I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Palm Sunday Sermon

Things are in full swing at Eliot right now. Last night we had an Adult RE-sponored discussion of the 23rd Psalm. Tonight we will have our annual Maundy Thursday Service at 5:30pm. In the midst of this, the church is closing out its budget and there is much to do for those of us on the church staff.

Here is my sermon from Palm Sunday. The readings were Jeremiah 31:25-40, Mark 14:12-31, a reading by Richard Fewkes and a prayer by A. Powell Davies. These last two can be found in "Celebrating Easter and Spring". It is edited by Carl Seaburg and Mark Harris and is available at the UUA Bookstore. Also, the responsive reading was from Singing the Living Tradition (Mark 15). It is, in fact, a Good Friday Reading (#622). However, since Eliot does not have a Good Friday Service, we try to integrate that story into our Palm Sunday observance.

Here are my notes:

The Eliot Church
Palm Sunday 2005
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot

During the early years of debate
Concerning the theory of evolution
At a meeting of
The British Association for the Advancement of Science

The famous sailor, scientist, politician
And inventor of modern weather forecasting
Admiral Robert FitzRoy,
In the words of one witness stood up
And lifting an immense Bible first with both and afterwards with one hand over his head, solemnly implored the audience to believe God rather than man.
Many people had issues with Evolution
Many still do

But FitzRoy was a life long friend of Darwin
A shipmate, in fact
When he was 26 FitzRoy was Captain of the HMS Beagle
And helped to develop the theory that
Some believe contributed to the despair
That caused him to eventually end his own life

FitzRoy’s denial of the theory of evolution
And the pain it caused him
Didn’t in the end make it cease to be true

In the sermon last week I referred
To the holocaust denier
Ernst Zundel and to the Roman Catholic inquisition
That condemned the work of Gallieo
But denial is more than something that happens
In response to social change
It also can occur during a personal crisis
Either a quick, sudden shock
Or a long term slowly developing problem

Really, it is probably always (at its root) personal
After all, when we hold on to an idea
Even as it becomes less plausible
We do so because
It is crucial to our identity
To How we define ourselves
For a scientist like FitzRoy,
It was a scientific theory
(Something big and broad)
But for most of us
What we cannot accept or try to ignore
Is a bit more intimate
The only true unifying element
Is that what we deny
Has the power to change us

This is the sort of thing that is happening
In our first reading from Mark
Peter and the disciples have grown accustomed to a life
To a life of traveling and learning
They love Jesus and do not like
To think of his death
But here Jesus is telling them
That the life they know is coming to an end

The most interesting part of this exchange, to me
Is the way Peter reacts
When Jesus says to him
I tell you the truth. Tonight you will say you do not know me. You will say this three times before the rooster crows twice.
And Peter replies
I will never say that…I will even die with you!

Now, many folks believe that in this moment
Jesus predicts the future
But, I think, it is just as plausible to see it
As an order or request from Jesus
To help the disciples come to grips
With what they must do
Jesus knows that Peter would rather die than live without him
And he also knows that Peter and the disciples
The foundation of the church he is building
Must live to carry out their task
Peter needs to survive to lead the church

As hard as it is to imagine for most of us
There are folks who would prefer martyrdom
To living in a new world
(Good or bad)
And Jesus is telling these people
That form of denial isn’t always the best thing
The disciples cannot deny their responsibility
In building the Commonwealth of Heaven

So, what can Peter and Peter’s situation
Tell us about ourselves?

Peter, a sort of everyman of the Gospels
Shows us that, in spite of our best intentions
We all are willing sometimes
To avoid and ignore the signs of change
Again, not only the “earth shattering” changes,
But the little ones as well

There is the phone bill, for example
That sits on the kitchen table
Is moved to the counter and back again
Only to be finally addressed at the last moment
This time of year there are taxes
There also is the leaky roof we only notice when it rains
The relationship that needs our attention
And that we think is going fine

But a little denial isn’t always bad
We deny issues that need to be immediately addressed
But our denial also can help us to live
While we make sense of the problem before us
One could also say. For example,
That without an implicit denial of our own mortality
We wouldn’t get up in the morning
Or do all that we do
Our own fear would stop us

Graham Standish, (pastor of
A Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania) says that
Pain, suffering, and death are only part of life, they are also part of the spiritual journey. We cannot escape them

Sometimes, our denial of something gives us time
Time to deal with its inevitability
Peter in that moment at the Passover meal
Was afraid, and he dealt with his fear
The only way he knew how
By being zealous
“No, I will die with you”

But, of course, he doesn’t die on that day
And denies Jesus as he was told he would
And lives on to help found the institution of the church
One could say that Judas was a betrayer
But Peter, either on his own judgement
Or with prodding from Jesus
Turned out to have done the right thing

Our basic emotion,
When we deny the obvious
Is fear
We see it in Peter’s concern
Not just for the future
But over his own weakness
We see it in ourselves
After all, life doesn’t always work out
The way we want it to

If we were to somehow step into the Bible and ask Peter
Many years later
Ask him if he thought everything worked out for the best
He might say “yes”,
But he may also tell us
That he still wished his friend and teacher Jesus was alive
Or that he, himself, had died on the cross next to him

While denial keeps us from feeling pain, sometimes
Accepting things as they are or need to be
May not make that pain we feel go away

I know that some of you
Are reading Harold Kushner’s book: The Lord is My Shepherd
For Wednesday’s discussion of the 23rd psalm
In the chapter entitled I Shall Not Want
He talks about this very situation
Yes, he says, I have held the hands and dried the tears of people whose marriages have failed or who had been fired from their jobs and lamented, “why do I have to go through this?” only to hear them tell me two years later that it was the best thing that ever happened to them. But I have also held the hands and dried the tears of people in hospital rooms who have been told about the incurable illness afflicting them, their child, or their parent. [then] It is hard to [quote the 23rd psalm and] say “I shall not want/I will lack for nothing”.

So, at times, we find a need to pretend
That the problems in our lives do not exist
Sometimes it is even necessary to do so
But there are other times when it isn’t
What if Peter had decided not to face his responsibilities
What if he had’nt denied Jesus
And died on the cross?

What if we never confront our addictions
Or those of a co-worker, spouse or friend?
Suffering is a part of life
And we all must struggle with it to varying degrees
Standish writes We want our spiritual path to be one of bliss, comfort, peace, and happiness. Eventually it will be, but we often have to go through darkness and pain before we come to light and joy.

Now, when I read this in light of the pain
We all experience and we all see in our daily living
I am struck by Standish’s willingness to believe
That everything will be all right in the end
And, in a sense, it will be
Although I am not sure that it is
What he is thinking of

Walter Brueggeman, a Bible scholar
Describes the psalms
As being of three basic types
Reflecting three stages or facets of our lives
There are those of Orientation
Where everything is OK
Where life is a good as it can be
(the 23rd psalm reflects this stage
As do some prayers of thanksgiving)
There are psalms and prayers of Disorientation
When our souls cry out in our pain
To ask God “why me?”
And, finally, after those prayers
There are prayers
Of Re-Orientation
After a broken world
Has been put back together
Whole but still changed
I once was lost but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see

We human beings live most of our lives
In this world of Re-Orientation
We recognize, many times, that things could have been better
That we have failed, lost, and suffered
That our loved ones have too
And that we are not, nor will we ever be perfect

To deny this is to live in a dream world
A place with a population of less than one

In a recent poem the Rev. Anita Farber Robinson
Wrote: Riveted to the moment/We remember Jesus/We remember him riveted to the cross/in glory, pain, sorrow, and joy/We remember him who dies that we might live/Who lived that we might know that God is love/Riveted to the memory, memory transforms/We are there.

It is that memory that transformed the disciples
It is their memory that makes us celebrate Holy Week
In their moment of disorientation
Of questioning, of denial, and acceptance
Jesus gave his followers the strength to go on
Even though the road was hard
And they were rewarded with an Easter
A resurrection (be it a literal or metaphorical one)

We must not deny the opportunity
For a resurrection in our own lives
The Rev. Richard Fewkes in our reading today wrote that
Far deep below the deeps of human consciousness there is a power, a new being ever waiting to be born, a power of hope and faith and courage in the face of adversity, tragedy and loss

We cannot rush through the hard times in our lives
They usually take their own time
But we cannot deny them either
To do so means that we will never emerge
To the other end and see what lies in store
That power that Fewkes describes does live inside us
And will come as surely as winter yields to spring

For as Jeremiah says
The days are surely coming when the city shall be rebuilt