April 5. Palm/Passion Sunday (Matthew 21: 1-11, Matthew 27: 11-54, & Philippians 2: 5-11); We are now, what on our church calendar is the holiest of times, we call it holy week, a week to draw close in the story of a mystery of God: who God is, what God does.
We are now, turned upside down and inside out from life as we knew it. The way we usually participate in Holy Week is with extra gatherings, special music, more time together, special celebrations.
But what we usually do is not possible for us this time. But maybe, we can have a Holy Week that still draws us in close to the mystery of God, who God is, what God does. Because Holy week isn’t in the end about how many services we have or how great the coffee hour was– it’s an experience of God. Maybe just maybe, this can happen even in these strange times of distancing and staying home, maybe just maybe God will be known more than ever before.
Make no mistake, this is our central story, this is the story of the mystery of God-
But in some ways this is a very human story. Sometimes concentrating on how Jesus was revealing God to us, we forget that he was also human. And I’ve been noticing how so many parts of this story are our story right now…
Like how things can change so much, so fast. This story tells us how Jesus entered into Jerusalem with so many people shouting Hosanna and praising God for him, and one week later he was dying on a cross- so much changed so fast, for us now too. So much of our world has changed so fast. We can’t go to work, we can’t see our friends, we can’t travel and going to the grocery store is a bit risky. And for some people who can work, who have to work, every moment is risky. There’s a lot of fear in the air.But Jesus has lived this life where circumstances can change so very drastically, he has experienced this in his body.
And at that time of death, sometimes we talk about what a very terrible death it was, we think on Christ’s suffering. I have been thinking, as I mentioned last week, about the people who are dying because of this virus, or even simply dying at this time when we have to take so many precautions –which is good, which is to try to save lives- but it means that people are dying alone, without their loved ones near. It means that the loved ones don’t have that chance to say goodbye like sometimes people are blessed to be able to do, when we can get a sense that death is coming. And the funeral and memorial and burial rituals are all minimal or delayed, and so there is this grief that we can’t even share like we usually do.
But that is a part of Jesus’ story, too. The way he died was not after a long life, he died too soon- and because he died at the hand of the Roman Empire, he didn’t have a chance to properly say his goodbyes at the very end- although you could say he did some of that at the last supper, he didn’t get to have someone holding his hand while he passed, only strangers nearby who didn’t know what language he was speaking when he cried out to God. Indeed he cried out, my God, why have you forsaken me, and there are moments some of us go through where we want to scream, God where are you?! If we do we know we are in good company, even Jesus let out that cry. And yes Joseph put the body in a tomb, but he did it alone, and they were missing the step of lovingly caring for the body, applying the oils and fragrance, which is what the women would return to do when they could, after the Sabbath- then they would have a great surprise-
But this painful untimely death, without the proper rituals and gathering- that is part of our story now, and that was part of Jesus’ story too.
And some of us are watching the politics of this moment, and noticing how what some leaders do seems to be more about protecting their own power, trying to not let the economy in the abstract suffer too much, so they can be reelected- instead of truly caring for people and saving lives that could be saved, if that were the priority. We see some of the worst of people revealed: an admitted willingness to sacrifice lives in the interest of money, of power, of not changing things too much. And did this not happen to Jesus in an extreme way? A powerplay between the high priest and the governor Pilate- whose own wife warned him not to do anything with the innocent man- but the crowds had been incited by the religious authorities to crucify Jesus. Pilate was responsible for the call but washed his hands of that responsibility. So we have People with authority not using it according to God’s purposes, but to hang on to power or try to get more. This too is part of our story and part of Jesus’ story.
This is our Gospel- that God put on flesh and walked among us, and we did our very worst to him. Humanity tried to put to an end that way of God being among us, tried to end JEsus. we did our worst, it’s all there in this story: betrayal, abandoning, selling someone out for money, political deals, torture and execution, dying alone. Some of it is on the politicians some of it is on the religious leaders some of it is on Jesus’ very own closest followers. I just want to point that out, as they say, the finger pointing out has three fingers pointing back at ourselves…
This is the great flip in the story.
God doesn’t let the destruction we intend win the day. God doesn’t sit back and say, well that was quite a mess of an experiment. God doesn’t take vengeance on the religious leaders or the Roman authorities or even the disciples who betrayed and abandoned Jesus.
God transforms everything.
Yes this is giving away the triumphant ending of the story that comes next Sunday, on Easter… but Matthew does that already, saying that right when Jesus died there was an earthquake and some of those who had passed already right then came to life, that after Jesus resurrected then they would appear to other people. So they tried to end Jesus, but Jesus lives.
But this whole story, it is our story, and it is God’s story, of who God is, of what God does. And the passage from Philippians sums the whole thing up. It is thought to be an ancient song or hymn that describes how Jesus, being God, didn’t try to come to earth to have power over people and command people to do his bidding and tie his sandals for him, but Jesus, being God, poured himself out, became empty of all that power, in order to walk right beside us and have this human experience and know these terrible painful things that are a part of being human. Only by letting go, pouring himself out, was the true way he could be with us and reveal God to us. He went all the way, out of love, to the cross, to show us that grace transforms. Jesus didn’t come with power over people, but placed himself alongside humanity, you could say in some ways, even beneath. All of that, is a description of who God is, of what God does. And it all is a description of what God’s love is like.
Because What looks like ultimate condemnation, ultimate shame, when Jesus is alone fighting for breath on the cross, is God going to every last length to share with us, to walk with us in all of our sorrows and all of our pain, to live our human story, and then say- guess what- there’s something else. There’s life where you thought there was only death. There’s hope where you were despairing. You don’t need those perfumes and oils because Jesus is alive.
That is why every knee shall bow, as that hymn in Philippians goes on to say- it won’t be a forced bow- but when everyone realizes just how great God’s love is, that it empties itself, pours out for our sake, you feel true reverence for a love so strong and deep it can pour itself out and still live, that you worship the God of that love, who became poured out for us in Jesus.
So this is our story, it is God’s story. It is the story how God entered our story and transformed it for us, changed the ending. Remember that no part of anything you go through is too much for God or for the faith community. And remember that we can have the worst happen to us, but God can transform it, bring new life, even when the very worst happens.
So as you live through this Holy Week, and I hope every one of you is safe and healthy but even so I know this virus and these times are taxing all of us in some way, as you live through this Holy Week, remember we are still living out this story, and it is still God’s story too. Amen.