A Meditation for Palm Sunday
Sunday, April 10, 2022
It was decades ago, just after noon, on a sidewalk in midtown Manhattan, that I had a panic attack. A full-on, sky-is-falling, never-saw-it-coming panic attack. We were labor organizers and religious leaders, twenty of us: we had gathered to confront Mobil Oil for its complicity in South Africa’s apartheid regime. At the company’s offices on Forty-Second Street. And in theory, it seemed to me a heady opportunity for protest and solidarity. Before we sat down in the doorway, outside Mobil's building, on Forty-Second Street, an organizer read a letter of encouragement from Archbishop Tutu himself. Heady opportunity indeed.
In reality, however, it was just loud and very scary. Forty-Second Street. Midtown Manhattan. Security called the police. And when they arrived to arrest us, for sitting there, for singing there, for refusing to leave that sidewalk, I had my panic attack. My right leg, my right leg, wagging like a dog’s tail on the pavement. In front of thirty, forty, fifty folks—friends and reporters—crowded around. And a couple of TV cameras to boot. Now the point of nonviolent noncompliance, of course, is a spirit of stillness and resolve. But it’s hard to carry that off when your right leg’s flapping like a flag in a hurricane. And that was me.
One at a time, my friends were hauled off to police vans by sturdy New York officers—as others in the crowd leaned in, singing protest songs and South African hymns. And I’d never in my life experienced the kind of fear that overwhelmed me then. In that moment. I was afraid of the police, to be sure, because they seemed huge—but, maybe more to the point, afraid of my own cowardice, and the very real possibility that I’d have to slip out, escape, give up on the whole thing before they ever got their chance to arrest me.
But sometimes, sometimes, God appoints a particular friend for a particular moment in a particular place. I don’t know any other way to explain Brewster Hastings sitting to my right, on the sidewalk, that day in New York. He was a seminary classmate, a friend, and he’d invited me to that very protest several days before. But Brewster could have been sitting anywhere; and he was right there, sitting to my right, on that sidewalk. And with everything else happening, all the noise, all the singing, and his own impending arrest—Brewster noticed what was happening with me. With my leg. The color flushed from my cheeks. And very gently, but very directly, he turned to me and looked me in the eye.
And then, and I’ll never, ever forget this, Brewster took his right hand and put it on my right knee—that wild, fluttering knee—and he said to me: “Dave, it’s going to be OK. We’re here together. I’m here with you. It’s going to be OK.” Just that. Nothing more than that. But those words were gospel to me that afternoon. Communion for my soul. “Dave, it’s going to be OK. We’re here together. I’m here with you. It’s going to be OK.” And his small, sweet hand on my knee.
You know, they took me first, the two officers moving down the line. Carried me off to the van with the others. Not much fun—but I didn’t slip away. Brewster was behind me then, the next in line to be arrested. And as I settled into a seat, above the cacophony of the crowd, the fury of Forty-Second Street, I swear I could hear Brewster singing as they hauled him our way: “We shall not, we shall not be moved. We shall not, we shall not be moved. Just like a tree that’s planted by the water. We shall not be moved.” We were booked into jail together. And several hours later released together. A couple months later we stood in court together as a judge thanked us for our witness, and tossed the case.
Friends of God, grace, God’s grace, is both a gift and a summons. It’s a gift because it is freely and lovingly given: freely and lovingly given to each of us, and to all of us. It’s a summons because Jesus cannot, Jesus will not ride into Jerusalem alone. Jesus calls on you, and Jesus calls on me, and Jesus calls on the church to lay down weapons and worries, to trust in the power of love and mercy, to risk living like grace is everywhere and everything. A gift and a summons.
So I remember Brewster every year, about this time, as we read this story of Jesus’ ride down the Mount of Olives, and then up the hill and into Jerusalem. And the crowd of disciples rejoicing and praising God loudly along the way. I remember Brewster’s voice cracking, warbling above the crowd on Forty-Second Street. I remember his eyes. And I remember, I will forever remember his hand on my knee. Incarnation. The words made flesh. Brewster died a couple of years ago, far, far too soon; but on the sidewalk that day, he offered me a vision of everything the church can be. A gift and a summons. I’ll treasure that vision for the rest of my life. Brewster reminded me that Jesus organizes his life, his ministry, his movement around relationships and prayer, and vulnerability and hope. No cheap grace with Jesus—just amazing grace, Palm Sunday grace. A gift and a summons.
In that spirit, then, I want you to imagine, I want you to see what Jesus is doing with this whole Palm Sunday thing. The unridden colt. Borrowed for an afternoon. The cloaks and coats, the jackets and jerseys spread out—like a tapestry, like a rainbow in the road. And a crowd of lovers and mothers and brothers and others—crying out as Jesus passes by: “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!” This is not ancient history, my friends. This is God’s invitation. Jesus is building a movement, a community, a communion of friends and seekers, broken hearts and daring spirits. And there is a place in this parade, in his procession, for you, for every one of you. And for me. You may think that you’re too old, or too young. You may think that you’re too gay, or too straight. You may think that you’re too busy with your career, or too preoccupied with your kids. But Jesus begs to disagree. Jesus needs you. Jesus needs us. Our differences. Our stardust. Every last one of us!
And this is the amazing thing about what Brewster did for me that day, all those years ago. He didn’t simply take pity on a coward; in fact, he didn’t see me that way at all; and he didn’t treat me that way. No, when he looked me in the eye that day, he was inviting me to the parade, to the procession, to the party of God’s people. Protesting apartheid on every continent. Challenging capitalism on its doorstep. Embracing diversity in the streets. Risking arrest. His eyes said, “We need you, Dave. You’re a part of this, Dave. I’ve got you, Dave.” And in that strange moment, in all that cacophony, with a couple of burly New York cops bearing down, I knew that this was what I’d wanted all along. This church. This Jesus. This movement.
Sometimes people ask me about my call to ministry. How I knew. When I knew. It was that day, I think. I saw it in Brewster’s eyes.
You see, my friends, the gospel isn’t a fancy doctrine, it’s no esoteric dogma; and for Jesus, it’s no bumper sticker, either. The gospel is his invitation to friendship and forgiveness. Go home this afternoon and take a good look in the bathroom mirror. And you will see some sign, some unmistakable sign that you are needed, that your energies are crucial, that your prayers are holy. Maybe a tear in your eye. Maybe a twitch, or a tremor. But you’ll see. The movement of mercy is begging your presence, your commitment, your uniquely, exquisitely, imperfectly, delightfully human spirit. The gospel is Jesus’ invitation to friendship and forgiveness. And we need you. And your uniquely, exquisitely, imperfectly, delightfully human spirit. The movement of mercy is begging your presence. The Palm Sunday parade needs you.
And friendship, well, friendship means following directions, and searching out that unridden colt. Doing the necessary things that build up the body of Christ and equip the community for celebration and service. And friendship means coming out of whatever closets we’ve been in, and trusting in the beauty of your life, and celebrating the sound of your voice, and collaborating with the rest of us. And friendship means you’re going to freak out once in a while, or you’re going to have a panic attack when things get hot, and you’re going to have to believe that someone here, someone you can trust will have your back, and look you in the eye, and put her hand on your knee. Because that’s the church. Koinonia. Ecclesia. The Body of Christ.
And friendship means staying close, praising God, the God of Creation, the God of Love, the God of Mercy, the God in Jesus Christ, and following that parade where it leads—even into the heart of empire, even into the cruelty of it, even into the violence of it, because with God all things are possible. With God all things are possible. And we can believe like that. We can live that way. Together.
It is not an easy calling. This grace. This morning, it brings Jesus to the crest in the hill, to the place where we sees Jerusalem for all that is, for all that it can be. His heart is full of love. His eyes run wild with pain. And he weeps, Jesus weeps, for Jerusalem and for Kyiv, for Moscow and for Cameroon, for South Africa and South Texas.
This too, my friends, is what friendship means this week. It means loving the planet with our whole hearts. It means seeing life for all the mystery and all the beauty and sacramental wonder that overflows our many cups. And then too, it means grieving over Jerusalem, and watching with Jesus in the garden, and wondering when his time will come.
It is not an easy calling, this grace. And we will be tested again this week. But I’m remembering Brewster this morning. And the hand that rested on my knee all those years ago. And with all my heart, and out of the faith we share, I want you to know that we can walk this way together. We can walk this way together. Friendship is enough. And we can walk this way together.
Amen and Ashe.