Expectations Dashed; Reflections on Palm Sunday 2020

This year because of restrictions on travel and association Youtube pre recordings have been chosen by Gabe Alfieri, Choral Director, to present the music the choir would otherwise have sung. Hymn 154 All glory laud and honor comes from the choir of King’s College Cambridge. Psalm 31 is sung by the choir of Ely Cathedral. The Anthem is Weelkes’ Hosanna to the Son of David sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Hymn 435 At the name of Jesus is sung by the Cardiff Festival Choir.

The Prelude Vexilla Regis by C. A. Fauchard and Postlude Come, Now, Almighty King by M. Whitney are played by our Organist, Steven Young on the St Martin’s organ.

The Service begins on page 270 of the Book of Common Prayer.

Palm Sunday Service Podcast
The Rector’s Sermon for Palm Sunday

He had come to celebrate the Passover. Having traveled from Bethany, Jesus entered Jerusalem through one of its eastern gates to wild acclaim from the crowds that greeted him by stripping the fronds from the palm trees lining the road.

Some 160 years before, at the end of a brutal series of insurrections against a foreign oppressor, the events of which are recorded in graphic detail in the Books of the I and II Maccabees, a triumphant Judas Maccabeus led his victorious partisans into the Temple, bearing palm branches with which they cleansed and rededicated it after the defilement by the Syrian tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanies. The waving of palm branches is the clearest revelation of what was in the minds of those who thronged the route. The waving of palm branches reveals how they saw Jesus as a second Judas Maccabeus, a liberator who would free them from Roman oppression.

The waving of palms was not a spontaneous gesture. It was the eruption of Jewish collective memory. It was a political action that reveals the inner expectations of the crowds lining the route into the city.

Why does Jesus enter the city riding a colt, the foal of a donkey? After all no where else is it recorded that Jesus travels by any other means than by walking on his own two feet. This further unveils the complex political nature of the expectations surrounding Jesus entry to Jerusalem; expectations in which Jesus seems to be – to this extent at least, complicit. By entering riding a donkey, Jesus is explicitly invoking another collective memory, this time one of prophecy announcing the coming of the messiah.

for lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Zechariah 9

Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem contains a volatile brew of conflicting messages. So far so good. Popular expectation of Jesus as liberator conforms with Jesus own identification of himself as the messiah as announced by Zechariah. What has yet to be revealed however is that this is a far as Jesus intends to go in associating himself with the popular expectations of the messiah as earthly king and political liberator.

Hopes are raised that will soon be dashed.

Holy Week commemorates the events beginning on Palm Sunday of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem before the Passover. Three narratives or storylines intersect and clash with an alarming result as Pilate, the crowds, and Jesus all become caught up in an escalation of events none it seems, could control. The storyline of worldly oppression and political violence intersects with a storyline of populist resistance and nationalist longing for liberation – at whatever cost. Both confront the third storyline – which emerges from Jesus reinterpretation of messiahship as the next installment in the epic narrative of God’s love and vision for the world.

Events take an unexpected turn and rapidly spiral out of control, culminating on the eve of the Passover with Jesus celebrating the Last Supper with his disciples, followed by arrest, mock trial, and crucifixion the following day.

Last year I wrote:

Holy Week is the week during which we accompany Jesus on the way of his passion. For some of us, this can be an intensely personal experience as our own experiences of loss and suffering – our passion surfaces in identification with that of Jesus. For most of us, however, the nature of our Holy Week experience is less personal and more communal. We journey with Jesus as part of a community that journeys to the cross -bearing within us not only our individual maladies and sufferings but the maladies and sufferings of the world around us.

Sermon for Palm Sunday 2019

This year repeating these words takes on an especial poingnancy. Journeying with Jesus along the road of his passion in Holy Week 2020 is an immediate and visceral experience for all of us. No one remains untouched. We are all directly experiencing our own versions of the passion in which fear and the unpredictability of the future play havoc with our sense of normal expectation.

Of course this is exactly how it was for Jesus – something we normally lose sight of because we know the end of the story and we assume he did too. Because the Tradition tends to ascribe a degree of omniscience to Jesus, assuming without evidence that as Son of God, he knew all things ahead of time.

This is a moot point. Because none of us is privy to exact mind of Jesus, my point is that projecting divine qualities into the still very human Jesus is not helpful at all for us. The point about his passion is that the human Jesus suffered. That is he really suffered rather than just appeared to suffer buoyed by the assurance of a happy ending- in the end.

Some of us individually, through knowing real suffering have had a personal experience of a close identification between Jesus’ suffering and ours – because the rawness of personal suffering opens us to the consolation of God’s love. However, this Holy Week we are all – individually and as a community exposed to the rawness of the kind of suffering Jesus underwent to a degree that – personal loss aside – few of us could ever have anticipated or expected.

The crowds – who thronged the way as Jesus rode into Jerusalem were in the coming days to experience their hopes dashed. We now know something about our normal expectations being dashed.

  • In the absence of underlying health factors or chance event we firmly hold a presumption of continued good health. The Coronavirus challenges such presumptions, for we are all equally vulnerable.
  • For some of us, the normal expectations of job security and predictable business stability have been dashed by the breathtaking arrival of the pandemic.
  • Outside of periods of economic recession many of us – esp. in a community like ours, firmly held a presumption that our financial investments were on the upward swing. The Coronavirus has serious upended this presumption.

We have real reasons to be afraid in this time of pandemic. Through fear many of us are experiencing a quality of isolation that is truly awful. Fear, isolation – a sense that some of us may die alone untouched and unaccompanied by those who love us, together with the uncertainty about what lies ahead opens a window on the nature of Jesus own very personal suffering.

I believe that all Jesus knew for certain was the he was somehow he was part of a larger unfolding project. By travelling the road God had set out for him he understood that God was in the process of bringing about a greater purpose. In the meantime his only course of action was – to face down his fear, bear his aloneness, and keep putting one foot in front of the other – inching painfully forward along the path that only revealed itself step by step increments.

What we all know now is that our world is going to be different when the pandemic is over. Can we believe that the only thing certain is that we also play a part within a larger unfolding project of God’s desire for the remaking of the world. We do not believe that God has inflicted Coronavirus upon us as some terrible punishment, yet, in the midst of this pandemic we need to wake up to see how God invites us to consider making crucial changes to how we live in and with the natural order of the world, going forward. Following Jesus’ example we also are called to be instrumental in furthering God’s greater purpose. And like him, we too must have confidence to summon our courage and strengthen our hope so to face into the uncertainty of unfolding events, knowing that our God is with us every step of the way.

The crowds who thronged the road of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem found their expectations and hopes to be quickly and cruelly dashed causing them to turn away from him. Will we also like them turn away from accompanying the Lord on the road of his passion?

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