To Accompany Shadows

Palm Sunday

Preacher: Sarah Klaassen

It is good to be with you today, for today we follow Jesus.  There he is on the dusty road into Jerusalem while palm branches wave in celebration of his triumphal entry.  Peering past the people all around we see him riding a colt, and we cannot help but sing out, “Jesus is coming, Hosanna.  Jesus is coming, Hosanna.”  Standing there, we are mesmerized by this man, this man who has freed the captives, carried good news to the poor, forgiven debts, and proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor.  There he is, a servant king, for the robes and garments he walks upon are not fine silks and linens.  They are worn thin and dusty, like we who have gathered to cheer him on.

Later, we can almost taste the meal, for there he is, at the table, breaking bread just like us.  We know instinctively that it will be his last meal.  And we wonder, is that fear in his eyes? that shadow that we see flickering as he gives thanks for the food and drink and takes a bite.

We imagine touching him as we approach Jesus from a distance toward a garden on the Mount of Olives.  We long to touch him, to reach out and offer comfort.  He has been praying, we can see, from his fervent posture, and he stumbles as he stands up to greet his adversaries.  His presence is soft and gentle, and holds a bottomless sorrow that follows him as he is marched to trial.

We can smell the fear that floats through the air, underneath the boasting of the men who strike him.  It grows with each beating, with each insult.  They didn’t need to blindfold him.  They didn’t need to hit him so hard.  It smells ugly, like decay.

The tension in the air builds unbearably, and we feel it as it elevates.  First as Jesus is questioned.  Then as he is handed over.  And then as the cross is assembled.  And then as Jesus breathes his last.

The silence in the air becomes so loud that we can hear it.

The story of Christ’s passion sometimes surprises us Sunday church people.  There’s not always time to make it to a Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or Holy Saturday service, and so it’s tempting to skip directly from the processionals of Palm Sunday to “Up From the Grave He Arose” and the empty tomb.  We are Easter people, after all, and with the Resurrection so soon upon us, Jesus’ journey to the cross becomes a dim shadow of an afterthought, lost between the Easter basket, the pastel colored eggs, and honey baked ham waiting to be carved.

And yet, here it is today, the cross thrust into our consciousness.  Today’s worship has ushered us from loud hosannas and enthusiastic praise to the breaking of bread to the shadows of betrayal, denial, temptation, and mockery.  Here is where our holy scripture has brought us.  Sitting here in the valley of the shadow of death.  We have followed Jesus to this place; our feet too are dusty from this journey, and we wonder, what are we doing here?

The great American poet Robert Frost reminds us there is more than one road…

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth…

Robert Frost’s poem reminds us that there’s another road, a happier road, the one we might have taken had we not decided to walk into the story of Jesus Christ this morning.  I suspect you can still get back to that other road if you wish.  Turn left and wade through the bushes, and after a time you will see it.

By all accounts, it’s more familiar, paved with progress, paved with pursuits of life, liberty, and happiness.  It’s so well lit that you see no shadows.  The road signs say, American Dream, twelve miles.  Along the way, the visitors centers provide us with self-help literature: how to be your best self now!  Then ten habits of success!  How to lost ten pounds in ten days!  The cell phone signal is good here, which assures us that we can always be plugged in.  We never actually have to present in the place where we are, because we can always send a text message or check our email or log in to facebook.

This road smells clean.  It is regularly swept and dusted and sterilized.  It feels comfortable, painless.  As we travel this road, all of our needs are met, and no sacrifice is required.

Toward the beginning of Lent, I was visiting with some folks about the Lenten season.  We discussed the tradition of sacrifice, the way many Christians intentionally give up something, fasting to make room for Christ, taking time for introspection and to deepen spiritual practices.  A question was raised: “Why should we give something up?  Why in the world should we deprive ourselves of what we’ve worked so hard to earn?”

The pursuit of happiness tells us to follow our own desires.  The pursuit of happiness would have us march down the road of comfort, barely pausing to notice then injustices to our left and right.  Always swerving to avoid conflict and confrontation.  Obeying ourselves alone.  When we see those shadows of betrayal and denial, those gray places of violence and abandonment, we turn away, back to the pursuit of happiness.  This is how it often goes, isn’t it?

And yet, and yet if we tiptoe back to the other road, the dusty, shadowy one, we see a faint map, worn with creases, stained with tears.  Philippians chapter two: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, emptying,      kenosis in Greek, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, human likeness with its sadness, betrayal, injustice.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

The path to the cross is one of struggle.  It is a difficult way in a culture of convenience.  It doesn’t match the progressive spirit of our age.  But ever so much more than the way of happiness, the journey of the cross shows us how to live.  Pay attention to the world around you, and you will see it too.

This, my friends, is what it means to be human.  To struggle.  To lose your way.  To wonder what you are doing here.  To see ugliness.  To doubt.  To lose faith.  To lose hope.  This is the way of the cross.  Self-emptying, obedience, the dusty shadows of human life.

Caleb was his name.  He was an infant, the child of two young parents.  He was a younger brother and a grandson, and the recipient of baby gifts.  He was happy and alive and breathing one minute, and then he was not.  She found him rolled over against the wall, without breath one January afternoon.  They life-flighted him to the nearest children’s hospital and thought he was improving after a sleepless night and faint signs of brain activity.  But by the next day he was gone, to be taken off life support as soon as the rest of the family arrived.  In the family room on the fifth floor – neonatal intensive care – the three survivors grieved.  The older brother played spider man.  The mother moved in and out, up and down.  And the father spoke between sobs, “I know he’s in a better place.  I know he’s in heaven.  I just have to let him go.”  He sat helplessly, in the shadow of death.

You too have a story like this, a memory of the shadowy cross-like place between life and death.  You could share it too, it’s just I who happen to be speaking today, giving my own testimony to what I’ve seen and heard.  Perhaps you walk in that shadow place now, your journey in the footsteps of our emptied out Jesus Christ. Perhaps you, like me, have stories so fresh they are not yet fitting to tell.  Yet we hold them anyway in life.

Perhaps you have forgotten this place or blocked it out, obscured by the pursuit of happiness.  Truly I would not blame you, for it is a scary thing, to accompany shadows. That is why these stories are necessary.

Her name is Donna, but some call her Grandma.  She is well into her eighties by now, her skin wrinkled with age and wisdom.  Her hands the author of countless pies and at least one Raggedy Ann doll for each granddaughter.  Two years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer and given three years to live.  It’s harder to stand now, more difficult to get up out of bed or a chair.  Now life is more about medicines and blood transfusions than baking and sewing.  Even in her eighties, even with a life well lived, it’s scary to feel the cycles of life swirl around, there in the shadow of death.

Her name is Jenni, Jenni spelled with an “I” and not a “Y.”  She is one of the strongest people I have ever known.  Before I knew her, her dad died, and so when her mom was diagnosed with cancer when she was twenty, she knew how to handle it.  She kept going to school, kept playing basketball, kept working and working and working at life, because life didn’t always come easy to her.  Her mom died in the middle of the basketball season, December right around Christmas.  We took a bus down to the funeral to see her weep with her head in her hands, an orphan at twenty-one.  There, feeling alone, in the shadow of death.  Why do I tell these stories?  How else could one share of the cross, except through story?  What else can I hope to do but show you whose road we follow, whose footsteps we walk in when we accompany shadows.

Jesus was his name.  An itinerant preacher, a rule-breaker, a devout Jew, a prophet.  His life is the stuff of legend and faith, and his death is no different.  The powers that be could not stand the challenge he presented as he walked directly into the shadows of betrayal, denial, mockery, conflict, and violence.  His life was lived in and out of these shadows, which he approached sometimes boldly and sometimes with hesitation.  But he always approached them, following his purpose, following his God.  Today we call him Christ and follow him as our Lord down dusty and sometimes uncertain paths.  Then he stood in agony and submission, there in Jerusalem, in the shadow of death.