Strange Days Indeed: Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020 ( Video Service during COVID -19 )

A video service, produced by St. Bart’s to encourage continuity and community in uncertain times.

Sermon Preached on April 5, 2020–Palm Sunday
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME

Zechariah 9:9-12
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 21:1-11

Strange Days Indeed

To say these are strange days seems like a ridiculous understatement – surpassed only by preaching as if life were normal. Knowing that we wouldn’t be processing around the sanctuary waving palms today – I started to ponder what we are able to do, see, consider, as we engage Palm Sunday today.

Which believe it or not, led me to the camera looking in on the Donkey Rescue barn in Massachusetts.[1] A camera – just watching donkeys eating their hay which was hung in nets around the barn. Because donkeys and colts feature in our Palm Sunday text each year. Though I did wonder about the other 56 people watching the donkeys at that moment.

So, it was a very small jump over to the kitten rescue page of[2] where 313 people were watching a mother cat and two tiny striped kittens snuggled up to nap. (They were just sleeping, not really much to watch!) So that was somewhat surprising, but then there were 370 people watching a pile of 7 puppies sleeping in the nursery at the Warrior Canine Connection.[3]

We are all coping the best we can – and that’s good. But it’s also heart breaking to realize how hard we’re struggling to keep our spirits up. What a strange time to begin our walk into Holy Week. Yet here we are, together and yet separate, celebrating the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem – knowing how quickly things will change, and how the rest of the story goes. Perhaps this strange time of mixed emotions is actually a fitting time for us to enter Holy Week.

Today we wave branches, sing as Jesus enters Jerusalem, and for the first time in our years together – have a full celebration of Palm Sunday, rather than let it be the opening act for the passion.

Of course, we reference this celebration almost every week – at least we do when we celebrate the Eucharist. The text of the Sanctus mentions this moment – ‘blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’. Because it’s true – blessed is Jesus who comes in the name of the Lord, and we acknowledge that with joy and singing every week. Many of us cross ourselves at this point in the Sanctus – which is meant to remind us that this moment of triumph and proclamation was short lived, the cheering crowd quickly becomes the same people who will shout to have Jesus crucified within mere hours.

When we wave branches and sing today, we remember this contradiction in ourselves – we are both those who proclaim the Lord with joy, and those who can be fickle, sinful, selfish. Thankfully, we are also those redeemed by God’s love and mercy, through Jesus. Through the events which we will celebrate and remember this week.

At the moment, we’re experiencing something none of us has ever experienced before, and it’s from this new perspective that we consider the text and the events of today, and this week.

We are staying home, sheltering in place, giving up our freedom, our choices, our power to be and move as we please, to be powerful agents in our lives (and in the life of the world).

For weeks now we’ve made the choice to do our best to steer clear of close contact with others, to change the way we work, the way we ‘are’ in the world.

Even before this decision was made by the political powers that be – we were making it for ourselves by choice. And we were doing that not for ourselves (or at least not for ourselves alone), but for others. For the sake of those who need us to take care, who are more vulnerable to this disease. Not because they asked us to, but because we know we should – it’s the right thing to do. To relinquish our power is not something we do lightly, nor is it something we celebrate often.

And yet – the gospel of Jesus has always called us to relinquish, to surrender and let go of: our own righteousness, status, privilege, selfish ambition, self-interest, vain conceit, personal gain, and power.[4]

In our text from Paul’s letter to Philippi, Paul describes how Jesus emptied and humbled himself. Jesus chose the path of relinquishment; Paul urges us to embrace the same mindset, if we want to walk in the way of Jesus. Paul says, “In your relationships with one another, let the same mind be in you as it is in Christ Jesus.”

For most of us our power (or powerlessness) is found in our wealth, education, age, intellect, cultural capital, social standing, gender, profession, religious status, political access, ethnicity, and race. From our current perspective, we might add to this list: our ability, agency and independence. Power can be destructive and divisive. We know that, we’ve witnessed that in our own time. But power can also be healing and nurturing: when it is released, when it is used for others’ wellbeing and human flourishing.[5]

Henri Nouwen writes:
In Jesus of Nazareth, the powerless God appeared among us to unmask the
illusion of power… God became human, in no way different from other human
beings, to break through the walls of power in total weakness.[6]

Jesus shows us power in vulnerability, power in weakness. Jesus shows us what it means to give away power. He calls us to relinquish power to embrace powerlessness, and to give power to others.[7]

Of course, there is power in the gospel and in Christ. But it’s a power the world does not often understand. In weakness, in foolishness, and vulnerability we discover a world-transforming power. In humility and self-giving we open space for God to reveal God’s power. It is the power of grace and love. It is the power of peace and integrity. It is the power of the Spirit and truth. It is the power that honors and heals, forgives, and unites. It is the power of giving power away.[8]

Imagine what we’re learning in these strange days – about the power in our own weakness, and vulnerability. What it means to be those who give up our power for the wellbeing of others: for our communities, for those we know and love, and those we don’t know, but who rely upon us to make the right choices. To choose to give up our power over our day and lives – for now. In self-giving we open space for God to reveal God’s power. And THAT’s the power we need now – the power of God’s grace and love. The power that honors and heals; the power that unites our hearts, even when we are separated.

As our opening collect today says, we approach Holy Week hoping to contemplate with joy those mighty acts, whereby Jesus has given us life and immortality. Mighty acts of love and self-giving.

In these holy days, Jesus shows us how to love others more than ourselves, to lay ourselves down for the sake of the other. In his life, and in his death – he shows us what it is to demonstrate true self-giving, self-emptying love. In these strange days of pandemic, most of us aren’t being asked to lay down our lives, just our way of life for a few weeks.

Though it’s a completely different story for our health care workers, doctors, nurses, hospital care givers of all kinds, those who keep it running, who keep it clean, and the chaplains (like Abby)… and our first responders: EMTs, paramedics, fire and rescue, and police. They are being asked to lay down their lives for the well-being of all of us, to tend to those who are sick with care and compassion.

How might we respond to them? To their self-emptying love and sacrifice? To acknowledge, support, share in the heartache they are shouldering. Waving branches might be a bit much – but can we celebrate them? Cheer for them? Sustain them with our strength. Proclaiming them and their gift of love and care: their bravery, their service.

In the coming week, let’s start a new Holy Week practice – taking time to write to those who serve on the front lines of the pandemic. Because of how easily the virus spreads, we’re asked to send our notes and cards online. I’ll start a list of places we should send our care, our love, our gratitude, our comfort. Feel free to add to my list. I’m sure that between us we can think of an awful lot of people who deserve our gratitude and care right now.

We can do one better than staying home – we can use a little of this time to say thank you. We appreciate what you are doing, and we care for you and your well-being, even as you care for the well-being of others.

My friends, may the same mind be in us, as in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[4] Grace Ji-Sun Kim & Graham Hill, Healing Our Broken Humanity: Practices for Revitalizing the Church and Renewing the World (IVP Books, 2018), 78.
[5] Grace Ji-Sun Kim & Graham Hill, Healing Our Broken Humanity: Practices for Revitalizing the Church and Renewing the World (IVP Books, 2018), 78.
[6] Henri Nouwen, The Path of Power (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1995), 7-8.
[7] Grace Ji-Sun Kim & Graham Hill, Healing Our Broken Humanity: Practices for Revitalizing the Church and Renewing the World (IVP Books, 2018), 79.
[8] Grace Ji-Sun Kim & Graham Hill, Healing Our Broken Humanity: Practices for Revitalizing the Church and Renewing the World (IVP Books, 2018), 80.