The Journey Continues

This sermon was preached by Rev. Jill Sander-Chali on April 13, 2014, at University United Methodist Church.

O God, in the stillness, come meet us.  Amen.

There are many moments in our lives that seem like endings, but are actually more like beginnings—or at the very least they give way to a journey that continues beyond that moment.

For example, when you are searching for a new job, your mind is focused on that one goal and when you finally get one, it feels like a victory, success!  But, truthfully, the journey continues!

When you take the confirmation class, you diligently attend the classes and when they are finally over and you experience confirmation Sunday, if feels like a finale!  But, truthfully, the journey continues!

When you and your partner get engaged and immersed in the frenzy of wedding planning, once you are married, it seems there is nothing left to do.  But, truthfully, the journey continues!

When you have put all of your time and effort for the last few months into running as a candidate in an election and you win the race, it feels like you can finally relax.  But, truthfully, the journey continues!

Our Lenten journey through the book Radical Welcome is also similar.  We have finished the book, wrapped up the small group discussions, and it feels like we can just move on to a new topic.  But, truthfully, the journey continues!  The ideas of what it looks like to be radically welcoming will keep working on our hearts and minds as we lean into the future.

Palm Sunday is sort of like that, too.  It marks the culmination of Lent as the first day in Holy Week.  We can start to feel like, Whew!  We made it.  We crossed the finish line and now we can just coast until Easter.  But, truthfully, the journey continues!  There is much more to this story than two triumphant days.

The gospel of Matthew describes this Palm Sunday moment in Jesus’ life.  His whole life has been building to this moment, this week, this season.

Jesus and the disciples are traveling toward Jerusalem, which was considered to be the central city of first-century Judaism.  When they get to Bethphage, Jesus sends two disciples into the village ahead of everyone else.  He tells them to untie the donkey and colt they will find and bring them to Jesus.  If anyone asks them questions, they should just say that the Lord needs these animals.  So, the disciples do it and bring Jesus the donkey and the colt.  They put their cloaks on the backs of the animals and the gospel of Matthew says that Jesus rides both animals.

I need to press pause in the story to tell you that Matthew is writing to a primarily Jewish audience, so he is very concerned about making sure it is very clear that the Old Testament prophets are talking about Jesus.  He takes every opportunity he can to link Jesus’ life and teachings to the prophecies.  This ridiculous image of Jesus riding two animals at once is a product of that.

Zechariah 9:9 mentions the king coming to the people of Jerusalem triumphant, victorious, and humble riding an animal.  Both a donkey and a colt are mentioned, so it seems that Matthew may have misinterpreted the passage to assume that the Messiah rode both animals; therefore when he tells the story, he describes Jesus striding both the donkey and the colt, unlike the other gospel writers Mark and Luke who also tell this story.

But, regardless of whether Jesus is astride one animal or two, the way that he enters the city sends a message to religious and political leaders.  He comes humbly, but powerfully.

And the people welcome him.  They welcome him with radical openness and acceptance.  They welcome him as if he is a king, a mighty warrior.  As they walk into Jerusalem, a crowd gathers, spreads their cloaks on the road and takes branches from the trees, laying them on the ground.  DO THIS! (Notice that this is also different than Mark and Luke where people wave the branches as we did this morning.)

The crowd is praising him and shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  By the time he gets to Jerusalem, everyone knows he is coming and everyone is in a tizzy.  Everyone is asking, “Who is this!?”  And the crowds answer, “This is Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee!”

They welcome Jesus as a king, a mighty warrior, and it feels like a wonderful culmination, but that is not where the story ends. 

From Sunday, the journey continues into a special meal with a ritual act of footwashing on Thursday and a nightmare of betrayal, torture, and death on Friday.  Yet, even there is not really where the journey ends, is it?

Giving Jesus this radical welcome changes the crowd, it influences them, even in ways they do not yet understand.  They certainly don’t know how the next week will unfold and what that radical welcome of Jesus will require of them. 

As a church or even in our personal lives, we may be in that space, too.  We may be willing to shout hosanna to say that we are radically welcoming Jesus.  We may be waving palm branches like crazy or busy laying them down on the path where he will pass.  But, we may be so caught up in this one day that we think the journey ends here.  If we can just welcome Jesus good enough today, our job will be done and we can go back to life as normal tomorrow instead of life as radically welcoming.

This is also true of our vision as a congregation.  If we are to grow as a church where people of all cultures, all nations, and all ages can come together to love and serve God, it will take time and intention of being radically welcoming. 

There will be times when we see glimpses of the vision, when new people start coming or former congregation members reconnect at UUMC, and we shout and cheer.  When this happens, it is important to celebrate those glimpses of the vision.

There will be times when we prepare for unexpected guests and they flood through the doors.  When this happens, it is important to name the victory, no matter how big or small and be grateful for the success we experience together.

There will also be times when we miss the mark and fail to get it right.  There will be times when we realize we are not willing to be quite as radically welcoming as we thought we were.  When this happens, it is important that we are gentle with ourselves and each other, sharing grace and forgiveness for failure and encouragement to keep trying next time.

In the book Radial Welcome, Stephanie Spellers quotes a woman named Lucie Thomas who is describing how her congregation leaned into radical welcome.  Lucie says, “Change is not immediate.  First, you literally have to dance around the edges.  But then we broke some important patters and now the creativity is flowing.”[1]

When what you thought was an ending gives way to a journey that keeps on going, there is hard work, but there is also joy.

When you finally get that new job, you begin the exhilarating task of learning and excelling at the new job.

When you finally get to confirmation Sunday, a new journey unfolds of becoming involved in the church and practicing your faith every day.

When the wedding day comes, the party planning gives way to the gift of loving another person and sharing life daily.

When the election is over, now you have to start delivering on your campaign promises.

For the disciples, the journey after that victorious entrance into Jerusalem is at first, very, very hard.  Their teacher has been killed and then the body is missing and it takes them a while to understand what has happened.  But eventually, they realize that they are being called into evangelism and mission work.  They experience the power of the resurrection and want to share the good news with others.

For us, the journey ahead will also be hard work and it may be difficult at times.  But along the way of this journey, there is deep joy and love.  This radical welcome journey continues after we read the last page of the book, after this sermon series is over, after the small groups for discussion are done. 

This radical welcome journey is one of discovering how deeply God loves us, no matter who we are—that God radically welcomes us, and then seeing the vision and working with God to make it a reality by radically welcoming others.

And along the way, there is joy.

Copyright 2014 by Rev. Jill Sander-Chali

[1]{C} Radical Welcome: Embracing God, The Other, and the Spirit of Transformation, by Stephanie Spellers, Copyright 2006 by Stephanie Spellers, Church Publishing, Incorporated, p. 151.