No Palms? No Parades? No Problem

It feels strange, doesn’t it, to be cooped up inside today as we hear Luke’s bustling, jubilant, and very outdoorsy account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem? Like so many other things, the festivities that normally make today so very special are cancelled.

Palm Sunday has been observed in the western world since the 8th century. In Jerusalem, the celebrations go back even further, all the way to the 4th century. There’s a surviving, fragmented letter called “The Pilgrimage of Etheria” that dates perhaps to the 380s and describes a Palm Sunday processional that begins on the Mt. of Olives and winds its way down into the city, with the people singing hymns, the adults carrying children on their shoulders, and all of them carrying palm or olive branches as they go. What a sight it must have been! It might have even been more spectacular than the day that Jesus actually rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Reading Etheria’s account of her pilgrimage and hearing Luke’s account of the triumphal entry in these days of isolation raise in me a sense of longing. Wouldn’t a parade be nice right now! To gather and celebrate, to be close to other people. Just seeing a parade go by without having to watch it on a screen would be fantastic!

I also find these stories evoking a sense of wonder. What if? What if there had been an epidemic in Jesus’ day. What if the Roman authorities had banned assemblies on that first Palm Sunday – something that they could have done for any number of reasons. Civil liberties as we know them and understand them and enjoy them didn’t exist back then. What if that first Palm Sunday had been like this Palm Sunday? What if Jesus made His way down from the Mount of Olives on His donkey all alone, with perhaps only the twelve disciples following at a safe distance, spaced two cubits apart? Would we still have something to celebrate?

Well, we certainly wouldn’t have quite the same story; and without the same story, we wouldn’t have the same traditions of palm branches and hymns, the processionals like the one Etheria witnessed that form the basis of other (albeit much shorter) palm parades in church sanctuaries around the world.

What such an alternate first Sunday of Holy Week might look like, I really can’t imagine. But I can say with confidence that, yes, we most definitely would still have something to celebrate!

The oddity of observing Palm Sunday without the parades and all the other usual trappings is a special opportunity for us to remember that those parades and trappings aren’t really what make Palm Sunday. Jesus’ arrival makes Palm Sunday. And Jesus declares that His arrival would be celebrated in the depths of creation whether a parade happened or not. As He tells the Pharisees who complained about the noise, “If these were silent, the very stones would cry out!”

Palm Sunday really can’t be stopped. The grinchy Pharisees couldn’t stop it from coming. The wider religious and political establishments couldn’t stop it from coming. So neither can a pandemic. Even if there are no parades today, Jesus is still showing up – and the stones are still crying out.

Our presence is not necessary for anything that is happening today, or that will happen this Holy Week. That’s because none of it depends on us. It all depends solely and exclusively on God’s love and God’s grace. That’s the story. “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life”! “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” Everything that is unfolding this week is unfolding through God’s will, by God’s grace, and because of God’s unbreakable, unshakable, unyielding love for you and me and all of creation.

And here’s the truly amazing part. The depth and breadth of God’s love means that even though we aren’t necessary – there’s nothing that we need to do (or ever could do) to earn our salvation or God’s favour – that doesn’t mean we’re unimportant. Quite the opposite, in fact.

We matter. We matter to God so much that Jesus is riding into Jerusalem today, to confront head on the fear and pain and brokenness of all humanity, of all the world: the darkness entwined with our better nature; the shadows cast by our egos and sinful desires; all the pretensions within us that seek to supplant or obscure God’s reign in our minds, in our hearts, in our souls.

Jesus is arriving to face the cross, to live and die and live again, so that we might be freed from the grip of death and share in God’s abundant and eternal life.

Jesus is riding into Jerusalem today because you are somebody – a human being made in God’s image.

And that’s not just true for you. Or me. It’s true for everyone. The upstanding as well as the downtrodden. The righteous as well as the rebellious. The junkie as well as the genius. The denigrated as well as the celebrated. That guy going the extra mile to help others in this time of need, as well as that dude who is hoarding toilet paper to resell at a profit.

All of us are made in God’s image, all of us are God’s children; and all of us are loved and forgiven. That’s the scandal of the story that begins today, the scandal of grace.

And that’s why Jesus is also riding into Jerusalem to overturn tables, to challenge hierarchies, to flaunt biased and self-serving legal systems, to subvert any and all religious, political, economic, and social structures that claim other allegiances, that hold to different standards – structures that want you to see and understand yourself, and to see and define your neighbour as less than a child of God: a subject, a pawn, a commodity, a skill set, a bank balance, a list of accomplishments or belongings. No matter how you measure up by those earthly standards, it’s not who you really are.

It’s also why Jesus calls us to follow Him, to join Him on this journey to and through the Cross, unnecessary as we are. He wants you to learn to see yourself and your neighbour with different eyes; to be instilled with different, more heavenly priorities; to be shaped by this love so amazing, so divine; so that we can come to live, and to simply be, as the beloved children we are.

The good news of Christ’s gospel is that the way of the world isn’t the only way. And, in fact, things will not be this way when all is said and done; when God is finished remaking, renewing, and recreating all that is in the wake of God’s boundless love and amazing grace. What begins today is a preview of what is to come.

So let’s take heart. Jesus still comes in the name of the Lord, humble and riding on a donkey, even in a pandemic lockdown. The stones still cry out, even if the roadside looks deserted. And God’s love still pervades and ultimately will prevail.

And isn’t that good news?

Hosanna! Hosanna! Amen.

Sandy Hook Revisited

It’s hard to believe that three years have passed since Adam Lanza gunned down 20 elementary school children, 6 of their teachers, and his mother. Even harder to fathom is that, three years on, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School no longer stands as an anomaly of recent history. Since that frightful December day in 2012, the frequency of mass shootings in America has pulled the term “active shooter” from the police scanner into the vernacular, and guns have claimed the lives of some 555 American children.

On Christmas Eve 2012, I published a prayer for Newtown, along with a few reflections. I am re-posting them tonight as a tribute to the memory of the fallen and the grief of the living, and an appeal for faith-filled action in the wake of our prayers. The next three years do not have to repeat the last three years.

Adam Lanza did more than shoot a class of innocent, defenseless first graders. He left a .223 caliber exit wound in the collective consciousness of America.

Part of the sting comes from wanting to do something but not knowing what to do. Some are campaigning for gun control. Others are advocating for more and better mental health care. Still others are sending gifts to Newtown. I recently read that well-wishers from all over the world have flooded this community of 28,000 people has with 60,000 teddy bears. I applaud theses efforts, but none of them will ever be enough – for those giving or those receiving.

What I know to do is pray. At least, that’s the only place I know to begin. Following Christ is not a stationary (and never a sedentary!) activity, even when we are still, seeking to know that the Lord is God. If what we call prayer is more than wishful thinking, it must always draw us up off our knees – either to acts of ministry or to stand ready with straighter posture and sharper vision. Prayer moves us. I do not yet know how to move, exactly; but I continue to pray so that I might continue to be ready.

And so for what it’s worth, I’d like to offer these prayers for Newtown on this Christmas Eve. They were first offered on Sunday, December 16, prior to our church Christmas play. They continue to be prayed – for the victims and for us all, that we may heal and learn to wrestle with the questions surrounding this tragedy without forcing answers:

Lord, today as the candles of Advent glow in our midst, a thick cloud hangs over our hearts. We are struggling to comprehend the slaughter of the innocents that took place in Newtown, Connecticut. Such violence. Such grief. Such pain. We turn to you, O Lord: our Rock, our Redeemer; our Shepherd, our Savior, our Sustainer. We turn to you for comfort, for strength, for relief… for we are weary and heavy laden. Hear our prayers and help us to pray. Create in us clean hearts; renew our spirits, and transform our minds. And as we pray, remind us who we are and whose we are in this holy season of Advent.

As a people blessed to mourn, let us pray for the community of Newtown and all who are grieved – around the country and around the world – by what has happened there. May we be comforted.

As a people called to weep with those who weep, let us pray for the victims of the Newtown tragedy and their loved ones, for whom this Advent must seem devoid of anything resembling hope, peace, joy, or love.

As a people called to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us, let us pray – as hard as it may be – for the gunman, Adam Lanza, and those who loved him.

As a people called to go the extra mile, let us pray a special prayer for Adam’s brother, Ryan, who has not only lost his brother and his mother just before Christmas but who must live with the anguish of knowing that his brother killed his mother before shooting 26 other people – most of them children.

As a people called to make disciples of all nations, let us pray that the hope, peace, joy, and love of this Advent season will not be lost in the wake of this tragedy. Let us be inspired to continue celebrating the promise of Christmas. Let us be inspired to continue singing with the angels – not to deny the deep darkness of these days, but to proclaim that in the darkness there is a light that shines; that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; and the great light that shines is a light that darkness does not – and cannot – overcome.

Finally, as a people blessed to hunger and thirst for righteousness, let us pray together the prayer our Lord taught us to pray, saying: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory forever. Amen.

Amen.

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