Palm Sunday – April 5, 2020
Video is here.
It was dusk; the sun had disappeared behind the rooftops of the homes across the wide street from the west-facing house in which I was raised. The neighbors in Ednam Forest had, for the most part, lived in that subdivision since it was constructed on land part of which, in the early 1970s, used to be a plant nursery. Most people knew one another – their children played together, the adults were guests at the occasional neighborhood party or cookout. We trick-or-treated at each other’s houses.
Each Halloween, there was an older man who thought it was funny to answer the door, reach into our bag of treats, grab a handful, and say “Thank you!” before abruptly closing the door. He would pause for a beat that seemed like an eternity, before reopening the door, giving us back our candy, and then asking “Who wants a Mary Jane? Everybody loves a Mary Jane!”
This was always the highlight of Halloween for me.
On this particular night, however, as the horizon darkened and the clouds stood like silhouettes against the sky, my mother called me into the kitchen to tell me that the Mary Jane Man had died. “His adult son is there,” she told me, “You should go over and check on him.”
And just like that, I began one of the most significant parts of my life’s vocation: visiting, gathering with the grieving, listening. Crossing the street, I had no idea what I was going to say. I was probably fourteen years old.
The English professor, novelist, and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis did not marry until he was fifty-eight years old when he was wed in a civil ceremony to Joy Davidman Gresham in April of 1956. The following march, they would be wed in a religious service but not before Joy discovered she was suffering from terminal bone cancer, which went into remission until July 13, 1960, when she died. (1)
After her death, originally under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk, Lewis published excerpts from the diary he kept after her death in a book called A Grief Observed, a book in which he explores his own suffering at this loss in the context of the struggles it created with his Christian faith.
In chapter one, he writes, “An odd byproduct of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t. Some [pass] it altogether. R. has been avoiding me for a week. I like best the well brought-up young men, almost boys, who walk up to me as if I were a dentist, turn very red, get it over, and then edge away to the bar as quickly as they decently can. Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers.” (2)
In this morning’s text, Jesus “crosses the street,” as it were, bouncing on the back of a donkey as he enters the holy city of Jerusalem, where he has come to die. Jesus enters to the adulation of the crowd who we know from years of Palm Sunday sermons is only cheering because they misunderstand exactly why he has arrived. Jesus arrives, not on a colt as a king awaiting his coronation would ride, but humble, on a donkey, a mere beast of burden. As Bishop William H. Wilimon reminds us, Jesus arrives on Palm Sunday as the royal one who comes to rule, yet as one who conquers through obedient, self-emptying love. (3)
Palm Sunday flies in the face of our modern notions of a distant, disconnected God who seldom, if ever gets involved in specific ways in our lives. A month or so ago, I was attending an ecumenical gathering of clergy when we were talking about prayer, and one of us was actually willing to admit how when he enters situations with his congregants, and especially where there is illness involved, he always finds himself praying in a way that, in his words, “gives God an out.” What he meant was that he prayed aloud in such a way that if the prayer was not answered in the way that was hoped for, God would somehow be protected, not made to “look bad:” “Lord we just pray unto you in the name of Jesus that if it be your will for this healing to take place…”
The rest of us knew he was describing us as well.
The fact of the matter is that generally, we are rather comfortable with a vague notion of God, a God of whom we have few expectations and who we believe has even fewer expectations of us, and of our lives; a God we find unconcerned with how we live and the choices we make. This, in many ways, is the difference in being “spiritual” and being “religious.” Spiritual people can roll with the idea of the existence of a deity. Religious people, on the other hand, tilt towards a deity who seeks our attention, craves connection, gets involved, identifies with our pain, holds us to account for our sin, a deity who enters into our own, personal Jerusalems, even to our misguided acclaim, to intrude upon our comfort and ease with our notions of a far-off god.
It is the reason that our scriptures and our creeds are intentionally so specific. Today’s text speaks about our God doing a specific thing (riding a donkey) on a specific day (Sunday) in a specific time in history. It is why in the Apostles’ Creed, we confess that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” This is not to place blame, for the blame is truly on sinful humanity. We instead utter the name of the one who condemned Jesus to remind ourselves that Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death actually occurred at a specific time in history.
What today’s reading does not include is the first thing that Jesus does in Matthew’s gospel after entering Jerusalem. He enters the Temple and overturns the tables of the money changers, and when he does, Matthew tells us, it was only the children who continued the shouts of “Hosanna!” The adults had other ideas. It is one thing to shout “Hosanna” to a god we believe exists on a plane well above lives. It is quite another when Jesus enters my neighborhood and your neighborhood, and when the tables he overturns are ours.
In the passage I quoted earlier from C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, Lewis concludes his paragraph on how he was treated while grieving the death of his wife by saying “Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers.” Bishop Wilimon writes “I remember the mother who, in noting how few church people had made contact with her after her daughter’s death, said, ‘I don’t blame them. It takes huge courage to enter somebody’s pain. Better to say nothing than to be exposed to such pain as mine.’” He goes on to remark, “Besides, sometimes hurting people unconsciously conspire to keep their would-be saviors at a distance. ‘You can’t know what I’m going through,’ they sometimes say. No wonder we hold back.” (4)
And yet, this holding back is not what Jesus does. It is not who Jesus is. Perhaps more than we would care to admit, we enjoy the distance between ourselves and God. A god who does not intervene in human history, who does not get involved in the entanglements that are our lives is a safe god, a mere granter of wishes, a god behind glass with the small, red hammer hanging alongside the all capital letters IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS. As in the closing lines of William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus,” we proudly declare “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul,” or as Don Draper says in Mad Men, “I am living like there is no tomorrow, because there isn’t.”
And into our insular little milquetoast “theocracies” comes the Messiah. The Jesus who bounces atop a donkey into the city where he has come to die is not a distant, uninvolved clockmaker who has abandoned us to our own devices. The Jesus who was nailed to a cross is not some projection of our deepest, unfulfilled desires. The Jesus we encounter in scripture, and especially during Holy Week is the God who is involved, who is invested, who is connected to our lives, at all costs, come what may. And this is why we Christians call it Holy Week: it shows us the kind of God we have and what that holiness looks like for Jesus: unconditional, obedient, self-giving love, self-giving death before rising again and making us whole.
All of which brings us to now, and the situation in our own personal and communal Jerusalems in which we find ourselves today.
T.S. Eliot opens his poem “The Waste Land” saying “April is the cruelest month” and as we begin this April of 2020, unable to even share Holy Communion with one another, the times feel especially cruel. Disease and death surround us. Economic fears refuse to abate. We even find ourselves unable to make plans for the future, for the future is so uncertain. Even leaving the house is subversive anymore. We feel as though we live at the threshold of Dante’s Inferno, abandoning even our hope.
But to our present cruelty, I offer this: the hope of the one who endured cruelty to redeem us, to save our lives, to save our souls. When the waiting seems unbearable, when the fear seems too great to bear, when what we once took for granted has fled or denied or turned against us, when we have built into our present culture a fearful distrust of even our neighbors such that we fear touch, a handshake, a conversation less than six feet apart in the midst of fewer than ten people, we live in a time when there are no easy answers, even from our faith.
And yet, we look towards the horizon and we see an itinerant rabbi, a carpenter’s son, a man born under questionable circumstances into a poor family in an occupied land, riding towards us on a lowly beast of burden, entering into our pain, entering into our sadness, entering into our fear, entering into even our sin, crossing the street to meet us where we are. For the one who rides into Jerusalem on this Palm Sunday, even to the misguided adulation of the crowds is undeterred by our pain, undaunted by our fear, unafraid of our sadness, unafraid of our sin, even when it would cost him his own life. Amidst the palms, we encounter the one who reminds us that God is here, God is involved, God is invested, God is committed, committed to us, to his church, to this world, even amidst the fear and doubt that surrounds us.
We can hole up in our houses, we can watch the markets rise and fall, but we cannot shake this persistent savior who enters Jerusalem in full awareness of what awaits him, in self-emptying, sacrificial love, for you, for me, for us, for the church, for the world. Thanks be to God.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.