Palm Sunday, Reflectionary

Open Now: a reflection on Palm Sunday worship

Before I went to seminary, I sang in a church choir around the time of a major renovation to the pipe organ. For many months, a piano sufficed to accompany both choral and congregational singing. At the service to dedicate the restored and improved organ, fifty singers lined up in the cloister near the sanctuary for the processional, an anthem composed by one of the choir members. I remember the beautiful setting and the challenge of singing a cappella and harmonizing in tune as we walked in pairs through two doorways and around a corner into the sanctuary.

Here is the text we sang:

Open now thy gates of beauty,
Zion, let me enter there,
where my soul in joyful duty
waits for him who answers prayer.
Oh, how blessed is this place,
filled with solace, light, and grace!

As a person who is always dubious about congregations that set too high a value on the physical plant, I must yet confess that I loved the physical space in which I sang with that choir. In memory, the space, when filled with people, is more than a building. It is an experience. My hippocampus holds particular memories of high holy days, the colors and fragrances and ambient human sights and sounds, the people singing, their hands waving palms or weaving them into crosses.

The church is not a building, but the times and places we have gathered form sense memories, “filled with solace, light, and grace.”

Friends, it’s okay to miss it all this week, and to name that we miss it. What might help would be to include as many voices as we can in worship leadership, whether that’s sharing the readings on a conference call, taking turns speaking on Zoom, or using whatever video capabilities we have to incorporate familiar faces for recorded or live-streamed worship. The experience of Palm Sunday is sensory, and while physical distancing may flatten the five senses to two, we have the opportunity to evoke the story while naming the ways touch and smell and even taste weave together with sight and hearing to bring our faith story to life. 

Like the choir members exerting themselves to stay on key while turning a corner, we will be doing two things at the same time. We will be allowing the faithful to grieve this temporary loss in the midst of predictions of devastating losses, and we will be laying the groundwork for a commemoration of Easter spent at the tomb rather than crowded into our flower-filled sanctuaries. The crowds declare our Savior. Jesus, the sovereign seated humbly on a donkey, is the cornerstone of our faith, for this season, and the next, and all that are to come. Our buildings may be closed, yet may we be open now. 

Lord, my God, I come before thee,
come thou also unto me;
where we find thee and adore thee,
there a heav’n on earth must be.
To my heart, O enter thou,
let it be thy temple now!

“Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty” – translator: Catherine Winkworth; author: Benjamin Schmolck – verses 1 and 2

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Lent 5A, Reflectionary

Bring Out Your Dead

As we try to adjust to having four people at home all the time, one of our strategies is rotating the choice of post-dinner activity, to bring ourselves together for something that counts as play. On Friday night, my 24-year-old daughter picked a movie she felt was essential to the cultural education of my 15-year-old stepson, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I’m fairly sure the only time I watched it all the way through was at a campus screening in 1981, but I recognized the cultural touchstones. 

I vaguely remembered the plague scene, a cart being wheeled through the muddy streets of a village, while Eric Idle cries…

I’m sure it seemed hilarious in 1975, when an image like the one below would have been unthinkable, but I cringed to see it.

It’s Wednesday, and I have no idea how things will be this weekend, when pastors will do their best to share a good word with the people they serve. The lectionary for Sunday feels uncomfortably close to our situation. Lent is almost over, and we are approaching the top of the curve in Jesus’ story just as we are trying to flatten the curve in ours. We are living, most of us, one day at a time, even one hour at a time, waiting for the next news update, waiting for a million shoes to drop.

This week’s gospel lesson, John 11:1-45, is one of my favorite stories in the New Testament, because I love Martha and her family and their relationship with Jesus. He is intimately acquainted with them; the sisters feel free to be themselves with him, Martha jousting and Mary collapsing, both expressing their disappointment without reserve. We learn that their loss is his loss, too, even as he knows he will be bringing Lazarus back to the world of the living. 

We will be brought out of this eventually, but for now, we are in the tomb with Lazarus, waiting. Lives are being lost, along with many understandings about life we considered reliable in the First World in the 21st century. The close ties of all who live on this planet have never been illuminated so plainly. This week’s texts proclaim the hope of our faith: death is not the end. What will our lives proclaim to the world? I hope our testimony will be love and care, accompaniment of those who mourn, and space to weep for what we will lose and have lost already.

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Psalm 23, Reflectionary

God is My…

In this week when we are all strategizing our response to a new abnormal, It feels providential that wrapped into the lectionary for Sunday is the 23rd Psalm. In The Words of Her Mouth: Psalms for the Struggle, I wrote a psalm in conversation with it, Are You?  You’ll find the text below. Pages of notes and fragments on legal pad paper trace the path I took from one metaphor to another, trying to find the image that resonated for me but would also be common enough to be recognizable and relatable to readers. 

What would speak broadly to people in this moment? 

From Australia this week, where he is in isolation after he and his wife were diagnosed with COVID-19 Tom Hanks channeled the man he played on screen and thanked the helpers on Instagram. In Italy, a start-up company used a 3D printer to manufacture valves desperately needed for Coronavirus patients. Ai Fen, a doctor in Wuhan, China, is speaking out against authorities who covered up the outbreak there, trying to get the word out before censors erase the truth.

God is my helper, my engineer, my physician; God is my whistleblower…

Who is God to us in this moment? Who is the God we call out to in prayer?

If you will be streaming worship on Facebook Live or bringing your community together on Zoom, I hope you’ll ask who God is to them in this moment. Use the psalm to frame the question. Invite responses in a comment stream or via text message or in a chat box. Please know I am praying for you and the people you serve, today and in the weeks to come.

You’re welcome to use my psalm in worship or wherever it might be helpful.