Sunday, March 16, 2008

Palm Sunday A

Here we are once again on that Lenten morning when everything goes wrong, when the road turns sharply from miracles to mayhem and madness, when hopes are raised and then dashed. It would hardly seem like the time for children’s games, but then again, perhaps it would help us all breathe a little easier after holding our breath through the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ…

Do you remember the game when everyone slaps their hands against their thighs in a walking rhythm, and then the leader starts out saying, Goin’ on a bear hunt…and everyone repeats the line? Going’ on a bear hunt…I’m not afraid…’cause I got my gun. But it’s not a simple hike through the woods, right? Oh no, the leader says. Oh no…there’s a field…can’t go over it…can’t go under it…can’t go around it…gotta go through it.

And then comes the verse written, I think, just for Mississippi after it rains…Oh no…there’s some mud…can’t go over it…can’t go under it…can’t go around it…gotta go through it. You know how the rest of the game goes, all the way up trees and across rivers and over mountains until you get to the cave where there is indeed a very large bear, and you drop your gun and go running all the way back the way you came.

For five weeks now we’ve been on a journey through the wilderness season of Lent. It’s hardly a children’s game, this journey whose purpose has been to help us see more clearly our need for God’s help in our lives. Oh no…there’s intolerance…oh no…there’s self-righteousness…oh no…there’s sinfulness…

But now the wilderness gives way as our journey joins up with a procession through the streets of a city. By the time the little donkey and her colt have carried Jesus to the outskirts of Jerusalem, a crowd has gathered all around him and they walk with him right through the gates of the city where he will be arrested and tried and executed for disturbing the peace. Jesus rides right in. Goin’ to Jerusalem…I’m not afraid…

We’d love to let the parading and the palm-waving and the cheering and the celebrating and the shouting, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord… we’d love to let this victorious day carry us to the next victorious day, when we’ll arrive at a cave of a tomb and find not a bear, not even a body, but a gloriously empty space where a body had lain. And there will be more cheering and celebrating and shouting, He is risen! He is risen! Allelu…

But we’d be getting ahead of ourselves. Because between here and there, between today and Easter Day, is the longest, hardest, darkest stretch of the journey. Oh no…there’s Judas…oh no…there’s Pilate…oh no…there’s a crown of thorns…oh no…there’s a cross. Can’t go over it…can’t go under it…can’t go around…gotta go through it. Gotta go through it.

Holy Week, this journey between Palm Sunday and Easter, is a miniature and at the same time a greatly magnified rendering of what Jesus’ entire life was all about. Always going through it, through the fields, through the mud, through the longest, hardest, darkest stretches of streets where he encountered people the rest of the world wouldn’t touch and told them that God loved them. Where he encountered people with broken hearts and offered them hope. Where he encountered people who hurt to the bone and gave them healing strength. Gotta go through it.

God so loved this world and all the muddy, broken, sinful, hurting lives in it that God couldn’t bear to be simply over or under or around it. God ached to go through it, to be in it. God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, and so it was that Jesus took his first ride on the back of a donkey while in the belly of his very pregnant mother as she and Joseph joined the procession of those traveling to their hometowns to be registered. The donkey probably wondered late on Christmas night why its feeding trough contained not hay but a baby boy, the One through whom all things were made wiggling his tiny new fingers and toes. You will name him Jesus, an angel had whispered to Joseph in a dream. And he will be Emmanuel, which means God-with-us. Gotta go through it.

There would be lots of bear hunts in Jesus’ life and ministry, lots of difficult days, lots of obstacles, lots of times it would have been easier to crawl into a cave, kick the bear out, and hide from the world. And it’s like that for us, sometimes, too. In our lives we have lots of difficult days, we get lost in the field, stuck in the mud, chased by bears, frightened by failure.

The journey through Holy Week reminds us that God has gone through it all. In Jesus, God experienced difficult days and obstacles, getting lost, getting stuck, getting angry, feeling sad, feeling lonely, being betrayed, being afraid. Jesus went through it all, right through to the end of it all, and at the end of the journey there was indeed a dark cave. But God did not leave him there, and so God does not leave us. I am with you always, Jesus told his followers – Jesus tells us – at the end of Matthew’s gospel. I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Through the fields, through the mud, up the trees, across the rivers, over the mountains, in the caves, I am with you always. Even here. Even now.

So, in this Holy Week…on every day of our lives…we’re going on a journey. We might be afraid, but that’s okay. We have our God-with-us with us. We can get through it all. Amen.

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