Matthew 21: 1-11
I was at a training for pastors last week and at one point the presenter, very excited about what she was presenting, waxed on about the way the church will be changed for the better once we are all trained in this new mentoring model. She was outlining the differences and changes from the old to the new model of mentoring people as they consider ordained ministry for a career. She may be right and time will tell.
But what I found very interesting was that, in her enthusiasm, she told the room of 100 pastors that the future of the church is riding on us implementing this well. And then she added, “So you can’t fail!”
Now people say things off the cuff all the time and, if they were to read a transcript later, might decide to edit their comments. Perhaps that would be the case with this statement. But what I find most interesting is the easy, assured way sentiments like that trip off our tongues. The language of winners and losers is easy to understand and to get behind. Success or failure is always obvious, right? We are living in a culture drenched in this thinking, from the little leagues where every player gets a trophy because we can’t bear to pronounce a single loser, to pastors’ conferences where we are given the imperative not to fail “or else” – before we have even had the opportunity to succeed.
On college applications and in job interviews we want to talk about “strengths” and “growing edges” because “weaknesses” sounds a little harsh, doesn’t it? Who wants to admit to being weak, to having messed that one up royally, to making an utter and irredeemable mess of things?
Strangely, J.R. Briggs does. I discovered him last week, too, an interesting contrast to the marching orders we received at my training meeting. Briggs, a pastor in Pennsylvania, organized and led an event this weekend called The Epic Fail Pastors Conference (http://www.epicfailpastorsconference.com/). He realized how humble and insightful our mistakes and failures make us and how hard it is to share those same mistakes and failures in church – especially for pastors. Hence, the conference. The website for the Epic Fail Pastors Conference has a speakers page where presenters are listed as “Experts on Failure.” He even held the conference in a church building that failed, closed up, was sold, and is now a bar.
Briggs says we have it all wrong most of the time. If we Christians can’t admit our failures, talk about them honestly, and try to learn a little something along the way, then who can? As he says, “The entrance exam for Christianity is admitting you are a failure” (The Christian Century, April 5 2011, p. 17).
In recent years the church has taken to calling today “Palm/Passion Sunday” and reading both today’s texts and those for Thursday and Friday this week, to make sure everyone hears the whole story before Easter. It’s good liturgical and theological thinking: that we want people to hear the whole story, to see that grand story arc, to understand that Jesus didn’t make a simple and straightforward beeline from the parades of Palm Sunday to the resurrection of Easter morning. It’s good thinking for communities that worship only on Sundays with no special Holy Week worship services to finish telling the story. Our bulletin says only “Palm Sunday” because this is a community that will be doing a lot of worship this week and I’m confident you’ll hear the rest of the story. Which means we can linger a little with the crowds today. We can listen and watch and allow ourselves to get a little caught up without rushing on to the rest of the story.
So why did I start out talking about epic fails if we’re sticking with the cheering and palms?
Palm Sunday has always been a weird day for me. I’ve talked before about it being sort of “the tipping point” where things start to move fast and then furious toward the cross. It’s the day when we think we know what and who we’re cheering for and then we see before the week is out how mixed up we are, how are best intentions turn sour, how sickeningly cheers turn to jeers. Last year I talked about how silly most adults feel waving palms in church. We don’t really seem that excited, do we? It’s like a troupe of not-very-good-actors pretending to be thrilled when really we just want to put these things under the pew and go have lunch.
I admit to being confused by Palm Sunday. Should I take an acting class and really throw myself into the role of cheering fan for Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem? Or should I sit shrewdly on the sidelines waiting for everyone else to “catch on” to where this story is going later in the week? Can we really be joyful and happy today, knowing the story as we do?
We’ve spent all spring watching crowds form around the globe. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Wisconsin. We’ve heard the shouts go up for new government, for different leaders, for more freedom. We watched peaceful protests and we’ve worried over violent uprisings. It’s exciting to see change in the making. It’s exciting to watch people stand up proudly and command attention and respect. But reading today’s story, I wonder how we know when we’re cheering for the right crowd, the ride side?
It occurs to me that this is one of the ways we fail over and over again. We want to be on the right side, the winning side, the side that ends up looking good when all is said and done. This is where those Palm Sunday crowds got it epically right. They weren’t calculating at that moment – if they had been, they would have seen how this was never going to go smoothly, how mad the religious leaders were. They cheered their hearts out because they knew Emmanuel, God-with-us, right there with them in their midst. They saw Jesus riding into town just as the scriptures said the messiah would. They’d seen him teach and heal and they found themselves carried along with him in the streets, throwing down branches and cloaks and shouting out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mt. 21: 9).
Hosanna literally means “save us” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, p. 1784). Experiencing an epic failure forces us to confront the fact that we can’t save ourselves. And the most epic among our failures is that we keep denying this central fact of our lives. No matter how hard we love or give or study or plan, no matter how we pray or how sturdy we are on our own two feet, no matter what we give up or take on…we cannot save ourselves. As Christians who’ve taken the “entrance exam” we are supposed to know – or at least be learning how to – fall on our knees and admit we can’t save ourselves. We’re not God and we sure do need God. But we are so easily distracted. We start out with “Hosanna” and end up with “Crucify him” by Friday.
We began our Lenten journey singing “Sunday’s Palms are Wednesday’s Ashes,” the hymn that reminds us of the practice of burning the palms from Palm Sunday worship and using them to begin the next year’s Lent. We have to sing it because in a few short months we forget how the Palm Sunday parade went awry. We sing it because when we receive the ashes on our foreheads we need to know how that moment relates to the rest of the journey we embark upon each Lent. We get distracted between Palm Sunday and Ash Wednesday. We’ll get distracted between now and Easter morning – right here in the middle of Holy Week we’ll be distracted by our own efforts, our own attempts to save ourselves instead of fessing up to what epic failures we are, to how much we need God.
It’s why we tell all our stories, over and over again. To remember, to know again. To remember, to put together again. Sometimes, like today, we put it together again in a moment of tension, between the walk we’ve been on and the one we’ll take to the cross by Friday. In a moment of tension, praise still on our lips, while in our hearts lurks temptation.
May we resist the temptation to end that tension. May we know our own neediness. May we sing our loud hosannas all the way through this story to Easter morning and beyond.
Thanks be to God!
© Deborah E. Lewis 2011