Entrance Exam

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
April 1, 2012 (Palm Sunday) Philippians 2:5-11, Mark 11:1-11

Some of you may remember me. At one point I worked here, and am grateful for the invitation to be this morning’s guest preacher! A colleague suggested that I come back from my sabbatical this Palm Sunday riding in on a donkey. I must admit that the idea had some appeal until you play out the scenario a bit, getting first to Thursday and then to Good Friday. So no donkey.

Nonetheless, here I am, and very glad of it. I missed you all a great deal, and I am not just saying that. I also missed the work, my work, and our work together.

How did the sabbatical go? Terrific. I didn’t finish every project, but made good progress on all of them. I didn’t take a long nap EVERY afternoon, or watch “The Price Is Right” every day, but in the spirit of the word “Sabbath,” from which we get “sabbatical,” found time for refreshment and rejuvenation, as well as work. I wrote some, read a lot, visited some interesting places, talked to lots of interesting people, and thought good and deep thoughts a great deal.

I didn’t worry about the specifics of things happening around this place – they were in good hands. But I did connect to a great extent what I was experiencing and learning in my time away with what we do around here, and how we approach things, and our future directions. You will hear much more of that as the weeks unfold. Much of what I did will bear fruit in what I do, my own leadership, but also in what we do together around here.

So thank you, thank you for this opportunity. Thank you to Christopher Luedde for covering things in my absence in fine Episcopalian fashion. Thanks to staff colleagues across the board for doing what they do so well. Thanks to the Personnel Committee and Session and other leaders for leading. Thanks to Bonny and the kids for tolerating me more than usual. As I said, I am very grateful for the time, this sacred, set apart time. And I am very grateful, and ready, to be back.


Let us pray. We thank you, O God, for this sacred season, this Holy Week, these holy moments. We thank you as we gather here, waving palms, shouting “hosanna,” preparing ourselves for this week’s events to unfold. As we journey with Jesus through his final days, so journey with us. Make his presence real, and strengthen our life together. We think of the families this day, O God, of Trayvon Martin and Larie Butler, for families and communities and a nation facing very difficult matters. Bring healing, O God. We remember with gratitude the life of David Craighead and how it is given witness in the music ministry of this congregation. We thank you for time away, and time to reengage, for our life and work together as this part of the body. Now open your word to us, and transform us by its hearing. For we pray in the strong name of Jesus Christ, the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen.


Along with Palm Sunday, it is April Fool’s Day. I had another thoughtful colleague suggest that I could play an April Fool’s Day joke by not showing up this morning. I countered that some of you might think my actual showing up would be the real April Fool’s joke. I do need to confess that I might not have been here at all had we won the lottery on Friday, but that’s another matter altogether. April 1 happens to be my anniversary at Third Church – I preached my first sermon here 11 years ago today.

The history of April Fool’s Day is uncertain, quite possibly originating in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the 1300’s, or in various European nations in the 1400’s or 1500’s.

For some more recently, April 1 has taken on another dimension. For thousands of high school seniors, it is the day, the deadline, to receive letters from colleges, acceptance or not. It is a day filled with anxiety, hope, jubilation, disappointment. For high schools senior, it is a day that can take your breath away. For families, and especially parents, it is a day that will take your money away. If you, or someone you know and love, is still waiting word, or has just received word, I hope it goes well for you. And if it hasn’t gone well, know still how much you are loved.

The process is so much more complex and involved than even a generation ago. Grades. Class rank. Qualifying exams – ACT, SAT, PSAT, goodness knows what else. Then there are the applications themselves. One would think that with advances in technology the process would be easier…or cheaper. Nope and nope. And then there is FAFSA, and getting your taxes done three years ahead of time, and committing your income for the next 40 years.

So today is the day, when it feels that, in some ways, all that has gone ahead, and all that might come after, comes down to how a small group of people sitting in a room somewhere discerns who a young person is, and will determine their future, rightly or wrongly, by looking at a few numbers and a few paragraphs. Will a thick envelope arrive in the mailbox, or a thin one?

But that’s not all. Whether any young person, your son or daughter or grandson or granddaughter, or the sons and daughters of this community, will go to college or not, we are learning more and more that they are being evaluated, tested, graded, deemed worthy or not, judged, all the time – informally as well as formally. That’s what this bullying discussion is about, is it not. Who’s in and who’s out, and incomprehensible standards of acceptance or exclusion, and the harsh ways those standards are applied.

Maybe it’s what life is all about. Who’s in and who’s out. What qualifications deem you worthy, what shortfalls leave you outside looking in.

My sabbatical began with a list of questions. You will become more and more familiar with them as the weeks pass by. Some were vocational. Some were theological. Some were cultural. But many were ecclesiastical, the fancy word for church. Church questions. Denominationally – do we have a future? But also this place. What draws people in. What people are looking for. What expectations do they have. How do people connect. How does faith deepen, and broaden. How can a church evolve while maintaining identity and integrity.

These are big questions, important ones as we move forward in a culture when fewer and fewer of us, frankly, even care. But always for me, ecclesiastical questions, questions about the church, need to be preceded by theological ones, questions about God, about Jesus, about the Spirit. Those are the best questions, the questions from which all other questions flow.

I also realized during my sabbatical that every time I asked one question, whether about God, or the church, or myself, that another dozen would pop up. That's probably OK. It’s true of life. It’s true this week, this holy week. If life, as they say, is about the journey and not the destination, the same is true of faith. Life, and faith, are about the questions, less so the answers.

Look at all the questions that are being asked this week, and how each question leads to so many more. We will focus this week on Mark’s gospel, from Palm Sunday to Easter. Jesus sends two disciples ahead to secure the colt. He predicts that they will be interrogated, asked questions – why are you doing what you are doing. The explanation is simple: the Lord needs it. That question begs others, does it not? Not so much why the colt, why the donkey. But why the entry, why the need to enter in this way.

As the story unfolds, Jesus will cause a ruckus in the temple, charging the religious leaders of profiteering. Why this, of all things. The leaders are concerned. The power struggle continues to escalate. What is your authority, they ask him. He asks them a question back, leaving them embarrassed and fearful. He will be asked many more questions, about paying taxes – the role of faith in politics; about resurrection; about ethics.

His followers, hearing time after time that he will leave them soon, yet not understanding what that means, are hungry, hungry for what he has to offer them, an alternative vision of life’s meaning, of who they are, of who God is. Questions leading to more questions.

The answers matter, clearly, but what seems to matter even more, to Jesus, is the questions. Look how many times in the gospels he answers a question with a question, sometimes to stump a hostile interrogator, but more often as not, to encourage a seeker, someone like you or me, to explore our own faith.

That seems true for any good teacher, does it not? We learn from them not because they tell us what we should know, open our heads and pour information in, but because they encourage us to seek, to explore, to come to our own understandings.

Another of my sabbatical questions was, and is, about the nature of theology, what we believe, how we believe, how and why it matters. I asked it particularly through the lens of my own work, a history of Presbyterian theology in the 1960s, which seems more and more relevant as we look at current issues of warfare and economics and race and human sexuality. So the answers have mattered to me, and will matter. Theology matters. But think of those questions, and how they lead us to deeper understandings of who we are and how we are to live.

For all the good it has done, it seems as if American religion has made two significant errors -- at least -- in its history, and we live with the consequences. The first is that we have turned faith into a set of answers, propositions, doctrine, dogma. We have created a kind of entrance exam for faith, that by saying the right thing or believing the right thing, we are “in,” receiving that coveted acceptance letter into the divine university, our salvation ticket punched.

Mind you, the content of belief matters. But I believe what Harvey Cox says in his fine book The Future of Faith, that after several centuries of living in the “age of belief,” a period of time focused on correct doctrine, that we are entering an “age of the Spirit,” where dogma matters less and less, where spirituality is replacing formal belief patterns.

That’s also the theme of Diana Butler Bass’ new book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.

What I would say is that it’s not so much something new, not abandoning our past, but that it’s getting us back to our roots. Look at those who followed Jesus. Regular people like you and me, with regular jobs, regular challenges, regular experiences. No top-shelf theologians or philosophers or religious bureaucrats. People with questions, willing to ask them, willing to follow, willing to give their lives to this one who will give his life.

The second error we’ve made is just that, in determining what following him means. We’ve turned Jesus into an intellectual proposition, an item of belief, as well as the subject of a personal relationship that once established – Jesus as your personal savior – little else matters. That’s not how it seems to work, from those earlier moments.

Certainly, our history will say that belief about Jesus matters. It will also say that some personal connection with him is important, and it is. It is for me.

But Jesus calls our name and invites us to follow, and the relationship is always the first priority, not a set of answers that we can simply fill in with a No. 2 pencil, and never, ever to be played out in anything but community, the body of Christ, the church.

In his new book called Simply Jesus, N.T. Wright writes: “Jesus – the Jesus we might discover if we really looked, is larger, more disturbing, more urgent than we had ever imagined.” Theological debates, Wright asserts, have masked the real story of Jesus. “We have successfully managed…to avoid the huge, world-shaking challenge of Jesus’ central claim and achievement,” Wright writes. “We have reduced the kingdom of God to private piety: the victory of the cross to comfort for the conscience.”

I am very glad to be back. The calendar worked out well – January 1 to April 1 – but I must admit that being away for Lent and showing up now, at the outset of Holy Week, feels a little odd. I am hopeful that your Lent, even when the temperatures soared into the 70s, was a season of introspection and reflection, perhaps even of taking something on rather than giving something up. And I hope it was a time of questions, questioning that led to deepening of faith. And if that questioning led to more questions, so be it, and good for you. That is the nature of faith, and what the Spirit hopes for us.

Because what we need to trust at the bottom of our hearts and at the core of our spirits, is that the only credential we need, the only qualifying exam we need to take, the only entrance exam we need to pass, is one of trust, and hope. The rest will follow.

But first we show up. We show up today by waving branches. We show up this week as we gather around the table, or at the foot of the cross. We show up a week from now at the empty tomb. That is what will matter, showing up, and trusting. Questions will lead to questions, which will be OK, because we know one with whom we can trust them, and a community through which to ask them. In those questions we will meet one another, and we will meet the very one who emptied himself, who served us, who calls us to serve, and who has a name above every name.

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest. Amen.

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