Sermon for Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015
Text: Psalm 118: 19-29
Given at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, Virginia
Before we get started in earnest this morning I just want to offer my condolences to the UVa fans in the house today: Jack, that was a tough loss last week. It was a tough draw in the first place. Tough draw for UVa being a 2-seed in the first place, after the year they had, though I know they weren’t quite in March the team they had been in January and February. Isn’t that always the case? But just as tough a draw to go up against Michigan State as a 7-seed, second year in a row, too. State’s just got a beat on how to play in March. They’ve become the lower-seeded team that nobody ever wants to play. They’re actually favored this afternoon against four-seeded Louisville. Maybe the oddsmakers have finally caught up to the fact that Michigan State’s a pretty good underdog. Or a pretty terrible one, depending on how you measure it. I mean, if being the underdog means you’re not supposed to win, Michigan State’s gotten pretty bad at it. You’d think after a while a team that keeps winning over and over wouldn’t get to be the underdog anymore.
And where’s the fun, anyway, in cheering for the team that wins over and over and over? I mean, part of the joy of the NCAA tournament is rooting for these teams that come from nowhere and show up to slay the giants. Frankly, by this part of the tournament — this afternoon two games will decide the last two teams going to the Final Four, and next weekend those four teams will play their way to a championship — by this part of the tournament, unless you’ve got a strong rooting interest, it gets a little bland. But in those opening games, with the Kentuckys and North Carolinas and Arizonas of the world facing off against the Hamptons and Murray States and Florida Gulf Coasts and every year one of those little tiny Cinderellas goes on a run. Every year on those first few days of the tournament, somewhere, some giant falls back to earth. And that’s the whole joy of it, these little schools, holes in the wall with dreams far beyond their athletic budgets and recruitment packages, these little schools walking onto the court and squaring off against teams of future NBA All-Stars and finding a way to win, just that one game. That’s why we watch. That’s why I watch. Because I want to root for the little guy. (Except when they play Georgetown.)
Now, we’re not the first people who want to root for the little guy, and I know it because our Psalm for today, as we wrap up this Lenten journey through the Psalms, our Psalm for today is in its own way a celebration of the underdog. It seems to be a dialog, between a warrior returning to the city and the people who have gathered to welcome him back. And so we hear the voice of the people: “Let Israel say, his steadfast love endures forever,” almost like it’s the bold print in the bulletin, and we have the voice of this warrior, perhaps a King, perhaps, as with many of the Psalms, a kind of stand-in for the historical King David: “All the nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!” However the battle went, it seems to our conquering hero that his win was something of an upset. “They surrounded me on every side; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!” He doesn’t think he was the most likely champion out there. Actually he’s got a bit of a Cinderella complex himself, and it comes out the most in this Psalm’s signature line: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” It might sound a little cocky. It might sound a little like some post-game locker-room interview tape, like “Nobody believed in us. Nobody gave us a chance. But here we are.” It might sound like that, but even so. Cinderella’s got herself a ticket to the dance.
And more importantly, the crowd loves it. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” they cry out. You can just picture it with ticker-tape and t-shirt cannons. And, whats more, remember that we have all of these Psalms because they became regular parts of Israel’s life of worship. We’ve read lament psalms and thanksgiving psalms of every shape and stripe but this one is even in its own particular category. We call it a Psalm for special occasions, like this probably is exactly the liturgy that Israel would bring out when an army was returning home from battle, or when some military leader was coming up the mountain to the gates of Jerusalem. Which means it isn’t just some original warrior who chooses to identify with this rejected stone, this Cinderella stone. The real thrust here is that the entire community chooses to understand their own military and political heroes through the lens of this underdog story. Time after time, nobody believed in them. Time after time, they were the rejected stones. Time after time, they were the underdogs. But apparently God believes in underdogs, because look at us now. Nobody gave us a chance, but here we are. The crowd loves an underdog. The crowd identifies with an underdog. The crowd thrills to an underdog.
Until, of course, the crowd turns.
The crowd always turns. Of course one of the reasons that we end our time with the Psalms on this Psalm on this Sunday is that this is the very Psalm that the crowds chant as Jesus rides that donkey into the gates of Jerusalem. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” they cry, remembering, as Jesus the outcast, as Jesus the hunted, as Jesus the underdog, makes his supposedly triumphant entry into the city. Years later, of course, Peter will go back and mine that same Psalm for his own theology, casting Jesus again as that corner-stone once rejected, but the connection begins here, with this crowd seeing in Jesus every one of their underdog hopes. Rome is the big enemy, of course, and Jesus is marching off to do them glorious battle; he might as well have a sling-shot in one hand and a pile of stones in the other; they are in this fight together; it’s hard even to imagine that five days from now they’ll be calling for his death. Hard to imagine, except, of course, that’s the danger of being Cinderella. Survive long enough, and you might grow up to be the wicked stepmother. Survive long enough, and the crowd turns. The crowd always turns.
By means of illustration let me make a personal confession. I started my interest in college basketball as a fan of the Devil: the Duke Blue Devils, to be exact. It was the winter of 1990. My mother, herself a Duke alum, had begun to carry on a serious relationship with the ups and downs of their college basketball team, which was putting on a pretty good run. In fact that winter they made it all the way to the championship game of the tournament, at which point they ran into a buzzsaw called the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Runnin’ Rebels, and they lost 103-73, the largest margin of victory in the history of the championship game. It was brutal. The next year, UNLV came back for more, and every sports prognosticator in the land prognosticated that they would run the table again. That 1991 team is still widely considered one of if not the best college basketball team ever assembled. They won thirty-four consecutive games, but they never had a chance at my heart. Something about watching Duke lose that blowout had kindled my sympathies. Something about watching my mother unspool herself in front of the television had signed me up. And so, while UNLV ran through its competition with all of the subtlety of a Mack truck, my mother and I, we huddled up with the underdogs. It’s hard to imagine a time when the Duke Blue Devils were the underdogs. I promise you it was the case.
Duke and UNLV found each other in the championship again, of course, but this time Duke shocked the world, this time Duke pulled out a nail-biter, and in our house there was great screaming and rejoicing. And not just in our house. It was widely understood, in the way that only media can paint these things, that the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels were the misfit villains of the piece, and that Duke was the Cinderella story back for revenge. But of course like it is for so many teams before and after, winning was about the worst thing that could have happened to Duke’s public image. Pretty soon Duke-the-scrappy-underdog became Duke-the-unstoppable-juggernaut, and pretty soon after that, well, nobody likes to root for the juggernaut. My sympathies wandered pretty quickly. And more to the point: my sympathies wandered, and wherever they wandered — no matter what team I landed on, Carolina for a while, just to torture my mother, and Princeton, when we moved, and then Georgetown, when I went to college, and no matter what team I landed on, Duke would show up and pound us into the ground. So, along with the vast God-fearing and right-thinking majority of the college basketball universe, I grew to loathe that Duke team which I once called my own. As soon as they turned on me, I turned on them. Or vice versa. No matter what. The crowd always turns.
That’s the haunting thing about Palm Sunday. The crowd always turns. We always turn. We show up this morning with waving palm branches and shouts of Hosanna and five days later we will join our voices to the throng calling “Crucify Him!” The crowd always turns. And we could argue about who turned first, I suppose. Jerusalem might say that they thought Jesus was showing up to take on Rome — nobody likes a juggernaut — and then he starts rampaging through the temple, and then he starts preaching against the religious authorities, and then he has the impertinence to start demanding things of us. Much easier to root for the guy when we had an enemy in common. Much more difficult when he just keeps showing up and pounding us in to the ground. But I suppose we could stand here and argue the scriptural facts of Holy Week until our faces turn blue; the truth is, no matter what, no matter for what reason, the crowd turns. We turn, every time. We leave here this morning with palms waving, and we come back Friday morning with sticks and stones. We leave here with shouts of Hosanna and we come back calling “Crucify Him.” In the five brief days between now and then, we all turn, every one of us.
And we all do it in our own creative ways. I know what some of mine are and I’m guessing you know some of yours. What does it look like for you when you turn on Jesus Christ? Does it look like refusing an act of Christian charity, turning aside a friend — or anyone — who comes in need? Does it look like failing in your own stewardship of who God calls you to be — turning into someone or something that seems to you unrecognizable or insufficient? Or maybe it’s precisely when we turn so inwards that we also turn on Jesus, when we get so focused on ourselves and our own problems and our own vanities that we can’t see the world around us in its striving and in its abundance and in its crying out. The Jesus whose entrance we cheer today makes some pretty uncompromising demands: to love our neighbor. To love ourselves. To love him, and to see him in the face of all who struggle. There’s a very thin path from this Sunday to the next one. It it possible only for those purest in conviction and strongest in heart and fearless in deed. It is the very definition of the straight and narrow. And if not well beforehand, by about Friday morning, every one of us turns. Every one of us sins. Every one of us falls short. None of us are worthy of this King for whom we cheer. None of us can squeeze into this narrow gate through which Jesus processes.
And yet. We still sing this Psalm. “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Israel sang it on the return of this triumphant king, yes, but of course they also sang it in exile. They sang it not only when they could celebrate their own victories but also in the throes of their worst defeats, because at the end of the day it’s not just a Psalm about this conquering hero, it’s a Psalm about God who can lift up all who have fallen close to the pit. It’s a Psalm about God’s ability to reclaim anyone and everyone, no matter their imperfections, no matter their ragged edges. They sang it on Palm Sunday, too, when that Messiah rode into the city, and perhaps in their singing is the hint of what they know is coming: that not only has God lifted up this one prophet, but that God can lift them all up, even though they fall short, even though they falter, even though they turn. And we sing it, loudly, defiantly, not just because God could raise Jesus up from nothing but because God can raise us up. Because we go into this week, we go into this world, woefully outgunned by the whole brokenness of creation. Because we go into this week and this world woefully outmatched by the fault-lines that run through our own selfish hearts. Because we go into this week and this world woefully outsized by the twin giant powers of sin and death. We have a tough fight. There’s no doubt: we’re the underdogs. There’s no doubt: we’re the Cinderellas. But God believes in us. That’s the Gospel of this Palm Sunday: God believes in us. The crowd turns. The crowd always turns. But still. Every year. No matter what. God believes in us.
So maybe this is our year.
You know, I don’t watch the opening rounds of the tournament like I used to. I don’t have the time to park in front of a dozen basketball games for the afternoon and watch them all with interest. But I can’t tune it out completely, because I’m still waiting for that one perfect Cinderella story. Never in the history of the tournament has a 16-seeded team beaten a one-seed. Not once. In the more than thirty years since the tournament expanded to a sixty-four-team field, with four games between 16s and 1s, 1-seeds are 124-0, and the average margin of victory is something like 35 points. A couple of times they’ve come down to a single point. But still. It’s never happened. Certainly not this year, when Kentucky, Villanova, Wisconsin, and, of course, Duke, always Duke, each and every one pounded their opponents into the ground. But still. It will happen. It’s one of the frontiers in American sports just waiting to be broken. And I refuse not to be watching. So I don’t have to watch all the games. I just have to be able to watch any single game because it could be that single game that shatters this streak once and for all. Any given year. Maybe this is the year it turns out differently.
Well, it’s too late for Cinderellas this year.
But it’s not too late for us.