Palm Sunday – Life on a Roller Coaster

Matthew 21:1-11

It was a week like none other.  When they marched into Jerusalem, to fanfare and adulation, for a moment the disciples’ concerns were relieved.  “Look at the crowds.  Hear the Hallelujahs.  Our fears were unfounded. Nothing could possibly go wrong. Everything’s gonna be alright.” 

But in less than twenty-four hours their leader is plunged into controversy. Their denial collapses and they realize that the religious leaders have set their sights once more on Jesus and this time they’re likely to succeed.

The Jerusalem religious leaders are afraid.  Worried about the Romans coming down on them and losing their jobs or worse. In their own minds, somebody has to be sacrificed for them to stay in power.  And, that somebody is Jesus.  His politics and popularity are a threat to them.

From then on, the week is a wild roller coaster ride.  Jesus’ followers go through the first four of Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief as everything is changing, and the new normal is terrifying – denial, anger, bargaining, and depression.  Their week resembles that of a person and their family facing cancer or another life-threatening illness in the prime of life – going from denial and shock to following closely the numbers, the medical reports – and then from fear to elation – to a sense of victory when the numbers improve – and then in too many cases, the depression that occurs with the realization that the battle is lost and they must come to terms with death or the end of life as we’ve known it.

We too have lived through these stages over the past six weeks, as persons and as a nation, haven’t we?  Six weeks ago, we were beginning to talk about Easter lilies and the sunrise service, people were asked to sign up for fellowship times after church, groceries were being delivered to the food pantry, and we looked forward to a joyful Easter service on the beach and here in the sanctuary.  I had my call list and was planning for several adult faith formation programs.  Pam and I were planning for Lent and Easter, and I was looking forward to a month-long study holiday – an endowed lecture in Colorado, a sermon in Tucson at the church where Kate and I were ordained forty years ago and a holiday with Matt and his family – and now all of that has been cancelled, the church doors shuttered, and I’ll be around until the doors reopen and the church is back to the new normal, a different but faithful congregation.

We are “confused” as a young child shared with me.  And we are doing our best to cope.

Sometimes I wonder why they call this time “holy week.”  With all the chaos and conflict, it seems anything but holy.  In fact, it seems like the “week from hell.”  Just as Good Friday seems a strange way to describe a day of crucifixion and abandonment.

As we sit in our homes this morning, it’s difficult to imagine feeling stressed out when we have nowhere to go and few external demands.  And, yet, life has changed, the future is uncertain for us, our loved ones, the nation and not just its economy.  We are grieving what we’ve lost and live in hope for a better future.

Could we be living through a Holy Week?  Could we grow spiritually through the stress, worry, confusion, and uncertainty of this time? 

We are in crisis.  Denial will hurt us and our nation; magical thinking will not only destroy our economy; it will harm the most vulnerable among us. Yet, as Chinese wisdom notes, one understanding of the word “crisis” involves the interplay of “danger” and “opportunity.”

There is danger and no amount of political spin can deny it.  Nor could the followers of Jesus tamp down their fears of danger indefinitely.  But there is opportunity for grace, goodness, growth, and getting our bearings.

Dickens once noted that these are the best of times and the worst of times.  These can be – despite the challenges – the best of times for us, our church, the nation, and the planet.  This is not denial – when I check the news, I weep every morning as the death toll exponentially mounts.  I worry about how this will affect our children and grandchildren.  I worry about how it will affect our church, and I worry about not finishing my mission in life – to get my grandchildren to adulthood, to be a good shepherd here at church, and to make a difference as a writer and teacher. 

If I didn’t worry, there wouldn’t be hope.  Out of the concrete situation in which we live, new possibilities, like daffodils and lilies, can burst forth. 

It is said that courage is fear that has said its prayers, and so I pray through my anxiety – the anxiety is always there, but it can’t defeat me if I trust God and do my part, however small it may be.  And, so I do what is my calling this day to heal this small part of the world and to bless everyone I meet.

It was a spiritual rollercoaster week.  And, this is our rollercoaster.  But we can find a quiet center.  Viktor Frankl, recalling his experience in the German concentration camps, asserts: Everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

This week will become holy – a place where we meet God in daily life in all its uncertainty – if we choose our way, our vocation. If we choose God’s way for us.  A way in which we love more, pray more, care more, give more, and plan for a different future for ourselves, our church, and the world – a future in which the best – God’s dream that earth become like heaven – becomes our polestar, so that out of the ashes from the burnt palms of uncertainty, seeds of hope and creativity, and healing emerge.