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Sermon – March 28, 2010: Festival

Sermon for Palm Sunday, March 28, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg


Psalm 118 : 1-2, 19-29; Luke 19: 28-40

In Jesus’ day Jerusalem was a city of about twenty-five thousand, but on the great

festivals, when Jews came from all over to offer sacrifices at the Temple, there would be

more than a hundred thousand people there. Most of them camped outside, or stayed in

surrounding communities. Jesus and his followers had friends in Bethphage, which gave

them a perch on the boundary of the city, and it is from there, according to the gospels, that

Jesus arranged his arrival, which we now commemorate as Palm Sunday.

If you remember the one story in the gospels about Jesus’ boyhood, he’s at

Jerusalem for a festival, part of the pilgrimage of an extended household, in the company

of a large and disorganized enough crowd that his parents don’t miss him for a day. That

story is told in order to show us Jesus precociously spiritually earnest and insightful, an

omen of his eventual Messianic self-revelation– but between the lines it also shows us

something about the restlessness and sprawl of pilgrimage events. There are people

everywhere, and there is something going on everywhere, and parents must, as in

Lewisburg during the Arts festival on a good weekend, scan the street up and down to try

to keep track of children mingling into the masses, and assume that everyone will show up

at the end.

Along with the tithe owed the Temple there was a religious obligation to spend an

additional tithe in Jerusalem during the year, and there weren’t only the kinds of obligatory

ritual purchases related to sacrificial religion which angered Jesus in the Temple courtyard.

There were also commercial opportunities of every kind, much, again, like the small festivals

we mount here on the main street or sometimes in the park, both to capitalize on the crowds

who come for events, and to some extent to enlarge the event and therefore the crowds.

Pilgrimage presents what we regard as the paradox of Christmas. Piety tells us that

the real meaning of Christmas is spiritual, serious-minded, and devout. Advent is

supposed to involve sober self-examination, but the holiday itself is a feast–it’s supposed

to be celebrated at a big, satisfying meal, and there is something life-affirming about

relishing delicacies and indulging such pleasures. People go to church, even people for

whom it is not especially customary, and worship itself is experienced as something of a

pleasure, familiar faces, familiar songs, a familiar story, the contentment of having made a fit

observance of the holiday. It’s a holiday which retains a lot of its origin as a holy day.

Christmas is also a religious custom around which has grown a huge variety of

practices and patterns which seem slightly at odds with the humble Christ child and his

challenge to worldly powers. A lot of money changes hands, both in religious obligations–

year-end charitable giving still retains that sense–and in gift-giving. People entertain.

People seek entertainment. If Christmas were a place with a shrine in the center, devoted

to reverence for a holy person born long ago, then it would be surrounded on all sides both

by religious businesses–tour guides and booklets and maps and anything possible to sell

to a pilgrim– and non religious businesses, folks out to feed or house or sell anything at all

to persons who happen to be there as pilgrims but who have come with their ordinary

human openness to novelty, to souvenirs, to the festival’s ethic of more careless spending

and eating. Christmas would be like the Bloomsburg Fair, and it is, and the reason we gain

weight at the holidays more than at the Fair is that the holidays last longer, and usher us into

a season of sitting down indoors.

People often wring their hands about Christmas being so commercial, and

individuals encountering Christmas so self-indulgently. Spirit and flesh don’t seem to be on

exactly the same wavelength– approved merrymaking shades over into gluttony and

winebibbing, loving gift-giving crosses the line into excessive focus on stuff, the merchants’

relationship to the holiday is fractured between enjoying it for its heavenly revelations and

relying on it to pay the bills.

In order to understand Palm Sunday we have to imagine that Passover was like that.

We know it was chaotic and boisterous and at least in the Temple courtyard excessively

commercialized from Jesus’ perspective, but Jesus is a pilgrim, he’s a flesh-and-blood

being coming into a real city with everything that means–great spiritual longing coupled with

fast food, sincere personal religion alongside noisy crowds, an alternation between the

character of a community at prayer and a mob spilling into a ballpark.

We live with the paradox of pilgrimage. When we baptize these young people

today, we are teaching them to swim by tossing them into the water of life to begin to make

their way, sometimes flailing and sometimes gliding and sometimes being fished out of the

drink by others. The whole thing is hemmed in like Palm Sunday itself–an air of difference,

of festival, customary markers-in music and decor, distinguishing the place, the day– the

presence of people who might not be here otherwise, some among us occupied in part by

a meal being served afterwards, a bustle to the proceedings, the hurry to get ready into the

pool and the hurry to get back.

This is what Christian life sometimes has to be, hectic, improvising, meeting things as

they come–not measured, not reflective, but decisive and dauntless and disheveled. It’s all

part of going somewhere on purpose to make something of God’s claim on one, to put

oneself somewhere special to be made into something by God. Palm Sunday is

pilgrimage, and for all its mixed elements of fleeting freedoms and wide-open promise, the

mundane and the habitual, it is not a bad picture of life with God. We are always, when we

decide to deepen our quest to be believers, heading into a holy place with holy duties, in

the midst of everyday concerns and needs and flesh-and-blood loved ones and strangers

all around us, to claim God and be claimed by God, and to learn how to work that out amid

the competing claims of body and soul, self and others.


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