Sermon for Palm Sunday 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” We behold our Lord today at the end of his rope. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem has led to bloody death; Jesus has gone from an adoring crowd lining his way with branches to the gibbet, surrounded by those who would mock and torture him.

To cry out, to express one’s sense of abandonment in the midst of profound grief and trouble, even accusing our Heavenly Father, is no sin. It is, we see in the Passion, a practice to which even the Sinless One made recourse. Jesus, you may know, is quoting the 22nd Psalm in his lament, but I don’t think we should see this as mere play-acting, as saying the right words to give a biblical reference to prove the prophetic nature of the Old Testament. That would hew dangerously close to a rather gnostic view of the crucifixion. No doubt Jesus actually feels abandoned, and he is using the words of scripture to express, in good Jewish fashion, what he is experiencing.

I think this gets to a point made by one whom many of you know is among my favorite biblical scholars, N.T. Wright, in a Time Magazine article last week. Bishop Wright reminds us that Christianity is not a faith of easy answers. We cannot take any example of profound human suffering and respond with an easy answer about God’s plan, and this includes, the bishop wrote, our current crisis with the coronavirus and all its attendant human suffering. Rather, we have the language already in our tradition to respond with perhaps the only honest words we can say about our difficulty–not with puffy platitudes about God’s will but with the biblical language of lament. These are sentiments we will hear expressed through all the Holy Week liturgies this week, and we certainly hear them today coming from none other than God Incarnate, experiencing the greatest human suffering on our behalf and responding just as the psalmist or Job or the Prophet Jeremiah in his Lamentations over the fall of Jerusalem. These are appropriate feelings to have and they are appropriate to express to God in prayer.

We should not view this as a lack of faith on our part when we, too, express such desolation and even when we accuse God. Remember last week, I said that Jesus wept over Lazarus even when he knew that he would raise him from the dead. Today Jesus cries out and accuses the Father of abandoning him, even though he knows his situation would lead to Resurrection. When somebody dies, I often tell the family of the departed one that grief is no sign of a lack of faith. It is a normal, human response to loss. We may be confident that God will get us through our current difficulties–our isolation and loneliness and anxiety and grief in the midst of the pandemic–but that doesn’t mean we are faithless if we need to express our sadness and fear and anger. God can take it; he’s big enough to manage our human responses to difficulty and even our anger at him.

Every year our bishop sends his clergy a book to read during Lent, and this year’s couldn’t have been more perfect for our current situation. The Hope of Glory is a series of reflections on the seven last words of our Lord from the Cross by John Meacham, the prominent historian and Episcopal lay leader whom many of you may have heard give eulogies at the funerals of his friends and fellow Episcopalians George and Barbara Bush when they both died in 2018.

I want to conclude my sermon with an excerpt of his reflection on Jesus’ lament “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” in which this pulitzer prize winning layman puts better the point I’m trying to make in a few words than I could in ten-thousand:

We do not know [why so many suffer]. The world is a tragic place: it will never finally, fully conform to our wishes.

Sometimes the things in front of us, including the cross, are the things we notice the least. We do not genuflect to images of an empty tomb, or of a discarded shroud. We genuflect, rather, to a representation of a place of suffering and of sweat, of blood and of death. Tragedy is ever before us. From the cross, Jesus asked the same question we ask in hours of darkness and despair: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? God has thus known grief. He has experienced the pain of his people. He has wondered why.

Then his Father’s will was done, and from darkness came light, and death was conquered. This is our story, our faith, our consolation.

And so we watch and we wait, revering the cross, caring for the widow and the orphan, and holding fast to the belief that someday, in some way, all things shall be made new. For that hope is all we have to hold on to, however tenuously, in the hours when we, too, feel forsaken by the Father, and far from his care.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.