The Adventurous Lectionary – Palm Sunday – April 5, 2020
Bruce G. Epperly
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Holy Week is a spiritual rollercoaster. We experience joyful celebration, uncertainty and anxiety, desperation, fear, and depression. We have to walk through the valley of darkness to get to celebrate the resurrection. Our lives are also a rollercoaster. Our sanctuary will be silent, and few of us, despite presidential aspirations to reopen the USA by Easter, will be holding services on Easter. Our church will be meeting on Zoom for a Service of Word in the morning and Vespers in the evening. We are unsettled, confused, and yet grateful for the small graces of sheltering in place.
Whether in an ordinary year or a time of pandemic, Palm Sunday straddles celebration and suffering. The crowds that shout “Hosanna” in great celebration soon will fade in the background to be replaced by “Crucify him.” Life is joy and celebration; it is also sorrow and grief, and a holistic faith must embrace both. The week goes through the Kubler-Ross’ first four stages – denial, anger, bargaining, and depression – with acceptance and celebrating awaiting on Easter. This is how we feel over the past four weeks as we abruptly moved from Sunday worship to closure and virtual worship.
This year, our congregation will join joy, conflict, and pain. We will begin with joy. No passion readings till the very end of the service; just celebration with a hint of what is to come later in the week with the final hymn, “Were You There?” and a selection of the passion readings. The power of celebration during Holy Week has been underestimated. We need the waving palms, the “hosanna” shouts, and the joyful crowd to revive our spirits to warm our wintry and isolated spirits here in New England. In the tragic beauty of life, we will experience plenty of grief – the ambiguous Last Supper, the surprising betrayal, the violent cross, and the liminal uncertainty of Holy Saturday – before we experience the Joyful Resurrection of Jesus and ourselves. But we need a sense of enduring joy to get us through the week and life’s most difficult moments.
“This is the day that God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it” bursts forth from Psalm 118. Let’s sing, dance, and celebrate. God’s love endures forever. God gives us light and invites us to a festival of praise. With threat on the horizon, we can still dance, make music, and celebrate the Spirit that gives life. Each day, we mortals can claim abundant life despite threat.
We can celebrate because of God’s universal and intimate love. We can have the mind of Christ, but the Christ we celebrate is different from the rulers of the earth. Christ is no ruthless and domineering Caesar but a loving companion. He does not bully, tweet, name call, or bloviate. He rules from among us, embracing our mortality, feeling our pain, and rejoicing in our success. The “kenotic” (self-emptying) Christ is the celebrating Christ, living through every season of life. Christ is one of us and in his solidarity, we are healed and saved. Power is not unilateral, whether divine or human, but relational. Jesus saves us through solidarity not sovereignty. Every knee bows – yes, every knee! – in universal praise.
Wherever there is suffering, Jesus is there. Wherever there is grief, Jesus is there. Wherever there is pain, Jesus is there. This is the mind of Christ, inspiring our own sacrificial living in the time of pandemic.
There is an implicit universalism in the Philippians passage: Paul’s readers would have contrasted the power of Caesar and the power of Christ. We bow to Caesar out of fear and threat of punishment: we bow to Christ out of love. Even those who turned away from Christ’s message are brought into the assembly, praising God for God’s amazing embodied love in Jesus the Christ. God’s power in Christ is the tender care that nothing is lost that can be saved (Alfred North Whitehead) and the poetry that transforms our mourning into dancing and a cross into creative transformation. Suffering, as Holy Week witnesses, is universal, but so is salvation and creative transformation. (For more on process theology, see Bruce Epperly, Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God and Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed.)
The Palm Sunday Gospel reading reflects the triumph of another kind of power. No Roman legion, but a humble teacher on a donkey, symbol of peace and reconciliation. Caught up in the moment, the crowd can’t fully understand the countercultural spectacle they are witnessing. The crowd witnesses a God who has no enemies, makes no threats, destroys no cities, and damns no unbelievers. Such an amazing approach to life – and to understanding God – is too much for them to imagine. Indeed, it is impossible, and sadly many who witness Jesus’ joyful entry into Jerusalem may turn from adulation to abandonment, letting fear rather than love rule their hearts. Still, we can affirm “What Wondrous Love Is This” as testimony to love that embraces friend and enemy and citizen and stranger.
But, what would have happened if love won the day? What would have happened if the people rose up in love rather than fear? What would have happened if the leaders embraced wonder rather than worry, and embraced a new spiritual vision rather dead institutional power? We will never know, because neither they nor we have ever tried to live out the radical vision of a resurrection that does not require death! What would happen to the church if it chose love over power and challenged the powers and principalities to care for the least of these, first, and place planetary well-being and unborn generations ahead of short term profits? This is a different kind of resurrection that restores us with every breath and every action, energizing us to be born anew each moment of the day. What will happen if we embody the mind of Christ in a time of pandemic?
But, there is a cross and an uncertain future on the horizon, hidden momentarily by hosannas. Still, Palm Sunday is the prelude: it anticipates another kind of celebration, the resurrection of the Crucified One and an Empty Tomb and an Open Future.
So, shout “hosanna.” Don’t let your Hallelujahs be muted, but full bodied. Christ is alive and invites us to sing songs of praise even the tragic beauty of our own lives and national context.
In the spirit of the hymn “How Can We Keep from Singing,” we can still hear the echoes of Palm Sunday throughout the conflicts and tragedies of Holy Week.
When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile,
Our thoughts to them go winging;
When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing?
So, hold onto your palms, but prepare for a rough ride until we sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over 50 books, including “Faith in a Time of Pandemic,” “Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job,” and “Piglet’s Process: Process Theology for All God’s Children.”