Hitting the Road (Matt. 21.1-11)
Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church
April 9, 2017
When she received the bad news, Norma Jean Bauerschmidt looked her doctor in the eye. Her cancer was advanced, he had said, and surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy were unlikely to do much. But he needed her thoughts on a course of action. Norma Jean drew a breath and made her choice. I’m 90 years old, she said to the doctor. I’m hitting the road.
She left the doctor’s office, rented an RV, and did just that. She took her son, daughter-in-law, and their dog along with her and the whole thing became a bit of an internet sensation. They logged thousands of miles and covered 32 states with the time she had left. Norma Jean did things she had never done before, savoring each one. She climbed into a hot air balloon. She sat for a pedicure. She ate key lime pie. And she woke to a very beautiful sense of the present. In spite of her mortality. More likely because of it.
It’s a beautiful story for its spirit. Norma Jean looked at the odds, figured the time she had left, and hit the road, enjoying every moment. And it’s a beautiful story for its existential courage. She knew where the road was going.
I read the story after she died in October last year and thought immediately of Palm Sunday. Because Palm Sunday tells the story of Jesus hitting the road. And it plays with our understanding of mortality, asking questions of who we would be if we knew our days were numbered, which they are. It’s a story that we often tell with great seriousness, as if we must march to the grave bearing heavy crosses. But what if we spent our last days as Norma Jean did, foot on the gas with all our people in the backseat. Let’s see this thing before we’re gone. Let’s hit the road.
I don’t know if Jesus was as whimsical as Norma Jean. But I don’t know that he wasn’t. His wisdom teachings and his way of being both seem delightfully off kilter. And sometimes I feel that the institutional church has understood him about as well as Norma Jean’s doctor understood her. We sit down with him every year, telling him that his days are numbered, asking if he’s willing to go through the usual rigmarole. Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy. Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday. But the diagnosis is the same. It’s mortality either way.
And just this year, thanks to Norma Jean, I imagine Jesus looking us in the eye and saying with a smile, I’m 33 years old. I’m hitting the road. Then swinging onto a donkey and loping off like the unconventional character he was. Because he was that, friends.
He was unconventional politically. We see it in the text. The people, expecting a certain kind of king, lay cloaks on the ground to welcome him. They think of him as a messiah in traditional terms. He’ll come to rule, preside over, care for. But he knows that’s not his road. His kingdom is already spread out all around. It is lilies and sparrows, enemies and outcasts, the least and the lowest. It isn’t the kind of kingdom anyone ever wanted, then or now. A kingdom of the least and the lowest? And with nary a sword. That’s no kind of kingdom.
And he was unconventional religiously. We see it in his life. Breaking all the rules from the time he was a boy. Sitting in the temple to interpret. Reading the prophet’s scrolls and declaring that every captive be freed, not some other time, but there and then, in the moment the words were said. Chiding people for their hypocrisy in observing the letter of the law without living its spirit. All the law can be spoken in a single breath, anyway, he said. Love God and your neighbor as yourself. Every neighbor. Do it by hitting the road and riding your own donkey past all the old dividing lines. Find Samaritans, tax collectors, fishers, prostitutes, lepers. Neighbors every one. God’s beautiful, shining children.
When he entered Jerusalem, they all asked, Who is this? The crowds said it was the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee. But they really had no idea. They thought he would save them. When in fact he came to wake them up. You have your diagnosis, he hinted. And you are 10 years old, 25 years old, 40 years old, 60, 75. You should be hitting the road.
What a beautiful message, so often overlooked by institutional Christianity. Because the church that was formed in his name turned so conventional over time. It was conventional politically, siding with unjust structures and systems. It was conventional religiously, offering people promises of certainty, no existential courage required. Which takes all the fun out of it. And it takes all the faith out, too.
Because the truth is, all of us live in the not knowing. We don’t know how many days we have. We don’t know where to find certainty. We don’t know what our lives are about. We don’t know all kinds of things that we never admit we don’t know. And the church has faltered greatly in suggesting that knowing is the point. Instead of living. We read stories like this and want to know the ending. What will happen to Jesus? Will he be all right in the end? What will happen to us? Will we be all right in the end? Those were never the most important questions, according to Jesus. And when they asked him he asked back. What will happen to the lilies? What will happen to the sparrows? Stop worrying about things you cannot know and live your life. Stop worrying and simply love God, love this world, and love everything in it.
It’s an existential wisdom, completely uninterested in the clinging questions of ego. It invites us to hit the road. Climb into a hot air ballon. Sit for a pedicure. Eat key lime pie. But more than that. Care for the earth. Fight injustice. Speak unvarnished truth. Hit the road to your true self and find out how beautiful it is. Only then will you know what he meant. Only then will you find it, here and now.
I don’t know if Norma Jean was a person of faith, but she was a person who was free enough to hit the road. And she experienced there what so many of the great teachers have taught. That in laying down her life, she could find it again. In hitting the road, she could make for herself a home. A home in the present moment, the gift beyond any words.
Norma Jean’s family learned the lesson, too. A public invitation to her funeral asked that people not send flowers to the service. Send them to someone you love, it said. Today.