Thresholds & Entrances: Metaphorical Musings on Palm Sunday (sermon)

delivered at the Universalist Church of West Hartford, CT

Reading One by Rumi

“The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you
Don’t go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth
across the doorsill where the two worlds touch,
The door is round and open
Don’t go back to sleep!”

 

Reading Two            On Turning Ten by Billy Collins

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

 

The Sermon (and audio version is at this link).

Enter, rejoice and come in. // Open your ears to the song. // Open your hearts everyone. // Don’t be afraid of some change.

I don’t know if this is true for you or not, but when I survey my life so far, it’s mostly only in the looking back that I notice what I would call thresholds, or entrances into new space, new phases, new energies in my life. Sometimes I am graced with the awareness of some big change happening just before it does, or just as it does, but that’s the exception, rather than the rule.

I’m pretty sure that the little boy in the Billy Collins poem, though keenly aware, is not opening his ears to the song of turning ten and he certainly does not have his heart open to what is about to come upon him. I must admit that I am familiar with the reticence and gloom of that young boy, the don’t-drag-me-into-it and the pouty-face of I-don’t-wanna:

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

I am going to venture and say that if this poem is autobiographical, then it is likely that it is autobiographical fiction with a strong dose of revisionist history. Familiar not so much with Billy Collins the person as I am with Billy Collins the poet and his gift for inhabiting fictional characters to make poignancy come alive, my guess is that this ten-year-old boy is more likely a fifty (or sixty)-year-old looking back.

Perhaps like some of you, I don’t necessarily see the big changes, and certainly not the little thresholds, coming. When I first met the children who would become “my” children, I did not know it. I thought they were just two confused – terrified, really – foster children, two and nearly four years old, who were going to come to live at my house for a few months. But after two-and-a-half years, some of it living with me, some of it living with their birth mother, then surprisingly, pleasantly, triumphantly, back with me fo-eva and eva as my then-little now-daughter called it – finally, I got it. We had entered a new time in our lives.

Today is Palm Sunday and according to the story, this is the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey. Here it is, described by Mark in his gospel (11:1-11):

11 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!10     Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

There were actually two entrances that day. There was the peasant procession, with Jesus at its front and there was the military procession, with Pontius Pilate at its head. This was no mere coincidence, but the wily brilliance of the liberator prophet whose presence and declaration of the kingdom of God was a political statement that the occupying force of Rome was no legitimate power. Jesus’ entrance, on a donkey, surrounded by the people, rather than as part of an ostentatious military entourage was a comment on authentic power and true authority. It was a threshold into a new time and new truth and an entrance that was impossible for the people or the Roman authorities to ignore (for both good and for ill).

Psychic or spiritual thresholds are not known for their grand entrances, their parades with prophets at the head of them, palms and coats laid at the feet. Spiritual thresholds are not even necessarily known by their size.

They are known, I think, by their quality. It’s almost as if the air is different. An electricity? An intensity? A vibration? Certainly, it’s invisible to the naked eye, but it’s there, the change, the shift, the entrance, ready to be sensed and engaged. In his book on blessings, the late John O’Donohue, at one time a Catholic priest, describes thresholds beautifully:

A threshold is not a simple boundary; it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms, and atmospheres. Indeed, it is a lovely testimony to the fullness and integrity of an experience of a stage of life that it intensifies toward the end into a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged and woken up. At this threshold, a great complexity of emotion comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope.

This is clearly not all strawberries and cream, not just palm fronds of celebration and hope. Two territories, one that welcomes (or at least pulls us in) and one that we must bid adieu. One that we must leave behind. I loved becoming a mother, I can’t imagine living my life without the wonderful and troubling things I have experienced, and yet, I had to leave much behind, some of which I could have guessed at and some of which I did not realize, could not realize.

Thresholds aren’t always some kind of shift from one linear moment to the next, one linear developmental stage in our lives to the next. Sometimes, in fact, often, spiritual thresholds are what the Celtic tradition calls thin places. Protestant theologian Marcus Borg tells us that thin places are

places where the boundary between the two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable.  Thin places are where the veil momentarily lifts, and we behold God,

the Sacred, that which is Greater than We Are all around us and if we are lucky, if we are fortunate, if we are blessed, not just around us, but within us.

Yes. sometimes thresholds are internal: a closed heart opening. A closed heart breaking open. A broken heart mending. Though not always, broken hearts – grief, trauma, pain, disease – can be a threshold, an entrance into a thin place.

The story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on that day was a joyful occasion, hence our first hymn today: enter, rejoice and come in. A declaration of good intentions, of that which should be celebrated and shouted from the hillsides and street corners. Today will be a joyful day.

And yet the fourth stanza of that song reminds us that such thresholds consist of leaving one place and entering into another, often-unknown place. Don’t be afraid of some change. Easier sung than done.

Change does not come easy for most of us. We often would rather stay with the old than risk the new. In fact, that’s one of the gems of wisdom that comes to us from the Passover story: some would rather stay in the land of Pharaoh, than risk going out into the unknown. Yet even our hearts, fearful as they sometimes are, can be surprised by a deep change that arrives out of the blue, unbidden, but nonetheless present. In the words of John O’Donohue

We find ourselves crossing some new threshold we had never anticipated. Like spring secretly at work within the heart of winter, below the surface of our lives huge changes are in fermentation. We never suspect a thing. Then when the grip of some long-enduring winter mentality begins to loosen, we find ourselves vulnerable to a flourish of possibility and we are suddenly negotiating the challenge of a threshold.

What to do about this resistance, this discomfort? Even if we wanted to, we can’t banish thresholds from life. It just doesn’t work that way (and I’m thankful for that, even in the face of painful thresholds, painful entrances and exits). How do we get through these times in our lives where it’s not a joyful parade?

One answer is that we honor the impulse to gather together. That we, in fact, not just honor it, but nurture it, grow it, celebrate it, embody it. We gather together, with intention, with compassion, with an abiding inclusion that breaks open closed hearts and heals deeply broken ones.   This impulse to gather is becoming radically counter-cultural, as fewer people join civic and religious institutions, yet gathering remains one of the few salves we have amid the harsh realities life offers.

This is a good start, but it is not quite enough. Breaking isolation by gathering: yes. Doing it with intention and in fact, shared intention: even better. Yet this can be done in a secular setting and done well.

As a religious community, our contribution is to shape that intention towards spiritually-grounded rituals. When our church year has noticeable shifts in how it congregates, markers at the start of a new church year and markers at the end do well by us. For some UU communities that may means flower communion in the spring and water communion in fall. Of course, we are also talking wedding ceremonies and memorial services.

Child dedications for children born or brought into families in the name of love and rites of passages the note coming of age. Bridging ceremonies when our youth leave the nurturing shelter of our RE program and step into a wider world of choice and swaying winds that blow them away from congregational life.

The joyous occasion that is marked by Name change affirmation ceremonies for trans* members of our faith family. Or when tragedy shakes the community to the core of its being and we call out, together, for comfort and justice.

Rituals for beginnings of relationships to be sure, but also don’t forget to mark the threshold of endings – divorces, when a minister or Director of Religious Education ends their service with a congregation. Rituals belong here, too.

Or perhaps already on your mind and in your plans: rituals to mark the return of a minister from sabbatical.

These are all thresholds in our church life that call out to us to be sure that we pay attention and ease the passage through the embodiment of ritual. John O’Donohue says that it is crucial to clothe thresholds:

It is wise in your own life to be able to recognize and acknowledge the key thresholds: to take your time; to feel all the varieties of presence that accrue there; to listen inward with complete attention until you hear the inner voice calling you forward. The time has come to cross. (O’Donohue)

As we cross the threshold of this holy house into the holy world in just a few minutes or after fellowship at coffee hour, let us take the spirit of the hymn we just sang and the one we are about to sing into the wide world, owning it as our joy and responsibility that we will endeavor to keep hate out and hold love in and our lives will be a song of peace for all lands, all peoples.

Let us remember to listen Rumi’s words that the breezes at dawn have secrets to help us cross the doorsill where two worlds touch. At this threshold of great complexity where emotions comes alive, let us pray and aspire that as we pass through such thresholds, as we encounter thin places, we do so with humility, with appreciation, and with awe, recognizing the invitation and promise.

Amen. Blessed be.

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Bibliography

Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith.

O’Donohue, John. A Book of Blessings.

“On Turning Ten,” by Billy Collins, in Sailing Around the Room: New and Selected Poems

 

 

 

 

 

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