Mark is the first to tell us how the people of Jerusalem waved palms.
Most every year at First Baptist, we do the same, ordering palm strips, about 24-36 inches long. They come in packs of a hundred for 17.99.
But in ancient Jerusalem, they just “went out and cut them from the fields,” as Mark describes. “They cut leafy branches from the trees” all around, as Matthew tells it. “They took palms,” John narrates, and they went out to meet him.
They used the palms as symbols of goodness, triumph and joy. The same palms adorned royal buildings and were etched on the backs of coins. But they used palms for at least one more reason. Scholars of the ancient world point out that date palms grew abundantly, especially in Jericho, along the banks of the Jordan and in Jerusalem.
They used palms because they had them. They were right there within reach. They didn’t have to go somewhere else to find them. As Jesus came, the people greeted him with that they had — the palms from the trees, the cloaks on their backs, their hands waving, their voices singing out.
We’re so very aware in these days of what we don’t have. We don’t have much of what’s familiar. We don’t have so much of what we’ve come to trust and rely on and pattern our lives around. We don’t have the social proximity to people we love. We don’t have the physical help we are accustomed to offering to one another. We don’t have the same schedules or the same access to some of the passions that inspire us. We don’t have the same access to church — we don’t have the palms in our hands, or the comforts of church community, or the music that stirs us as we’re gathered all together, or the signs of peace we receive from one another, or the family face passing out a bulletin or calling our name and telling us we’re known.
And it’s more than the worn truth that these good things in life are not to be taken for granted. There’s the encroaching awareness that we don’t have the assurance that all will work out to be as it once was. Some in our community face the reality that we don’t have our livelihoods, our income streams or our jobs. We don’t have as much safety as we want for ourselves or for all people. We don’t have uniform confidence in our institutions to guide us through. We don’t have health, unless everyone does.
And so much of our response can become an effort to try to make up for what we don’t have — approximate it, orchestrate it, recreate it.
But maybe we can also remember that God has never seemed that interested in what we don’t have. Rather than asking us to make up for what’s lacking, or elevate beyond our status, God comes to us. Jesus doesn’t expect us to achieve some equality with God, but instead gives that up and takes human form. And then in his life and ministry he tells us that the kingdom of God is near to us, right where we are. We don’t have to go somewhere else or do something else or have anything else. No, as a friend and mentor often said, “In describing the kingdom of God, Jesus never asks people to leave their world.” (1) So he tells about this kingdom that comes near to people as their sowing seed in their own fields, as they’re baking bread in their own homes, as they’re tending their own flocks day by day, as they’re sweeping their floors, it’s coming near. It’s coming near in relationships between fathers and sons and all the complexity of family. It’s coming near, you see, in the things we already have. Not in the things we don’t have.
Part of this new temporary normal for me is the reality of recording sermons and worship videos in my home. Our church has elected to worship for the time being with these prerecorded services, that allow for voices across our church to lead. Our pastors plan the service, our Communications Director, Alisa Windsor, works the magic behind the scenes. But it all depends on these videos.
But I’ve found that one of the things I don’t have at this time in my life is silence. It’s related to another thing I don’t have, which is privacy. Then another thing I don’t have are perfect recording windows when light and quiet and family schedule and children’s expectations all coincide just perfectly. And even when I find that moment, there’s the bark of the dog or the scream of a child at their sibling. And even when that’s been removed, like this week when Jenny graciously took our kids to the park, I prepared everything to record a video and as I reached the bottom of the stairs a lawnmower cranked up in the neighborhood.
I was venting this to some clergy friends, and I said, “I’m not sure any of my sermons or worship clips are free from the screams of children” (seriously, you can go back and listen). In response to this, my dear friend and fellow pastor, Rev. Courtney Allen, replied “Well they shouldn’t be.” They shouldn’t be free of all the noise and complications and challenges. Because my life isn’t. No one’s life is.
This is life, with all its background noise and foreground challenges and encroaching worries and present grief. This is what we have. And we can become so preoccupied with what we don’t have, that we forget that’s not useful — meaning, we can not use what we do not have.
And after all, God is about baking bread, and sowing seed, and sweeping in the house, and family relationships, and all the everyday, common, mundane things through which the kingdom is revealed by one who was found in human form, and born in human likeness. This might be a time to remember what we have — not simply in some fragile, “count your blessings fashion” that dismisses all that is hard and can change with circumstance. But instead to know that what we have is all God needs us to have in order to come to us. Grace is right within our reach.
The theologian and Emory University professor, Dr. Gregory Ellison, tells the story of when he was a little boy, and he was sitting on his grandmother’s porch, and he asked his Aunt Dottie: “Aunt Dottie, what can I do to change the world?” And she said, “Well, I don’t know how to change the world, but I can change the three feet around me.” (2) It sparked Dr. Ellison, in his life and ministry, to issue what he calls the “three foot challenge,” that is: What’s within three feet of you? Who is within three feet of you that needs to know they are made in the image of God? Who needs to know that God is with them? What’s within three feet of you that can be used to make known the coming kingdom of God?
Our children did that earlier in the service — and not with 17 cent palms, but with magnolia branches from the backyard, or azaleas cut from the bush out front, or a spirit pom pom pulled off a shelf in the bedroom. And we have all done it with communion this morning — and not with brass trays and the choreography and drama of a sanctuary service, but with bread from our pantries, or wine from the open bottle on the counter, or with the most basic elements of flour, water, oil and salt. All of this, a use of what we have.
Father Sam Wells has said such a use of what we have is core to the gospel. The vicar of St. Martin in the Fields, London, and the former dean of Duke Chapel, Wells has written a book where he compares faith to improvisation, which is about using what’s available. Life, after all, does not operate with a script. And so, Father Wells says, “People of faith have always been those able to see the abundant things that God can do with limited materials.” (3)
Materials like magnolia branches, and sandwich bread, and every reserve of strength, and every already opened up remainder of joy and celebration, and even any leftover bit of faith. Through the Spirit, God can use it all abundantly exceedingly beyond what we can imagine. God can improvise. God’s people can, too.
As some of you know, theatrical improvisation begins with that most important of rules, “Yes, and…” — that is, if you find yourself in a scene, and your partner states something, you can never say “No, but…” You can never protest or change the course. You say “Yes” to receive, then “and” to expand. “Yes, and…” signaling acceptance and trust.
I confess, this is hard for me. Improv always has been. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so nervous as when I was in an improv exercise at the arts high school I attended. There was so much unknown. I liked what was scripted. And I just knew that it could go so badly.
Which we all know. It can go badly. We can actually misuse what we have. We can actually abuse what we have. Within 3 foot reach is so much we can destroy, harm, hurt, fracture. And so it was in Jerusalem. As the week goes on, as we follow along the way of Jesus, we see how within reach was power, betrayal, denial. Within reach was corruption, collusion. There were so many chances to abuse trust, friendship, relationships. Within reach was even a cross.
Which leaves us with the most important of questions this Palm Sunday: What will we do with what we have?
They rushed out to the fields to cut branches. They went to the trees around their homes and lining the streets, pulling down what they could and going out to meet him. It has always been the story when the kingdom is drawing near. The God all those people cutting palm branches, of all those people laying down their cloaks, those people fetching donkeys and singing songs and waving their arms, is the God of searching shepherds, and waiting fathers, and treasure hidden in our own fields probably within about three feet us. This is the God of 5 smooth stones, and just as many loaves to go with two fishes. The God of common staffs that part waters and freedom fighters that stutter to get the words out. The God of reluctant prophets throughout generations, and the God of a willing young woman approached right in her home and invited to birth the Son of God. It’s the same God who in Jesus walked the streets of Nazareth, and finally made way to Jerusalem to say to those that would listen: don’t forget that you have me.
So this is surely the God of sheltered people, in place where we are, sequestered, staying at home, stir crazy and experiencing this season as we never expected. People frustrated and anxious and lonely. People afraid. Yet people to whom even now Christ draws near, calling us to do nothing more than to use what we have.
- A common mantra of college professor, New Testament scholar, and good friend, the late Dr. Daniel E. Goodman
- Story told at fearlessdialogues.com, based on Dr. Ellison’s book, Fearless Dialogues: A New Movement for Justice
- “Samuel Wells: Improvising Leadership” interview at Faith & Leadership on Father Wells’ book, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics