The Rev. W. W. (Tad) Meyer
Apr. 9, 2017
On this holy day, we defy the limits of time and stand in the midst of an expectant crowd lining a dusty road in ancient Jerusalem. We stand along side that eager throng of men and women who waved branches of palm and threw their coats on the road, muffling the clatter of the donkey's hooves which bore a majestic but reluctant king. It was a joyful and anxious crowd, who were drunk with hopeful anticipation, inebriated with the heady brew of a fantasy seemingly fulfilled. Here was the king they had waited so long for, the messiah of the Living God. Here was the sacred savior who would silence forever the engines of Rome and restore the sovereignty of holy Israel. Here was the divine magician who would ruthlessly reorder reality so that righteousness and justice would triumph over oppression and poverty. They were drunk with hope and today we stand with them, clutching symbols of our spiritual kinship and singing hymns which ring with that same riotous joy. Across the chasm of time, we stand with them, strangely intoxicated with the same heady brew of fantasy and hope.
Fantasy and hope are indeed a strong and dangerous concoction. I can well remember as a child returning time and time again to stories that perplexed or saddened me. I would reread them or watch them once again, hoping against hope that somehow the plot would change. Maybe this time King Arthur would see through the treachery of Mordred, or Bambi’s mother would evade the hunters' bullets or Davy Crocket would miraculously escape from the destruction of the Alamo. When we stand with that hopeful crowd lining the streets of Jerusalem, we can feel the depths of their hope, and to feel that hope is to wish that the outcome of this fearsome tale would somehow be different. Maybe this time the tragedy will be avoided, as if Juliet awoke just before Romeo lifted the cup of poison to his lips. Maybe this time people will recognize Jesus for who he is, not just the hopeful crowd, but the religious authorities: the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Sanhedrin. Maybe Pilate will fall on his knees before him, acknowledging his spiritual authority. Maybe Judas will be loyal and Peter will be brave. Maybe the Almighty will heed the tears of God’s only-begotten son and redeem the world without forcing him to drink from that fearful cup. It is a vibrant hope that is strangely similar to that which rose from the hearts and lips of those bracketing that ancient dusty road. Both spring from the hope that God will radically alter the stream of reality, changing the course of the drama of life so that tragedy will magically be avoided. But we cannot change the plot of this story with fanciful imaginings, just as God will not alter the drama of human life. We cannot alter the tragic outcome with wishful thinking. Such hope will not change the outcome of the story nor will it alter the confused patterns of our daily lives, so why bother hoping? If such hope cannot change the tragic course of reality, why not simply cast it aside?
Palm Sunday invites us to exercise such fanciful hope, not, however, so that we can become its prisoner, but in order to allow us to move beyond it to a new hope, a hope based in reality rather than fantasy and wishful thinking. Today we stand with those ancient citizens of Jerusalem and we must feel and lay claim to their hopeful expectations. We must learn once again how quickly and easily we can cry out to God for deliverance from the oppressive realities of daily life, welcoming a king tailored to our own wishes and fantasies, who will magically deliver us from the mundane, the immoral and the unjust. We must stand within that fantasy so that we can see clearly and dramatically how and why God shattered it, calling us to a new understanding of what it really means to hope within the fabric of human reality.
Sadly, for most of us, most of the time, hope is actually an instrument of control. We use our hopes to define what we wish to happen, what we want to happen, what we think should and ought to happen. We use our hopes to create patterns for our lives, to establish goals and determine priorities. We hope in order to bring a sense of control to our lives, allowing us to project our own notions of justice, fairness, morality and love on the chaotic reality which continually rises up to meet us. Our greatest tragedy, however, is that we would rather control life than live it. We would rather live within our projected hopes and dreams than experience the diverse and constantly changing rhythms of human and physical nature. The cries of Hosanna that rose from the lips of that ancient crowd were firmly anchored in their hopes and fantasies of who they believed Jesus was. Ironically, it was those same hopes and fantasies that prevented them from recognizing the real savior who rode before them. That blindness was the catalyst of tragedy for when their hope was shattered, that same crowd called out for the destruction of the man they had once called king as they chose to exercise control by annihilating the apparent source of their disappointment.
Yet within this sordid tale of tragic hoping, there is a moment of true hope, a hope not grounded in fantasies of control but rooted firmly within the soil of graceful reality. As Jesus kneels in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, we see the paradigm of a new hope, a holy hope, which is the instrument of love and devotion. Jesus holds his hope before God, but he does not cling to it, and he firmly refuses to use it as an instrument of control or manipulation, as a means of protecting him from the experience of life. For Jesus, hope is not merely wishing for a different outcome, but is instead a means of engaging life in good faith. Yet, not my will but yours be done, with those words, Jesus expresses a hope that does not spring from fantasy, but from the human reality which envelopes him. With that phrase he presents us with a new way of hoping, a hope which is the product of risk and engagement rather than avoidance and control. On this holy day, we are called upon to learn how to hope. We are asked to recognize that real hope does not grow out of projected fantasies, but out of risking to live life fully no matter how deep our fear or how great the apparent costs. Our hopes do not give our lives meaning, but they should put us in touch with meaning himself. We may find ourselves wishing for a different outcome, but we must learn to hope that no matter what turn the plot of our lives takes, we will find within it the graceful pattern of God's loving presence.
The liturgy of Palm Sunday has always had a dramatic impact on me, often bringing tears to my eyes. I can well remember my first mentor, giving me a hug after this service and asking me poignantly who I was crying for. At the time, I could not answer him, but after many Palm Sundays and many tears I have come to realize that my tears are shed for me and that they are not necessarily tears of sorrow. On this day, of all the days in the church’s year, I can somehow touch my own humanity. Immersed in the drama of his holy life, I can feel my own weakness and vulnerability, my total inability to control the forces of my own life. Like our Lord, I feel swept up in a stream of life, a stream that is carrying me inevitably towards death. And yet, on this day, I know in the deep recesses of my heart that I would go no other way. I would go no other way because I know it is the way that he has gone, the way that he has marked with his own footsteps. For a brief moment, his story becomes my story, his life my life, my fragile faith enveloped in the glorious certainty of his loving obedience. It is a moment when I feel full, full of life. Not romantic life, filled with fantasies of the past and hopes for the future, but real life, the life that ripples through a baby's cry and rattles the breath of a dying man. On this holy day, I can dare to feel myself filled with life, all because he emptied himself for my sake. The drama of the passion is our drama. His life is our life, for his story is what gives ours meaning and purpose. As we clutch our palms, we must allow this drama to fill the emptiness of our lives, we must let his emptied life pour into our broken hearts, so that we can discover that all our stories have the same plot, a plot that will carry us along all the torrents of life to the still waters of God's irresistible and ever-lasting love. Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.
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