What is normal anymore? These few weeks have felt extraordinary in ways I am still trying to find language to explain. What does life mean, what does this isolation mean? How long will it go on for? These are just some of the questions I heard from you this week as we chatted on the phone. It feels like overnight, our whole system for understanding and operating in our everyday crashed around us, the ways we cope suddenly no longer work, and we are left wondering where is normal now. Something I’ve noticed over the last few weeks is the consistency of the questions to our leaders about when things will go back to normal. When can we go back to work, when can we go outside again, when can we go to church again. Indeed, it feels like a lot of my own anxiety in this is about returning to normal, a normal which may never exist again as we knew it. It is again a gift then for you and I to gather in worship today to listen for God’s providential Word to us in the midst of us, a Word which I think speaks directly to us in ways too profound to ignore this year.
This morning is heavy with words, so to hear two gospels and two readings with a psalm is a lot to process, in the midst of a world which is currently laden with communication and information for us to sift through and understand. But there is a problem in our lections this morning, there's no crucifixion scene, which has been a normative part of our lections for decades. This is intentional, because when we drill down more deeply into the palm and passion gospels, we hear something which I think speaks to our current circumstances as clear as day. Betrayal. Palm Sunday, at its heart, I believe is about betrayal. The betrayal of ourselves to find security and safety at any costs like Judas and his silver. The betrayal of our friends and neighbours, like Peter, when we think a sunny day and decreased COVID-19 cases is reason enough to flout the rules and browse our local stores out of boredom, or disregard the need for social distance. But even more profoundly, I think of our corporate betrayal of Christ’s invitation to relationship, which on this Palm Sunday we ignore in an attempt to return to our normal lives. In our hearts we, which is this world, think like the disciples do “surely not I Lord,” I would never betray you, but here we are on the edge of Holy Week, marching into Jerusalem, wondering if this will mean our normal will return. But normal never comes.
Remember the image that Jesus strikes for us in our first gospel, known as the Gospel of the Palms. When we read it, I often think of Jesus having a party surrounded by all his followers, equally ecstatic with what's happening. Yet our scripture doesn't say that. Words like “fulfilled, humble, turmoil” are what greet Christ. Indeed, the image I have in my mind's eye is a man so alone my heart breaks. There is no party. It's as if the disciples are totally ignoring the incredibly provocative nature of what they are doing, because as we come in one side Rome and their powers of yesterday are coming in the other side. This entry represents everything we have been waiting for, Jesus is entering his kingdom, entering Jerusalem just as the prophets have told us. Hope and new life are here! Now things are going to be okay, now life will get back to normal. Christ will take his throne and Rome will be overthrown. Our isolations will be over, everything is going to be just fine. Yet we miss the looming shadow of the cross, a shadow that reminds us that nothing can be the same again. There is no rushing back to yesterday's normal, only tomorrow's hope.
This is why there is no crucifiction reading this morning, because we are living in the betrayal of Palm Sunday presently. Nothing is normal, and it's driving us crazy, we just want this to end. It's normal, I think, for us to want to zoom past the discomfort and into the good news of life, yet we can’t right now because we need to dwell a bit longer in this holiest of weeks together. All our conversations in the world right now are about when we can go back to how things were, go back to work, go back to school, go back to earning margins on the stock market, and rebook our vacations. Yet we follow a God who comes to us in such a way at Christmas, and dies for us in such a way at Easter, that means there is no going back. There is no return to what was. The betrayal of Palm Sunday opens for us a lens onto not just the isolation of Christ in the midst of a world that does not understand his Gospel or his mission of inclusion, hope, and love, but our own isolation and fear of a life that can’t go back to the way it was. I truly believe that no matter how hard we try, life will not return to the way it was after this pandemic. It can’t. It can’t because of what we are being asked to do today in the midst of our hosannas. We are being asked to decide how we want to live because of what we are facing, both in this holy week and in our world.
As a social commentator Dave Hollis suggested online this week, “in [our] rush to return to normal, [let’s] use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.” No matter how hard we try, holy week is happening. No matter how hard we try, Christ will die. No matter how hard we try, we will remain isolated. No matter how hard we try, the world is and will be different, and that is scary. You and I have no power over this. Yet as Christians we proclaim our faith in Christ’s life, death and resurrection, which is more than just a casual agreement to some ancient language. We are making a profound claim that this world and our lives can never be the same again after this Eucharist, after this pandemic, because of what’s about to happen in this holy week. We are about to see and hear the faithfulness of God made real in the final days of Christ’s life. A faithfulness that has told us time and time again that nothing can take us away from God, not COVID-19, not isolation, and not even the cross. Christ lived his whole life for you and I, a life of relationship, love, gratitude, and community. A life that we take in our own ways and build into a kingdom of self sufficiency and power, a kingdom which is crumbling around us at the moment, a kingdom which betrays Jesus. The choice is ours in how we want to rebuild that life today.
On this holy day, we are being asked to use our gift of time to consider what parts of our idea of normal are worth rushing back to. Is it our need to produce and be successful? Is it our need for attention and adulation? Is it our need to make margins on the stock markets at all costs? Is it our need to use this planet like our own buffet, choosing development and profit over sustainability and the environment? Is it our need to be in control? Or are we being called to embrace and normalize the power of authentic relationships, of loving one another without reservation, of humility, of vulnerability, of balanced and lifegiving mental health, of letting go of our emails and smartphones as signs of self worth, of honouring our planet as a gift of God's abundant grace for our health and welfare, of eradicating homlessness with market profits, and creating a just and equitable society where there is food for all, where every child of God matters, where fear no longer divides us? You see friends, one normal is of God, the other is yesterday’s. So what normal are you rushing back too, God’s normal, or yesterday's normal?