Cozy Home

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter [Year A]

John 10:1-10

Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

That line always makes me think of one particular fall evening early on in my marriage to Melinda. It was still just the two of us, but our oldest was on her way. We were learning our way—two relatively young people figuring out marriage and how to enjoy the gifts of life together. Melinda loves the fall, and an impending birth must have provoked a nesting mood that evening. She excitedly offered to cook dinner, and I was happy to discover what she had in store.

As it turns out she had found a particular cookbook that interested her called the Cozy Home Cookbook, and that should have been a clue as to what was going to happen. All afternoon she labored happily in our small kitchen. When she finally called me to the dinner table she asked for help bringing out the dishes she had prepared. I reported to the kitchen and the first thing she handed me was a whole turkey breast, perfectly glazed with honey. “Is anyone else joining us I’m not aware of?” I asked her. No, she assured me. That was all just for us. I laid it on the table and went back. She handed me a full 9×13 dish of sweet potato casserole. Each time I tried to sit down, she kept calling me back to the kitchen for another dish. Stuffing. Mashed potatoes. Baked apples with cinnamon sugar. Green beans with almond slices. Salad. And there was dessert waiting when we were all done with that, which, looking at the table once it was set, I realized might be two weeks later.

She and I still laugh about the Cozy Home Cookbook incident and whatever overflowing generosity that came over her that night. Never before and never since has our hearth produced such bounty. All the recipes sounded delicious to her, so she made most of them. She cooked that we might have dinner, and have dinner abundantly.

When Jesus tells his disciples that he comes that they might have life, and have it abundantly, he wants them to know that the servings of love and forgiveness and justice God prepares are intended to just keep coming. The life he intends for us is one of abundance, not scarcity. It is of generosity, not greed. It is of plenty, not poverty. Jesus wants us to be able to sit down at the table of life, where the cup is filled to overflowing, and find there is plenty to relish and plenty to love and plenty to be amazed by and plenty to share and plenty to laugh at and plenty to give thanks for.

We might think that he shouldn’t have to clarify this. We might think that it would be obvious that God wants good things for God’s people, that God would surround us with things that are life-giving. But Jesus is aware that for so much of our history those who come claiming to speak for God end up hoarding and abusing the blessings of life. Like thieves and bandits that break into the sheepfold to steal and kill and destroy, corrupt and selfish leaders throughout the ages have damaged the community of God and exploited the relationships that God intended for good.

Jesus says this to his disciples as he stands in Jerusalem, the holy city and site of the Temple which had become a symbol of power and control. Many people’s experience with authorities in Jerusalem, with the ancient kings and religious rulers, had been coercive and manipulative. They had excluded people based on often arbitrary criteria. They had created a system of favorites, of insiders and outsiders. Has that ever been your experience with religion of any kind? Have other believers or even pastors left the impression that God’s kingdom operates on some kind of sacrifice from you, whether it is your well-being or your honor? Has anything from church ever communicated that God cooks from the Cozy Home Cookbook for some people but not for others? If that’s the case, Jesus is sad we’ve gotten that impression, which is why he clarifies that he is different than the others who’ve come to establish God’s rule. Others who’ve had power have often tended to act like gatekeepers who control who the blessings of God are for. But they are not real gatekeepers and neither are they the gate. Jesus is the gate. And he comes that we may have life and live it to the full.

 In this short portion of Jesus’ teachings in the tenth chapter of John, Jesus compares himself to several different things all at the same time. At one point he says he is a shepherd, leading sheep just by the sound of his voice, which was a very customary shepherding practice in the first century. Cattle and camels, by contrast, pretty much have to be driven, which is leading by a series of threats. Sheep just follow by listening and watching their leader. It’s more of a relationship based on gentleness which communicates something about how God wants to relate to us. But in this morning’s text Jesus makes himself more the gate than he does the shepherd. A good gate keeps the flock safe at night. It is a means of protection and security and, perhaps most importantly, togetherness.

We have a large fence that surrounds our back yard and recently our young son realized that one of the planks was loose. One day last week he went out there and just yanked it off with his bare hands, leaving a hole just large enough for our dog to get out, and she wasted no time doing so. Then she just kept going and coming as she pleased, out of that hole in the fence, refusing to play with us in the yard, until I could screw the plank back up. Sheep also have a wandering habit, and once one finds a way out, then they all do. A gate forms a barrier that keeps them inside and together and Jesus apparently likes the thought of his sheep together. He knows God creates us to live in community, not separate. God has designed us to share the protection of God with one another, to encourage each other with our stories of God’s presence in our lives, to pray for one another, to taste the salvation that Jesus’ love provides.

But a good gate must also be as easily opened as it is shut in order to let the sheep out to graze in the green pastures. That is where the sheep find their food and their water. It is where they stretch their legs and leap around in their lamb-like ways. A good gate has to be open and shut, and Jesus sees himself as that protector and as that opening to the world. The abundant life contains both of these things—safety from the forces that harm us and freedom to find what makes us thrive. A faith system that denies us the opportunity to explore the world and discover our gifts and use them does not have Jesus as a gate.

The images of both gate and shepherd are demonstrated in extremely powerful ways in the new film Anahita: A Mother’s Journey, which was premiered here in Richmond last week before a crowd of a couple hundred including about a dozen from Epiphany. The film tells the story of a refugee and mother of five from Kabul, Afghanistan, who makes the perilous journey to America in the last days before the country falls to the Taliban. Sensing that her own life and livelihood as a female police officer puts her whole family in mortal danger, she scoops up her children and risks life and limb to board one of the last planes leaving for the U.S.

Some of us may remember the scenes of desperation as Afghans crowded the barricaded airport terminal in August of 2021. In the film Anahita gives us a first-person account of how terrifying it was to confront the concrete and barbed wire barriers stained with blood and littered with the clothes of people who didn’t make it over. Her challenges to leave the country and stay together as a unit are enormous. At one point in the mayhem Anahita’s two young sons get separated from her. At long last she finds someone to make an announcement over a loudspeaker to find them, but she hears no response. Eventually she sees them sitting with a stranger, looks of total shock on their faces and she pulls them to her immediately. Around them people scramble to be saved by finding a gate into the inside of the airport where, as they are told, they will not be harmed.

The determination and sacrifice that Anahita displays in order to provide safety and then a better life for her children is heroic. Even after she succeeds in getting spots on a flight to the U.S. she still must go through an interview process and then, in her new home, scrape by on the generosity of others as she commits herself to learning English and seeking a job to provide for her family. Her husband, still trapped in Afghanistan, has no idea when he will be able to join them.

Hers is a story familiar to many refugees, and to many parents, for that matter, but the film shows very clearly how Anahita is both the shepherd for her children and their gate to a better life and future. In fact, she is an image of Jesus, the good shepherd and the gate, who leads and defends us through the world’s mayhem but also provides our entrance to an abundant, eternal future. Anahita’s journey in many ways reflects the journey of our Savior, who braves the valley of the shadow of death so that we may fear no evil. On the cross he does whatever he has to so that the eternal, grace-filled life of God will come to us, even when it means laying down his own life.

In doing this Jesus shows us that the abundant life is, in fact, the one that is lived for others. The life that is lived to the fullest is one that calls out to the lost and gathers them at great cost where the overflowing cup placed before us is meant to be passed around. The abundant life is the kind of living here and now that mirrors the plenty of heaven precisely because the good gifts we have been given are lifted up and shared for all. Anahita’s story, for example, was made more poignant when it was shown she and her children passed through Fort Dix, and this congregation, in fact, gathered loads of socks and underwear and clothes and bedding to be used by those families as they arrived there that fall. Your generosity helped make their life more abundant!

The abundant life is the life where congregations, whether they sit in a city center, suburban neighborhood, or a rural field, become sheepfolds for all to enter because Jesus himself is the gate among them. In our service ministries, in our hospitality, in our faith formation, we see that our most important task  is to call all to sit down at the table of grace with us.

Yes, we learn to sit together and we feast upon the gifts of love he sets before us, beloved sheep that we are, together, equal, where Jesus’ goodness and mercy make us—dare I even say it?—one big cozy home.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.                                                  

A Monumental 10K

a sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter [Year A]

Luke 24:13-35 and 1 Peter 1:17-23

It is rare that we get this kind of geographical detail in the New Testament, but Luke tells us that the distance from Jerusalem to Emmaus is roughly seven miles. The actual measurement Luke uses is “sixty stadia,” and one stadia was a unit of measurement in the ancient world that equaled approximately 600 Greek feet. We think. Exactly how long a “Greek foot” was is difficult to know for sure, and the precise location of Emmaus is a fact lost to history, but over time consensus has emerged that this village was about an 11 kilometer walk from Jerusalem. That means, then, that a couple of Jesus’ disciples essentially did the Monument Avenue 10K, plus a cool-down, on the night after Jesus rose from the dead. Could you imagine? On the very night after rumors were swirling that Jesus, who had been crucified, was actually risen from the dead and that Mary Magdalene herself had seen him, two of Jesus’ inner circle get up and decide to hit the road for a 7 mile walk!

In all likelihood, Emmaus is where these guys were crashing since Jerusalem would have been packed with other people celebrating the Passover. Therefore this wasn’t a recreational journey. They aren’t trying to P.R. or win their age division. This is a trip most likely of necessity, a walk that would have allowed them the opportunity to process things.

Other than the 20,000 participants yesterday, I don’t know how many people go on seven-mile walks with other people anymore. When I first came to Epiphany over 14 years ago there was a group that got together each Saturday morning to train for the Monument Avenue 10k. There were different groups according to different running ability and there was also a group for walkers. What drew me to the practices I came for wasn’t reailly the chance to train but it was the chance to get to know people. I still remember the great conversations I had with John Stapleton and Laura Dietrick and Tim Sparks as we completed a course, and through them I learned quickly how warm and friendly this congregation is. The first part of our congregation’s mission statement is “walk the journey,” an acknowledgment that taking a journey together, provides the time to share insights and ponder things about our faith.

These disciples walk the journey that day to Emmaus, but it is a journey of doubt and confusion and disappointment. They are trying to unpack the events of the weekend where Jesus, their beloved leader, arrested, tried, executed, and buried all within a few days. And on top of that, there was this peculiar testimony that Jesus’ body was missing and that he had been seen alive. I would certainly need a seven-mile journey to sort out fact from fiction in something like that.

Whatever their reason for walking and talking we see disciples earnestly trying to get to the truth of a serious matter. They have a version—or several versions—of events and they are picking through the evidence carefully, leaning on each other figure out what really happened. They are being careful about the details because life and their future really depend upon it.

Faith—whether it is in Jesus or anything else, for that matter—depends at some point on truthful information, on a situation that looks at facts as much as it can, in an account has had agenda removed from it so that people can reach their own conclusions. Was Jesus raised from the dead? Is he bodily appearing to people? Could a true leader of Israel really suffer death and then enter glory? Would God be willing and able to redeem a situation this bleak?

These are important questions that people will ask. In fact, we probably asked them ourselves, and it would behoove Jesus’ followers to have an answer that they’ve thought through and to be honest about their doubts. The church over the centuries has given people plenty of reasons not to believe us and not to trust what we say. The apostles’ initial struggle to get to the bottom of what happened at Easter is central to our authority in this matter, and we are grateful for their diligence.

It is a difficult thing to tend to the truth, especially when people so often praise you more for telling them what they want to hear. God still lays this responsibility in front of us, whether we’re in the pulpit or in the pew. People who encounter us each week rely on us sharing our faith honestly and openly. You may not think about it much, but you are an authority on your faith, and you are therefore an authority on Jesus. People will encounter you seeking an honest answer, for example, about why you make so many quilts. For people you don’t know! Why you treat people so kindly or show compassion so freely or believe God is good.

Truthfulness is really important for building trust. Peter, another apostle, testifies to that in the second lesson this morning. Writing to some of the earliest Christians, who were under assault because of their beliefs, he encourages them, saying “now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth…love one another deeply from the heart.” Truth-telling is essential to loving others, and these disciples on the road to Emmaus, are attempting to be obedient to the truth of the events of Jerusalem so that God’s love can be known.

And in the midst of it all, shockingly, the truth himself shows up, walking along, listening, and keeping himself hidden, staying attentive to their disappointment and confusion. They explain Jesus’ the details disgraceful death to Jesus himself, as if he wasn’t the one who went through it all, ending it by saying, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Father James Martin, in his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage, says that the words “We had hoped”  are the saddest words in all of Scripture. On a day when they had hoped to be celebrating the Messiah’s new reign, and the overturning of the Roman oppression, they are dejected and lost. Life is filled with too many instances of unfilled hopes, be they personal or professional or financial or spiritual. The Monument Avenue 10k assures us of things like athleticism and goal-setting, that the physically and mentally fit will persevere. The Emmaus 10k assures us that the Lord Almighty stays attentive to our disappointment and confusion. Jesus stays with people as their journeys of doubt and unfilled hope stretch on and on, Jesus pulls up a chair at the table, leaning in, when our long day draws to a close and we can only think about the things that could have been.

The walk eventually comes to a pause as they reach the village and unwittingly as Jesus to join them for a meal. It is the first evening of God’s new creation in Christ and we are hearing about a meal. The sun has not fully set on the first day of Jesus’ resurrection, and people gather around a table for food and drink. Jesus is saying something to us here about our own journey of faith. Breaking bread together is going to be central to our common life. Whether it is at a church potluck, or at a funeral reception, or a Men’s lunch group gathering at Frank’s West, the church can’t really be the church if it doesn’t eat together. And the most important meal of all, without a doubt, is the one where Jesus’ body is blessed and broken and the words of his forgiveness are repeated again and again.

Also central to our common life is welcoming strangers, and since eating a meal with someone was one of the most intimate things you could do in the ancient world, central to our common life is opening ourselves up to new people. On the first day of his risen life Jesus appears as a stranger—a stranger who appears “out of it” about basic knowledge. How does Jesus show up today in the appearance of people we don’t know and maybe consider clueless? Do we invite them deeper into friendship?

That Jesus was unrecognizable to them has always been one of the most perplexing things about this story. Why didn’t they immediately know who he was? Had the resurrection altered his appearance in some way? And what’s this about suddenly disappearing at the end? Is his risen body able to shape shift? Will ours?

In the end these specific answers evade us, but Jesus doesn’t. Jesus doesn’t elude us and doesn’t want to elude us. He is made known in the breaking of the bread and the disciples realize their hearts burned within them when he discussed Scripture with them on the road. The fact of the matter is the church is going to find itself in all kinds of confusing and bewildering situations. Life is complicated, seasons change. People of faith are going to feel like these disciples quite often—we are going to be like these disciples quite often—wondering how to move forward in grief and disappointment, not knowing exactly which paths to take and how to speak up in faith. One thing we can always count on is that Jesus will be present in the Words of Scripture and in the meal where his forgiveness is promised. God will continue to gather us in the midst of many trials and hardships, in the joys and celebrations and show up when we are formed by his word and when we eat of the meal where he blessed the bread and broke it and passed it around saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

“Supper at Emmaus” (Carravagio)

The saddest words of Scripture may be “We had hoped” but Christ still goes in to stay with the travelers. And their saddened hearts yet burn. And their downcast eyes yet open. And Christ yet lives. And there they go, full of faith, back on the road for another Emmaus 10 K to let everyone know the truth. Christ is risen.

Last week in worship when I was giving out the bread and people were coming forward to kneel at the rail, a young girl stuck out her hand to receive a piece. Out of instinct I went ahead and tore off a piece of bread and placed it on her palm. There was some momentary awkwardness because I realized after it was already hers that she hadn’t gone through our 4th grade Holy Communion class and may not have discussed receiving communion with her parents yet. I wasn’t trying to preempt a parental decision or subvert anything there, but I did notice that her eyes got instantly wide and she kind of stared at the piece of bread as if to say, “This actually just happened!”

Afterwards I discussed it with her parents to clear up the confusion, and we laughed and everything was OK, but they shared that, there at the rail, once she realized sticking out her hand got her a surprise, and that no one was mad with her, and that she could just go ahead and eat it, she looked at her mom and said, with the gears of her 8-year-old theological mind visibly working “Well, I guess nothing bad’s gonna happen.”

Now ain’t that the truth. Out of the mouths of babes! Nothing bad’s ever gonna happen with Jesus, whether we’ve anticipated him or not.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Love Language

a sermon for Maundy Thursday

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

If you stop and think about it, we humans end up learning and sometimes even mastering a great deal of rather complex subjects and tasks over the course of our lives. We learn how to speak, read, and write. We learn how to tell time and do math. We learn how to drive and we learn how to budget money and other resources. We learn how to load the dishwasher like our spouse expects us to. Talk about complex things!

Artemis II crew

Just this past week the identities of the next four astronauts that will orbit the moon with NASA were announced. That mission isn’t scheduled to occur until 2024, so we know the next year for those four individuals is going to be filled with learning and putting to use some of the most advanced physics equations and techniques for anxiety management that humankind has ever dreamt up. We learn so many things that are really quite complex and really our growth and character and our success depend on that learning.

Love might be the most complex of all. And while so many other subjects come with explicit instructional time and sitting down to commit things to memory, love seems to be learned differently. How to experience and interpret love properly and then how to love others well is something we’re always discovering and unpacking from the moment we’re born—even before we realize that’s what we’re doing. There is no book or instruction manual on how to love. There are no flash cards or a test to pass or license to strive for.

And yet Jesus wants us to learn it. In fact, he wants us to know it so much and to get so proficient at giving and receiving it that he makes a commandment about it on the night before his crucifixion. He gathers his disciples around what we can assume was his Last Supper and tells them to “love one another as I have loved you.” And the best way he can think of to teach them about love in the moment is by showing them what it looks like. Love looks like this act of servitude. It looks like putting a brief pause in the conversation, getting up from the table, tying a towel around his waist, kneeling down to the floor and washing his disciples’ feet. This is never a task that a master or a teacher would do for his servants. It would be the other way around. Love, however, goes against the grain. It involves sacrifice and vulnerability. With this act that is carried out in silence and shock Jesus gives a lesson: each expression of love should have some humility in it. Otherwise, it is just a form of power.

How would you teach this concept of love? Is there something you would show or point to? Is there an act or gesture you would choose? For many years I’ve been drawn to Dr. Gary Chapman’s theory of the five love languages, based on his book that came out about 30 years ago. In fact, I often bring up the love languages in pre-marital counseling if the couple is not already familiar with them, but the love languages aren’t just for marriages. They apply within family relationships, friendships, workplace associations, and just about everywhere. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of books and retreats and Bible studies built on Chapman’s five love languages and the term “love language” has kind of taken on a life of its own.

According to Chapman, who is an ordained pastor and counselor, the basic theory is that however you tend to receive love is also the way you tend to give it.  Everybody uses all of the love languages, but there tends to be one or two that rises to the top for each person. And there are five general languages: quality time, physical touch, acts of service, gift-giving, and words of encouragement. Those who prefer quality time tend to feel most loved when people give them undivided attention. For those whose love language is physical touch nothing speaks more deeply than a hug or hand-holding or maybe a backrub. Acts of service is love expressed through actions that mean something, like filling up your loved one’s tank with gas or taking a turn with watching the kids. Words of encouragement or affirmation is love through giving compliments and praise. And for those whose love language is gift-giving, nothing says “I love you” more than a heartfelt present that has been specially picked out.  You can run across the five love languages everywhere and I think this caught on so much because it has helped lots of people understand this complex but important idea of love and then put it into action.

It occurs to me that Jesus’ actions on the night before his crucifixion are all five of the love languages rolled into one. It’s like he is showing all the love in all the ways he possibly can. He is giving them undivided attention, even as there are other things he could probably be doing—praying, spending time alone. Instead he listens to their concerns and sacrifices his time to be there for them. There’s physical touch. He reaches out and holds their feet in his hands, scrubbing them. It’s kind of like Jesus gives a pedicure to his disciples. The act of service is that he humbles himself to clean their feet. He couples all of this with words of encouragement and affirmation, verbally pointing out that they are blessed if they do these things and that they are right for calling him their Teacher. And the gift giving is the entire donation of his life, of which these meal is the preamble.

Maybe that interpretation seems forced to you and that I’m reading something into it that isn’t there. Fair enough. But the point is that Jesus’ life culminates with this grand gesture of love. It is a love for us that fully embraces us and places us at the center of God’s heart. With one huge and selfless act, Jesus shows us how much God desires to show us love that will cleanse us and heal us and empower us to love others. With one costly expression of humility Jesus envelops us all in forgiveness.

Now, Jesus says, it’s our turn to listen to and speak the love language of Christ to ourselves and in the world. And so we share words of affirmation with others. We remind people they are beloved children of God and forgiven of sins on a regular basis. We perform acts of service, especially for those who are often overlooked by the world. Maybe that looks like building homes for people through Habitat or adding a handicap ramp to someone’s house. Appropriate physical touch could look like medical care, curing diseases, addressing someone’s bodily wounds in the way Jesus often does. Gift-giving is what the church does regularly through its offerings. People and congregations give sacrificially in order that God might use those gifts in our communities and around the world. And then there’s quality time. Those who follow Christ often just need to show love by sitting with others, especially those who are suffering or struggling, and giving them our undivided attention. I think of our Micah tutors who will sit with kids at Southampton Elementary. There was a wonderful photo of Cindy McClintock in our recent newsletter where she was reading to some children.

The five languages of love that Jesus demonstrates at the pinnacle of this life may be a helpful way to understand his command to love one another and to envision how the church should live. As he goes forth to his death he leaves us with the responsibility of demonstrating his humility and vulnerability in ways that free and cleanse each other. And we do this in world that is often hostile to God.

The recent Oscar-nominated documentary called A House Made of Splinters, shows the life inside a temporary shelter for neglected and abused children living on the front lines of the war in Ukraine. Young children are brought to this type of orphanage when they need to be removed from their families and relocated to a better environment. Many of their parents struggle with alcoholism or addiction, and many of their fathers have gone missing in the combat zone.

Unflinching in its approach, the film holds nothing back. You see the poverty and the run-down, dilapidated homes and buildings they live in and the dingy building that the shelter uses. The children are often dropped off in the middle of the night by police not knowing if and when they’ll be picked up by their parents. Many get sent to live in permanent orphanages if the women running the temporary shelter are unable locate a living relative who is capable of caring for the them.

It is hard to watch because many of the cases are so sad and severe. And yet even against these bleak surroundings of hardship and sorrow a community of love and hope emerges. Children form real friendships, many for what may be their first time. They take care of each other and watch out for one another. They learn how to be vulnerable with one another and are surprised at the life and joy that comes from that move. And the women who run the shelter consistently offer their compassion and their tenderness so that the children can experience love in some form. They are the ones who make a difference in the children’s lives. Around them the beginning of a deeper war rages, along with the by-products of that violence that wreak their havoc, but the sacrifice and humility in the shelter foster joy and growth.

Originally made to show the harm that war causes to society’s most vulnerable, A House Made of Splinters ends up being a film that shows the vital importance of love in all of its languages. But no matter how it’s spoken, given, or experienced, Jesus knows how complex it is, and so he leads the way. His charge to his followers, to you and me, is to become a shelter and school of love, a house made of splinters—splinters, perhaps, of a cross—a community that gives life to the world…a community that says, “Hey. This is really hard. But we’re gonna learn. And we have the best teacher. And, by God, he thinks we can do it.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

One Shining Moment

a sermon for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion [Year A]

Matthew 21:1-11

It is the weekend of the Final Four of the Men’s and Women’s NCAA Division I basketball tournaments, two of the most anticipated sporting events of the year. This afternoon the Iowa Hawkeyes take on the LSU Tigers in Dallas, and out in NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, San Diego State will face off against UConn tomorrow evening for the men’s championship game. And for those who know much about the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament, in particular, as soon as the winning team cuts down the nets and is handed the trophy, and after the last on-court interviews are given, footage will cut to a montage of clips from the entire tournament, going all the way back to the opening round games two weekends ago when there were still 64 teams.

It’s a stirring montage that features the highlights—the triumphs of that year’s underdogs and the crashing defeats of the favorites. It shows the dunks, the dribbles, the fouls, the tears and the smiles, the fade-away three-pointers that go in at the buzzer. And that montage, every year going back to 1987, is set to the same piece of music. That piece of music, written first on a bar napkin by a man named David Barrett is titled “One Shining Moment.”  And it has become a standard feature of the whole March Madness ordeal. The tournament really isn’t over until it is played. The NCAA has figured this out and sought out special recordings of it. Jennifer Hudson did one. I think the current one is by Luther Vandross. It may be the cheesiest moment in sports, but every year people eat it up:

The ball is tipped
And there you are
You’re running for your life
You’re a shooting star
And all the years
No one knows
Just how hard you worked
But now it shows
In one shining moment, it’s all on the line
One shining moment, there frozen in time.

Palm Sunday, when Jesus enters Jerusalem to the roar of adoring crowds, can feel like we are watching his One Shining Moment. There he is, riding for his life, a shooting star. Like the song says, it’s all on the line—all the years of healing and teaching in Galilee and Judea all the years of learning the real heart of God’s law. Everything about his life and mission culminates with this procession toward the Temple and the halls of power. They don’t cut nets down, but they do cut palm branches down and wave them like crazy. What highlights will we witness, what scenes will we remember and hold onto?

Quite frankly, he’s an unlikely champion to most everyone around him. An underdog from some backwater town in the farther reaches of the empire, he rides to glory and fame on the back of a donkey. It’s a bit of a peculiar and controversial thing to ride on—a beast of burden instead of, say, a white stallion or a war horse with armor. According to some historians, there had been a long debate throughout Israel’s history about the use of horses in the military. There were those who wanted to add them but others said “Nay, Nay,” remembering that horses were what Pharaoh had once chased them with. They transformed a country’s army into something deliberately more offensive, rather than defensive. And so Jesus is clear that he will not be a king on that kind of offense.

Nevertheless, this is his One Shining Moment and people are expecting him to grab the trophy of power in a gesture of authority and control that will put all the nay-sayers in their place. This man is the king. This man is the ruler. This man is the Son of David and blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

The issue here, of course, is that we know it doesn’t all go like that. One Shining Moment on Palm Sunday quickly turns into a series of tragically disastrous moments. The vision of victory that Jesus has in mind goes over like a lead balloon. The people expect a kingdom that will be marked by fighting with weapons. He comes to establish a righteousness through words and deeds of love. As a result, he clashes with the religious authorities and then the political authorities. People desert him pretty dramatically. And by the end of the week people will be so mad and disillusioned that I doubt they’ll even remember this bit about the donkey and the palm branches.

I bet we’ve all been thinking a good bit these past few days and weeks about visions of power and embarrassing moments and how we are prone to idolize leaders, particularly political ones. We view them so often through only one particular lens, lifting them up as saviors who can finally get a certain job done only to have them disappoint us time and time again. We wake up too late realizing leaders so often use techniques of manipulation and control, and that they tailor their messages simply in order to increase their grip on power.

And the problem isn’t only them, of course, and all the promises they have to try to keep to all the parties along the way. The problem is also us. We project onto our leaders our dreams and desires, and we hear only the things we want to hear. We get trapped inside of echo chambers of the left and the right that confirm the biases we already have. Maybe Palm Sunday is a big echo chamber, where everyone in the crowd is expecting what they want Jesus to be and refusing to listen to what he’s actually saying.

The version of Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem and the events that follow that we will read today come mainly from Luke’s gospel. But in Matthew’s telling of Jesus entrance to Jerusalem, we hear that the whole city was in turmoil. It’s a bit of information that none of the other gospel writers include. The people are “stirred up,” which is another way to translate that Greek word Matthew uses. And I think, how timely! It occurs to me that our own country is in a bit stirred up at the moment, also in regard to one of its leaders. Turmoil happens when people’s dreams are dashed and their anxieties are raised. People get stirred up with worry and fear and anger, especially when pundits and powerbrokers have a vested interest in keeping people outraged.

But in Jesus’ case in Jerusalem, we should take notice of some things about his One Shining Moment even as it goes so far off the rails. Jesus never lashes out at anyone, verbally or physically. He never portrays himself as a victim even as he is led to slaughter. He never claims anything but the best about his opponents, and he never accuses them of weaponizing the government against him. He never cries out against Pontius Pilate even as he knows the justice seems mishandled. And he has no supporters that rally to his side—not a single one.

These events in Jerusalem, one after the other, look like failures of bravery and failures of decisiveness and failure of strategy. And yet they end up showing just how shining this moment really is and how golden and pure God’s grace in him is. Jesus never lets his anger or fear direct his actions. It is all love and compassion and forgiveness. Our sins will kill Jesus and yet he will never say one bad word against us.

What makes the events of this week truly holy is that however badly it goes for him means everything will go well for us. He will become, on the cross, the result of all of humanity’s brokenness. And God will shine the full force of his light and grace on us.

Interestingly enough, Matthew uses this word “stirred up” or “turmoil” only one other time in his telling of the story of Jesus. The first time is when Jesus comes into the city and people are stirred up by their expectations and anxiety. The second time is the moment he breathes his last breath. Matthew reports at that moment the whole earth shakes—it is stirred up, like in a earthquakeand the curtain of the temple was torn in two. The curtain in the temple is what symbolically separated the holiest place, the place where God was said to dwell, from everything else. It created this arbitrary barrier between the sacred and the profane. With the death of his Son, it is now God who is creating the turmoil, removing that which separates us from his love.

Jesus’ death is an upset and we all become winners. God stirs up the whole universe, from bottom to top and side to side, bringing everyone together, making us all vessels of grace, instead of spite. No more curtains! No one is going to be left out anymore. God’s great reversal is coming so that God in his grace can enter each and every lifeand each and every placeand each and every moment. On and on and on for the rest of all moments.

And not just the shining ones.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.