Thoughts, Prayers, and Palms: Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2018

So once again it is Holy Week in the church. Once again we have come to the last days of Lent, and we stand on the verge of the holiest time of the entire church year. And today is Palm Sunday, the start of a week that will include the beautiful intimacy of Maundy Thursday, the sorrow of Good Friday, and finally, the joy of Easter morning.

And this day, is so odd when you look at it from the outside. On the Sunday before Easter Christians go to church and they get palm leaves that have been shipped in from out of state, and they wave them in the air and shout “Hosanna” and if this is your first time in church on Palm Sunday, the whole thing must just look bizarre.

Canon 70D 1101That’s fair. This is one of those church traditions that requires some explanation. And so, we go back to the Scriptures, back to the original story of Jesus and the palms. Jesus and his disciples had been ministering in the countryside, in the smaller towns and villages, for awhile now. And people have started to talk about this Jesus guy, and how he teaches, and how he heals, and how something is special about him.

But now, they are heading to the big city: Jerusalem. Jesus sends a few of his disciples ahead of him and asks then to bring back a colt. And Jesus rides on this colt, through the streets of Jerusalem, and the people who have heard about him, they run out into the streets and they spread their coats out in front of him. And they take palm leaves, and they put them on the road too.

Palm leaves were symbols of victory and triumph, and so the fact the people wanted to lay them in front of Jesus means that they knew something was special about him. Because life in Jerusalem at that time, especially if you were just an ordinary Jewish person, and not a Roman citizen, was not good. You were oppressed. You were treated as lesser-than. You were despondent.

But then, here comes this guy, one that everyone has been talking about, one that brings a hope you have never known. And you wonder if maybe he’s the one. Maybe he is the king, for the messiah, or the savior that you’ve heard about your whole life long. Maybe he is coming to make everything better.

And so, you take these symbols of victory, these palms, and you line his path into the seat of power, this Jerusalem, this Washington or New York or what have you, and as he rides into town, you shout out your hope. Hosanna! Hosanna! And what you are literally shouting is this: “Save us. Help us. Rescue us.”

We tell this story now and sometimes we think this was a parade of some sort, but if it was, it was different than any we’ve seen. It was not a celebration so much as it was a statement, and a call for change. It was the people going out into the streets and saying “change is coming….change has to be coming….and maybe it’s this guy.” It was the crowd saying, “this is our new hope.”

I was thinking about that yesterday on the streets of Portsmouth. This year Lent began with a horrendous tragedy. On Ash Wednesday we learned that a gunman had killed seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. That night, at our Ash Wednesday service, we prayed for the victims, and we prayed for a world where children did not have to be afraid anymore.

And, I confess, as I prayed, I was feeling incredibly cynical. Losing 13 people in Columbine, Colorado hadn’t changed anything. 26 first graders and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut hadn’t changed anything. 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando hadn’t changed anything. 58 in Las Vegas? Nothing. This wouldn’t be any different either.

But, these kids at Parkland? These kids proved me wrong. Because these kids? They’re not sitting idly by. They’re not shutting up. They’re refusing to be seen and not heard. And it’s amazing.

One of these young people, a survivor of the shooting named David Hogg, was describing the role that he and his friends were now playing. And, to paraphrase, he talked about how country was broken. Because it has to be if we allow children to be gunned down in schools. And he said that we adults don’t know how to use our democracy.

And then he said it was like when your parents couldn’t figure out how to use their iphone…and you try to tell them how to do it. You coach them through it and say “now do this”. But finally, they’re not actually fixing the problem and so finally you just say, “Give me the….phone and let me handle it.”

29512296_1864634403589149_4241526480576250524_nThat’s what’s happening. They’re handling it. And so yesterday, around this country, students let us out into our houses and into the streets. News reports indicate that yesterday’s march in DC may have been the largest of all time. And across the country, smaller marches took place everywhere. In fact over in Portsmouth, Market Square was so packed that I couldn’t even make my way from the back of the crowd to the front where the contingent from our church had landed. That was okay, because blocking my way was a crowd of high school students, packed in too tightly for us to move.

It was awesome. These kids are awesome. And they are rightfully getting a lot of credit for what they are doing. They are heroes.

But, they aren’t the ones to save us. Nor should they be. Because we failed the kids, and they had to do this for us. But, as David Hogg said, “I shouldn’t have to! I’m 17.”

He shouldn’t have to. No kid should have to. They should be planning their prom and thinking about college. This work of keeping the world safe for them? That should be the work of adults. The kids shouldn’t be saving us. The kids shouldn’t even be having to yell to us “save us”. The kids should be kids.

And so, how do we let them be? How do we let them be not just when it comes to this particular kind of destruction, but to all the ways our culture of death and pain reaches them all to young? How do we proclaim another way to them? How do we proclaim another way to us?

I think it starts with this. I think it starts with us holding our palms up, and shouting out to God that ancient word: Hosanna! “Save us…rescue us…help us.”

Because here’s the thing. I know that right now it is very popular to dismiss the phrase “thoughts and prayers”. And, I get why. After a tragedy too often we hear talking heads sending “thoughts and prayers” to those who were impacted without doing anything else. Those thoughts and prayers help nothing.

But, “thoughts and prayers” get a bad rap sometimes. Because if we want to change the world, it’s going to take thoughts and prayers. But the trick is that it’s going to take the kind of thoughts and prayers that require something of us. A thought with no followthrough is just half a thought. A prayer that things would change without any intention to help make them change isn’t a prayer at all.

Thoughts and prayers are not the problem. Meaning what we think, meaning what we pray, that is.
On Palm Sunday, we are invited once again to choose what, and who, we believe will rescue us. And we are invited to lay down our palms, our symbols of victory, in front of him. And when we have put down our signs of readiness, when we have lined the road with them, then we will show him the path that we have made for him into our hearts, and into our towns, and into our world.

Our palms are our invitation to Christ to come into our hearts, and use us to be a part of the healing of the world. They are our signs that our faith will be put in a savior who taught a Gospel of love and peace, change and non-violence, and who asked us to follow. They are symbols of readiness to be people of true thoughts, true prayers, and true actions.

And so, once again, I raise my palm, and I say “hosanna”. Rescue us, Jesus. Save us. Help us. And know, Jesus, know that this time we are ready to work alongside of you.

 

Save Us: Sermon for Palm Sunday, 2017

An audio version of this sermon may be found here, or as a podcast on iTunes here.

Back in Advent, when we were getting ready for the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we read the story of John the Baptist. You might remember John. He lived out in the wilderness and ate locusts and honey and wore the camelhair clothing. He was sort of this eccentric character who told everyone to “prepare the way of the Lord” and get ready for the birth of a new king.

The song we sang during the children’s time in December reminded us of that. I won’t sing it, but remember how it went? “Prepare the way of the Lord, prepare the way of the Lord, and all people shall see the salvation of our God.”

That was the beginning of Jesus’ life. The faithful telling us to get ready for Jesus, and to get things ready for Jesus.

Fast forward to today, the start of Holy Week, the most important time in the Christian year. And while John the Baptist is gone by this point in the Gospel story, he words ring back and ring true: “prepare the way of the Lord”. Get ready, because he is coming.

All those years ago, as Jesus was starting what would be his last week of life, he and his disciples made their way to Jerusalem, the holy city. And the people heard he was coming, and so they went out and they lined the road. And as Jesus entered on a donkey they threw down what they had in front of him, including palm leaves like the ones you have today.

pexels-photo-207239.jpegNow, up here in New England, we don’t have palm branches all around us. We have to order them in, and the Fed Ex guy brings them to us neatly packed in a cardboard box. This always cracks me up because I grew up in Florida and we had palm leaves everywhere. When you did yard work you had to get rid of these things, and they are big and bulky. You couldn’t give them away.

I had no idea we could have sold them to y’all in northern churches.

But that tells you a little about what was happening in Jerusalem. These were not wealthy people and they didn’t have much. But they knew there was something about Jesus and they wanted to welcome him. And so they used what was readily available, and free; things like these palm leaves, and they spread them out on his path.

Had Jesus come to New Hampshire, we wouldn’t have been welcoming him with palm leaves. This time of year maybe we’d throw out road salt instead, thawing the ice on the road in front of him. Maybe we’d wave empty branches. Or maybe we’d throw our Red Sox hats and bring him Dunkin coffee.

Who knows? The point is, they were doing what they could with what they had. And that wasn’t a lot. Because back then, in Jerusalem, the Jewish people were not in a good place. The Roman empire was occupying Jerusalem and oppressing the people. And many of the religious leaders, like religious leaders in every faith, were not a whole lot better. They would exploit others and work in their own best interests, and not that of the people.

And so when word about Jesus started to spread, when it became clear that there might be something about him that was different, they began to hope. Maybe this was the one that Scripture called the “Messiah”. Maybe he would be the one to break the stranglehold that Rome had on Jerusalem. Maybe he would purify a Temple that had become a house for money changers. Maybe he would bring change.

That’s why they lined the streets and cheered as he rode into town. And that’s why they shouted “hosanna!” which literally means “save us”. “Save us, Jesus, because we need help.”

Last year the Rev. Quinn Caldwell, a friend of mine who also writes for the UCC’s Daily Devotionals, wrote a piece for Palm Sunday about a custom I’d never heard of before. In Latin America there is a tradition of preparing “alfombras” for Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Alfombra literally means “carpet”, and these are elaborate carpets, of a sort, that are created in the streets. People use materials like sand and sawdust and flowers, and they work for days making the beautiful, intricate displays. Some are as much as a mile long.

They do this because during Holy Week processions take place through the streets, and often Jesus is depicted. And so, like the people who threw palms in his path, and like John the Baptist said, they are preparing the way for the Lord. They are putting something beautiful and soft in front of him as he travels on to his hardest days. And with every grain of sand laid, every flower put in place, they are saying “hosanna”…”save us”.

Today we wave our palms, and we say the same thing too. But we don’t do this just as a reenactment. This isn’t just something that happened two thousands years ago. This is real life, and this is about the salvation that we need too.

The situation is different for us. The Roman government is gone and we don’t have money changers in the Temple, because now there is no Temple. But if we look around, we might find that there’s plenty that might look familiar to the people who lined the roads.

Because even two thousand years later, we human beings still look for salvation in the wrong places. We yell “save us” and there are plenty of people and things who are ready to tell you they can do it. But in the end, no politician will save you. Nothing you buy will save you. No drink or drug will save you. No new job or big promotion will save you. That’s not how salvation works.

Instead, salvation looks like this. It looks like Jesus riding into Jerusalem, not down a red carpet, and not pulled in the finest coach with a team of horses, but over palm leaves and on the back of a donkey. And, to put it in modern terms, it doesn’t come by the sword, with Jesus on top of an armored tank division, taking the government by force, but rather by this man who was ready to face down the forces of death unarmed.

Jesus really doesn’t look much like a man who could save the people. In the end he can’t even save himself. And yet, it is in his dying that the stage is set for his greatest triumph. It is in his resurrection that we are given new life.

The work of salvation that was started all those centuries ago still goes on because Jesus didn’t suddenly change everything as expected. He was much more subversive, and much more powerful, than that. And because of that we get to be a part of it too.

And so, like generations before us, we prepare the way for what Christ is doing now. We build our own alfombras for him to travel over, creating beauty and meaning as a pathway to a better way. We shout “hosanna”, “save us”, by our very actions.

We stuff our Heifer boxes and send them off, and we prepare the way. We take care of our earth and all of God’s creation, and we prepare the way. We take care of the sick and suffering, and we prepare the way. And we gather here week after week, worshipping God and loving one another, and we prepare the way.

As I told you earlier, after worship ends we are going to stay in the sanctuary in order to take a quick all-church photo. I know it’s tempting to get down to coffee hour or get out the door to start your Sunday, so I promise this won’t take long. But please, stay. Choose to be in the photo.

The picture we are about to take is one of a community that has gathered together not because we are the same, but because we love Christ the same…and so we love the world in the same way too. This is our own alfombra, beautiful because each of us is a piece of the mosaic. And it is our own “hosanna”, our own call to Christ to use us in his saving work.

We all are called to prepare the way. And we all need the reminder that we are not alone in that.

A Prayer for Good Friday

Prince of Peace, redeemer of us all, crucified God, we have gathered at the foot of the cross, and at the entrance to the tomb, and we have rolled the stone across it.

524013_10100263836785808_2011523557_nThe world sometimes does it’s worst, even to those who don’t deserve it. You know that, because you once lived as one of us, loved as one of us, and died as one of us.

Today we leave the tomb, as your disciples did centuries ago, knowing our friend is gone, and that a good man has died.

The ones who knew you and loved you could find no consolation that night. They mourned. Just as there have been nights when we have mourned. Just as there have been nights when we have looked for mercy that didn’t seem to come.

And yet, some would dare to look for hope…

God, as you send us out into the world today, stay close to us. As we wrestle with the big questions, as we ask why there is pain, why there is suffering, why there is loss, do not leave us alone. Help us to find you in our hours of greatest doubt.

And at the right hour, draw us back together. To gather at the tomb. To look for the light. To look for you.

For hope, for you, we will be waiting. Amen.

The Love Mandate: A post for Maundy Thursday

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13: 34-35

No one really uses the word “maundy” anymore in their daily lives. Which is why today can seem a little murkier than some of the other holy days in Lent. We get Ash Wednesday, and Palm Sunday, and Good Friday…but what’s “Maundy Thursday”?

10001453_10151948036261787_1162216634_nThe word “maundy” comes from a Latin word: mandatum. And mandatum means “mandate” or a “commandment.” And when we talk about “Maundy Thursday” we’re talking about “mandate Thursday.” We’re talking about the night before he died, when Christ told his disciples exactly what he expected them to do next.

And if you read a book or watch a movie about almost anyone else, you might think the lead character right about now would be saying something like “avenge my death” or “make sure there’s payback” or “don’t let them get away with this … strike back.”

But this isn’t any other story. This is a story that turns everything on its head. Instead, the mandate that Jesus gives is this:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It’s not my job to rename Christian holy days. But if it were, I might change the name of Maundy Thursday. I might change it from this word that none of us really know anymore to something we would all understand. Something like “Love One Another Thursday” or “The Last Thing Christ Really Wanted Us to Know Thursday.”

There’s a song that many of us learned as children: “and they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love…and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

It might not sound all that radical…but it is. It’s a song that reminds us of Christ’s true mandate. And it’s still the gauge of how well we are following him. Because, if we take Christ’s word for it, love is more than our mandate as Christians. It’s our calling card.

Prayer

God of love, help us to remember the mandate that Christ has given to us, on this sacred Thursday, and always. And God, may they know we are Christians by our love. Amen.

In the Crowd: A Homily for Palm Sunday, 2015

Mark 11:1-11
11:1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples

11:2 and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.

11:3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'”

11:4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it,

11:5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”

11:6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.

11:7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.

11:8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.

11:9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

11:10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11:11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

The first time I ever heard about Palm Sunday, I was confused. I’ve talked before about how I didn’t really grow up in the church, so I went to my first Palm Sunday service during my senior year of high school.

You might remember that I grew up mostly in Florida. And we had palm trees everywhere. We had a bunch all around our yard, and we would climb them the way kids in other places climbed oak trees. At Christmas some people even put their Christmas lights up on them. And when it was time to clean up the yard, we had to cut those branches down all the time. And I remember there being so many that we would fill up trash bag after trash bag and then haul them to the curb for the trash truck.

So, to be honest, growing up I thought Palm Sunday must be some sort of local Florida celebration like a Blueberry or Apple Festival, and I had no idea why we were celebrating it in church.

18124_920677677984831_3958351675566877247_nI understand what Palm Sunday is all about now. I know it’s the entry into Holy Week. And, because there are no palm trees here in southern New England, every Lent we pay a company to send us a box of palm fronds. The same kind we had way too many of in my neighborhood growing up. That irony is not lost on me.

But palm leaves, they’re an essential part of this story today. Scripture tells us the Palm Sunday story in two places, John and Mark, both of which we read this morning. And in them we hear about how Jesus, who had been preaching and teaching all over the surrounding towns for the past few years, gaining followers and generating excitement, was finally walking onto the biggest stage of all, the one where he was set to become a legend in his own time: Jerusalem.

And the people there had heard that he was coming. They wanted to be a part of it and they went out to meet him. And they greeted him like this: they threw their cloaks in front of the colt he rode in on, and they took palms from the nearby trees. And as he rode in they waived them and they shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Now, it may not sound like much to us today, those palms and those shouted “hosannas”, but back then they were greeting Jesus like he was a rock star. He was unlike anything they had ever seen before. Because the palm fronds they were waiving were more than just green leaves. At that time you waived palms as a symbol of victory or triumph. They were literally signs of hope, being held high for Jesus and all to see.

And those shouts of Hosanna literally meant “save us!” Because the people who were gathered by that road, they needed saving. They were being brutally oppressed by the Roman Empire on one hand, and held down by religious leaders who didn’t always want what was best for the people on the other. And the people who were there believed that Jesus had come to change all of that, maybe even by force. They didn’t know what was coming, but they knew it had to be better than what they had always known.

I talked about the crowd greeting Jesus like a modern-day rock star, and that has some resonance for me. About six months after my first Palm Sunday service I went to see a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, the rock opera about the final week of Jesus’ life. And I was struck by something in particular. The performers who play “The Crowd” serve as a sort of chorus for the play. They are the ones who shout “Hosanna” during one of the first songs, yelling “Hey JC, JC, won’t you fight for me? Sanna hosanna hey superstar.”

But by the end of the play those same actors, that same crowd, is shouting something different. When Pilate tries to release Jesus instead of killing him, the same crowd that shouted “save us” on Sunday is shouting back “crucify him…crucify him” on Friday.

I don’t think that Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the scenes that way because he didn’t have enough actors to play two different crowds. I think he wrote them that way because he knew that sometimes, even with the best of intentions, our fears get the better of us, our hopes seem misplaced, and our loyalties fail us.

It was about the time that I saw that concert that I realized that it wasn’t enough just to refrain from actively participating in injustice. I realized that in order to be truly faithful, we have to make a decision to not just stand by and watch it happen. Because when we are a part of a crowd, and we do not speak up, in so many ways we may as well be yelling “crucify him” with the people around us.

When we see a bully terrorize someone, and we do nothing, we are not siding with kindness. When we watch someone being harassed, and we don’t dare to speak up, we are not being allies to them. When we see injustice happening around us, but we think we have no power to change it, we are a part of the reason that injustice can thrive.

I don’t know exactly why the crowd turned against him that week, but I wonder if it isn’t because of the same reason all of us fail to speak out when we know we should: they got scared. The one they thought was there to save them, the one they greeted with palm leaves and scattered coats, seemed to be just another disappointment. He didn’t overthrow the Romans. He didn’t fight back. He didn’t even say much. He just went to the cross without much to show for it. He didn’t save them

At least, that’s what they thought. But that’s a story for next Sunday. For now, though, I’ll just say this. He did not save them in a way that anyone expected. There were no weapons and no wars. But a victory was coming. One that deserved all the palm leaves in the world. But one that no one in the crowd that day could ever imagine.

So, for those of us 2,000 year later, in a place where our only palms are shipped in from another country, and in a time where with 20/20 hindsight we know how this story ends, how do we shout “hosanna”? And how do we welcome Jesus into our midst today?

Between you and me, while the palm leaves are nice to have, I don’t think Jesus much cares what we are waiving when we decide to welcome him. Here in New England we could do the same thing the people of Jerusalem did all that time back and just use what is handy. So we could use maple branches, or pine boughs. Or snow shovels, if you prefer. We could throw confetti or shoot off fireworks.

Or, we could do one better, and just open our hearts, and on this Palm Sunday, invite Jesus in. And we could say “hosanna”. “Save us”. From whatever it is we need to claim victory over in our lives, from whatever struggles we are facing. From whatever is keeping us as just one of the crowd, and from being a disciple. Hosanna, Lord. Save us.

Let’s start the welcome today. But let’s not end here. This week we will be journeying with Jesus through Holy Week, from today to Maundy Thursday, and from Good Friday until Easter Sunday. Step out of the crowd. Step into the hope of a victory that no one would ever believe. Join us. And together let us shout out a hope that will turn into a promise: Hosanna, Lord. Save us. Hosanna. Amen.

Between Sundays: A sermon for Palm Sunday, and beyond.

1975236_10151948034931787_549958369_n

Matthew 21:1-11
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,

21:2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.

21:3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

21:4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

21:5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

21:6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;

21:7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.

21:8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

21:9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

21:10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

21:11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Today is the only day of the church year where you come to church and we give you not only your regular bulletin, but this palm frond too. If you aren’t expecting it, that probably seems a little odd.

Your palm fronds mean of course that it’s Palm Sunday. Which means we are getting close to the end of Lent, and are starting Holy Week. Next Sunday you’ll hopefully be here to help up celebrate the holiest day of the Christian year, Easter.

But today we have these palms to contend with, and what, from the outside, must look like a very strange tradition.

On Palm Sunday we remember Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We remember how he rode into the city on a donkey, and the crowds were waiting for him. They had heard about him. They loved him. They threw their coats on the ground, and spread their palms out on the road, and they cheered as he came in. They were looking for the Messiah and they were sure it was him.

So all these centuries later we Christians gather in churches and collect these palms and wave them. We celebrate a great parade that took place long ago, the coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem. And we are so, so close to Easter. We almost want to take this day as a warm-up, a celebration before the big celebration.

And if you read the story today knowing nothing about what happens between Sundays, you could. But you all know that something happens between Sundays. And the story isn’t as straight-forward as it seems. Stories about Jesus seldom are.

When I was in college I saw a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical traces the events of Holy Week and I was struck by the crowd, the chorus of singers that followed Jesus. As they waived palms on one Sunday they shouted his praises and sung and called out to him. But as the week went on, they changed. And by Friday, those same people once shouting their admiration were calling for his death.

It’s always stuck with me. That change in feeling. I think of it every year during Holy Week. Jesus goes from the exalted one to the one who is offered up as a sacrifice by the crowd. There’s something fitting about the fact that in many churches the palms from Palm Sunday are saved until the following Ash Wednesday, when they are then burned and turned into the ashes we wear as a symbol of our humaness and fraility and mistakes. Sometimes we turn from Christ, and we get it wrong.

We don’t like to dwell on that. We don’t like to dwell on the reality that Christ was betrayed, and denied, and abandoned. We like to stick with the Palm Sunday and Easter joy, not the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday pain.

Holy Week, fittingly, is the holiest week of the church year. It’s also the busiest. And many pastors, whether we admit it or not, know that when we announce the extra services that week there’s sort of a heavy sigh.

I get it. We’re all busy. Sunday morning feels hard enough for many good Christians. Thursday night, after a long day at work, is even tougher. You just want to go home, have dinner, and either tackle the pile of laundry or have a few precious hours to yourself. You probably don’t want to take the car out one more time, drive to church, and sit through another service, and one that’s not so joyful at that.

No one will blame you if you don’t. No pastor I know takes attendance, and, truth be told, we clergy all have our own Netflix queue and stack of unfinished novels that we might longingly look at on our way out of our own doors. But the occupational hazard of being clergy means we can’t call out on Holy Week. Which means the messages of the stories we hear on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday can’t go unheard by us.

That’s good because what we hear about Jesus on those two nights is the same as what we hear every day in our offices. But we don’t talk about that much. Because most churches are good at doing Sundays. But sometimes not so good at acknowledging what comes between Sundays.

On Sunday mornings we often focus on the joy. We sing uplifting hymns. We hear hopeful sermons. We smile. We shake hands. We dress up. We talk about grace and blessings and gratitude. That’s not a bad thing.

But when many of our parishioners leave on Sunday, they step into a different world. Between Sundays I visit with people who are facing a struggle that few in their lives  understand. They’re sick or injured. Dying or bereaved. Or depressed, heart-broken, betrayed, alone, and wrestling with doubt.

And if you come to church on Palm Sunday and Easter, you might not think we in the church know anything about that. But if you come between Sundays, you’ll find a faith that knows what that is like. More than that, you’ll find a God who knows what that is like.

To me, the most comforting part of Holy Week is not the waving of triumphal palms on one Sunday morning, or the flowers and joyous hymns on the next. It’s what happens in between.

It’s Jesus on Maundy Thursday sharing a table with the people he loved the most. It’s him washing their feet, and showing that the mark of a true leader is whether they can serve others.  And it’s Jesus still loving those disciples even though he knew that, at best, they would abandon him, and at worst, they would betray him. And it’s Jesus in the garden, alone, heart-broken, and struggling between what he wanted to do and what he knew he had to do.

And on Good Friday, it continues. The world turns against him, and the ones who cheered his entry in Jerusalem instead cheer his death. He suffers. He calls out to a God who does not seem to answer. He doubts. He feels pain, and loss, and grief. And in the end he loses the life he knew.

I’m sometimes asked by those who are going through a difficult time whether God is angry when they have doubts, or when they wonder why God doesn’t seem to be answering prayers. They ask if God understands when we suffer, or when we feel alone.

When they do, I point first not to the Christ of Palm Sunday or Easter, but to the Christ of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The one who lived as one of us. Who loved as one of us. Who doubted as one of us. Who suffered as one of us. And who died as one of us.

And only then do I point to the Christ who rose again, and overcame the worst that the world could throw at him.

I sometimes worry that we forget the lessons of Holy Week the rest of the year. Some churches even cancel mid-week services due to low attendance, and instead roll all the stories into a “Passion Sunday” service on Palm Sunday. But when we forget Holy Week, I wonder if we are losing that time we once had to sit with Christ in his own human struggles? And I wonder if when we lose that time, we lose our ability to learn to sit with others in their struggle, and with ourselves in our own?

But what would Christian life look like if we took that time. What if we became known not just as the people who knew what to do on Sundays, but the ones who knew how to stay with you when your life was falling apart, just as Christ asks us to do on Maundy Thursday? Or the ones who could stand by and still love and respect you even when you call out your doubts, as Jesus did on the cross? What would happen if we weren’t just know for our Easter Sunday celebrations, but for our Thursday night solidarity? Our Friday afternoon compassion?

We have the capacity to be those people. We have it because Christ has called us to be those people. All we have to do is be willing to make the journey with him. Not just on Sundays, but on the days between. The world has plenty of Sunday morning Christians. It needs a few more of the weekday ones.

Today, we wave our palms. We shout Hosanna. We look ahead to the Resurrection. But when you leave, consider taking them with you. Consider keeping them this year as a reminder of who we are on Palm Sunday. And then, when the times get hard, and the week grows tougher, look at them as a reminder of who you could be. Not the person in the crowd who yells out what everyone else is yelling, but the person instead who believed what they said on Sunday, and who will follow Christ on this journey. Even a journey that continues between Sundays.

Christ is waiting for us there. May we join him on this holy path. Amen.

Journey Through Lent: Days 35-37 (Monday through Wednesday of Holy Week)

Today is my weekly pastor’s sabbath. It’s the one day each week that I try to keep completely devoid of parish-related work. Except for emergencies, I don’t do anything pastoral. But tomorrow my “work week” starts again. And this is my busiest week of the year. It’s Holy Week, and in the run-up to Easter there are Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services to plan an officiate, Easter egg hunts to organize, Easter Sunday preparations to be made, and a seemingly never-ending list of details that need to be crossed off between now and Sunday.

It’s hard to sit here and not do any of those things. I know I could get a head start on them. I could maybe even knock out the special worship bulletins for all the services in the next few hours. Or, I could call the Scripture readers and make sure they are all ready. I could go over the hymns with the organist. I’ve already slipped once and emailed a parishioner back anyway.

But I’m resisting. Because the point of Holy Week isn’t about being as busy as possible. It’s about making room for God in our lives. And no matter how many important things that I think I have to do, nothing is more important than that.

The gift of sabbath, whether we take it on Sunday, or on another day of the week, is that it allows us the chance to not bow down to false idols. Money, demands on our time, and anxiety all take a back seat to the time we spend with God and those we love. And during Holy Week in particular, we have a chance to take small sabbaths along the way.

Maundy Thursday worship might cut into our usual evening routine, but by going anyway, we tell ourselves, and the world, that nothing is worth more than our time with God. The same is true on Good Friday, when services might cut into our workday, or on any other day this week when we feel torn between the demands of work and chores and the opportunity for sabbath.

I know it’s a struggle. I live that struggle every Monday on my days off. I’ve gotten better, but I’m nowhere close to perfect. But, when I really take my sabbath, I find myself more focused, more energized, and more ready to handle the demands of the rest of the week.

During Holy Week, that sabbath time is even more important. If we really pause to worship, and to pay attention to what is spiritually happening, we will find ourselves ready for Easter in ways we could not have imagined. It’s tempting to dismiss Holy Week services as “one more thing to do”. So, think about this instead. Think about Holy Week as “one more thing not to do”. Think of it as a chance to break the chains binding us to what doesn’t really matter, and choosing instead a life free of that bondage.

And then, take a night off…and come to church.

Journey Through Lent: Days 29-31

250jesuschristsuperstarWhen I was in college I saw a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical traces the events of Holy Week and I was struck by the crowd, the chorus of singers that followed Jesus. As they waived palms on one Sunday they shouted his praises and sung and called out to him. But as the week went on, they changed. And by Friday, those same people once shouting their admiration were calling for his death.

It’s always stuck with me. That change in feeling. I think of it every year during Holy Week. Jesus goes from the exalted one to the one who is offered up as a sacrifice by the crowd. There’s something fitting about the fact that in many churches the palms from Palm Sunday are saved until the following Ash Wednesday, when they are then burned and turned into the ashes we wear as a symbol of our humaness and fraility and mistakes. Sometimes we turn from Christ, and we get it wrong.

We don’t like to dwell on that. We don’t like to dwell on the reality that Christ was betrayed, and denied, and abandoned. We like to stick with the Palm Sunday and Easter joy, not the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday pain. And every pastor I know is aware that when we announce the extra services, there is a near-auditory sigh.

But the reality is that it’s the week between the two Sundays that really teaches us who we are, and who we can be. We can be the crowd that shouts loud welcomes on Sunday, but then stays away when times get hard. Or we can be the people who journey with Christ in the hardest times, and who never turn our backs on him. Holy Week is our chance to proclaim with our time who we really are, and it is our chance to get our priorities straight.  This is our chance to not just be the crowd, but to stand out from the crowd.

This Holy Week, take the challenge of walking the whole path. Make a complete journey. And you’ll find on Sunday that Easter will be that much more meaningful.

A Prayer for Good Friday

Let us pray:

Prince of Peace, redeemer of us all, crucified God, we have gathered at the foot of the cross, and at the entrance to the tomb, and we have rolled the stone across it.

The world sometimes does it’s worst, even to those who don’t deserve it. You know that, because you once lived as one of us, loved as one of us, and died as one of us.

Tonight we leave, as your disciples did centuries ago, knowing our friend is gone, and that a good man has died.

The ones who knew you and loved you could find no consolation that night. They mourned. Just as there have been nights when we have mourned. Just as there have been nights we have looked for mercy that didn’t seem to come.

And yet, some would dare to look for hope…

God, as you send us out into the world tonight, stay close to us. As we wrestle with the big questions; as we ask why there is pain, why there is suffering, why there is loss, do not leave us alone. Help us to find you in our hours of greatest doubt.

And at the right hour, draw us back together. To gather at the tomb. To look for the light. To look for you. For hope, for you, we will be waiting. Amen.