Blessed are the Pathmakers

Seth Patterson April 14, 2019

Scripture Matthew 21:1-11

Well, my friends, we have made it. It is Palm Sunday, which means we are entering Holy Week and this is the last Sunday in Lent. It is also the Sunday that we are celebrating Earth Day here, which means that (theoretically) spring has arrived. It is also the last Sunday that we are discussing the Purposes of Plymouth Church. We are ending some journeys together in order to open new pathways. It is a time of obvious transition, the letting go of things that have run their course to be open and become available to the new life that is being rebirthed. We must prepare ourselves to let go of winter, of this 14-week long sermon series and of our Lenten postures. While new pathways are open at all times of the year, they seem to be most obvious in these moments of specific transition.

This also means that today we are carrying multiple large topics in this one service. We have Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week. We have Earth Sunday and the desperate reminders that it brings. And we need to discuss our last Purpose, which is to “Further social, economic, racial and environmental justice.” Since each of these is at least one sermon unto itself, I have taken it upon myself to write six sermons and will now deliver them back-to-back. So, settle in friends! Lunch will be delivered in an hour. (I am kidding, of course!)

About a decade ago when I was discerning whether I would take a big leap and move into a different career path, I solicited advice from what turned out to be too many people. I kept asking friends, family, acquaintances and strangers what I should do. I wanted to figure out what vocation was right for me—what was I called to do. I received a lot of advice, and all of it was well intentioned and wise and unfortunately unhelpful. One piece of advice stood out among the rest and has stuck with me ever since. I was asked to switch my thinking from “What do I want to do?” to “Whom do I want to be?” This wise person also asked me what pathways had already been cleared for me: What pathways were opened because of my education or experience? But, even more importantly, what had the people who had come before me done to clear a pathway that I could follow?

I began to look at my parents’ and my grandparents’ lives and saw the ways that they had made paths, some that they made themselves and some that others had cleared for them. I looked at the people whose lives I understood to be full of integrity, joy and love and tried to catch which paths they followed and which ones they made. I am only the person I am today because of the pathmakers who preceded me, their gifts and sacrifices. There have been great numbers of people who went before me—known and unknown, named and unnamed—who have carved paths for me. Blessed are the pathmakers.

This is true for all of us. We are all the beneficiaries of paths that were made long before we began to exist, as well as ones that were cleared almost before our very eyes. Each of us could name the people who forged these paths for us and with us, who cleared the way for life-giving directions. These pathmakers benefitted from paths made for them that allowed them to create new directions. It goes back and back in an ancient web of interconnected pathmaking. Sometimes these paths are across clear and solid ground, while others are up craggy peaks or through loose and troublesome soil. No matter how the path is made, our going has been made at least a little easier and a little more clear because of these people. And each of us, intentionally or not, have made paths that others have followed. Blessed are the pathmakers.

In our scripture reading today, we also heard about how the people of Jerusalem made a path for Jesus leading into the city at the beginning of the feast of Passover. “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.” Jesus was not entering the city alone but instead with a special path of honor, love and excitement. People don’t just put their cloaks down on the road for someone to ride a donkey over without it being an important moment. These people made a path for Jesus. The road had already existed, but they turned it into a pathway. This path wasn’t merely constructed, but it was cleaned, cleared, adorned and lined with people. Pathmakers make the ordinary special by giving of themselves to the creation of the path and doing so with love and hope.

On the other side of the city another path was formed. This time it was being forced. An often-unaddressed piece of the story is that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover wasn’t random but was a counterpoint action to a much larger happening.

Theologian Marcus Borg, who happens to be one of the pathmakers in my own faith journey, highlighted these contrasting entries by writing:

A Roman imperial procession was also entering Jerusalem for Passover from the other side of the city. It happened every year: the Roman governor of Judea, whose residence was in Caesarea on the coast, rode up to Jerusalem in order to be present in the city in case there were riots at Passover, the most politically volatile of the annual Jewish festivals. With him came soldiers and cavalry to reinforce the imperial garrison in Jerusalem.

There were two processions, and both were honorific in their own way. Both likely had many of the same elements as well. Both had people lining the street welcoming an honored person riding atop an animal, both had people shouting honorific titles like “Lord” and “Son of . . ..” Both had people shouting words like “Hosanna,” which often means “Save us!” or “Rescue us!” And both very likely had a pathway covered in palm branches, because in the ancient Near East a palm branch symbolized victory, peace and eternal life. While elements of each of these parades were different—it is almost certain that the governor did not ride a humble donkey—they likely resembled each other in actions and symbols.

A strong and necessary difference between the two was how they were put together. The Romans were not invited into the city, but rather forced this pathway. Jesus, on the other hand, was invited into the city, welcomed by the people and traveled his way on the humblest of animals. Borg says it well when he writes:

For Passover that year, two very different processions entered Jerusalem. They proclaimed two very different and contrasting visions of how this world can and should be: the kingdom of God versus the kingdoms, the powers, of this world. The former is about justice and the end of violence. The latter are about domination and exploitation.

One path was created by pathmakers, the other by pathforcers. One path was made with love by those acting on behalf of God. One path was forced into existence by those working on behalf of the powerful, the oppressors, the exploiters. Blessed are the pathmakers—not the pathforcers.

The pathforcers intimidated people into participating, bullied them into shouting honorifics, threatened them into laying down their cloaks on the road and tricked them into thinking that their way was the only way. On the other hand, the pathmakers did all of this by their own will, out of their own sense of sacrifice. They gave because they felt it was important to do so. They sacrificed something to make this path.

All of the pathmakers in our lives also gave things up in order to make us a path. Making a path is rarely easy, but it is done because God calls us to do so or because we see a benefit to our world. Two thousand years later, we do not celebrate the forced path. We celebrate the path that was made with love and sacrifice; we wave the branches that even the trees gave up to welcome God’s child on a donkey. Blessed are the pathmakers because they did the difficult thing. When I walk in the deep snow with my little daughter I take smaller steps and try to break up the snow so that she can walk more easily. This is not the easiest way of walking for me, but it gives her little boots a place to find footing. Blessed are the pathmakers, because they give something up, because they choose a less-easy direction.

This Purpose of Plymouth Church today is huge. To further social, economic, racial and environmental justice is a massive undertaking, and it says a lot about this church that we name these four injustices explicitly. These are systems of injustice that are older than we are and bigger than we are and benefit us in one way or another. All these systems of injustice were forced into existence on the backs of the powerless. The need to further social justice exists because we made the individual’s need paramount to the needs of the society. We need to further economic justice because inequality was forced into existence by the richest working only in their own interest. We need to further racial justice because this country was—and still is—built on the backs of people of color in an exploitative caste system. We need to further environmental justice because we have stripped the earth of life to feed our consumptive desires. Despite these injustices being bigger and older than we are doesn’t mean that we have no responsibility. We are called to be the pathmakers for justice and for future justice makers.

This will take creativity, time, hard work and difficult conversations in order to live into this admirable Purpose of our church. And despite their very different scopes of need, there is commonality in these four injustices. In order to make a new pathway forward, we must sacrifice something. To be blessed pathmakers. we must give things up, especially the things that we do not necessarily want to give up. We need to discern the difference between what we need and what we desire, between what gives us life and what gives us comfort, between what is rooted in God and what is rooted in me. We need to give things up. Jesus, the head of our Congregational Church, is explicit with the demand that we must possess less, and he tells us with his words, his actions and his life. The pathmakers on the first Palm Sunday gave up their time, their comfort and their own protective cloaks for Jesus’s arrival. The only way to achieve social, economic, racial and environmental justice is to give up some of our time, some of our comfort and some things that we think we need for protection. We are called to desire less, to have less, to consume less and to give more, to love more and to see others more.

We are all good people. We are all deserving of love and hope. How many times, though, do we follow the path that was forced on our world by the various kingdoms of power and dominance and not the path made out of love for God? When do we default to the parade on that side of the city that reaffirms violence and the status quo instead of laying our cloaks down for the kingdom of love, justice and God on this side of the city? There are many paths that we can follow. We have a choice with all of the actions that we take, both as individuals and as a community. We can either be pathmakers and give things up for the sake of God’s child riding on a donkey and create pathways into a more just and equitable future, or we can follow the lead of the pathforcers and maintain the status quo of the powerful over the weak, the rich over the poor, the dominant over the marginalized, the us over the them.

In five days, Jesus will be killed by the empire, by the status quo. That painful and extraordinary sacrifice was made to create a new path forward for all of us. As Borg reminds us, “On Easter, God says ‘yes’ to Jesus and ‘no’ to the powers that executed him.” A week from today we will celebrate that new path forward, that uprising, that rebirth, that resurrection. Each of us has the capability to be a pathmaker. Each of us has benefitted from those who carved paths before us and have the responsibility to do so for those who follow behind us.

Blessed are the pathmakers. How can you, how can we, continue to be one?