Saturday, 27 March 2010

Palm Sunday: Pilgrims and Power-Seekers

Readings1 Timothy 6:6-11
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.

Luke 19:28-40
Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’


Picture the scene, as it’s not so different from our own weather experiences. It’s a warm spring early morning, and although you can anticipate the dry heat of the day that will come, for now the sun has not long been above the horizon and its presence is comforting, warming, and joyful - not yet oppressive. The dawn chorus is past, but only just, and the people are coming out of their homes to begin the work of the day.

We know Jesus had a base at Bethany since that was the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, and it would not be beyond the bounds of possibility to imagine their house as a meeting place for the party of disciples about to head into Jerusalem. There would have been a sense of excitement, not because they knew what was going to happen, but because they were going, ‘Up to Jerusalem’ as pilgrims arriving for the Passover festival.

Remember that a great many of Jesus’s disciples were northerners, from Galilee, so coming all the way down into the hot dry south to go to their capital city for a religious festival was quite a happening. They would have been excited. There might even have been a bit of a carnival atmosphere about it. Have you ever had that kind of experience?

St. Alban’s diocese has a pilgrimage every Easter Monday for the young people of the diocese to make their way to the Cathedral for a special Easter service led by all three bishops of the diocese. When we moved to Bedford for my curacy one of my jobs was to take an active role in leading the youth on that walk, and I always loved that sense of togetherness.

Even though Bedford was a good 30 plus miles from St. Albans, we would still walk the whole way. Easter Sunday we would be sent out on pilgrimage by the whole congregation after the morning service, and off we would go. We’d get to Luton by nightfall for a pizza supper, and then get up at the crack of dawn, if not before, and trek off to do the remaining section. There was a real sense of togetherness and excitement despite all the blisters.

And we’d meet up with others on the way, as we drew closer and closer to St. Albans. There would be conversations about who had walked the furthest, (we always won those), and who had the best banner, and then a real sense of triumph, joy, excitement and maybe even relief as we came out of the countryside, and at the top of a valley looked across to see the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St. Albans standing proud on the hill in the distance.

Pilgrimage is an incredibly joyful occasion, something that many people never get to experience these days, and there is no reason to think that for the disciples it would have been anything less than that. I suspect also that few of them really understood what was about to happen, despite some of the ominous happenings and sayings of Jesus.

Instead there would have been a sense of joy for many of them. It’s quite possible that there would have been children present as they were far more family oriented than we are, and for some of them they would never have seen the glorious magnificence of the huge holy Temple of God perched on the top of Temple Mount.
This also helps us to clear up an issue that often confuses us. Here, at the beginning of the first Holy Week, there seems to have been a sense of celebration of who Jesus was. ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord’ is quite something to be shouting, with a sense of expectation that Jesus really is the anointed one, the Messiah, sent to save the people.

In other accounts in the Gospels we even hear people crying out, ‘Hosanna’ meaning ‘Save us!’ So there seems to be this sense of Jesus being recognised for who he was, even if the people had been thinking more of a political saviour, a warrior-king, than the man of sorrows that he was. How, then, did we go from this loud acclamation on Palm Sunday, to the shouts of ‘Crucify’ less than a week later?

It’s down, again, to the idea of pilgrimage. That sense of excitement of people from all over the place streaming up to Jerusalem for the Passover festival is what we observe. These were the simple ordinary folk from the outlying villages, and some, like Jesus and his disciples, from much farther afield. The ones crying out calls of ‘Hosanna’ were pilgrims on the road who had met Jesus. These were not necessarily the residents of Jerusalem, although residents may well have come out to greet the pilgrims without knowing who it was that was with them.

The centre of power is the place which rejects Jesus because his arrival could mean the loss of their power. He came with a Gospel of taking up our own crosses, and the centre of power had no intention of doing that. Jesus was a threat to them; a threat that had to be dealt with. And curiously, that brings us to the colt, which in a village would have been a donkey’s colt. No villager could have afforded a horse.

There is something in what Jesus says about the colt which highlights this difference between the power-seekers and the pilgrims. Consider Jesus’s words. He tells the disciples to go ahead and find the colt that has never been ridden and untie it. If anyone asks why, reply that the Lord needs it. Now that visual image of a donkey’s colt and the Lord sitting on it is the complete antithesis of the clutching after power and influence that takes place at the centre in Jerusalem, and what Jesus says about the donkey can focus our minds.

There are two words that describe the donkey’s state, and the action they must take with the donkey. The first one describes its current state, dedemenon, which means ‘having been tied’. In English we just add the prefix ‘un’ to describe the act of untying, but in the Greek there is a different word, lusantes, loosening. There is a state of being tied up and then the action of being loosed. Why did they loose it? Because the Lord needs it.

This is a point of the story that we miss if we’re not careful. Jerusalem was going to crucify its Messiah, just like it had so often killed its prophets. Why? Because the people were tied up with their desire for power and influence and wealth. The Lord came to loosen them.

Think again about the colt. It would have been useless to Jesus if it had still been tied up. It wouldn’t have been able to move. That is quite literally what desires for power, influence and wealth do to us. They bind us. If we want our own way it becomes like being tied to a stake from which we cannot pull away. How much use are we to the Lord unless we let him untie us, loose us, from the shackles of our desires to be first, to be noticed?

‘Loosen the donkey’s colt’ says Jesus, ‘and if anyone asks why, say, “The Lord needs it”’. The colt was no use unless it had been loosed. The powerful people in Jerusalem were tied up by their desires to hold on to power, and so they were of no use to the Lord. In fact the real and true horror of this is that not only were the Jews who were bound up by their desire for power no use to the Lord, they ended up actively working against him.

One of the biggest problems with materialism is that we cease to be able to understand spiritual things. I’ve spent time on several occasions in conversation with people eager for power, and when the conversations turned to spiritual matters I might as well have been talking in a foreign language. They couldn’t even begin to understand what I was meaning. That’s the effect of materialism and the desire for influence.

And because of the ways in which we are insecure, what follows on from that is predictable. If we cannot understand something, we may well feel threatened by it, and move to eliminate the threat. The people at the centre could not understand Jesus. His actions had always been to step away from power, and so he was all the more threatening.

People who want or have power cannot understand people who shun it. As St. Paul said of Jesus in the letter to the Philippians, (2:5)
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.
We still see exactly the same attitudes in politics today. Two thousand years and humanity has not changed one iota. Many want to rule but few want to serve.

And sadly the same applies in church. There’s the church whose Rural Dean had to step in because the secretary had kept its wardens in the dark that they were nearing the end of their legal tenure whilst getting her own preferred candidates into place. There’s another church where the bishop had to appoint a hard-nosed vicar to break the power of a group who had gradually stepped in and taken all the positions of responsibility.

There’s the vicar who wasn’t allowed to get his own way with the diocese so he led his church out of Anglicanism to become a free church. Free from what? Certainly not free from their vicar’s drive for power. These are just three examples I’ve come across in my own experience or have had shared with me, and there are plenty of others. And every time we do this, the people of God crucify the name of Jesus again.

‘But’, you may say, ‘Surely this doesn’t apply to me. I don’t seek after power.’ Thankfully, for many that is true, and we can usually tell who they are. Listen again to these words from the first reading. ‘...there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so we can take nothing out of it;’

and this, ‘shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.’ You can usually tell the people who are like this, because they seem somehow contented. They have learned to love and accept that they are the person who God made them to be, and they don’t need to prove it to anyone.
So we should ask ourselves, ‘Am I contented? Or am I striving because I have something to prove to others?’ Essentially the question is, ‘Am I a pilgrim or a power-seeker?’ I would argue that the two are mutually exclusive.

Now don’t get me wrong here. This is not a question of judgement; it is a question of whether we want to be loosed by Jesus, literally untied and set-free to follow him, to be a pilgrim, to be of use to him. If we want to be set free, he will set us free, but it’s not an easy journey. I have personally found it difficult, but not impossible, to turn away from the high profile roles.

Am I going to be a pilgrim or a power seeker? Are you going to be a pilgrim or a power-seeker? What’s more important, what God thinks of you or what other people think of you. In everything that we do we should consider, ‘Is the Lord calling me to this, or wanting to set me free from the need to prove myself?’

Pilgrims are on the road to heaven, but they cannot avoid going via the cross, and we will consider that on Friday afternoon. Power-seekers are searching for their own end. That’s a very wide and welcoming path because it appeals to our nature to get the best for ourselves.

But it is a self-destructive way, and it exploits other people. It is not the way of Jesus, and it cannot be the way of his followers, yet it is such an easy trap to fall into, and we may not even realise we’ve been caught.

What have you wanted to do with your life?
Was it your desire or have you sought God’s advice?
Are you able to lay it down if God asked you to for the sake of doing something else?
Are you content with who you are becoming, even if you have not yet become that person?
Or are you aware of so often needing to prove yourself?

Have you been dominated by a power-seeker?
Did it make you seek power for yourself?
Did it make you feel useless, unworthy of love?
How did you respond?
Do you feel the need to prove yourself?

Do not feel condemned if you are becoming aware of not being as much of a pilgrim as you would like to be. Remember the words of Jesus. ‘Untie it, and bring it here’. The Lord wishes to loose us, to set us free, to pick us up from the power road, turn us around, and set us down on the pilgrim trail.

Let that same longing grow in your own heart to be one who is walking with excitement towards heaven, rather than one who is trying to draw attention to themselves.

God gives each of us gifts to be used in his service, and it is as we lay them down at his feet that he gives them back to us to be used for his glory rather than ours. Amen.

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