So many of us are longing to return to “normal”. Most of us are having those daydream moments of the future—dreams of hugging loved ones, gathering around table with family and friends, being in a stadium full of people for a concert or a hockey game… dreams of being at our favourite restaurant surrounded by family and friends. I had one of those daydream moments the other day when I walked into our living room and glanced at an item that sparked a good five-minute (it might have even been a fifteen minute) daydream.
When I walked into the room I spotted something my brother gave me a few years ago—a decorative wooden canoe paddle . The first thing I actually thought of when I looked at the paddle wasn't canoeing—it was cheese (if you know me well, you know I LOVE cheese). We often use the paddle as a charcuterie board when friends and family gather at our house. Of course the other thing that I think about is my other passion—backcountry canoe trips. Many of you know my love for being in the stern of a canoe with a paddle in my hand, enjoying the waterways of beautiful Algonquin Park. There’s something about loading up a canoe with your gear… pushing away from the dock and hearing a group of strangers (and fellow our-trippers) say, “Have a nice trip!”
My love for canoe camping started when I travelled to the Leslie M. Frost Centre in Dorset, Ontario (just south of Algonquin Park). For some reason when I looked at the paddle in our great room, my daydream took me to that place. I can remember our canoe instructor, Bob, teaching us how to portage a canoe… (Bob —who seemed like a character out of those 1990s Saturday Night Live “Da Bears” sketches featuring John Goodman and Norm from Cheers). I can still hear Bob’s voice in my ear every time I portage a canoe, telling me to “shake hands with the canoe” before lifting it onto my shoulders.
Each day of canoe instruction was special, but the third day was probably the most memorable. On that third day, we learned “canoe over canoe” rescue. This is where we went out into the middle of the lake and proceeded to do something that defies common logic. We paddled to deep water, stood up in the canoe and then jumped out of the canoe and into the lake.
To learn everything you need to know about canoeing, you need to get out of the boat.
It was quite the scene that day to see a dozen people (or so) jumping out of their canoes and waiting for our partner canoe team to paddle over to us, pull us into their boat, and then proceed to pull the abandoned (capsized) canoe over the other and place it back in the water.
Following in the way of Jesus—living a life of faith—is so similar to that experience I had at the Leslie M. Frost Centre. In order to better equip ourselves for walking that road with God, we must be willing to jump out of the canoe. We must be willing to do those things that seem to make no sense—those things that defy all logic.
Matthew’s story of the Palm Sunday procession is a jump out of the boat and into the lake moment. It’s absurd. It involves risk. It reminds us that if we want to learn about God (if we want to learn about power) we must be willing to step outside of those comfortable places and dive into the unknown.
For people living in Jesus’ time, the canoe was the Temple. That was the place of power. That was where one was supposed to learn about God—about all things good and holy. The thought of jumping out of that place to learn about God and power seemed absurd at the time. But, like a good canoe instructor, the writer of Matthew’s gospel invites us to jump into the lake; to walk with Jesus and his disciples in this ridiculous parade on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Each gospel writer has their own spin on this processional. Mark focuses on juxtaposing the Jesus parade with that of a military parade. Rather than a crowd of soldiers in armour, we have meek and mild people laying down their garments. Instead of weapons of war, we have palm branches raised in the air. And, of course, a humble leader riding in—not on a mighty stallion—but on a measly beast of burden.
Matthew has many of those images in his version of the story, but he seems to ratchet up the absurd imagery to eleven. Instead of Jesus riding in solo on a donkey, he’s riding both a colt and a donkey. The image that Matthew paints for us is a bit of a challenge to imagine but I like to think of Jesus standing with one foot on the donkey and the other on the colt (perhaps even banging two coconuts together). We’re supposed to look at this story of Palm Sunday and say, “That’s crazy!” The writer of Matthew certainly takes us to that place… he reminds us that Jesus is a different kind of prophet; a different kind of messiah; a different kind of king. And when we, like the disciples and those who gathered with Jesus that day, have the faith to jump out of the canoe God suddenly begins to show us what it means to be faithful… what it means to be human.
In the very next section of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus enters the Temple. You may not remember, but many of you know what comes next in the story. Jesus cleanses the Temple. This place that had become a site of exploitation and division becomes the place where Jesus lashes out in anger and expels those who would seek to take advantage of others and stand in the way of certain people entering what was known as God’s Holy Place. We focus a lot of time and energy on Jesus turning over those tables that we forget what he does after that. The text says, “People who were blind and lame came to Jesus in the temple, and he healed them.”
The Human One—the one who reflects all of God’s goodness and grace—sends out those who have power and welcomes in the ones who have been barred from entering this holy space. The meek, the widows, the children... Room is made for these outsiders. Jesus pulls them into the canoe in order that they might experience what it means to be human, what it means to be cared for.
The experience of the past few weeks has felt a little like jumping into those uncertain waters—out of the boat (that place of comfort) and into the unknown. We know that it’s necessary to control the spread of the virus (to flatten the curve). But we’re also beginning to realize that in the midst of this quarantine, we’re also learning a lot about ourselves—about power, and care for one another. We’re learning what compassion, love, and self-sacrifice really mean.
And so, in the midst of our dreaming of returning to “normal” God calls us to dream of something different—a new normal.
When I jumped out of that canoe on day three of our canoe experience, I came back in the canoe a new person— someone more equipped to respond to the challenges of life on the water. It was like a kind of backcountry baptism for me. Right now we’re in the water, our canoe has capsized, and we’re waiting for that rescue boat. When we come out of the water, my prayer is that a new normal might emerge. One where we can look out into the world with eyes of compassion and eyes of love.
Just this past week, California Governor Gavin Newsom helped to pass legislation in his state to provide housing for the homeless. The program, named “Project Room Key” has already opened up 7,000 hotel rooms to provide adequate living space to this vulnerable section of the state’s population. In what seems to be an incredible act of compassion, Newsom reminds us that the problem of homelessness and poverty pre-dates the COVID-19 crisis. He also sees this as being not just a temporary fix but suggests that this moment may guide us to a permanent solution to the problem. Out of the waters of this crisis we dream of returning to a new normal. We dream of opening new doors —with God’s help—to the meek and mild (to those pushed to the side by our world).
In the days ahead, God calls to us to join the parade… to dream not of what has been normal but what can be our new normal. This Holy Week is not one where we’re called to lament all that we’ve lost. We’re called to dream of what CAN BE. We will emerge from the waters as new people. The church will emerge as something new. On the outside of the Temple, God is with us. Treading in the water beside a capsized canoe, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God! Amen!