We had a friend who had been a career missionary in Japan. One day my parents announced that she was coming over to our house for a visit, and that she was bringing two Japanese with her. I was probably about four, and I had never heard of a "Japanese" before. My young mind must have raced with all kinds of ideas; eventually, I settled on the fact that they must be some kind of monster. Don't ask me why I would think that my parents would allow monsters to come into the house, but that's where it lodged. As soon as the doorbell rang, I sprinted upstairs, ran into my parents' bathroom, and locked the door. I have no idea how long I was up there, but I knew I didn't want to come out. My parents knocked and beckoned; eventually, they convinced me I would be in no harm. I entered the room where they were and, what do you know? There were these two ladies sitting on our couch! These were Japanese? Well, why didn't you say so? We took some pictures together, and they gave me and my sister some little toys and some candy.
A few days later, the same missionary came to my school to speak to my class about Japan. After she finished, she handed out that same candy to us. However, this time she announced, "it's seaweed candy." Well, I was now this worldly, cosmopolitan young man, having eating this candy and having seen some of these Japanese face to face. I was horrified by the immaturity of my classmates who made faces, or even pretended to taste the candy before sprinting off to the water fountain making a gagging noise. How juvenile!
For four weeks, we've been walking down a path of conversation about times of transition. Two weeks ago, it was "Letting Go"; how, sometimes, there is something in our past which grabs hold of us, or more likely, something that we refuse to turn loose of, holding us back. Last week it was "Getting Up"; not so much that kind of American cultural identity of pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps, but how valuable those moments are when we get a touch of perspective in our lives, rising above the situation before us to see the bigger picture.
Over the next two weeks, we'll look at "Going In" and "Moving On," two more motions in this sweep of transitions that we often face in our lives. There is something about going in - going into the living room where the Japanese await us, going in to face what it is that holds us tight - that can ultimately be the very thing that helps free us.
Today's lesson (Mark 11:1-11) is a familiar one for Palm Sunday. Jesus and the disciples have approached Jerusalem, the holy city, the center of Jewish life, and are preparing to enter. They secure a donkey; they head down the Mount of Olives and in through the ancient walled gate; the crowds shout their Hosannas, put their cloaks before him, and wave palm branches. All of it, the whole scene, echoes off those ancient stone walls with Messianic promise, the full weight of their shared history bearing down on this bizarre processional. For those at the time, there would have been no mistaking: Jesus was there to announce his arrival as Messiah, the Christ.
Jesus had plenty of other options, many of which would have been easier for him. But knowing what awaited him, the continued challenges with the Pharisees, the betrayal, arrest, torture, and crucifixion, he went in any way. He knew what lay ahead, and he decided that going in to Jerusalem was the right option.
Going in can be painful. It might be easier to pretend and forget, to stay locked in the bathroom. Think of the physical pain of a scrape on the knee. We know the right thing to do is to pour hydrogen peroxide on it; and we also know it's gonna sting and that we're gonna hop around the room for a while uttering things that we'd rather not say. But we do it. Or think of a splinter. It's in there. If we leave it alone, it might get infected and get worse. So we dig out the needle, the tweezers, and we go in. We know it'll hurt, but we know that ignoring it in the long run will bring more pain.
It's one thing to deal with physical pain; it's quite another to be confronted with emotional or spiritual agony, those hidden scars that the world doesn't see. What do we do with that severed or strained relationship? How do we cope when we know that we've been wronged, betrayed by someone we've trusted? The phrase we throw around often is "forgive and forget." But if we forget, can we really forgive? Is can be more painful to forgive as we remember, but at least we are honest about what that forgiveness means.
Our conversation the last few weeks has centered on grief in some ways - and each of us faces grief at some point in our lives: the grief of a lost loved one, a job, an ability, wellness...Maybe your pain is a spiritual one, an ache, a sense that God has abandoned you, that your faith has betrayed you?
There can be much that is difficult about going into those pains. Some times we need professional assistance to walk with us into our own places of discomfort. But there is something we can learn from our lesson today. Jesus did go in to Jerusalem. He faced what awaited him, knowing at least partially, if not fully, the pain and agony it would bring. But the story of this next week doesn't end with a murdered Messiah and a sealed tomb. Our story really begins with the paradox of next Sunday's feast, that resurrection is our promise, that the cross is empty and the tomb is bare.
Whatever it is that you might be holding onto, whatever it is that has a hold of you, whatever it is that you have thought it best to ignore or pretend it wasn't there, especially if you think that it is God who has turned God's back to you, this week may be the moment to go right in there, to enter into where the walls are the highest and most foreboding. It may be painful; and it may be excruciatingly so. But the end of our story isn't death; it's life. The end of our story isn't defeat; it's victory. The end of our story isn't despair; it's hope.