The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
April 9, 2017
“Hosanna.” Is it a cheer or is it a prayer? Is it a proclamation or a plea?
I had a strange experience some years ago when I walked into a store the week before Palm Sunday. I was in clerical garb. The clerk at the register said hello. We had met before and in fact had had several conversations. Then, all of a sudden, as if my priestly dress triggered something in him, he exclaimed, “Oh no, we have that long service this Sunday. That whole dang Passion Gospel gets read.” “Dang” was not the word he used.
All kinds of thoughts and feelings whirled around inside of me. Many were rather judgmental of him and I was working real hard not to come off that way in my response. But I was so surprised and caught off guard I wasn’t sure of what to say. So all that came out was, “Robert! (not his name) What is all of that about?” To which he replied, “I’ve heard that thing 50 or more times in my life. I know what it says.” Still taken aback, all I could reply was, “Think how many times I have heard it and read it. I always feel like I need to hear it again.” The response from him this time was, “Maybe that’s why you do what you do and I do what I do.” At those words some others walked into the store and our conversation ended.
Yet the conversation continues in my head and heart and I am full of questions. Where is Robert in his life of faith? After all, I am glad he even goes to church. How might I have responded differently or more helpfully? Where was God in that exchange? What does God expect me to do with it? Was God trying to teach me something? Am I to have another conversation with Robert that follows up on this one? One of my imaginary tapes plays it back in my head with the response, “Robert, maybe the reason the reading of the Passion feels like drudgery to you, an unnecessary lengthening of the service, is that even though you say you’ve heard it 50 times before, in fact you’ve never really heard it, at least not deeply.”
Would that be too confrontational? Perhaps I’d be wrong. I do remember, however, a time in a nursing home celebrating the Eucharist. When it came time to administer communion I came to an elderly woman in a wheel chair as tears were quietly running down her cheeks. As she sat there, hands extended, I asked, “Are you okay?” She said, “Yes, I am fine. It’s just that after all these years, I think I just heard the words for the first time.”
So I know – that’s one reason why we need to rehearse the events of this most holy of weeks over and over again. It is not that it is merely a story that we hear year after year and have all the facts and events clear in our brain. It is so that we would hear the invitation to enter the story ourselves and know, perhaps anew, that it is OUR story, and God’s story in us. Because we are different each year and bring different realities of our own life to God’s table, the story changes every time we encounter it. We can discover with Andrew of Crete, writing in the 8th century: “It is ourselves that we must spread under Christ’s feet, not our coats or lifeless branches of palm, matter which wastes away. But we have been clothed with Christ’s grace. He rides into Jerusalem for us, so let us spread ourselves under his feet.”
Thus we shout, “Hosanna,” which means by the way, “Save us, we beg of you!” We do so stating our own willingness to follow Jesus through the suffering and death of his Passion. It is the very meaning of our baptism into Christ: To be united with him in a death like his in order to be united with him in a resurrection like his (Romans 6). Is there any one of us who cannot appreciate the whole scene played out before Jesus as he moves toward execution: the buzz of the crowd; the excitement of the people who hope beyond hope that he would save them from the oppression of the Roman political system; the violent methods of control and economic poverty that worked to keep people captive? And after the shouts of “Hosanna” have stopped, perhaps the last human voices on earth he would hear to express their hope in him and his way of love and mercy, it all gives way not long after to the starkly different shout of “Crucify him, crucify him.” Get rid of him by the method of the government’s cruelest means of torture to dissuade any others to dare and raise their voice in opposition.
We dare to gaze at him on the Cross, which is part of our Holy Week invitation, to be confronted by his loneliness, to recognize deeply his suffering, because there we witness our own suffering and pain: the loss of a stricken family member or a broken relationship; the horrors of Syria and her children; the ravages of poverty and hopelessness in our cities; the wanton disregard of all those who we as a culture sometimes choose not to see or cast aside even as we try and better our own plot in life; the patterns of racism that remain imbedded in every part of our society; and dare I say it – words of violence cavalierly thrown about in our political arena. And what does Christ do in return? From the Cross he offers nothing but love and makes it the means of new life for all.
This week we make the journey from self-absorption to surrender and in so doing become a passionate people in love with a passionate God. If we dare to face life with the One who hangs on that Cross, we face it, in the end, with hope. Lent, you see, even this day of Christ’s Passion, is not about feeling bad. It is about rejoicing in the gift that the cross of death has become the tree of life. Thus we shout, “Hosanna,” appealing to the One who is hope.
Of course I know now, at least in part, what was going on in that store. Oh yes, it was God all right. But God wasn’t calling on me to be concerned about Robert. God’s invitation was to Skip and likewise all of you. Will you merely read my Passion one more time, one of many gone by, one of many yet to come? Or will you today, one more time let me give you my life, and ask you to give me your life? Today, it is also God’s invitation to you. “Hosanna!” Save us O God, we beg of you.
The Inauguration and Investiture of Dr. W. Franklin Evans
April 7, 2017
Having spoken just a couple of weeks ago with Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, I bring you his greetings on this great day in the life of Voorhees College. He prays his blessing upon you and gives thanks for the presence of Voorhees in the life of the Episcopal Church. I am grateful for your presence here today and the honor of being the preacher on this grand occasion and share a word that I hope and trust is of God’s Spirit.
Perhaps you have heard this story, reported to me as true even as names have been changed. It seems that a young entrepreneur’s business had become so successful that it had outgrown the building in which she started. So, in the hope of future success she moved this little enterprise to a new and much larger facility.
On the first day of business in the new spot, the young woman came to work excited and scared, optimistic yet with some concerns. The first thing she found in her new spot was a lovely flower arrangement. The note said, “We were so terribly sorry to hear of your loss. Please accept our deepest condolences.” It was from someone she thought she recognized as a customer, but as you might imagine she was a bit confused and wondered if it was some kind of omen.
About an hour later she got a frantic call from the florist. He said, “Ms. Jones, I am so sorry. The Smiths ordered two arrangements—one for you and one to go to a funeral home. My delivery boy got the two mixed up.” Ms. Jones laughed and said, “Oh that’s okay. I’m a small business owner. I make mistakes like that too. But can you remember what the note on my arrangement said?” The florist said, “Well, that’s the really embarrassing part. The arrangement that you were supposed to get is at the funeral. It has a big ribbon on it that says, ‘Congratulations on your new location.’ ”
Dr. Evans, welcome to your new location at Voorhees. We are delighted you are here. And because you are here we are all in a new location, as this particular constellation of human beings has never before come together on planet earth. It is a day of thanksgiving to God for all who have gone before us, from the original visionary, Ms. Elizabeth Evelyn Wright in April of 1897, on to all who have made it possible to be Voorhees College in 2017. We also give thanks for what will yet be, in anticipation of a future held by God’s goodness and love, in order to move into all that God is yet calling Voorhees to be through your leadership and the leadership of all who serve and study here in this historic place.
So I ask, what might the scriptures say to us about who God calls us to be, together with you in your new location, and particularly this college as an Historically Black College affiliated with the Episcopal Church? In Psalm 78, as it rehearses the history of Israel, a significant question is asked. “Can God set a table in the wilderness?” I would say, as a person of faith, that not only can God do so, God has done so and is even now seeking to do so, through us. It prompts me to ask the question: Can Voorhees be an altar, that is, a sacred table set by God around which God’s good people are gathered, as an instrument of God’s vision “on earth, as it is in heaven?” To use the Presiding Bishop’s language, can Voorhees be a part of the Jesus movement in this time and place, in the wilderness of the culture in which we live?
It is the hope of Isaiah’s prophetic vision of Israel’s restoration in today’s lesson, where the poor are invited to the joyful banquet. For Isaiah it is desacralized, if you will, from mere temple ritual and placed right into the daily life of real people. It is taking this altar and figuratively setting it up wherever God’s people find themselves. For Isaiah it was a movement away from sanctuary to the wilderness of the street: your street; a dorm room; a street in Denmark; the parking lot of the grocery store; a place of business; a classroom or laboratory, or even, the college president’s office. I hear echoing in my mind a line from a song by the Doobie Brothers, “taking it to the streets.” Isaiah’s vision is to be our vision. The purpose of education is not merely exporting facts and concepts, as important as they are. It is about formation of the human spirit to be a more mature, informed and transparent instrument of God’s justice for the world. Indeed a part of the Voorhees mission statement is “to educate the minds, hearts and spirits…”
I wonder if we remember that the early Christian community, when gathering for Eucharist, the very thing we are doing here right now, did not first see the image of the Last Supper as its primary Eucharistic imagery. Their first image was of the various feeding stories of the four or five thousand, one of which was read today as the Gospel. The Eucharist was seen more as an anticipation of the full reign of God where all are fed, there is perfect equity and justice, all barriers that separate us are removed, and all have access to God’s bounty. Why? For in this way we are more clearly the icon of God’s community of love, justice and thanksgiving.
We see in the Gospel of Luke today as it plays out in the five loaves and two fish Jesus’ Kingdom mission – feeding the hungry creation as ALL ate and were filled with an abundance of leftovers. If I may be so presumptuous to say, can this be a primary purpose of how people are prepared and empowered at Voorhees, for the sake of one another and for the sake of a whole, reconciled and healed world? There would be a “Re-imagined Voorhees, a different school of thought.”
Let me make what I think is a bold statement. Every one of us here today is called by God, in some way, to be setting up God’s table in the wilderness of life, to live a life of gratefulness, sometimes setting the table yourself and sometimes having it set for you. It is an altar that, if true to God, challenges everything of our world that works contrary to that vision and dares to challenge what needs to be different in any structure or institution that robs God’s people of dignity and hope. The bread and wine we hold up here belongs not to us, it belongs to God and therefore it belongs to the world. This altar, the altars in our churches, only have integrity if they become the altars we set out there, or better, the altars or holy tables God is setting for us out there. We are asked to show up.
Dr. Evans, help us through your ministry as president of Voorhees College to be table setters, to cooperate with God in God’s dream for God’s people. The life of faith is not to be merely prudent, sensible or safe. No, too often such attitudes lead to a stale, stagnant and passionless Christianity. It leaves us unchanged and the world remains very hungry.
Perhaps the call here, the reason God has brought you together as president, professors, staff, students and community, is to be the new table God is setting here at Voorhees, a table where all are welcome, a table where all are fed, a table where justice rises up to be heard, seen and fulfilled. Let us practice it here, make it so here, so that we can live it out there.
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.