The Reverend Dr. Lillian Daniel
April 5, 2009
First Congregational Church, Glen Ellyn, Illinois, UCC
Scripture: Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’ ” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
Have you ever had a moment when you thought your life was over? If you’ve ever had a moment like that, you know you’ll never be the same again.
A woman once told me this story. She was seven months pregnant, with a four year old at home, and she was flying home from a business meeting in Cleveland. She was at that stage in pregnancy where she was still able to fly, but barely. This would probably be her last out-of-town meeting before the baby was born, and there was a certain pressure on her to attend. What kind of pressure? Well, have you ever heard of the scorpion theory of management? There are some managers who run their organizations on the theory that you take your two best leaders, and think of them like two scorpions in a bottle. Never let one of your people feel secure in their role. Instead, you take two strong people and give them slightly overlapping tasks. You throw them in together to see who will survive, the idea being that if they are both fighting for their lives, you’ll get more out of them. Let them fight it out, and take the best result. That’s the “two scorpions in a bottle” school of management. Ever worked in one of those scorpion bottles? Well, this woman did. You missed a meeting, and you never knew what would happen. So there she was, seven months pregnant, returning home from the business trip.
Was she glad she went? It really had not been much of a meeting. One guy in particular, had dominated the conversation with a lot of grandstanding and speechifying. If you’ve ever had one of those people in a meeting, you know how that can derail things. She didn’t want to leave that scorpion alone in the bottle; so she was ultimately glad she had gone.
Then suddenly, the plane went absolutely dark. The oxygen masks dropped down, and they could feel the plane doing the same. They were falling. There was absolute silence from the cockpit. No announcement from the pilot, the flight attendants, nothing. Suddenly a bag shot out from the back of the plane, flying along the aisle and they heard air whooshing in – still, no word on the sound system. A few people made noise, crying softly, but most were silent, lost in their own thoughts. A flight attendant rushed down the aisle, holding a large canister, and that was when it hit the woman coming home from the trip. This was serious. We’re all used to seeing flight attendants serve sodas, helping us to be comfortable, but this flight attendant was running down the aisle in full safety mode. We often forget that this is the most important part of their job and their training, since we rarely see it, thank goodness. But seeing that flight attendant run down the aisle brought home the fact that this was indeed an emergency.
At that moment, she looked out the side window and saw another airplane coming closer to her than she had ever imagined. Everyone on that side of the plane gasped. She always wondered how she might feel at a moment like this. Putting her hand to her pregnant belly, thinking of her beloved four-year-old at home, she was filled with one strong emotion: anger – pure, white-hot, rage.
As she told me the story, she puzzled at this point. “Isn’t that a weird emotion to feel at a moment like that? You’d think it would be fear, or love for the people at home, or deep sadness; but I was just angry – not scared, but angry.” Then she said something that is true for many people. “Sometimes, it’s easier to go to a place of anger, than to a place of fear.”
“Well, it makes sense to me,” I said. “People get angry all the time when terrible things happen to them. Your plane might be crashing. I’d be angry.” But she said, “I wasn’t angry about the plane. I was angry about the meeting. I was angry that I had gone to it. And you know who I was angry at?” “God?” I asked. “No,” she said. “God doesn’t cause one plane to crash and another not to, why would I be angry at God? I was angry at the guy at the meeting who wouldn’t shut up. I was so angry to think that I might be about to lose the people I love, and for what, a chance to listen to that blabbermouth go on and on at a meeting.” And I thought, “If I get out of this, I’m never doing that again. It’s just not that important.”
Then, as quickly as it had started falling, the plane suddenly seemed to right itself. Still no word from the pilot, though. They just landed, and the passengers were left to talk among themselves. Did that just happen? Did we come close to hitting another plane? It turned out, after a little research, that indeed they had come this close.
“After that experience,” the woman said, “my life was different. I just wasn’t the same.” “You never went to another out of town meeting again?” I asked. I asked this, because in fact, we were having this conversation at an out of town meeting. “No, I just learned in that moment what mattered, and it wasn’t that meeting. I realized I was putting myself out for the wrong things. I kept working, I kept going to meetings, but something inside me had changed. From then on I decided to live differently.” No more scorpions in a bottle. Life is a lot more than that. From then on, she decided to travel light, unencumbered by the worries that in the past had weighed her down.
On Palm Sunday, the people decided to travel light. They decided to celebrate in the streets, even though some would say they had no reason to. The Roman Empire wanted the Jews, as an occupied people, to act like scorpions in a bottle. Instead, on that day, they decided to travel light.
In the Holy Week schedule of readings, it all begins on Palm Sunday with a triumphant moment, a spontaneous parade that took place in the streets. Less than a week before he would die, Jesus was coming into Jerusalem and saw his largest, most enthusiastic group of supporters yet. If you recall, Jesus asked to borrow a colt and rode into town to cheers and cries from the people, who scattered palms in his path as if he was royalty. But the Palm Sunday parade was a lot more than a spontaneous celebration.
The historical background matters here. You see, the only people who were supposed to have parades were those of the Roman Empire, who controlled Israel and ruled the Jewish people. Their parades were military affairs, where attendance was mandatory. Everyone had to come out to stand and watch the military process, as if it were some kind of religious ceremony.
As for religion, the Jewish religion that the early followers of Jesus were all a part of, you weren’t supposed to have parades in the street for that. Faith was supposed to take a back seat. Military power and material wealth – that was what you were supposed to pay attention to. And no one else got to organize a parade or a procession. When they did occur, they were not spontaneous, but orchestrated and planned by the ruling government.
So when the followers of Jesus put him on a borrowed colt, and threw their cloaks on the ground, and waved their palms, they were not just having a party in the streets, they were actually being brave. They were saying that the things that the Roman Empire thought were most important were actually not worth all that much. They were symbolically placing their faith in spiritual truth, and with this street theater, deciding to live lightly in the world.
Lately, someone told me that our church is not patriotic enough. Naturally I took this as a compliment. Because anyone who studies the scriptures, like the one we’re studying today, can tell you that the Jesus movement began as that, a movement, long before the church was an institution. As a movement, it grew up among people who did not even have their own country. They were occupied. And it was often the case that the government did not support their faith. So the idea that churches today ought to be patriotic is ridiculous. People can be patriotic. You can be patriotic. I can be patriotic. But the church has always been larger than any one political system or government, as this story makes clear. The church has always been called to be universal.
The Roman Empire put on parades with military force and economic power, and people were forced to attend, forced to be patriotic. But what Jesus preached was the very opposite. He said that all that kind of power was an illusion in light of the real power of God. In Jesus we saw someone who was no respecter of political boundaries or traditions, but was the greatest respecter of the human person we have ever seen. He looked beyond all those divisions to see the divinity of each and every person, no matter where they were from, no matter how strong or weak they seemed, no matter how much wealth they had or they lacked. He saw beyond all that and called us to do the same.
In the Christian walk, Jesus is always challenging us to rethink what is important. He didn’t just challenge political systems, he also challenged our own economics – not just on the macro level, but on the micro level, where it hits home the most. He challenges us about how we relate to our stuff. Stuff didn’t matter much to Jesus. What you owned, who owned, not of great importance to him. You see a little of that in this Palm Sunday story. He says, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ tell him, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’ ”
When Jesus’ followers went to get the colt, understandably, they had to answer some questions, no doubt, about things like private property, but somehow when they said what Jesus had said, they were allowed to take the animal. Both the borrowers of the colt, and the owners had decided to forgo the usual economic and social rules. In that moment, they decided to travel light.
“We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”
That was the final communication from pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger III before he crash-landed a US Airways jetliner into freezing waters off of Manhattan on January 15, according to transcripts released after the dramatic landing in the Hudson River.
America’s attention was riveted to TV screens, internet photos and twitter, as eye witnesses shared pictures taken from cell phones of the amazing scene. The plane, whose engines failed after hitting a flock of birds, looked like a giant bird itself floating in the waters of the Hudson River. Walking across its wings were lines of passengers, helping one another to walk to the edge of the wing, where a ferry had pulled up to bring them to safety. There were so many heroes, from the cool-headed pilot, to volunteers in boats, to the emergency personnel who step up like this over and again, in all the stories we never hear about. Perhaps most remarkable was the fact that the pilot managed to get every one off of that plane in a matter of minutes. How could it get done so smoothly and so fast?
You know how long it takes to get on a plane these days. Speaking of microeconomics – now that the airlines are charging us to check a bag, we are all trying to avoid that charge, and everyone brings a carry-on suitcase. People who used to travel light are now bringing everything they need for their trip onboard the plane: backpacks, enormous purses, small suitcases stuffed to bursting.
Now it takes twice as long to board a plane when everyone has a carry-on, or two, or sometimes three. You wander the aisle, looking not so much for a seat as for room in the overhead storage for your stuff. And these days, there’s just not enough room. So even after everyone is on the plane, you have to wait for them to take a bunch of carry on bags off of the plane, and check them any way. And then, if they take your bag off the plane, you have to wait again at the end of the flight to retrieve it. Let’s face it. The more stuff you have, the longer it takes to get anywhere – and these days, no one wants to travel light.
So how is it that a plane that probably took thirty minutes to board, was able to be evacuated on the Hudson River in two minutes? The answer, suddenly, those people were willing to travel light. Seeing photos of the people being evacuated from the plane, nobody had any stuff.
Suddenly, all those lap tops, suitcases, files for work, make up cases, DVD players, iPods® and Blackberries® were not very important. What was important was the gift of life. What was important was helping each other. What was important was getting another day to tell the people who matter how much you love them. What was important was that moment, and I imagine that all of a sudden, stuff didn’t matter at all.
They were ready to travel light.
And in that moment, I suspect they were living the way Jesus wants us to live every minute – in the moment, grateful and fully alive.