lord.  We are not Jesus; we only prepare a path so others can hear directly from him on matters important to faith.

This Palm Sunday, many churches will follow in the example of those disciples of old who chanted, “Hosanna in the highest; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

It was the time when Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem to head not for a crown, but for the cross.  People went before him to cast their cloaks on the ground and praise God–a symbolic, but very real way of declaring that this Messiah is coming to be king of Israel.

Yet, when it came time to speak for God, they were silent.  Only Jesus spoke to the powers that were in charge; and only Jesus was able to say, declaratively, what it was that God was doing in the larger story of the world’s salvation.

Palm Sunday is reminiscent of the baptism of Jesus, for it was at that time that John the Baptist declared that he too was preparing for the way of the Lord.  When Jesus came to be baptized, John said that Jesus was the Lamb of God, the very son who came to save the world from its sin.

John said that only Jesus had the authority to speak for God and that “The Lord must increase while I decrease” (John 3).

God’s purpose for John was to prepare the way for the Spirit that others might hear God on God’s own terms.  Even we preachers, who spin some great sermons, proclaim that truth: That Jesus might meet people in the pews right where they are in life.

Politicians are much like preachers (or is it that preachers are like politicians?), and many a candidate will try to speak on God’s behalf.  It is their way of attracting the “evangelical” or “values voter.”

Yet, we must remember that God speaks in God’s own way, and the words that God speaks is usually words we need to hear, rarely intended for someone else.

If this gate could talk…An Easter Reflection

east gateI am the East Gate, and I have seen the trials and triumphs, the misery and the marvel that is the life and times of Jerusalem.

I am a proud gate standing sentinel for a proud and holy city.

I remember the day I was commemorated too. From the Temple, not a few feet away, I heard the prayers of holy men rise and fall like the sun:

Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in” (Psalm 24).

That was a long time ago.  Now, the Romans are in charge.

They stampede in here with horses and chariots, claiming that the only way to keep the peace is by the sway of the sword.  And they come in full force this time of year: Spring, during the Passover season, when the Jews celebrate God’s salvation of the Hebrews from the tyrannical Pharaoh.

Children gather at my feet and hear the elders talk about how poor Old Pharaoh tried to play God and failed, how Pharaoh and his army got swept out to sea.

Sometimes, a boy grows up and takes that story seriously and wonders why God can’t do it all over again, why God can’t call someone like Moses and tell Rome to take a hike.

There was, for instance, a Jew named Theudus who rallied some four hundred men. They paraded in here on horses, flashed swords and sang songs of triumph.   They echoed prayers of old that affirming that God would be swift to judge the wicked.

This week, Passover is going on as usual, and all of the pilgrims and priests have gathered together for the big celebration. The songs go up from the city, and the Temple is busy with movement; but, there has been chatter about a man from Galilee, a peasant who is unlike the other warriors who claimed to come in the name of the Lord.

He is no ordinary miracle worker. He is not a magician. And, by the sound of it, he is not much of a warrior either. He has no army. He amassed no weapons. He does not have a horse.

People gathered around him anyway and announced that this “Jesus of Galilee” was the King of Israel.

Hosannas rang out; people waved palm branches. Some of them threw their cloaks in front of him even though he rode in on a donkey.

He has been clashing with the authorities all week, not with swords but with words of the coming Kingdom.  He overturned tables and did miracles.

Some say he has been playing peasant because he does not want to get killed. Others say his parables hide his true identity as the Messiah.

One this is sure: this better be the messiah all of us are hoping for because the Passover is almost over, and he hasn’t sent any Romans running for the hills.

And if this Jesus doesn’t do what we expect him to do, if he doesn’t overthrow the Romans once and for all, then he will be in trouble too.

If he doesn’t watch his step and gather that army, then he might just end up on that cross that I see on the other side of Jerusalem—the one perched high on Golgotha that casts its long shadow across the city.

Words and promises and fancy talk of resurrection are not enough to appease this city.  Our hope is too high, and we need assurances like lower taxes and legislation that lets us live the high life.

So, if Jesus does not do what we want, then I can assure you that those shouts of hosannas will be turned to those two words with which I am all too familiar: “Crucify him!”  And he will be nothing more than another so-called messiah lost to history and to the sands of time.

Today better be a good Friday in which God’s victory comes upon our oppressors, not by acts of worthless sacrifice but by the edge of a sword.  That Jesus better have a miracle up his sleeve yet.

Holy Week counters the “overprotective church”

jesus-is-my-homeboy_19689_In a recent article, author Hanna Rosin claims that our culture is being so overprotective with children that we are hindering them from growing up.

She wrote, “One common concern of parents these days is that children grow up too fast. But sometimes it seems as if children don’t get the space to grow up at all.”

I’ve begun to wonder whether our Christian faith has not fallen into this trap: In what ways have we held people back in the maturing of faith by protecting them from following a Jesus who triumphantly entered Jerusalem, confronted injustice, submitted to the cross, and challenged his disciples to do the same?

I experienced this “overprotection” early on in my church going.

In high school, I joined my first youth group that really engaged my faith.  It was captivating, and I rarely missed a worship service.

Then, three years later, I was too old for the youth group.  I had to transition to “big church.”

In big church, I had to learn new songs, sit through sermons, think about my faith on my own terms, and join committees.

I met Jesus in youth group, but in “big church” I learned how to follow Jesus with my life.  It was hard work to be a Christian.

Years later, when my wife and I were visiting churches the summer before moving to Georgia, we decided to attend a popular church known for its stadium seating and big productions.

It was entertaining, but it was also like being in youth group for adults.

The church protected us from following Jesus in many ways.  We were sheltered from its internal politics (no committees to join).  We didn’t have to negotiate a budget to fix leaking faucets.  We didn’t have to commit to any missions or ministries.  We were anonymous.

Our only responsibility was to be a spectator of a faith that included drinking lattes, managing our bank accounts, and going to the beach after Sunday service.

Writing for Christianity Today, three authors surmise that many Christians have been “inoculated” from discipleship and have become “nominal Christians.”

The reason? Christianity has become too safe.

Jesus told his disciples one time, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

When he said this, Jesus did not mean for us to protect us from the realities of cross-shaped discipleship.

It was Peter who encouraged his readers “to crave pure spiritual milk…to grow in the Lord” (1 Peter 2:2).  These readers were persecuted Christians who did not have the luxury of coffee and pastries on Sunday mornings.

Several studies of late show that my generation is becoming more individualistic, and some communities of faith have perpetuated this notion.

The church itself has inadvertently fostered the condition by succumbing to individualism and consumerism. Under such pressures, church becomes primarily about what pleases people and meets their needs. Under such conditions, attendance and even membership do not lead to authentic discipleship—understood as a lifelong commitment to follow Jesus.

Author Russ Douthat, in an article entitled, “The Age of Individualism,” laments:

“In the increasing absence of local, personal forms of fellowship and solidarity…people were naturally drawn to mass movements, cults of personality, nationalistic fantasias. The advance of individualism thus eventually produced its own antithesis — conformism, submission and control.”

Apparently, my transition from youth group to “big church” was a necessary step in my maturation as a Christian.

It kept me from conforming to what has been dubbed “pop Christianity.”  It helped me apply my faith to the larger concerns of life and community.

I think this is what happened during Holy Week so long ago.  The Jews wanted lattes and liberation, and they wanted Jesus to lead the way.

They wanted an easy faith that included tanning on the beaches of Galilee free from the confines of the empire.

Jesus didn’t do that, however.  He went straight to the cross.

When his followers realized that they, too, had to go to the cross, they abandoned him.  They searched for the next shiny object instead.

That faith was too dangerous; and, by the end of the week, only a handful of disciples were left for Jesus to call his own.