Till Then

Reading 1:


Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ 

 

Reading 2:


Philip Larkin - Next, Please

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
“Till then” we say,

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
How slow they are! And how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste!

Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,

Flagged, and the figurehead…
Arching our way, it never anchors; it's
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last

We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

 

Sermon

When Jesus rode toward Jerusalem, it was an occupied and broken city that he approached. The year was somewhere around 32 CE. The Roman Empire controlled all of the land of Israel.  The Jewish people had been under Rome’s control for nearly a century.

Roman occupation was brutal. The Israelites were not particularly compliant subjects with their commitment to their own stories and culture and to their own strong religious tradition.  And so the authorities became very harsh. We know that execution and torture were common. The religion of the Jews was suppressed and the sacred temple was contaminated with pagan Roman symbols. For the Jews, it was a time when it seemed that everything had gone wrong. All the promises that God had made to the Jewish people seemed to have been forgotten. 

Amid this despair – in a time when the Jews knew they had no chance of challenging the superpower of Rome -- a desperate hope emerged. Groups of Jews developed the belief that God would soon return to save His people in an apocalyptic event. The Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947 along the banks of Israel’s salty Dead Sea tells us much about one of the groups that held such beliefs – the Essenes.  They were convinced that a cataclysmic turning point in history was coming – a battle between the forces of good and evil that would see oppressors vanquished and the downtrodden freed. 

They expected the end of an evil age and the beginning of a new golden age. They expected the ancient Jewish prophesies of a messiah descended from King David to come true in their own time. They expect to be freed from Roman oppression – to be restored and reunited as a people – to be free to rule themselves, to control their own lives and their own land, and especially, free to practice their religion

And into this time and place comes Jesus riding on a colt. The people throng to see him. They cover his path with branches and cloaks as they would for a great king. They hold palm branches – a traditional symbol of triumph. It is not a gentle spiritual shift they seek, but the revolution that will restore them to freedom and dignity.

‘Hosanna!    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

Historians and biblical scholars argue about whether this triumphant arrival at Jerusalem actually happened at all.  I kind of doubt it. Even if Jesus had been the hoped-for messiah – the divinely-chosen saviour and liberator of his people – would anyone really have recognized it? 

What if the messiah rode into Islington – rode right down Upper street on a colt – or a bicycle today? What if the world was about to change and peace, love, freedom and justice were about to break out all over the place --- if only we believed and rallied round it? If only we made a place in our hearts for it?  

Well, maybe some of us would be prepared to take that leap of faith. Maybe a few of us would be ready to say yes!  Hosanna!  and then cover his path with cloaks and take up the palm fronds of victory. How would we look at people like that? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be one of them. Philip Larkin’s poem is a more accurate depiction of the way I often react to what life brings me

The “Sparkling armada of promises” can seem so much more appealing than the boat that has just moored within our grasp with its cargo of joys so easy to dismiss.

“Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
“Till then” we say,”

A true saviour would probably have arrived to cries, not of “hosanna in the highest heaven”, but of “I thought he’d be taller!” “You call that a saviour?” and “Let’s wait and see if something better comes along.”

Haven’t we all done this in our own lives? Haven’t you had those moments where you finally reached the moment you had been hoping for and then moved right on to worrying about the next thing? “Something is always approaching; every day”, says Larkin.

When was the last time you really let yourself be thrilled? I think I’m afraid to be thrilled – I don’t want to jynx my good luck! Can you be thrilled? Delighted? Ecstatic? Not just for a minute, but actually revel in a good turn of events? A new job, A new home, A relationship,  A new friendship… Finding a religious community where you feel you belong?

This is part of what I take from Palm Sunday. Life has its dark times. There is no life that doesn’t end, no person that doesn’t experience pain and loss…  Many of us sitting here are in those dark periods when nothing seems to be the way it should. 

And there are also joys and they come along in strange, unexpected ways… in an envelope, on the phone, on a bus, on the street, maybe even astride a colt. And those are times to celebrate – to whoop with joy – to yell hallelujahs and Hosannas…  To be in the moment of joy before moving to the disappointments and challenges that will surely come.

Today, we will hold the annual general meetings of this religious community.  It may not be the equivalent of the arrival of the messiah, but we have plenty to celebrate. 

I am one of the worst when it comes to ignoring current happiness to focus on the next challenge – and I want to tell you that I have decided to be glad today. 

I want to celebrate the fact that there is a movement like Unitarianism that offers community and freedom

I want to celebrate the fact that this particular community survived through very tough times to enter the amazing phase it is now in.

I want to celebrate the tenacious handful of people who faithfully persisted to keep it going for all those lean years. They had more faith than I would have.

I want to celebrate this community itself – a community that has doubled in size in 2 ½ years. A community filled with such wonderful energy and diversity. 

And I want to celebrate all of you – the amazing people who make up this community and who, with your compassion, your love, your acceptance, and your time and effort, have made it such a vital, spiritual, place.

For now, let us celebrate what has come to us. 

There will be time ahead for facing challenges. There will be time for setting our sights higher. There will be time for setbacks and disappointments. For now, let us all rejoice at the good fortune that is ours.

May it be so.