Palm Sunday, Christ’s Passion
April 5, 2020
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.
I have become a reproach to all my enemies and even to my neighbors,
a dismay to those of my acquaintance; *
when they see me in the street they avoid me.
I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind; *
I am useless as a broken pot.
For I have heard the whispering of the crowd; fear is all around; *
they put their heads together against me; they plot to take my life.
But as for me, I have trusted in you, O Lord. *
I have said, “You are my God.
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.”
New Testament Reading Philippians 2:5–11
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Now and again we come across a piece of writing, a saying, something from scripture perhaps that causes one to think about something in a new way. This week a parishioner sent me a piece of writing by NT Wright that some of you have probably come across called ‘Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus.’ And while I would never “steal” in a holistic way what NT Wright had to say, there is a great deal of power in what I took away from his article that should inform this Passiontide. First is the reality that we are in a season of lament. The coronavirus and all its attendant challenges have placed us in a tremendously strange and unfamiliar position as we arrive at this Holy week. We, as a people, need to lay claim to, take hold of, lament. Lament, in the biblical tradition, is an expression of loss, mourning, or grief. So, we must own where we are now and not attempt to escape it because, in this season, as at all times, we are in solidarity in out lament with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Secondly, we must stay focused on where the true hope of our faith lies. And that hope does not reside in an instantaneous healing moment of God. Our hope is realized by becoming aware that Jesus is one of us and our full-on human response to challenge is our awareness that God is present in it.
Please permit me to explain why I think our current day is not an awful time to be in the world, to hold to the promises of Christ. We in western world have lost, NT Wright would hypothesize - and I would agree with him- our ability to lament. We keep a stiff upper lip, focus on forward motion no matter what, and we don’t allow ourselves to get caught up in difficulty if we can help it. We should realize, however, that laying claim to our God-given right to lament is not the same thing as to indulge in self-pity, wallow in misery, or to adopt some kind of defeatist attitude. To embrace the biblical notion of lament is to honor where we are and to understand that God is present here and now.
And, yes, we have a great deal to lament right now. Life moves on apace in this time of coronavirus; there are people dealing with all kinds of things not related at all to the current pandemic at all. People still have cancer; folks are still struggling with marital and familial difficulties, as has been true for all time. And all of us are dealing with a full spectrum of lamentable challenges born of this pandemic. There are people who have died already, thousands, tens of thousands across the world and a growing number in our own country, and in our own state. There are people risking infection every day: doctors and nurses, technicians, paramedics, fire and rescue, law-enforcement, truck drivers; anyone who is having to come into contact with the public is risking contagion by virtue of what they do. And many of them are doing it heroically.
Then there are people who are infected and living not only with the effects of the illness but with the fear of dying. There are those who are dying or their family members; and then there are the rest of us, we who have had a drastic disruption of life. Maybe that is not the end of the world but it is a difficulty, nonetheless. We are cut off so much from human contact and, for people who live alone, they are almost entirely alone. Even when we go off for a walk…I’m mindful of this verse from Psalm 31: “ I have become reproach to all my enemies and even to my neighbors, a dismay to those of my acquaintance; when they see me in the street they avoid me.“ There’s something familiar about that verse isn’t there; how we tend to sidestep each other when we approach someone on a walk; during a rare foray out to the store? There is simply a strange and often sad way that we’re being forced to deal with each other when we do venture out into the world. All of this is challenging; exhausting. This global moment is real. This is lament.
Yet, we need not indulge in self-pity, wallow, or become stuck in order to fully honor the moment we are in. We should remember, in this week of Christ passion, that Jesus was not only an agent of salvation but of one of lamentation, as well. Christ, in his humanity, is in solidarity with us. Jesus had his disciples fall asleep three times in the garden of Gethsemane. He was betrayed with a kiss of friendship by his follower and disciple Judas. All of Christ’s friends fled and abandoned Him in the face of challenge. He faced the Sanhedrin and the full power of room completely and totally alone. He was mocked, slapped, tortured, beaten, and ultimately nailed to a cross. Jesus cried out to God in the garden, “Lord if this cup can pass from me please let it! When he was crucified, Christ cried out, isolated and alone, “My God! My God! Why have you forgotten me?” “Why have you abandoned me!”
Putting each of those phrases, each of those cries of challenge in context, Christ acknowledges God the father, in spite of His lament, as being ever present. In this walk with Jesus along our pathway to Calvary, we need to know that our God in Christ walks with us. We need to own the challenge of this moment and not be led astray by expectations of magical thinking in this time of pandemic. We need to lament. It is our God-given right to lament. But as we move through this time of challenge, as Christians, we must understand - in fact know- that Christ moves with us. Our hope is something far more powerful, real, and life-giving than any kind of pie-in-the sky thinking could be. Philippians tells us that Jesus, who though He was in the form of God did not account equality with God as something to be exploited, and emptied himself, taking the form of a slave - our form - and gave himself up in obedience to God, to his passion, and death for us.
Our hope, of course, is that light we see shining from an empty tomb at the end of holy week…in resurrection. But the Gospel of God in Christ is that Jesus entered into our human reality, taking on the form of a slave, our form, and walked (and still walks) the way of pain and lament with us. I will end with the very last verse of the section of Psalm 31 for today, verse 16, which implores to God: “Make your face to shine upon your servant, and in your loving kindness save me.” And that is, my dear friend Father Chris Clements would say, is the good news for this day.