Courage and Fear

Palm Sunday
13 April 2014
Matthew 21:1-17

Elizabeth M. Deibert                                                                   
Remember a few weeks ago, we read the passage from Joshua: Be of good courage.   Do not fear, for the Lord your God is with you.   Pastor Neil shared with all of us children of God the story of Esther’s courage in speaking up against the evil being done to her people.

Speaking of courage, Catherine and I were remembering the other night the scary experience she had two years ago while visiting her sister Emily in Korea, when Emily had a seizure-like experience in the middle of the night.   Catherine was afraid but she managed to gather her courage to do the things she needed to do to secure medical help for Emily.
At several meetings this week, it seemed we were facing issues in our policy-making, in our vision work, in our identity as leaders with courage and fear, and which side would claim us. 

Think of Jesus as he considered his entry into Jerusalem.   He must surely have had some fear, knowing in his heart of hearts that his life was increasingly in danger.   But with courage, he sent his disciples to secure a donkey and colt.   He entered the city, and gathered even chutzpah to challenge those who would abuse the poor in God’s house.   The crowds had the courage to shout his praises.  “Hosanna to the Son of David.”   But when the chief priests and scribes heard these praises, “they were angry.”  I expect that anger arose from fear, as anger is usually a secondary emotion. 
Listen for the Spirit’s voice speaking to you through the Gospel of Matthew:

Matthew 21:1-17
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 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. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, 'The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately. " 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5 "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."

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 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!" 10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" 11 The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."
12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer'; but you are making it a den of robbers." 14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.

15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, "Hosanna to the Son of David," they became angry 16 and said to him, "Do you hear what these are saying?" Jesus said to them, "Yes; have you never read, 'Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself'?" 17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.                                                                                             (NRSV)

Think of a time when you have been afraid.   Afraid of a big test or a work task that overwhelmed you.   Afraid of a diagnosis, a surgery, a treatment plan.   Afraid of a marriage, a break-up, a pregnancy, a looming death or anniversary of a death.   Afraid of things you might not like to admit you are afraid of – like being alone at night, or singing in front of others, or sharing who you are openly, or coming to a new church when it’s been a while, afraid that you will somehow be unfit, unacceptable, or unwelcomed.   We hope you are getting the message of Peace that we are all misfits, yet entirely acceptable, beloved by God’s grace.
With fear, we must step forward in faith with courage.   Like Jesus did.   He did not go alone.   His disciples were with him, helping him with the borrow animals – a donkey and a colt.   It’s good to have several Gospel readings.  Otherwise, we might understand from Matthew that Jesus had one foot on a donkey and one on a colt.   Other kings would come in on a gallant horse, a fine sports car or Beemer, but Jesus asks for the animal that symbolizes the common people, the poor, beast of burden, a humble donkey, a high mileage, old model sedan.   And he fulfills the prophecy of the prophets, Isaiah and Zechariah.

The crowds recognize and celebrate him but don’t understand him.   They have courage on Palm Sunday and fear on Good Friday.   They appreciate having a king who is one of them, until it gets more risky for them.   They honor him with branches and cloaks and “Hosannas and Blessings”   As he rides into the city of King David, he is a very different kind of king.   The city is in turmoil over his identity, so difficult it is for any of us to behold and believe in such fully divinity and full humanity in one person.   The cry “Hosanna” means “save us” and the irony is that he will save them by not saving himself.   He will be saved in the end, but not saved from the fully depths of a tragic death.
Jesus courageously enters Jerusalem being the king they could not and would not understand.   And he then further alienates himself by challenging those who would take advantage of others in worship, right there in the temple, making money off the poor.   This image of Jesus overturning tables is often remembered by people as the time Jesus lost his temper, but the text does not say that.  

In none of the Gospels, does it say Jesus was angry or enraged.   This is the picture of calm, assertive, righteous indignation.   Jesus is upset by what is happening, and he takes physical action to stop it, much like a teacher of elementary school kids might take some forceful action to separate children who are fighting or to remove an object which is causing a problem.   John’s Gospel mentions whips, but he is using the whips to drive away the animals who need to be liberated from these abusive practices.   I firmly believe Jesus was tempted in this moment to completely lose himself in rage over the mistreatment of people, but he held it together because he could not mistreat, as Christ is God and God is love.
But look at the scripture page in your bulletin and see who is angry in this story.  Yes, the religious authorities – the scribes and Pharisees.   They are threatened by Jesus’ presence, by his healing power, by his popularity with the people, by his words and by his actions in the temple.   Their anxieties lead them to anger.

A good practice when you feel yourself getting angry is to breathe and reflect on what threat, what fear, what guilt or shame experience is leading you into anger.   Is your anger righteous indignation such that you are calmly responding to something that is wrong, like Jesus did in the temple, or more likely, are you losing your cool because someone or something threatened you, and you could not deal constructively, assertively with your fear, your frustration, or your guilt?
Jesus has much to fear as the religious authorities are getting increasingly angry at him, but he acts out of courage, out of assertive love, not fear.   His frustration is expressed carefully with control.  And thus he marches forward toward Thursday night and Friday, when the temptation to react in fear-based anger will be even greater.   When Jesus is arrested after the Passover meal, one of the disciples reacts and cuts off the ear of the slave of the high priest, but Jesus says, Put your swords away, and Luke tells us he heals the ear.”  When Jesus was accused and had opportunity to defend himself with Caiaphas, the high priest, and Pilate, the governor, he was simply quiet.

Christ is a model of courage for us in his self-controlled expression of love – by entering Jerusalem in a public way, accepting the accolades of those who later will not have courage to remain strong with him, by challenging evil systems that threaten to dehumanize others, by healing those in need, despite the rising anger in religious authorities.   To be so humble and yet so assertive, to be so courageous and strong, while under threat of another’s anger – this is the beautiful witness of Jesus our Messiah.   The Apostle Paul recorded in the letter to the Philippians a short hymn that was likely known and recited by all in the early church.
“Christ Jesus, who though in the form of God did not regard equality with God something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.   And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Phil 2)

Paul later tells the Philippians that all that matters is knowing Christ.  He regards everything else as rubbish because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ.   He says, “In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content…I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  (Phil 4)
You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you to be courageous when you have every reason to fear.   You can exercise self-control because the Holy Spirit is working in you and through you.   God will satisfy your every need according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19)   So forgetting what lies behind and facing what lies ahead as you enter a difficult time, press on to the heavenly calling of Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:13)   Know Christ and the power of his resurrection by walking with him, by sharing his sufferings – this Holy Week and every week.  (Phil. 3:10)