April 5, 2020 – Palm Sunday

John Spicer
April 5, 2020

April 5, 2020 – Palm Sunday

A Message of Hope in Code

Sermon for Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020
Psalm 22:1-11; Matthew 27:1-54

Welcome to Palm Sunday – but certainly a different experience of Palm Sunday than usual.  Typically, we’d begin outside in joy, blessing palms and processing around the building, shouting “Hosanna!” and proclaiming Jesus as our king.  Then, once the procession arrived at the door and we entered the church, the service would shift abruptly, almost like whiplash, as we moved toward trial and crucifixion instead.  Today, as we worship under such strange circumstances, with just Dr. Tom and me in the room, we get fewer joyful “hosannas”; and we move even more abruptly than usual to the cross, watching the king gasp for breath.

Maybe that fits this moment in which we find ourselves, that sense of whiplash from joy to sorrow.  A few weeks ago, things were OK for most of us, right up until they weren’t.  And now I hear so many people feeling cut off, frightened, and alone.  The news each day tells the story of a downward spiral, with bodies being loaded into refrigerated trucks as makeshift morgues, states competing for personal protective equipment for their health-care workers, business shutdowns sending millions of people into unemployment.  As we wait for the pandemic to peak, we literally can’t say what the immediate future will hold.  And that can be kind of terrifying.  It can shake our assurance of God’s presence with us, making us wonder, along with the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, whether God is there with us or not.

But this Palm Sunday story, especially as Matthew tells it, is a story of witness to the truth that God is there, no matter what – in fact, that the man on the cross isn’t just a king but God in the flesh.  This is the truth that cannot be denied, despite the story’s downward spiral.

All through the story, even those who try to take Jesus down can’t help but lift him up.  Pilate, the embodiment of Roman imperial power, argues for Jesus’ innocence and even declares the kingship of his rival on a sign above his head.  Soldiers torturing Jesus also hail him as king.  The crowd accepts the blame for lynching the one God sent to save them.  The chief priests, scribes, and elders come by to mock Jesus on the cross, but even they name him as the king.  And in the end, even silent witnesses speak volumes.  In the Temple, until now God’s dwelling place on earth, the curtain before the holy of holies rips in two.  The earth shakes and the rocks split, the creation itself bearing witness that the one who’s just breathed his last is the same One through whom all things were made.  The truth that it’s God who’s there on the cross – that truth will be proclaimed.

Something similar is going on for us, in our own moment.  God is present in this hard time, a truth that even the worst news can’t deny.  For every death, for every job loss, for every person who can’t pay her rent, there are a hundred stories of the love that unites us.  Kids are handing thank-you letters to sanitation workers.  People are cheering exhausted health-care workers in the street.  Closer to home, parishioners and staff and clergy and Vestry members are calling the people of this church family just to see how they’re holding up.  Sometimes those calls result in voicemail messages, sometimes a quick thank-you, sometimes a need for prayer or more tangible help – and, in at least in one case I know of, the beginning of healing and forgiveness years deferred.

And these stories of love include serving those beyond us.  Several of you have made gifts to support meals at home for students at Gordon Parks Elementary.  Yesterday, parishioners brought sacks of food and hygiene products for the families of Benjamin Banneker Elementary, many of those bags not just bearing peanut butter and toothpaste but inscribed with messages of love.

And those stories of love include silent witnesses, too.  Walking my dog, Petey, I saw art from kids down the street who use sidewalk chalk like a painter’s brush, leaving behind an image that to me looks for all the world like stained glass, along with these six words: “You are loved.  Don’t give up!”  Even a walk with the dog testifies to the truth that cannot be denied, the truth of God’s presence with us even in the depths.  And in witness to that truth – on this holy day when we can’t come together and carry palms and shout “Hosanna!” to our Lord – some of us have cut branches from our own yards and hung them as makeshift palms on our front doors to honor the king who has come to love sin and death into submission, despite the cost.

That power of divine love doesn’t crash into the scene, and fight a decisive battle, and make everything OK again overnight.  At least not yet.  For now, as we await the king’s coming again in the fullness of time, that divine love plays the long game, persisting in the midst of what seems insurmountable evil, aching through it for the opportune time, poised to blossom in victory on the other side.

We cannot deny our present reality, the downward spiral of the Holy Week story we’re now living – the foolhardiness and failures we see; the weight of our own isolation; the darkness that lurches at us from the shadows, knocking us off balance and making us flee.  All that fear is real, absolutely; and we must not shame ourselves for feeling it.  Instead, we should hold it, and look at it, and see it in relation to the power that will overcome it.  For even in deepest despair, God opens the door to hope.

I want to leave you with some scripture that might seem like the very last thing you’d want to have in your head and your heart in such a time as this: Psalm 22.  We prayed part of it a few minutes ago.  It’s the source for Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (22:1).  He speaks those words, and we hear terror and abandonment – the human Jesus at the end of his rope.  But like most deeply powerful theological moments, this one is complex.  I think a part of him must have felt terrified and abandoned.  That’s how we’d feel, certainly.  But even from the cross, Jesus leads us to keep looking deeper into the story.  To point us toward hope, he’s sending us a message in code – a code that the enemy, the power of sin and death, can’t break.  It’s a message that God has not abandoned us, despite what we may see and feel; a reminder that even the worst moment is a time to affirm the love that plays the long game.  For when Jesus quotes the start of Psalm 22, I believe he’s pointing to the end of that psalm, as well, the part we didn’t pray earlier.  Like God’s power and love, Psalm 22 doesn’t stop in the moment of dread; it points to the end of the story.  So, I’ll leave you with the verses I believe were in Jesus’ mind as he cried out from the cross, the end of Psalm 22 – that:

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, *

     and all the families of the nations shall bow

     before him. 

For kingship belongs to the Lord; *

     he rules over the nations. … 

My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him; *

     they shall be known as the Lord’s forever. 

They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn *

     the saving deeds that he has done.  (Psalm 22:27,29-30 BCP)