Psalm 118:22-29; Mark 11:1-11
The Rev. Tom Herbek
April 9, 2017
It was Passover week in Jerusalem, the last place that you would want to be if you did not like crowds. The population of the old capital city tripled or quadrupled for this week and it was for a purpose that left the Roman occupying troops very nervous. They were on heightened security alerts throughout this time, and heavy troop reinforcements were brought in, just in case.
Passover was a celebration of the Jewish people’s revolt and escape from their years of slavery from the Egyptian overlords. The parallels between the Egyptians and the Romans were too obvious for anyone to miss. During the rule of one of Herod’s sons’, the crowds at Passover resisted the Roman troops’ authority, and the Roman troops subsequently attacked the Temple courtyard and killed 3,000 people.
At Passover, the Romans were very well aware of how explosive the situation could be. During this Passover week, Pilate had brought in extra troops to the fortress overlooking the Temple courtyard, and he was prepared to stop any trouble before it could get out of hand. Most people in Jerusalem for this Passover celebration would try to be inconspicuous, try to “fly under the radar”, and not catch anyone’s attention, particularly the attention of the Romans and their puppet leaders at the Temple.
But Jesus had decided that it was time- time to make his move, time to challenge the power structure in an unambiguous way. He told his followers to get a young donkey for him to ride on as he came into the city. Jesus was familiar (and so were the people in town that week) with the words of the prophet Zechariah — which Mark’s gospel recounts – predicting that the king of Israel would appear riding on a donkey as he entered Jerusalem. Especially at Passover, eager for any sign of liberation from the Roman occupiers, the people would have quickly understood the symbolic act of riding in on a donkey.
The people cut palm branches and threw their coats down to make a carpet of honor and glory for Jesus to ride in on. No wonder they shouted “Hosanna!” Jesus entered the city amidst great fanfare, and he went to the Temple courtyard, but Mark reports that he did nothing but look around, “because it was late”, and then Jesus went to Bethany with his followers.
Why would Jesus go to Bethany? Very simply, he was hungry and he had friends in Bethany. Of course, they were not the right kinds of friends; they were riff-raff, lower class people. Jesus ate that night at the home of Simon the leper, an unclean person, showing once again his true revolutionary vision of God’s acceptance of all people.
And at the dinner, an unnamed woman broke open a jar of costly ointment and poured it over Jesus’ head, taking into her own hands the sacred power to anoint a king. People objected to wasting this precious ointment: “It should have been sold and the money given to the poor!” But Jesus responded with gratitude for what she had done: “Let her alone! She has anointed my body in preparation for my burial, which is soon to come!”
This amazing woman, more so than the disciples, understood the message that we must each confront the power brokers, and use the resources we have to bless those who are trying to do good. She did not wait for someone in authority to anoint Jesus, or for permission from his disciples! She responded from her heart, and spontaneously and unselfconsciously, she did what she felt was right.
She understood Jesus’ message that everyone has the power to respond, to act, to bless, to make a difference. She saw what was happening and she responded.
Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, during the tinderbox of Passover, would ultimately lead to his execution as a revolutionary, a rebel, an agitator. The stage was now set. As soon as he threw over the tables in the Temple and used a whip to chase away the minions of the temple collaborators, then the end would follow quickly for him. That would happen soon enough.
But for now, he decided to spend the night in Bethany. Bethany was for him a place to rest, to gather his strength and courage, to renew his energy and determination, and to eat with friends and be taken care of for one last time.
For Jesus, Bethany was a holy place, a place to savor one last chance to relax, a place to renew his energy and his resolve. Holy places like this are not always obvious, not always recognized by other people. Perhaps our own holy places would not be either. Frederick Buechner, a novelist and theologian, defines the holy in this way:
Times, places, things, and people can all be holy.
One holy place I know is a workshop attached to a barn. There is a wood-burning stove in it made out of an oil drum. There is a workbench, dark and dented, with shallow, crammed drawers behind one of which a cat lives.
There is a calendar on the wall, plus various lengths of chain and rope, shovels and rakes of different sizes and shapes, some worn-out jackets and caps on pegs, an electric clock that doesn’t keep time.
On the workbench are two small plug-in radios both of which have serious things wrong with them. There are several metal boxes full of wrenches, and a bench saw. There are a couple of chairs with rungs missing. There is an old yellow bulldozer with its tracks caked with mud parked against one wall.
The place smells mainly of engine oil and smoke- both wood smoke and pipe smoke. The windows are small, and even on bright days what light there is comes through mainly in window-sized patches on the floor.
I have no idea why this place is holy, but you can tell it is the moment you set foot in it if you have an eye for that kind of thing. For reasons known only to God, it is one of the places he uses for sending his love to the world through.
(from Wishful Thinking)
We each experience the holy in different places. I have experienced the holy in my own life, in a rocking chair on my grandfather’s front porch. You may experience the holy at the lake or a mountain cabin. Often, we find the holy in nature. For me, there is something powerfully holy about the ocean.
This sanctuary can sometimes become a holy place for us. So can music or theater or a movie or a book or a poem or a young child. Even serious illness and suffering can sometimes become a holy place for us. And, of course people can become catalysts for us to experience holy places through a kind word, an unexpected helping hand, or a compassionate look.
For Jesus, Bethany was a holy place for him throughout his life, and it is no surprise that he chose to go there before beginning the toughest choices of his life.
We all need our Bethanys, our places where we can be cared for, blessed, renewed, encouraged, and refreshed. Let us do all that we can to create a place of Bethany here in our church family – a place where we can find inspiration, encouragement, renewal, compassion, and companionship. In this way, we can face the daunting tasks of living, be inspired to stand up against injustice, to care in creative ways that challenge the status quo, and to become all that we have been created to be.
May this church family, the people of the First Congregational Church, be a place of Bethany for us in this time and in this community.
May it not be a substitute for the challenges we must face, but a place where we are strengthened and encouraged and enabled, and blessed for the challenges we must face, as we do all that we can to become all that God has created us to be.
And in this church family, let us bless each other for the work ahead, and extravagantly surprise each other with our generosity, and let us find sustenance here – nourishment for body, mind, and spirit. May this be a place of encouragement, surprise, forgiveness, support and help. And then, may we leave here, strengthened and reinvigorated for the tasks ahead, even when the costs are high, knowing that God will be with us – always!