Palm Sunday 2016

Life is a journey. No doubt about it. From the moment we are born until (at least) we breathe our last we’re in caught up in some type of motion, movement, or growth. We might not acknowledge it, we might not feel it, and there might even be times when we don’t want to accept it. It’s true regardless of age, stage of life, or circumstance. It’s even true when we’re on the mountaintops of life, its true when we’re anxious, it is true when we’re at rest, and when we’re asleep.

We approached this Lenten season with a story about a journey—walking the Appalachian trail (remember the Bryson novel?). As we draw near to Easter, let me tell you a story about my own ventures on the “A.T.” Some of you know that 20 years ago, I chose to take a “gap year” between Alabama and Emory. This was of my own choice but it was influenced by several circumstances that were beyond my control. My best friend finds out I’m back in Birmingham. He calls me up and says to me, “Get your pack ready. We’re going hiking on Monday.” And off we go.

We drive into the mountains of North Carolina, pull off I-40, get our stuff out and lock the car. We hike north until about sundown. We set up camp, eat dinner, and stay up talking way too late. The next day: breakfast, break camp, and we set out. Before long, we get to this seemingly never-ending series of switchbacks. Before long I’m well-winded, my feet hurt, and my shoulders and hips are already sore. I stop and wait for my friend to look around and see I’ve stopped. I protest any further movement up the hill. And I begin making overtures that maybe we ought to head back to the car. “Hey, why don’t we go to Knoxville and see our friend who transferred there.” That didn’t work. “Hey, let’s turn this into a road trip—my dime. We’ll make our way to the beach and see what’s up.” That didn’t work either. Finally, I tried for the Hail Mary, “Isn’t your girlfriend over at Western Carolina University? That’s not far from here.”

But he wouldn’t hear it—none of it. See, he’d hiked that trail before and he knew the switchbacks would stop. But he also knew me. He knew that I would eventually stop complaining and that I’d regret if I quit. And he knew the beautiful vista that awaited us down the trail. If I had been left it my own devices, I would have quit and gone back to the car.

Today is Palm Sunday. Today, we observe the beginning of a different kind of journey. Here, Jesus knows his route and what’s at the end of his journey. And he still follows it. He doesn’t know the payoff that we know. He doesn’t know that there’s something else after the would-be end of the story. He doesn’t know that God will act and defeat death once and for all. To me, at least, Jesus goes to cross not anticipating Easter. This debunks any of the would be intellectual parlor tricks that would say that the action of the cross and empty tomb are somehow lessened because Jesus knew how things ultimately unfolded. So the parlor trick goes, to say otherwise implies God is somehow blind to the future. Yes, Jesus is God incarnate. Yes God is all knowing, all powerful, and all loving. And Jesus’s self-giving action in the cross is for real and sincere. There’s no “just kidding” or “smoke and mirrors” in the action of the cross. Anything else than saying Jesus willingly went to Jerusalem knowing what was in store for him implies that God’s love towards us is something less than full-voiced or sincere. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. In Jesus’ self-giving we are shown how to live and what it means to love. But let’s not get to Good Friday too soon.

In Jesus undertaking the journey that begins with this palm-strewn, hosanna-provoking and donkey-summoning procession, Jesus affirms yet again that he embraces a life that spans the full gamut of human experience. Here, in the procession is the hopeful image of the promised Messiah coming into Jerusalem. By the end of the week, this same man is the criminal abandoned by almost everyone. Once again, we have the implicit affirmation that Jesus, having experienced adulations, ignominy, and everything in between we are not alone on our journeys.

Much like my friend on the Appalachian Trail who had been there before I had, Jesus has been wherever it is that we are and wherever it is that we might go. And if we will stop long enough to listen to God in the midst of those times when we aren’t sure, God might just have some wisdom for us. Oh, we might be like the disciples where we don’t understand in the moment what Jesus is about, where we don’t immediately understand what Jesus wants us to know. Oh, if we’re honest, I think we’re a lot like the disciples and we understand only afterward. But, if we can only for a moment listen, remember, and trust this Jesus who leads us in the great procession of life, then maybe our lives might be a little bit more rich, a little bit more full, and a little bit more gracious. And this happens simply because we chose to not stop or turn around to face what is familiar. Instead, we listen to Jesus’ gracious words “I’m with you”, “I’ve been there before”, “wait and see what’s beyond the horizon. I’ve got a surprise for you.”

We’re not alone. Thanks be to God.