It’s Palm Sunday, an important day in the Christian calendar. The ancient story says that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, as predicted in Hebrew Scripture. Matthew 21: 4 “This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet saying, ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass.’”
So they put palms in his path and shouted ‘Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna,’ which means ‘deliver us, or save us.
The people welcomed him as a liberator-hero…the long-awaited messiah. They put palms in his path as a symbol of their appreciation. The palms used on Palm Sunday are later burned and used as ashes to be smudged on the worshipers’ foreheads with the sign of the cross on Ash Wednesday the following year.
Jesus didn’t deliver them from the Roman occupation. He didn’t become the new king. He didn’t save them. He told them to work out their own salvation, using parables like the Good Samaritan to illustrate that you are ‘saved’ by the way you live your life: ‘the kingdom of heaven is within you,’ he said, or ‘the kingdom of heaven is among you.’
They were disappointed and the Romans were forced to take action. The story says that a few days after the big Palm Sunday welcome, on Good Friday, they shouted, ‘Crucify him!’
And so it goes in life. The green palms of praise are turned to burnt ashes of disappointment and disapproval. It’s a human story, of course. It’s not about something that happened, way back when, but about what’s happening now, and has always happened among humans. That’s what good mythology is about – it’s about us, here and now.
We Unitarian Universalists are perhaps most well-known for our lack of creedal statements – we don’t make theological assertions about God or an afterlife – two things that seem so essential in Western religion.
“So, why do you call it a religion?” we’re asked.
Religion, at its best, provides support, encouragement and direction for good, living – for ethical conduct in one’s day-to-day life.
A religious community like ours provides a meeting place for those of us who acknowledge the need for community without feeling the need for traditional theological belief systems.
That doesn’t mean we don’t think about the nature of God, and human nature; it doesn’t mean we don’t ponder ‘the meaning of it all.’ It doesn’t mean we don’t think and ask about what, if anything, lies beyond the grave. We do. But we don’t feel the need for definitive or final answers – creeds or dogmatic assertions.
We’re here, in part, to be challenged in our thinking. We’re here, in part, to deepen that aspect of life we refer to as ‘spiritual life.’ We acknowledge that there’s more to life than mere intellect, what’s discernable rationally; there’s more to life than the visible material world. We live with some wonderful questions and move through the amazing mystery we call ‘life.’
We’re here because we need one another, as George Odell put it:
“We need one another when we mourn and would be comforted. We need one another when we are in trouble and afraid…when we are in despair…
We need one another when we would accomplish some great purpose and cannot do it alone…We need one another when we come to die, and would have gentle hands prepare us for the journey. All our lives we are in need, and other are in need of us.”
When we emerged from the womb we needed someone to feed, cloth, shelter and nurture us – to take care of our physical needs, but also to provide for our emotional needs – to love us. A healthy emotional life requires that we develop what Erik Erikson called ‘basic trust,’ so we can ‘at home in the world,’ comfortable with other people and with our selves, to find a sense of inner peace.
As we mature, we realize that others are in need of us. It’s nice to be needed, but it can sometimes feel like a burden; so we need to find a balance between our separateness or independence and our dependence – we need to achieve a balanced inter-dependence.
We need to develop self-reliance without losing our sense of dependence on others, and their dependence on us.
In times of trouble our need for one another is heightened. The Sunday after 9/11 this sanctuary was packed with hundreds of members and many who just needed a place to bring their injured spirits. Many couldn’t get inside, so they were standing at the open doors on each side of the sanctuary. Clearly this was expression of acknowledging the need for one another – home alone with the television coverage wasn’t enough.
Now we are in the midst of a different kind of crisis – the economic crisis that threatens all of us, collectively, and each of us in personal ways. It didn’t happen one morning, all at once. It creeped up on us, gradually, at first, but by the time we realized it we were in a world-wide economic crisis.
We’re acknowledging, again, that we need one another – now, more than ever.
Sometimes being needed can feel like a burden – when the needs that others put on us exceed our available resources. We have limited time, limited money and limited energy, including a limit to our emotional energy.
Being needed too much can result in compassion fatigue. It’s nice to be needed, but there are limits.
From time to time people have stayed away from here because they have been asked to do things once too many times and they didn’t know how to say “No” without feeling uncomfortable.
The same discomfort can come from being asked for money, either in terms of an annual pledge to the church or a special collection.
It’s possible to say no with a smile. There’s a rubbish collection truck around town that says “Joe’s refuse (rubbish) service,” which I once misread as “Joe’s refuse (say no) service.”
We could all use Joe’s refuse service from time to time. Joe would teach us how to say no without being offensive: “Would you like to give to the Society For the Prevention of Cruelty to Clergy fund?” “No, but thank you so much for asking.”
If you are a member of this congregation, or consider yourself a friend and supporter, you will soon be asked to contribute to the life of this congregation from time to time, to volunteer for this or that, or to make a generous financial pledge to keep this ship afloat.
It’s okay to say ‘no.’ What’s not acceptable is to mistreat the volunteer who calls you on the phone, or leaves an email message, or approaches you on a Sunday morning or at some other time. An easy rule of thumb, also called the Golden Rule, is to treat that person the way you would like to be treated.
Our generosity is needed, now, more than ever – including generosity of spirit.
Joe’s refuse service might be needed to haul away some old useless rubbish you may have accumulated in your life, the trash stored up from feeling slighted, ignored or insulted, etc. Or the Palm-Sunday-like disappointment that turned to resentment and anger. Yuk! Call Joe!
One of the reasons we need one another, and why we need this place, is to encourage our growth toward what we might call maturity or wisdom.
Just as a person can grow and mature, so can a religious community grow and mature.
Erich Fromm, in his wonderful little book, The Art of Loving, makes an important point. He writes: “Immature love says, ‘I love you because I need you.’ Mature love says, ‘I need you because I love you.’” Think about it.
He also says that there are four ingredients in the recipe for mature love: knowledge, care, responsibility and respect.
You can’t love what you don’t know; so knowledge is the first ingredient. To feel that you are loved, you must feel that you are known, and to be known requires an intentional effort – to be made known.
This process can’t be forced, anymore than you can force the seeds to grow and to break through the ground and sprout up.
Yes, it takes time. It takes time to become known in this congregation, it takes intentionality on both sides – those who are already here want to be warm and welcoming, but those new to the place have to do their part, too, at a pace with which you’re comfortable. It’s a two-way street.
It takes a generous spirit on both parts. We’re here to build or nurture that kind of generosity of spirit – and here I’m not talking about money.
Fromm says, “Love is the active concern for the life and growth of that which we love.”
We have a lot of work to do to meet the aspiration we recite every Sunday: “Love is the spirit of this church.” We call it our statement of affirmation – perhaps we should call it our statement of aspiration; otherwise it might sound like we’re boasting. It’s not something we are, it’s what we hope to become, and we’re always in the process of becoming. Fromm’s definition is adequate:
“Love is the active concern for the life and growth of that which we love.”
We need one another, now, more than ever. We need one another’s support, including financial support at a time of limited resources for so many among us.
A generous new member gave me a book of David Whyte’s poetry, including this one with which we’ll close: He titled it SOMETIMES:
if you move carefully
through the forest
like the ones
in the old stories
who could cross
a shimmering bed of dry leaves
without a sound.
to a place
whose only task
is to trouble you
but frightening requests
conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.
Request to stop what
you are doing right now,
to stop what you
while you do it,
that can make
that have patiently
waited for you,
that have no right
to go away.