Risking Joy

A Palm Sunday Sermon

April 10, 2022

Luke 19: 28-40

And then the day came, when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. – Anais Nin

Those words have inspired many hard decisions I have made in my adult life. As I was seeking inspiration for what I might say to you today I was reminded of those poetic threshold words penned by Anais Nin – words that encourage us to take the risk we are contemplating -to open ourselves to the world – to leave the comfort of what we know – be vulnerable – and welcome what awaits us.

During the season of Lent we leave our false comforts of life and enter the wilderness with Jesus. We did our best to withdraw from the busyness of the present and our favorite numbing distractions. Sometimes we choose to sacrifice or live with more intention. Always, we meditated and prayed and allowed the protective walls between our sensitive spirit and the complexity and conflict of contemporary life to fall. We let ourselves be vulnerable – if only to ourselves – but hopefully also to God. 

Perhaps we got to know Jesus better – the radiant child King we lavishly celebrated at Christmas. Hopefully, in our Lenten wilderness with Jesus, we let Him get to know us better too – our fear, grief, even rage and yes, our longings, loves and deepest joys. Perhaps we have wept and hollered and let our weakness and exhaustion show in these sacred and vulnerable 40 days. 

For some, the past two years have been an eternal wilderness. In pandemic America, many were forced into long periods of separation, refrained from celebration, and we worshiped in solitude, without the pomp and joy of gathered community. Indeed it has been three years since we last celebrated Holy Week all together. Now as we enter a new & uncertain phase of life amid a pandemic, we are learning how to be together again. Many of us are raw with grief and despair over lost loved ones and broken relationships, lost dreams, and financial hardship. Distrust of those in power runs rampant, strife and division corrode our foundation as a country and a people. And war in Ukraine is taking lives and livelihoods and threatens the stability and safety of the world. It seems like we live in an ongoing crisis, burdened by crosses laid upon us and of our own making. It’s been a while since we have known true unfettered communal joy. 

The people we meet today traveling to Jerusalem with Jesus also bore crosses. Crosses of oppression and poverty, sin and sickness, despair, and death.  In Jesus day, the cross was the prescribed form of capital punishment. Biblical historians tell us that it was common for the road to Jerusalem to be lined with crosses each of them bearing a body. Picture those roadside crosses you pass on Hwy 40 as part of your daily commute, or the ones erected at the 10 Commandments display with a body hanging from them. Anyone who took that way from their home to the market, or from the market to the temple, or from the temple to a friend’s house, would have no choice but to encounter these grim instruments of capital punishment on a regular basis. They didn’t have the privilege of speeding by in the comfortable confines of a vehicle. They walked with eyes turned away, but they smelled the stench, and they heard the horrors of death on a cross.  Imagine the threat and constant terror the Roman Empire instilled in the people who lived in the shadows of those crosses – their lives and hopes shriveled by this unspoken but most deadly of all messages of power. They were also divided by caste and social privilege and lived with suspicion & scorn for one another.  This was the grim reality of Jesus’s day.  

Today we with the disciples step away from our individual realities and join a celebration of our shared walk with Jesus – a triumphal entry into a new way of thinking and seeing ourselves in the world. Today we join the multitudes on the road to Jerusalem and begin the journey of Holy Week. I’ve seen Holy Week referred to as a Holy symphony with four movements. In years past we have observed the first three movements as Palm/Passion Sunday because the church has argued that you can’t have the finale – the resurrection – without first experiencing the triumphal entry, betrayal and death and most people won’t darken the church doorway after today until Easter morning. But this year this week’s Holy Symphony will have its full expression throughout the days ahead.

And I am glad for that. Palm Sunday feels like life to me — rich and full and complicated and contradictory. And so very expressive of those times in our lives when we stand at a threshold with a choice to make. Today we are at such a threshold as we reflect on a series of events that changed the world and even today – changes our lives if we allow ourselves to fully experience the passion of our Lord.

The last days of our friend, Jesus who lived out our human experience to the fullest, whose deeds of power were indeed worthy of our praise, but who also chose to walk, laugh and cry with us and emptied Himself for us so that we may have true life. 

During Holy Week, just as we often do in our own lives, we have a natural tendency to focus on the worst of what Jesus experienced: the betrayal, the agony, and finally his death. But it’s really important for us not to lose sight of the triumphant entry. It is a joyful experience, inspiring feelings of communal gladness we haven’t felt in a while. 

So let’s spend some time here in this triumphal entry into Jerusalem cheering Jesus on, waving our palms, and throwing our cloaks down before him – all the while acknowledging that many of the very same people we join on that road shouting, “Blessed is He” will be in the ugly mob that cries out “Crucify him” on Friday as this same Jesus, an innocent man, is tortured and executed for alleged crimes against the Empire. There is joy and there is despair. This was and is our human experience.

What did you feel this morning as you entered the sanctuary and sang that wonderful song of glory to our Redeemer and King? What was in your heart as you waved your palm branches high?   Joy? Surely not a yawn!

The people cheering for Jesus that day abandoned their dignity, not to mention an important material possession by throwing their cloaks down on the road in front of Jesus.  They let go of their fear and troubles and were lost in wonder, love, praise, and joy. What did you let go of – if only for a moment?

And what about Jesus? What was He feeling inside? The text doesn’t give us much to go on if we want to know his state of mind during the grand parade. He certainly seemed certain of how the events would play out. I hope He too felt immense joy, don’t you? Then again, a recipient of praise and adoration of this magnitude might also feel uncomfortable – I know I would! 

But Jesus would not have been fully human if he didn’t experience intense joy, maybe even giddy abandon, and yet we rarely picture him that way. I wonder why that is? Do we feel guilty for being joyful amidst a suffering world? Does suffering deny the existence of joy? Does joy deny the existence of suffering?

As I think on the nature of the Jesus I know, I think He wanted the people to feel wonder and joy – to have a taste of the kingdom in which He reigns. To show that joy comes from knowing a love greater than any fear – a joy that can be felt even in the worst of times. And what joy this day must have brought Jesus to see the hearts of his followers, hearts long hardened by fear and oppression, open again to wonder and love! 

Joy in the midst of a politically and personally dangerous time for Jesus. Because this was not a simple parade down a road to Jerusalem. Jesus was committing a subversive act against the powers of the Roman Empire.  Pontius Pilate was on his way to Jerusalem too because this was the feast week of the Passover, the celebration of God’s triumph over the greatest superpower of its day. This would be foremost in the minds of the Jews in their celebrations of the event.  Imperial Rome generated feelings of hatred and contempt from many of its subjects. Pointing to their feelings, the writer Tacitus said, “[The Romans] rob, they slaughter, they plunder — and they call it ‘empire.’ Where they make a waste-land, they call it ‘peace.’

Because of this, the Romans distrusted associations, crowds, and gatherings such as the one we find celebrating the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem and it explains why Pontius Pilate and his legions would have left the comfortable confines of his palace in Caesarea Maritima for the parochial space of Jerusalem. To reaffirm the Empire’s authority and power over the people. Some accounts say it was likely that Pilate was conducting his own triumphal entry upon mighty steeds of war into Jerusalem from the opposite direction while Jesus was making his way through the throngs of adoring. cheering people.

The royal implications of Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem are clear in the words of “the whole multitude of disciples” who praised Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the King who is to come. Obviously, this made the Pharisees very nervous. They had warned Jesus before that Herod wanted to kill him and had advised Jesus to lay low. Now they implored Jesus to silence the disciples. They knew that such a display of royal pretense would bring down the wrath of those in power in Jerusalem, whether it be the Sanhedrin, Herod, or Pilate. They didn’t want to rock the boat. 

But Jesus chose to do the hard thing and the brave thing – He chose to rock the boat – to open the eyes and hearts of his followers and ignite a joy so powerful even stones would shout of it. On a lowly colt, Jesus made Himself vulnerable to the will of the crowd and the events of the days to come. His followers chose the Joy of Jesus that day – they aligned themselves with his authority – not one of oppression, fear, and death – but of compassion, love, and life. They crossed a threshold and took a step forward on the road that would change their lives forever – and they were filled with joy.

And about that crowd – that is after all the role that most of us are taught to play in the passion liturgy – as we wave our palms and shout our hosannas to Jesus and later this week as we join in the calls for Jesus’s crucifixion. 

How is it that we can be so united both in our positive energy and our negative, destructive, even violent energy? We still see this play out in the social, cultural, and political fronts of our lives today. To whose authority are we choosing to live under? 

Franciscan writer Richard Rohr talks about two ways of gathering or creating unity among people. One is the way of love: “God unites by the positive energy of loving, shepherding, and revealing the divine presence in one’s midst.” Unfortunately, there is another more common and more efficient way to gather people and form group cohesion. “You can either rally around love to unite, or you can rally around fear, gossip, paranoia, and negativity.” Fear and Hate can be as powerful and enticing as Joy and Love. 

Palm Sunday captures much of our human complexity and the observances of this Holy Week before us will show us the fullness of God and humanity. We have many opportunities to gather together, and I encourage you to participate in all of them.

There’s a question I want you to contemplate as we enter this week: will the way we gather here as a people, as the Body of Christ, change the way you gather with others outside of these walls? Will we choose to reflect the Joy we know in Christ, choose to be “good gatherers”, people who unite others based on our best instincts, not our worst? Will you lead others to light or allow darkness and fear to permeate?

In his meditation on how to unite people, Rohr concludes, “There are still two ways of gathering: the way of fear and hate, and the way of love. But do not yourself be afraid, because Jesus is still gathering.”  

Jesus calls us to take the risk of joy. This week of all weeks, we know how great the cost may be when we take that risk and listen to the call of Jesus. But the day has come, when the risk to remain tight in a bud is more painful and costly than the risk it takes us to blossom. Let’s take that risk. Let’s joyfully walk in the way of love — together. 

Amen

Let your light so shine!!

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