Before the Alleluia – Palm Sunday Sermon 2015

3490650A sermon offered for Palm Sunday, 2015
Reading from Desmond Tutu, “Liberation is Costly”

A week ago, the tree in my front yard was completely bare, as if it was dead.

It was just as our guest minister, the Rev. Andrea Anastos, described in her sermon about the winter season last November: unadorned, its skeleton standing exposed, revealing old wounds from past storms that are so much of the year hidden from view by the flourishes of abundant, green leaves.

If you were here that Sunday, you might still remember Rev. Anastos’ encouragement to choose to live into the winter season of not-knowing, to live into the winter’s natural patterns of rest, and waiting, and stillness. To be, as she described, fallow.

What would happen to us, she asked, what new stories would we make room for, if we gave ourselves over to a time of letting go, a time without fixing or meaning-making, a time of simply being, observing, and being still?

It was a very powerful message, especially for those of us who rarely find a moment for stillness in a day, let alone a whole season.

So a week ago, my tree was bare, lifeless, and gray. Fallow.
But then yesterday, it was not.

Yesterday, in place of nothing, there was something. Something green, and fluttering and growing. Today, that something is a little bigger, a little more.

Many little green leaves now run up and down the branches, little buds that promise flowers before too long. It’s not naked anymore. The waiting, it seems, is done.

And I wonder, what new room has been made in our lives over these past few months?
What has been taking shape in the earth as it rests, and for what have we prepared?
What new dream has been outlined upon our lives, upon this community, just awaiting our awakening and awareness?
What new thing is about to be born, if we will but plant the seeds?

Like most of you, I would imagine, I couldn’t be happier to greet the emerging spring. The return of the sun, the bursting crocuses, the promise of new life, once again. Alleluia.

Who doesn’t greet this return with gratitude, and relief? Our winter has been relatively mild, especially when we compare it with our friends in the east who had a terrible season of snow after snow. Maybe our snow is still to come, you never know in Colorado. But still it is a joy to see the sun, the blue sky, to be able to walk in and out of doors without piling on and off of jackets and scarves, hats and gloves. To say goodbye to the cracked and brittle and hello once again to the soft and bright and warm. Come spring, come hope, come life.

In the Christian liturgical calendar, today marks what has come to be known as Palm Sunday. As a child I knew this as the day we would be given palm leaves, long whispers of green that we would bring home and drape across the crucifix on our wall. I have strong positive associations with Palm Sunday, the texture and feel of the palm leaves, the burst of green so reminiscent of the bright colors of new life returning in the world.

I like props in church, especially props that we can touch and feel and take home with us. Because our lives pull us back in so easily when we leave here, and these little tangible things anchor us to our greater hopes, our deeper purpose, our being, and longing.

It wasn’t until seminary that I started to better understand the reason behind these great props, and what they symbolized – then, and now.

Jesus had been away for a while. Away from the city of Jerusalem, away from the full view of the authorities, who had – we are told – been itching to arrest him. He was a threat. A threat to the Roman empire. A threat to the few Jews who held power in their occupied land. A threat to the way of being those in power relied on.

In my simplified explanation to my children about the Jesus story, I sometimes tell them that the people in power used fear to keep their power, and Jesus said: Be not afraid. He said, Love your neighbor. And even more radically, love your enemy.

Where ever he went, Jesus showed up with this great and powerful love, a love so powerful it could make the blind see, and bring the dead back to life. This is the sort of love that removes the dust from your eyes and makes you come alive all over again. Love that brings bare trees into full bloom. Reviving love, healing love, clarifying love.

Love that if it caught on, would change everything. The leaders couldn’t have it. And so for a while, Jesus left the city, and went out instead to the desert where he stayed with his friends. But eventually, he knew he needed to return. Hiding would not bring the change he sought.

Five days before Passover, Jesus made his final trip into the city, where he was greeted with palm branches laid down at his feet, creating a path for him to walk on. It was a common greeting for kings and heroes of the day when they came to town. Like today’s red carpet, it was a way to honor him.

Along with the branches, the crowd shouted out Hosanna! Blessed are you, King! I can’t quite figure out a good contemporary analogy for Hosanna – but it’s something like – the “We love you!” shouts that come at super stars when they get up to accept an award. “We Love you!”

Right – like the shouts that make it impossible for them to say what they want to say because everyone is cheering, overcome with a sense of gratitude at this person’s gifts. It’s like that.

As Jesus came into the city, the crowd felt they were in the presence of a holy person, someone who could – as the empire feared – change everything.

And by the time we return here next Sunday, we will be celebrating the part of the Jesus story that says he did in fact change everything. We’ll gather to celebrate the good news that love wins – always wins, that after the bareness and the stillness and the waiting and the un-knowing, there comes once again, energy, and activity, and truth, and abundant life. Next Sunday, we will greet Easter’s arrival like spring’s full bloom. Alleluia.

But before that. Before the alleluia, the same crowd who greeted Jesus with palm branches at his feet, who shouted out “We Love You!” “Hosanna!” Before the alleluia, these same crowds instead a few days after Palm Sunday, instead begin to shout, “Crucify him.” And “Kill him.”

Growing up, I remember these words in my mouth like fire. “Don’t you want me to let him go?” the priest would ask, pretending to be Pontius Pilate. And we, the congregation would respond, “no, crucify him.”

In the text for the story of the passion, re-enacted each year during this week by most Catholic and many protestant congregations, it has the question and the response multiple times, and so as a member of the congregation, you hear the words, feel the words coming out of your mouth again, and again. You feel yourself call for Jesus’ death.

But I didn’t always think about the fact that it was the same basic community, just a few days before that was praising him.

What inspires such a change? To go from praise and embrace, to rejection and vengeance – so quickly, and completely?

A number of years ago, right before I went to seminary, when I was a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation, I spent a Saturday in what the church leaders called a Dream Summit. It was meant to be a time where we shared stories about the future of our church – our big and courageous dreams. The question on the table was something like: It’s ten years from now. What does our congregation look like, who is it serving, and how has that changed in the last 10 years?

The room was filled with maybe 50 or 60 of us. One brave soul got up and offered her answer, “I hope in ten years, our congregation is more racially diverse.” Vigorous nodding across the room revealed this was a common longing in this overwhelmingly white congregation.

I am not a cynic. I’m not even sure I’d call myself a pragmatist. I really do land consistently in the optimist and idealist categories, though I do prefer to think it all as a matter of maintaining a big faith. Regardless, I say all this to help put in context my immediate thought after the woman in my congregation shared her dream for a multi-racial Unitarian Universalist faith community. I thought, “No way. There’s way you want to change that much.”

Unitarian Universalists have expressed this longing for racial diversity for decades, especially in the last decade or so as the world around us has become increasingly diverse. And yet for the most part, this longing has remained unrealized – for a bunch of reasons, but not the least of which is the degree to which it requires mostly white communities to un-settle ourselves – unsettle our patterns, un-settle our habits and often our points of pride.

As the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt said in her 2010 article in the UU World exploring these questions, “We—ministers and laypeople—want our congregations to be safe.” However – as she also acknowledges, “if we are really practicing what it means to be human, in an ever widening circle of humanity, our congregations may become some of the most dangerous places we know.”

Whether we are talking about racial diversity or theological diversity, healing the earth or the equally complicated task of healing our hearts, transforming our world, or transforming ourselves – we must confess that the “talk” about these things is a lot more tenable than what it would take to achieve the actual reality.

We are good at shouting “Hosanna” to our principles around peace and justice for all, good at laying down palms to greet the ideas of Beloved Community, but when it comes down to it, the kind of unrest it would take to manifest the Beloved Community, the kind of deep change it requires of us – as individuals, and as a people – well that feels terrifying, intimidating, overwhelming.

Liberation is – as the reading from Desmond Tutu acknowledges – costly. The liberation of my life that is wrapped up in the liberation of all lives is difficult, and if we really seize its reality, it will bring us to all kinds of complaining as we wander the desert. The liberation of our GLBT brothers and sisters – in Indiana, and across the globe, is costly. The liberation of our immigrant neighbors, and our black friends and family members, the liberation of all who are held by the chains of poverty or mental illness – these are costly. And the freedom of universal access to health care and clean water, and the deliverance of the earth itself, the release of every single person on this earth into the authentic feeling of being loved, and that they belong, just as they are, the liberation of deep awareness that we are all inextricably connected, born of earth and stars. This liberation, is costly.

This is the liberation represented by Jesus’ ministry. And it is the liberation at the heart of our faith, of Unitarian Universalism. This is the liberation that we say we are after.  And it is as Rosemary Bray McNatt said – dangerous, and risky, and even costly. And sometimes, I wonder if we are really up for it.

Which brings me back to my tree, last week, and today.

The winter time, my tree tells me, has passed. And now, we are called into spring. Palm Sunday has arrived, and we say Hosanna! But Spring is not just shouts of joy. Out of rest and reflection, we are called into action. It is not a matter of simply returning to where we were before the rest. We are called to clean out the beds and brush away the dead leaves, to loosen the earth and remove the weeds, and to begin to discover who we are now, what new thing may be able to grow in this soil – the soil of our lives, our community, our congregation, our world. And then, we are called to plant.

All the ideas we have been making for our gardens, all that room Spirit has been clearing in our hearts for a new story and a new hope, and all that has been churning beneath the surface in anticipation of the returning sun – all of these will remain simply ideas without our willingness to let go of what the winter has shed in us, and to say YES to this new season and the opportunity for new life.

There is always risk in planting, there is always risk in sewing seeds, especially crops that are entirely new to us, requiring so much new learning. It takes work, long and hard work, and patience, and careful attention. It takes a willingness to fail. And to stay open through the failure to the learning, and to adapt, and to grow, to continue to turn the soil. To refuse to allow the earth, or your heart, to harden.

Our Unitarian Universalist churches often skip over the observance of the fuller story of holy week. I understand how that has happened over time. But it means our faith communities also miss an opportunity to regularly wrestle with just how hard it is to say yes to big, revolutionary change, even when it is a revolution of love.

It also means, we do not regularly rehearse together what it feels like to reject what we once thought was our only hope, and to see our greatest sense of love die. To bear witness together to that possibility and to live even for a short moment with its consequences.

There is something powerful in repeating this story, year after year, the fuller story between Palm Sunday and Easter, between the idea of new life, and the actual birth. There is something powerful in asking ourselves if we are yet saying yes to all that we are meant to be.

Despite my idealistic tendencies, I don’t know if I am up for all that it would take to realize my greatest hopes.  I don’t know if you are.  I don’t know if we are – if anyone really is. But here is where I gratefully remind us that we need not make the whole journey in one season. We don’t have to figure it out all it once, know everything all at once, plant everything all at once. Perhaps like me you will be relieved to remember that if you did not find all the stillness you needed this winter, another winter beckons just a few months away. And, given Colorado’s weather, maybe just a few days.

Life does not – as we sometimes imagine- move in a single, straight line. We live many lives in our one life, and we suffer many deaths. And in each of these, we have another opportunity to be reborn again, transformed. We love, and we lose and we grieve again and again. And each spring, we get to choose: turn back to what was, or plant something new. Over a lifetime, across many seasons, one breath at a time, may we build the life we yearn for, the world we yearn for. Little by little, in partnership with all of creation. Let us say yes, together.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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