It’s been a tough week, hasn’t it? For many of us the reality of this virus has set in, as we hear that it could be weeks, even months before life returns to normal. Parents are trying to juggle working, childcare and home-schooling, and teachers, counsellors, outreach workers, tradespeople, kind of like us ministers – are trying to learn how to use new technologies to do our usual tasks. We all know how hard it is for people in the service sector – and with the beginning of the month bills will have come due and some paychecks will not have arrived and the anxiety is setting in.
Anxiety and stress make it hard for us to be at our best, and out of that can come strained conversations and strained relationships. Experts say we can only expect to function at 75% capacity at best, at the same time when we have this huge learning curve. And many of us are struggling with not being able to help other people more – with the limits put on our service to others by the virus. I know one of the hardest things for many of us is not to be able to give one elder a hug, or speak with the person who usually sits behind us at church face to face, or contact some of the people for whom we have no contact information. We want to hug our elderly parents or adult children or partners – not talk to them through a window or a phone line. And I’m deeply worried about friends around the globe who are living in places that aren’t safe at the best of times and are even worse now that the virus has arrived. And for a lot of us – though not all of us! – everything in life is just a little bit harder. I kind of hit the wall on Wednesday for a bit – and that’s OK. All of us are going to have our ups and our downs in this period.
That being said, I’ve got to admit that it felt a little strange to be writing a service full of “Hosannas” in the midst of all that – to be shouting praises and waving branches and reading about a parade. But let’s not forget where this story sits in the Gospel of Mark. It sits right in the middle of hard times. It follows soon after one of Jesus’ reminders that “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death”, and in the chapters we’re not reading today Jesus curses a fig tree, trashes the temple, debates his authority with religious leaders who are looking for a way to trap him verbally and arrest him physically, and prophesies that the temple will be destroyed. As this unnamed woman pours out her extravagant gift to honour him, he notes that this will be his burial ointment. In the very next verse, “Judas, one of the twelve, went to the chief priest in order to betray Jesus”. This celebration comes in the middle of hard times. It is a break from the struggle, a reminder that life is still good, and an expression that God is in the mix of what is going on for Jesus, his disciples and their people. Hosanna means “save us!” – and the story of Holy Week tells us God will, but not in any way you or I or any of them could have imagined.
Like I said to the kids, we need our celebrations. They mark the joyful moments in life, even in the midst of gloomy days and frightening news. In some ways, those celebrations – even the mini-celebrations of a joke on Facebook, a card in the mail, sharing a photo of some pretty flowers or hilarious pets – all of that is an offering of love. It’s a way of saying: “look, I know it’s hard, but I hope this will make things a little better. I care about you, and I want your happiness.” For Jesus and his disciples, it was the disciples’ chance to say, “We’ve heard that things are going to get bad, but we still believe in you. We think you’re worth celebrating. We think you are bringing something with you that matters to the world” – and they invited others to share in that celebration. I wonder if Jesus needed that, knowing what was ahead? After all, he’s the one who asked them to bring the donkey – which was a signal that he was identifying himself with the prophet Zechariah’s words, “your King comes to you, riding on a donkey”. Maybe Jesus needed to claim, just for a little while, the good side of being who he was. I’m going what we preachers aren’t supposed to do – I’m psychologizing – but I do wonder. Why else would Jesus participate in this parade, knowing that it would only aggravate the authorities? Maybe he, too, needed a celebration to lift his spirits.
Soon he will gather with the people closest to him and he will share a meal with them – as many of us wish we could do. That will be his chance to say good-bye – to name how special they are to him and how important they are to the world. Mark’s Gospel does not tell us much about what happens at that meal, except that he names his betrayer and warns Peter of his coming denial – not a pleasant farewell. In John’s Gospel, he takes the time to speak to them about what is to come, and calls them his friends. I want to take this time, today, to name how special each one of you is – with all of your strengths and gifts and foibles and weaknesses, and how much you have to offer the world. These communities, of which we are a part, would be much poorer without you in them. This church would be a very different institution without you. If for a short time you have to cease your striving and take a rest, so be it. Use this time to celebrate, to rest, to decide what will come next and set your face toward it, whatever it brings.
A dark night in a garden with a betrayer at hand awaits Jesus – and a cock crow at dawn will mark how one of his dearest companions turns away from him. But in this time, our own frightening time, we will turn toward Jesus instead; and we will turn toward each other, and the congregation will gather in spirit and take our times to celebrate, and we will serve where and how we are able, until a different dawn breaks on a new world. Amen.