The World Has Gone After Him

“The World Has Gone After Him”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
April 10, 2022 – Palm Sunday

Zechariah 9:9-12
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double: everything you lost returned twice-over!

John 12:12-27
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
the King of Israel!’
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:
‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!’

His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!’

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, God will honor.

‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.’

– – –

The gospel passage today is a little different from our usual Palm Sunday reading, which in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) includes a whole conversation in which the disciples are sent to ask someone for a donkey’s colt. But here in John, it’s a bit more straightforward – Jesus just finds the donkey, and off they go.

What caught my attention in this passage, though – and it’s not included in the other gospels – was the Pharisees’ reaction, watching this young, charismatic rabbi who hadn’t been trained in their school of thought, who wasn’t sanctioned by them, and who has crowds flocking to him, a parade fit for a king to honor him. They were jealous! – grumbling, “The whole world has gone after him.”

It’s a striking phrase – it must have seemed like everyone had decided to follow Jesus, to cast their lot in with him.

And yet, by the end of the week, there would be no one but his mother, his aunt, and his two of his beloved disciples – Mary Magdalene and John – left at the foot of the cross.

It has made me think of the ways that we so often go after Jesus with the crowd, when it is exciting, and when we believe that Jesus has shown up as the kind of king we long for. We are so often like the throngs of pilgrims who wanted a mighty, military king to oust the Romans, shouting with them “Hosanna!” which means, “Save us!”, envisioning that this Messiah will, indeed, rescue us from our sorrows and troubles in exactly the way we want and expect. And it has made me think about how we are, often, nowhere to be found when Jesus doesn’t turn out to be the kind of savior we had hoped for.

It’s not that we should feel guilty or ashamed about the ways our faith ebbs and flows with the ups and downs of our lives – after all, if staying with Jesus through to the end of the crucifixion and being always faithful, every moment of one’s life, were qualifications for being Christian, the church would have died out a very long time ago.

Rather, it’s an invitation to reflect on when we are reluctant to follow Jesus – when we suspect our understanding of who he is will be challenged, or that following him might change us in ways we don’t want to face.

Maybe he won’t show up in the way we desperately long for, or maybe he’ll afflict us when we want him to keep us comfortable.

Maybe he’ll ask us to love our enemies or challenge an institution we hold dear or give up our status or our way of blending in with the crowd that makes us feel safe.

This is what author Marcus Borg, the author of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, the book we’ve been reading for our Lenten study series, calls “subversive wisdom.” Subversive wisdom goes against the conventional wisdom, the accepted way of doing things in our society. Jesus asks us, very often, to do the subversive thing, the unexpected thing, the thing that pushes back against how it’s always been done. And not just for the sake of novelty, but for the sake of drawing closer to God as we do so.

Subversive wisdom is the wisdom that told the prodigal son’s father to welcome him back, even though the prodigal son had wasted all of his inheritance and left his family behind. It’s subversive wisdom when the vineyard owner pays the same wage to all the workers, no matter when they had shown up, whether it was one hour or a full day’s work. It’s these things that don’t makes sense – and yet that help bring God’s kindom a little bit more alive.

Certainly a Messiah who dies the cursed, shameful death of a criminal on the cross is subversive – that the One who saves us might be the one who is looked on with scorn and disdain by the world’s standards. 

In such circumstances, subversive wisdom, I admit, doesn’t sound like much fun. But how many of us, at one time or another, have been faced with the choice to do something wisely subversive – to do the right thing in the face of opposition, to confront injustice or seek unpopular reconciliation, to be foolishly generous – and not done it – and then regretted it, maybe for reasons we couldn’t quite name, just a nagging suspicion that somehow we missed out on something better, that we missed out on a chance to really *live*? Or when have we done the wisely subversive thing, when have we followed Jesus somewhere difficult or uncomfortable, and seen real life blossom forth from it, seen relationships enriched, or a sense of purpose deepened, or a community created when there was not one before? Or how many of us have been on the receiving end of that subversive wisdom and been so glad that someone went against convention and reached out, or stood by us when it was unpopular or difficult? 

When I preach about how Jesus is there to give us joy in our pain, or peace in our sorrows or struggles, or to remind us of God’s love for us – and I believe those are all profoundly true – our faith feels like a parade everyone wants to attend. Who doesn’t want to feel joy, peace, and belovedness?

But in some ways, the real richness of our faith is to be found in following Jesus through the not-so-lovely parts; the places where we are uncomfortable, deeply challenged, all too aware of our faults and limitations, feeling keenly our growing edges as we rub up against them.

A few months ago I was walking home from grocery shopping with my daughter Davie up Park Avenue just past the church, and we saw a woman in a wheelchair making her way up the hill. And I said to Davie, “Come on, let’s cross the street and we’ll see if she’d like a hand getting up the hill.” Because as you know, if you’ve ever walked up it, that is a very steep hill. But before we had the chance to do so, a man pulled over and got out and asked this woman if she would like some help, and we were close enough to hear her say, “Thank you, that’s very kind, but I’m actually getting my exercise in.” 

So he continued on his way, and we continued on ours, walking parallel to where the woman in the wheelchair was going. And before we knew it, someone else had pulled up in their car, and a woman and her son got out – and she didn’t ask the woman if she’d like a hand up the hill, she told the woman that they were going to help her – “It’s a hot day, it’s no problem for us, we’d be glad to help!” And even though the woman in the wheelchair said, “No thank you, I’m fine,” they went ahead and put their hands on the wheelchair and started to push her.

You may not know this – I learned it from following disability activists on social media – but it is a big no-no to put your hands on someone else’s mobility aid. The conventional wisdom in this case is that disabled folks are helpless – and that’s not really true. If you have a mobility aid, you can often get around just fine, and folks who are disabled will ask if they do need help with something. But this woman didn’t know that. 

So I took my heart in my hands – I don’t really like public confrontation – and I did what felt like the subversive thing: I said, “Excuse me, she said she didn’t want help and I think you should take your hands off the wheelchair.” Well, this woman was not pleased with my intervention. Long story short, she did in fact go back to her car and Davie and I kept walking, and she followed us, parked her car, got out, and cussed me out in front of my kid. 

And I just thought, “Excuse me, Jesus, this is not what I bargained for when I decided to stand up for someone who was not being listened to!” My heart was racing, and I wanted to cover Davie’s ears, I was nervous – it was a terrible experience emotionally. And I wasn’t even the person who had had hands laid on her mobility aid without her consent!

By this time, the woman in the wheelchair had caught up with us, and she introduced herself, and she said, “Thank you for saying something. You know, it makes me feel invisible, and really annoyed, when someone touches my wheelchair without asking me.” And we got to talking, and shared our favorite paths around the neighborhood, and kvetched about the bus service, and made a new friend. And as I walked back home, explaining to Davie what had happened – she was seven at the time, so there were several new vocabulary words involved! – I thought, “That was the right thing to do, even though it was a little bit terrifying.” 

A few months later, I saw the woman in the wheelchair – I’ll call her Kathleen – and asked her how things were going and we caught up a little bit. We kvetched again about the bus system, and she told me, “There’s a meeting on Monday night to talk about whether this bus stop here on Park Avenue should stay on the line or not. It’s really important to me – I use it after I go to the gym, it’s the closest way to get home, and I would love it if you were able to go.” I told her I had a meeting that night, but maybe I could see if some church folks would be able to go. And she said, “Oh, that would be great!” 

That was Friday; by the time I looked at my calendar and realized that my Monday night meeting was church council, and many folks at Park Avenue would be tied up in that, and then I thought, “Nobody here knows Kathleen except me – is anyone really going to care? Am I going to be able to get anybody to go to this meeting? Maybe it’s not really worth it.” And Monday night came and went – and I realized that that was a moment where I missed the chance to follow Jesus some place a little bit uncomfortable for me, a little bit of a challenge; I missed the chance to show up for Kathleen, this new friend we had made.   

– – –
Did you notice – the other unique thing about John’s version of Palm Sunday is that the text says the crowds flocked to Jesus because they had heard about how he had raised Lazarus from the dead? None of the other gospels mention this. It was an incredible miracle, no doubt worthy of a parade – but no one seems to have noticed that Lazarus died first – went through something really terrible – before he was raised. They were all so excited to be part of this miracle that they forgot that there was real suffering and struggle that came before it. 

Friends, as we enter into Holy Week and into the rest of our lives, may we have the courage to follow Jesus – all the way to the cross, all the way to the death of our security and our sense of comfort and the things that we maybe hold onto a little too tightly – so that we, along with Lazarus, and along with Jesus, might find real, rich, abundant life on the other side. Amen.