One of my favorite movies is A Christmas Story, the scene where the dogs from next door, the Bumpus hounds, break through the front door and carry off the turkey cooling on the kitchen table. Do you remember that? I identify with that scene because the Bumpus family lives next door to us and their dogs have been assaulting us for years. Last month, they got yet another dog, a very aggressive, feral dog, who this week came into our yard and began chasing Madeline and me, snapping and snarling at us. Madeline is four years-old now, so we’ve begun teaching her self-sufficiency, doing some things for herself, so when the dog started chasing us, I thought “Aha, a teachable moment,” so yelled to Madeline that it was every man for himself, and ran inside. But Madeline actually ran toward the dog, pointed at it, and said, “Bad dog. You go home.” And the dog did. It turned and ran away. I was so proud of her courage. I’d like to think I’ve served as an inspiration to her.
We’ve been talking about the missing fruits, the fruits of the spirit the Apostle Paul should have mentioned, but forgot to. Perhaps would have mentioned if he’d had more time, or had a spouse to remind him. We took a detour last week with All-Music Sunday, a shout-out to Amanda Gainey for her good help. But thus far, we’ve spoken about the fruit of positive anticipation—the ability to think of the future with excitement, confidence, and good cheer.
We’ve added curiosity to our list of missing fruits. Mark Strietelmeier spoke about the spiritual fruit of “know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.” Mary Dooley shared with us about awe, complete with visual aids. And today, I would like to talk about courage as a spiritual quality. It is fitting we lift up the virtue of courage on Palm Sunday, the day the church commemorates the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Though the gospel of Luke paints a celebratory picture of palm branches waving and cloaks spread on the ground to herald his arrival, Jesus had to know not everyone welcomed him, had to know there were powerful voices plotting to silence him. But still he rode forward, still he spoke, still he challenged.
First, a little history. Jesus was born in a country occupied by the Roman Empire, a foreign power. Several decades after he died, the region would explode in a devastating and ruthless war, in which the historian Josephus estimated that over a million people died. Jesus was born in the tense build-up to this war, when animosities between the Jews and the occupying Romans were boiling over. The Hebrews were hoping for a military and religious leader, a new King David, who would lead them in battle against Rome. Stories of a powerful, charismatic Jewish rabbi named Jesus begin to circulate, stories of miracles, of multitudes moved and stirred by this rabbi. Many people hoped Jesus was the one God had sent to lead them in battle against Rome’s army of occupation. In their enthusiasm, they waved the palm branch, their symbol for victorious revolution, as he entered Jerusalem.
Of course, Jesus had to know Rome was watching, but still he entered. Why does anyone enter a Jerusalem? Why does anyone enter a place they are not welcome? Why does anyone enter the heart of an occupying government? We might ask why Dorothy Day and Lucy Burns marched to the White House for the right to vote, where they were beaten and jailed, and not to Seneca Falls where they would be hailed as heroes. We might ask why Martin Luther King, Jr. entered Birmingham where he was beaten and jailed, and not New York City where he would be celebrated and welcomed? We might ask why people protesting the greed and lawlessness of banks marched on Wall Street and not Main Street? We might ask why people protesting the sadistic separation of immigrant children from their parents march in America and not in England?
Why does anyone enter a Jerusalem, a White House, a Birmingham, a Wall Street? Because we must. Because courage requires us to speak to the seats of evil, especially those seats of power untethered from decency and justice. So Jesus went to Jerusalem.
If you and I think we can ever have a meaningful life without going to our Jerusalem, like Jesus went to his, we are mistaken. If you and I think we can remain silent, remain ambivalent, remain on the sidelines, when people fall victim to injustice and intolerance, we are mistaken. We must go to Jerusalem.
Jesus went to Jerusalem, because justice required it. Think for a moment of those who have never gone to Jerusalem, those who saw a wrong, who knew a need, who heard a plea, but lacked courage, so did nothing. There is nothing sadder in life than realizing that when justice called you to Jerusalem, you lacked the courage for the trip. I have many regrets in my life—things I’ve done, and, more profoundly, things I have lacked the courage to do, those times in my life when Jerusalem called and I stayed home.
We gather this Palm Sunday to celebrate courage, and to remember a man who set his eyes on Jerusalem and his feet on the road. We honor him because in an-every-man-for-himself kind of world, those who stand against snapping, snarling tyranny and say “No more,” are to be treasured.
Where is your Jerusalem?