Both here and in all your churches throughout the whole world. We adore you, O Christ and we bless you. Because by your [+] holy cross you have redeemed the world. AMEN.
[Traditional Franciscan prayer upon entering or leaving a church]
The readings for Palm Sunday provide some of the most difficult texts any preacher has to work with at any time during the church year. The brutal murder of Jesus and the events that lead up to it are hard to hear, much less think about. Holy Week takes us from the elation of the Palm Sunday procession to the absolute despair of Jesus’ last breath. Our readings this morning offer little of comfort to us. And we are particularly aware of such despair in times like our own.
In years past it may have been difficult for some of us to fully enter into the events of Holy Week. They seemed so distant from our daily lives. The idea of crucifixion alone was so foreign to most of our experiences that while we may have felt sympathy for Jesus and his followers, we really couldn’t relate to their experience.
This year, all of that has changed. Last December, a tiny virus which has proven highly contagious and quite deadly began to sweep our planet. As a result, the house of cards that we call modern civilization began to fall apart. Health care systems have been overwhelmed, our economy has tanked, and we find ourselves confined to our homes for the duration, however long that might be. Several weeks into this contagion, I think we are all beginning to understand what crucifixion really means.
This year there are many points in the story line of Holy Week to which we can relate. We know that elation of Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem, driven by hope of a messiah who would save his countrymen and women from their worst fears. We have watched a stream of would-be messiahs come across our televisions and monitors the past few weeks from the fields of medicine, politics and religion. All of them offered us hope, if only fleeting, that we might yet avoid a seemingly inevitable date with the cross, that things might return to normal and we could go on with our daily lives, the virus a mere blip on the radar of history.
Each time, in our heart of hearts, we have felt a glimmer of hope – Hurray! We are saved! And yet, like the people of Jesus’ Judea, we have not been delivered from our distress. Our trajectory toward crucifixion remains on course. And so we know the sting of disappointment that gives rise to the rage Jesus experienced all around him as the mob cried out, “Crucify him!”
We know the feeling of betrayal by holders of power. Perhaps we have a better sense of the realization that Jesus must have had as he stood before Pilate, knowing that Pilate knew Jesus had done nothing to merit punishment, much less death. And yet he also knew that Pilate was more concerned with his own political future than doing the right thing.
And so Pilate decided to play to the basest elements of those he governed and sacrifice an innocent man. And he exacerbated that wrongdoing by dissembling about it: “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”
We live in a time when many of us fear we cannot rely on those who hold power in our land to do the right thing or to be honest about that. We live in a time when concerns for political careers and economic profitability supersede responsibilities to people. We see it in the scapegoating of other nations for causing this virus resulting in ethnic minorities who are our fellow citizens becoming targets for xenophobic abuse. We see it in the playing of states against one another to obtain desperately needed medical supplies. And we see it in when power holders, confronted with the harm their decisions have caused, respond like Pilate: “I’m not responsible for that.”
We also know the feeling of betrayal by those people immediately around us. Jesus was betrayed first by a disciple who collaborated with the Temple cult to hand him over to the Romans and later by virtually all of his disciples who would abandon Jesus once trouble began. It has always fascinated me that for all the bravado we hear among Jesus’ male disciples, it is almost exclusively the women disciples who were present at his procession to Golgotha, who stood at the foot of the cross as he died and who returned as quickly as the law allowed to attend to his battered body. The rest of the disciples are all scattered, hiding, protecting their own hides.
Many of us who went to the stores over the last couple of weeks looking for basic necessities from toilet paper to eggs, milk and bread experienced firsthand the feeling of betrayal by our fellow citizens. Feelings of fear in time of crisis are somewhat predictable. But egocentric, irrational panic buying and hoarding of necessities potentially endangers all of us. Worse yet, price gauging among those who would provide goods that could mean the difference between life and death for many engenders fear and loathing precisely at a point when we most need to be able to trust one another and work together if we are to survive.
At the end of Holy Week on Holy Saturday, the shattered body of Jesus will lie in a tomb, alone. His followers will be in hiding, fearful of discovery by the Roman authorities. No doubt they, like us who hide from a killer virus in our homes, had little idea of how to relate to a world that had changed so dramatically that they felt it was literally coming to an end. And no doubt they, like us found themselves wondering “What is going to happen to us?”
Truth be told, there can never be much good news in weeks that end in crucifixion. The words of our Evening Prayer rite spring to mind as we experience the darkness of the tomb: O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us.
But I would like to offer three bits of good news before we embark on this journey of Holy Week in a time of pandemic.
First, we need to remember that however painful our current suffering may be, it is not forever. When I was a naïve younger man out trying to slay dragons and save the world, I encountered an awful lot of disappointments. When I found myself most distressed by the events of my own life and the world around me, my Dad would say to me: “This, too, shall pass, Son.” I find myself repeating that mantra these past weeks of watching the world familiar to me falling apart. I believe these words contain a wisdom that is trustworthy: This, too, shall indeed pass. And history tells us that is true.
Second, I find myself comforted by the recognition that even in the most agonizing final moments of Jesus’ life, the G_d he called Abba, Daddy, was still with him, even when it seemed that was not the case. The writers of Matthew’s Gospel place the words of Psalm 22 on the lips of Jesus: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I think all of us can relate to this feeling of abandonment as our world crumbles around us. Even so, G-d remained present with Jesus. As Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, G-d will highly exalt this Jesus who willingly endured the process of crucifixion to the bitter end. Jesus will not be abandoned to the pit. And neither shall we.
There are many ways in which G-d’s presence in our lives can become known during this time of crucifixion. This ministry of making our liturgical services available online to those who must remain in their homes is one of them. Our own willingness to remain in our homes to prevent the spread of this virus is another.
Some of us see the presence of the divine more clearly than ever in the faces of our grandchildren on FaceTime whom we cannot visit in person. We see it in the heroism of the grocery store clerks and the folks who pick up our trash and deliver our mail, in our law enforcement agents, the nurses, and doctors. We see it in the social worker reaching out to the homeless to warn them of the danger and teachers caravanning past their students’ homes to remind them they are not forgotten. We see it in the neighbors who stand on their porches and balconies to sing and play musical instruments for us to join in on. We see it down the street when another neighbor leaves a casserole on the stoop of an EMT who’s been working long overtime shifts because so many of her colleagues have been quarantined for exposure.*
We, too, become agents of the divine presence when we express our appreciation for workers in essential businesses which remain open and our admiration for the public servants who are risking their own lives in protecting us. If G-d’s saving presence is to be known in a world undergoing crucifixion by a simple but powerful virus, it will be because the people of G_d – and that would be all of us – have chosen to make that presence known.
Here’s the third bit of good news. Please note, this is a spoiler alert: At the end of this ironically named Holy Week with the setting of the sun on Holy Saturday, the day in which we commemorate Jesus’ lying in his tomb, the church will begin a new liturgical season. Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection, celebrates the reality that death does not have the last word with Jesus. And the good news is that the crucifixion we are currently enduring will not have the last word with us, either. At the end of crucifixion lies resurrection.
To those of you who are watching this day, whether parishioners here at St. Richards or those who have come to our Facebook site on your own, know that you are loved and remembered by this parish this day. Do not lose sight of the reality that this time of crucifixion, too, shall pass. And have courage, knowing that G-d is with us always, even in the valley of the shadow of death.
Blessings to all of us this Holy Week as together we make our journey down the Via Dolorosa, this final passage of the Way of the Cross.
Let us pray: Almighty and ever living God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, [+] one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
[A sermon offered on Palm Sunday, 2020 at St. Richard’s Parish, Winter Park, Fl]
* with gratitude to the Franciscan Action Network for the examples used in this section
A video recording of the live delivery of this sermon is available at the St. Richard’s Facebook site beginning at 24:30 into the recording:
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2020