From a Distance. April 5, Palm Sunday

From a Distance

Psalm 118:14-29; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 2:1-11

The Rev. Catherine E. Schuyler

Catskill, Palenville, Quarryville United Methodist Churches; April 5, 2020


We are physical beings, we humans. That physicality is at the forefront of our lives these days.  The corona virus affects our physical bodies – at its worst, it thickens the alveoli in our lungs until there’s little space for air.  It’s nasty that way.  Our physical bodies need air and water and food to live.  Often, however, our life in faith doesn’t reflect our physicality.  Even though at the heart of our faith is the physical reality that Jesus, ‘though he was in the form of God, …emptied himself, being born in human likeness.’  (Philippians 2:6-7) ‘The Word was made flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth,’ is how the gospel of John puts it. (John 1:14)  God claims the physical nature of being human; that scandalous declaration is at the core of what makes Christianity important for Christians and heretical to most other people of faith.  We celebrate that becoming flesh at Christmas, the celebration of the Incarnation – that’s what Incarnation means: becoming flesh.  God comes to us as an infant, a baby human, who grows up to become an adult human.  We sometimes have a pageant at Christmas, to help us see the story we tell, but most of the rest of our worship throughout the year is about ideas and feelings, involving our minds and hearts more than our bodies.  We hear the word of God and we want to understand it.  We hear the stories and wisdom Jesus tells and we seek to understand it with our minds.  We listen to the words of the prophets and the theological ramblings of the Apostle Paul, and we talk about who we understand and believe God to be, and from that, who we understand ourselves to be.  This is ‘doing theology.’ I love this kind of work; I love to do theology.  I love to look for new ways to understand and explain God and God’s love and grace. 


Also in worship, in response to hearing and thinking about the Word, we enter into prayer and we feel the power of the Spirit binding us together in our hearts.  We feel the joy of being together and we feel the pain of those whom we pray for.  All of this worship is good.  It’s important, and when it’s shared with integrity, it’s a valuable part of our Christian life together.


But it’s not all there is.  The Christian faith involves our whole selves – our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies are all called as we are called to live in Christ, empowered by the Spirit to love one another and to love God.  Our worship doesn’t always make that wholeness clear. 


Until we come to Holy Week.  And all of a sudden, our experience of the word of God and the stories of Jesus becomes physical.  ‘Usual’ Holy Week services begin today, on Palm Sunday.  We hear of Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem and we wave branches and cloaks as if it were happening today and we are there.  Here in Catskill we were ready to process from Gilmour Hall outside and into the sanctuary with our palms this year, singing as we marched.  There are churches where the whole congregation processes around the city block every year, palms in hand, led by the acolytes carrying the cross and Bible and the pastor leading the singing. 


At Maundy Thursday services we hear of Jesus’ last evening with his disciples, how he washed their feet and ate with them.  There are churches that include a ritual for foot-washing in their Maundy Thursday worship.  Most Christian churches include a celebration of communion, the Eucharist, at the Lord’s Table on Thursday night, remembering that it was here that Jesus told his disciples, this is my body and blood, given for you.  Remember me when you eat and drink.  We live that meal together.


On Good Friday we join others in town for a Walk of the Cross, again, putting ourselves in the action of what happened to Jesus, carrying a heavy cross as we walk through the streets, telling and living the story of the crucifixion.


On Easter Sunday, we gather in darkness that we might experience physically once again that transition from death to life, from darkness into light, that marks our celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.  In my hometown, the sunrise service is held in the town cemetery.


We won’t get to do any of that this year.  Our bodies won’t experience the happenings of Jesus’ last week of human life because we are physical bodies, and our bodies are in danger outside our homes at the moment.  We will experience this week from a distance, not intimately as we usually do.  We will spend this Holy Week hearing about Jesus, thinking about the disciples’ fear and lack of understanding, and feeling the power of the Spirit comforting us in our loneliness and our own fear.  It will be a different experience, unlike any Holy Week I’ve ever been a part of. 


I’ve never been to the Holy Land. People who have declare that it changes their faith, intensifying their experience of Bible stories from then on.  I believe that going to the Holy Land is a powerful experience.  But I don’t have to go to the Holy Land to know that God accomplished something amazing and wonderful there two thousand years ago, something that still touches my life here today.  Whether or not I’ve stood where Jesus told his disciples to love one another doesn’t affect the truth that my choice to hear his words and to follow him gives my life meaning and hope like nothing else does.  I can hear the story of the crowd’s joy at Jesus’ parade into Jerusalem and let that joy encourage me as I face the stories that follow, even if I’ve never been on that road, and even if I don’t get to be with you as part of that crowd.  God is still going to roll that stone away, and Jesus is still going to greet his disciples on Easter morning, and that resurrection is still going to be good news in my life and in your life, now, whether or not we can be together to hear the story this year.  Ultimately our faith is not about what we can or can’t do, it’s about what God has done and continues to do, God’s love and grace and welcome to each of us and all of us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  That faith cannot be undone by earthquakes or storms, not by a pandemic nor even by death itself.  That’s the most basic good news of Easter.  Nothing separates us from God’s love. 


It will be hard, this week apart.  It will be different, and that’s too bad, because I love the services we share in Holy Week.  I suspect many of us are heartbroken about the differences we’ll experience.  That sadness is OK.  I just want to remind you that that sadness is not the last word.  God’s got resurrection in mind, now and next week and on into forever, just as God always has.  Those who weep going out to sow shall return rejoicing, carrying their sheaves. (Psalm 126:6) We will weep this week.  And God will bring us through to a time of rejoicing and triumph.  Count on it.  Amen.



Philippians 2:5-11

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

6who, though he was in the form of God,

   did not regard equality with God

   as something to be exploited,

7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,

  being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

   8he humbled himself

   and became obedient to the point of death —

   even death on a cross.

9Therefore God also highly exalted him

   and gave him the name that is above every name,

10so that at the name of Jesus

   every knee should bend,

   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.


Psalm 118:14-29 (UMH 839)

14The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.

15There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;

16the right hand of the Lord is exalted; the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”

17I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.

18The Lord has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death.

19Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.

20This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.

21I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.

22The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

23This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.

24This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

25Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

26Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord.

27The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.

28You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.

29O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.


Matthew 21:1-11

21When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”


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