Today, the Orthodox Church celebrates the joyous feast of Palm Sunday, the commemoration of the Entrance of our Lord into Jerusalem following His glorious miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead. Today, my husband, Dn. James, gave the homily. As I listened to him I realized how perfectly his sermon fits in with this blog. The epistle reading today especially is perfect for this journey to joy. One of my favorites.
So without further ado…here is the homily by Fr. Dn. James gave on this day, Palm Sunday:
THINGS AREN’T ALWAYS WHAT THEY SEEM
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…
I want to start with a story I shared when I spoke at Doxacon in February. It was told by a Ugandan colleague last year. I thought it was really interesting and I’d never heard it, so hopefully you have not either. A woman was at the airport and her flight was delayed. So she went and purchased a pack of cookies intending to sit down at a table down the concourse a little ways to read a book and eat them. So she headed down and found a seat, pulled out her book from her handbag, and began to read. A man sat down next to her and she took little notice of him UNTIL she reached out her hand to her package of cookies on the table and found them open and the man was in the middle of transporting one to his mouth – paying no attention to her. Well as you might imagine, she was quite put off by this! But she was a meek person by nature and decided not to say anything. She grabbed one of her cookies and ate it and after she did the man reached down and grabbed another. Her mouth dropped and she looked at the man who was ACTING like he was oblivious to her watching him. And this went on for a short while – the woman getting more and more enraged but still unable to bring herself to say anything and hating herself for being unable to – And then there was one cookie left and the woman convinced herself that no one had the audacity to take the last cookie from someone else’s pack of cookies. Well, she couldn’t believe it when he reached out and grabbed the last one, broke it in half and offered one portion to her smiling widely. Meekly she took it but she garnered enough courage at that moment to huff out loud, gather up her handbag and stormed off leaving the garbage for him to clean up. She spent her flight filled with anger and frustration – she even cried some as she replayed the scene over and over in her mind, doing something different each time , something more appropriate and fitting and just – and she remained in the same mindset as she arrived at her hotel. In her room she nearly tossed her luggage to the side and flung her handbag onto the bed and as she did: out rolled her unopened and forgotten pack of cookies. And suddenly she realized that things aren’t always what they seem.
I think about this story because of how radically different our perception becomes when we finally understand the reality of a given situation. We filter reality through our perception which is filled with many biases, assumptions, narratives, pre-conceived beliefs, etc. So much so, that I sometimes wonder how we ever arrive at the truth…and I’m a scientists by trade! Give this story some thought now with the fullness of truth and you’ll very quickly have a decidedly different opinion of the people involved – particularly the man. The truth that things aren’t always what they seem, also has a component in this sort of “2 for 1” feast we have this weekend. Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday and intimately linked – as you well know, they even share a Troparion. The raising of Lazarus as we heard yesterday leads directly to the Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem and also the soon-to-come passion. And in terms of things not always being what they seem, in these feasts it’s the person and mission of our Lord.
The Entry into Jerusalem is one of the 12 Great Feasts of the Church and for very good reason: It was the one time when Jesus – was widely hailed as King and Messiah. Fr. Thomas Hopko calls this feast THE most Hebraic feast in the Christian tradition, because here you have the beloved Jewish people – through whom God will bring forth salvation for all of creation – hailing their beloved and long awaited King and Messiah. When you consider the thousands of years of Jewish history, and the reality of it all leading to this ONE moment…one brief moment when the people of Jerusalem recognize and honor Jesus as King and Lord. In fact this feast is sometimes called “The Feast of the Kingdom.” The OT readings from Vigil last night all prophesy about a triumphant Messiah, the return of the King of Israel – example Zachariah 9: ““Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey.” And then in Zephaniah: “Sing, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away your iniquities, He has cast out your enemy. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; You shall see disaster no more. In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Do not fear; Zion, let not your hands be weak. The Lord your God in your midst, The Mighty One, will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing.” All are referencing the Messiah –King with emphasis on His Kingship.
The Entry of our Lord was a spontaneous victory parade just as one might see for the conquering or liberating King entering the city He has freed. People having heard of the miracle of Lazarus, truly believed this wonder-working man was the long awaited messiah……And indeed they expected he was coming to Jerusalem to accomplish a victory – the people were absolutely expecting the messiah to crush and toss out the Romans and to re-establish the Kingdom of Israel. Their proclamation left no question as to who they believed or hoped him to be at that moment: “Hosanna! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’ The King of Israel!” or in other versions “The Son of David!” Now, of course, you will recall that later this week when it becomes clear that Jesus was NOT going to be able to conquer the Romans, the people who had shouted Hosanna suddenly began shouting “Crucify Him!” or “Give us Barabbas!” So for them, he could not be the messiah once the Romans had so easily arrested Him and his followers had scattered in fear….it seemed the entire movement had been suddenly and easily snuffed out. So much for our King. If we consider the disciples at the time…and in the next few days: we needn’t work hard to imagine their dismay when things take a very ugly and serious turn…from the joy and triumph of His entry, to His betrayal and utter humiliation. They scatter…and as they watch him be tried, tortured, and crucified…what must they have thought? Hope must have withered. All must have seemed lost. EVEN though Jesus explicitly told them all of this would happen…it seems they were wrapped up in their perceptions of how things were SUPPOSED to be and reality over the next few days would seem to be beating that vision to death…but, as we were talking about here this morning: things aren’t always what they seem. It’s interesting that in John’s gospel account of the Entry of our Lord, he tells us the disciples did not understand these things “at first”, but that after He was glorified it became clear to them. Hindsight is 20/20 right? Like the woman finding her pack of cookies…it changed everything. So did Pascha for the disciples. For, in reality the Entry into Jerusalem WAS….or rather it IS a Victory parade…and He is indeed the King and Messiah and He was going into that city to claim that victory: not over the Romans, but over death itself. The day before, Lazarus was the first punch you see….a powerful warning shot fired across death’s bow. The people could only think of a political messiah and a geographic kingdom freed from Rome…instead of a spiritual Messiah and a heavenly Kingdom freed from sin and death. This week (2000 years ago) people thought the Jesus of Nazareth movement had fallen apart and was defeated…but things aren’t always as they seem: not only was this “movement” not snuffed out, but it would grow and grow despite great persecution and within a few generations it would in fact “conquer” pagan Rome – just not in the way the people thought. They didn’t get their political Kingdom, they got something far far better though perhaps they did not know it at the time.
In our everyday lives, in this crazy, crazy and hectic world that surrounds us…this world with all its false priorities, all of its pain, all of its suffering, all of its hedonism and nihlism….it can sometimes overwhelm us. And as we perceive it, it often breeds within us: anxiety, fear, gloom, darkness, depression, despair, bitterness, and anger. Sometimes all we can see is bad, bad, and more bad. But…in truth: things aren’t always what they seem.
You see, the epistle from today (and we should not think it was unintentionally assigned to this day) tells us what our response should be to this victorious arrival of our King: “Rejoice in the Lord! Always! And again I say REJOICE. Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.” MANY times in the New Testament we aren’t just encouraged to rejoice, but we are COMMANDED to be joyful! Why? Because when we set our minds and hearts aright, there is NO other appropriate response.
And amazingly enough…if we follow St. Paul’s advice “these….do” then I think we will be able to see that indeed things aren’t always as they seem. All the difficulties and trials we face…Even if we stand face to face with death itself…things aren’t as always as they seem. No, they are in fact unimaginably better…our King comes to free us from death itself. So let us carry these Palms of Victory and rejoice having seen Lazarus raised from the dead. Even amidst what lies ahead…we know that our King – as the Troparion says – is the VANQUISHER of death. And today we participate in that triumphant parade.
There is an African saying I picked up in my travels which says: If you want to go fast, go alone….but if you want to go FAR, go together.” Brothers and sisters we’ve journeyed a long way across the sea of the Fast. Now, let us journey together over the next week through Jerusalem. And going together we will go far…and deep into this great mystery of our God, our King, and our Messiah’s ultimately VICTORY. Let us go together that we may indeed as CS Lewis wrote: go farther up and farther in to the great and wonderful mystery of our Salvation.