Free Fall: A Sermon

A Sermon preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
April 13, 2014
Text: Matthew 21:1-11

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When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied and a cold with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

Tell your daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a cold, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting. “‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of The Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘ho is this The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

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The first time I saw the video, I felt a mixture of excitement and nausea. It is a spectacular journey to watch, and the transition from moments of panic and fear to moments of wonder and joy happen within instants.

This video is filmed with “Go Pro,” a tiny, durable video camera that straps to your head. It allows people to do adventurous, sometimes verging on crazy, things and to invite others into the experience. We can see from the perspective of the act-or, we can become the do-er, for just a moment, invited into an action we might never have made ourselves.

One of the most impressive videos on the Go Pro website is the filming of the record setting free fall jump of Felix Baumgartener from over 24 miles into the stratosphere, the longest free fall jump anyone has ever accomplished, during which Baumgartener broke the speed of sound.

He is in what looks like a space suit and helmet when he pushes his feet out of the small doorway of his cockpit, and upon putting his feet on the step from which he will launch, and we see his view – the curved edges of the earth, very far away under his feet. We see the vastness of space surrounding hime as he tells the world, “I wish you could see what I see…Sometimes you have to get up really high to understand how small you are.”

When first he launches himself into the stratosphere, it seems like 25 seconds of quiet floating (the dubbed in music helps.) The view is remarkable. But then the music breaks and you hear Felix speak – and he is not doing well. His speech is incomprehensible, and the view from his helmet is now spinning, spinning, spinning. When he can finally speak a sentence that his crew understands, we hear he has been a terrible tail spin for what feels to him like a very long time, and he’s about to pass out. A minute more goes by as the screen watches and waits – it is the only thing anyone can do.

Slowly, surely, as he enters the atmosphere and the pull of gravity, Felix’s fall stabilizes. And now there is a new challenge as he is simply falling straight, at immense speed, towards the surface of the earth, which is getting closer and closer.

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Today marks the beginning of our own free-fall in the Christian faith journey, riddled as it is with it’s own excitement, adrenaline, nausea, panic. As Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly and to shouts of joy, we enter into the journey of Holy Week with all it’s highs and lows. We know the story and yet we hear it again in wonder – the story we are drawn into again and again.

We imagine the scene – Jesus giving the disciples such clear and precise directions. The borrowed colt, the undulating crowds: shouting and waving and bowing down before him as Jesus rides triumphantly, peacefully into the city of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, we learn from Matthew’s text, is in turmoil. It is literally trembling with excitement.. It is the beginning of the festival week of Passover, and the air is latent with the proclamation and anticipation of a Messiah.

“Hosanna!” the crowds cry out, “Save us!” as they create a “royal carpet of coats, cloaks and branches for this proclaimer of good news.

“Hosanna! Save us!” they shout, reminding us of the ways in which we need saving, or the ways in which we refuse it.

The crowds look to Jesus to save them because of what they have seen already of this prophet from Nazareth in Galilee – the one who heals and feeds, who teaches and transforms. His ministry has been one of remarkable power, as he has drawn together disparate and desperate disciples. Those that left their families and lives to come “Follow Me,” are with Jesus as he enters into the city of Jerusalem, carrying with them the many and diverse hopes and expectations of his reign.

As we hear the story again, our hearts in our throats, we know what is coming – as if we were falling toward a fate we cannot change, even as we shout “Hosanna! Save us!” along with the crowds.

With the entrance into Jerusalem we enter the larger journey of God’s story. In order to lose ourselves in the drama of it all, we must find ourselves in it – in the crowds who in the morning shout “Hosanna!” but by evening will shout “Crucify him!” In the pilgrims standing on the streets asking, “Who is this?” In the religious leaders, suspicious and skeptical about any word of change or re-ordering of our preconceived hierarchies.

Like any epic journey, our Holy Week journey will force the question… Who are we? Who is this?

Just as a free fall into the stratosphere will test that of which one is made, so too the free fall of Holy Week tests that of which our faith is made. What do we truly believe about this man Jesus… prophet, messiah, savior?

It is one of the more challenging questions facing us as Christians, in a world with hundreds of competing answers. Perhaps it is comforting to know that even upon his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem there were the same questions and the same multiplicity of answers. When the tumultuous city asks “Who is this,” the crowds respond to that question by saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,” surely the name prophet was laden with diverse meaning and hopes. Even as just a few chapters before Peter has proclaimed to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

If we ask that same question today, “Who is this?” we find answers similarly laden and complex. For many, the answer is “prophet,” or “good man,” or “teacher.” With these titles we lift up those same stories that compelled his followers – stories of healing and hope which speak to the human needs we all share: needs for compassion, for wholeness, for life-giving sustenance, for purpose.

For some the question of who is Jesus can only be answered with one phrase: Jesus is Lord and Savior. This too is a phrase which can lose meaning as we dig deeper, unpacking the layers of culture and Christendom which have solidified around it.

“Lord and Savior” points to the cross toward which Jesus slowly and deliberately walks, and conjures up a vast history of atonement theories, each with it’s helpful or harmful understandings of God. These also often point to Christ as uninvested in our present life and sufferings, somehow unattached to Jesus as teacher-healer-prophet.

Some of the confirmands have noted how foreign Jesus as “Lord and Savior” is to their ears, even cultish, which speaks to the rarity of that phrase here in the shadow of New York City. It also may point to the fabric of history that covers words which no longer have cultural meaning for us. How can we call Jesus Lord when the word conjures medieval knights and is as foreign to us as dragons? How can we call Jesus savior, when we imagine that to need saving equals weakness, and that those who save wear masks and capes and appear on movie screens?

“Who is this?” is the gate through which we enter this story, it is the question which puts us all in a tailspin as we free-fall through Holy Week.

And if we do not ask that question now, surely we are forced to ask it when our own lives push us off the edge of the stratosphere into oblivion. Cancer, job-loss, grief and suffering – the crises of our lives are conjured when the crowd, and we with it, shout “Save us!”

Because if we believe that we can navigate these crises on our own; if we truly believe that we can save ourselves from our own brokenness,

…then the ground races toward us at a very fast pace.

Preacher and author Shane Hipps speaks eloquently about his understanding of Salvation – not as an escape from eternal damnation but instead a relief from the turmoil of the everyday, an inner peace that is accessible and comforting in the here and now.

Hipps tells a story of when he was a young college student visiting home for a family vacation. At the time he was deeply conflicted, struggling with a variety of difficult issues in his own life – school work, vocation, relationships. He was putting on a good show but inside he was in turmoil, spinning out of control and feeling the ground speeding toward him with ferocity.

Hipps tells how his father, who was not a vocal man about his faith, came to his son and noted that he could tell that something was bothering him. He said, “I can sense that there is a knot in your Spirit, and I think it is right here,” as he pointed to his son’s chest and heart, “I’d like to pray for you that it might release.”

And then the father put one hand on his son’s chest and one hand on his back, and bowed his head, and stood in silence for a few moments.

Hipps describes how the knot in his chest began to unravel. How he knew that none of the things that were troubling him had changed, but that his perspective had changed about them. It was as if the hurricane still raged all around, but he was in the eye of the storm, buffered by peace and stillness.

It was a moment of Salvation for him, in the present moment, not in the tomorrow. It is the parachute that opens, allowing for the breath we did not know we were holding to relax and exhale. It is the peace he describes as available to us through faith in Christ. It is one of the many ways that Christ saves.

Jesus is the picture of peace as he enters into a city in turmoil. He is calm, humble, riding on a donkey. He is Lord. He is Messiah. He is Savior. This Jesus is the messiah who saves us from our own tendencies to accept the ways of our world; the world that tries to convince us that people can be bought and sold for thirty pieces of silver, the world that proclaims we will only be whole if we have more stuff, that our primary purpose is to consume.

He comes to fulfill the salvation offered by the God who made heavens and earth, the God who chose to be with us in all our humanness, the God who is for us and our salvation in spite of the ways we will turn against him, crucify him, betray and abandon him.

Perhaps by opening ourselves up to being saved, to the experience of being made vulnerable by love, we can open ourselves up to the salvation which Jesus offers.

Perhaps by following him along his journey to the cross and the empty tomb, we might find the salvation we are looking for, both in this life and then next.

Perhaps this is who he is as our Lord and Savior, the Ground of our Being, the center and peace we seek, the one who loves us even in the midst of any of our tail spins.

In the name of the Creator and the Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

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