My short career as a basketball player began in the 5th grade. I was a strong 5 foot 4 inches and weighed a hefty 80 lbs. To say that I was awkward on the court was perhaps a bit of an understatement. Unfortunately for my team, my underwhelming skills as a player were not so different from the skills of my fellow teammates. As a result, in our 2 seasons of playing together, we won only 1 game. And In my two years of playing, I managed to score one basket.
So, no one in my family was surprised when I moved to junior high school and decided that perhaps basketball wasn’t really for me. And my teachers who were probably tired of hearing me run my loud mouth in class – suggested that perhaps my propensity for high volume speaking might be best utilized on the sidelines – as a cheerleader.
And so began my career as a cheerleader, first at Eureka Springs Jr High and then Eureka Springs High School.
In truth, cheerleading turned out to be a great activity for me. It built some confidence in a season of my life where I didn’t have a lot of extra of that to go around. I built some friendships with people and created a great support network. And I grew as a leader, serving as co-captain and captain in the years to come.
And as a side benefit, I learned a lot about the sport of basketball. I learned the intricacies of the game, the positions and how they worked together.
I reveled in the beauty of a game played nearly flawlessly and agonized in the pain of watching a victory slip out of your hands in the final seconds.
I really grew to love and appreciate the sport, much more than I had when I was playing.
But in all of those six years, no matter how invested I was in the game, no matter how much my heart would beat fast as we would see that last shot go in the air with 3 seconds left in the game, to send us into overtime…
I was still on the sidelines.
By definition, to be a cheerleader is to be ON THE SIDELINES. I had a role to play, but it was still a role as a spectator. I wasn’t really IN THE GAME.
Today is Palm Sunday in the church. A crucial day in the story of Jesus’ life. The story detailing the events of the day is found in all four gospels. For three years, he has been teaching and traveling and sharing the word and story of God’s kingdom come near to Earth.
But this moment – is Jesus at his heyday. The message has gotten out. From the feeding of the 5,000 to the healing of the leper, to most recently the raising of Lazarus from the dead. People have heard about Jesus. The mood is heightened because this is the Passover festival week. So, people have been traveling from far and near and the word is out – Jesus is the next big thing and people are coming out of the woodwork to see him.
The night before, a banquet was held in Jesus’ honor at Mary and Martha’s house – a kind of Pep Rally you might say. Lazarus is there – a walking living breathing example of the incredible work of Jesus’ ministry. And everyone wants to see Jesus.
And the next morning, the events of Palm Sunday unfold. And I think I used to imagine the scene kind of spontaneously – as if Jesus just walked into the city and people randomly saw him and started shouting Hosanna! They just happened to have some palms nearby so they started waving them – that there was this event that kind of just happened.
But the reality is that the whole scene – the dinner at Martha and Mary’s the procession into Jerusalem, was probably carefully organized.
There were probably some gals and some dudes with clipboards –
There were probably some people with lists and flyers who were organizing folks behind the scenes.
There were probably people on that Saturday evening gathering Palm Branches and organizing the route of the procession and telling people what to do and where to be.
There were probably even folks strategically placed along the route – people to start the chanting and the cheering – cheerleaders you might say – who began the cries of “Hosanna.”
When it happened, Palm Sunday was an event – a parade, a spectacle, inviting the crowd to shout and cheer and revel in the moment.
It was probably something to experience.
But I have to wonder about the folks in the crowd, about the people hyping things up, passing out palm branches, and starting cheers. I have to wonder about these people on the sidelines.
Who were they? What is it that they knew or thought they knew about Jesus?
A parade like this one on Palm Sunday would not have been out of the ordinary in such a day. In fact, when leaders returned from military conquests, they would ride in on their horses, championing their trophies of war – and there would be a spectacle like this in the streets. And people would wave palm branches. It’s a public sign of recognition and celebration of a national, political leader. Someone who you are willing to follow into battle.
Did they organize this parade, this spectacle because they saw Jesus as their new political leader? The one who would rescue them from the clutches of the Roman empire? The one who would lead them into battle and free them from oppression?
And if so, where were they the next day? Or even better – 4 days later when he was sentenced to death?
The thing about the sidelines is that it is relatively safe. When you aren’t in the thick of it yourself, when you aren’t the one taking risks and putting yourself out there and fighting and struggling for something – when you are instead, the observer… it’s easy to get caught up in the hype, or be overly critical, and at the end of the day – it is easy to WALK AWAY. Because there isn’t as much at stake.
My hunch is that most of the people who waved the branches on Palm Sunday had a great time, they shouted the hosannas, they enjoyed the moment, and then they WENT HOME. They went home the same person that they were before they had come that day.
I always kind of wondered why Jesus went along with the whole Palm Sunday thing. At this point, he seems to know what is coming. And he doesn’t seem like the parade kind of guy – he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who enjoyed having tons of adoring fans or achieving celebrity status…
But Jesus does have a knack of trying to turn just about any moment into an opportunity to teach – to make a powerful statement and strong message about who God is and what he has come here to do.
Perhaps he knew exactly what these parade organizers had planned, but he has a little surprise twist for them that they hadn’t prepared for.
For as the palm branches begin, he decides to get on a donkey.
In other versions, he secures the donkey in advance, but in this story – he does it “mid-processional.”
It’s almost as if he’s hoping that some people on the sidelines will see through the noise, the spectacle and will understand something different about the life that he is inviting them to.
As if he is saying – I am not your war champion. I am not here preparing for a military conquest.
The kingdom that I bring is indeed about justice, but it will come through a very different way of living.
That perhaps some people in the crowd, some of the cheerleaders, might realize the symbol of what is happening in their midst and choose to come off of the sidelines – and onto the pathway with him. To follow him – not toward military victory, but toward the risk-taking, humbling, love-sharing, feet washing life of compassion, grace, justice, and service.
It’s no wonder that the Scriptures tell us that even the disciples didn’t understand this at the time. And it’s no wonder that Jesus says – “Don’t be afraid – for your king comes humble – riding on a donkey.”
Don’t be afraid to follow me.
Don’t be afraid to walk with me.
Don’t be afraid to step off the sidelines.
To not just be cheering hosannas, but to step onto the path and take another step forward to follow me in faithfulness.
Like many of you music feeds my soul and is an encouragement to me on the journey.
And I want to leave you with some of the lyrics of one of my favorite U2 songs… it’s called “Walk On.”
And if the darkness is to keep us apart And if the daylight feels like it's a long way off And if your glass heart should crack Before the second you turn back Oh no, be strong
Oh, oh, walk on, walk on What you got, they can't steal it No, they can't even feel it Walk on, walk on
You're packin' a suitcase for a place, none of us has been A place that has to be believed, to be seen You could have flown away, a singin' bird in an open cage Who will only fly, only fly for freedom
Oh, oh, walk on, walk on What you got, you can't deny it Can't sell it or buy it Walk on, walk on
To walk onto the path that Jesus calls us toward looks different for each one of us. And the truth is – we always are standing somewhat on the sidelines of the next choice we know we need to make. The next step that we know we are being called to. There is always a moment where we decide that we will keep moving one step forward.
And there are always things that are holding us back. Keeping us on the sidelines.
As you think about what those are for you – what is keeping you as a spectator, seeing the path before you where you know you are called to go – but remaining on the sidelines unchanged.
What is holding you back?
Name it. And nail it to the cross.