Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Politics of Palms

Lent 6 year C Palm Sunday 2013  The Rt Rev Ray Coster at the rededication of our church following major extensions and refurbishing.

Lying right at the centre of this building project is Jesus.  This building is all about Jesus.  No more no less.  It’s built for him and dedicated to him.  All that takes place in this building in the years to come will have his touch upon it, his grace over it and his love flowing through it.  Jesus loves Wanaka and its environs and this building stands here to declare even as a silent witness – and hopefully a noisy one at times – that Jesus cares about the people of this district.

In my time as moderator I have one main goal and that is to uplift the name of Jesus and declare him to this nation of Aotearoa New Zealand.  Wherever I can I will talk about him. 

Remember church, he is the one who said, ‘without me you can do nothing.’  "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5  And as Paul was later to declare, with him we can do all things.  “I can do everything through him [Jesus] who gives me strength. Philippians 4:13

As you step out into a new day as a church and community in Wanaka can I encourage you with this simple truth – keep your eye on the ball – his name is Jesus.  It’s so easy as a church to drop the ball and focus on so many other things that demand attention.  Keep your eye on Jesus in all that you.

Reading and Prayer 

Someone once said that leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can stand.  Jesus was the master at this throughout his life, but in the last week of his life he exceeded the disappointment rate and was killed.  I am learning in my first few months as moderator that it is very easy to disappoint people, but so far I have not had any stones or tomatoes thrown at me, and certainly not a cross on a hill!

People often think of Palm Sunday as an innocent children’s parade.  A donkey, Palm Branches, celebration, happy laughter – something like the Santa Christmas parade down Queen Street in Auckland.  The first one that we read about today was most certainly not.

About 100 years before Jesus birth, Israel’s great temple had been desecrated by foreign powers.  Under the Maccabees – a Jewish rebel army, Israel won a measure of freedom, which included control of the Temple.  Once they had this control they cleansed the temple, restored its worship and then rededicated the Temple to God and their restored nation.  Palm branches were used for its rededication.

I am not sure if you intentionally chose Palm Sunday to dedicate these renovations and additions or not, but in doing so you are in many ways repeating an ancient tradition of the Jewish people.  Palm Branches are a symbol of the restoration of a Holy Place.  A symbol that the place of meeting, the place of encounter with God in a town has been restored to its rightful place.  But that depends on your perspective.  To the Jewish people the Palms were a symbol of restoration, but not to the foreign powers that lorded it over the nation.

In Israel by the time of Jesus, Palm branches became a symbol of Jewish nationalism.  During two major wars against Rome, Israelite rebels illegally minted coins and put palms on them.  A sign of opposition – a refusal to use Roman currency.  To wave a palm branch in front of Rome was like waving a red flag in front of a bull.  It was a declaration of war.

What we Christians call the triumphal entry was for the crowds a military statement.

John indicates this in his gospel when he says the people quoted Psalm 118 ‘Hosanna (Lord save us) Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’  The next line in Psalm 118 is ‘From the house of the Lord we bless you.’  But that is not what the crowds say.  What they say is ‘Blessed is the King of Israel!’   In other words, blessed is the one who is going to overthrow Pilate, Herod and Caesar. They are fighting words.  The crowds wanted a fight.

But Jesus would not fight.  He got into trouble with the Palm Sunday crowds.  The hosanna’s stopped abruptly.  He disappointed them at a rate they could not stand.  Within a week they were asking for him to be killed.  “Fraud, imposter – you betrayed us, we will betray you!”  To the cross.  They wanted a new kingdom and a new king and thought Jesus was their man.  He was, but not in the way they thought.

When some of us Christians talk about the Kingdom of God we have an image of a place that human beings go to when they die.  The Kingdom is also now.  ‘Your kingdom come your will be done on earth.’  For the people of Jerusalem the Kingdom of God was a day when God would crush Rome, and give them a King.  There were many views how God would do this that we can learn from today as we dedicate this new church. 

The Zealots believed the Kingdom of God would come through revolt.  Challenge the political system.  They were an extreme terrorist group who would use violence.  There are some Christians while not declaring a physical war still think that the Kingdom of God is advanced through civil disobedience, whether it is through shooting people at an abortion clinic or protesting on city streets, or destroying communication dishes, or …

The Essenes decided to withdraw.  They were the people who lived in caves in the desert believing the world was so corrupt that the only response was to withdraw completely and devote themselves to a life of purity.  The Kingdom of God will come when the majority of people stop sinning and lead holy and righteous lives.  Today in the Christian world we still have what we might call the holiness movement – people who basically withdraw from society into a life of piety.

The Sadducees decided to assimilate.  They were pragmatists.  They were only interested in the here and now and thought if you can’t beat the opposition, then join them.  Some parts of the Christian church may also be like this today – it is hard to tell the difference between the church and the world.  The values of the world become the values of the church.  Serving the community, being community focus does not mean assimilating with the community so far as values, beliefs, attitudes are concerned.  As christains we are to be in the world – but we should also be different.  Palm 118: 8 verse 8.  Middle verse of bible, hinge around which it all swings.  It is better to trust in God than to trust in humanity.

Revolt, withdraw, assimilate.  Three possible responses of God followers to the world around them.  I trust that none of these is the attitude you want to embrace in this new church.  And neither did Jesus.  Jesus got into trouble with every one of these groups.  His method of relating to the world around him and bringing God to them was not by violence, or withdrawing into a religious sub-culture, or by assimilating with the community around him.

Jesus would not worship Caesar, but he also would not hate him or slander him or even ignore him.  And so with Pilate, Herod, the Pharisees or anyone else.  Jesus did not come just to bless Israel but Rome, Greece, Egypt, Babylon, Asia, and so on to the ends of the earth.  Anger and violence are not the way; withdrawal is not the way; assimilation is not the way.  There is another way.  The way of Jesus is to connect people whom politics and society separates.

Jesus strategy was simple – but different.  To his disciples he basically said, ‘we have no money, no clout, no status, no buildings, no soldiers – great!  Things are going exactly to plan.  We will tell them their way is wrong – Roman money and power, the revolutionaries, the withdrawers, the collaborators.  When they hate us – as many of them will – when they call us names and throw us in prison, even kill some of us, we won’t fight back, we won’t run away, we won’t give in.  we’ll just keep loving them.  We will just keep inviting them to join us.  We will love them so much.

Our God is a God for all nations.  Our God is a God for all peoples. 

Many people are concerned what they can get out of a nation or a community.  I have no doubt that many people come to Wanaka and Central Otago to take – to take photos, sample the wine, tramp the hills, take fish out of the lake, ski the slopes and many other things I don’t know about.  As I climbed Mount Iron yesterday morning I was thinking it’s a pity someone didn’t come and take a few hundred rabbits.  A hundred or so years ago people came to this region to take out gold.  How many have come to put gold back in?  The gold I am thinking of is not just the metal nuggets – the money that tourists bring, but the gold that is the symbol of heaven.  Who is coming to put gold into the soul, into the heart of Wanaka?  People come to Central Otago to get rich, to get a tan, to get pleasure.  But who comes to give.  Jesus does and so do his followers.  Martin Setchel did.

Jesus calls his people, his followers to love Wanaka and to engage in this region in enterprise and education, in the arts and local government, in their neighbourhoods and communities to add to the well-being of this place.  He calls us to give to the town so that it may flourish in every sphere of society – not just the spiritual – but we are not to worship the town or the beautiful scenery anything associated with or around the town, we are to worship him alone.

Sometimes Christians forget that the first thing that belongs to God is the obligation to love – including the obligation to love people who follow the way of other religions or who follow no religion at all.  Church, when we look at this community and its environs, ask what will bring life and what will cause death.  Look for ways of bringing life.  Maybe we Christians need to stop asking what is right and what is wrong.  That question leads to division and confrontation.  It puts one group of people on one side of an invisible line and the others on the opposite side.  And then like two opposing rugby sides we try and bash hell out of each other.  The early Christians asked, what will bring life first.  When they simply loved the Roman Empire eventually the Caesar became converted and the whole Roman Empire became Christian.  Sure it took time, but one day Constantine met Jesus and suddenly Christianity moved from being illegal to being legal.

Can I suggest that we are dedicating this church today as an expression of love for Wanaka.  When Jesus rode into Jerusalem that was his purpose.  Do you remember how he once said, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, how I have longed to love you. Matthew 23:37 (NIV)  The crowds did not understand that on the first Palm Sunday.  They were looking for power, but human power always submits to the law of unintended consequences.  True love never does.

There is a kingdom that is not of this world.  There is a love that is stronger than hate.  Sadly, when the followers of Jesus have not embraced this truth they have been corrupted by power and committed horrible crimes in the name of Jesus. 

Church, I congratulate you on this wonderful new renovated building.  Use it to love this community through sacrifice and service.  Use it to give to the community.  Use the symbol of Palms to dedicate the building to God for his glory that it may be a place of worship and prayer, a place where men and women and boys and girls will find the loving embrace of Jesus.  Don’t use them as a sign of power, or revolution, withdrawal or assimilation.  Go forward from today as his resurrection people living in the power of His presence and the presence of his power so that all of Wanaka is truly blessed.