Through the Gates


This Sunday will be the beginning of the Easter journey as we stand at the gate, preparing to enter Jerusalem, the site of so many “thresholds” in the life of Jesus and the disciples–and by extension, the thresholds of our lives. On Palm Sunday, hope seemed to be afoot. But like many moments of our lives, things can turn on a dime and we find ourselves going through gates we never dreamed of –facing turbulent times and things that require change, courage, and perseverance.

Reading One: Jesus and the Beloved Apostle (John 21:22)

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them. He was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper to ask, “Lord, who is going to betray You?” 21When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain until I return, what is that to you? You follow Me!” Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die.

Reading Two: Your Journey, by Susan Squellati Florence (excerpt)

There is a journey awaiting you
It comes in truth and promise
When you reach the point of not knowing who you are or where to go This most precious but often painful passage is the journey of yourself

You will travel to places never before visited,
Where you meet unspoken fears and unearth buried truths
You will climb high and perilous mountains…those that rise up from inside yourself

You will explore forgotten waters held deep in the sea of your soul
You will be stranded in the wilderness and find a way through pathless land You will be lost before you are found…
You will be empty before you are full

You will cry the deep sobs of the earth and tears of rain will cleanse the house around your heart
In time…because life, like birth and death, knows its own time
Your fears and struggles and unknowing will be transformed.

The Sermon

Every year at this time, as Easter approached I think of St. Paul, who was the first to follow the disciples. He never talked about Jesus’s life, what he did, his teachings, nothing. He traveled around the Mediterranean and only talked about his death, and his simple message was “Be Transformed”. No details. So what is it about the power of Jesus’s death to transform? And how do we, as Unitarian Universalist make meaning of it, we who like to talk more about his life than his death?

These are the questions, I invite you to consider this Palm Sunday. To help us, I asked Kerry Alexander if its ok if we use as our guide the journal of her, sister Jen. As, some of you know Jen died of Leukemia last year. Kerry shared with me her entries made during holy week a few years ago before she knew she was sick. She is inspirational as she describes her experiences in the holy week rituals of her UCC church in New Haven. How Jesus’ death, gave her the courage to challenge the status quo, reach for higher standards, and still hold all the suffering, the fear, the brokenness of the world. To claim the good within her and to breathe life into that goodness so others may live whole lives. She was a public servant for the city of New Haven, and you will hear how Holy Week sustained her.

Let us begin though on this Sunday in the year 30, when two processions entered through the gates of Jerusalem. From the East came a peasant procession led by Jesus riding a colt down from the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. They had travelled hundreds of miles with him, singing hosanna heysanna, sharing his message about the kingdom of God. From the west, came an imperial procession of cavalry and soldiers led by Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea who came every year to Jerusalem for the Passover festivals just in in case there was trouble. The stage was set, God vs. Empire, the conflict that led to Jesus crucifixion. Some say, the singing and waving of palm fronds was a well-planned counter procession to the imperial one. That Jesus’s followers, were celebrating the coming of new order, with Jesus at the lead. And Jesus did not disappoint that day. He rode into the temple, a market place really, and tipped over the tables of commerce saying “My temple is not for a den of thieves.”

Maybe you too have been in a counter-procession or two. The March Against Gun violence, the March against white supremacy last summer, the Poor People’s Campaign, the Women’s March a few years ago, the Climate March in New York City, and even the Occupy Movement. Or maybe some of you go back even further, to other protests that made visible the theft of empire. Moments you dared to sing, chant, and feel your hope for change. Yet, on this day so long ago, Jesus knew that the change his followers hoped for would not come to be. That in just a few days he would spend his last supper with his disciples, be arrested, convicted, and put to death on Friday, leaving his followers desolate. Yet we still remember, and honor these events. Why? What is it about the death of Jesus that can reorient the compass settings of our hearts towards hope and healing?

Jen Pugh’s first entry is written on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, after she attended a service at her church. Maundy means “commandment” and marks the last supper Jesus spent with his disciples, when in the passing of bread and wine, he offered to them his last commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Jen writes:
I went to the Maundy Thursday service last night, there is something very moving about the lights being extinguished one by one while we listen again to the stories of isolation, betrayal, humiliation suffering and death. We gather silently and share communion, the first last supper, and then one by one, male and female, black and white, younger and older we glimpse the people in the last hours of Jesus life. There are no sermons or questions of what Jesus did or did not say, no appeals to the intellect at all. This is a story of human weakness and strength, of human emotion of light and dark.

The story in the gospel makes this struggle real. When Jesus passes the bread, he tells them “one of you will betray me.” And then he hands the bread to Judas. Upon receiving the bread, “Satan enters Judas,” and Judas leaves to do what he has to do. What does it mean Satan entered into Judas? A few days earlier Jesus said something similar to Peter, when Peter refused to listen to Jesus talk about going to Jerusalem to suffer. He jumped up and said “no lord” we will not let that happen, we will fight and protect you.” To which Jesus replied, “Get behind me Satan.” So maybe Judas was the same way that he, like Peter and many Jews thought Jesus’ power was in political and military might, a power that would eventually overthrow Rome. Which was of course wrong, for Jesus was not about taking sides or fighting for or against anything. His way was new, and it was about loving even your enemies, manifesting this humble service oriented love to others. Satan, was any adversary, or power that came between Jesus and this way of love.

Jen, writing in her journal adds,there is no question we are limited in our pursuit of God’s love, however we experience this. But what counts is the pursuit. As clumsy and inadequate as our attempts at understanding maybe. She recalls how Jesus said repeatedly to his disciples, you do not understand , you do not see, use your ears to hear, open your heart. She adds, “Sometimes the best thing we can do (in this struggle) is tell the stories and allow yourself to feel what has come between you and your God , to tap into a faith that goes beyond reason, to keep searching and stay open to the mystery.

She writes how light and dark helps her stay open to that mystery, to go first into the dark to learn what is between her and Jesus’ love. On Maundy Thursday, candles are extinguished one by one for each of the disciples until only one light remains, the light of Jesus. A light she and others , will use the next day on Good Friday to light their own candle, to celebrate their faith journey as disciples. On Good Friday, Jen writes “I wonder about many things, the joy of one candle spreading to many and the utter desolation of many candles once again being extinguished again until only one faint flickering flame remains, barely discernible in the vastness of the sanctuary. What is this glimmer of light that wavers and begins to take shape in the void?”

Theologian Shelly Rambo believes the true power of Easter is found if you dwell here, at the foot of the cross after Jesus dies, and offer your witness to this dim and weary light. Too often, she says, the headlong rush to resurrection covers up the traces that need attending if one is to heal. To witness at the foot of the cross, says Rambo is to be a spirit tracker for those lost in the desolation of loss, the trauma of death. After trauma she says, life must be witnessed into being, that resurrection comes in bits and pieces. She works with veterans who come home with shattered souls, truth betrayed on so many levels. She offers and watches for the flickering light of spirit in the void of their darkness. Staying present in their inner temple while they rage, against the violence of empire, staying present as they heal. And its not just veterans, sixty percent of adults report experiences of child hood trauma. A figure Dr. Gabor Mate, suggests is still too low when you consider all the families that live today without basic needs. A number that fails to include as well, all those whom empire is crucifying now, brown bodies, and even Gaia, the earth systems upon which we all depend. The truth is we live is culture of trauma. Shelly Rambo says Good Friday and Holy Saturday offers a theology of the spirit with at sustaining power, both human and divine that continually witnesses and heals the ruptures. She is suggesting that each of us can fulfill the scripture by becoming the beloved disciple, the one Jesus said would remain to track his spirit and prove his love persists even in the darkness.

I think of Tara Westover, author of the book Educated, and her liberation from the violence and emotional prison imposed by her father whose understanding of the Mormon god was severely deformed. She is denied any schooling and forced to work in the family metal scrap yard, under abusive and life threatening conditions. Her first formal teaching begins in college after she taught herself how to pass the GRE. She eventually becomes a Oxford scholar. Despite all this she returns home as a young adult still seeking an expression of love from her family that will finally heal her damaged self. When her brother Shawn threatens her with a knife and her parents do nothing she runs to the bathroom, and looks in the same mirror she looked into as a youth. She writes, “I see the same face repeated in the three panels. Except it wasn’t the same. This woman was different. It was something behind her eyes something in the set of her jaw-a hope or a belief or conviction, that a life is not a thing unalterable. I don’t have a word for what it was I saw but I suppose it was something like faith. Until that moment, no matter what my accomplishments I was still my 16-year-old self. The decisions I made after that moment were the decision of a changed self. You can call this new selfhood Transformation, Metamorphosis. I call it education.

I call it the love of the beloved disciple, the one who remained both within her and among her, to guide her across the dark chasm, until she could see with her own eyes, her own light. So many people stood in that void with her, to witness the glimmer of light taking form in her darkness. Adrienne Von Speyr, a Catholic mystic fell into a trance on Good Friday for 25 years. In her vision the light, weary and dim, starts at the foot of the cross, and slowly makes its way across the desolate chasm.” Every year she witnessed this. I invite you to be a mystic, to soften your eyes, perhaps close them, and look inward. Imagine yourself a disciple, there at the foot of the cross, the moment Jesus realizes the scripture has been completed, and says his last words “I thirst,” and “I hand over my spirit to you.” Imagine receiving this thirst of his you to know love. Imagine receiving this in your next breath and find the place of disconnect within your body and spirit. Invite the spirit into that place. Be a witness and receive. When you are ready, open your eyes, and come back to this moment.

Jen, in her entry after the Good Friday service, considers Jesus’s last words, “I Thirst, I hand over my spirit to you.” She writes,
I know Jesus said these words with great effort and with enormous pain to fulfill the scriptures. She looks around her in church and asks “How are we fulfilling the scriptures today, and I don’t mean in the comfort of our own homes, or in our living rooms with our friends, but out in the world where it’s not so easy and where great pain and effort is called for? What scripture am I fulfilling? She goes on, I escape to the streets, relieved to be out in the energy of the city I almost feel as though I have been reborn or at least newly inspired. As if the church had been the tomb and I was free of it. The bells ringing 33 times, a sound probably unnoticed by most people. The bell kept ringing, what scripture am I fulfilling?

This is the question, I invite you to ponder this week, as you tap into the love that Jesus in his death, calls forth a from the darkness, to challenge, and rage against the evils of empire. Calls forth a love to heal the divisions among us and within us. A love that calls forth from us our best selves, our highest humanity, a love that forms heaven on earth, or what some people call the Kingdom of God.

Please join me in the spirit of prayer.
God of many names, Love that encompasses all beings and reaches beyond our imagination, we are thankful, for the disciples then, and now, some known and unknown, all beloved who in the mystery of life could find their path: those who in darkness lighted a lamp for others to see by; those who could bring to utterance the sacred insights of the spirit; those who have made more plain life’s nobler way.

We are thankful for Jesus, who walked in Galilee, carrying the radiance of his vision with him and speaking simply to people so that they found new confidence and hope. He has laid upon he ages the touch of his humanity. We can hear hosannas still, echoing to us through the centuries, and when we remember him, love takes possession of our hearts.

In him, thy spirit was pure, white flame. May this flame light the chalice of our being to receive, to carry and give back. May we in receiving his spirit, hold all the complexities of being human -the suffering, the fear, the brokenness, – to claim the good within and to breathe life into that goodness so others may live.