Monday, March 21, 2016

"Joy to Grief" MCC Windsor, March 20, 2016, Palm Sunday

Readings
Contemporary Words:
“Even now, I wonder: if I meet God, will God take and hold my bare hand, and focus God’s eye on my palm…? … It is I who misunderstood... God, I am sorry I ran from you. I am still running, running from that knowledge, that eye, that love from which there is no refuge. For you meant only love, and love, and I felt only fear, and pain. So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.” 
--- Annie Dillard’s essay “God In the Doorway,” in the book Teaching a Stone to Talk. 


Ancient Words
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 
Give thanks to God, who is good;
    God’s love endures forever.
Let Israel say: God’s love endures forever.”
Open for me the gates of the righteous;
    I will enter and give thanks to the Holy One.
 This is the gate of our God
    through which the righteous may enter.
I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
    you have become my salvation.
The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
the Holy One has done this,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes.
God has done it this very day;
    let us rejoice today and be glad.
God, save us!
    Holy One, grant us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God.
    From the house of the Holy One we bless you.
 The Holy One is God,
    and has made God’s light shine on us.
With branches in hand, join in the festal procession
    up to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I will praise you;
    you are my God, and I will exalt you.
Give thanks to the Holy One, for God is good;
    God’s love endures forever.

Luke 19:28-40
Jesus went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.  As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Holy One needs it.’”
Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them.  As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
They replied, “The Holy One needs it.”
They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.
When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
“Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”


Reflection:
The joy of Palm Sunday. The rejoicing of the people of Jerusalem as Jesus enters, the one who has been teaching and healing and comforting them—riding in like a conquering hero! Is it possible, they must be asking themselves, that he will take over from the priests, that he will send the Romans packing, and that Jerusalem will be ruled by a Jewish—truly Jewish, not a Roman puppet like Herod—but a real Jewish ruler? Can it be? That would be like heaven on earth! And so they shout and celebrate with a joy that can’t be contained. As Jesus himself says, the very stones of the streets and houses would shout out, even if all the human voices were stilled. 

The words from the Psalm are probably very reflective of what the disciples and the people of Jerusalem were feeling. 
“Give thanks to God, who is good;”
“I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
    you have become my salvation.
The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
the Holy One has done this,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes.
God has done it this very day;
    let us rejoice today and be glad.”
“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God.
    From the house of the Holy One we bless you.
 The Holy One is God,
    and has made God’s light shine on us.
With branches in hand, join in the festal procession
    up to the horns of the altar.”

They could not help but celebrate—their dreams, their hopes, their aspirations all seemed to be coming true! No more Romans, no more grinding taxes, no more arrogant foreign soldiers ordering everyone around—just freedom to live as the laws of God demanded, with justice and peace and righteousness and mercy. 

What is your fondest dream for your nation, your city, your workplace, your family, your community? What would you want to have happen above all things?  Take a moment to think about that. What is it that you picture as the best thing that could possibly happen for that situation? A new leader, a new strategic plan, a new attitude or atmosphere? Maybe a reconciliation between some people who have had a falling out? Perhaps there’s a project or a change in policy or procedure that would radically improve things. Imagine what it would be like to have that, whatever it is, in place and working, and your dreams coming true. Imagine that the person who can make that happen is standing in front of you, promising to do just that—bring in the new leader, change the policy, fund the project, spark a new attitude—whatever it takes to bring your dream to life.

That is what the people of Jerusalem think they see in the near future. Jesus has been so wise, so kind, so just, so full of healing and comfort—surely he will now take the next step and evict the Romans, and take over as the ruler of Israel, as he is entitled to do, being a descendent of David. Isn’t that what all his travels and teachings and work were leading up to? Isn’t this the perfect moment now—at the celebration of the Passover, which is the ceremony of the remembrance of the exodus of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery to freedom in their own land—so now Jesus can be a more perfect Moses, and lead them out of slavery to the Romans, and rule them in their own land of Israel—isn’t that what this is all about?

Could there be a more perfect time? Clearly not, and so the people of Jerusalem celebrate the coming of the anointed one, the Christos, in Greek—no, it’s not Jesus’ last name. And so they shout and dance and wave the palm branches of victory. 

Reading
Luke 23: 22-49
When the soldiers had brought Jesus to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Holy One, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, the chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the Ruler of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the Ruler of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this one has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your realm.” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Beloved Creator, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this one was innocent.” And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.



Reflection:
Wow. That was quite the change. Sunday the celebration and joy and welcome…Friday the rejection and confusion and grief and death. 

In the course of history, we in the Christian church have lost the sense of progression through Holy Week, as the days between Palm Sunday and Easter are called. Christianity was the organizing principle of civic life for many centuries—as it still tends to be in many ways, but not as it was in, say, the Middle Ages or even the Renaissance or the 18th century. Holy Week  meant no frivolity—depending on the time period, that meant only religious plays, oratorios instead of operas, no gambling, no balls, even at court; law courts closed and so did shops and theatres. In contrast to Christmas, which was celebrated with gusto—food, drinking, revels, and parties—Holy Week and Easter were seen as more somber and serious holidays. Monday through Wednesday were days of prayer, each with an observation, but it was Holy Thursday and Good Friday when things went into high gear. Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, remembers the Last Supper—Jesus’ last meal on earth with his disciples and the institution of what we call today Communion or the Lord’s Supper. 

It may have been a Passover meal—the Gospels aren’t clear on that—but it was clearly an intimate meal, shared with close friends, a chosen family, as a Passover seder meal often is. I’ve been privileged to attend a couple of seder meals with Jewish friends, and they are very much family meals. It is also partly a worship service, and the order of the service is called a haggadah, and there are many versions available—a women’s haggadah, the Jerusalem haggadah, an LGBT haggadah, and so on. It is customary, even expected, for there to be discussion and dispute over the ceremony and what is done when. There’s a part for children—a piece of matzo, the crackerlike unleavened bread of Passover is hidden, and the one who finds it wins a prize—and there are questions to be asked by the youngest child, about why the meal is eaten the way it is and so on. It can actually last a long time, and is full of tradition, both religious tradition and the individual family’s traditions, depending on their background.  If you are ever invited to share in a Passover meal, please do—and if you have been fortunate enough to be part of one, you know what it is like! But please, unless you have a Jewish friend who is willing to lead you through it, please do not attempt to have a seder meal on your own. I compare that to a non-Christian person trying to celebrate Communion to see what it is like for a Christian…just not the thing to do. 

And then Good Friday. It is interesting to me that here in Canada, which is much more secular in many ways than the USA, Good Friday is a holiday, or a half-holiday, for many people—which it is not in the US; and the same is true of Easter Monday. 

Good Friday in some traditions is observed with the Stations of the Cross—remembering various events of Jesus’ last hours of earthly life as he went from Pilate to Herod and back again, as he was tortured by the soldiers, taken to Calvary and crucified, as he dies and is finally laid in the tomb. This is the one day in the Christian year when Communion is not celebrated—because the Communion host represents Christ, who on this day died, and so cannot be the living bread. In Roman Catholic churches, the tabernacle with the reserved host, that is, the Communion hosts left from the Mass, is left open and empty, to symbolize Christ’s death. As Christ is in the tomb, the tabernacle is empty of the living Christ. 

Holy Saturday one would think would be a day of stillness and Sabbath—of mourning and quietness; a day of nothingness. But simple logistics get in the way here. Easter Sunday is the greatest feast day in the church year, and so all the best linen, all the brightest candle sticks and altar decorations and vestments must be brought out to adorn the church. Not to mention the flowers! And of course all this can’t be done in an hour or two! So in reality, it is a busy day of decoration and beautifying the church sanctuary. Some traditions have an Easter vigil on the Saturday evening or Saturday night, and that can be a lot of fun. The story of the relationship between humans and God is told through the Bible stories of Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, the Tower of Babel, The Exodus, and so on, through readings, skits, songs and hymns, right up to the resurrection—when light bursts into the church, all the candles are lit and everyone begins ringing the bells they have brought, the church bells ring, and a huge party starts! I recommend an Anglican or Episcopalian congregation for the Easter vigil—they know how to do it right!

In other traditions, Resurrection begins more quietly, with a sunrise service; then a worship celebration at the usual time, albeit with all the musicians the church can muster, all the stops out on the organ, flowers everywhere they will fit and everyone dressed to the nines. 

It’s a progression—from that joy of Palm Sunday, through the farewell of the Last Supper and the grief and horror of Good Friday and the nothingness of Holy Saturday to the joy of Easter—that we don’t see anymore, not really. Most of us don’t or can’t attend worship on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. And so we miss part of the story, the power of the joy and revelation of Easter. 

So sometime in the 1960s or 70s, pastors and church musicians began noticing that people weren’t able to come to all the services. And so we now compress Holy Week to one Sunday, Palm/Passion Sunday, and try to be sure that no one goes from the palm branches of Palm Sunday to the joy of Easter without going by the tomb of Good Friday as well. 

Because that’s why we’re celebrating, It’s not that the hopes of Palm Sunday—the new strategic plan, the new leader, the new policy—it’s not that they were put into place and they are working. Far from it. In fact, that new leader, that new policy we had such hopes for was basically thrown out the window. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” The hopes and dreams were crucified on the cross with Jesus. That’s what Good Friday is all about. Everything we thought we were promised, that new beginning, a new way of dealing with each other—it’s done. It’s gone. It’s over, because Jesus is dead and in a tomb. That’s our grief. That’s why we are numb on Holy Saturday. We don’t know what to do now; where to go, what to do. Jesus is dead. What do we do now?

Amen.

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