The way of love in the wilderness of death

by susan on April 6, 2020

This message was shared during our Palm Sunday, April 5th gathering by Rev. Susan Rogers & is based on Mark 11:1-11.


In “For the Interim Time”, John O’Donohue describes the wilderness this way:

No place looks like itself, loss of outline
Makes everything look strangely in-between,
Unsure of what has been, or what might come…
You are in this time of the interim
Where everything seems withheld.
The path you took to get here has washed out;
The way forward is still concealed from you.
What is being transfigured here is your mind,
And it is difficult and slow to become new.
The more faithfully you can endure here,
The more refined your heart will become
For your arrival in the new dawn.

His words feel incredibly relatable right now, don’t they?

Life does not get any more wilderness-like than living in the face of death.

Here & now in the middle of a worldwide pandemic we are seeing that, and unfortunately predictions tell us the worst is yet to be seen. I stumbled upon a website that tracks worldwide births, deaths and a bunch of other stats like how many emails are sent each day (which really blew my mind).

It struck me that so much happens so quickly.

I was reminded as the number of deaths kept rising rapidly right before my eyes that life is such a brief happening.

We don’t like to talk about, much less think about death. Maybe that’s one reason we have such an undercurrent of anxiety right now. Death is in the air. It doesn’t seem real, but we will likely hear of someone we know dying of this virus & God forbid, it could be one of us.

Our discomfort with death may also be why we created such crowd-pleasing Palm Sunday routines.

People waving palm fronds,
well-scripted readings,
beautiful choral anthems.

These kinds of rituals give us comfort while remembering the moment that Jesus was mounting a mule to ride into the city where he would live the last week of his life. We’ve made it look more like a parade than the difficult & defiant march into town that it was. After all, reenacting that might not draw so many people to our Palm Sunday church services. But it also feels like a bit of denial.

This morning I want to invite us to look at an alternative depiction of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem: The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem by French painter Gustave Doré, 1876.

Take a moment to look at this portrayal. What do you notice?

The streets are chaotic. There is much motion & much commotion. Were he not in the center, it would be hard to see Jesus in his relatively small, shadowed presence moving slowly & humbly into the city.

He seems single-minded in the midst of the swirls of activity surrounding him. He is not distracted. He does not linger. His identity is not hinging on the crowd – he does not even seem to notice them. His identity, his life, his movement is rooted in something deeper than the latest breaking news.

It’s as though he has been preparing for this moment and now he is being led through it. The contrast between Jesus & those wildly celebrating his entry is stark. They seem to be caught up in fanfare while he is focused forward.

The story tells us people are laying down clothing, waving leafy branches & shouting hosanna (save us, help us). These are people who want a hero & who only know one kind – the one who shows up by force, armed with weapons for a holy takeover. They are looking to Jesus to restore the temple state, to put the 10 commandments back in the city square & prayer back in school.

But over the coming week, he will do the opposite. He will condemn what is going on in the temple & predict its downfall because its religious leaders are not caring for the poor, the sick & the suffering.

If they meant anything at all to him, the chaos erupting in the streets & the voices calling for help were painful reminders that he would continue to be misunderstood, poorly portrayed & hard to follow.

Because you see Jesus entered Jerusalem with no militia; just a flimsy, fickle little band of misfit followers who would all desert him by the end.

The end of this reading is actually quite anticlimactic. According to Mark, Jesus merely enters the temple, then he looks around & he leaves (and scene).

We would have preferred something sensational but this is no made for Hollywood production – there is no coercion & no military show of might – that is Rome’s way, not Jesus’ – what Jesus gives us is a way through, not a way around pain & suffering & death.

He shows us how to live in the face of death.

When I first looked at this portrait, I actually thought Jesus was headed in the opposite direction – his figure is so dark it’s hard to tell. I had missed what might be the most important part of this portrayal. Jesus is headed somewhere.

There is another set of dark figures low to the ground and lying on his path.

This is where he is headed.

Even with all of the chaos & heaviness & anxiety in the air, Jesus will not be deterred. He may not have a militia or a magic formula, but he is armed with love (& if he were here today I imagine he’d be wearing a mask).

In the face of death & in the awareness of the fragility of life, in the midst of the accusations & the humiliation, he will not back down. He will die just as he lived – doing the healing, including, restoring work of God till his very last breath.

There is so much swirling around us right now, so much uncertainty & chaos & so much information (some trustworthy, some not); there are numbers we can watch & social media suggestions cramming our newsfeeds, but friends I want to remind us that we are still here to love.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said “the time is always right to do what is right” and I think he would agree, the time is always right to love.

It may be tempting to use social distancing as an excuse to isolate ourselves even further from the suffering in our community & even the suffering in this community of faith – but that is the height of privilege, friends. This is NOT the time for that.

This is a time to lean into Love & to let it lead us where it is needed most.

We may be apart right now, but I want you to know that I see you:

I see you sewing masks for medical personnel. I see you showing up for your students. I see you giving generously to make sure refugees still have shelter. I see you caring for the sick. I see you sharing food with low-income families. I see you placing signs of encouragement around your neighborhood.

I see you leaning into love & I wonder if you & I will dare to continue down that path in the days to come.

Would we dare to keep grounding ourselves in love?
And would we dare to let love lead us forward one breath, one moment, one day at a time?

May that be our prayer in these days & over the next week as we follow Jesus where he is going. Amen.

Previous post:

Next post: