Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sermon: "Every Step", Exodus 15:1-7/Numbers 14:1-4/Luke 19:28-40 (March 20, 2016)


(Video of this sermon)

Andrew and I obviously had nothing to do with scheduling Palm Sunday where it sits in the liturgical calendar, but it fits so nicely with the themes we’ve had this year that I’m tempted to try and take credit. First we had the stewardship campaign, where we talked about being “all-in” as our community travels together into the future. Then the “Journey to Bethlehem” that we undertook in December, tracking the miles that we walked, biked, and swam so we could experience the distance trekked in order for our Messiah to be born. And now, during Lent, we’ve walked the path of our worship together, reminding ourselves why we do what we do every week, and where we go from there. Journeys, all of them. And now, today, we talk about yet another journey—a shorter one, perhaps, but one just as significant. All four gospels recount this story of Jesus’ triumphant journey into Jerusalem, during which he’s met with the cheers and jubilation of the people—and yes, of course, palms. There are some grumbles from the religious authorities—some of them even have the audacity to try and stifle the celebration—but nothing on earth can stop the holy procession.

As exciting as this scene is, and as much as I love folding cross after cross out of the palm leaves we decorate the sanctuary with, I think we’re always at risk—and often guilty—of forgetting the context of Palm Sunday. Every journey has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and Palm Sunday represents the first few strides of that final lap; it’s the home stretch, not the finish line itself. And any non-runner who’s ever had to run a mile in gym class can tell you that the final lap is often the hardest. Furthermore, I think it’s a fallacy for us to approach Palm Sunday, and subsequently Holy Week, as an objective story that we can hear and then place aside—or worse, entirely neglect—as if it doesn’t affect us directly. Our involvement in scripture is PART of this context that we need to remember. The reason we read scripture to one another day after day, year after year, isn’t because we’ve suddenly forgotten the finer points of the plot—although that’s a risk, too. It’s because God’s called us to an awareness of the bigger picture, and that picture includes us.

This week, as I reflected on our role in this particular journey, I tried imagining myself as one of the disciples watching Jesus process along the road from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem. Having some idea of what was coming next but not truly understanding, caught up in the thrill of Jesus’ triumphant reception, but knowing that this wasn’t yet our long-awaited happy ending. As I speculated about what this might have been like, a song from the musical Godspell inexplicably popped into my head. It somehow seemed to perfectly describe this scenario and how I feel standing here on Palm Sunday. I’m a firm believer in letting music speak when it has something to say, and I’m certainly not going to thwart whatever plans the Holy Spirit had in planting this song in my brain, so I invite you to listen for the next few minutes, soaking in the words and their emotions, envisioning yourself singing these words to Jesus as he passes you on a donkey:

Where are you going? Where are you going?
Can you take me with you?
For my hand is cold and needs warmth…
Where are you going?
Far beyond where the horizon lies, where the horizon lies,
And the land sinks into mellow blueness…oh please, take me with you!
Let me skip the road with you; I can dare myself,
I can dare myself.
I'll put a pebble in my shoe, and watch me walk: I can walk and walk!
I shall call the pebble Dare, I shall call the pebble Dare;
We will talk together about walking.
Dare shall be carried, and when we both have had enough,
I will take him from my shoe, singing: "Meet your new road!"
Then I'll take your hand, finally glad that I am here
By your side.[1]

This song was actually not originally written to be theological at all, and certainly not in the context of Palm Sunday, but it works so well, doesn’t it? So the singer is standing at this liminal moment, this moment filled with potential and promise, and deciding where she wants to be. She could just enjoy the celebration, waving palms and laying down her cloak with the others, and then disappear until Easter Sunday. How many of us do that? How many of us skip past the weightiness of Holy Week, or at least abbreviate it, going about our business as usual until it’s time to search for the chocolate eggs? How many of us try to cram the final lap into one hour on Sunday, and leave Jesus to make the journey alone?

When we don’t take the time to observe Holy Week in its entirety—including the exuberance of Palm Sunday—when we don’t make the effort to walk the path WITH Jesus, it’s so easy to miss the significance of its events. It’s one thing to SAY Jesus was fully human, sharing our needs, temptations, joys, and sorrows;[2] it’s another thing entirely to understand it and to be willing to sit with it.

To be human is to be a journeyer. To be Christian is to make our journeys with Christ. That’s not a choice; that’s part of who we are. The part that we DO get to choose is how much we engage with the journey. Jesus reminds us that God is ALWAYS engaged with OUR journey, but we don’t always return the favor. We rarely beg, “Oh, please, take me with you!” and when we do, we’re unwilling to put the pebble in our shoe—we’ll only follow when the path is clear and easy.

This, of course, is also human. Our readings from the Hebrew Bible today remind us of how fickle we are, eager to celebrate when times are good but quick to defect when the journey gets rough. The Israelites eagerly raised their voices to join Moses in singing the Lord’s praises when God had recently delivered them from Egypt, but the moment things got difficult, they began to weep and gnash their teeth in true Biblical fashion. They declare, “It would be better if we had died!”

How quick they are to discount the benefits of being the children of God while decrying the challenges. They’re on board when the party is in full swing, but they have no interest in walking the REST of the path. They’d prefer to fast-forward straight to the promised land where they could walk right in and start making themselves at home without any trouble or conflict. Someone else should deal with the pesky business of evicting the residents of Canaan; they’d be more than willing to rejoin the party after that. But of course, that’s not how life works. And sadly, not a lot has changed in our attitudes over the past several thousand years.

But we can choose to shift our thinking! We can choose to embrace the whole journey, to follow Christ on his path, to say, “Please, Lord, take me with you! Let me take each step with you, no matter where they lead!” Palm Sunday is a wonderful time to begin on this new road. I’m speaking from experience—I was ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament on a Palm Sunday. It was an unusually warm and clear day in Rochester, NY—no clouds and 50 degrees in April is pretty much like hitting the lottery—and the atmosphere was just about as jubilant as it could possibly be. Two communities—the Presbyterians who had raised me and the Episcopalians with whom I’d been ministering—joined together to worship God and celebrate my call. My heart was so full and my joy so complete, I couldn’t imagine ever feeling anything different. I never wanted to feel anything different.

And then it was Holy Week. And we had a worship service every day. And the entire staff caught a cold. And terrifyingly, I had to preside over communion for the first time ever. And people began to find things about my ministry to complain about. And my emotional and spiritual resources were worn almost to their breaking point. The journey of ministry suddenly didn’t seem quite as appealing as it had on that Palm Sunday when everyone was celebrating and singing “Hosanna.”

But I continued on that path, one step after the other, because I knew that there would once again be joyful times—that Easter would indeed come, even if I were still germy and disorganized—but that for now, I needed to leave room for bleakness and despair. I couldn’t skip this part of the journey. Only by embracing the painful parts of ministry would I be able to appreciate the beauty and power of this work. Ignoring it wouldn’t make it go away; it would just keep me from understanding it. And Easter did come. And so did more dark days, days when I literally didn’t think I could take another step. And yet, I’ve kept on this journey that I’ve committed to undertake with Christ, and God willing, I’ll continue along this road, joyfully living into every step, for many years to come.

Today, we baptize Samuel Wayne Ford onto his own path of discipleship. In baptism, we proclaim perhaps the most joyful time of our lives. We’re assured of God’s complete and irrevocable love for us, we’re surrounded by the celebrations of our church family, and we’re promised that we’ll never walk the journey alone. But we also make promises ourselves: we promise that we’ll follow Jesus wherever he leads, knowing that we’ll be persecuted[3] for our love and that the road won’t always be easy. In Baptism, we’re united with Christ in his resurrection, but also in his death.[4] In Baptism, we say, “Oh, please, Lord; take me with you!” and we honor the struggles to come even as we celebrate the joy that comes with belonging to Christ. In Baptism, we commit to taking every single step.

The gospel of Luke is unique in how it transitions from the account of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem to the rest of the Holy Week narrative. In the other three gospels, Jesus never seems to break his focus as he travels into the city, continuing to teach and correct and work seamlessly. In the other gospels, his journey is continuous. But in Luke, we see a rare moment of introspection, a pause in the constant movement of the narration. It almost feels private; like we should be embarrassed having stumbled across our Lord in this vulnerable moment. But no, we’re meant to take these steps, too. In Luke, after entering the city to cheers and adoration, Jesus pauses to weep over Jerusalem. “If only you knew what would bring you peace!” he laments, “But even on this day of celebration, you can’t recognize the time that God is with you.”

Brothers and sisters, we can’t fool Jesus. He knows every step we take before we even consider taking it; he knows which parts of the journey we’ll stride confidently through and which we’ll tiptoe around. He knows what we’ll embrace wholeheartedly and what we’ll pretend doesn’t exist. He knows that we struggle to see the whole story even as we wave our palms joyously in the air. So as we celebrate the arrival of our King this Palm Sunday, let’s not pretend that our revelry is all there is, but acknowledge the pain and loneliness that must be met by Jesus in its time, and let’s be there when he meets it. Let’s spend this week making room for the pebble in our shoe. Let’s cry, “Oh, please take me with you!” as we take our first steps on the journey to come, just as readily as we shout, “Hosanna!” from our seats here today. Let’s promise to take every step with Christ, no matter how hard. Amen.


[1] “By My Side” by Peggy Gordon and Jay Hamburger.
[2] Confession of 1967, §9.08.
[3] Matthew 5:11.
[4] PCUSA Baptismal Liturgy.

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