Winners and Losers

The text for this morning’s sermon, Matthew 21:1-11.
Two cities and two parades. On the same spring Sunday morning that Jesus rode into Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate led a parade in a chariot pulled by a stunning and beautiful, horse, symbols of his power and wealth. Behind him would have been a cavalry, with each majestic horse walking sprightly. Next, the foot soldiers, legs and arms crisp in their march, their leather armor creaking and helmets flashing light as they made their way down the street. They carried the weapons of war that brought Rome power, swords, spears, knives, and bows. The fabled Roman peace was kept by these soldiers. Pilate’s annual parade at Passover was popular. The streets were crowded with rich and poor craning their heads to see.
From the opposite end of town, Jesus led his very different parade. He rode a donkey, the animal that common people used if they used any at all. He wore no expensive robes just the two pieces of clothes he likely owned, a tunic and a cloak. There was no army behind him, no weapons of war to enforce the peace he declared. His parade only travelled through the poorest part of the town, not past the villas and palaces. There was a crowd to see him but a fraction of the size of Pilate’s parade. The parade was disappointing, just Jesus, nothing really to see or inspire awe.
Two parades and we have to decide which parade we are going to follow. One is the parade for the winners in this world and the other is for the losers. One is led by a man who sees the people as valuable commodities for Rome. The other sees value in all people. One, brings peace at end of a sword. The other offers peace through love, nothing else. One, understands that in this world compromises have to be made and unfortunately this might mean that bad things happen to good people. The other makes no compromises when it comes to the well being of another. One is led by a man who expects people to bow and serve him, respect him when he comes into a room. The other is led by a man who got down on his knees and washed the feet of his servants. By Friday, one will eat a feast with his wife and the other will lie dead in a tomb.
Two parades and we have to decide which parade we are going to follow. Of course, we want to follow Jesus, but are we likely to follow this Jesus, in this parade on this week, all week? In our Christian imagination we picture Jesus coming back a final time not as a loser by our world’s standards but a winner. In the middle ages, they painted pictures of Jesus returning as a powerful king. In the Left Behind books that were so popular ten years ago, Jesus returns willing to finally fight back and vanquish his enemies. Even our insistence that Jesus could have avoided the cross but didn’t because it was his Father’s will, seems to want Jesus to be someone who he wasn’t. If someone is dedicated to love in all instances, without compromise, can that person ever win in this world. And if not, are we ready to lose in order to love? We want to follow Jesus, but are we likely to follow a Jesus who loses in our world?
I like to win. I received no B’s ever on my grade cards from K-12. Why? My parents were actually worried that I put too much pressure on myself. I wasn’t in the running for the Valedictorian. My friends certainly didn’t care. I was always going to the University of Toledo and they didn’t care. In 1982 the entrance requirement at Toledo was being able to sign your name…on the check to pay for the classes. I certainly had to work hard for A’s, too. They didn’t come easy like for some kids. I got A’s instead of B’s because I hated to lose, and as every year went on without a B, the pressure built internally, within me.
This is a piece of who I am still. I stopped running marathons because I would get too disappointed at the end of a four hour race if I missed my goal time by a few minutes. I cancelled my doctor’s appointment last week because I had gained 10 pounds over the winter and I couldn’t bare to be weighed in and have that recorded…Okay, it was 15 pounds, man, tough crowd. I hated that Messiah’s weekly worship average went down by ten or so people last year. For all of these things, no one cares…but me. They are all defeats rather than victories and I hate to lose.
When I became a new pastor in 1999, I was at a synod function and because of my friendship with Dave Smith, a superstar seminarian, well respected before he ever became a pastor, I was invited to sit with the pastors who were the leaders in our synod, the winners. Nervously, I chortled on about all the ways I was going to change church as we know it, insecurely trying to impress them. Finally, Jim Wilson, pastor at Lord of Life in Worthington, looked at me and said, “Karl, I am not sure what part of the gospel you wouldn’t compromise to succeed.” I was stunned and didn’t say anything else. Now, because of retirements and deaths and the lowering overall of standards, I sit at this same table all the time. I won, but Jim is still at the table, and I have never had the nerve to ask whether he thinks I won by compromising the gospel.
This is who I am. I want to follow Jesus but I want to win, not lose. I want to follow Jesus, but I don’t want it to hurt. I want to follow Jesus, but I want my parade to go through the nicest parts of town, not the worst and I want to ride on a horse, not a donkey. I want to follow, Jesus, but can’t we be pragmatic about it, sometimes tough love has to be meted out, difficult decisions have to be made, for the good of everyone sometimes we have to turn our back on someone in need. I want to follow Jesus, but I want a parade behind me, so if that means keeping 80 sheep happy and letting 20 go, so be it. I want to follow Jesus but I want Easter Jesus, not Good Friday Jesus.
It is time for all of us to realize, that there is no difference between Good Friday Jesus and Easter Jesus. Jesus’ Palm Sunday parade was no fluke, this is who he is, one with us, wearing jeans and a shirt, through the poorest part of our cities, riding a 90’s Taurus not a shiny Maserati. When Jesus comes back, my bet is that he will make the same decisions he made the first time. He will love without compromise. He will forgive even people who aren’t seeking it. He will be hit without striking back. He will be willing to die, rather than do anything to take him out of union with God. Can I follow a loser who will win in the end? Or, will I continue to resist dying to this world, compromising the gospel to win? Whose parade will I be in? You?

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