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Sunday, April 9, 2017
Going Safely Through the World
The entry into Jerusalem by Jesus on Palm Sunday was a peak religious experience. In the reading from Matthew, there is the sense of living religion, of faith coming to life in a radical new scene, one of power and majesty on this day. Jesus literally comes down from a mountain—the Mount of Olives—to enter the great city of Jerusalem. He is hailed as a king, and Matthew takes pains to present Jesus as a messianic king of old, entering the city with a donkey and a colt, as prophesied in Zechariah. The gathered crowds also speak the language of royal power and divine blessing from the psalms as they hail Jesus, waving palm branches to the chosen one.
“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
The city of Jerusalem is alive with Passover preparation, the holiday of liberation for the Jewish people, and Jesus’s arrival adds to the drama and excitement, a city in turmoil. But let’s go back to Jesus just before the powerful palm procession; as Jesus stood with his followers on the Mount of Olives. He has a view of the entire city from an elevation of 3600 feet. What a view. What a moment to stand with him, with Jewish pilgrims gathering for the Passover celebration. What must have been going through his mind as he saw the great city of his people? In all of the gospels, Jesus predicted his death as part of God’s plan of salvation. Yet he must have been torn, there on the Mount of Olives, before going down into the teeming city for the great holiday of the Jewish people. There is a great tension here. There is the holiness of the mountain peak experience, but what’s coming is the descent into humanity, and human problems and suffering. There is hope in the panoramic vision—seeing the world as God might for a moment, but there is the darkness of human nature ahead in the events to come. We have all felt holiness in the beauty of creation, but it’s always much harder when you go down from the mountain into human community.
Our palm branches, like the ones waved to honor Jesus, signify a joyful fulfillment, yet they are also a transitory moment of glory where we rest in the eye of the hurricane. Surely the greatest chapter of this teaching and healing messiah will unfold in the events in Jerusalem. How we long to stay in the moments of triumph. If you’ve ever had a great moment of success, the human desire is to stay there, not to move on.
So, when Jesus goes down the mountain, he decides to enter into human suffering; he makes a decision to be a suffering messiah. Or rather, he has made it all along. On Palm Sunday, we want to linger in triumph, but how can we stay on the mountain when the panorama of this world is so filled with suffering? Perhaps the great human success, the moment when we are at our best, is when we don’t celebrate, but rather embrace our neighbors in need.
For some of you, Palm Sunday and Holy Week are new experiences. You’ve never been here before. Never have you sat in church with a palm branch in your hand, as you wondered what was happening all around you. Chapel is different today. For me the liturgy of Palm Sunday and the events of Holy Week go far back in my life, to my earliest memories as a child. I have been around this block a few times. Yet there is something about the last week of Jesus’s life that is always daunting, and I want to linger with my palm branch and the triumphant journey of Jesus into Jerusalem.
Despite all of the problems of the Church, there is something that I deeply appreciate about the millions of Christians who are doing exactly the same thing as we are on this Palm Sunday. The Church for me has always been a place where death and suffering could be talked about. And if you can talk about something painful, God can redeem it. Extraordinary words have been said in chapel this year, and I don’t think they could have been said anywhere else. We have needed chapel; we have made meaning, even when our hearts were broken. And we gather together for Holy Week, seeking meaning, and experiencing forms of healing.
I mentioned that there is tension in the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Where does it come from? The tension comes from the messianic expectation. This was the common belief that a messiah would liberate the Jewish people from the occupation of the Roman Empire. What kind of person could do this? A political revolutionary, a warrior messiah. The messianic expectation could not be clearer with the joyous greeting on the lips of the people.
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
And yet Jesus rejected this messianic expectation for his entire ministry. He is no warrior king who will overthrow the Roman occupation. He’s not even close. The values of humanity and the vision of God are in conflict, as they will be for most of this week. We are called to go deeper into the mystery of suffering and how it gives birth to the Kingdom of God. Holy Week is not about believing a series of creedal statements that leads one to the reality of God. It is rather about the transformation of the heart, and an understanding of how to live in the moment with our humanity intact.
I have recently been reading the work of Karen Armstrong, a religious thinker and former nun. Armstrong made the decision to become a nun when she about your age. She lived in a convent for seven years, and she was subjected to an extraordinary discipline designed to bring her closer to the Christian God. She tried to believe all the doctrines of the Church; if she could do that, surely God would touch her life with his presence. It didn’t work out that way. She ended up leaving her religious order to study English Literature at Oxford. She drifted away from God after the desert of her religious experience in the convent. It wasn’t until she started to write about Islam and Judaism that she found herself drawn back to the life of faith. Judaism and Islam are not creedal religions, and there is an openness about what one is to believe. In Islam, there is only the Shahada which states: “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his mouthpiece.” That’s it. And Judaism has no central creed. These religions liberated Armstrong, and they showed her how to live faithfully, not by creeds, but by life practices and transformation.
In her words in her book titled The Spiral Staircase, subtitled My Climb Out of Darkness:
“In the course of my studies, I have discovered the religious quest is not about discovering ‘the truth’ or ‘meaning of life’ but about living as intensely as possible here and now. The idea is not to latch on to some superhuman personality or to ‘get to heaven’ but to discover how to be fully human—hence the images of the perfect or enlightened man, or the deified human being. Archetypal figures such as Muhammad, the Buddha, and Jesus become icons of fulfilled humanity. God or Nirvana is not an optional extra, tacked on to our human nature. Men and women have a potential for the divine, and are not complete unless they realize it within themselves. A passing Brahmin priest once asked the Buddha whether he was god, a spirit, or an angel. None of these, the Buddha replied; ’I am awake!’ By activating a capacity that lay dormant in undeveloped men and women, he seemed to belong to a new species. In the past, my own practice of religion had diminished me, whereas true faith, I now believe, should make you more human than before.”
Holy Week is about escaping your mental prisons, not building them taller and wider. As Bob Marley used to sing, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” Most tangibly for me I remember experiences of success and failure and how to look at them from the eyes of God. My life has not been one success after another. My life has always included grief and failure, and I had to learn how to find the best of myself in adversity and sorrow. I have made mistakes. It is human nature to want to stay in the moments of triumph, like Jesus’s epic arrival in Jerusalem. But life doesn’t work that way, and neither does God. Rudyard Kipling put it this way in his poem called “If.”
“If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;”
William Blake echoed this sentiment in his poem “Joy and woe are woven fine.”
“Joy and woe are woven fine, A clothing for the soul divine, Under every grief and pine, Runs a joy with silken twine. It is right it should be so, We were made for joy and woe, And when this we rightly know, Through the world we safely go.”
Jesus didn’t fulfill the messianic expectation. Jesus did something much more significant in his actions this week. He went deeper, into the mystery of suffering; and into the mystery of God. So, we follow in his footsteps, knowing that triumph and defeat are both imposters. Palm Sunday is a moment of awakening, weaving our lives, our joy and our woe, with the love that God offers us now; that through the world we may safely go.