Imagine… The Possibilities

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C., March 27, 2010
Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C., March 28, 2010

Readings for Palm Sunday:

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. (Psalm 118:19-29)
If these were silent, the stones would shout out. (Luke 19:28-40)

Back in 1987, many years after he left the Beatles, George Harrison released a solo album after being away from the music business for five years. The big hit from this album was “Got My Mind Set On You” that went to number one on the Billboard charts. We’re not singing that one today. Instead, this song, “This is Love,” was the third song to be released as a single from the album, and it didn’t even crack the U.S. charts, but that’s okay because it’s a great song anyway. Sing along if you know it.

[Verse] Precious words drift away from the meaning
And the sun melts the chill from our lives
Helping us all to remember what we came here for.

[Chorus] This is love,
This is la-la-la-la love
This is love,
This is la-la-la-la love

Many years ago when I worked in Atlanta, I was driving home late from my job at a radio station when I saw that terrible sight in my rear view mirror — flashing blue lights. I looked down at my speedometer and my heart sank. Busted. I was doing about 55 or so in a posted 35 miles per hour road.

I didn’t mean to speed. I had a lot on my mind and was looking forward to going home. I was just driving, not thinking about driving, but thinking about everything else — and I got caught.

As the officer approached my window, I took a deep breath, rolled down my window and said, “Good evening, officer,” and smiled. That’s all I said. He proceeded to tell me what I knew — I had been speeding.

I explained to him that it had not been my intention to speed, but that I had been distracted, thinking about my day and wanting to get home. Our interaction was friendly enough, as these things go. In the end, he smiled as he wrote me a warning, telling me, “tonight is your lucky night.”

I sighed with relief as I pulled away, careful to watch my speed. I was amazed, as well, because the interaction with police office went just as the book said it would.

“What book?” you might wonder. Well, just a year or so before this incident I had interviewed an author, and ex-cop, who had written a book about how to get out of a ticket. I had used the techniques outlined in this book on the officer before me, and I avoided a ticket. It worked like a charm. Do you want to know the number one thing to not ever say to a police officer as he approaches your car?

Do not ever, under any circumstance, begin your conversation by saying, “What’s the problem officer?”

According to this author, this question alone sets a bad tone for your encounter with the officer. You know darn good and well what the problem is — and don’t act like you don’t. This one question immediately puts the officer on the defensive and makes the rest of the conversation very difficult for both of you.

Instead, simply say, “Good evening, officer,” or “Good morning” or afternoon or whatever time of day it is. Let the officer explain why they stopped you. Don’t immediately assume a problem. His next piece of advice to admit you were in the wrong, if indeed you were. I did this. I told the officer that yes, I noticed I was speeding the moment I saw his lights in my rearview mirror. I told him a bit about my day and how getting home was really the only thing on my mind. He understood, and with his warning, told me to keep my mind on the road until I got home.

It was an amazing experiment that worked. The main point of this book is to never lead with the idea that something is a “problem.” It’s sage advice, not just for beating a traffic ticket, but for every aspect of our lives. It’s hard to do, however, because we, as human beings love problems. Problems give our lives meaning — we’re all about problem solving, about making things right, about eliminating things that trouble us in some way.

What this author challenges us to do, though is to think about possibilities — not problems.

The ancient Hebrews knew a lot about problems. They lived to problem solve — to get themselves out of the problem of slavery, to figure out laws to keep them from having problems with God, to figure out laws to keep them from having problems among themselves and other communities. They were all about the problems. They had a slavery problem in Egypt. They had a direction problem in the desert. They had an idolatry problem on their way to the promised land — a problem that kept recurring even after they entered the promised land. Their lives were filled with problems. The desert dwelling singers among them wrong a lot of songs singing the blues over how many problems they had. We refer to them as psalms — but not all of them are songs of lament. Every now and then, those ancient people caught sight of something larger than their problems — and they wrong songs about that, too.

Psalm 118 is one of those songs of victory over problems — and more than that, it is a song about possibilities — about a future totally different than the present they are now experiencing.

I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.

All those problems have melted away — the imperfections that others have seen or those ancient Hebrews saw in themselves have been healed. They are no longer locked into their problems. Instead, they are exalted — they are God’s chief cornerstone — and in that lies not problems, but possibilities — the chance to be God’s channel of grace in the world. The chance to imagine … the possibilities.

[Verse] Little things that will change you forever
May appear from way out of the blue
Making fools of ev’rybody who don’t understand.

[Chorus] This is love,
This is la-la-la-la love
This is love,
This is la-la-la-la love

George Harrison would have made a great psalmist — he could write those bluesy psalms like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but he had a flair for writing those happy, praise songs, too.

“Little things that will change you forever, may appear from way out of the blue, making fools of everybody who don’t understand.”

Harrison could see past the problems and imagine … the possibilities. While our problems may seem bigger than life — possibilities are often little things, that come out of the blue and change you forever. Those who don’t get it may end up looking a little foolish.

In today’s reading from the Jesus story — Jesus was like something way out of blue to those along the road as he made his entrance into Jerusalem on that day. Even if, for just that one moment in time, their problems didn’t seem so big anymore. They’re troubles melted as they spread their cloaks on the ground before Jesus on his donkey and sang a psalm:

Blessed is the king, who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory to the highest in heaven.

From way out of the blue comes this man, this Jesus, this Christ — riding humbly on a donkey — who they believe can end all of their problems. Even if just for a moment, for even a brief blink of an eye, they imagined … the possibilities that Jesus could bring.

They knew their problems all too well — and, at the same time that Jesus came parading into the eastern part of Jerusalem on a donkey, without fear of a speeding ticket, coming into town from the west was the Roman governor — a man named Pontius Pilate. There were no donkeys in his procession. Instead, he was led into town by a column of imperial cavalry on their sturdy steeds, accompanied by legions of Roman soldiers. Pilate made Jesus’ little parade look like grown men crammed into tiny Shriner’s cars next to those gallant stallions and Pilate’s fine robes and riches.

But, I think it’s significant that Jesus came into town from the east, while Pilate came in from the west. The sun rises in the east, after all, and Jesus’ true power was about to dawn on all of them, while Pilate’s power would slowly fade into the sunset. From the east, Jesus proclaimed the realm of God — the power of infinite possibilities. While from the west, Pilate proclaimed the power of empire — the power of infinite problems.

What Jesus had going on over on the eastern side of town was what I call a parade of possibilities. A parade to celebrate the coming realm of God. A parade to welcome the day when we turn from our problems and imagine the possibilities that only the Holy can offer us.

Over on the west side of town, Pilate was leading a procession of problems — a procession that would ensure that the status quo would never change, a procession that would keep people in their place — oppressed, poor and in service to the empire.

Jesus’ parade shows us what love is all about – his parade says, “this is love.” Love doesn’t force itself on anyone. It comes meekly into our lives, riding humbly on a donkey. Love is unassuming. Love does not use coercion to get its way. Love doesn’t need troops to enforce its will. Love is a parade of possibilities that solves a procession of problems. It is only love that truly overcomes all our problems.

Jesus knew that before the week was out, those waving palm branches and hailing him with loud hosannas on this day would leave his parade of possibilities and join up with Pilate’s procession of problems. I’m sure Jesus didn’t blame them — it’s easier to be in the procession of problems than in the parade of possibilities. The procession of problems doesn’t ask you to change. It doesn’t ask you to make any sacrifices. It doesn’t ask you to put your life on the line. It may inconvenience you with one more meeting about how we’re going to solve the latest problem, but it doesn’t ask you to really transform your present, or your future, in any meaningful way.

Where are you today — in the parade of possibilities, or the procession of problems? Imagine … the possibilities.

Since our problems have been our own creation
They also can be overcome
When we use the power provided free to everyone.

[Chorus] This is love,
This is la-la-la-la love
This is love,
This is la-la-la-la love

Even in his parade of possibilities, problems were all around Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday. It was Passover time for the Jews, and people had come from all around to celebrate. Pilate, too, was in town to make sure that none of the people got too rowdy and decided to launch some manner of violent overthrow of the ruling Roman power.

So, as Jews filed into Jerusalem that day, they were reminded of just whose thumb they were under. They could celebrate their festival, but only under the watchful eye of Pilate and his soldiers.

It was this fear — this looming problem with the Roman authorities — that caused the Pharisees who saw Jesus coming into town to ask Jesus to keep it down — to not make such a big show about his arrival into town.

“Teacher, order your disciples to stop,” they pleaded. Jesus’ parade was too noisy, too obvious, and could be seen as Jesus making a mockery of Pilate’s procession on the other side of town — which is, of course, precisely what it was.

Jesus’ answer is powerful, because it speaks not of problems, but of infinite possibilities.

“I tell you,” he said, “if these were silent, the stones would cry out.”

Isn’t that what problems do to us … silence us? Frustrate us? Lead us to feel helpless? Often our problems are so overwhelming that they become our identity. As we invest more and more of our lives into solving a certain problem, that problem consumes us. Imagine what would happen if the problem of poverty were ended tomorrow, or the problem of homelessness, or the problem of hunger, or the problem of gay and lesbian oppression? What in the world would all those experts on poverty, homelessness, hunger or gay rights do? They make their livelihood on the existence of these problems. They’re paid to solve the problem — to make tomorrow just a little bit better than today.

What if, instead of wrapping up our lives so thoroughly in the problem, we were to imagine the possibilities, and in the imagining of those possibilities, we dream of a tomorrow that is radically different than today — not just a little better — but totally transformed from what we know now? Instead of being silenced by our problems, we would be empowered by the possibilities. We would be so enraptured by the possibilities that even the stones would cry out with us.

Imagine … the possibilities.

Breathe deeply.

Back in 1971, an ad man named Bill Backer was charged with the task of writing a new commercial for the Coca-Cola company. He wanted to bring the world a positive message and not dwell on the problems of the world.

While traveling he heard some people an airport joke about drinking Coca-Cola and on the back of napkin he wrote the line, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.” He took it to two British songwriters who gave us the jingle we all know and love. The TV commercial, called “Hilltop,” featured a multicultural group of teenagers singing the now familiar song.

The lyrics were rewritten and sung by a group called “The New Seekers” and reached #5 on Billboard’s Easy Listening charts. Sing along if you know it.

Verse: I’d like to build the world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow-white turtle doves

Chorus: I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to hold it in my arms
And keep it company

If creating true peace in the world was as easy as buying the world a Coke, we would have had ended all the wars a long time ago. Anyone who has worked on the problem of making peace knows it’s far more complicated than just getting everyone a soda and singing on a hilltop. No, it’s hard work. Again, though, what would the peacemakers do if there were truly peace in the world? Imagine that possibility — peacemakers put out of business.

That was Jesus’ mission though — to end the need for peacemaking — to make peace business as usual, instead of Pilate’s paranoid oppression being business as usual.

Jesus’ entire mission is one that calls us to turn away from problem solving — to turn away from “fighting” for peace. Instead, Jesus invites us to imagine … the possibilities — to see a future that is completely different, completely transformed, from what we know now.

Jesus was all about transformation.

Where others saw sickness, he saw health.

Where others saw sin, he saw salvation.

Where others saw condemnation, he saw redemption.

Where others saw hate, he saw love.

Where others saw poverty, he saw great wealth.

Where others saw hunger, he saw full bellies.

Where others saw weakness, he saw strength.

Where others saw ugliness, he saw beauty.

Where others saw darkness, he saw light.

Where others saw despair, he saw hope.

Where others saw death, he saw life.

Jesus was always looking beyond what is to what could be. Jesus knew that there was always something more going on than we can see on the surface. This is Jesus’ invitation to us, to look beyond — to look beyond problems and setbacks, to look beyond disappointments and disillusionment, to look beyond fears and misfortunes, to look beyond despair and depression, to look beyond any problem that plagues us right now.

Instead, Jesus invites us to imagine … the possibilities, to imagine not just a future that’s just like today, only a tiny bit better, but to imagine a totally different kind of future, where lambs lie down with lions, where hatred and anger can never enter our world, and where peacemakers have nothing to do.

Jesus invites us away from our procession of problems, to join in his never ending parade of possibilities. This is love.

Imagine … imagine … imagine.

Verse: I’d like to see the world for once
All standing hand in hand
And hear them echo through the hills
For peace throughout the land (That’s the song I hear)

Half chorus: I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony

Verse: I’d like to build the world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow-white turtle doves

Chorus: I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to hold it in my arms
And keep it company