The Palm Sunday sermon by Rev. Lentz Pushing Off! begins just before the 23 minute mark.
Several weeks ago, Deanne and I hiked along the Slippery Rock Creek in McConnell’s State Park near Pittsburgh. The snowmelt and the rain caused the creek to run really fast – so much power coursing through the narrow passage. There were two kayakers who were brave – or stupid – enough to be on the creek that day. They had started from above the waterfall that powered a 19th century mill tourist stop. When we spoke with them, they were in an eddy near the bank, getting out of their kayaks so they could carry them below the waterfall into the really fast water – we are talking at least Class IV or maybe Class V in some spots.
A Class V rapid is described this way: “Extremely difficult, long, and very violent rapids with highly congested routes, which should be scouted from shore. Rescue conditions are difficult, and there is a significant hazard to life in the event of a mishap. The upper limit of what is possible in a commercial raft.”
They were looking it over – getting a sense of what was before them. They seemed to be experienced kayakers and since I haven’t read about any tragedies, so I assume that made it safely.
But even for the most experienced kayakers I suspect there is that moment just as you let yourself go into the current when you take a deep breath and let it rip; you are in for the ride of your life.
Sure, you can direct your path to a certain degree around this rock and maneuver around the back waves – and try to stay out of trouble – but the current will take you where the current takes you. You can’t just turn around and go back. Good kayakers know well the dangers. You have to have total concentration; you have to have your eyes set on where you need to go.
This image of the rapids and the intrepid kayakers shaped my understanding of Jesus’ descent down the hillside into the churning current of Jerusalem. It was just before Passover – there was a lot going on, there were many hidden dangers.
Jesus had made his way safely, thus far, from up north in Galilee (at times class III) … he’d had some rocky moments but he had steered the course up to Bethphage and Bethany on the top of the rise above Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives sloped into the valley at the base of the city. If you have been to Jerusalem the tour bus always takes to this spot.
Jesus looked over the city and charted his course into the teeming current below. He sent some scouts ahead to get his craft – a donkey!
It is impossible to know what Jesus was thinking. But of one thing I am sure: He knew that once he cast off into the current and went down that hill, that this was probably his last ride, so to speak. Jesus may have some choices but this ride was going to mean that he would lose control. This was going to be a Class VI ride.
And I think of the power and the poignancy of this scene: while some onlookers were filled with gaiety spreading cloaks and branches, others thought that this was the beginning of the revolution.
We know what the disciples expected. We hear about it on the road to Emmaus after the crucifixion: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:21) And the colt was a nice touch – not a white steed of princes, but a donkey – a sign of a people’s messiah; humble.
The Romans were watching. We know that the religious leaders were watching too. The status quo doesn’t want to be messed with. The powers that be are ruthlessly efficient in shutting down protest.
Ride on, ride on in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die, bow thy meek head to mortal pain; then take, O God, thy power and reign.
Those are the words to a very sobering Palm Sunday hymn, which we will sing at the close of worship. It is very unlike the other two hymns that we have already sung this morning.
“All Glory, laud and honor to thee redeemer king to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring.”
And “Hosanna, loud hosanna the little children sang…. The children sang their praises, the simplest and the best.”
The fact is: in none of the gospels do children show up.
Only in retrospect, reflecting upon this story in light of the resurrection and 2,000 years of interpretation do we make Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem a festival instead of what it was – a match to the dry tinder of expectation at Passover.
In reality, the first Palm Sunday was not a family activity. Jesus’ disciples were preparing to lead the revolt – at Passover, the city was full, the Romans were on edge, the temple workers were settling in for the biggest shopping day of the year.
“Hosanna” was a battle cry as much as praise for Jesus.
I am sorry to those of you who believe that faith and politics don’t mix: because they do – right here on the hillside of Jerusalem – Jesus was riding right into the heart of political and religious power – challenging them to their very core; defying them. Jesus wasn’t crucified for paying attention to the lilies of the field, he was crucified for saying that he would destroy the temple!
We have to understand what was really going on here.
Here was Jesus, perhaps finally realizing how his life was going to play out.
He had an inkling in the wilderness when Satan tempted him with by asking, “What kind of Messiah are you going to be?”
When Jesus was pushing off – down the hill into the current – I think it finally hit him that he was going to die.
Yesterday in Washington D.C., and throughout the country, the kids and families of March for our Lives took to the streets to demand that their safety become a priority and that we end gun violence and mass shootings in our schools today. Amen. Please LORD! Let the young people lead and the leaders listen and follow!
But the first Palm Sunday wasn’t like that. It was more like Leonard Cohen’s haunting verse of his song Hallelujah: Jesus looking out over the city.
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Palm Sunday is hard for me. Life is more like Palm Sunday than the day after Easter. For you and I stand before the rest of today and tomorrow and the day after that.
What current do you have to push off into?
Perhaps you’re lucky enough to be going for a pleasure float on an inner tube down a lazy river. If so, good! Enjoy it to the fullest – revel in it. Don’t take it for granted!
But there are others who trudged up a hill this morning and are looking down into a mess of swirling water – knowing they have to push off.
Because we have to head into the current – even while we’re thinking “if only I could just keep this moment, remain on the mountaintop. Or even better, go back several weeks and have a do over….”
But we can’t – whatever is going to happen is “down there” and so we might as well get on into it. The haunting hymn reminds us:
We must walk this lonesome valley,
We have to walk it by ourselves;
O, nobody else can walk it for us,
We have to walk it by ourselves.
But because Jesus pushed off, I can go too.
He was there before, so I will make it.
He did it alone, I have community and family.
He was the pioneer, I am a follower.
The pioneers get the arrows. I get the map.
He let go…. I need to give up power and control.
And because I know what happens next Sunday – I even have hope that whatever I am facing may have meaning. Because I know that nothing is wasted; nothing is good or bad until God gets through with it.
The passion of Jesus shapes my experience of whatever passion I might face. I get scared sometimes, but faith carries me on.
The choice of Jesus affects my choice.
The willingness of Jesus to take a measure of the politics and the religion of his day encourages me to take a stand on the politics and religion of my day.
Because Jesus wanted to blow up the status quo, I can at least light my little firecracker!
Because Jesus stood with the people, the marginalized, the poor, the children, the “other” – those without hope and without power – I know where my allegiance must be; it is where the kingdom is.
Jesus! Let’s push off into the current and let’s go where it is taking us.