Reading: Matthew 21:1-11
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 fulfil 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.’
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: sometimes ministers have no idea what they’re doing.
Or, more pointedly for this service today, sometimes ministers have no idea how they’re going to write a sermon that is engaging, thought-provoking, and meaningful past 12:15 on a Sunday afternoon.
Putting together a service is a little like playing chess. You have all of these little parts – a theme, like vision. These pieces over here are songs. Then here are the readings – some move diagonally, some straight, some take a bend. There’s a story, but that gets knocked out early.
But there’s still this sermon to accomplish… and ideas begin to emerge. The inspiration for the title, for instance – “see the whole board” borrowed from a television show dealing with, in that episode, a statesman attempting to defuse a potential crisis between warring nations. There’s the biblical story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem for Passover and making rather a show of it, and readers wondering whether he knew what the risks were. There’s the work we’ll take up right after the service, to identify what skill sets and passions your new minister must bring to help you become who you want to be. And of course, the lingering memory of a cop, a winding road, and a pig.
You see, there are pieces here that could make a good sermon. They’re all about vision, but more importantly about understanding all the steps that we must undertake to get to the manifestation of the vision.
And this sermon has some good pieces, which all move differently, which all have a part to play in exploring what it means to see the forest and the trees and how we must think ahead with the trees in mind.
But how do we connect them? And at the end of that, well, so what? The truth is, today’s sermon feels disconnected, and it doesn’t have a brilliant point to make.
Yeah, it’s Minister’s Confession Time.
They say sermon writing is like sausage – it tastes really good but you don’t want to see it being made. But come on: when you see a minister in the pulpit on a Sunday morning, or at a book group, or a class, or even offering a prayer at a public witness event, you are seeing the finished product, the carefully curated readings and music and words, the carefully plotted arc of the service, the lesson, the prayers. We work very hard to make sure we’re offering inspiration and insight, that we’re comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, that we’re giving you something to affirm and promote your spiritual growth and faithful actions.
What you don’t see is the stack of papers and fifteen open tabs on the web browser and the pacing, and the sudden need to do the laundry, or reorganize the spice rack, or plan the service for three months away, or bake a cake, or binge-watch an entire season of The Golden Girls. Because that is incredibly important, of course.
What you don’t see is the minister emerging from that distraction with still nothing to say, no plan of action, and only a pile of pieces strewn across the living room floor. And a sudden need to buy art supplies.
But then the minister begins to pick up the pieces and starts again to think about the grand unifying vision that started this whole sermon going in the first place.
In the vision, the minister sees the risks and the possibilities, and knows that one thing, set in motion, might allow another thing to fall into place, and that these pieces require care, and examination, and play, in service to the bigger vision.
And somewhere along the line, the minister decides that the pieces are going to fall into place somehow, and if nothing else, we can fake it ‘til we make it.
I wonder if that was, in part, what Jesus was going through 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 we call miracles the healing power of love, compassion, and hope. 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 – 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, 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.
I can tell you, no matter who you are, ministers have moments wondering why they ever answered the call. And then we remember that we could do no other.
Anyway… 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 yet having this vision of bringing truth, hope, healing, and love to all of “his” people. And so, he put them 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 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 move the first pawn.
In this case, it’s saying “let’s observe Passover in Jerusalem.”
Now some might argue the whole ‘riding in on a donkey’ thing was a storytelling device, to connect Jesus to the prophesy of Isaiah. 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, 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.
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 the organization’s 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 beyond my ministry.
We can’t get caught up in who the new minister will be; we have to say yes, we will miss Kimberley, but we will have to give up those things we love about her ministry in order to get the minister whose strengths will help us in these next steps to rebuild and be healthy.
And sometimes we have to, as writers say, ‘kill our darlings’ – sacrifice all the great writing; in my case, I have to kill the darlings that are the story of Bettina and the pig, and the statesman on the tv show, because that’s the only way we are going to get this sermon to make sense, to serve its vision.
Now I know I have talked about sacrificing some things for a greater cause, but I want to be clear: When I talk about sacrificing the bishop or a paragraph, 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 a 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 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.
And now, having written a little over 2,000 words, the sermon finally comes into focus. There is a point. There is a message of healing and wholeness, of valuing each piece, of seeing the whole board, and mostly, of saying yes.
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.
Seeing the whole board is us saying Yes.
Yes to the risks big and small.
Yes to the vision that might push against the institution.
Yes to the all the stories, new and old.
Yes to the opportunities.
Yes to love, and growth, and health.
Yes to possibility.