Sunday, March 16

Palm Sunday Sermon: "You Can't Always Get What You Want"

Palm Sunday, Year A
April 16, 2008
Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler
The Reverend Laura Gottardi-Littell, Preacher

Readings: Isaiah 50:4-9, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11
Passion Gospel: Matthew 26:14-27:66


Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem starts out so well. A crowd gathers to welcome their champion. They throw palms in his path, and shout “Hosanna!” What a wonderful welcome into the city of prophets.

Today we re-create that hero’s homecoming. We begin with a joyful noise, palms, and a procession. But not far into our service we sense the change. What started off so well is not going so well. Suddenly we are singing mournful hymns and there’s tension in the air, foreboding. Jesus has come to Jerusalem not only as beloved hero but also as martyr. He has come… to die.

The same crowd who cheered for Jesus will five days later be clamoring for his death. Many of them had hoped he would be a great leader, a warrior king to free them from the oppression of Rome. That’s not what they got. They got Jesus, who was not about force. The revolution he sought wasn’t a violent uprising. His power to liberate was of another kind. Although he has delighted and healed so many, Jesus has angered and disappointed others.

Human beings today are not so unlike the people of Jesus’s day.
We have many of the same hopes and fears.
We too can feel angry and cheated when we don’t get what we want. Or what we think we want.

There’s an old Rolling Stones song that goes: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

And it’s like that in our personal lives. We think we want a certain job, relationship or place to live, and it doesn’t work out. In response we feel disappointed, hurt, or angry. Only in hindsight, after some time has passed, do we realize that we’re glad we didn’t’get what we wanted or thought we wanted. We got something better for us, something we needed more.

On a spiritual level, how does Jesus give the world not what we want, but what we need?

Our world is a competitive, stratified place that tells us what we should want. Status. Power. Money. We should be winners, we should be tough, we should be self-promoting,. It’s OK to step on other people to get where we’re going.

But Jesus was a savior who emptied himself, as Paul writes to the Philippians. Jesus didn’t try to exploit his power, like the Roman emperors and other power brokers of his time. Jesus didn’t see his equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself of the need for power, status and wealth. He hung out with poor and sick folks, outcasts, and those on the wrong side of the Law. He didn’t kiss up to the Roman or Jewish authorities. Instead he challenged them.

SO if Jesus walked among us today, and no one recognized him, wouldn’t some people label him a fool, loser, or dangerous lunatic? And cast him aside? Wouldn’t they say he was not the kind of leader they wanted? Wouldn’t they shout, in so many words: “Crucify him!”

Not only is our world hung up on power and money – it’s also a violent place. And Jesus was not into violence. When Jesus is captured in the garden, one of his disciples cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave. “No more of this!” Jesus tells his disciple. If violence is needed for Jesus to save himself, than Jesus wants none of it.

So if Jesus, who rejected the use of force, walked among us today, and no one recognized him, wouldn’t some call him a wimp, a crazy pacifist, unpatriotic? Wouldn’t they reject him and shout: in so many words: “Crucify him!”

The Christian message is still deeply challenging. It challenges what the world tells us to want.

But God likes to give us what we really need.

God gave us Jesus to meet our deepest human needs.
To show us where real power lies. Not in status, money or the use of force.

Jesus is a winner but of a different kind.
By emptying himself, he changes the world forever.
In dying, he destroys death.
Now that’s power.

Ghandi, Martin Luther King Mother Theresa and others have known the power of this self-emptying, nonviolent love. And living it out, made enormous changes.

The Christian life, if taken seriously, is largely about self-emptying. Giving up our desire to be first, right, powerful. Giving up, or at least questioning, much of what we want and becoming more and more open to what God wants. Weeding out parts of ourselves that are self-absorbed and cruel, that accept the need for violence. The parts of us that shout “Crucify him!” and mean it in today’s passion play.

To be honest, there are times I’m not sure how much self-emptying I’m willing to do. I’m a human being, and Jesus is asking me, asking us all, to evolve, to be nearer to the angels than the beasts. To go against, or at least seriously grapple with, core values of the world. I love Jesus so much and yet…he asks so much. Yes, we want to follow Jesus when it’s palms and processions. And we may be willing to endure some sacrifices and pain to live out our identity as Christians. But who among us, no matter how faithful or courageious, really wants to follow Jesus to Gethsame or Calvary?

So if you feel conflicted today, you’re not alone. You have good reason to. Palm Sunday has a schizophrenic quality. Hope joy fear and despair. are by turns the mood. We watch a king ride in majesty into Jerusalem and then he ends up on a cross. We start out thinking we’re at a party and end up at a funeral. We watch a good man, the best kind of person, God’s own son, handed over to an inhuman death. And worst of all, he dies in part because of us. Because of the way the world is, how human beings are. Because of what we think we want: power, status, the use of force. He hasn’t played those games. So now he must die. All hope seems lost.

And yet………God knows our deepest needs. God knows we don’t need more domination. We don’t need more violence. We need a savior who through self-emptying, non-violent love can show us the path of life. Can help us evolve. And God provides that. God has given us a way out of our endless cycles of sin and death. It is joyful and liberating to break those cycles by following Christ. Yes, there are losses when we empty ourselves, but the gains are incalculable. We gain freedom and peace when we lose our bondage to self-seeking and violence. And even if we die, death does not have the last word. And that is the good news today on Palm Sunday. That is the joy of Easter. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has given us not what the world tells us to want, but what we needed most.

You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes you just might find, you get what you need.