“As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!’” Luke 19:36-38
Some years ago I came across a book on preaching entitled, “Be Brief About it!”
The author’s contention was that most sermons could benefit from being pruned and shortened, a kind of surgical procedure that the author felt most hearers would appreciate.
And I’m wondering if the author’s plea for shorter homilies was partly inspired by the Palm Sunday liturgy with its lengthy readings.
At any rate, I’m aware that today I need to say what I have to say with a minimum of flourishes and be done with it.
We might think of Palm Sunday as the festival of hope.
We are told that the crowd accompanying Jesus on the road to Jerusalem was in a state of rapturous, euphoric hopefulness.
Jesus’ proclamation of a new kingdom had produced in his followers an ecstatic sense of new hope about the future.
But, as we know, their Palm Sunday hope turned out to be short-lived.
Their Palm Sunday hope was demolished by the disaster of Good Friday.
Every shred of hope they had entertained was decimated by Good Friday.
Easter signifies the sudden, wondrous, shocking birth of new hope that arose out of the debris and wreckage of Good Friday.
So let Palm Sunday stand for all those high hopes we have entertained that have proven to be to be nothing more than tinsel in the wind.
So let Palm Sunday represent all those hopes, noble and otherwise, that have been dashed, that have gotten derailed, that have not panned out, that have been no match for harsh reality, that have gone down the drain.
And let Easter Sunday stand for those memorable moments when, after our hope has collapsed and failed us, when hope has been lost and we are languishing in a despairing frame of mind, suddenly out of the blue some unforeseen, unexpected occurrence shakes us out of our gloom, reshuffles the deck, and before we know it, new hope, strength, and courage are coursing through our veins.
Easter hope is very different from ordinary hope such as hoping our kid gets a scholarship for college or hoping that we win the office basketball pool —Easter hope has an altogether different thrust.
The best description of Easter hope I can think of are these familiar words lifted from our post-communion prayer—“O God, send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.”
Easter hope is the hope that we will be given the strength and courage to love whatever neighbor is near us with gladness.
What a tall, impossible order!
It’s supposed to be hard; it’s supposed to be strenuous; it’s supposed to take all that we have to give.
So how is it that our sense of hope is renewed and refurbished?
How does it happen that our mood of hopelessness is dispelled and we are suddenly invigorated with new hope, strength, and courage?
Of course, there’s no formula for how this happens.
Renewal of hope comes to us in a thousand and one ways—through someone’s perfectly timed comment, through a letter from an old acquaintance who we thought had forgotten us, from a book that lands in our lap that perfectly describes our condition, through a sudden realization of how often we have relied on a little help from our friends and the kindness of strangers, through someone’s act of stunning generosity that makes us aware that we are indeed members one of another, through art and music that minister to our souls, through an overheard conversation in a coffee house, through hearing the quick and lively word in a place like this, a word that that contains the promise of new hope after our old hope has died, through a movie or a play—however it comes, the renewal of our hope is always a moment of unmerited grace.
One of my seminary professors used to say that the gospel is constantly being preached around us wherever we are, in movies, symphony halls, beer gardens, theater productions, etc.—and then with a little smile he added, “You might even hear it in church!”
A new play by Stephen Karam called “The Humans” has just opened on Broadway.
It’s a one act drama about a family getting together for a Thanksgiving dinner.
The setting is a rather spare, split-level apartment in New York City’s Chinatown which 26 year old Brigit and her older boy friend Richard have just rented.
The lower level is a windowless basement—the upper level has windows that look out on a courtyard strewn with cigarette butts.
Brigit and Richard feel fortunate to have found an affordable apartment in a city where rental costs have gone through the roof.
Brigit’s parents, Eric and Deirdre, who are in their early 60s, have driven over from Scranton, Pennsylvania for the day.
They have brought with them Eric’s 79 year old mother Momo who’s suffering from severe dementia and is confined to a wheelchair—Momo’s speech mostly consists of nonsensical muttering.
The other member of the family is Brigit’s 36 year old sister Aimee who’s employed at a law firm.
This family, like most families, is a study in conflicting emotions—endearment and resentment, affection and alienation, filial devotion and unresolved tensions.
They kid each other a lot—and the humor can be both healthful and hurtful.
Laughter often rings out as when Deirdre spies a large bug on the floor and lets out a scream—Brigit hollers from downstairs, “Mom, it’s just an American cockroach—they’re huge, okay—don’t get so upset”—Deirdre says, “A cockroach the size of a mouse is upsetting!”
Hovering over the gathering is a sense of unease and dread as family members struggle to cope with forces beyond their control—but there is an underlying family solidarity—they commiserate and celebrate together.
As things unfold, the fault lines of the various characters are gradually exposed.
Aimee has ulcerative colitis that has forced her to miss lots of work—she has been notified that because her billable hours are less than expected, she’s no longer on the partner track—in addition, her longtime female companion has opted out of the relationship and Aimee is dreading the prospect of facing the holidays without her partner.
Brigit is an aspiring composer who hasn’t been able to land an internship at a school of music and has been trying to work off her mountain of student debt by bartending at two places—the professor she was counting on for an enthusiastic recommendation wrote a letter for her but it was more critical than complimentary.
At one point Brigid brags on her dad for having held down a handyman and maintenance job at a Catholic high school for 28 years—she says proudly, “They created a whole new position for him—it’s a big job, it’s a Triple-A school, he handles all the phys-ed classes and manages the weight room—the kids love him.”
Later on Eric jolts his daughters when he informs them the school has terminated him because of an incident with a woman teacher which also made him ineligible for a pension—he has not been sleeping and has been bothered by a recurrent nightmare—he has been working at WalMart—he and Deirdre are Momo’s full time caregivers.
Deirdre has been with the same company for forty years—although she’s an office manager, she’s answerable to two young guys who are making five times as much.
As these characters fuss and reassure each other, as they criticize and defend each other, it becomes evident that each of these family members has known first-hand the wrenching disappointment of having one’s most cherished Palm Sunday hopes crack, crumble, and fall apart.
Although Aimee and Brigid were raised Catholic, they have drifted away from the church of their youth which has greatly concerned their parents.
Their dad Eric chides them when he says, “You guys put your faith in juice cleansing and yoga but you won’t try church.”
But there are also signs in this family of new Easter hope emerging.
The two most conspicuous bearers of Easter hope in this play are Deirdre and, ironically, the dementia stricken Momo.
Deirdre has brought some housewarming gifts—Brigid unwraps one of the presents and says, “Ah, a Virgin Mary statue—thank you, I’ll absolutely keep this in a drawer somewhere.
Deirdre says, “I know you guys don’t believe—but I feel better knowing you have it”—she puts the statue in her purse.
When Aimee asks about Aunt Mary, Deirdre says, “She’s hanging in there, God love her…they got this contraption now to help load her into the pool…she’s had both knees replaced….I drive her to her physical therapy.”
Deirdre goes on to ask, “Did I e-mail you that Kay Hoban has ovarian cancer?—I’ve been taking her to treatments ‘cause her and her brother, they don’t speak anymore….that’s a whole mess but she’s being tough.”
Brigid interrupts, “Mom, you’re talking with your mouth full.”
Deirdre ignores her and goes on, “I started volunteering—Father Quinn told me that right in Scranton there’s a whole community of refugees from Bhutan.”
Brigid interrupts again, “Let me guess, Saint Deirdre is coming to the rescue.”
Deirdre says, “Be quiet—you have no idea—the people have nothing—they’re all just looking to learn English, to find work—we think we got nothing, but man.”
Erik interjects, “She’s threatening to invite all the Bhutanese in Scranton over for caroling”—Deirdre says, “Oh that’s not a threat, honey, that’s happening.”
Later on Aimee says, “Mom’s latest e-mail forward, oh man…..”
Brigid picks up the theme: “She forwarded a Scientific American article about how…nothing’s solid, when you’re touching a table, you’re really feeling its molecules bouncing against—we’re not even solid, we’re what….electrons pushing back against everything.”
Aimee says, “Electrons, yeah….it also had vague religious overtones, there was a poem at the bottom in about ten fonts about how we already are a part of everything.”
Later Deirdre says, “That e-mail about us being electrons, that wasn’t religious—it was from a science website, I want you to feel a connection to….something bigger than you.”
It has been part of their Thanksgiving tradition to play an e-mail message from Momo which she recorded before her ability to communicate had deteriorated.
Somehow this time it had an even greater impact than usual. She is the bearer of Easter hope.
Deirdre reads the message.
“Dear Aimee and Brigid. I was clumsy around you both today and felt confused. I couldn’t remember your names and felt bad about that. It’s strange, slowly becoming someone I don’t know. But while I am still here, I want to say: don’t worry about me once I drift off for good. I’m not scared. If anything, I wish I could’ve have known that most of the stuff I did spend my life worrying about wasn’t so bad. Maybe it’s because this disease has me forgetting about the worst stuff, but right now I’m feeling nothing about this life was worth getting so worked up. Not even dancing at weddings. Dancing at weddings always scared the crap out of me, but now it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. This is taking me forever to type. Consider this my fond farewell. Erin go bragh. Dance more than I did. Drink less than I did. Go to church. Be good to everyone you love. I love you more than you’ll ever know.”
Just before Deirdre walks out the door and gets in the car, she takes one last look around, ponders the situation, then quietly removes the Virgin Mary statue from her purse and places it in the windowsill.
O God, give us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart. Amen.
The Rev. Robert Dwight