Sermon for Palm Sunday by Bishop Karen - Do you hear what I hear?
These last few weeks I have been grateful that my garden gate links me to a footpath joining the village below with the top of Tower Hill. It makes a good walk for my daily exercise and this week what struck me more than anything was the silence. No traffic, no school children at the local school and for most of the time nothing could be heard except the birdsong – the call of nature, to stop and listen and give thanks.
It was a contrast to the experience of Thursday evening, when my own pots and pans up the hill, blended with the claps and cheers of the village below for our NHS. It was reassuring to pause my own noisemaking and to hear that in fact there were people in the village at the bottom of the hill, and yes, they too were applauding.
Holy Week for me has, for a long time, been about engaging the whole of ourselves in the drama of Christ’s Passion. All our senses can be involved in the sights, sounds, tastes, touches and even smells of each separate Biblical encounter as we walk through the week, and Palm Sunday sets the scene for what is to come.
So, what do we hear this day? Well, when we are not able to walk in procession to our churches with palm branches held aloft and donkeys in tow; when a time for gathering becomes a scattered expression of joy at the King of Kings’ entry into Jerusalem, there is a need to draw on our imagination and creativity for spiritual sustenance and corporate witness.
First, there is a need for anticipation. Holy Week this year will not be the same as any other. However the story remains the same and we need to anticipate that travelling through it will change us and challenge us. The time had come for Jesus to enter Jerusalem and for all those who heard the news or had heard of the popularity of this man it was a time of great excitement and expectation. The anticipation in their hearts and minds was that Jesus would be their king, and they were ready, with whatever they could find or break off trees to wave him into their city and make way for that kingdom.
I am sure whoever these people were – whether they were the religious faithful or the guardians of the temple themselves; whether they were the money makers or the law makers; whether they were the outcast or the refugees, or the ordinary person in the street – they would have all had their own expectations of this extra-ordinary man. For some he was going to oust the enemy and take up occupancy in the palace; for others he was going to re-shape the whole way of life, and even more so when soon after he attempted to throw the money lenders out of the temple; for others he was going to work more miracles; and for others he caused complete discomfort, was an irritant, challenged too much and would be best done away with – this man was in their grasp and the opportunity to get rid of him was imminent.
What do we hear this day? Secondly there is a call to faithful action. When hearing the news it is not too hard to see the different expectations of those around. In the midst of the Corona virus it is interesting to hear the different voices – the activists, the commentators, the medical experts, the resourceful and the anxious, the desperate and the hushed voice of sickness and death. All with their own expectations and theories and needs for us as a Christian church to engage with. We too have expectations placed upon us and can listen to ourselves as many at this time feel the weight of responsibility. The decisions needed to be taken, the right stewardship of resources, the use of time, and the weight of those who depend upon us to care and live peaceably and neighbourly with those who are themselves demanding.
And against all this we can hear the clip clopping of hooves. For all of Jesus’ life stands as an example of someone, so at one with himself and his purpose, that he was able to demonstrate a new way; a way that Christians have at times called ‘the upside-down kingdom’. Therefore instead of a white charger, or a huge entourage, the clip clopping we hear is of a colt of a donkey. How understated can you get? He was not going to stand for or by this group or that group, he was not deliberately going to provoke the rabble rousers, but instead he would stand for truth and justice, for love and the common good. And in such a way those who were less were made more; those that were last and least became first in the kingdom of God; those who were excluded were included and those who had nothing were reminded of their infinite worth.
That is a challenge to all of us. For if we can make a difference to someone or something at this time, and if we consider the cause, or the individual or the group and do what is good and just and loving for them then that is what we can all commit ourselves to do.
Let me let you into a secret. I have only protested once in my life! Well, I may have written a few letters but there is only one time when I have held up a placard, shouted out and blew a whistle very loud! It was the year 2000 when I travelled with about 20 others from my church in Yorkshire to Birmingham. Christians and other faith groups had been galvanised into action to form a ring around the city, where the G8 leaders were meeting. It was, I am pleased to say a successful campaign, as we deliberately stood up for the world’s poorest countries, at that time crippled by debt and unable to escape its bonds. There were thousands there and together we stood, remembering the poor and doing what we could to make our voices heard.
At a specified time, it had been arranged that everyone should hold hand to make a four-mile ring around Birmingham and make as much noise as possible for two minutes. As you can imagine many were caught up in this, just as they were cheering the NHS the other evening. One woman joined in with her whole heart, clasping the hands of those next to her and shouting at the top of her voice. When the two minutes were up, she turned to her neighbour and asked, ‘Can you tell me what that was about please?’ She had no idea. She had been to Birmingham shopping for the afternoon and just found herself joining in!
I am sure there were many caught up in the noise of Palm Sunday who did not really understand what was happening, and what a picture for our own witness. Wouldn’t it be great if the infectiousness of volunteering, or the willingness to support the local foodbank, or the selflessness of serving our communities at this time was so great, that people could not but join in? In fact, many are. What a difference that would make in the long term to our own witness to Christ’s love in the world.
What do you hear this day? Finally, there is a call to prayer and devotion. Palm Sunday holds together the two contrasting emotions of Holy Week. It is a day when celebration turns to consolation. In our prayers and liturgies, the Palm Sunday shouts of ‘hosanna’ soon turn to cries of betrayal and anger as we enter the most holy week of our faith. We soon see that crowds can be fickle; the opportunities for people to gang together and bring down the well-know celebrity are too tempting; the desire to blame someone else for our personal folly is all too easy.
The journey to the cross demanded Christ’s total surrender. It demanded total sacrifice. The kingdom of God comes when we too are prepared to give up things, our time, our resources, ourselves in worship, indeed our whole lives. To offer them all to Jesus.
We may have more time this week than most to enter into the drama of Christ’s passion. I encourage you to make the most of it, to play music, to watch films maybe, to read the Bible with enquiring minds and open eyes, to listen to Jesus and what he may be saying to you, here and now. To open your hearts to his love and compassion in a new way. Engaging all of ourselves will not be easy. It will be costly and probably painful to listen this week. This week will be more poignant than most as we all walk the way of the cross.
Yet one of the signs of the kingdom of God is that joy can come in the midst of pain and love’s extravagance in self-giving never goes unrewarded by God. It is about allowing God’s love to transform us; as strangers become friends, sceptics become believers; and sinners find forgiveness at the foot of the cross. As we embrace the sights, sounds, tastes and touch of Christ’s passion, we do so engaging in prayer and our devotions with the privilege of knowing the end of the story – where the closing credits do not go up after death on a cross, but with an empty tomb, promises of God being with us and in the full knowledge that there is more to life than this.