This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018. (The Annunciation normally falls on March 25, but because of the weight of Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter Week, it will get pushed to Monday April 9. At St. Mark’s we will observe the Annunciation at Evensong on April 8, the second Sunday of Easter, though I know this bends the rules a little!) I have not announced a “theme” for my Holy Week sermons this year, but they are a continuation of the same ones begun earlier at St. Mark’s on worship and life with God. In hindsight, I might have titled these, “The moment that does not pass away,” borrowing an observation on the crucifixion by Br. Jeremy Driscoll, OSB, in his book “A Monk’s Alphabet.” — the point is, the events of Holy Week and in particular the Triduum are the heart of Christian life and identity, the focal point around which everything else, including the cosmos, revolves. These sermons explore that conviction, and try to offer a few different points of entry.
Collect: Almighty and everliving God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the sample of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
After the Passion Gospel a sermon needs hardly to be preached; you’ve already heard most of what there is to say! But all the same I’d like to spend a few moments sketching out the territory for the week ahead.
We began this morning with one of the most ancient collects in our prayer book: “Assist us mercifully with thy help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby thou hast given us life and immortality.” The contemplation of those mighty acts. How do we accomplish this contemplation? In large part by dramatic reenactment.
We began this service out in the courtyard and sang the same Hosannas, waving the same palm branches as the crowds in the Gospel. We’ve just heard a dramatic retelling of the same episode. In my last parish we began out on the front lawn, even invited a local petting zoo to be a part of the day. The star visitor was a venerable donkey named Donatello, a fifteen year veteran of the festivities, who always proudly led the procession into church.
Over the course of this coming week we’ll undertake to wash one another’s feet, carry the Sacrament to the altar of repose, strip the altars, venerate the cross, and carry out a vigil as after a loved one’s death — all dramatic retellings of this series of events which is right at the heart of the church’s identity.
So, with God’s help, we enter the contemplation of these mighty acts. A big part of this is remembering what happened, and who were the players, and what were their motivations. We tell the story dramatically over the course of these days In part to jog our memories, and to give us the time we need to consider the scope of the drama and to offer us various points of entry into the unfolding narrative.
Remembering in this way, just like revisiting the story of the Pilgrims on Thanksgiving or Thomas Jefferson on July 4, helps to create a common set of reference points for who we are as a people, as a family of faith. It creates a baseline of shared memory: none of us were there ourselves all those years ago, and yet we are the common heirs of the memories all the same. Sharing them with one another creates and sustains the succession of generations for whom this holy week is their own inheritance, their own treasure.
It’s a remembrance, but it’s more than a remembrance. This past Wednesday, at the regular 12:10 service, the appointed first reading was from Daniel — that episode where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego get thrown into the fire for not worshiping the king’s golden image. You know the story: instead of burning up, they walk around in the flames together, saying prayers and singing hymns. Meanwhile, as they walk around, King Nebuchadnezzar is watching to make sure they burn up like they’re supposed to — but he notices it’s taking longer than usual, and also he notices a fourth person in the flames with them, who wasn’t there when they got thrown in: he looks like a son of God. The king is so confused he lets them all out, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are all unscathed — but no trace of the fourth person. The implication is, that, as the three of them said their prayers and sang their hymns, God himself appeared beside them.
We tell ourselves the same thing as a way of encouraging us to pray, and to come to church: especially this week! — when we remember together as a group the events of Jesus’ passion and death. As we pray together and sing, God appears among us, affirming our faith and leading us to the other side of whatever challenge we might be facing. Jesus promises that wherever two or three are gathered together in his name, there he is in the midst of them.
But it’s important to remember, praying is not a way of coercing God to show up. In the fiery furnace, the angelic visitor did not show up because he was impressed by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s faith, or by their discipline, or their conviction. And for that matter on the cross: God does not decide to forgive our sins just because Jesus says, “Forgive them, father, for they know not what they do.” No, the thing about prayer, and the thing about remembering in the context of prayer, is that it does not coerce God into doing something that wouldn’t otherwise happen; rather, prayer reveals what is already true, shows what is already present, and enables us to recognize what was there all along but we couldn’t see or notice.
In the fiery furnace, Nebuchadnezzar could finally see for himself that God was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego no matter how badly the king might try to isolate and shift their loyalties to himself alone. When a priest anoints the sick and prays for healing, it’s not magic for manipulating germs or enchanting the body’s powers of recovery. It’s merely to reveal that God the source of life is present even in the midst of illness, suffering, and death; and that the sight, the glimpse, the touch of God which anointing reveals allows for a more profound healing than any miraculous cure or magical incantation. On the cross when Jesus prays, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do,” he reveals to everyone present and to all of us that God’s mercy runs far deeper than any sin, violence, mockery, or injustice, and we can only be silent in awe before the mystery.
So it is with Holy Week, and with all our liturgical remembering — and for that matter with all our prayer in whatever context we offer it. We do not create what was not present already; we do not coerce the nearer presence of some reluctant or faraway deity. We merely open a window on what was there all along, and which will continue through endless ages, closer than the closest friend or brother, or even thought or feeling.
The events of Holy Week, its characters, and chief of all its God do not pass away. In remembering them together, we open a window onto a deeper reality than we can see most of the time.
In Holy Week, we see again as if for the first time a God whose chief characteristic is generosity, free and open and continuous to the world he has made, full of mercy and loving-kindness. We see a world gathered together around a death, uneasy with the wickedness that has been done, implicated in more ways than one, but powerless to stop it from carrying on. We see a Savior betrayed, but who in betrayal forges a way through death: that what was once an ending, the only ending, ending every story ever told, is now the continuation of my story and of every story in the further reaches of divine Love.
In Holy Week we see everything orchestrated together into a music which all creation sings. As we reenact, and remember, and pray, and sing together, we take up our parts and join the harmony of the whole. This year may God grant us a special glimpse of this music in which the whole world is caught up, along with life and death and all time. As we retrace the final steps of Jesus’ earthly life, may we see all the more clearly that pattern, that rhythm, to which the whole world moves. Seeing more clearly, may we love more truly; and loving more truly, may our joy overflow.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.