“I undertook my first road improvement project at age six or seven, removing the pebbles from the dirt road in front of our house. It was the work of an idle summer afternoon: I dug stones out of packed dirt and flung them into a field. I felt I was acting for the general welfare and planned on telling my parents that evening at dinner about the good I’d done in smoothing the road. But then my father came out and told me to stop. We needed those stones on the road, he told me. This made no sense; wasn’t it better to make the road smooth? No, he explained, the stones made the road hard. We needed a hard road more than a smooth one.”
So reads the opening paragraph in Chapter Seven of the poignant book Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. Written by author, Philip Simmons, who was diagnosed with ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease at age thirty-five, I was first drawn to the book because Simmons reflects on his spiritual journey in a geographical setting I know well…the White Mountain region in northern New Hampshire where my mother-in-law has a house.
There’s a reason why New Hampshire is often referred to as “the Granite State.” Populated by an overabundance of rocks which seem to bubble up from underground to the surface of roads and driveways, especially around this time of year, New Hampshire manages to make good use of many of those rocks. In a state where so many dirt roads and driveways remain unpaved, there is a reason why many people in New Hampshire prefer to keep rocks in their place. Hard roads are simply more reliable than smooth roads.
You see when it comes to smooth roads and driveways, there is one perennial problem. As we gather here this morning, waiting impatiently for winter to loosen its grip into spring, our brothers and sisters to the north are anticipating their own change in seasons. Not so much winter into spring, but rather snow season into mud season. If you don’t have enough rocks on the road or in your driveway in New Hampshire, you run the risk of getting your vehicle stuck in a sticky quagmire.
A little further south here in Connecticut, all of us will soon see our own share of mud outside our front doors, collecting in our lawns and perhaps floating down our driveways. But up in places like New Hampshire, they have an entire room in their homes devoted to this season. Familiar to some of you, they call those rooms “mud rooms.” And those mud rooms will soon be full of boots that have trudged through knee high muck and damp, discolored socks and dirt splattered coats and dogs who must be toweled off before they can safely enter the rest of the house…
It’s that time of year. Maple sugaring will soon come to an end. Brightly colored bulbs will begin to poke up from the ground in earnest. Not long from now, we’ll swim in the same lakes we might still be able to walk across this morning. But when the snow finally melts, the reality is that New Englanders are going to have to wade through our fair share of mud in order to get to the best and brightest part of spring…
In truth there is a certain irony about mud season. We live in a civilization which measures progress by the amount of pavement around us. Whether we live in a city or a suburb, we invest in paved streets and paved sidewalks. We go out of our way to maintain curbs and clear out storm drains. Look around and the whole panorama is like a giant mud-avoidance system, designed to lift each of us to higher and drier versions of ourselves. To be sure, potholes dotting the roads are an inevitable late March and April glitch in our strategy. But think about how hard we try to suppress our muddy origins and our muddy selves.
No matter how hard we try to avoid them, however, we all go through our own personal mud seasons, and those can occur at any time of the year. Illness, depression, grief, failed relationships, faith crises. And sometimes when we don’t have major reasons for unhappiness in our lives, we find small reasons for unhappiness and blow them out of proportion. We sometimes concoct tales of woe out of life’s small inconveniences and frustrations just so we can wallow for a time in our own muddy misery.
Yet we need mud in our lives for far more than self-pity. We need mud for what grows out of it. Every muddy season is like a kind of death, with the promise of resurrection lying on the other side. Flowers bloom and grass grows and trees blossom out of the mud. Without mud, there is no new life…
So how does all this relate to Palm Sunday, you might be asking? Once upon a time, there was a Jewish Messiah who rode a borrowed donkey into Jerusalem the week before the feast of the Passover. In my imagination, I always picture that day unfolding the same way. It was hot and dusty outside and people lined the road into Jerusalem waving their palm branches as a way of hailing with “Hosannas” the one whom they thought would be king.
But the Scripture lesson from Luke this morning tells us that people laid their palm branches and their cloaks on the ground as Jesus passed by. From the perspective of a New Englander that image usually indicates one thing. Jesus and the donkey were walking through mud rather than dust and dirt.
On this Palm Sunday morning when you and I gather here for worship, in the midst of changing seasons, what does Jesus have to teach us about going through the mud?
As I mentioned a few moments ago, the city of Jerusalem long ago was preparing for the Passover feast. Despite the fact that Jerusalem was under brutal Roman occupation, Jewish peasants had been streaming into the city from all directions for days, preparing to celebrate at the temple. And the more the city population swelled with outsiders, the more nervous the Roman authorities became.
When word spread that Jesus was on his way into the holy city, the buzz among the crowds reached a fever pitch. And the Roman authorities ramped up their preparations accordingly. Eventually, Jesus appeared astride his donkey, slogging through the mud, and more and more people steadily came out to greet him on the road. They called out, they cheered, they shouted…prayers, praises, requests for healing…louder and louder.
Until some of the Pharisees, alarmed by all the enthusiasm, caught Jesus’ attention. “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” A more polite, more politically correct response to the Pharisees might have been safer on the part of Jesus. Instead, Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
You have to admire the conviction of Jesus. The quiet, passionate confidence that refused to come across as arrogance. A Savior so in tune with God and with his own purpose and with his natural surroundings that he made the bold claim about stones proclaiming his arrival without hesitation…without so much as a tiny smile on his face. Jesus knew the fate that awaited him inside the city gates, but he would not be deterred.
The example of Jesus, who rode atop a donkey in the middle of mud season, reminds me of a harsh truth. In order to be reborn, we must first die. The way to Jerusalem is paved with mud. And in order to get to the other side, we have to find a way to let go. Let go of ambition, pride and ego. Let go of broken relationships, let go of the ideal of perfect health, and let go of loved ones who go before us to their own deaths. Let go of insisting that the world be a certain way.
Most of all, we let go of fear. We let go of expectations we can never seem to meet. We let go of our anguished hold on the smaller selves our spirits have outgrown. And when we let go, we find ourselves in the middle of a new life, freer, roomier, and more joyous than we could have believed.
If you and I spent more time in the mud rather than avoiding the mud, chances are good we would come to value it more than we do now. Mud isn’t the obstacle we perceive it to be. And the path to resurrection lies through the mud because only through pain and challenge and sorrow do we grasp the hope that God promises.
We need a hard road more than a smooth one. And when the time comes, we have to leave the stones in the road and in the driveway so we’ll be ready. Each one of us, whether we are old or young, sooner or later, finds our way to the mud. To the season of our terrible and certain joy.
As we enter into this Holy Week, let us wade into the mud with all the conviction and all the resolve and all the strength and all the spirit we can muster. God willing by next Sunday, we will have trudged all the way through. And Easter joy will await us on the other side. Amen.