The Palm Sunday Road Less Traveled


Most anyone who’s ever been to Sunday School knows the shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35, “Jesus Wept.” In that case they are tears of grief over the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. But I realized at our Palm Sunday service today that there is another time when Jesus weeps. We sang our Hosannas and the cute kids paraded with their palms as usual, but when the Gospel lesson from Luke was read my ears perked up when I heard something that only Luke records:

“As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:41-44).

With this week’s missile attack on Syria much on my mind, this warning that failure to know “what would bring you peace” leads to total destruction struck me as ominous indeed. The Syrian situation has been catastrophic for years, and no one has come up with a way to end the suffering and devastation. We have seen the refugees and the victims of chemical weapons. The suffering has gone on so long I’m not sure anyone remembers what they are fighting about. But for the US to launch an attack that risks confrontation with Russia raises the stakes to a new level of anxiety.

Once again we have gone down the road of military force even though it has never led to lasting peace. Thinking about the Syrian capital of Damascus as we approached Palm Sunday got me to thinking about the choices we make about the roads we travel. The most dramatic conversion ever occurred on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19) when Saul was literally struck down by the power of God’s spirit and transformed from being the most violent tormentor of Christians to the greatest evangelist for the very Christ he had been persecuting.
It feels to me like the world needs to be knocked off its high horse the way Saul was. What else but a Taser-like blast from God’s Holy Spirit can bring an end to our warring madness? Jesus wept over Jerusalem because his people had rejected again the way of peace. He weeps even as he showed us for one last time that God’s ways are not those of conquering heroes on mighty steeds but those of humble servant leaders who choose the road less traveled, the narrow path that leads to salvation.

Jesus’ way is the road that conquers death not by use of cruise missiles or poison gas, but the way that leads through death to eternal life. Jesus taught his followers that those who lose their lives for his sake will find them, and now he’s on the road into Jerusalem to put his life where his mouth was. Jesus’ road is not an easy road to follow. His best friends bailed out on him when things got really tough, but on Easter morning we will learn again that he is indeed the way, the truth and the life.

We have watered down (pun intended) the significance and the way we do baptism in our churches to the point that we have forgotten what it signifies about the paths we choose to travel. I can’t remember the source of this story about how serious Christian baptism and discipleship really are, but I’ll never forget the story. It’s told about a priest in a Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. A young couple presents their infant to the priest for baptism and the Padre submerges the child briefly in the baptismal water and says, “I kill you in the name of Jesus.” The American visitor witnessing this sacrament is aghast, and then the priest lifts the child above his head and proclaims, “And I resurrect you in the name of the living Christ!”

Life changing conversion kills us to our worldly selves and raises us up as new creations in Christ. Maybe it’s just my cowardice, but I’ve always been a bit skeptical of dramatic conversion experiences. My own conversion from a rigid, judgmental brand of Christianity to one I believe to be more authentic was a slow gradual process, and I suspect the conversion of a nation to the ways of peace is also one that takes place over a long period of time.
As hard as that road of death to self is to follow for individuals, it is much harder for societies and nations. But I wonder if it isn’t just as necessary on the national level as it is for individuals? The current lack of morality at all levels of our nation, the way greed and gain run roughshod over ethics, the increase in hate crimes and systemic oppression of marginalized people, and the short-sighted refusal to take stewardship of the earth seriously have all raised questions in my mind about the future of the United States as a viable nation. All empires throughout history have risen and then eventually fallen, usually from corruption within and a lack of sustaining values worthy of survival. All of that has had me wondering lately if the United States is beginning to travel down that slippery slope?

I hope it’s not too late to turn back, but I honestly believe we are dangerously close to that point. Close enough I think that it is well worth praying very hard about which road we’re on during this Holy Week as we consider the passion of Christ for God’s people. Let’s honestly ask ourselves if Jesus is weeping over us and saying, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace.”

Stop Kicking the Can or Perish

I was reminded the other day of how strong denial can be in getting humans to face obvious but difficult realities. An obituary in a local newspaper reported that a person who was under hospice care had died “unexpectedly.” Seeing others in denial is worth a chuckle, but it’s also a reminder to check the mirror for any logs in our own eyes.

When I played “kick the can” as a child I never could have imagined what a dangerous political game it would become in the 21st century. The most recent federal fiscal fiasco has me reflecting on what the Judeo-Christian heritage has to say that can help save my grandchildren and their children from paying for the short-sightedness of my generation. This is not a new problem. Several times in the Hebrew Scriptures we are warned that the sins of one generation are visited upon their off-spring “to the 3rd and 4th generation” (Exodus 20:5, 34:6-7, Deuteronomy 5:9). Even though it’s bad theology to blame bad consequences on a vengeful God punishing children and grandchildren for their ancestors’ disobedience and foolishness, the simple wisdom that actions have consequences is indisputable and needs to be applied across the board to liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike, to complex problems like balancing the budget and global warming.

My first thought about political short-sightedness is often about climate change and the refusal of many conservatives to take seriously the mountain of scientific evidence that indicates we are damaging mother earth’s eco-system in a multitude of ways that will have irreversible long-term effects for much longer than 3 or 4 generations. When well-meaning politicians and business leaders say we can’t afford environmental regulations on businesses because of the short-term impact those laws have on employment and economic development, the Scripture that comes to mind is Proverbs 29:18. The King James translation of that verse I learned as a youth says, “Without vision the people perish.” More recent and better translations of the Hebrew text say, “When there is no prophesy (or prophetic vision) the people cast off restraint.” Modifying “vision” with “prophetic” is a critical distinction because short-sighted goals that favor the bottom line at all costs are still visions, but they lead to long-term disaster. Faithful, prophetic visions however take into consideration both the short-term and long-term consequences of our decisions for the well-being of all God’s children, even those yet to be born.

Two word-study comments are in order: “Prophesy” in biblical terms is often confused with simply foretelling the future, but that key theological concept is far more complicated that simple crystal-ball gazing. The Hebrew prophets were not psychics but those anointed by God to speak God’s word of truth to those who need to but usually do not want to hear it. A common phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures is “the law and the prophets” indicating both the need to know God’s laws and codes of behavior represented by such passages as the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20), but also the practical interpretation and application of those general rules for living to specific circumstances. The latter critical thinking is what prophets do. The second phrase in Proverbs 29:18 that is worthy of comment is “the people cast off restraint.” The other use of that phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures occurs in Exodus 32:25 where the Hebrew people make and worship a golden calf even while Moses is on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew words there are translated as describing the Hebrew condition as “total loss of social order,” “out of control,” or “laughingstock.” It seems to me those terms could easily be applied to the polarized political situation in the U.S. today.

Here’s my latest take on the common problem on both sides of the political debate, i.e. short-sightedness or lack of prophetic vision. On one side we have the simple mathematical facts that (1) spending billions more than we have is a sure-fire formula for disaster and (2) our current system of providing resources for our increasingly older population, i.e. Social Security and Medicare, is not sustainable unless it is reformed. Everyone acknowledges those elephants are in the room and getting bigger every day, but no one so far is willing to pay the political price of picking up that hot potato and making the painful decisions necessary to address the problems. “Kicking the can down the road” has become the catch phrase for passing the buck, which means visiting the consequences of our short-sighted denial of these problems onto the 3rd or 4th generation.

Another major issue demanding solution is the environmental survival vs. economic growth impasse. This issue is so critical for humankind that it cannot be an either/or partisan debate that results in stubborn refusal on both sides to do anything or we will indeed perish as Proverbs predicts. Prophetic vision demands courage on both sides of the political spectrum to lead us out of denial to a willingness to make whatever political and economic sacrifices must be made that will not be popular with anyone but are necessary for the long-term survival of our nation and our planet.

For Christians this season of Lent is a perfect time to reflect upon the necessity of sacrificial living. None of our current societal problems can be solved with a competitive win-lose mind set. Every citizen and political faction must be willing to compromise and find common ground instead of the perpetual electioneering we now have. The Hebrew prophets can serve as models for that kind of servant leadership. Biblical prophets never won any popularity contests or elections because they spoke truth instead of party platitudes or ideology. They put integrity and facing uncomfortable truths ahead of personal goals and comfort. Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah were willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, and we need leaders today who are willing to do the same today before it’s too late.

Jesus followed in the footsteps of those Hebrew prophets. He took upon himself the role of suffering servant and prophet described centuries earlier by the anonymous prophet known as Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem in the final months of his life and nothing could deter or detour him from his destiny on the cross. His disciples repeatedly urged him to bail and take an easier path, but Jesus knew what was required of him and put God’s truth and justice above all thoughts of personal comfort or glory. My prayer is that God will raise up leaders again today with that kind of courage and that all of us will have ears to hear and courage to follow instead of just kicking the can down the road to some other generation.

For this Lent 2013 with sequestration, budget cuts, climate change and a host of other challenges, I find inspiration and guidance in the words of a great hymn by S. Ralph Barlow, “O Young and Fearless Prophet.”

“O young and fearless Prophet of ancient Galilee,
Thy life is still a summons to serve humanity;
To make our thoughts and actions less prone to please the crowd,
To stand with humble courage for truth with hearts uncowed.

We marvel at the purpose that held Thee to Thy course
While ever on the hilltop before Thee loomed the cross;
Thy steadfast face set forward where love and duty shone,
While we betray so quickly and leave Thee there alone.

O help us stand unswerving against war’s bloody way,
Where hate and lust and falsehood hold back Christ’s holy sway;
Forbid false love of country that blinds us to His call,
Who lifts above the nations the unity of all.

Stir up in us a protest against our greed for wealth,
While others starve and hunger and plead for work and health;
Where homes with little children cry out for lack of bread,
Who live their years sore burdened beneath a gloomy dread.

Create in us the splendor that dawns when hearts are kind,
That knows not race nor station as boundaries of the mind;
That learns to value beauty, in heart, or brain, or soul,
And longs to bind God’s children into one perfect whole.

O young and fearless Prophet, we need Thy presence here,
Amid our pride and glory to see Thy face appear;
Once more to hear Thy challenge above our noisy day,
Again to lead us forward along God’s holy way.”