Palm Sunday – April 9, 2017
The United Churches of Olympia
Our reading from the gospel of Matthew this week has gotten me thinking about journeys. This is a story that is so familiar to you, the journey that begins with Jesus as he enters Jerusalem and ends up crucified as a criminal. The part of the story that we read today is the happy part, the part where everyone is so excited and happy and cheering Jesus on! It was such an exciting entrance that the city of Jerusalem actually shook! The word in verse 10 that is translated turmoil is more correctly translated “shaking.” The city was shaking with excitement!
On the front of your bulletin is a copy of a birthday card that I found recently when looking for a birthday card for Lara who had a birthday this week. I did think it was funny, but I wanted to share it with you to remind us all that we know how this story ends. I think because of this, we woodenly listen to the stories of Jesus’ last days on earth with a sense of detachment, and perhaps even a little resignation, because it has become for us a well-worn story with a (thankfully) happy ending. But what about our own journeys? How would we proceed if we knew how the story would end? How do we think our story will end?
The week before this, I officiated at three memorial services. A memorial service is an acknowledgement that someone’s story, their earthly journey, has come to an end. At each service the person’s life was celebrated. Stories were told of the loved one’s incredible contribution to the world in general, and how various lives were touched specifically. In each case, there were powerful testimonies of how lives were changed by the deceased, how people were uplifted, emboldened and loved. Memorial services also remind all of us in attendance of our own mortality. We often say the words that we say on Ash Wednesday, from dust you have come, and to dust you shall return. As family members finger through their loved one’s ashes to spread them in a meaningful place, they are reminded again that we are truly dust.
I believe that we are all drawn in by “journey” stories. Any novel worth its salt, any compelling movie involves a journey. All of you who love the Bible stories like Jonah in the belly of the Whale, and classics like the Odyssey, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, the list goes on and on, you know how transformational journey stories are. Joseph Campbell has named this process the Hero’s Journey. Let’s pretend that we are the heroes. We start in the known part of our conscious selves with a sense of call to some kind of adventure, which we usually refuse the first couple of times. Eventually, we embark on the journey and at some point along the way we get a mentor. We journey into the subconscious world and we are tested and tested, challenged and tempted. At some point, we fall into the abyss. By facing death, we receive the treasure of transformation and begin our return as a new person. We continue to grow and become and change and are perhaps tested again. Nothing is worse than watching a movie or reading a story about characters that never change.
Even doing this quick recount of the Hero’s Journey seems wooden. It’s easy to be in some “third person” position describing a process. It is very painful to live through that process. I would imagine that every person in this room could tell of a journey that you have undertaken that has been similar. Perhaps you were battling a disease, or addiction or you lost your job, or your loved one died. Perhaps you were literally called to another country to help people and embarked with a sense of adventure, but were deeply tested all the same.
This week on NPR on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, I hear the story of Laura Jane Grace who just published the book Tranny. Laura was born Thomas James Gabel, assigned male gender. She had a very rough childhood mostly because she spent all of that time fighting herself. She had some external traumas like a parent’s acrimonious divorce and suffered bullying at school. The deep gender dysphoria she was experiencing crushed her into deep depression. My heart broke as I listened to her self-hatred. She got in trouble with the law. She used drugs and alcohol. She also started a successful punk band named “Against Me.” She got married, had a baby girl named Evelyn. Though outwardly she was a successful man who led a band, toured the country and was married with a daughter, she sunk deeper and deeper into the morass of depression. By her own words, she went to a very dark place. In 2012, she came out as transgender. She started some of the work of gender reassignment. She has announced who she is. The process of transformation continues slowly. After the announcement was made everything started changing. To me this is a truly brave story, an epic journey. I can’t imagine the pain of not being yourself…not being yourself to the point that you want to end your life because it hurts so much to be something that you are not. To me, Lara Grace is on the hero’s journey displaying extraordinary courage by coming out as transgender after already establishing herself as a rock star. For many of her band’s fans, this may be the first time they’re actually thinking about transgender people and the bravery it sometimes takes in order to be true to yourself.
I’m so glad to have the stories of my Christian faith so that I have a framework in which to understand stories like the story of Laura Grace. Jesus was on the hero’s journey as he entered into Jerusalem. He had been called forth on this adventure of transforming the world. He answered the call, and banded together others to join him on the journey. He is in constant contact with the power of God. He faces his journey with humility, dignity and power. Matthew tells us that Jesus asks his disciples to go to the village ahead of them and when they saw the donkey and the colt that they were to tell the owners that the “Lord needs them.” The owners let the disciples take the animals and Jesus, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah rides the two animals into Jerusalem. My favorite New Testament Professor, Herman Waetjen says that it’s kind of like wearing several hats. Matthew is the only one that tells the reader that Jesus borrowed two animals for his entry into Jerusalem. Jesus is fulfilling Zechariah’s prophesy that the coming king is both powerful and humble. The colt is the animal traditionally used in coronations of Israel’s kings, and the donkey is a humble beast of burden. In Zechariah 9 the humble king is also the Divine Warrior who subdues the nations and exercises dominion from sea to sea, to the ends of the earth (Zechariah 9:10). This is Jesus’ Hero’s Journey. From here the action is high paced. Jesus tosses over the tables in the temple, goes into high gear teaching the disciples, preaches to crowds, predicts the demise of the temple, and preaches and teaches some more. He has a final meal with his disciples, predicting that they will betray and deny him. He goes to the garden, the beginning of that very dark place, where he is challenged and tempted. He begs God for a break. In Matthew’s gospel, crowds with swords and clubs come to the garden, conflict ensues, an ear is cut off. Jesus gets dragged from trial to trial. He was betrayed by Judas and denied by Peter. He is abandoned by his followers. He is beaten, tortured, crucified and he finally dies. When he dies the earth becomes dark and the curtain in the temple that separated the holy from the mundane is torn in two. Not only that, Matthew tells us that there was a earthquake, rocks split, tombs were opened and many bodies of the saints were raised, and wandered back into Jerusalem appearing to many. (Matthew 27:52) Friends, that is epic, cosmic cataclysmic. Talk about going to a dark place. If that happened today, we would think it was the Zombie apocalypse. We’re going to leave Jesus there for today. Come back next week to see what happens, though there is a “spoiler alert” on your bulletin.
The ancient, beautiful, mythic story of faith is the framework for your story, for your journey. Perhaps your journey has been as remarkable as that of Laura Jane Grace, who finally gets to become who she is. Perhaps your journey had the dark place of cancer treatment, or addiction, or divorce, or death of a loved one. Perhaps your journey is filled with disappointment or abandonment or betrayal. I invite you to take on your journey (metaphorically speaking of course) the Donkey and the colt…humility and power.