St. Michael and All Angels
April 1, 2012
One of my favorite moments in the church year is the Palm Sunday processional. We begin outside and everyone gathers in close waiting for the signal to begin. There is confusion, chaos, crowding, and anticipation. Something wonderful is about to happen. We look around at the people gathered tentatively holding palm branches and wonder what is the purpose of this parade anyway?
I wonder if this is what the parade was like when Jesus rode a colt through Jerusalem. Were people crowded, confused, and lost in the chaos? Was there a sense of anticipation? Did they have any idea what that parade was about?
Palm Sunday is an odd day. We began this season with ashes to remind us of our mortality. We’ve prayed, reflected, taken on practices to help us walk more closely with Christ and now we stand in this threshold preparing for the culmination. We know that the days ahead bring death and darkness. But what do we do with today?
Many churches have given up Palm Sunday. Oh, they take a moment to read about the Palms and then they move straight into the Passion. Their rationale is that too many people won’t come to church during Holy Week and they don’t want them to miss Jesus’ death and go straight to the resurrection. I wonder if that’s the reason or if they are really not sure what to do with Palm Sunday so they just nod in that direction and head to the more familiar territory of the Passion. Thresholds can be awkward. We aren’t exactly in Lent, but we haven’t entered Holy week either. Is it a day when we look backward and forward at the same time? Or do we simply pause where we are and allow this moment to sink in with all its fullness?
The scripture is odd with few cues about what is really happening. Most of the verses we heard this morning describe Jesus’ preparation. Why did he spend so much energy getting ready for this parade? Only a few verses recount his entry into Jerusalem. It is a strange parade…honoring one who has healed, taught strange things about a God whose love is more important than the law, and continually challenged the established way of doing things. This Jesus who frees people is riding through town on a colt. There is nothing triumphal about this ride. People are shouting Hosanna, which means “save us”. They may not understand who he is, but somehow they know that he has the power to bring life and they throw their coats and branches on the road as if they are casting their lot with this strange Son of God.
I have wondered how we respond as we stand on the threshold this morning. We came singing into church. Some of us enthusiastically waved palm branches and some of us were embarrassed hoping this would be over quickly, but none of us were shouting save us. We really don’t know what to do with this parade so we slide into our pew and tuck our palm branch away until next year. Should we feel hope, despair, fear, certainty, or something else?
Perhaps this day is the day of both/and. It is the day of life and death. It is the day of hope and despair. It is the day of holding on and letting go. It invites us to embrace the tensions that make up our lives and remember that we are neither living nor dying; we are both.
You have heard many references this season to the book we are reading as a congregation Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life by Philip Simmons. Philip powerfully embraces the tension of being fully human…of living and dying…as he comes to grips with Lou Gehrig’s disease and watches his body deteriorate. Somehow as he accepts that he is dying, he comes alive in powerful new ways. He says,
“We also touch the Divine through our experience of nature, and in spring we
celebrate the divine power of rebirth and renewal. Already the phoebes, after
a journey unimaginable to me, have returned to their nest under the eaves out-
side my bedroom window. Their presence renews my faith in the world’s extra-
ordinary competence, its talent for winning against long odds. I breathe in the
odor of wet earth and pines as though my sense of smell were being restored to
me. All about us roots grip down and awaken. Sprouts nudge toward light and
air. Everywhere the earth staggers to life.
And yet the example of Jesus, and the experience of mud season, also remind
me of a harsher truth: to be reborn, we first must die. The way to Jerusalem
lies through mud. Dying, like mud, can take many forms, but every death, in
the sense I mean, is a letting go. We let go of ambition, of pride, of ego. We
let go of relationships, of perfect health, of loved ones who go before us to
their own deaths. We let go of insisting that the world be a certain way.
Letting go of any of these things can seem the failure of every design, the loss
of every cherished hope. But in letting them go, we may also let go fear, let go
our white-knuckled grip on a life that never seems to meet our expectations,
let go our anguished hold on smaller selves our spirits have outgrown. We may
feel at times that we have let go of life itself, only to find ourselves in a new
one, freer, roomier, more joyful than we could have imagined. We need not
believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead to grasp the spiritual significance
of such a resurrection.” (pp. 86-87)
Perhaps that is what we are doing here today…taking stock of the new life bursting around us in the most beautiful spring trees and flowers while preparing to let go of our grip on life so that we can walk with Jesus through these terrifying, devastating days. Isn’t that what we do each day? We breathe in a bit of beauty while hoping to release some of what stands in our way of being fully alive. It just happens that today the stakes are higher. Today it is the ultimate LIFE and DEATH not the little life and deaths that happen daily.
How do we navigate through this liminal time? We stand at the edge watching Jesus ride by as the crowd shouts “save us”. We shift our gaze to the one riding the colt. He has prepared for this moment and he knows the direction he is heading. Our eyes follow him as he slowly, humbly rides through this crowd and we listen for his voice. He is silent. Instead of looking around at the crowd, we take our cues from Jesus. Perhaps his silence is an invitation to stop, take stock, and listen more deeply. The movement toward the cross beckons us into quiet corners to prepare for death. We began this day waving palm branches and singing Hosanna. Now we fall in step beside the one silently riding by and we walk toward the cross.
This isn’t easy to do when we know how the story comes out. It is tempting to just take a breath and wait for it to all be over so we can sing Christ is Risen. But that doesn’t seem very faithful. Rather than holding out for the good news, we are living our full yes to Jesus by walking with him all the way to the cross.
The coming days will confront us with humanity at its worst and somehow in the midst of that, we will glimpse goodness when we wash one another’s feet on Thursday and stand with others at the cross on Friday. Together we watch and pray. We keep our eyes on Jesus and discover what to do next as we step into these holy days.