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Palm Sunday – 2 April 2023 – Note: We observe this day as Pam Sunday, not Passion Sunday. The changed readings reflect this.
Matthew 21:1-11 (Processional Gospel)
Exodus 14:21-22, 29, 31
When we buried our Elias, in the midst of our grief, we were blessed by your presence. We were able to say our good-byes publicly, surrounded by family, friends, and church. And for us who are baptized into Christ Jesus and who know that God’s goal is for us to be God’s friends, it is hard to distinguish between family, friends, and church. We received hugs and handshakes, and tears were mixed with snot, and we were grateful not to be alone.
About six weeks later all had changed. I do not remember whether there was a limit on public gatherings yet, but if there wasn’t, everyone exercised caution and we recommended people remain at home, while we were trying to figure out how to stream our services.
At the evening prayer I participate in on Thursday evenings, we often begin with a question before we begin our liturgy. This past Thursday our question was, “When was the last time you could not keep from singing?”, alluding, of course, to the hymn by Robert Lowry, “My Life Flows on in Endless Song.”
I admit that I could not instantly think of a time when I could not keep from singing, though there certainly have been. But what I thought of was when we started to gather in the parking lot and our thanksgiving was not only a praise of God but was thanksgiving for each other in a time of social isolation.
This is not a commentary on the politics of Covid. I think that everyone did the best they could as far as they were able too, keeping in mind that only the centenarians among us had lived through a pandemic before.
What this is a comment on, is how important community is and how much we need each other, even in a society as individualistic as ours.
A few years ago, Harvey Chochinov, professor and researcher at the University of Manitoba, on invitation by Providence Health, gave presentations to both public and clinicians on Dignity Therapy, a therapy he developed. Chochinov’s findings were this: Whether a terminally ill patient continues to want to live or develops suicidal thoughts is related to whether the health care system treats the person with respect and kindness, whether the patient feels a sense of control and the patient’s privacy is respected, whether they continue to be able to draw support from friends and family, that they are able to tell their story, how their illness affects others, and what their eventual death will mean to those left behind.1
Jackie and I attended the public lecture and what I came away with is that the criteria just mentioned all relate to our social life, including the sense of control we have over our treatment, for that control is a reflection of the respect we receive from health care professionals. So, if we are able to maintain meaningful social relationships, we will experience our lives as meaningful. On one hand that is surprising for a model that often treats patients and their illnesses as objects, on the other hand it should not surprise us at all, for we were created to be social. We are made for community.
For many years my wife has worked with older adults. As we grow older, our capacities diminish, which means that at one point a certain level of care may no longer be adequate. I remember Jackie coming home one day and telling of a woman who had developed some level of dementia which made it difficult for her to understand the world around her. This left her deeply sad and out of sorts. Explanations did not help, but an embrace did, for the embrace assured her that she was not alone, and she remained part of the community.
The story of the anointing of Jesus by the woman at the house of Simon the leper is a story in which touch and physicality matter. The devotion of the woman is public. The touching is limited to the head of Jesus, and it is the person without power who touches, for she was a woman and at least in Matthew has remained nameless, rather than someone with power imposing his desires on another. There is nothing inappropriate here. It is a public act of deep devotion.
She pours out the costly ointment, worth so much that the disciples were offended, but she gives away what she has to the Lord she loves. The ointment is representative of her pouring out her love and herself.
Maybe the disciples complained, because – being men – they could not imagine such tenderness and devotion, though they try to sound more rational than that.
Jesus defends her. Knowing what lies ahead, he says, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. (…) By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial.”
Immediately after this scene Judas makes up his mind, and not much later Jesus is arrested.
As Jesus’ passion takes its course, we see that as the woman has poured out the ointment, Jesus pours out his life. His passion involves the suffering of his body. It is not body-less, not only spiritual. After all, Jesus took on our flesh. Our flesh. To suffer, die, and rise again. Our salvation was won in the flesh.
There were tears and there was snot, and it was messy, but it was love, for there is no love that does not know suffering.
In a book with the title “Reconstructing the Gospel – Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion,” Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove shows that that the theology of the oppressors was always bodyless, was only spiritual, for that was the only way they could justify slavery and the dispossession of a people. They would say that the souls of the slaves would be saved, while they used and abused their bodies. But Wilson-Hargrove says that such bodyless theology leaves white slaveholders and their ancestors impoverished.
He writes, “Even though Jesus took on flesh for my sake, whiteness prevents me from knowing how to live in my own skin. What’s more, my struggle to connect soul and body on the personal level mirrors a struggle I share with millions on the societal level. Even though Jesus proclaimed the advent of a new political reality – the kingdom of God – we consistently fail to connect faith and politics in meaningful, consistent ways. (…) Not only do we not know how to live in skin, we’re often not clear about what it means to live in the world.”2
The woman who anointed Jesus knew how to live in skin. Skin mattered and the body mattered to her. Her love needed to find physical expression, for it could not only be words.
Surprisingly to us, God knows how to live in skin, and for God the body matters, Jesus’ earthly body, but also yours and mine. Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem. Jesus broke bread with his friends, Jesus poured out both his life and his love on the cross, and he invited Thomas to touch his wounds. It was more than words. It was more than only spiritual. God’s love was embodied and God’s love wants to be embodied in us, in you and in me, and the way we live in the world.
2 Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Reconstructing the Gospel – Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion, Inter Varsity Press: 2018 Downers Grove, IL, page 67