Sermon for Palm Sunday, Sunday, April 05 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Luke 19.28-40; Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-16; Philippians 2.5-11; Matthew 26:14—27:66
So here we are, on Palm Sunday, in the year when we will not process around our beloved building, at the beginning of the Holy Week when we will not physically gather as a beloved community. On this day which is so significantly about the behaviour of crowds, we are asked, as a solemn duty to the community, not to gather in any groups larger than five people.
On this day, when we hear the story of the crucifixion read for the first time—the second time will be on Good Friday—on this day when we are compelled by our liturgy to shout, “Crucify him!” as the crowds shouted then, I am greatly struck by the emphasis, throughout Matthew’s version of the story, on the constant failings of those around Jesus, both his friends and his opponents. Judas sells his teacher to the authorities for cash, then far too late, makes a dramatic and pointless show of his regret. The three disciples closest to Jesus fall asleep while trying to keep him company at Gethsemane, Peter lashes pointlessly out with a sword, achieving nothing, The Temple authorities can’t get their false witnesses to agree. Pilate’s wife warns him of her dream, to no effect. Pilate makes halfhearted gestures toward releasing the prisoner, and eventually, in another dramatized gesture, announces that none of this is really his responsibility. All the disciples run away. Peter betrays. Jesus makes his way to Calvary through a black comedy of human incompetence, and even his last words on the cross are misunderstood. And there is the crowd, of course, the crowd pivoting between celebration and attack, the great organism in which the individual may be lost. Our weakness, our selfishness, and our folly are on full display
And in a different moment of crisis, over these last weeks, there has surely been enough display of human folly to prove Matthew’s point. On a small level, there are the panic-stricken consumers who have fallen back on trying to purchase safety by stripping supermarket shelves of essential supplies, or on the other hand the people who have torn down caution tape and knocked over barriers in order to do chin-ups on unsterilized playground equipment. On a greater level, some political leaders have lied, disclaimed responsibility, created potentially disastrous situations; while others have done their best to do the right thing, and even partly succeeded, yet still left many of the most vulnerable people exposed—from tenants who can’t pay this month’s rent, to freelancers who don’t qualify for benefits, to the many thousands of homeless people in this city and the many more elsewhere, who had nothing much to rely on begin with, and have even less now. Human beings are extremely good at making poor decisions, and sometimes the consequences are terrible. A single ill-considered funeral in Italy, a tiny human oversight, seems to have been one of the key triggers for one of the great disasters of our age.
And yet—we are not only foolish and weak. At the last terrible hour, there were others at Calvary; there were the women watching, frightened, cautious, but still loyal, exhausted, we must imagine, but not failing, not giving in. And more and more, I am made aware of the force of human goodness in this time. There are the tired heroic workers on all the front lines—the health care workers, of course, and also the shelter staff and the drop-in volunteers, the so often forgotten cleaners upon whom our lives now depend, the pharmacists and grocery store clerks. Last week I had an emergency dental procedure, and I was profoundly aware, as I sat in the chair, that these kind people were risking their lives to relieve my pain. All the people finding ways to put their crafts and gifts to new use—the brewery and the distillery who partnered to give us 20 litres of hand sanitizer for our drop-in; the people who have offered to bake bread for the community breakfasts; the appliance repair technicians in our neighbourhood who are providing free repairs to households in need. Journalists and political advocates, people cycling the streets with food deliveries, people running errands for their neighbours. The jingle dress dancers who are dancing at home for the healing of the community. We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.
The women at Calvary expected nothing. As far as they knew, they were there to watch the end of hope, and they were there because that was what women did—attend to birth, and to death. We are not asked for loyalty in such extremity—we have every reason to believe that this hard time will end, though the end may be further away than we want to imagine, and though there will be fear and pain before it does. We must do something which is in some ways even harder than withstanding one day of terror; we must persist, must endure, with no clear idea of how long that endurance will be required of us, of what the sacrifices may be precisely, of how many weeks or months we must stand on this lonely hillside. Through boredom and anxiety, uncertainty, economic struggles, dashed hopes; through grief and certain loss; towards a future which may be very different, and over which we have only the most tenuous control.
The writer of the book of Revelation gave us baroque images of an apocalypse apparently quite unlike this one, all beasts and dragons and fiery angels.And yet, finally, what he tells his community is that they must be patient. That they must endure. That, in all the world’s upheavals, they must be the quiet saints, the women watching from a distance at Calvary.
And like that little group of women, we have not lost each other. Even at a physical distance, we must remember that we are all one body. Across all the gaps of space and communication and fear, we must still love. Part of what we are doing now is beginning to carve out new shapes of love, new meanings of devotion. We cannot wash each other’s feet on Maundy Thursday. How then shall we learn to touch across fields of distance? How then shall we learn to serve? Right now, we do not know, exactly, the answers to these questions. But what we do in this time will start to be that answer. And if we have any hand in shaping the time that will come after, it will be in this, in whatever ability we may have to continue to be, and form others to be, persons made in the shape of care, in the shape of mercy.
And we have not lost the love of God in Christ Jesus, from which no virus, nor any other thing in all creation, may separate us. Christ at Gethsemane knew what it was to face a time and a task which he did not want, which he desperately wished could be otherwise. God does not look dispassionately at our suffering, but walks right into it, knows and honours it, understands, and holds us in a time when we cannot hold each other. In this love we go forth—neither in triumph nor in despair, but in loyalty, in the patience which waits for no known thing, in the hope that can stand in the valley of death, and believe in sunrise.