The Saints of the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights like churches around the world, gathered virtually on Palm Sunday (April 5) this year. We considered Luke’s account of the triumphal entry as well as a reading from Habakkuk 2:9-14. We explored the discipline of lament in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the player below:
You know, when you think about attending worship on Palm Sunday, you think you know what to expect. It’s Palm Sunday, after all. We all know what that means – even people who aren’t all that religious have heard something about Palm Sunday. We anticipate joining the throngs waving the branches in the air. Crowds of people flocking to Jesus, social distancing be damned, shouting “Hosanna!” – “Save us now!”.
Do you remember that from the Gospel this morning? Nope. No, you don’t. Call this “Palm Sunday”, do you, when Luke doesn’t say anything about palms, nothing about a city-wide parade, and there’s nary a “Hosanna!” to be heard? What’s Luke doing with his re-telling of a story that we think we already know?
Now, I’ve got to be honest here. I chose these scriptures back when I was so naïve as to think that we’d be worshiping in the same room this morning. And if you had access to my handy-dandy worship planner, you’d see that one of the big things we were hoping for today was to have our confirmation class join the church today, and celebrate Allison’s baptism. I had a great plan as to how I was going to talk about what it means for our young people, and the rest of us, to be disciples in 2020.
But you’re not here, and the only way I could baptize Allison today is with a squirt gun, and you might be feeling silly sitting on your sofa in your pajamas waving a palm frond. What can I say to the confirmands, or the rest of you, now?
Friends, let me invite you to listen up. This is your story. There is a word for the church in the age of the Coronavirus here.
Luke gives us a litany of faithfulness. By and large, this is a story about the disciples – the followers of Jesus.
Look at what the disciples do here. They are the ones who go and get the donkey. They are the ones who bring it to Jesus. It’s the disciples who put their own clothes on the donkey, and then they are the ones who put Jesus up on the donkey. And as the procession winds its way into Jerusalem, it’s the disciples – not a crowd of strangers – who offer all kinds of praise to Jesus.
Sometimes we come into worship and complain about the fickle crowd who chants “Hosanna!” today and “Crucify him!” on Friday. But Luke doesn’t tell that story. He focuses on the ones who love Jesus and stuck by him.
We see that they are praising God. Why? Luke tells us: “They began to praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen…” Another translation puts it “all the deeds of power they had seen”. Do you get that? The disciples were so overcome by what they had seen Jesus do that they broke out into spontaneous praise. Great. So what had they seen Jesus do? What got them in the praising mood? If you flip back through Luke, you’ll see that in the pages preceding our reading for today, we are told that Jesus had dinner with Zacchaeus, healed a blind man, challenged a rich man to give everything he had to the poor, blessed the children, and healed ten lepers while paying special attention to a Samaritan.
They praised God for what they had seen Jesus do. What did he do? Same stories, reverse order:
- He healed those with a deadly, wasting, isolating disease that cut them off from their society, and in so doing, he singled out the poorest and most despised among them for acting faithfully.
- He blessed the nobodies – the children who were insignificant in just about everybody’s eyes.
- He challenged the wealthy to give freely and to abandon their money and follow him.
- He healed a blind man – and not just any blind man, but a poor blind man who was a pest – a real pain in the neck to the people around him who were just wishing that he’d shut up and give them a little peace and quiet.
- He embraced Zacchaeus – a tax collector who was hated by the entire community. He called Zacchaeus to participate in the justice of God’s kingdom – he brought the outsider inside and called him to live in responsible relationships with those around him.
Do you see those things? Those are “mighty works” and “deeds of power”. In fact, the Greek word is dunameon– dynamite! The disciples see Jesus doing all of this and they know what it means and they simply erupt with praise! It’s wonderful! It’s crazy! It’s amazing!
And the religious establishment – the Pharisees – notice that his disciples are all worked up and confront Jesus: “Ah, for the love of Pete, Jesus, get these people under control. Tell them to shut up! They are making us nervous, and we’re all going to look bad in front of the Romans.”
Jesus replies by saying, “You know, if the people who follow me, who saw what I have done, who know dynamite when they see it – if they were to be quiet, then the stones would cry out. Somebody has to notice what’s right in the world!”
And we’d like to do that, wouldn’t we? Who doesn’t want to get the gang back together and point out all the stuff that’s right? But how do we do that now? In some ways, I’ve come to see Palm Sunday as a sort of a Christian “pep rally”. Let’s remember that we’ve got a big challenge coming up, team, and our opponent is pretty tough, but if we stick together and stay focused, we’ll come to Easter just fine.
What if we had a “pep rally” and everyone stayed home? In the midst of a global pandemic, how do I bring myself to care about, much less work toward, the kinds of powerful ministries that Jesus himself embodied in the days leading up to that first Palm Sunday? How can I follow this Jesus today?
Let’s stick with the Gospel, shall we? Let’s follow Jesus away from the city, and see what he does next. Luke tells us that he sits outside of Jerusalem and looks down on it and he weeps.
Oh, for Pete’s sake. Two weeks in a row where the Gospel writers talk to us about a weeping Jesus. What in the world is going on here? Is this what dunameon looks like? I’m not sure that’s going to sell, Jesus…
Jesus sits outside of Jerusalem and he weeps because he knows that the people of God are missing an opportunity. God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, has visited the city with a promise of peace and wholeness, but Jesus knows that the people will reject that peace and choose violence. When Jesus is weeping, he is doing so in anticipation of what he knows is coming; by the time Luke writes the Gospel, it’s history. The leaders of Jerusalem take up arms against Rome in sporadic rebellion until finally open war breaks out and by AD 70 the Romans had had enough and destroy the city and the Temple in which God was to be worshiped.
Some of your bibles might have a heading over this part of the Gospel that reads, “Jesus’ Lament Over Jerusalem”. That’s important, because here Jesus is modeling for his disciples – and for us – an important practice of the life of faith. Right after Jesus notices all the things that are right, and points to the avenues of power, after he names something that is filled with the potential for love and beauty and hope, he then weeps when it does not come to pass.
Is this not, beloved in Christ, a season of lament? To quote a meme that has been going around social media, isn’t this the Lentiest Lent we’ve ever Lented? Is this not a time for us to note the ways that our days are not what we thought they would be? If we are honest with ourselves and each other, shouldn’t we weep for that which we’ve lost?
We begin with the obvious: the trip has been canceled, your birthday party was ruined, and it looks like softball season might not even get started.
But if we stay with the idea of lament for a while longer, we’ll see that it gets deeper. We see jobs that are lost, and marriages that may not have been great a month ago and are under tremendous strain right now. We know vulnerable people who are close to an edge – a precipice of physical health, or economic well-being, or loneliness, or depression – and we know that this will push people that we love over an edge from which some will not return.
And that’s just the people that we know. Who has the bandwidth to care about thousands of people crammed into migrant camps along the border, millions who are walking in African villages, or a billion people in India who lack basic medical care and sanitation?
Right now, it seems as though we can’t do a blessed thing. And we find that disorienting. And we don’t like it. As afraid as we may be of the virus, or even death, we are more fearful of this loss of power that we think we have.
That’s why I think that some of us are being, well, stupid. I know that there are churches who are seeking to be filled this morning, claiming that there is victory over COVID-19 and that their gathering is a bold act of defiance over what they think is an overreaching government, fake news, and a devastating illness. But here’s what I think: I think that churches who want to pack everyone in this morning and people who go for spring break on the beaches and those who refuse to stay at home are not really offering a valiant display of bravery and fearlessness but rather a desperate and vain refusal to acknowledge the brokenness and pain of the world.
Some of us are clinging frantically to the sense of order in our lives because we are unable to acknowledge the pain and disorientation that this pandemic has brought.
One of the most Christ-like things that we can do in this season, beloved, is to join Jesus in lament. In weeping over the brokenness of the richest nation in the history of nations that cannot, apparently, provide medical care for all of its citizens. To join in sorrow over the ways that so many of us have worshiped the golden calf of financial success instead of the savior who sought out the last and the lost and the least. Sometimes being with Jesus means weeping at all the stuff that just isn’t right.
Theologian Joseph Sittler wrote, “Unless the God before whom we sit, and at whom we gaze, and about whom we think – unless that God has the tormented shape of our human existence, he isn’t God enough.”
Jesus left the celebrations on Palm Sunday to enter into a lament about the ways that the world has failed to respond to the Divine gifts of love and peace. Scattered in our living rooms and on our devices this morning, we do the same thing. We lament.
But let not our lament lead us into fear, beloved. Yes, the world is broken. Yes, the virus is real. Yes, there is pain all around us and more on the way. But we dare not respond to those dangers with a fear that incapacitates us, or brings us to despair or a state of being overwhelmed, or to acting like idiots.
Instead, let us respond as disciples always have by seeking to be present and aware, and to look with the eyes of Christ at the world around us. How do we do that? I have a few suggestions.
First, let’s take the steps that we know can help. Let’s remember to wash our hands and continue to practice social distancing. But let us do these things not as obsessions that are born out of fear, but rather as disciplines that are rooted in love for our neighbor. Let us be prudent in our actions as a way of sharing with, praying for, and surrounding the vulnerable amongst us, those who provide care for them, and the parents and children of those caregivers, with the love of Jesus.
And let us be aware of what is happening. You have a moral responsibility to seek out news of what is going on in the world. But you have an equal responsibility to ensure that you do not obsess over that news. See what’s happening, and then go into the next part of your day – a day that like every other day is filled with invitation to follow Jesus.
Practice lament in this season. Give to God your grief over the things that are wrong, the pain that is too real, and the tragedy that every death brings upon us.
And finally, beloved, seek to grow in this Holy Week in your ability to practice empathy. To be like Jesus – to weep with those who weep, to mourn with those who mourn, and to stand with those who suffer. How do you do this? There are a million ways. Send a card. Make a call. Give some of what you have to someone who has less. Seek new ways of connecting with people. Care for the earth. Love your neighbor.
Since November, I’ve often given the confirmation class homework assignments. This week, I want to give you all some homework: read Luke 17 – 22. Look at the kinds of things that Jesus was up to in his life. I dare you to be involved in the same kinds of things. Look at how Jesus spent himself searching for the lost, the left out, and the dead. Look for some of those folks yourself, and give yourself to them.
I’ve got to warn you, though…when you go looking for the lost, the left out and the dead during Holy Week…you might be surprised.
I’ll see you at the table for the Lord’s Supper on Thursday night. And I hope to see you next Sunday, too. Who knows what could happen? It’s Holy Week. Amen.
 Gravity and Grace: Reflections and Provocations (Augsberg, 1986), p. 34
Below you will find the Youtube video of our worship service. I apologize for the quality of the audio – we had an issue with the microphone. The audio for the sermon in the media player at the top of this post is much clearer (but it’s only the sermon). All music is streamed courtesy of CCLI license #812431.