Monday, April 14, 2014

Sermon for April 13, 2014

Rev. George Miller
Matthew 21:1-11
“Quarters for Christ”
April 13, 2014

A new minister moved into town. One day he takes the bus to the downtown area. When he sits down he discovers the driver has given him a quarter too much change.

As he considered what to do, he thought to himself, “You’d better give the quarter back. It would be wrong to keep it.”

Then he thought, “Oh, forget it, it’s only a quarter. Who would worry about this little amount? They will never miss it. Accept is as a gift from God.”

When his stop came, the pastor paused at the door, then handed the quarter to the driver and said, “Here, you gave me too much change.”

The driver, with a smile, replied, “You’re the new preacher in town. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about going somewhere to worship. I gave you that extra quarter to see just what you would do. I’ll see you at church on Sunday.”

When the preacher stepped off the bus, he literally held onto the nearest light pole and said, ‘Oh God, I almost sold your son for a quarter.”

Though this story is not fact-based, it is full of truth: for some people, our lives and actions are the only Bible they will encounter.

Remember this when we call ourselves Christian.

Remember as well that being a Christian means trying our best to do the right thing, even when the right thing is not the easiest thing to do.

Today Jesus enters into Jerusalem. Taken by itself it’s a joyous celebration of the Messiah’s entrance into history with people shouting “Hosannas” and songs of blessings.

But look ahead to the cross and we realize that today’s entrance into the Holy City is another step towards the eventual arrest, trial and murder of an innocent man.

What we’re witnessing is not a party that leaves all feeling well, but a man confronting his very death.

Today we are invited not to focus so much on Jesus or the crowd or the donkey and colt, but to focus on the disciples.

When we begin the reading, they are with Jesus at Bethphage, the Mont of Olives.

Bethphage is the city where Jesus’ close friends lived: Martha, Mary and Lazarus. It is a place where he is loved, where he has a place to rest, where he is fed, where he can just be.

Bethphage is also a symbol of hope.

According to the Old Testament, the coming Messiah will stand on the Mount of Olives before delivering his people.

Then there is Jerusalem which has been hovering in the background. It’s where King Herod presides. It’s the place where the Temple is located, but it’s also been called a city that kills prophets and stones those who are sent to it.

We have been prepared for this moment in time. In Matthew, ch. 16 Jesus told the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to undergo great suffering.

In ch. 20 he pulls the disciples aside to tell them that in Jerusalem he will be handed over and condemned to death.

Both instances are enough to make a sane person say “It’s been nice knowing you, Jesus, but let’s call the whole thing off.”

Instead, the disciples stay by his side and he teaches them that to follow him means to deny oneself.

He teaches them that to be a disciple means to willingly pick up their own cross, for as Jesus states: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but to lose their life?”

These are not easy teachings to hear or to live by.

Imagine being with Jesus that day.

Before meeting him you were a nobody going nowhere and now, because of him your life has purpose, direction, and you are warmed by the mystery of love.

Imagine you’ve spent a year to three years following him, observing miracles, seeing people’s lives transformed.

Imagine you’ve shared meals with Jesus, gone fishing with him, witness him reaching out to all of those society has neglected.

Imagine that he’s told you twice that in Jerusalem he’ll be humiliated and killed and now here you are, standing on the Mont of Olives, looking out on the city of Jerusalem, knowing full well what comes next.

Behind you, in Bethany, is the house of Mary and Martha, a place you have visited, a place where you know Jesus is welcomed, safe and cared for.

Ahead of you is the city where you know Jesus will be captured and crucified.

Imagine you are one of the two disciples Jesus asks to go into the village to get him a donkey and a colt so he can ride in.

What would you do?

Would you obey his direction for the sake of the Kingdom or would you say “No: it’s not safe for you there.”

It’s not an easy question, is it?

Giving back an extra quarter. Now that’s easy.

Knowingly bringing a man to his death- that’s a different story.

A few weeks ago I preached about stirring up the mud, but this is too much…

Following Christ isn’t so easy.

Being a faithful disciple is more than just reading scripture and saying your prayers.

It’s a complete way of life. A way of life that brings so much joy and feelings of completion.

But it also involves sacrifice, going against the popular norm, and doing things you’d rather not do for the sake of Christ.

Think of the United Church of Christ. How we, as a denomination, have a history of doing things that we believe Jesus wanted us to do, even if it meant that it could stir up the mud.

For example, being the first denomination to ordain a woman. That surely caused a few rifts in the body of Christ back in the 1800’s.

How many denominations are still debating that issue in 2014?

Sometimes doing the will of Christ is something we’d rather not do, especially if it seems like it could hurt the church.

For example, what happened in Biloxi, Mississippi in the 60's.

Back before there were casinos, decades before Hurricane Katrina, Biloxi was a sleepy southern city with a thriving fishing industry with beautiful beaches along the Gulf Coast.

Winter, spring, summer or fall, you could go to the beach, walk up and down the peer, do some fishing, and when it got hot enough, go for a swim.

You could, that is, as long as you were white. The beaches in Biloxi were segregated.

If you were black, it did not matter if you lived ½ a block from the shore, you could not enter the waters.

We’re not talking about one beach; we’re talking about 29 miles of beach.

One day, a black doctor, named Gilbert Mason, had enough, and with 9 other people, he waded into the water as a form of non-violent protest. They were arrested and a movement had begun.

A year later, more wade-ins happened. Although the protestors were peaceful, the authorities were not. Police were called in, arrests were made.

This led to the bloodiest race riots in Mississippi’s history as bullets sprayed the air, innocent people were killed, cars were overturned and set afire, and protestors were placed in unventilated trucks that sat in the hot Mississippi sun.

I tell you this because this story became part of the UCC’s story. At the time, the UCC was a presence in Biloxi with two churches and an outreach organization called Back Bay Mission.

Their pastors (Rev. Gallagher and Rev. Aregood) participated in the wade-ins, believing they could not sit back and watch as the city discriminated.

Though white, they too waded into the water with other protestors and sure enough they were arrested and thrown into those unventilated vans.

One night Back Bay Mission held a special session for the NAACP and was besieged by an angry mob of people who threw rocks and smashed windows.

To the sound of broken glass, the two UCC pastors joined the NAACP leaders in singing “Life Every Voice.”

They paid a price for walking in the footsteps of Jesus in those difficult days of the early 1960. These UCC pastors not only gave back their quarter but they were willing to go get the donkey.

And their churches paid the price. Word got around that the UCC was filled with troublemakers. Bosses told their employees that if they continued to go to “those churches” they would lose their job.

Eventually so many people left the two congregations, the churches had to close their doors. Until recently, there has not been a UCC presence in all of Mississippi except for Back Bay Mission.

That’s a big price to pay for following Christ. Talk about standing between Bethphage and Jerusalem.

They could have ignored the call of Jesus to do justice and continue living their nice southern lives by the nice waters of Biloxi.

Maybe they could have signed a petition or two or given a sermon about how segregation is wrong. Doing so would have kept them in Bethphage.

But they heard a call from Jesus to get the proverbial donkey and enter into Jerusalem when they joined hands with the other protestors and waded into the waters of Biloxi.

This is but just one example of how following Jesus is not always an easy thing to do. There are countless others and there are people right here in our congregation who have done bold things in their belief.

But it’s not always easy; it’s not always neat. And, as demonstrated by Jesus himself, it is rarely without ramifications.

As we talked about two weeks ago, Christianity is not a religion of just the prim and proper. It’s also for those who feel the challenge to dig in, get down and dirty, and to get their hands muddied.

Jesus doesn’t just call us to worship by solely saying a few prayers and reading choice scripture, but Jesus calls us to worship him and to show our appreciation by caring for others, by reaching out, and in doing the things he calls us to do, even when we wish we did not.

And sometimes Jesus may even call us, as a body of Christ, or as a member, to say or do something that may seem, in the short term, to hurt the body.

But thanks to the resurrection Good News, it may actual strengthen the universal body of Christ and make the Kingdom of God even that more real.

For in Jesus, we are not only empowered to bring change, but we are glorified, and although up close the cross may seem oh so frightening, in the end it is in, with and through God that we have the victory.

God’s ways are not always our ways. That’s part of what this week is all about.

May we find in Jesus a fearless leader we are willing to faithfully follow with loud Hosannas!

May the Holy Spirit empower us to continue being faithful participants in this amazing story called life. Amen.

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