Sermon for Sunday, April 5, 2020 || Palm/Passion Sunday || Passion According to Matthew
Today we begin our journey through Holy Week. We walk with Jesus as he enters triumphantly yet humbly into Jerusalem, as he eats a final meal with his friends and washes their feet, as he prays in the garden, as he is betrayed, arrested, and convicted, as he suffers on the cross and dies, as his body is laid in the tomb, as he rises again on the third day. We call the story of Jesus’ final days his Passion – that’s passion in both senses of the word: passion as his all-consuming love for sinners like you and me, and passion as an act of suffering, his pathos.
Holy Week is an in between time. We walk with Jesus in his sufferings and then we hold our breath for the promises of God to be fulfilled in the Easter proclamation. This year, this strange and scary year, we are more acquainted than normal with the anxiety and the pain we witness in the Passion Gospel. We ourselves are in an in between time: between our old lives of work and school and play and health and our new lives, whatever they may look like when we reach the other side of the pandemic. Our in between time also includes another held breath as we wait for the surge in cases of COVID-19 that the experts say are on their way, even as we isolate ourselves as best we can.
Taken together, Holy Week is an in between time in which God invites us into the love of God as painted by the indefatigable mission of this passionate, suffering Jesus to bring new life to God’s creation. We need not rush ahead to the joy of Easter. We need not be in a hurry to celebrate. We need not give into the desire to skip the in between time. Rather, Holy Week gives us the opportunity to claim an element of our faith that is too often overlooked, an element that happens in the painful space between celebrations. This element is the action of lamentation.
In this moment of global crisis, many of us are groping for explanations or gasping for sighs (and signs) of relief. Eminent biblical scholar N.T. Wright offered lamentation as a third path in an article in Time magazine last week. Wright says, “Lament is what happens when people ask, ‘Why?’ and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centered worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world.”
He goes on to recount the place of lament in the Bible, especially its starring role in the book of Psalms. Wright then continues, “The point of lament, woven thus into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments. Some Christians like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible.”
Lamentation is not an aberration in the life of faith. The act of lamentation is central to the life of faith, just as central as the act of celebration. When we deny ourselves the opportunity to lament of personal loss, societal injustice, or even global pandemic, we also deny ourselves the depths of connection that we can have with one another and with God.
Years ago when I was a hospital chaplain intern, I was sitting in the chaplains’ office waiting for a call to come sit with a mother as her ten-year-old son lay dying, the victim of a horrible brutality. As I waited, I began writing a song: “Are the other 99 lost when we’re searching for the stray. It seems like when the wolf comes ‘round all the shepherds run away.” I remember vividly what happened next. I knew what my heart was screaming at me to write as the next line of the lyric. But for an agonizing moment, my hand trembled above the paper, unwilling to write the thought down. Then I gritted my teeth and did it: “All the shepherds run away, even the Good One.” I stared at the words I had written, scared and ashamed that I had given voice to the thought of God’s abandonment.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was writing a song of lament, and how could I not, given the situation with the dying boy? Not writing down the lyric would have been ignoring the lamentation that was gripping me in that moment. Not writing down the lyric would have been me telling myself it’s better to censor my prayer than to speak the truth that’s in my heart, no matter how painful. And then I remembered that Jesus had voiced the same thought from the cross in the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus lamented. And so can we.
Today, as we listen to the Passion Gospel as presented by fifteen members of our parish, I invite you to join in lamentation. Enter into the depths of love that Jesus has for us. Let his lament from the cross be your lament this day. And as we wait together in this in between time, resist the urge to move too quickly to celebration. Stay here. Breathe in the pain and suffering of this world. Breathe out the willingness to share in that suffering, that we may do our part to make the world new. For it is in this sharing that we find the hope of God that remains in the midst of lamentation.
You can watch the whole live streamed service here.