It’s so crazy to think that, back when all this started, our plan was to be back in church by this Sunday! My office admin actually called me not long after we moved to virtual worship and asked if she should cancel the palms and I said no, that I didn’t think we would actually be back together by then, but that we would find a way to distribute them anyway. Well – we opted not to distribute them. Currently we are entering the worst of things in the northeast and the Deacons and I decided that it was more responsible for us to remind people to stay home than to give anyone another excuse to leave the house. So we adorned our front doors with greens and had our kiddos cut palms out of construction paper and just worked with what we had this year! If you get a chance, I would encourage you to at least watch the gathering music portion of the video – I included hosanna photos and videos people sent me with the music.
Here is my sermon, as well as audio and visual. Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay home.
Love you all.
Rehoboth Congregational Church
April 5, 2020
Laying Down Our Palms For Christ
Palm Sunday has always been a little bit perplexing to me, as a preacher. On the one hand (and under “normal” circumstances), it is a big celebration. We hand out palms and parade through the sanctuary shouting, “Hosanna!” We adorn the altar with palms and create the most beautiful representation of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We sing hymns that only get dusted off once a year and wave those palms high in the air as we sing.
And yet, as people living on this side of the resurrection, we know that is not how the story ends. We know that those shouts of “Hosanna!” turn into cries to “Crucify him!” We know that Jesus does not ride off into a sunset but to Gethsemane, where he was arrested and later sentenced to death. We know the eventually the palms that are laid down ahead of Jesus on the road to Jerusalem are eventually abandoned and replaced with a crown of thorns on his head while he is crucified.
Palm Sunday has always seemed like a little bit of a paradox to me. Because even though it is, for all intents and purposes, a celebration – we know that things are about to get really hard. When I preached on Palm Sunday the year after the Boston Marathon bombing (Bruce and I had been in Boston cheering on a friend running the race that day, she crossed the finish line right before the bombs went off), I compared my struggle over preaching the triumphal nature of Palm Sunday with the fact that I still, almost a year later, had a hard time looking at my happy and cheerful photos from early in the day of the race.
Because I knew things had gotten really hard after I took those photos – just like things are about to get really hard for Jesus.
In many ways, it feels like an even bigger paradox to preach on Palm Sunday this year because we are already in the middle of something really hard. It feels weird to celebrate something when we are feeling the weight of something that is really heavy and when our entire world feels more broken than it ever has in our entire lifetime.
And so, first of all, I want you to know that it is okay to come into this space a little bit confused this morning. It is okay to wrestle with the fact that we are celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem while also deeply grieving what is happening in our world today.
But I also think it is important to point out that Jesus knows what is going to happen when he parades into Jerusalem. At this point, he has foretold his death and resurrection and, while his disciples do not understand, he certainly does – he knows things are about to get really hard.
And yet, he still lets this moment happen. In fact, he creates this moment.
As Jesus and his disciples approach Jerusalem, he sends two of them ahead to go into the village and bring him back a donkey and her colt, telling anyone who asks, “The Lord needs them.” The disciples do this and then spread their cloaks on the animals and Jesus sits on them and begins to ride into Jerusalem. As he does this, a “very large crowd” gathers (which, let’s be honest, a “very large crowd” seems really strange to think about right now); some of them spread their own cloaks on the road and others cut branches from nearby trees and spread those on the road. People go ahead of him and some follow him and they shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Jesus knows what is about to happen – he knows things are about to get really hard. And yet, it is still important to him that he gathers the Body of Christ; that he pauses for a moment, in anticipation of what is to come, and praises God. The word, “Hosanna,” is an expression of adoration, praise or joy. This is a moment for Jesus, even in anticipation of what is going to come, to joyfully praise the God who will not abandon him, to gather the Body of Christ in a moment in time when the world so desperately needs it.
And so this morning, our own 2020 stay-at-home version of a very large crowd has gathered to do just that. To joyfully praise the God who we know has not and will not abandon us. To wave palms, even though they may look more like pine branches or construction paper than the palms we are used to receiving on this Sunday. To show up in God’s name and proclaim God’s goodness and grace, even though things are really hard right now. To be the Body of Christ – the Church – in a moment in time when the Church is so desperately needed.
This past week, I agonized over whether or not we would be able to safely distribute palms this year. Ultimately, however, the Deacons and I decided that, right now, as we are entering what appears to be the most critical stage of this virus in our country, particularly here in the northeast, it was more important for us to encourage people to stay home than to try to find a social distancing loophole just for the sake of tradition.
It felt like an easy decision, but also a really hard conclusion. I talked last week about the waves of secondary grief that we continue to feel throughout this time and this was certainly one of those moments where I felt it.
But it also got me thinking – what do our palms represent?
We distribute palms on Palm Sunday because that is our tradition, because it is Palm Sunday, but are there other ways that we can honor this day?
I have two thoughts.
The first comes from what I have already had the honor of witnessing over these past three weeks – the ways in which people have continued to do the work of Christ in some of the most life-giving kind of ways.
The crowd that gathers with Jesus is laying down palms and cloaks as a sign of adoration and praise and honor – as a way of proclaiming the Gospel and their commitment to follow Jesus. And so, while we cannot do this literally with palm branches this year, I have to admit, I am not really sure that we really need to. Because over the past three weeks, I have seen a new way of proclaiming the Gospel and of a commitment to follow Jesus.
Every time someone drops off a donation of canned goods to the food pantry or makes a monetary donation to an organization working to ensure the most vulnerable have the essentials they need, they are laying down palms for Christ in a new way of proclaiming the Gospel and their commitment to follow Jesus.
Every time an essential worker leaves for work – whether they are a healthcare worker, a first responder or an essential retail employee – they are laying down palms for Christ in a new way of proclaiming the Gospel and their commitment to follow Jesus.
Every time someone drops off a meal or runs an errand for someone who is high risk and really needs to stay home right now, they are laying down palms for Christ in a new way of proclaiming the Gospel and their commitment to follow Jesus.
Every time someone makes a mask, whether it is for members of their family, someone in the community who needs one or for a local hospital or nursing home, they are laying down palms for Christ in a new way of proclaiming the Gospel and their commitment to follow Jesus.
Every time someone calls their neighbor or sends someone a card, they are laying down palms for Christ in a new way of proclaiming the Gospel and their commitment to follow Jesus.
Every time one of our Deacons logs onto our Facebook group to lead nightly prayers or someone from the church sends me a video for our story time or someone just thinks of – and starts to implement – a creative way to “do church” from afar, they are laying down palms for Christ in a new way of proclaiming the Gospel and their commitment to follow Jesus.
We are giving glory and honor to God right now, not by waving palms that we ordered weeks ago from a Christian supplier, but by living out the Gospel in real and tangible and hard, but also lifechanging ways.
By making sure the most vulnerable are cared for.
By holding one another in prayer.
By shining light into the darkness of this moment.
By proclaiming the bold and, admittedly, very hard right now truth that this virus is not stronger than God’s love and that it will not defeat us and that God’s love will win.
My second (and brief, I promise!) thought on what our palms represent and what Palm Sunday means to us, particularly this year, has to do with the fact that we are entering Holy Week and that the word, “Hosanna!” is used in other parts of the bible, in particularly the Old Testament, to mean, “Save us!”
Psalm 118 – which you all know very well, it is where the verse, “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it,” comes from – is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from enemies. Verse 25 of this psalm says:
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
“Save us” comes from the Hebrew expression, “Hosanna!”
And so, as the very large crowds gather and shout “Hosanna!” and lead Jesus into Jerusalem shouting, “Hosanna!” they are doing so as a way of offering adoration and praise, but also as a way of pleading for their own salvation.
And I think a lot of us are feeling that right now.
Hosanna. Save us.
We are entering Holy Week in the Christian Church, a time when we remember the hard and toilsome journey Jesus took as he was arrested and then sentenced to death by crucifixion. Holy Week is really where we put our own faith to the test – where we are reminded of the really hard parts of the story and are forced to wait for resurrection. We cannot rush the story and we have to sit with the discomfort and the challenge of that.
In so many ways, it feels like we are experiencing our own kind of Holy Week right now. We are traveling a hard and toilsome journey. Our faith is being put to the test. We are being reminded of the hard parts of being human, of the true depths of our brokenness.
And we, too, have to wait for resurrection.
But here’s the thing: As difficult as this is, I truly do believe that, when we finally do experience resurrection, it is going to be so powerful and life-changing and overwhelming.
Hosanna! Save us!
Friends, be assured that our cries are heard. God has not abandoned us. Resurrection is coming.
I am wishing you all many blessings as we head into Holy Week. I have always said that the Easter Triduum – the three days between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday is a special time in the Christian year because it is the only time that we get to live out the story in real time.
But in so many ways, this year it feels like we are living out this story in real experience, as well.
And so now we wait. We lean into our faith. We trust that God has not abandoned us. We cry out to God to save us, knowing that God hears those cries.
And, in the meantime (in ways, of course, that are safe and appropriate), we lay down our palms for Christ in a new way of proclaiming the Gospel and our commitment to follow Jesus.
Because we know that resurrection is coming.
So have patience, strength and perseverance for the journey. Give grace to those around you and make sure you give it to yourself, as well. And await, with great anticipation and expectation, the resurrection that is coming.
Thanks be to God!