Palm Sunday: Holy Week in Quarantine

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Our Savior’s sign for a pandemic – and for Holy Week.

Matthew 21:1-11

As I told the folks gathered on Zoom this morning for our South Hadley community Holy Week service, I need to begin by saying something obvious: this Holy Week is not like other Holy Weeks. 

What we should be doing right now is gathering with our actual palm branches. But we cannot do that this year. Instead, most of us are stuck inside, maybe alone, or maybe stuck with the same people we’ve now been stuck with for weeks. 

When this all first started, we wondered if we might be overreacting. We thought it might not last more than a couple of weeks. But quickly we realized that this was not the case. Quickly, we realized that we were not going to spend Palm Sunday, Holy Week, or even the first Sunday of Easter together. Instead, we are stuck inside while the economy seems to be tanking and the only things people seem to be buying are toilet paper and liquor. 

No, this is not a normal Holy Week. 

While it may be somewhat comforting to remember that we are not the first to experience an abnormal Holy Week — wars and plagues have disrupted these holy days before — it doesn’t lessen our pain at being apart. It probably does little to lessen our anxiety, either.

So what do we do? 

I have only one answer: we live the story. We live the story together like we always do, but also not like we always do. 

We live this story every single year because it is our story. This year, more than any other in recent memory, we need to be shepherded by God from death into life. 

This story takes us to another time in history when people were anxious. Israel was occupied by the Romans, and life was uncertain. The Romans killed troublemakers. And Jesus, on this Palm Sunday, rides directly into the belly of the beast, not unlike our healthcare workers are doing every single day they go to work. 

The disciples go behind him and they watch the crowds adore him, shouting their Hosannas. 

This is a good time to remember that we are not the first to be anxious. We are not the first to not know what is going to happen next. We are not the first to fear death for ourselves or those we love. That feeling of dread that you occasionally feel in the pit of your stomach these days when you read the news? Those disciples on the road on that first Palm Sunday felt that too. 

This story is our story.

I’m not going to claim that observing this Holy Week will offer you any magical protection. Much like the disciples, we will be, and remain, as vulnerable as ever. But observing this week might just teach you something about love in the midst of chaos. It might just teach you something about death and new life. And as millions around the world still observe these holiest days of our faith, it may somehow help you to not feel so alone. 

Much like we do every year, we will go day by day. If you want daily prayer this week, the National Cathedral is a great option. I’ll post a link on our Facebook page today. Or you can just read from your Bible and pray yourself, day by day. Then we’ll go day by day together through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. We will do through this pandemic what the disciples did through the very first Holy Week: despite our anxiety, we will go day by day. We will do the next right thing as best we know it. The disciples were not perfect that week, nor shall we be, but together, we will be moved by God from death into life. 

This story — the story of Holy Week — is our story. 

My friend Joseph, an Episcopal priest in Seattle, quoted from an article this week by Aisha S. Ahmad called “Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure.” She writes, “Global catastrophes change the world, and this pandemic is very much akin to a major war. Even if we contain the Covid-19 crisis within a few months, the legacy of this pandemic will live with us for years, perhaps decades to come. It will change the way we move, build, learn, and connect. There is simply no way that our lives will resume as if this had never happened.”

The disciples lived through something like that, too. They may not have realized its scale at the time, much like we didn’t realize the scale of this pandemic at first. Our lives will be different after this, but our observation of this story will stay the same, reminding us, regardless of our circumstances, every single year, that we are not alone and that new life is always on its way.

So go outside and find yourself a branch. We cannot be together this year, and the palms that we ordered will unfortunately have to go directly to being dried to be burned as next year’s Ash Wednesday ashes. But instead of staying sad about that, I’m choosing to celebrate the promise of another year and another journey from ashes to fire — one that, God willing, we can make truly together.

This week, as we experience this story that is our story, rest in knowing that you are not the first to not know the future. You are not the first to feel fear. You are not the first to feel besieged or in crisis. And you are not the first to be led by God from death into the new life of Easter and springtime. 

This Holy Week will not be like other Holy Weeks. But it will be one to remember, and it will be one where we remembered more clearly than we have in recent memory: this story is our story. Amen.

God on the Way: The Journey from Death Into Life

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The raising of Lazarus.

John 11:1-45

God on the journey. 

We’ve been talking this Lent about the various ways that God meets us on our journeys. Today, we’ve reached the final Sunday in Lent before we get to Holy Week, and the journey of today is none other than the journey from death into life with our buddy Lazarus. 

This is important: I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks attempts to reframe this whole pandemic as good. And for sure, we’re getting new perspective all over the place. We’re realizing what’s really important and what’s really not as a bunch of us have to work from home. People who have kids and have to work from home are realizing how precious it is to spend time with their children. I’ve realized how much I value seeing you, my church folks, in person, and how wonderful it is to hear your voices over phone calls and Zoom meetings. The air is cleaner as we all stay home. The church has finally moved into the twenty first century as we’ve figured out how you can build community and “do church” online. We’re all reordering our priorities and figuring out what’s really important to us, and that’s great. 

Yes, there have been good things that have already come out of this crisis. And yet. 

We cannot frame this moment as a happy one. If we try, we are not doing right by those who, at this very moment, are sick and dying. We are not doing right by the healthcare workers who are risking their lives to take care of the sick. We are not doing right by the immunocompromised and other high risk people who cannot leave their homes right now. 

We also cannot pretend that having a “church that is open online” is in any way a satisfying alternative to what we normally do — meet in this space, in person, and share hugs and stories and the Eucharist. It’s not. What we are doing right now is the best that we can do. It’s holding our community together, and it’s valuable and wonderful for that. It may even be a lifeline to this community for you, and I am overjoyed to be able to provide that. But it’s what we have to settle for, not what we wish we had. 

The only way out is through. We have to keep our heads up, do the best we can to stay healthy, and stay home, and hopefully flatten the curve and keep as many people safe as possible.  Keeping a positive attitude is essential in this moment, but we can’t deny reality. This moment is awful. 

There was a man whose name was Lazarus. He got very sick, too. And he died. 

And no one talked about how it was ultimately a good thing, or about how it made them see their own lives in a new way. Instead, they wept. And Jesus came, and he didn’t tell them not to cry. He didn’t tell them to keep a positive attitude. No. He wept with them.

With Jesus, the worst thing is never the last thing. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. 

We humans don’t like pain and suffering. It makes sense. Pain and suffering are unpleasant, so if we can look away from them or deny them or pretend they aren’t happening, we do. But sometimes, we just can’t. Like when someone we love dies. Or when the things that we love going to and the people we love seeing aren’t available because there’s a global pandemic threatening lives all over the world. 

Like when we can’t go to church and see everyone, even though we all want to. When we stay away because we love each other, but it still hurts. 

So if you’re feeling pain and loneliness and grief in this moment, that’s more than okay. It’s to be expected. That is how we should feel. It means that you are aware of the reality of all of this, and that you’re not going to sugarcoat it for yourself. This can be true whether or not you’re determined to keep a positive attitude and get through this. 

And. 

It occurred to me this week reading the story of Lazarus that all this time, we’ve been thinking that we’ve been going to check in with God every week when we go to church. I know I have. When we all gather in this space, I feel Christ’s presence among us. Christ is present with us in the bread and wine. Christ is present with us in each other. 

But these days, we’re finding ourselves shut up in our homes like tombs, and we may feel like since we can’t go to church, we can’t go to God. 

Friends, this couldn’t be further from the truth. 

No. When we’re sitting stuck in our homes that are sealed up and we’re wondering if we’ll be stuck there forever, Jesus comes knocking on the door like “You in there?” 

Friends, as Lutherans, we believe that we could never make our way to God even if we tried. Instead, it is God who always finds us. It is God who comes to the tomb and shouts for us to come out. It is God who comes to us and gives us new life as sure as the springtime. Always. 

The Gospel is not a story about us finding God. It is a story about God finding us, making us new, unbinding us from the things that hold us back. 

At the end of this Lazarus story, Jesus says, “Unbind him and let him go.” He had come out still wearing the grave clothes wrapped around him. 

This crisis is bad. The news is bad. Seeing the numbers of the sick and dying rise is bad. We can’t deny that reality even as we try to make the best of our lives for ourselves and those we love. 

But even in death, Christ comes to us and makes us new. Even in our despair, Christ comes to us and gives us new hope. Someday this will pass. Someday we will find new life and healing. 

But for now, Christ is already at your door, ready to unbind you and let you go. This day, and every day, I pray that you are unbound from your fear: wash your hands and take care of yourself. Drink water. Exercise. Carve out a routine for yourself. Make the best of your daily life. Stay informed, but don’t watch the news all day. 

I pray that you are unbound from your loneliness. I said it last week and I will say it again: if you want to talk to someone, call them. If you want to hear from someone, reach out to them. In this age when we area all scrambling to take care of so many people, the kindest thing that we can do for one another is to give each other the gift of being direct and healthy in our relationships rather than getting mad because our un-voiced expectations aren’t being met. If you want to hear from someone, let them hear from you. 

I pray that you are unbound from whatever holds you back this day. You are no further from God because you cannot be at church, friends; God is as near as your next breath, and in God, we are all bound together. We are socially distant to keep each other safe, but the Holy Spirit is holding us closer together than ever as we stand up and support one another, reach out and call one another, text a hello to one another, offer to help one another. 

Yes, friends — this moment is bad. There is no denying or sugarcoating it. Death is very real in our lives and in our world, and Christ weeps with us. 

But even now, we are being unbound. Even now, signs of hope and new life are springing up all around us: with the arrival of springtime, with the willingness to observe social distance, with the willingness to be kind to one another and to realize that this is a difficult time for all of us.

Ultimately, new life will come. This crisis will end. And there is new life for everyone on the other side, whether through new health or through the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. 

For now, we will decide who this crisis will make us. Above all things, let it make us kinder. Let it make us more aware than ever that we don’t go to God when we go to church — but that God comes to us, stands at the door of our tomb, and calls us out of death and into new life when we need it most. Like now. 

Be unbound, friends. And when this nightmare is over, we will celebrate new life — together. Amen.