Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Great and Terrible Palm Sunday Confusion

A sermon preached this morning at Sts. Anargyroi Orthodox Cathedral in Nairobi.

It’s Palm Sunday, and everyone’s confused.  We celebrate Palm Sunday here the same way we celebrated it in my Presbyterian church when I was a child.  We sing special songs, especially the ones that remind us of the children singing ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’  We think about Jesus riding on a donkey to the gates of Jerusalem.  We think about the disciples putting their cloaks and tunics in the road for the donkey carrying Jesus to walk over.  And we think of people cutting down palm branches and waving them as Jesus passes by, just as we are going to do.  And somehow you and I have it in our heads that this is a good thing.  That somehow you and I are meant to celebrate Jesus coming into Jerusalem for what will be the last five days of his life.  Somehow we are meant to join in with the hosannas, with the cloaks and palm branches.

On Saturday, we celebrated Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  On Sunday he comes the couple of kilometers from Bethany over the Mount of Olives, across the Kedron Valley and towards the massive Roman gates of Jerusalem.  The dead man Lazarus is alive and walking around and talking to everyone who is crowding around to see him.  Nothing like this has ever happened.  And now Jesus is going to Jerusalem.  Why is He going?  What is He going to do?

The disciples have never understood Jesus.  They have seen his miracles, his healings, they have heard his preaching and his teaching.  But they’re still fighting over the money.  They’re still arguing over who’s first and best.  And if that wasn’t enough, they still think that Jesus is, after all is said and done, going to overthrow the Roman occupation and set up the kingdom of God right here and right now.  And they get to be the first in line when Jesus divides up the spoils!  When Jesus tells them to love their enemies, however, they don’t get it.  When Jesus tells them that the greatest among them must be the one who serves, they don’t get it.  When Jesus says not to be like the Gentiles who lord it over everyone else, they are pretty sure that they actually want to be like those Gentiles, they actually think that lording over everybody else is a pretty good idea.  So as Jesus rides the donkey into Jerusalem these disciples are pretty excited.  They’re thinking, ‘Finally, Jesus is doing what He’s needed to do all along.  Now we’ll see some real action.  Bring on that Kingdom, Lord!’  The disciples may be leading the cheers for Jesus as He draws near to the city, but they don’t know what they are talking about.  They are trying to make Jesus fit into their agenda.  They are so very confused.

The ordinary people that are thronging around Jesus, rushing to get a glimpse of Lazarus, wanting desperately to get a picture of a miracle, or even better, get a selfie with Jesus, they aren’t doing any better than the disciples.  They are drawn by the spectacle, they are drawn by the excitement; but really, they’re there because of what they think they are going to get.  They remember when Jesus fed the multitude with a few loaves and fish.  They all know someone who has been healed of this or that.  And they’re here now because they think Jesus is going to do something really big, and they want to be there when He does.  These people are all crowding around Jesus, they’re all following and watching and listening to Jesus.  But they don’t have a clue who Jesus really is or what Jesus really is all about.  A big crowd of people looks impressive enough.  But these people are trying to make Jesus fit into their agenda.  They are so very confused.

And the children are running around shouting ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’  They think Jesus is going to be king.  But Jesus is not riding in to Jerusalem to take up some earthly throne, to become some earthly SOMEBODY.  He’s coming to be rejected by His own people.  He’s coming to be handed over to the Gentiles.  He’s coming to be crucified as a criminal.  These children running around and shouting, they are so very confused.

And all those religious people, those Pharisees and Synagogue leaders and priests and Temple hierarchy, they are too busy making people be religious.  It’s about keeping rules, it’s about doing all those things they say God wants us to do.  But when Jesus shows up, they don’t know what to do with him.  He keeps putting people first.  He keeps reaching out to prostitutes and collaborators and tax collectors.  And he keeps focusing a laser on their hypocrisy.  He keeps saying things like You people are really good at shining and polishing who you are on the outside, but inside you are filth and decay.  Your words are sweet, but your heart is bitter and corrupt.  Jesus catches them out, and so many of them are really angry at Him.  They feel like they deserve more respect.  Sure there are miracles, sure He’s a good preacher, but He’s overturning our little game.  Jesus is fulfilling all the Scriptures they say they believe.  But they don’t want to change. So they close their eyes, they close their ears.  And as Jesus makes this entrance into Jerusalem, the very ones who should have recognized His coming, who should have understood and been the very first to repent, they refuse because Jesus won’t fit their agenda for him.  They are so very confused.

Some of us are like the disciples this morning.  We want Jesus to serve us.  We want to be the powerful ones here in this church, the ones in control, the ones that everyone else serves.  We are waving our palm branches like everyone else, but we have never understood that it’s our heart that Jesus wants to ride into and conquer.  We’re too busy trying to make Jesus fit our agenda, our plans, our purposes.  But we are just as confused as the disciples.

Some of us are the people crowding around.  We are here this morning not because we want to follow Jesus, not because we want to give our lives to Him and love Him and serve Him with everything we have.  We’re here because of what we think we can get, either from Jesus, or the priest, or other faithful.  But Jesus and church are not about what you and I can get.  It’s about knowing Jesus and loving Jesus and being transformed in how we live our lives by Jesus so that we become more and more like Jesus.  No wonder so many of us this morning are so confused.

And lastly, some of us are like the religious leaders that Jesus tried again and again to talk to.  We think that making a show of being religious is what it’s about.  We come to church on all the special days, we learn the right gestures, say the right things and think we are somehow being good Orthodox.  But Jesus doesn’t care about how many signs of the cross I make; He cares about what’s going on in my heart.  Jesus doesn’t care about how many prostrations I make; He cares about what I just said or thought about my neighbor.  He doesn’t care that you gave this much at a harambee or that much in the offering; He cares if you have surrendered everything you have and are over to Him and if you are using everything you have and are for His glory.  It’s not about religion; it’s about Jesus.  No wonder so many of us this morning are so confused.

Who are you this morning?  Are you like the disciples?  Are you like the ordinary people who gathered around?  Are you like the religious people.

Some of these same people who are so happy today, in just three days they will be conspiring to betray Jesus to His enemies.  Some of these same people, in just four days, will be abandoning Jesus to His fate, denying that they ever knew Him.  Some of these same people shouting praises today will be shouting ‘Crucify Him’ on Friday.  And many of the crowds that surround him today will disappear as soon as they see Jesus carrying His cross.  They are only here for what they can get, and the last thing they want is a cross.

As Jesus comes up to the gates of Jerusalem this Palm Sunday, the good news is this: He’s actually coming up to you.  He’s coming up to your heart.  He wants to come in. He wants to clean out what’s wrong.  He wants to heal what’s hurt.  He wants to mend what’s broken.  He wants to make alive what’s dead.  And He wants to fill you and change you and transform you with His love.  Will you open your heart to Him?  Or are you still confused?

Monday, April 11, 2016

Culture of Corruption

New speed cameras for the Kenya Police. Yay.

A month or so ago, on our way to Kisumu, we were flagged down by police on the side of the road.  They were actually stopping everybody, with a few exceptions.  Turned out, they were making a mass arrest of drivers.  The charge against us – speeding: going 130km in a 100km zone.  So we were hauled off to the collection of tin shacks that served as the local police compound.  Everyone was highly efficient (which struck me as being, um, unusual), as if they had done this many times before.  They claimed they had a speed gun and that it could all be documented.  They hauled my friend off in a truck full of other malefactors to the traffic court in Molo, 30kms away, leaving the rest of us to ponder what just happened.  At the court, a judge fined my friend 20,000Ksh ($200), a HUGE amount for any Kenyan on an ordinary salary.  We finally persuaded the officer in charge of the station to give me back my car so we could go rescue our friend.  We found Molo, then found the court, then found our friend, stopped for a late compensatory lunch  and then continued on our way, $200 poorer.

Had there been an actual traffic offense, had my friend been driving too fast or recklessly, then huzzahs for the police doing their job protecting the public and enforcing the law.  However, the factor that the police refused to take into consideration was that my car cannot go 130 kms an hour.  Not only that, during the entire trip we had not gone over 100 kms.  Moreover, at the spot of road where the alleged crime took place, the road was going up-hill and we were traveling in traffic.  130kms/hour?  Please.

I have since learned that, yes, the Kenya traffic police people have ‘radar guns’ and that it is widely known that they are rigged.  We, and a twenty other hapless and otherwise innocent travelers were caught up in a net of corruption thrown by the very people who are supposed to protect us from it.  And it was a conspiracy that involved not just the police, but the traffic court people 30 kms away.  And God only knows who else got a cut of the loot.

Welcome to life in Kenya.  Corruption touches everything.  I heard yesterday of a recent student body election that had to be nullified because one of the candidates for president had bought the election.  Even here at the university where I teach, I heard today of instances where students had forged cards that are produced by our finance office when students pay their bills so that they can take their exams.  I heard recently of a priest who, several years ago, took the money that the church had raised to build a proper building and, as they say here, ate it all.  Most of the parishioners have since left the church, knowing that nothing would be done to do justice in their case.  I would have gone, too, if events revealed my priest to be a thief.

I know of instances where lecturers at universities steadfastly refused to do anything about blatant plagiarism among their students because their own Masters and/or PhDs were blatantly plagiarized.

And then there’s politics.  The newspapers publish almost daily new accounts of government officials caught up in some new scandal or corrupt scheme.  There have been so many that it is impossible to keep up with them all.  And the sheer number of different stories gives the impression that to be a politician is to be corrupt.  One of the biggest jokes I've heard has to do with the parliament, whose members are among the world’s highest paid parliamentarians.  Their collective avarice is so transparent that it has become obvious that one runs for parliament in order to just soak the government (i.e., the Kenyan people) of as much money as they can possible grab without resorting to out and out armed robbery.  Their repeated attempts to force the government to pay them even more money have ceased to cause outrage because it is more or less accepted by the majority that it is 'their turn at the table'.  The only thing the people not in power can hope for is that the day will come when it will be OUR TURN at the table!

Even the president of Kenya, on a recent trip to Israel, told a gathering of Kenyans living there in a startling outbreak of honesty:

Kenyans are experts at stealing and hurling insults.  Moreover, our peopleare doing little to stop corruption in the government and the private sector.  God has given Kenyans a country that is 20 times better than the one we are in right now (Israel).  But there is crying, theft… we are experts at stealing, abusing each other, doing other evils and perpetuating tribalism. 

This, of course, is from the man who was indicted by The Hague War Crimes Tribunal on charges of Crimes against Humanity for his role in the spasm of ethnic violence that roiled Kenya after the 2007 elections.  His case was dropped after one by one the witnesses prepared to testify against him decided to recant their testimony.  The president’s supporters were delirious that ‘justice’ had been done.  But for whom?  Kenyatta’s Deputy President, William Ruto, similarly charged, also just had all charges dropped because witnesses changed their testimony and one was murdered in a case that remains unsolved.  The Deputy President has been making the rounds all over the country holding high-profile prayer rallies enlisting the almighty’s aid in his case.  And when the charges were dropped due to ‘lack of evidence’, his supporters were delirious because ‘justice’ was done.  But again, justice for whom?  As the leaders go… 

It’s getting to the point where I’m starting to question if the parts the mechanic is getting to repair my car are legitimate or if somebody is charging way more for inferior parts to make easy money.  Or if the packaging at the supermarket is what it says it is, or it if is a rip off, selling me something that has actually gone bad when its date says it is supposed to be good.  I already know that nothing sold on the streets or shops is as advertised – it’s all made in China.  These are, of course, small piddly things, hardly worth comparing with the immense amount of Kenyan Public funding that ends up in clandestine bank accounts or bankrolling an inordinate number of lifestyles of the rich and famous for a country like this.  I read that a recent audit revealed that only 1% of Kenya's National Budget was spent 'effectively and legally'.  I am not making any of this up.

Kenya is drowning in an ocean of corruption.  There is here an unseemly frenzy of people trying with maniacal energy to get as much money and advantage and power and influence as they possibly can and by whatever means enables them to do so.  In every case, the ends justify the means.  Or another way of putting it, the entire nation has descended into the yawning purgatory of ‘matatu values’.  Matatus are the ubiquitous vans in various states of disrepair that are responsible for transporting most of the nation’s people on a given day.  The drivers routinely pay bribes to the police who routinely pull matatus off the road in order to collect their money, which then allows the matatu drivers to flaunt whatever safety or traffic law might otherwise stop their dangerous driving in unsafe vehicles.  Matatu values are, simply put, if one can get away with it, then do it.  Somedays it seems the entire nation has taken this to heart.

The great majority of Kenyans follow this creed and live this way as if they will never be called to account.  Even Christians.  Of all kinds.  And with so many examples of people flaunting the rules (and the laws) and getting away with it and getting rich in the meantime, one can at least understand the temptation to join in the general stampede.

There was a beautiful, old, ginormous sycamore tree in our neighborhood.  Every autumn it put on the most glorious display of color.  Every summer it shaded the yard and the neighbors as well.  But a survey was done by the power line people, and it was determined that the tree had a significant amount of rot inside the trunk, and that it was in danger of coming down the next big windstorm.  So they came and cut down our beautiful tree.  And sure enough, when the tree came down, the amount of rot in the trunk was immense.  There was hardly anything holding it up.  Had it not been taken down, it would have fallen into our house, or our neighbor’s, or across the road.  Somebody could have gotten hurt.

Kenya is this tree.  At some point sooner rather than later, the wind is going to blow, and the tree is going to fall with a great crash.  The culture of corruption will have eaten the heart out of the country, and it will no longer be able to hold itself up.  And a lot of people are going to get hurt. I wish it were not so.  But this is what corruption does.  It causes one to eat one’s very soul.