In his book, Listening to Your Life, Frederik Buechner writes that, “Intellectually we all know that we will die, but we do not really know it in the sense that the knowledge becomes part of us. We do not really know it in the sense of living as though it were true. On the contrary, we tend to live as though our lives will go on forever, spending our lives like drunken sailors.”
In the book, Four Spirits, by Sara Jeter, Naslun, Darl and Stella are talking:
“Do you know the average altitude for the flight of robins?” he asked.
A spurt of laughter flew from between Stella’s lips…”I don’t have the foggiest idea,” she said.
“About thirty inches.”
“What a waste!” she said. “To have the gift of flight and to fly so low.”
And that’s what we’re all afraid of, isn’t it—coming to the end of our lives and realizing that we have lived like drunken sailors, having been given the gift of flight and having chosen to fly so low. We’re afraid that at the end of our lives we’ll see that we have wasted a lot of time “playing it safe”, knowing that we’ve had only a few shining moments when we’ve really managed to do what matters most.
And all of us have those shiny moments when we’re flying high, embracing life for all it’s worth. Our culture would have us believe that those moments can be had through the accumulation of things, a certain kind of car, perhaps, or the right jeans, or by dining only in the best restaurants.
What we know in our hearts to be true, though, is that the shiniest of moments have nothing to do with the accumulation of stuff. The best moments of our lives are when we have been able to lose ourselves in something bigger than ourselves. When we give ourselves away and suddenly realize who we are, when we abandon our own desires for the sake of someone else and come to know the abundance within us, when we pour ourselves out in love for someone else, fearing that we will disappear, only to find ourselves whole, intact and pure. It’s all about the times when we take a risk for love, when we speak up on behalf of someone who cannot advocate for himself, when we speak up despite our fear, when we take a stand, even though our knees are shaking.
As we read today’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus, the political activist, staging a counter-demonstration in Jerusalem. He rides a donkey through the East Gate of the city, and his followers play along with this street theatre, this mockery of what is happening just across town. Entering the West Gate into the city of Jerusalem at the same time is Pontius Pilate and his legions of reinforcements. Of all the Jewish holidays, this one makes the Romans most nervous because the Jews are celebrating their deliverance from another domination system, the Egyptians, and the idea of any god liberating the Jews is enough to make the Roman Empire wary. The additional troops are sent down from the coast to help keep order, since festival time was ideal for troublemakers and political fanatics alike to cause riots in the city.
Jesus makes his way into the city and proceeds to the Temple, that great symbol of religious collaboration with the power of Empire. The Church historically has called this event the “cleansing” of the Temple, but it was much more than that. Jesus effectively shut down the Temple in much the same way that Daniel Berrigan shut down the Pentagon when he broke in and poured blood on the draft files back in the 1960s during the Viet Nam war. Jesus was taking a stand against the domination system in its entirety: political, social, religious, and economic—and here, under the nose of the Roman guard, in the very seat of power. While they might have been able to ignore his actions while he was out there in the Galilean countryside, they couldn’t ignore him now.
Jesus, of course, knew that his actions could not be ignored, and that’s why, when I read this story, I imagine him as leaning forward, always moving forward toward inevitable confrontation. Jesus died because he exposed the reality of the domination system. Jesus died because he confronted the injustice. Jesus died because he would not allow himself to be controlled by the expectations of his family, by the opinions of the public, by the norms of his culture. Jesus died because he would not allow himself to be controlled by the most intimidating, brutal symbol that the most powerful Empire in the world could produce: the cross. Rome had devised this horrific means of execution in order to keep the nations under its control in their place, but Jesus—who had certainly witnessed the reality of crucifixion many times in his lifetime and who knew exactly what it entailed—this Jesus would not allow himself to be controlled by his fear of death. Indeed, he undercut the power of the cross to intimidate anyone by inviting his disciples to actually embrace it. Take up your cross and follow me, he says, don’t be afraid. And if you are afraid, don’t let your fear diminish you, don’t let your fear define you, don’t let your fear keep you from wholeheartedly, unapologetically pursuing the Reign of God’s justice.
The great paradox of our life is that those of us who are willing to lose it so that others might live, will gain it. There are signs of this paradox in our everyday lives: if we cling to our friends, we may lose them, but if we are non-possessive in our relationships, we will make and maintain many friendships. If fame is what we crave and obsess over, it most often elude us, even if we acquire it for a time. On the other hand, if we have no need to be known, we may well be remembered long after we are gone. When we struggle to be in the limelight, we end up in the shadows offstage, but when we choose to become free enough to be and do whatever it is we are called to do and be, suddenly we find ourselves in the center of those whom we have helped to grow. Our giving is our gain, our losing is our victory, our sharing is our abundance.
Blessed is the One who comes of the name of the Lord! Blessed is the One who through death, invites us to live. Blessed are we, who are sent by our God to help heal a broken and suffering world. Hosanna in the Highest!