It is no surprise to anyone who has been to Bible study here that the Philippians text for this morning is my favorite piece of scripture of them all; it is on the triptych of photos above the door to my office; it is inscribed upon my heart as they say in elsewhere in the Bible, it is the foundation of everything I believe.
And yet it is not enough for you.
Nor me in fact, though I have made it so central to my theological thinking that I can bear up under its weight fairly well.
It is the beauty of God’s cleverness and overarching love for us. It speaks of helplessness in the face of such love; of Jesus’ inability, if I can speak of the Son of God as being unable to do anything, but of the Lord’s inability to let us go, to let us perish in the grip of our sin when He had the ability to deliver us.
But it is the cart, and we are putting it before the horse.
And we are not alone, do not worry little lambs, in plenty of places all over the world they are putting the cart before the horse, thinking about the greatness of God and how fabulous it is that God loves us and how wonderful it is to have his light shining upon us. We are sitting proud in the cart but there is no horse pulling us.
It is more comfortable in the cart, to be sure. It is more comfortable to think that chicken comes from God on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in clear plastic or that they grow hot dogs on vast hot dog plantations rather than how we really get them. Our whole culture is based, to some extent, on putting the cart before the horse.
Its because despite a generation of cowboy movies, the westerns of decades past where horse culture was elevated and horses themselves were portrayed as these noble, intelligent, loyal, creatures who cooperated with their riders in the service of whatever the noble cause of the film happened to be, at the end of the day, however, there was never any mistaking who got to ride and who got to run, no question of who got a hotel room above the saloon and who got tied up on the street.
From that vantage point you might forget that horses are smelly, and dirty and occasionally recalcitrant and they are doing all the work, whilst we ride in comfort in the cart. If you put the cart before the horse, you miss that view, you miss the work being done for your comfort, you miss the cost, you let it happen out of sight.
It is cheaper, and in America, cheaper is better, it is cheaper to slaughter chickens, freeze them, ship them on a barge to china, have them fully processed and wrapped in plastic and placed on Styrofoam trays, re-frozen and shipped back to us and put into our markets than it is to process them here. The 6000 miles each way in the middle have become so cheap that we can forget about them, about the actual costs and not just the monetary ones.
We forget about the person whose chicken processing job has been lost. We forget about the fuel and the exhaust from the container ships, the thousands of refrigerated containers humming away for nine straight days, we forget about the psychic dissonance of having another country acting as our servant, taking care of the nasty bits of our economy while we pretend, snug in our carts, that they are not there and that the cart pulls itself.
In no way am I suggesting that this change. At this point it seems hardly likely that it is even possible for it to change at least not all at once. It is enough at the beginning to notice that we are way, way out in front of the horse, that everything that we do on this side of the world has an impact on the other side, that every decision that we make is an investment in either making of breaking the world in which we live. From time to time it is okay to crane your neck around and remember that we do not live in a bubble, that the cart does not pull itself.
It is just so with how we see our faith. We can spend so much time dwelling on the awesome love that God has for us and how lucky we are to be God’s favorite, and how much better it is to believe than to not believe that we might just forget where we put the horse, the thing driving God’s graceful sacrifice, God in Christ Jesus’ loving emptying of Himself for the sake of us all.
Go ahead, wave the palms and sing “All Glory Laud and Honor” like they did in Mark’s reading this morning, but remember that those same arms lifted high in celebration eventually hold hammers and not palms to drive the nails into the flesh of Jesus.
Not just you, not just you in particular, but all of us.
We’re the horse, and riding us, like Buck Jones from the 20’s and 30’s westerns, is Sin.
We are lost in it, lost to sin, steeped in sin. It is the air that we breathe and the ground that we walk on and the life that we lead whether we like it or not, whether we want to admit it or not. It is why we stick with the old model of worship, corporately confessing that we have fallen short, that we strive to do better and fail and that, in the end, we need help.
We need Christ.
If we are to be perfectly honest with ourselves, or honest with ourselves at all, if we are to ever put the horse back out in front of ourselves as we plot a course through this life of ours, then we will need to recognize that how great the gift was reflect exactly how great the need was as well.
It wasn’t saving us from a parking ticket, we aren’t naughty as a people, it is more than that.
Before you think that this sermon is taking a dark turn, let me assure you that I am not going to dwell on our depravity, our hopelessness in the face of sin, our complete inability to figure things out for ourselves. Aside from that sentence right there, we’re not going to focus on the sin so much as on how we are to respond to being freed from it.
That’s why the horse needs to be out front, why it needs to be a part of our consciousness, not just so that we never forget that we have been given a gift by the grace of God, but also so that we never forget that we needed the gift in order to live and to never forget that the life we lead reflects the love of God.
Jesus has been going on a journey throughout this Lenten season. He has been walking the road to Jerusalem knowing full well what lies ahead and he has been trying to communicate to his disciples and to us that His death is going to mean something more than what they expect, that he is not going to be defeated but paradoxically, that He is heading toward a victory on the cross.
Without the horse being out front it is just a nice thing to do, a blessing like Manna in the wilderness, or safe passage though the sea. Without the disciples understanding that this was happening so that we all might not suffer and die without hope of heaven, then the death on the cross might have just been another crucifixion, they weren’t that rare in those days, just another cruel historical blip, and no lesson could be learned, no life claimed, no sins forgiven.
But Jesus teaches always, giving the sacrament of holy communion, access to his flesh and blood even after it passes from their sight, given them access to His forgiveness, a way to live after he takes up the sins of man and puts them to death we can still reach out and find Him placed into our hand, find him upon our lips, find relief from the burden of sin, find ourselves free.
If only hours away is the grim reality of what sins costs are, it is easy to overlook it at this time of fellowship and grace; if only hours away is the crown and the cloak meant to humiliate Him as we suffer humiliation so often because of our weakness, at that moment there is only strength.
In these pages we see the breadth of mankind’s weakness, played out for us in Christ and the world’s reactions to Him and we see ourselves, if we allow ourselves to be honest, if we crane our heads around to see the horse, we see ourselves in the romans, and in the citizens who in the procession waved the palms but in the Gospel called for His blood, in the degradation of Christ, even to the point of asking, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
If there is a pain we might suffer that Jesus does not take upon Himself in this passage I do not see it, if there is a penalty that is paid by the flesh of humanity that Jesus does not lift from our shoulders in this morning’s Gospel, I do not see it.
In seeing this, in witnessing to it this morning we are given a chance to live differently, not as the privileged sitting high in the cart, like landed gentry in some BBC adaptation of Victorian living, fully convinced that god has simply made us better, that God just likes us more than other people, that we deserve all of that grace.
We are given the chance to live differently. To see the truth that grace is never deserved, it is the gift we cannot acquire on our own, cannot earn, cannot merit and but for the love of God shown to us this morning in Christ Jesus we would never enjoy and to act, each and every day not in arrogance but in gratitude, not in fear of reprisal but in boldness and confidence in God’s grace, that it will not depart from us.
We can leave behind us the need to succeed, the drive to dominate and the illusion that we are the masters of the universe because that’s a pretty big job and if we were capable of doing it, then there would have been no need for Jesus to come and to give Himself for us.
So maybe there’s a better way, a way that portrays to the world what it is that we see in our own sacraments, in our own expressions of the blessings and the love of god.
We come to the table, the table Jesus sets for us this morning, empty handed. This is more than symbolic, it is the truth enacted in our midst every week. We carry forth everything that would make us worthy of God’s love, again, not a thing, and we take away the Body and Blood, given and shed, still a present reality in our lives despite the fact that the flesh of Christ passed from our sight long ago.
God’s grace gives us access to that so that we might see what it is to bless, what it is to love.
God’s grace gives us access so that we might be free to do the same, to emulate the grace of God by using it to show grace to others, to help because we see their need, because we understand our own sin and see their as well and are not arrogant but instead are the very vessels of the love of God that has saved us. Too often we impose barriers between us and the ones we encounter every day because we wonder if there is enough, if they will waste the grace we might give them, if they are worthy.
The only place you can wonder that is from the cart, sitting high above, pretending that you are not the horse, no less sinful than anyone, no less in need of God’s grace and no less called upon to pull the cart a little when it is your turn, to show forth the grace of God to any and all who we encounter.
Do they deserve it? Probably not. But then neither do we so maybe the secret to living the life Jesus wins for us is to wave the palm, acknowledge the hammer and the nails, to give humble thanks and then stand up and start pulling that cart.
There is joy there, more than the celebrations of the people shouting Hosanna, a joy that will not pass from us if only we will be bold enough to live it.