A big welcome to what might be one of the strangest Palm Sunday celebrations in memory. Normally we’d gather outside the church, bless the palms, and walk around the grounds celebrating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Singing All Glory Laud and Honor. It’s a festive day, and many of us proudly display the palms throughout the year, as a memory of this joyous morning.
But this morning, without the joyful communal celebration, maybe we’re given a chance to get a glimpse into what’s really happening this final Sunday in Lent. And maybe that’s just what we need as we face an uncertain time and an uncertain future.
The Sunday of Palms is also known as the Sunday of the Passion, and we just heard and maybe joined in a reading of Matthew’s version of Jesus’ passion.
Today is a reminder that we don’t get to Easter, to the Resurrection, without passing through the Cross. Without today, the average Sunday Church goer might feel like we jump from the Palm Sunday celebration to Easter morning. They might be inclined to skip over the cross.
There’s an inclination within our American blend of Christianity to skip over the cross. Which is ironic, because our jewelry boxes and walls are often filled with crosses. Some of us even wear crosses tattooed on our bodies.
But our Christianity tries again and again to avoid pain. Whether it’s through a prosperity gospel or a fundamentalism, where our suffering is because we don’t believe enough or are constantly sinning. Or, in more progressive circles, like ours, we label our pain with -isms and use them to judge ourselves or others. Racism. Sexism. Alcoholism. Egoism. Humanism. These are all ways of trying to understand why bad things can happen to good people. Good people like us.
We forget the cross. When the worst thing possible happened to the best person ever.
With a global pandemic, possible economic collapse, thousands dying more every day, and no end in sight, God seems to be cosmically reminding us to remember the cross.
In an article published this past week in Time Magazine, one of my favorite New Testament scholars, N.T. Wright urges us to stop trying to understand or explain what’s going on through the lens of Christianity. The article is called “Christianity Offers No Answers about the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” The title pretty much sums it up.
Wright pushes back on what he calls the ‘usual silly suspects’ trying to tell us why God is doing this to us right now. A sign? A punishment? A warning? He calls these “knee jerk Christian reactions to a culture that, generations back, embraced rationalism.” Everything must have an explanation. He challenges us: supposing it doesn’t?
Instead of an explanation or a sign, Wright calls us back to the Jewish—and Christian—tradition of lament. “Lament is what happens when people ask, ‘Why?’ and don’t get an answer.”
He tells us” “Lament gets us out of our self-centered worry about sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world.” Suffering that was going on well before we had to self-quarantine. Lament makes us look at the cross.
The Psalms provide us the language of lament, and today’s Psalm is a great place to start:
Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am in trouble; *
my eye is consumed with sorrow,
and also my throat and my belly.
For my life is wasted with grief,
and my years with sighing; *
my strength fails me because of affliction,
and my bones are consumed.
And it goes on. And, like most of the Psalms, it ends with a note of redemption. With the hope of resurrection after the cross:
My times are in your hand; *
rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me.
Make your face to shine upon your servant, *
and in your loving-kindness save me.”
Today’s Psalm seems perfectly suited for a Coronavirus crisis. Darkness, fear, uncertainty but an assured call for help.
Wright reminds us the point of lament is not just an outlet for our fear, sorrow, frustration, or just our complete inability to understand why this is happening to us. The point of lament is that God also laments.
It’s tempting to think that God is above all this—all knowing and in charge, calm and unaffected by the troubles in the world. But that’s not God’s story in the Bible. He’s often grieving—over humankind’s wickedness, over Israel’s disobedience.
Just last week, we were reminded that God made flesh, Jesus, wept upon hearing about his friend, Lazarus’ death.
God is with us in our lament.
I realize I could have just read N.T. Wright’s article in its entirety—it’s so good and so timely—and I promise to post a link to it after the service. He ends with a powerful call that spoke to my own thoughts on sanctuary this week:
“It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope.”
We become small shrines—sanctuaries—where the presence and healing love of God can dwell.
Today we skip the pageantry of Palm Sunday to remind ourselves of the enormity of the Passion. Not because we’re supposed to feel guilty that we would have been right there, along with the chief priests or Jesus’ hecklers, laughing at Jesus on the cross.
We remind ourselves of the enormity of the Passion because God goes with us, into the darkest of places, and stays there with us. And laments with us.
Jesus’ last words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is a lament, from Psalm 22.
And then he breathes his last. The temple curtain is torn in two. The rocks split.
If you’re like me and you are wearing a cross around your neck or on your arm or hand. Or if you have one in sight while you listen to this. I invite you to look at it or touch it. And remember it not as the triumphant cross of the resurrection—of death being defeated—that’s next week–but as the cross of lament. Of God going with us—of God leading us—into the darkest places of despair. The cross reminds us that even in this darkness, God is our light. God defends us from all the perils and dangers.
And then we start to prepare for the resurrection, for Easter. Next week.
 From the Collect for Aid Against Perils, Book of Common Prayer, 123.