Sunday, April 13, 2014

Why God Needs You (4.13.14)

A Meditation for Palm Sunday
Matthew 21:1-11

Maybe you saw the story this week about a Massachusetts father and son who’ve been running the Boston Marathon—together—for 33 years.  For 33 years, they’ve trained together, covered miles and miles and miles together, finished marathons and tri-athalons together; and last April, they’d decided that the 2013 Boston Marathon would be their last.

You see, Dick Hoyt—the father—is 73 now.  And Rick—his son is 52.  Moreover, Rick’s a quadriplegic: he was born with cerebral palsy; he can’t speak or control his four limbs.  And every race they run, they run together: Dick pushing Rick in a specially-made wheelchair across every one of those 26.2 marathon miles.  Up the Boston hills, down the Boston hills, and across the downtown finish line.  Together.  Running long races this way is hard on the body, on the spirit, on the rest of the Hoyt family.  But Dick and Rick wouldn’t have it any other way.  They’ve run for 33 years—with a purpose and mission.

The two of them have so inspired other runners and the quadriplegic community around the world—that marathon organizers had a special bronze statue made last year.  And it was unveiled, before the 2013 race, at the starting line in suburban Boston.  Father and son.  Rick in his chair and Dad pushing and running for the two of them.

Around Boston, they’re called “Team Hoyt”—and last year “Team Hoyt” got as far as the 23 mile marker—when police stopped the race and announced that bombs had exploded at the finish line.  They couldn’t finish the race that day—so Dick and Rick decided to honor all those who were injured or killed by running one last time this spring.  So next week in Boston, 73-year-old Dick and 52-year-old Rick give it one last push.  They run one last race.  Together.

In an interview this week, Dick described the day, thirty-plus years ago, when Rick first asked him to run.  At school, Rick had heard about a classmate paralyzed in a terrible collision during a lacrosse game.  And he came home from school that day and used his computerized voice machine to tell his dad about a charity road race, a benefit for the boy they called Doogie.  He begged his dad to help him run that race.  “Dad,” he said, pounding away at an old keyboard, “I have to do something for Doogie.  I have to let him know that life goes on.  I have to run that race.”

Now Dick was out of shape at the time, a working man with a busy family; it had been years since he’d done any serious exercise.  But he heard the passion in Rick’s computerized voice.  It was unmistakable.  And he signed the two of them up for the “Race for Doogie,” a 5 mile charity race for Doogie’s medical care.

It was a grueling experience, that first race, father pushing son in an ordinary wheelchair, the two of them hitting every pothole hard and finishing second to last; and Dick was so sick he was peeing blood at the finish line.  But that night, at his computer, Rick pounded away again and told his dad everything he needed to know.  “Dad,” he said, “when I’m running with you, it feels like my disability disappears.”  When I’m running with you, it feels like my disability disappears.  Within a couple of years, Dick and Rick were running marathons and more, inspiring generations of disabled athletes and their families and the rest of us too.


I’ve been thinking about this and about them all week.  And I’ve been thinking about the message they send, the message they embody really—this father and son, joined by compassion, rolling through the streets for other families and other kids like Doogie.  How Team Hoyt runs the Boston Marathon is something like the way Jesus rolls, bounces, rides into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday.  It’s a marvelous bit of street theatre: Jesus the King riding into the Holy City on a scruffy old animal, surrounded by poor widows and singing orphans and hungry mystics, all of whom are waving flowers and palm branches and singing hymns.

We know that every Passover, in old Jerusalem, Roman administrators would make a show of their immense power, their sophisticated armaments and their absolute authority.  After all, the Passover story was a story of liberation, of freedom, of rebellion in many ways.  And the Romans didn’t want first-century Jews getting any fancy ideas and stirring up trouble.

So Roman commanders would arrive in the old city, every Passover, in full regalia, vested in their shiniest armor, brandishing their finest weapons and riding their mightiest war horses.  There was really nothing subtle about Roman administration: keep the people in their place and make them fear you.  And all the rest will follow.

So Jesus chooses this funky bit of street theatre, this whole bit with donkeys and palms, to make his prophetic point.  And make no mistake.  He’s not playing around.  This is a big week.  And this silly procession makes a powerful point.  Instead of a war horse, the King of Love rides into town on a gimpy donkey.  Instead of weapons, his friends wave palms and floral bouquets.  And instead of threatening Roman slogans, they sing spirited hymns to the God of justice and peace.  It’s something like Team Hoyt rolling through the streets of Boston.  It’s love in action.  The only way to change the world.

There’s another moment in the Gospel this morning, a moment so easy to miss, but important not to.  It’s that moment in the beginning when Jesus sends two of his friends into the village for the donkey.  The donkey Jesus will ride into Jerusalem—confronting the hubris of the empire with the humility of his kingdom.  But before that, before he rides into the city on the donkey, he needs the donkey; and he needs his friends to go ahead to find it.

The word I hear this morning is this: Jesus needs us, his friends, to step up and take risks and join the procession of peacemaking he’s organizing in the streets.  Jesus needs you—your particular self with your particular history and your particular gifts—Jesus needs you to dream his dream of the Kingdom of God and to invest that dream with love and spirit and courage.  It’s easy to miss, but important not to.  Jesus sends two of his friends and says to them: “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you’ll find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.  And if anyone says anything to you, just say this: ‘The Lord needs this.’”   The word I hear this morning is this: Jesus needs his friends to step up and take a few risks.  Jesus needs you and me.

So what if Jesus needs you and me like Doogie the lacrosse player needed Rick in his wheelchair all those years ago?  What if Jesus needs you to shine a light on things the way that only you can?  We sell ourselves short a good bit of the time; but Jesus isn’t buying all that.  Jesus needs his friends to step up.  And he knows we’ve got it in us.  So what if Jesus needs you like young Rick needed his dad back then, to believe in his dream, to change your routine so that dream can live?  What if Jesus is promising you that whatever risks you take, his love, his blessing, his peace will always be with you?


Now make no mistake: it’s a strange and dangerous thing to go around the world saying “God told me to do this stuff.”  And I think our own tradition offers some very important guidance along the way.

When you hear God calling, when you sense a new invitation, when Jesus says to you “I need you,” the first thing to do is to test it.  It’s so important that you take that new word to prayer, that you hold it up to the light.  And it’s so important that you reflect on it, thoughtfully and patiently, in light of your conscience and your faith.  And more than all that, it’s important you test your idea in some kind of community: that you bring it to friends you trust, or share it with sisters and brothers at church.  We stand in the stream of a tradition that values the community as a source of wisdom, discernment and good judgment.  When you hear God calling, trust us to hear what you’re hearing and to help you hear it clearly.

And after you test it, you’ve got to trust it.  We’ve all grown up with voices that diminish us, with cultural messages that shrink us to insignificance.  But friends, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of empowerment and blessing and holy significance.  If you've tested your dream, if you’re confident of that dream, it’s time to trust that dream.  Yes, God needs you.  Yes, God needs your uniqueness in the universe, your shining light, your precious combination of experience and hope.  That’s exactly what we mean, in church, when we say that you’re a child of God.  No one can diminish a child of God.  No one can shrink a child of God.  Not forever.  So if you’ve tested your dream, and if you’re confident of that dream, it’s time to trust that dream.  And if anyone asks you about it, if anyone says “WHY IN THE WORLD?”—you’re going to tell them.  Because Jesus needs me.  Because Jesus needs this.

So you test it, you trust it.  And then you invest in it.  You give it everything you’ve got.  And you count on God to make it happen.  You move ahead trusting that God keeps every promise she makes.

Maybe you spend all afternoon cooking up your favorite soup and your best homemade bread.  And you serve it up at the shelter tonight, communion and the kingdom and a grateful crowd.  And if friends ask you about it, if anyone at home asks “WHY IN THE WORLD?”—you’re going to tell them.  Because Jesus needs me.  Because Jesus needs this.

Or maybe you join a group of us at the Board of Supervisors Tuesday morning, and maybe you show your support for critical needle exchange programs, for public health programs some want to shut down completely.  And if the crowd there says “WHY IN THE WORLD”—you’re going to tell them.  Because Jesus needs me.  Because Jesus needs this.

Or maybe you invite a couple of friends to Easter services next week.  Maybe you invite them to see this church where God celebrates our differences, where believers still believe in peace, where friends dance in the aisles and tears flow freely like rain.  And if your friends look at you crosswise, if they say “WHY IN THE WORLD”—you’re going to tell them.  Because Jesus needs me.  Because Jesus needs us.  Because Jesus needs this.

There are a thousand other ways.  A thousand other ways Jesus needs you and Jesus calls you and Jesus dares you to shine your light.  There’s your art and your poetry and your music.  There’s the love you lavish on your kids and your students and your clients.  There’s the letter you need to write to your congressman and the prayers you say every night for peace in the Ukraine and in Syria and in Palestine.

And in all these ways, Holy Week begins with Jesus and this procession of palms and bouquets, of dreamers and believers, of lovers and friends.  It’s not going to be an easy week, and it never is for those who believe in love.  But the choice is ours, the opportunity is ours, the gospel is ours to risk and to share.  There’s a King coming to town, on a scruffy donkey, with a promise of peace; and he's asking us to join the parade.