Sermons

See the Whole Board

Delivered April 15, 2019 at First Parish UU Church of Kennebunk, ME

Reading 

Matthew 21:1-11 (NRSV)

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 colt 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 the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
   humble, and mounted on a donkey,
     and on a colt, 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, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’  

Sermon

To me, the perfect party is a tabletop gaming party – lots of friends gathered around with some tables groaning with delicious food and other tables groaning, and laughing, and planning, and shouting in triumph and despair as we gather around games of Ticket to Ride, and Mysterium, and Clank, and Pandemic, and even throwbacks like Clue, and Yahtzee, and Monopoly. My gaming life started as soon as I was able to hold more than one card in my hand – my family spent hours playing games, and I even learned American literature and art history from games like Authors and Masterpiece. On any typical day, you’ll open the trunk of my car and find at least a few games, or tucked into my purse a small deck of cards, because the way my mother raise me, sometimes a game just has to happen.

And I love them. Card collecting games, goal oriented games, cooperative games, mystery solving games, even silly games. Pretty much, if you’re playing a game, I want in.

Unless it’s chess.

You see, I know how to play chess; along with other classics like Bridge, Spades, poker, and backgammon, Mom made sure I knew how to play chess. I understand the mechanics, but I am just terrible at it. Any time I sit down at a chess board, I sit down with the best of intentions – to pay attention to not just my own move but also my opponent’s, to think several moves ahead, and not just my own future moves but also my opponent’s, to strategize how I will capture their king while not losing my own. To know every step, to anticipate every eventuality. To see the whole board.

I try, but it’s hard. I know the how, but it’s hard to risk your bishop if you are afraid of what will happen to your queen. It’s hard to say yes when you don’t know what exactly will happen. Well – I do know what will happen in chess: I’ll lose. But you know what I mean…

How do we say yes when we don’t know if we’ve considered all the options, assessed all the risks?

And yet risk is exactly what Jesus was taking in the text we heard, in that moment when he decided they should observe Passover in Jerusalem.

Let’s set the stage: here’s this man, from a faithful Jewish family, who’s got an incredibly radical and inspirational message. He has gathered people around him to learn, and to help him preach his message and share his story. He reveals in what some call miracles the healing power of love, compassion, and hope. He’s teaching people how to care for one another, be present to one another, how to see everyone as worthy of love and dignity. But because he’s telling the establishment – which is simultaneously church and state – that they’re missing the point of their own faith, and because this radical spiritual message is a radical political message too, his ministry is becoming a bit of a problem for the establishment.

Who live, work, and rule in Jerusalem.

So here’s this guy, with all these pieces in play – a message and a call he can’t deny, all of these lives he’s changed, all of these people following him, this sense of destiny, an angry government breathing down his neck, an angry group of Temple priests wanting to silence him, and he’s probably wondering why he didn’t just stay quiet and do whatever it was he was doing before he met John the Baptist.

Now while the gospels paint Jesus as this all-knowing deity, what I think is more likely true is that he arrived at this moment, with all these pieces, AND having this vision of bringing truth, hope, healing, and love to all of the people he comes in contact with. And so, he put these pieces in motion, and played the game out in his head a bit.

In the pages before our reading picked up, we see Jesus calculating. He’s still teaching, to be sure, and we are getting some of the more political parables, like the workers in the vineyard who all get equal payment because God’s love is available to all, like the rich man who is told it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. And we also get hints from Jesus that he is seeing the costs of his ministry, that he might be jailed, or tortured, or even die, that it could be hard for him and for his closest followers.

He sees the whole board – how the moving of one piece will cause another piece to move, and another, and another.

He may not know exactly what will happen next, or what piece will react more aggressively, or what the surprise moves might be.

He may not know exactly how, but he knows he must say yes – and make a move.

In this case, it’s saying “let’s observe Passover in Jerusalem.”

On its own, that’s not such a radical thing – at this time in history, major religious observances were just starting to happen in communities outside Jerusalem, but most people still traveled to the temple in Jerusalem for sacrifices and the observance of Passover.

But this was somehow different, for a group of people who had grown a ministry on the outskirts of Israel and Judea.

And some might argue the whole ‘riding in on a donkey’ thing was a storytelling device, to connect Jesus to the prophesy of Zachariah. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus was schooled enough as a faithful Jewish man to know that the iconic image of his riding in on a donkey would make some people cheer and others uncomfortable.

And so he does, riding in with people in celebration mobbing the streets to see him and laying palms like an ancient red carpet, playing the crowd a bit, moving aggressively to provoke a move by his opponent. Jesus sees the whole board but clearly engages the details of each move, each piece.

But he had to start by saying yes to this risk.

In his book The Answer to How Is Yes, author Peter Block suggests that we often get stuck asking how a vision will be accomplished and never get past the trees to see the forest. He writes,

“What’s really interesting about ‘how’ is that we are asking a question to which we already have the answer. In fact, we have a large group of answers because we’ve been asking how for a long time. We have been collecting answers for years, and yet we still keep asking the question. We are on a treadmill, because although we keep asking how, we have to wonder what to do with the answers we are getting. No matter how many answers we get, we often decide not to act on them, and when we do act on an answer, what have we got? The fault is in the nature of the question.”

Instead of the how’s, Block advises, we should be asking different questions that will help us focus our commitment to the vision, from which the pieces will start to make sense and the how’s will emerge – from the financial and material resources to the talent and expertise, to buy in and commitment.

In other words, we can’t get caught up in how the bishop moves and its risk to the queen; we have to say yes, the bishop has to move and expose the queen because that’s the only way we’re going to win the game eight moves later.

Jesus can’t get caught up in where the donkey comes from or the risk to his own life; he had to say yes, the ride into Jerusalem will provoke reaction because that’s the only way this message will live on.

We can’t get caught up in the what if’s and fear of risks to our financial and physical security; we have to say yes to possibility, even if it means some possible setbacks because that’s the only way we will accomplish our personal goals, like going back to school, or moving to a new community, or starting a new business, or investing in a new relationship.

We can’t get caught up in processing and reprocessing the how of this congregation’s vision, the vision that you speak every Sunday, to inspire compassion, welcoming everyone, growing and celebrating, building a just and peace filled world. We have to say yes even if that means having to rethink processes, or fundraising, or understanding how we are seen in the community.

Now I’m not gonna lie – this isn’t easy. We are constantly balancing contrary positions – be an individual, take big risks, be independent, self-reliant, make your own path, don’t let the bastards get you down…. And conform, do as everyone else does, invest wisely, tread carefully, do as you should, behave.

Nope, this isn’t easy. I suspect some of you are on the brink of some huge decisions, big, risky steps. And there’s a lot more at risk than a chess piece, often our entire livelihood, or career, or relationships, or an organization’s health, or a congregation’s future is at risk. But if we care about these things enough to have a vision of what that future looks like, then we HAVE to say yes, even if this means some struggles and sacrifice on the path to something new.

Now I want to be clear: When I talk about sacrificing the bishop or security or finances or reputation, I am not talking about people or anything that would harm, oppress, or invalidate the inherent worth and dignity of anyone. I am not talking about ignoring the incredibly important personal stories and experiences that might not look like our own. Too often we think about who are the players and who are the pawns, as though the pawns don’t matter. And we tend to relegate the pawns en masse, as ‘those people’, as though they are expendable.

That is not this. In fact, seeing the whole board recognizes that each piece, each player, each idea, each moment, each process, each story, is important to the whole. You want to see the whole board of humanity? Then understand that, as Frederic Buechner wrote, ‘there can be no peace and joy for me unless there is peace and joy for you also.’

Understand that the story of Marisol, whose family’s roots far predate any Spanish settlement in the American southwest, is the story of conquest and suddenly being told she is an outsider on her own land.

Understand that the story of Terry, who spent the first half of her life identified as male, is the story of a trans woman who still gets harassed and fears for her safety even though she is finally comfortable in her female skin.

Understand that the story of Daniel, whose family came to the US from Haiti in the 1970s, is the story of a black man who still experiences racism borne of American slavery and Jim Crow, even though his family wasn’t ever part of that system.

Each player on the board – each person who makes up humanity – each story and idea and goal that makes up a vision – is valuable and important. Without the particularities of the individual experiences, we could not say yes to the true vision of beloved community.

Saying yes to our individual goals – and the vision of this congregation – is saying yes to the complexities of wholeness, to vision, to value, to healing.

You see, yes is how the entire universe works. There’s just a little more matter than anti-matter, a little more creation than destruction, a little more growth than death. A little more yes, than no. And if that’s how the rest of the universe works, then well, if we’re part of the universe – and we are – then it should be how we work.

(palms are passed out to the congregation)

As Jesus approached the gates of Jerusalem on that donkey (or not, but let’s say he was because it’s a good image), those who were willing to say yes to his vision of how we are to be with one another and how we are to understand Love and embrace Mystery, all acknowledged the risk and the steps it takes by laying down palms.

Palms that affirmed this path as the one worth taking.

Palms that said Yes to taking these first steps.

As you receive a palm frond, hold it carefully as you consider the thing you want to do – individually, as a family, as a religious community. You don’t have to know how it’s all going to play out, but think about what it takes to say yes, to make that first move, to take that first step.

And when you are ready, put the palm you’ve been given on the floor – and put your feet on it – maybe stand on it if you’re so moved – and say – whisper – sing – “yes.”  

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