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Giving up Power


Passage: Matthew 21:1-11

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Michael L. Gregg

Fred Rogers, Presbyterian minister and gentle children’s television personality, had a list of about eight things he would say to children when they were experiencing a crisis - things like “turn off the tv” and “spend time with those you love.” One of the points of wisdom I resonated with most was when he would say, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.’ You will always find people who are helping.’”

And, looking for these servants and helpers in times of crisis is not meant to distract us from the bad things that are happening. Because, to be honest, we need to learn to hold the good and the bad together. We will continue to see the scariness and uncertainty going on in our world. On most days, I’m not sure we can look away because it is indeed so heavy and difficult. But, maybe can we look with new eyes? Can we hold the fears and anxieties we have today, knowing that goodness, and love, and hope are still part of this world as well? Can we look to the helpers, those servants who show what true power is in the midst of crisis? Can we look to our children and see the honesty, gentleness, and transparency inherent in them? What are we meant to see during these incredibly trying times?

We have a very ceremonial and celebrative story on this Palm Sunday and we might be called to see it with new eyes, too. We are to turn our eyes to the Jesus of the Jerusalem procession, and not so much to see the power of his position, but to see the power of his purpose to turn the structures of inequality, evil, and empire on its head. Jesus wasn’t gaining power on this festival day. No, Jesus was giving up power, showing us who to look towards when the troubles, trials, and travails overcome and overwhelm our lives. We are beckoned in this text to notice Jesus giving up his power.

It’s difficult to see and recognize true power, sometimes. True leadership and genuine power isn’t about hoarding all of the resources and rewards, “this is our stockpile.” True leadership and power isn’t about forcing people to do what we want for our own profit and our own benefit. No, true leadership and true power is helping others see the power of generosity and hope and purpose that is inside of them and present even in the difficulties of the world. And often, for us, that means letting go of the power that we have hoarded so we can indeed help empower others.

Today is the last Sunday of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week. I would wager a guess that this Holy Week will be unlike any Holy Week we have ever experienced. It will be a Holy Week where we need to see with new eyes and realize that in the powerful parade and in the funeral procession, God is still with us, helping us to lay down our burdens. We have struggled and strived each Sunday here at Royal Lane to lay down a piece of luggage, a heavy bag that we’ve been carrying that has weighed us down and held us back. We have taken away from this altar and from our lives the bags of guilt, want, contempt, busyness, certainty, and now, today, we follow Jesus’ lead and lay down the baggage of power.

And Palm Sunday seems to be an appropriate day to open our eyes to where the places of power are in this familiar text this morning. You see, we always recognize Palm Sunday with a festive processional. We join with the children in waving palm branches as they process down the aisle. And we sing songs with the word “Hosanna” in them, even though most of us don’t use that word in everyday life. Hosanna is a pronouncement. It means to “save us!” And only someone with power can save us from the troubles that surround us.

On Wednesdays and most Sundays we have explored the Gospel of Luke. And Luke’s rendition of this Palm Sunday procession focuses a lot on the shouting “multitude of disciples” and their ongoing conflict with the religious leaders. And the shouts of the disciples in both the Matthew and Luke texts are messianic in nature, meant to declare the power they want Jesus to have. The screams of the crowds grow stronger and we begin see the beginning of the events which will lead to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. As one commentator said, “I’m always aware that there are too few verses between these Hosannas and the angry shouts of “crucify” just a few days later. The crowd changes its mind so quickly, and I am mindful of our human tendency to give in to such swings of thought and emotion.”

You see, the religious leaders wanted to silence the shouts of Hosanna. In Luke, which we don’t get in this Matthew text, says, “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’ But Jesus said, ‘I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.’ The stones and the rocks! When we think of mountains and rocks and boulders and the earth, we think of stability and strength. We see that the natural world and the created cosmos understood the power of God in Jesus, the power of God that is stronger than the strongest marble Temple or strongest battle-ready army. And I think it is important in the Lukan text that the rocks notice the subversive power of Jesus and cry out “Hosanna, that promise of “save us!”

So, maybe the rocks and the earth and the created world saw something in Jesus that the parades of people didn’t see. Perhaps that is the lesson on this Palm Sunday. Maybe the rocks remind us that the parade is merely a temporary event. Maybe we are to see that if we participate in the shouts of Hosanna that we do so knowing that the power of this world will die away, the parade will often turn into a funeral procession, and that’s so very hard for us to understand. But, even in the midst of everything crashing down, Jesus being crucified, disciples going into hiding, denying the savior, pandemic fears, economic downturn, losing jobs, the death of loved ones… even in all of this, we know deep down in the core of who we are that we were created, just as the rocks of the world were created, and that Jesus’s power to love and sustain us remains strong and is rock-solid.

Yet, Jesus, in order to be the one who could actually save us, had to give up his power. Henri Nouwen says it well, “Jesus’ unconditional ‘yes’ to his Father had empowered him to drink his cup, not in a passive resignation but with the full knowledge that the hour of his death would also be the hour of his glory. His ‘yes’ made his surrender a creative act, an act that could bear much fruit.”

You see, gaining power doesn’t make us stronger and it doesn’t produce much fruit. No, it is giving up power that makes us stronger, healthier, lovelier, more compassionate. Jesus said “yes” to give up his power and that made all the difference in the world. And maybe you and I feel powerless today and we didn’t even choose to give up that power. Maybe we feel powerless to change the sensations of loneliness and grief. Maybe we feel powerless to change the medical diagnosis. Maybe we feel powerless to save the marriage. Maybe we feel powerless to keep the job or not be furloughed. Maybe we feel powerless to manage our dwindling finances. Maybe we feel powerless and we don’t really want to feel that way.

Unfortunately, we often cannot change the feelings of weakness and powerlessness. But, what we can do, is come alongside each other in love. We can build lives of connection and strength just as Jesus did, the carpenter who used his hands to build strong dwelling structures and his spirit to build the Kin-dom of God. It is important to build lives of love during this time of crisis and isolation.

There are some voices in my life who speak powerful love into the difficult situations we experience. One of those people is author and speaker, Glennon Doyle. Several days ago, Glennon posted a video on her social media accounts talking about the importance of being with each other when we feel powerless and out of control. And she started to talk about carpentry.

“ you know what the building block of carpentry is? It’s a joist. The joist is a corner, the place that everything is built upon, the place where all of the weight of the structure is. And every once in a while, a joist weakens and wobbles because the load on top of it is too difficult to carry. So, the carpenter puts an extra board to the left of the joist. And if that isn’t enough the carpenter puts an extra board to right of the joist. The joist is then strengthened and shored up so it can carry any sized load. And do you know what that process of reinforcing the joint is called? It is called sistering.”

I feel like social distancing and isolation have taken sistering and brothering out of our lives. It is more difficult now than ever to come alongside each other and help each other carry our heavy loads. But, life isn’t this difficult because we are doing it wrong or because we aren’t perfect or because we aren’t good people. No, life is simply hard. And we weren’t meant to carry our loads alone. Even Jesus didn’t carry his cross alone. We need our sisters or brothers to come shore us up on the left. We need our sisters and brothers to come shore us up on the right. Sistering. When we are powerless God brings people into our lives to support us and love us.

And it’s ok to feel like we need help right now. It’s ok to reach out to your deacon or a minister or to a friend or family member. It’s ok to need a safe place where we can go with our fears and burdens. And you know what, it isn’t about fixing the problem or changing out that weak board. It is about coming up alongside the weakened board and shoring it up. When our power is gone, when we feel a lot like Jesus on Palm Sunday and our power isn’t showing, we might find that the love of God is overflowing more than we realize and that God’s sure foundation and power shines through us in our weaknesses.

You see, Jesus could’ve ridden into Jerusalem on high horse, on a shimmering white stallion. Jesus could’ve had the people rise up in rebellion and take over Jerusalem. Jesus could’ve had the armies of citizens and the armies of the Romans all shouting in praise and adoration. Jesus could’ve shown his power in grand and outlandish ways. But he didn’t. He gave up that power. He didn’t ride in on a stallion, he rode into Jerusalem on a small donkey. He didn’t have the entire city bowing before him, he had a few disciples and children who looked up to him and loved him. He didn’t have all the voices of Israel and Rome celebrating his power, he had the stones, pebbles, and rocks of the earth, yes, the very dirt, crying out in affection. Jesus’ power was different. Jesus’ power was given away. Jesus’ power was meant for us all.

Jesus gave up power. Jesus gave up the power of procession and purpose to end up in the loneliness of the cross. Jesus was surrounded by people who wanted him to act with ruling power and political power and military power. Yet, at the cross, he was abandoned by everyone, even God. And that is the paradox of Palm Sunday. Today is a day when we see the true paradox of power, the idea that suffering is the gateway to happiness and that death leads to life. And we see today that true power comes when we give up that power. That’s what Jesus did when he entered Jerusalem in a parade but would then leave in a funeral procession to the cross. He gave up power and put all of his dreams, goals, and plans to the side. He surrendered all of himself.

I wonder, can we do the same? Can we set aside our plans in order to open ourselves to God’s possibilities for us? What might it be like if we leaned into the fact that we don’t have power in most situations? What might it look like to lean into our brothers and our sisters, to lean into God, and to lay down our bags of power knowing that the God who created the mountains of the world will help us, hold us, and heal us. Jesus gave up power and by doing so we see the helper in him, we see the servant in him, we see the one who will save us. Hosanna!