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.
It’s been nearly seven months since I last wrote on this blog. One thing, far more than anything else, far more powerful than I realized, has been keeping me from posting here: Fear.
My God, was it ever overwhelming to realize that something I wrote resonated with so many of you. I’ve always written just really for myself, as a way of processing emotions and ideas and notions and hopes and so on. When so many of you responded, in such strong ways, I became just a bit paralyzed.
First of all, where does one go from such a post? What if the next thing I wrote was absolute bunk? Every time I sat down to write about something that I cared about, I hated the words that emerged on the screen. They felt so flat, so pointless.
I worried, too. I worried that I would be too shallow (I am SO NOT below posting multiple photos of my cat here), or too political (because I didn’t mention it in my post on Newtown, but I DO have very strong opinions about gun laws, gun violence, and gun control), or too religious (I am an ordained minister, after all) or that my writing would just be plain bad.
All these things served to quiet this space into such a painful silence. Because I do have things to say, and I do want to share them. And more than that, you all deserve my deepest thanks. And I should have said thank you a long time ago.
Last December, I wrote about a deep, deep sorrow I felt, and your responses taught me that I was not alone in my grief. The kind and beautiful ways you all responded helped me to heal – that is, as much as one does heal from such a tragedy. (After all, at some point, we simply pick up and move about with our scars within us and trailing behind us. Because life is life, and it is for the living.)
So this is what I’ve decided. I’m going to start writing here again, or at least I’m going to try. Sometimes I might be really silly and post a picture of my cat, and sometimes I might mention that I think Stand Your Ground gun laws are absolute shit, and sometimes I (clearly) might curse (despite being a minister), and sometimes I might talk about God. Worst of all, sometimes the writing might be bad.
But this space is about connecting, and before all of you came along it was also about simply expressing myself. So, you are welcome here if you want to be. Thank you for spending a little time in my little corner of the internet. Hopefully I’ll have something relevant to say again soon.
Graduation. It’s on friday. And I don’t wanna!
Today was the last academic outpost of my seminary career. I’ve turned in all my papers, written my thesis, and today, i took my last final. Damn it. I’ve been bitchy all day since… but probably the scant two hours of sleep i got last night didn’t help, either.
So I turned to the music of my fellow seminarian Jenn Lindsay, a folk musician with wry, honest lyrics. Her song ‘no foul, no harm’ (what she called her ‘systematic theology in seven verses’) reminded me why I’m so sad: I am terrified of leaving the first community that has encouraged me to be a creative theologian, and also a creative person in general. New York is where I’ve overcome a fear of so many ‘scary’ foods, understood pieces of art without self-consciousness, grown into my talents and my brain, and listened to the voices of people from places in life I’d never previously imagined. All of these experiences, they have shaped not only me, but also the way that I seek out and interact with the divine — the way that I think about individuality, language, my body, history — the epistemology of it all.
Jenn’s song isn’t about what I’m going through right now. But it is about searching for something I’ve searched for. And ultimately, I think it is that thirst for searching that I fear losing.
Listen for my favorite lyrics (they come later in the song):
I don’t like how you are different from Brooklyn to midtown
I don’t like it when people capitalize your male pronoun
I don’t like televangelists that yell from the screen
I don’t like folks with dogs or kids who use you to be mean
But then again I don’t like it when people say you’re dead
The Dawkins/Hitchens/Dennet crowd and their whole line of dread
Cuz in quiet moments, darker days, and confusion
I know there’s something bigger than me and it’s no delusion