Well, it’s a pleasure to be here. If my records are correct, this is my fifth time to speak from this pulpit, which means I’ve spoken here one more time than I did the first church I pastored, where I lasted only four Sundays before letting it slip I didn’t believe in hell, a belief I’ve rethought several times since, mostly because of Vladimir Putin and Tucker Carlson. I won’t say any more about that, lest I violate our Quaker witness to peace. But I like this pulpit. As pulpits go, it’s a nice one, with an authoritative appearance, making anything said behind it seem profound. You could read a recipe from this pulpit and sound like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.
I’ve always been interested in pulpits. Right before Covid, I was speaking in New York and there was a plaque listing all the people who had spoken from the pulpit I was using. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King, Jr, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama. I got the big head just standing in that pulpit. I couldn’t wait to get back to Danville and have lunch with my friends Bill and Jerry, so I could work that pulpit into the conversation, and mention some of those names and have some of their glory rub off on me.
I suspect that’s how these disciples must have felt in our Bible reading this morning. Jesus has entered Jerusalem. The crowds are large, people have gathered to cheer him on. He is the star of the show. There’s talk of putting his name on the Temple pulpit. There are a few Greeks at the back of the crowd, in the cheap seats, they got there late and couldn’t get anywhere near Jesus. Then they met Philip, a disciple of Jesus, one of the twelve. Of course, the fun of knowing someone famous is telling others you know someone famous. Philip let it slip that he knew Jesus. The Greeks can’t believe their good luck. “Can you introduce us? We’d like to meet him.”
Philip is stuck. He’s been bragging about his close, personal friendship with Jesus, so now must prove it. But it’s not a good day for that. Despite the accolades being heaped upon him, Jesus is in a grim mood. Nevertheless, Philip takes the Greeks, and tracks Jesus down, makes his way past security, flashes his backstage pass, approaches Jesus and says, “These are some friends of mine. They wanted to meet you.” And Jesus starts talking about dying and losing your life to save it. What a downer. You would have thought someone was gunning for him.
Jesus knows, doesn’t he? I don’t know how he knows, but haven’t you ever felt the fleeting nature of admiration and knew it couldn’t last.
I was talking last week with the teenage boy in our neighborhood. He has a girlfriend. She’s a popular girl, but he’s her 315th boyfriend just this year. His friends are excited for him, because she’s quite a catch, but he knows, he knows, it isn’t going to last. He’s just bracing himself. I wonder if that’s how Jesus felt. The crowd loves him now, but it’s a fickle crowd. To keep them happy he’s going to have to do bigger miracles, turn a little more water into wine, heal more people, ramp everything up a notch. Plus, he knows all about what sociologists call “the crisis of rising expectations,” and knows one day the crowd will turn, that faith so easily tips over into fanaticism and hatred.
The belief that eventually developed within Christianity—that God created Jesus so he could die for our sins, that Jesus was born knowing he would be crucified as atonement for our sins, and began marching headlong toward that from the very start…well, I’m not so sure about that. Early Christians were so accustomed to a theological culture of sacrifice and blood atonement, it was the only lens through which they saw God. But Jesus knew his history, knew what happened to prophets, knew how quickly passions could turn, knew he wouldn’t be killed because of some divine plan of atonement, but because of simple and ageless human hatred.
Jesus is wary. He sees where things are headed, though is hopeful history won’t repeat itself, that maybe, just this once, religion and politics will bring out the best in people, not the worst. He hopes that might be the case, but he’s not sure, so he’s waiting to see how things will turn out, waiting to see what direction the crowd will go. As for his disciples, they are clueless and exhilarated. So he brings them down to earth. For the plant to grow, the seed must die, he tells them. Don’t forget that. He’s getting them ready. They can’t see Golgotha, can’t see the cross from where they are, but Jesus suspects it might be just over the hill. It’s like the ocean. You can sense it before you can see it. So maybe Jesus senses something, and he’s just waiting to see. In a way, we might say he’s still waiting. Waiting to see how we handle things, waiting to see whether we’ll do the right thing, whether we will be motivated by decency or anger, waiting to see whether we’ll heed our better angels or worst demons.
Hope has been hard to come by these past several years, hasn’t it? Let’s be honest, and let’s be clear, American Christianity has not comported itself well. 78% of white, evangelical Christians, many of them our neighbors and friends, studied the political landscape and cast their lot with a man who separated children from parents, who maligned our southern neighbors, who lied, who cheated, who abused women, and then, when his vanity was injured, strove to overthrow democracy itself.
78% of white, evangelical Christians believed that man was God’s anointed savior, and still do. If they no longer did, I would not speak of it. I would dismiss it as an aberration. But they still believe. I thought of leaving the church, rather than be associated with that 78%. I thought of divorcing the church, writing books, and spending more time with my family, like a disgraced politician, but then I remembered my church, and your church, and other churches who faithfully embody the priorities of Jesus and I decided to stay. But I’m staying as one who has changed.
I was raised by parents who taught me tactfulness. I was mentored by pastors who advised me never to address political matters from the pulpit, all of which guaranteed my silence in times of evil. Eventually, I realized tact and silence were never attributes of Jesus. After all, he mentioned Herod by name. Diplomacy is useful, but not a heralded Christian virtue. Remember what the author of Ecclesiastes would have said if he’d only had time. “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven, a time for diplomacy, and a time to put the hay down where the goats can get it.” Let’s not mince words, or drape the gospel in flowery, inoffensive language. Neither let us be silent when the Church is weaponized, when the gospel of justice is dismantled by tyranny, fascism, and greed. For silence implies both approval and support. We must choose this day, and every day, whom and what we will serve.
Even after the gospel had been ravaged by its most vocal proponents, the bridge too far for me came when hundreds of Christian pastors gathered with Donald Trump for a prayer meeting and Paula White, Donald Trump’s spiritual advisor, commanded “all satanic pregnancies to miscarry right now.” Now I have several theological degrees, but I have no idea what a satanic pregnancy is, except that it likely involves the Kardashians. I heard that, and thought to myself, “So this is how great nations end. They entrust their moral and spiritual treasure to moneychangers.” Which, if you’ll remember, was another subplot of the Palm Sunday story.
We stand at a crossroads, a hard place, where we could go either way. Social researchers at the University of Chicago report that the January 6th insurrectionists were primarily motivated by racism, by their fear of white Americans becoming a minority, their anger at the browning of America, their fears of being replaced. Think how often the ugliest moments in our nation’s history began in the cesspool of racism. Now we must decide whether we’re going to be mean, cruel, and small-minded, or welcoming, kind, and courageous. Jesus is waiting to see which road we Friends will take, whether circumstances will reduce us to our worst or raise us to our best.
I’m told you close with a query. So let me offer one. You won’t find it in Faith and Practice, but even queries must start somewhere, with someone, so I offer this one: Will difficult times reduce us to our worst or raise us to our best?