“We See What We Want to See” ©The Rev. Laurel Dahill, 2016 Palm Sunday – Year C March 20, 2016

I often go looking to other preachers for inspiration when I’m preparing my sermons. It’s helpful to me to hear how other people see things. Preparing for Palm Sunday was no exception, but something unusual was revealed to me that I hadn’t considered before.

The preachers that addressed this special service spent their time on Jesus’ procession into the city. They described it in various ways. One called it the triumphal entry. That’s a phrase that’s familiar to us. Others used illustrations to reframe the event. One said Jesus coming into Jerusalem was like the basket ball court fanfare just before the players enter for a March Madness game. The preacher described flashing lights and fireworks; loud music, and getting the spectators all hyped up to cheer on their team. Another likened the Gospel story to a political convention when the nominee for the ticket is announced. All the delegates are there with their funny hats, and their state signs bobbing up and down. There’s a balloon drop when the candidate is announced and the party goes on all night. Finally, there was the classic reference to the scene in Jesus Christ Superstar with the song Hosanna heysanna, sanna sanna ho… and before long we’re all tapping our feet to that catchy tune. In all of these sermon illustrations, the focus is on celebration. And joy. And victory.

But what if it’s not? Everybody seems to be having a good time… except for Jesus: who is the whole reason they’re all there in the first place waving palms and shouting Hosanna! Jesus isn’t joining in the festivities though. Something’s going on here, and the celebration is a cover-up for it. The Palm Sunday processional liturgy is a biblical red herring. While we’re paying attention to the obvious thing, something more important is happening out of the corner of our eyes. If we choose to turn to face it, we’ll see it; otherwise we won’t.

This is something we do all the time. Perhaps human beings are simply hard-wired to be this way: we see what we want to see. And we don’t see what we don’t want to see. In this case, we want to celebrate the triumphal entry of the King of the Jews into Jerusalem. We want to make a big show of things. Did any of the people there have a plan for what was going to happen next for their king? No. Not really. Nothing specific. There was no plan except for the one Jesus had… and that plan had nothing to do with fanfare and a ticker tape parades – or palms and cloaks, as the case may be. But Jesus’ plan was not something anyone wanted to see. So they didn’t.

Jesus has no illusions as to why he’s going to Jerusalem and what will happen there. He tells his disciples what will happen several times. He mentions it in Mark in two different chapters. He says it once in Luke, and the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus foretell the passion story three times! Matthew writes, “Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, ‘We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.” That to me is crystal clear. I don’t like it any more than the apostle Peter did, but if it’s worth Jesus repeating, there must be something more to it, like it or not. It demands our attention.

Peter said to Jesus, on the occasion of one these revelations, that these things cannot happen to Jesus. (That’s when Jesus responded “get behind me satan.”) If the Son of God says something’s going to happen, we can expect that God has a tremendous grace in store for us. Our job is to look beyond the present discomfort to receive that gift. But Peter doesn’t want to see it, and so he fights it.

Sometimes we don’t want to see those things that frighten us. Those things that make us uncomfortable or anxious are not things we want to invest our attention – and that’s reasonable. When we put blinders on ourselves to the people and events that challenge us, we do ourselves no favours by our willful ignorance. While there may be something distasteful vying for our attention, there’s a good chance that there’s also a grace in there waiting to be discovered. We ignore the uncomfortable things and deny ourselves the gift they offer.

With all the crowds cheering Jesus on as he made his way into the city, there was no way for him to share blessings. The crowds weren’t in a receptive place. They were in a celebratory, noise-making, don’t-rain-on-my-parade kind of place. You can’t talk to people who aren’t listening. Even the Pharisees were like, hey Jesus, do you think you could get them to tone it down a little? And Jesus was like no. There’s not going to be any peace at this point. It wasn’t until Jesus got his disciples into a quiet upper room for dinner that Jesus could finally speak a word.

Jesus said he eagerly desired to eat the Passover with his friends. There was something he really, really wanted to say to them; and he had to be really really patient until he could get his moment. Now, finally it’s here, and they are in a receptive mood to listen.

Jesus does this amazing, remarkable, extraordinary thing with the bread and wine they were eating. Something truly powerful and transformative happened at that meal. There was a grace beyond any grace they’d ever experienced. It’s a grace so powerful, that it has continued unbroken for centuries. Did the disciples ever expect something like this in the midst of the triumphal entry into the city? Could Jesus have even broached this grace while everyone was shouting Hosanna!? No way.

But in that moment, knowing he’s got the disciples in a receptive place, Jesus begins to tell the disciples about another thing that will happen – a betrayal. Let’s listen in… Luke, chapter 22, verses 23 and 24: “Then [the disciples] began to ask one another, which one of them it could be who would do this. A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” And with that Jesus loses his audience. There’s a pledge to die with Jesus, and a promise of denial, somebody grabs two swords. It’s mayhem. Jesus says enough!

Did Jesus miscalculate? Did he not read his friends well? He had them right where he wanted them – a place where spirit world and material world seamlessly blended. And then he lost them. More accurately, they lost themselves in their own anxiety.

One of the things I often hear about is people who feel trapped in an abusive relationship. The thought of parting ways is so uncomfortable and so challenging, that they refuse to hear that good things can happen for them if they separate. So the grace of peace and serenity go unclaimed.

I also hear from people who suffer from addictions, that they enjoy their lives and friends far too much to consider for a moment that devastating things await them if they continue their current lifestyle. They love the celebration of being high, and don’t want to hear about the difficulties of sobriety, even if it brings them true health and safety. They don’t hear what they don’t want to hear.

Closer to home, it’s becoming ever clearer that the first job of the Take My Hand outreach is to get people to name the problem of suicide for what it is, and not pretend that it’s something else, or that it’s magically gone away. Suicide in our community is a problem, and there’s a grace in it, if only we allow ourselves to turn aside to see it. But we only see what we want to see. We have our work cut out for us.

Our capacity to allow our fears and anxieties overtake our receptivity to God’s spirit of grace is staggering. We are so much more ready to cling to our fears than we are to open ourselves up to grace and love. What really harms us is not our hardwired reflex for fear, but our unwillingness to allow a transformative grace to emerge from those fearful things.

The grace of God, which surpasses all understanding, is perfectly capable to moving through people and events that challenge us. It’s only when we put up a wall to shield ourselves from what we fear that we end up denying ourselves a gift that God has for us.

When was the last time you let yourself get overtaken by your own anxieties that you refused to entertain the notion that God might actually be extending grace? That’s a hard question to answer. Because you never know when or how a challenging person or event might be a vehicle for an amazing, remarkable, and extraordinary thing. You just don’t know until you quiet yourself to let listen for it. Sisters and brothers, trust in God is easier said than done.

At this point in the Passion story of Jesus, the disciples don’t yet know the magnitude of the grace that God has to offer. They have to journey through a time of difficulty and transformation of themselves before they can get to the grace that God offers. They still have to encounter difficult people and frightening events that will challenge them on many levels. We all have to.

Stay with us for the rest of the story of Holy Week. Come back on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 6:30pm to learn more about the gifts that God has for us. God is not done giving to us. We are not done being able to receive these gifts. Quiet the noise of the world and open your hearts in this most difficult of liturgical seasons to where the spirit world and material world in you blend seamlessly. There is still Good News to be had.

Ash Wednesday Sermon: “Wash the Ashes Off” ©The Rev. Laurel Dahill, 2016

If you like a good guilt trip, pack your emotional baggage because Ash Wednesday is for you. If you like the feeling of being found out for the sinful things you’ve done, today is your day. If you find that the attention you get for doing bad things fills a need within you, then I’ve got some filthy ashes over there with your name on it. If Ash Wednesday and Lent were only about the baggage we carry of not all our shortcomings, that we’re perpetual slaves to sin, we could simply take our ashes to go, and be done with it. But there’s much more to this day than indulging a gnawing sense of guilt.

There are many things for us to admit our guilt.

The whole world grieves the horrific deaths of innocents at the hands of vicious militants. We cringe at beheadings, and immolations we see in the news cycles. Meanwhile, women have been the victims of this and a host of other unspeakably brutal acts for generations, but no one seems to want to notice their cries for justice. It’s only when a male is treated in such a manner that it gets media attention and the world cries foul. According to a statement by Amnesty International, “Every year a vast number of women and young girls are mutilated, battered to death, burned alive, raped, trafficked for domestic or sexual purposes, primarily because they are female.” This is just one instance where we ought to adorn ourselves with the ashes of guilt.

In our lectionary reading from Joel, we tremble at the approach of a great and powerful army; the likes of which have never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. How many armies have used the time-tested approach of shock-and-awe to vanquish enemies, or the blitzkrieg to disorganize and confuse in order to conquer lands. All may be fair in love and war, but that doesn’t excuse our willful ignorance of the lasting effects of traumatic stress of war amongst our neighbors.

In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we hear of the injustices and cruelty inflicted upon human beings by other human beings who devalue life. Paul describes what it’s been like to change the way people think and act as followers of Jesus Christ. He frames the experience of discipleship in terms of great endurance in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger. The response of the people he was trying to reach came in the form of treating Paul and his companions as impostors; as unknown, and dying. They were punished, sorrowful, poor, and having nothing; and yet they moved deliberately forward, toward something greater. That’s important: they moved deliberately forward, toward something greater.

The people Paul ministered to are guilty of gross mistreatment of Paul and his companions. We are guilty by extension whenever we ignore the pleas of fellow disciples for justice in similar situations.

We often don’t see our own failures as well as we see the failures of others. We’re not able to see the ash marks on our own foreheads. We need others to point them out to us. There are plenty of things we ought to be ashamed of, and smudge our foreheads with the guilty dirt, but what good does that really do for us? It does plenty of good for the egos of those who enjoy looking for the faults in others. But how does it help us be better followers of Jesus Christ?

Ash Wednesday is about recognizing our shortcomings, admitting our sins, and confronting those parts of ourselves that ordinarily we would rather keep hidden from the judgmental gaze of others or our own guilt trips. Today we have the dirty parts of us pointed out for the purpose of doing something about them. That is what Lent is all about.

It isn’t really enough to walk about with a mark on our foreheads so that everyone can see that we’re Christians observing an annual day of atonement. The reality is that, however well I draw a cross on your forehead with these ashes, it will be washed off before tomorrow; and then what of it? This day is meant for bringing our shortcomings and failings before ourselves so that we can do something about them, and move to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.

Jesus warns us today in the Gospel about practicing our piety in order that others will see it. Christianity is about being in community with one another; to see and be seen; to know and be known by others. You cannot be a Christian in isolation. But on this day, you are expected to do the hard work of individual introspection. Bravely hold up before your very own eyes, those things that hinder your full participation in the Body of Christ; and then be willing to undertake an honest process to correct those failings. God already knows about your sins and failures. God was there the times you turned a blind eye to the needs of others, or chose a snarky statement over hospitality. Lent is for us to be honest with ourselves, and become better disciples in the process.

In the Gospel, Jesus gives us a path to move forward; to grow into full and complete discipleship. If you desire righteousness, follow this pattern. If you seek to know Jesus, follow this pattern. If you want to do something about the character flaws that hold you back from all the blessings and grace that God desires for you, follow this pattern.

Jesus says give. Just give. Give of your alms. Give of your time. Give up the guilt over the things you didn’t get right last time. Give up letting other people’s judgements of you control your life. Give up giving up on yourself. Take a deep breath and try again.

Jesus says pray. Pray in song when you’re driving to work and no one else can hear you. Pray like my favourite Tevya from “Fiddler on the Roof” who talks to God like he’s talking to a person standing next to him. “Dear God,” he says. “Was that necessary? Really, sometimes I think when things are too quiet up there you say to yourself, ‘let’s see what kind of mischief can I play on my friend Tevya.’” Pray honestly and often. God will hear you.

Jesus says fast. Abstain. Do not even allow those things that cause your faith to stumble to enter the domain of you. Do you drink too much? How much power do the couch and TV remote have over you? Can you go 40-days without following the presidential candidates on Facebook and Twitter? There is so much surrounding us to lure us away from the life and peace and serenity that our faith offers. Things that are quantifiable will always try to diminish the value of things not quantifiable. The abundance of faith cannot be measured on a ticker tape. Abstain from those things.

Jesus says, above all this, be transformed by all of this. Use this sacred time of Lent to create new patterns for yourself that are lasting and more life-giving that the ones before. I promise you, if you are diligent in this sacred time, you will enjoy benefits you couldn’t even imagine.

If you choose to come forward to receive the imposition of ashes, try to think of them as all the detritus that’s been keeping you from fully embracing the best life in Christ. Think of this filthy ash as all the guilt you’ve accepted, heaped upon you by yourself and others, for all your failures. Think of this gray powder as the dust you tap off your sandals as you walk away from the kind of living that’s not much of a life. Then go home, and wash it off, and start a new life, fresh and clean in the love of your Saviour.

Let us begin Lent this day as a journey without the baggage of guilt. Start anew to bring peace and justice to the world. Take the time to make a difference in the life of a stranger. Seek and serve Christ in all people. And when you fall short of the expectations of the kingdom of heaven – because you will – because nobody’s perfect – wash the ashes off, take a breath, and try again.

Let us pray the words of the Psalmist for a holy Lent: Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all God’s benefits. God forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities. God redeems your life from the grave and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness. God satisfies you with good things, and [you will be] renewed like an eagle.

Amen.