Preached on Palm Sunday, April 13, 2014 at First Congregational Church of Minnesota, UCC
Listen to the rustle of the palms.
It comes like a rustle, this knowing.
It comes like a whisper from deep inside you. Can you hear it?
It says: This is my truth. This is who I am. I. am. undeniable.
So here we are at the beginning of Holy Week, and these forty days of Lent are almost up. How are your Lenten practices coming? Has anyone eaten chocolate yet who wasn’t supposed to? :)
In all seriousness, today is the day that we enter into what is the holiest week of the year in the Christian calendar, where together we ritualize and make meaning of the final days of Jesus’ life – and his death.
If we take it seriously, this is a really challenging week. We see the betrayal of a friend. We witness a final meal. We hear the grief at Gethsemane. We see a man hung from a tree.
So doesn’t it strike you as strange that before Lent is even over, that just as Jesus is entering the city Jerusalem in which we all know he is going to die a miserable, political, friendless, powerless death, we’re joyfully waving about our beautiful palm fronds, as if they are wings about to bear us up in flight? Palm Sunday has become, in the mainline Protestant church, something like a mini-Easter. It we were to take Holy Week just Sunday to Sunday – and skip the stuff in between – one might miss the part about death altogether, what I would argue is the most important part.
Palm Sunday is no celebration! Instead, this procession of the Palms should strike a profoundly ironic chord from deep within us. Because each of us knows this truth: the height of Palm Sunday is temporary. Each step taken toward Jerusalem is another step toward Jesus’ death – just as each breath we take in this life is one breath less that we’ll have in this life.
[SLOW, DEEP BREATH]
So let’s get a little closer today to the story of Palm Sunday – because the historical rendering of what might have actually happened is just a little different than how most mainline Protestant congregations observe the day.
John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg outline Jesus’ final days in their 2006 book The Last Week – which I know a group in this congregation read together recently. In it, they describe not one but two processions into the city of Jerusalem: this procession, which we know well: the palm branches and cloaks strewn on the ground before Jesus; the humble donkey he rode into the city; the shouted Hosanna!s ringing through the air. But they also describe a second procession.
The second procession would have been Pontius Pilate, who was not only the Roman governor of Judea, but also Idumea and Samaria, and so he didn’t live in Jerusalem year-round. Instead, he came to Jerusalem – the capitol of Israel – now and again, and especially during times when it would be expected that there might be an insurgency.
Such as the Jewish high holidays.
Which, in case you didn’t know, begins tomorrow, and always overlaps with Holy Week.
Pilate’s procession would have had a very different feel to it than that of Jesus. It would have been populated with soldiers, horses, chariots; the smell of leather, and the clanking of metal. It was a procession intended to impress upon the Israelites the power of Rome. And, Crossan and Borg claim, it was just this procession that Jesus would have been referencing. In fact, they argue, Jesus’ humble procession into the city may have been something quite intentional, even a planned political demonstration against the empire of Rome.
No wonder Jerusalem was in turmoil when Jesus entered the city. That was the plan all along.
It’s hard to say whether Jesus would really have known that this procession was a long march toward his death. Of course he knew his actions were terribly dangerous. That to march into Jerusalem on the eve of Passover was to step into the hornet’s nest. That his teachings were oppositional to Rome. That all along his ministry, his words of love and justice were disturbing the fragile balance of power in the region.
And the crowd that followed him likely knew it, too. We envision Jesus’ Palm Sunday procession as something like a parade, but it was truly more like a throng of people just ringing with desperation. Hosanna! The people cried. Save us! Save us from this power being imposed on us! Save us from the empty taxes that strip us of a living wage; save us from the crucifixions that stretch as far as the eye can see! Hosanna!
What must have been going through Jesus’ mind as he made his way toward Jerusalem? What did he make of the danger he was putting himself into – himself, his friends, his family? Was he afraid? Courageous? Prideful? Uncertain? We can’t know for sure. But we do know this. Jesus didn’t know what would happen. But we do.
Jesus died. And then,
HE CAME BACK TO LIFE.
It merits repeating. Jesus. Came. Back. To. Life.
Now, let us release ourselves of the intellectual, historical-critical analysis I know that each of us are performing in our minds about whether or not Jesus was really, truly, physically resurrected 2,000 years ago. The historicity isn’t the point. The truth is in the story. And the story is this: on the other side of death is life. And it can be yours, too. All you need to do is walk to Jerusalem.
You see, We. Hide. Pain. We hide it from each other, we hide it from our own selves. We tell ourselves lies to avoid it, we cover it up with clowns, closets, masks, and magicians – they all cover up the truth, but the truth is this. Without death, we cannot know life.
Our task today, on Palm Sunday, is to turn toward death. To walk toward the Cross.
Holy Week at its core is about how we humans make sense of death. Not just our mortality – although that is a big part of it – but also the small deaths that we experience throughout this life. The loss of control over one’s body and mind one feels in aging. A denial of our sense of self by the presiding powers that be. The loss of a job. Even the birth of a child! Anything that radically shifts our world and our sense of who we are is a small death. Its markings are pain and fear. But it is also an opportunity for resurrection.
There is a moment – a turning point – in which we make the decision to be who we are, to embrace the life we have, to choose resurrection. Addicts often talk about hitting “rock bottom” – this is what I’m talking about. It is a moment of awakening, a moment of decision-making, a moment of no return. In this Jesus story, I believe that moment is his march to Jerusalem. No turning back now. But I believe there are moments like this scattered all throughout history, scattered throughout all of our lives.
The moment Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, allowing him to be elected President of South Africa four years later.
The Freedom Riders’ course across southern America in 1961, bringing awareness to the public of the vitriol present in our nation’s laws and culture
Gandhi’s salt march in 1930, which protested the British monopoly on salt in India, triggering a movement of civil disobedience and calling into question the legitimacy of British rule over India.
Notice that these are not necessarily moments of peace – in fact, they rarely are. Instead, they are moments of great turning, when we humans set aside our fear, turn toward our pain, and walk into the unknown. When who we are becomes undeniable, that is the moment we turn toward the Cross – and it is our first step toward resurrection.
It is the moment when you decide to get clean
The moment you decide to speak out
The moment when you decide to come out
It is the moment you know the treatments aren’t working
The moment you recognize your grief for what it is
The moment you grasp your mortality
It is the moment you become conscious of your privilege
The moment you know what you are capable of
The moment you know you won’t just stand by –
This is the march to Jerusalem!
And there’s no turning back now.
Do you hear it? Do you hear your truth rustling within you?
Do you hear the whispers telling you to be who you really are, to turn toward your most authentic self? Today, this moment, this Palm Sunday, this is what it’s about. This is when we begin the march toward the deep. This is when we walk with Jesus toward who we are.
We bury the seed. We rustle the fronds. We move our feet. And we trust that life will come again.
And in the deepest fears of the night,
There’s no turning back now.
Take the first step.
This is a memory I return to like a ritual. A streak of blood flashing through the air, men crowded close around my beloved brother and cousin, tough blows falling like a heavy rain, the pronounced sense of powerlessness in the vain screams I lifted up to no one.
It was nearly a decade ago that my brother, my cousin and I were attacked by a group of men on a poorly lit street in Quito, Ecuador. We survived, but each of us have struggled in our own way to make sense of it, alternating between panic attacks, substance abuse, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, and, of course, in my case: writing sermons about it.
At the age of 22, this was the first authentic glimpse I’d caught of my mortality – of all our mortality. The bone and the blood and the vomit and the tears I witnessed that night congealed to form a mortar sealing my fate: my body is penetrable. I now understood with horrible clarity that this skin we wear is not a wall of bulletproof glass, but rather a porous barrier through which worldly molecules are sucked in and spat out, like the creams we spread on our elbows, like the sweat we emit with exertion.
Our homecoming one week later was to a gaggle of loved ones awaiting our arrival at the airport. Haggard faces greeted us, worried eyes and puckered chins, as we paraded down the escalators attempting to prove our relative health and general aliveness. We were not very convincing, but as our bodies were embraced, as familiar arms enfolded us, for me at least, my healing began.
That moment of healing — that embrace, right there — is how it is with love.
You may find this a strange way to begin a sermon on the Song of Songs. After all, just moments ago I was reading aloud one of the most delicious texts in the Bible, a sensual and erotic traversing of a lover’s body from toe to head. And yet we all know, at the core of who we are, that even as we embrace one another with the most intimate of grasps, to love another is to risk terrible pain. We love in the midst of life, which is also to say, we love at risk of loss.
The Song portrays this risk as Danger. Do you remember the watchmen of the night, the sentinals who in chapter 5 strip the woman, who beat her and bruise her, simply for walking about the town at night in search of her lover? In today’s passage, we hear the woman wishing her lover were like a brother to her. It may sound strange to our ears, but her wish is logical. At that time, she could be seen with a brother in public, even kiss her brother in public – but not so with an unrelated man. To do so was a violation of social norms, a dangerous act.
Gender roles were notoriously strict in ancient Israel. Most of us know that adulterous women in ancient Mesopotamia were often stoned to death. What we often don’t remember is that very few women who behave out of the ordinary in the Bible are praised for it. Israel in biblical texts is frequently portrayed as God’s adulterous wife, who in the book of Hosea is stripped, exposed, and beaten for her infidelities. Sex in the Mediterranean was first and foremost seen as an expression of power, with two actors: the superior, penetrator; and the weaker, the one being raped. To be a woman was to be understood systematically and unquestionably as the inferior, weaker sex.
Within this broader context, it is certainly remarkable that the Song portrays a female character who not only names what she wants, but also pursues it unapologetically. For any ancient Israelite text to celebrate female desire, the female body and female sexuality – and to have it upheld in the canonization of the Bible – is enough to make any modern-day feminist weak in the knees. I mean, look at this stuff!
In chapter seven, the woman in the poem is compared to a queen, with rounded thighs like jewels and a nose as elegant as the tower of Lebanon. Her breasts are first compared to twin gazelles, then to coconuts at the top of a stately palm tree, and finally they become like clusters of grapes on the vine – significantly sweeter, closer to the ground, and easier to pluck than your average coconut or gazelle. As the lover’s passionate description of the woman continues, we, the listeners, are brought in closer to her, more intimately learning of the apple-sweetness of her breath, and of her kisses, which are compared the smoothest, sweetest wine, gliding over lips and teeth.
“My beloved is mine and I am his,” she declares in avid response to her lover’s adoration, and she calls him forth to the fields and the vineyards, where the pomegranates are in bloom, and where she has saved up the choicest fruit for him to consume.
Since her lover had previously compared her breasts to grapes on the vine, I think we can all safely assume that she isn’t exclusively talking about… fruit.
And yet danger is never far around the corner. These two chapters of the Song, as with most of the Song before it, are fraught with unrequited longing, with an undercurrent of tension and danger throughout. The woman repeatedly expresses her wish to kiss her lover in the streets of the city, and she adjures the Daughters of Jerusalem, her audience, not to wake love before it is ready – presumably because it may be too dangerous to do so. Later in chapter eight, she must defend herself and her actions to her brothers, who see her as a child and threaten to lock her away from the rest of the world.
Any of us who have loved, romantic or not, know what it is like to have our love threatened. For my family, the night I and my brother and my cousin were attacked, the danger was also men in the streets of a city at night, who threatened to take our lives. But Danger comes in many forms. A friend of mine recently gave birth to a stillborn child; the danger she faced was pre-ecclampsia, and it took her child before they were even able to meet face-to-face. For some, Danger is named racism, and allows a man to legally shoot and kill a 17-year-old boy for playing his music too loud, as was the case for Jordan Davis in Jacksonville, Florida. Some of us face danger in the form of our own inner demons, depression or addiction or anxiety, which try to convince us that we are unlovable, or undeserving of love. And heartbreaking loss comes still in the form of divorce, sexism, betrayal, homophobia, anger, abuse, misunderstanding. At times it can feel as though Danger stalks us from every angle, ever-present, as vigilant as the watchmen of the wall.
To love others is to risk the pain of loss. And yet the act of loving others in spite of this loss is to defy death itself, to stake claim to the idea that love is strong as death.
Set me as a seal upon your heart, says the woman in the Song – for love is strong as death. Yes, set me as a seal on your arm, for passion is as strong as the grave!
It has become a recent trend for couples, when they marry, to tattoo their wedding bands on their fingers. But the woman in the Song goes even a step further than that. She is not even hoping even to be branded upon her lover’s heart, as our modern ears might hear it, but to be made a part of his seal, which in the ancient world would have been something like his signature.
A person’s seal was dipped in ink and rolled upon a sheet of paper. The opposite impression, much like a modern-day stamp, acted as the individual’s signature when sending a letter or signing a contract. They were often worn on a chain, hung around one’s neck – coming to rest atop the heart – or around the arm or wrist as a bangle. When the woman commands her lover to set her as a seal on his heart or his arm, she was not merely asking for their love to be branded upon his being, but indeed that she become as much a part of him as his very identity.
Were she branded upon his heart as a memory, his love would die with his death.
Were he to set her as a physical, permanent seal on his body, it would turn to dust just as quickly as would his body.
But to incorporate their love into his seal, into his very identity, the woman believes, is to transcend and outlast death. She becomes a part of him, in life and in death. His signature remains in significant documents, his identity in the memories of the community, his very being, even in death, bound up in hers.
When we give of our love to others, we are tapping into the essence of who we are as human beings. When we open ourselves up to vulnerability, we change and are changed by those who we love. It is in the experience of mutually reaching out to one another, with our bodies and our hearts and our minds, that rebelliously defies death’s sting.
In this way we confront death: in the act of loving, embracing, connecting, holding, conversing, admiring, laughing, touching, consoling, stroking, clutching one another. We love in spite of death. We love in the midst of death. We love at risk of death. We love in defiance of death.
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave…
[So] Make haste, my beloved,
and be like a gazelle
or a young stag
upon the mountains of spices!
Come to the garden.
It would be a kind of hell to select one memory only from the entirety of your life, to carry with you into eternity.
…which memory would YOU pick?
This seems the ultimate question in Hirozaku K0reeda’s 1998 film After Life. In the imagination of the movie, following death, people head to a kind of purgatory in which each person has three days to select one memory from life to carry with them into the after life. A pilot selects the image of puffy, two-tiered clouds suspended in sky as he glides past. A young girls picks a moment with her head in her mother’s lap, smelling of fresh laundry in the sunshine. An old man wants to remember an ordinary conversation with his wife on an ordinary day in the park.
Called “After Life” in the most pragmatic of ways, the title seems more like a contradiction in terms than a helpful tool in understanding the film. The purpose of the movie, it seems to me, is not to help the viewer think about his or her death (or afterlife), but rather how best to live one’s life. Accompanying me last night throughout watching the entire movie was the question: which memory would I choose? Would I select a hot summer day at my parent’s cabin, filled with childhood, bratwursts, algae-green water, sunbursts, grass-stains? What about the quiet evening walks that characterized my time living in Ecuador, a volcano leaning over my shoulder, and silver-lined clouds passing me by? Perhaps I might choose a moment of joyful, electric discovery in seminary, writing something ferociously in the quad in New York City?
And then: what do these memories say about us? Comprised together, who do they say that we are, what do they say about our lives, and what do they say about what (and whom) we value and care about the most?
So long as the movie is focused on memories, it is not making commentary on death. It’s purpose is to incite us to reflect upon life.
This weekend, I suppose, must have been intended to drive me to reflect on living life. I arrived to church this morning–late, as usual–just in time to listen to my pastor’s sermon, the centerpiece of which was a poem called A Blessing, by James Wright. Similar to many of the characters’ choices of memories in After Life, the poem creates meaning around that which is often experienced and interpreted as ordinary: dusk; a pair of ponies on the prairie; highway in Minnesota. This simple experience brings the narrator an undeterred joy: “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.”
What if this is what it means to live life well? I find it hard not to collapse into the well-worn rhapsodies of live life to the fullest and carpe diem and other stuff of legendary proportions. But if we are to believe Hirozaku Koreeda and James Wright, isn’t that a little beside the point?
I think each of them would say, in their own way, that if we spent every day living life to the absolute fullest, we would actually lose our worn, everyday beauties. These are not moments to be seized upon–they would be gone the moment they became intentional. The pieces of life that linger precious to us are those that are unconscious in their contentment; simple by way of nonchalance.
S0. When all is said and done, what moments will you hold most dear?
my mother told me today, about two hours before i left the house for the last time, that cleaning it out was ‘like an embalming process.’ amidst tears, she scrubbed the shower in our basement, explaining that to leave the house in disarray would be a dishonor to it. it is like a fifth member of the family. sixth, if you include our long-departed bassett.
We all dealt with saying goodbye in different ways. My father reminisced, and told stories of trying to sand-blast the fireplace and sheet-rock the living room ceiling. Mom scrubbed, and later allowed herself to be distracted by my brother’s stories.
Mike spoke about new beginnings and being grateful for the time we’ve spent here as a family. And I stalked the grounds for details to photograph, worrying I wasn’t doing our home justice with my mediocre skills; unable to process what life will be like when for us when this home is gone.
I found myself drawn to spaces in our home that I did not frequent as a child. It may be because those usual places are already deeply written in my memory. Or, perhaps it could be that the places I found frightening then are now part its charm. Practicing the piano, in which I took lessons through sixth grade, I used to imagine a ghost would take a step across the living room with each mistake I made. It was a game I played: don’t make mistakes, and no ghost will ‘get’ me. (But problems arose whenever I learned a new song, such that the ghost had to start taking baby steps to ensure my safety.)
Similarly, every time late at night that I would start up our winding stairs, by the time I reached the top I was running up two-by-two. I didn’t believe that a ghost was chasing me up the stairs per se… but just in case one was, I was covered.
i don’t remember when these games i played stopped. and, i don’t remember when i transitioned from thinking about this house as just being the place where i lived to actually seeing it as a beautiful home, with gorgeous woodwork and details that only children notice, creaky and solid and full of space and grandeur and family.
The basement used to frighten me. Daddy-long-legs and shadows inhabited corners, and the floor was cold. But today, even the basement–perhaps especially the basement–reminded me that I was in my home.
In a period of suspension, words fail. Ending this post (oh melodrama of melodramas) is another way of saying goodbye, like my hesitation before I walked down the steps of the front sidewalk the last time. Each moment that passes expands the time between our family home and our family. Everything points to death. The increasing darkness of each fall day seems to be pulling me into death, although not into depression. Simply: the dawn of my life is over. A generation has passed since I was born. And time will not stop. For the first time, I begin to feel the chipping of time into my life. Not everything is ahead of me anymore. And we are all leading to an end.
It is not such an awful thing, I suppose, my own death. What really frightens, of course, are the deaths of those around me. I know I am not the only person for whom death and time are twins, chipping away on our shoulders, exacting the moment in which their two paths will meet. The best we can hope for is noting, and loving, the details in the spaces between.
these sunny november days have been filled with longing.
my parents have lived in the same home for 33 years. they bought it from its original owners, restored it, refurbished it, renewed it. i imagine there is not one square inch of that house their fingerprints have not etched:
they tell the story of refinishing the pantry, which was painted a bright pink when mom and dad moved in. today, it is stained a honey glaze they chose together some 30 years ago, and bits of the pink paint can still be glimpsed in between cracks in the wood where their tools and their stamina couldn’t reach.
they also nailed shut the door to the laundry chute, which by some architectural genius is in the floor of the bedroom hallway. mom and dad were afraid my brother and i might toddle past and fall the two flights to the basement below, where the chute abruptly ends.
a piece of me feels that my mother will never leave the back sleeping porch where my brother and i and she slept on hot summer nights. my father will always remain up on the third floor, laughing and watching david letterman with the dog, creaking down the stairs, taking care to be quiet. my brother will always skip down the block to the sports collection, and i will continue sneakily reading by the hallway light outside my room, well past my bedtime.
tomorrow night i will sleep for the last time in my girlhood bedroom, in my sweet four-poster bed. the wallpaper is gone, as are the old curtains. but i will look out the window thursday morning to a view i remember well, into a chilled, pale morning sun. a stop sign, a childhood bus stop, a stately house, naked branches, a neighbor’s front porch.
when is it that looking into the future started to feel more and more like looking into the face of death?
at 27, my life is still so un-lived, so much to do and to be and to discover, but the absence of this house will cement my childhood into a memory only. so many of us have acted out this step, and with far less grandeur than the play i am giving it now. but this house! this house is my parents’ healthy young bodies, it is my brother’s blonde curls, it is my aging bassett hound, it is my teenage dreams, it is my 1987 jeep cherokee, it is my home, it is our family.
someday soon i will learn that my family resides in my parents and my brother and even in my self, and not on lincoln avenue. until then, i am going to richly mourn this beautiful old house.
halloween recognizes the fear, dread, the grotesque nature of horror and of death. kate moos, on the speaking of faith blog, speaks about the deliciousness of getting to ‘become a monster’ for only one night a year, and i think she’s right: there is certainly something in how humanity repeatedly seeks to wallow in the depths of death for (at least) one night a year. on hallow’s eve, we make light of it. halloween has become a day of raunch, of candy-guzzling, cheap thrills, and funny costumes. but it is also something richer, more nauseatingly terrifying: a staring into the cold heart of death that is essential to human experience. in the end, though, the night ends, and we are greeted with… candy, sensation, laughter. reminders of our very alive lives.
i love michael jackson’s thriller video. it encapsulates what halloween was to me as a kid: very eighties of course, lots of rotting skin, but playful, ending with a laugh. it tempts us into fear more than once, but never quite to seriousness — because who can really be that afraid of dancing zombies? michael had it under control.
then we come to the next day, far less grotesque but perhaps more graceful, and certainly more frightening: all saint’s day.
this time, the chill of a cold october night has given way to the penetrating absence of those lost to death.
this time, we encounter death not as fantasy, but in how it has touched our lives. the rotting flesh is not upon the faces of zombies, but instead is in our minds, in the reality of what we knows happens to bodies when their souls depart.
we light candles not to be spooky or funny or to light up the night with an orange playful glow. now we light them to remember, whispering names too often unspoken. alice. leo. george. lindsay. we think of the day we know will come when our loved ones will die. or, when we die.
both candles serve purposes. we need to mock and intimidate death as much as we fear it, else we are overcome with terror. and yet, and yet. and yet we remember, bringing to life again that which was lost, speaking into being the memory of days passed, serving the purpose of loving each other in life, despite the inevitability of death.