Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Off Script”

Rev. Art Ritter

April 9, 2017

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.”

Pastor Dawn Hutchings writes of a man who suffered from various illnesses for a very long time. He had seen countless doctors over the years, been prescribed lots of medicine, and undergone many tests. Through it all, his condition failed to improve. The man tried some home remedies to make himself feel better. He drank herbal tea and took mega-doses of vitamins along with his prescribed medication. He drank special shakes with powders he heard about on television and that didn’t help. Still he did not feel any better. One day the man heard about a doctor who was said to be an outstanding diagnostician. Even though the doctor was booked for months in advance, the receptionist found a way to fit the man into the schedule in just a couple of weeks. The man was so elated by the prospect of finding a solution to his problem.

At last, he was going to see this doctor who was recommended by everyone and find out exactly what was wrong with him. The day of the appointment arrived. After the doctor thoroughly examined the man and reviewed his test results, she sat down with the man and said, “My friend, you are not a healthy man. But you can be well again if you will only follow my advice. What you need to do is to lose about sixty pounds, get involved in a regular program of exercise, and eat more fiber and fruit and vegetables. You don’t need to take any more of the medicine that has been prescribed for you. You don’t need all of those teas and shakes and vitamins.” When the man heard what the doctor said, he was angry. He demanded that the doctor prescribe him some kind of medicine, maybe some new experimental drug that would cure his illness. But the doctor smiled patiently and said, “You don’t need medicine. You just need to change your life.” The man cursed and stomped out of the office and for the rest of his sickly life he told everyone that the doctor was a quack who didn’t deserve a license.

“Who is this?” people probably asked, as into the city of Jerusalem a man came riding on the back of a donkey. It was a city in apprehensive turmoil. It was the time of Pax Romana, or “Roman peace.” Things were relatively quiet and orderly but the peace was maintained by strict military and political control. Corruption and crime and suffering were in evidence everywhere. The weak and the poor yearned for relief and cried out to God for deliverance from their oppression, a Messiah to bring about God’s new day. Most people wanted this Savior to be a military or political leader, a conquering hero, sitting atop a mighty steed and leading a triumphant army against the oppressors. They wanted a man from God who would defeat their enemies, produce victory, and then hand them the power so they could live in their definition of personal peace.

On that day it seemed, perhaps only for a moment, that the script they had yearned for played out. It was shortly before the Passover and religious sensitivity was on high alert. The crowds lined the street in anticipation. People love a parade, don’t you know! The eager groupies climbed trees to get a look at the man of the hour. Things seemed to be so well orchestrated. Matthew described the donkey and the colt being right where Jesus told the disciples they would be. Perhaps this was indeed a sign of divine involvement! Children waved palm branches and everyone cried out “Hosanna, Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, he comes to save us.” Palm Sunday was a spectacle that raised the hopes of the people.

But the man of the hour quickly went off script. His actions didn’t seem to follow the best laid plans of his operatives, his handlers, or the expectations of the parade watchers. He rode into Jerusalem humbly, on the back of a donkey. Many scholars believe that his so-called triumphant entry was probably an intentional critique of the
forced parades that the Roman governors held to offer evidence of their secular power. Yet on Palm Sunday, those who cheered the loudest were not soldiers and power players but women and children and tax collectors and sinners. On that day, Jesus insisted that victory was not the way to peace, rather he urged the people to love their enemies, to forego the sword and to seek justice and righteousness. The crowd, who cried out for Jesus to save them, was not happy with the way he altered the expected script. They sought to be comforted not confronted. They cheered for a man who they hoped would bring them an easy fix not a world turned upside down. While they cried out for easy solutions that would avoid sacrifice and pain and bring them self-satisfying triumph, Jesus offered a storyline that was idealistic, demanding, and life-changing. And so it did not take long for the Palm Sunday crowd to move from celebration to protest. “Hosanna” quickly became “crucify him.”

Palm Sunday is that kind of a day. We celebrate today with a parade and the cries of salvation. Many of us are tempted to simply move directly from Palm Sunday to the empty tomb of Easter. That is the easy way. It is the theatre that we might prefer. We would rather avoid all the talk of anguish and suffering and death just as we would prefer to live our lives without hurt and fear and loss. Yet we know that to truly understand the power of resurrection we have to walk along that humble donkey; we must sit at Upper Room; we must pray anxiously with Jesus at Gethsemane; we have to acknowledge the cries of denial and betrayal; and finally we need to witness the cross at Calvary. To find our way back home we must confess that we are lost. To live as Easter people we must acknowledge the forces of death that control and worry and frighten us. Yes, there are clashing moods this day, two different sentiments, two varying attitudes about life and God’s intention, and two different ways to approach the script. One is to celebrate triumph and see anything less as the absence of God. The other is to honestly face the darkness and seek the hope of God in the promise beyond.

Marek Zabriskie writes of attending a performance of Philadelphia Orchestra. He is a classical music fan and looked forward to the sweet sounds and soaring harmonies of the symphony. That night however, a new atonal piece of music was being performed. While Marcus and Paul and many in our choir may know what atonal means, I had  to look it up to learn. The simplest definition that I could find was music that lacks a clear center or a key. Zabriskie said that the in the concert, not a note of harmony was sounded. Everything was dissonance. While was music was complicated and creative and many in the audience were moved by its complexity, Zabriskie said he found it hard to enjoy and at the end he refused to applaud because the music didn’t conform to his expectations for the evening.Perhaps that is the frustration of our Palm Sunday observance. The end to it just doesn’t meet our expectations.

Back in the late 1800’s, Victorian theater producers rewrote the final acts to many of Shakespeare’s tragedies to make them more palatable for theatre goers. Perhaps we’d like to rewrite the script for this day. But this a day in which we have to be honest about our faith in Jesus Christ. Perhaps he wasn’t or isn’t the kind of savior we expected. Jesus points out that God’s way will be demanding and life changing and we tend to like our lives, and our stuff, and we have accepted things as they are. He comes humbly as a servant when we would rather celebrate with arms raised in triumph. He comes in peace, not a peace that gives us bliss but one that stirs the pot and demands us to acts of justice. He comes in love, not a sappy and romantic kind that makes us giddy but in the love that confronts our propensity to hate and calls us to recognize the value of loving even our enemies. He comes is life, not in uncomplicated life as we dream it to be but in life that can be redeemed when we painfully acknowledge the darkness that bind us. Before the final words of “Hallelujah” and the “He is risen” there must be an honest ride into the places of our life that require redemption.