Palm Sunday; Turning Over a New Leaf, or Just Waving a Palm?
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, March 20, 2016
READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
Our first reading is from the Book of Matthew, Chapter 21:
The disciples went and did just as Jesus had instructed them,
Our second reading today is from the Kite Runner, a novel by Khaled Hosseini. It follows a scene near the end of the book when Amir has taken his newly discovered and rescued nephew out to fly a kite:
and brought the donkey and the colt, and laid their coats on them; and he sat on the coats.
Most of the crowd spread their coats in the road, and others were cutting branches from the trees and spreading them in the road.
The crowds going ahead of him, and those who followed, were shouting, "Hosanna to the on of David; Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest!"
When He had entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, "Who is this?"
And the crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee."
Then I turned and ran.
It was only a smile, nothing more. It didn't make everything all right. It didn't make anything all right. Only a smile. A tiny thing. A leaf in the woods, shaking in the wake of a startled bird's flight.
But I'll take it. With open arms. Because when spring comes, it melts the snow one flake at a time, and maybe I just witnessed the first flake melting.
I ran. A grown man with a swarm of screaming children. But I didn't care. I ran with the wind blowing in my face, and a smile as wide as the Valley of Panjsher on my lips.
On the week prior to the original Palm Sunday, Jesus and his crew are on the road, winding their way towards Jerusalem. Jesus performs a few roadside miracles along the way. Then he predicts to his disciples that he will soon die and that he will then rise up again within just a few days. This knowledge Jesus had often reminds me of Martin Luther King, Jr., who also predicted his own death and the resurrection of the Civil Rights Movement.
But back then… Jesus sends two of the twelve apostles to the city, ahead of the others, to get things ready for their Passover supper. Then, on the day we refer to as Palm Sunday, he is greeted by throngs of people at the gates of the city. He is seated on a donkey, and as the procession progresses, the crowd goes bananas.
“Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna!” They wave their palm branches, jump and shout, and greet Jesus, crying out, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
In my mind’s eye, when I envision this scene, it is straight out of a non-existent version of the life of Christ that might be portrayed in a Cecil B. DeMille production. I have Charlton Heston in the leading role of that imaginary film. In retrospect, because of his relationship with the National Rifle Association, I rue having cast Heston. But at least he does make one handsome Jesus Christ. As in my fantasy movie, the Book of Matthew portrays Jesus at the center of the narrative. He’s riding along, knowing full well what’s in store, and still he smiles sheepishly and waves lovingly in response to the adulation heaped on him by the crowds.
Here’s the thing. Maybe this story was about Jesus, but maybe it wasn’t just about him. It was about those crowds, too. And not just about the crowds, it was about the individual people who made up those crowds. Norman Fletcher, a distinguished predecessor of mine who served our UU Congregation back in Montclair, NJ for 40 years, once preached a sermon there entitled, “Palm Sunday Is for Everyone.” I have to think so.
I suppose in some of our more grandiose moments some of us undoubtedly identify strongly with the Messiah in the story. But the truth of it is, who we are is probably much more akin to one of the Joe Schmoe’s who are whooping it up along the sides of the street. “Here comes the Messiah! Here comes the Savior!”
I’ve got to think those folks had a pretty tough life. The poorest of us here live far more comfortably than any of them did and by a long shot. That includes the wealthy among them, though very few of them were wealthy. Mostly they all lived in hard, stone dwellings that barely protected them from the elements. They lived hand-to-mouth, eking out a living on the margins of the food and the social food chain.
So what makes most of us like most of them? I think it's – our shared humanity, our shared human nature. There may be a divine spark in each of us; I believe there is. But we are not gods, as Jesus has been accused of being, and as he is portrayed in so many of our stories about him. We are human, much like the average guy on the street back in the old Jerusalem, waving our palm branches, grateful for reasons to celebrate.
Like them, we fall down. We fail. We get sick. We get stuck. We die. But, after three days, we do not rise. We attach ourselves to ideas of redemption and transcendence. And when someone looking like a Messiah comes along, carrying with them the hope for some kind of a new life and better day – someone who is not fallen down or failed, someone who is not sick, or stuck or dying. Like the ancient ones, sometimes we get excited, too. Our hopes are raised, hoisted on the shoulders of this latest manifestation of the promised one. And we think – c’mon, gimme another chance. Give us another chance.
It's not a direction I wish to follow this morning, but I would be remiss in failing to mention the irony and consistency of this story and one that is being played out in the political theater of our country today. But in the story from the days of old, Jesus' narrative was one of love and forgiveness, not one of fear and greed. That's what he lived out in his own heaven-dealt, divine destiny.
What I want is another chance. I want another chance to be the Good Samaritan and to love my neighbor as myself; another chance to appreciate a fine spring morning; another chance to create a thing of enduring beauty; to say the loving thing and not the hurting thing; to promote justice – not by demanding it but by being it; to introduce a child to a loving world that I helped – with all my might – to create; I want another chance to say, “Thank you,” instead of “I want.” There are so many things I would want a second chance at. There are so many things we might want a second chance at.
I’m reminded of the book, The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. In it, Amir, the protagonist, has his life unalterably changed when, as a boy, he fails to intervene and instead hides in the shadows while his closest friend and confidant, Hassan, is viciously beaten and abused by a bully. It’s as though a part of Amir’s life simply stops and is almost completely crippled in arrested development in that one crucial, decisive moment.
And then decades later, after he has emigrated to the United States and is married, he gets a second chance. It does not come easily; it must be earned through perilous, incremental and courageous steps. But finally, Amir is given the opportunity to redeem his past failure by going back to Afghanistan and helping to redeem the present for another Afghani boy, Sohrab. Turns out, ironically, that Sohrab is Amir’s nephew, his friend Hassan’s son. Amir successfully rescues Sohrab, who had been kept and abused by a Taliban henchman.
For those of you who may not have read The Kite Runner, it's a great read! It's an incredible and wrenching story of love, betrayal, wandering in the wilderness, and finally redemption. As in true life, redemption does not come easily in the story. It comes in stops and starts. Toward the end of the story, Sohrab, the nephew, is newly relocated to California with his uncle, Amir. The boy is a very damaged young child, almost incapable of any response to anything around him.
Amir takes him kite flying one day as he had done with the boy’s father so many years before. Almost imperceptibly, Sohrab, manages the slightest smile in response to the experience. It is detected by his uncle who is ecstatic over it.
“It was only a smile, nothing more. It didn't make everything all right. It didn't make anything all right. Only a smile. A tiny thing. A leaf in the woods, shaking in the wake of a startled bird's flight…But I'll take it.”
A waving palm, a shaking leaf, a chance to begin anew…
Where does redemption begin? Perhaps it is in the art of forgiveness. In this Lenten season of atonement, there seems to be something of a misguided hunger for penance when what we need is a second chance, when what we need is redemption, when what we need is forgiveness.
In an interview with, In Context Magazine (A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture), poet, author and teacher Maya Angelou shared some thoughts on the theme of forgiveness:
“I don't know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes – it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, 'well, if I'd known better I'd have done better,' that's all. So you say to people who you think you may have injured, 'I'm sorry,' and then you say to yourself, 'I'm sorry.' If we all hold on to the mistake, we can't see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can't see what we're capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one's own self. I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now mind you, when a larger society sees them as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white, or too poor, or too fat or too thin, or too sexual or too asexual, that's rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don't have that we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.”
I can't help but to think that in just a few minutes we will be marching out to dedicate our Black Lives Matter/Standing on the Side of Love banner. I can't help but to think that this has every possibility of being a parade much like the one in Jerusalem so long ago, rapt in the moment of frenzy and release. I also can't help but to think that this has the potential of being so much more, filled with the promise of a committed, long-haul path that is dedicated to making justice for our brothers and sisters who have been denied it for so very long. I can't help but to think that we need to somehow learn to forgive ourselves and each other for our own participation in those systems of injustice so that we might become instruments in their redemption. I can't help but to think that this is a moment that places us on the threshold of a redemption that is far over due.
I think of those ancient citizens of Jerusalem, starving for glory, grabbing at even the idea of even touching the hem of the gown of this Messiah, this glorious redeemer who has come to save them. If he can love them then maybe, just maybe, they can find a way to love themselves. Wasn’t that the message of the Messiah – to love one another, to love one’s neighbor as one’s self?
It’s important to have good models. But I don’t think modeling works very well when the model is the epitome of divine perfection. The idea of Jesus as god has little value to those of us who know we are not gods. I trust that Jesus was human like us. And besides, what happens to Messiahs when their fifteen minutes of fame passes? They are mowed down. If you meet the Buddha on the road, the task is to kill him. Idols are invariably false idols. The point is, I have to believe, that we are all here to be human, not to be gods. And so, as Maya Angelou suggests, we need to be able to see our own glory in the mirror.
If we measure ourselves against gods, we are sure to lose in the comparison. There is a great deal of value in Jesus’ human story. The Cecil B. DeMille literal/biblical version doesn’t hold a candle to an understanding of Jesus as human. It doesn’t hold a candle to Jesus as Martin Luther King, Jr.; Jesus as Amir; Jesus as Maya Angelou; Jesus as me, or more importantly, Jesus as you. Now those are Jesuses we can learn from. And what might we learn?
We might learn that it’s okay, that we are still worthwhile human beings if we struggle and stumble; if we fall or fail. We might learn that we don’t have to stay stuck. As surely as the recalcitrant spring will indeed rise up over the decaying rubble of autumn and winter, whatever it takes, we too can get up again. We too, can try again. If we accept our humanity and keep our eye on the very human prize of loving, we will never run out of choices, never run out of chances. A person may fail many, many times in life, but we never become a failure unless we give up trying.
Here is what the Palm Sunday story means to me: it means that we live in an imperfect world, complete with imperfect gods. It means that, just as seasons turn from winter to spring and all the way back around to winter again, we are always in a new place along the way and at a new time. It means that we might somehow lose sight of what’s in front of us because shiny objects divert our attention and our vision. It means that we will get things wrong sometimes, lots of times, but that, if we pay attention, maybe next time, we’ll do better. The Palm Sunday story means that, if we work at it, we can see our own glory in the mirror, that we can see what we're capable of being and doing.
We do what we know how to do and when we learn better, we stand a chance of doing better. What is better? You tell me. For me, being better is about being more at one – at one with one’s self, at one with those around us, with this world, with All-That-Is.
Tell me what you want. I’ll tell you what I want. Gimme a second chance! I don't want to be standing out here just waving a palm. I want to turn over a new leaf, and when I need to, I want to turn it over again, with greater conviction, with a more solemn promise.
I want another chance to be the Good Samaritan and to love my neighbor as myself; another chance to appreciate a fine spring morning; another chance to create a thing of enduring beauty; to say the loving thing and not the hurting thing; to promote justice – not by demanding it but by being it; to introduce a child to a loving world that I helped with all my might to create; to say, “Thank you,” instead of “I want.” There are so many things I would want a second chance at, that I would want for us all to have a second chance.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of redemption. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of forgiveness. And Blessed is the one who comes in the name of love. Oh lord, I want to be in that number! I'm ready to turn over a new leaf! C’mon gimme another chance.
The thing is… we already have that chance. The question is, what will you do with yours? Would you be waving yet another Palm, or will you be turning over a new leaf?