Palm Sunday – keep hold of the rope!
What a roller coaster of a ride we go through in the readings today!
It is just like life, don’t you think? One minute we are happy, the next minute something terrible happens.
So here is the first big question for the day: What is your response to all of this? Another way of putting it is: What is your response to life?
Here’s the deal – things happen. Have you noticed that? Sometimes the things that happen are big and sometimes they are small, but things just keep happening. What matters is our response – and we get to choose our response.
There is an old story which you may know already. There is an old man in a village, and one day as he is farming a horse wanders onto his land, so he catches it and brings it home. “How wonderful!” the other villagers say. “Maybe so, maybe not,” is the answer. The villagers look at each other. How could it not be wonderful to have a horse to help you? They shrug and go about their business. Some time later, the horse runs away. “How awful!” the villagers say. “Maybe so, maybe not,” is the answer. Sure enough, in a few days, the horse comes back with a mate, and now he has two horses. “How wonderful!” the villagers say. “Maybe so, maybe not,” is the answer. The son of the old man goes out to get the new horse used to being ridden, is thrown, and breaks a leg. “How awful!” the villagers say. “Maybe so, maybe not,” is the answer. They cannot imagine how this could be anything but awful. But a few days later the army comes through looking for young men, and they do not take the son away because of the broken leg.
In each situation, the old man has tempered his response, while the villagers have not. He lives in basic contentment, they do not. How about us?
In one of my university classes, the teacher asked us, “what would life be like if you approached everything with joy?” What would life be like if you did everything with joy? What if joy motivated all of your thoughts and actions? So that is the second big question for today. What if joy motivated all of your thoughts and actions? What would life be like?
It was one of those life-shaking questions for me. I realized in a flash that joy was not the usual motivator for many of my thoughts and actions, fear was. It was a difficult thing to admit. I did many of the things I did because I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t. I did not do them because I felt joy doing them, or because I wanted to give joy doing them. Those are two somewhat different motivations, but they are both connected to joy. In the first one, I do something because it gives me joy. Celebrating the eucharist gives me joy. Being here with you in this place, using the ancient motions we use to give thanks to God for all that we have been given, remembering and reminding each other of all that God has done, bringing each other to God, sharing the symbolic meal, all of that squeezed into our worship service gives me joy, great joy.
There are other things that we do that we do because they give joy to others, and their joy gives us joy. The best example I know of this is changing the dirty diaper. No one likes to change a dirty diaper. It bothers some people more than others, to be sure. My poor brother volunteered to take care of my baby when I was visiting him so I could go out shopping by myself, a rare luxury. Of course the baby needed changing shortly after I left, and it could not be put off. The poor man had the sense to put the baby on the floor while he was changing him, because he was so overcome by the smell that he had to keep running out to the other room to catch his breath, come back in and clean some more, run back out again and so on. It made for a very funny story. But even for those of us who do not have such a reaction, no one likes to change a dirty diaper. We do it because we love the one who needs it, and a nice dry diaper gives joy.
It is perhaps a silly example, but it makes the point. Sometimes we do things because we want to give joy, not because doing the thing itself is joyful. However, in both cases, joy is the motivating factor, and that is the point. Not fear, not anger, not sorrow, joy! From the outside, what I do may look exactly the same. The question is: what do I feel inside? What motivates me to do this?
When we think about Jesus arriving in Jerusalem and people celebrating, and someone telling him to tell his followers to keep quiet, it is too dangerous to celebrate like this in an occupied country! His response is, if they did not, the very stones would shout! And the cautious man was right. It was too dangerous to celebrate, the authorities were already plotting to take Jesus out of circulation, and he walked right into their hands by allowing joy.
On Palm Sunday, all that the ordinary people could see was that the messiah had come, and they were happy, very happy. It was also the time of the Passover, which does not happen at the same time, but always near our Easter. Jesus tells his disciples that he wants to have this special meal with them. We are not sure whether what we know now as the Last Supper was in fact the Passover meal or a special meal with what we might call a covenant group, but that really does not matter.
What is important is that he has this meal that we remember every Sunday in the Eucharist, and that we remember very specifically on Maundy Thursday. In case you don’t know, Maundy comes from the Latin for command, mandare, from what Jesus said as a command: “Do this in memory of me.”
It was only hours after that amazing meal when he was arrested, tried, and hoisted up on a cross to die a tortured death. Where is the joy in this? This is a difficult question, and hard to answer, but I think the answer is to be found in the choosing. That is, it seems that Jesus was very clear that he chose this path. At one point in the story when he is being arrested, someone draws a sword to defend Jesus against the soldiers who are there to arrest him, and Jesus says, “Put your sword away. Do you not know that I could call on angels to defend me?”
He chooses to do something that is horridly painful in order to give joy; his giving of life gives the potential for real joy and life for all of humanity, teaching us how to live in this new way, teaching us to live without fear.
Fear. I lived in the midwest for a while, and in the late winter there are blizzards. Often during the blizzard there is what they call a white-out. When this happens, it is like fog made of snow. You simply cannot see anything. It is totally disorienting. Farmers have been known to freeze to death because they got lost walking from the barn to the house, essentially so disoriented that they got lost in their back yard. Because of this, when a blizzard starts, someone runs out from the house to the barn with a long rope. It simply is not an option to not go out to the barn, because cows still have to be milked, all of the animals fed and watered. But with the rope, even if you cannot see, you can keep hold of the rope and get to and from the barn safely. It is not fun to walk in a winter storm when you cannot see. But when you have the rope, you can rejoice, knowing you will be OK. You do not have to live in fear.
So here is the third big question for this morning: “When life becomes so difficult, so opaque that you simply do not know where to turn, what is the right thing to do, who to trust, and so on, what or who is your rope?” When you must keep going, and cannot see the way clearly at all, what keeps you safe?
I invite you, this Holy Week, to think about these questions.
What is your fundamental response to life?
What would your life be like if everything you did was motivated by joy?
What or who is it that keeps you safe?
On Thursday, we will have a very special meal with the Presbyterians to remember Jesus’ last supper with his friends. On Friday, they will join us as we take time out of our busy schedules to pay attention to Jesus’ gift of life to us, how we have fallen short, and receive absolution for all of our shortcomings. Then on Easter, we celebrate in great wonder.
May you have a blessed Holy Week!