Monday, 26 March 2018

Holy Week at Derby Cathedral: Palm Sunday Address

Parents, especially mothers, often have a great gift for embarrassing their offspring. Recently, my mum reminded me of a party I threw in the family home when she, my dad and my younger brother went to Australia on holiday thirty years ago. I was eighteen and to say things got rather out of hand is an understatement. There was a band on the roof, a la The Beatles when they recorded the Let It Be album, there were displays of nakedness, and – so I understand – at least one young man drinking my brother’s aftershave when the alcohol ran out. The police were called, neighbours were horrified. I was laid low for days. My mother has taken her gentle revenge on my youthful indiscretions ever since.

Ah, well, Et in Arcadia Ego and all that, you might say. I’ve witnessed some extraordinary parties, festivals and processions in my time. I know what it is to have waved the palm branches of youthful enthusiasm, disorder and folly at Glastonbury, Download, and a dozen other festivals. I’ve protested on sit-ins and demos; it generally felt good and worthwhile, and sometimes it even changed things.

And now I am middle-aged and am rather broken down; a priest, a canon, an agent of respectability. And I look back on my restless and protesting youth and am shocked to think that I’ve become ever more like one of those neighbours who witnessed my ridiculous party of thirty years ago. I have ever more crossed the lines of respectability. These days, I have a little more time for those neighbours who witnessed my tom-fool excess and called the police. Indeed, don’t I when faced with enthusiasm and youthful passion tend to worry about good order breaking down? Don’t I prefer the claims of property and propriety over that of passionate justice? The line between protest and riot has – perceptibly – grown rather thinner.

Why tell you this on the evening of Palm Sunday? In part because as this evening draws on we are in a place of aftermath. We gather together in the evening where the palm branches, the placards have been laid down and the wild enthusiasm has died away. We are in the litter strewn streets after the party and the protest has moved on. And on Palm Sunday we begin again our story which reveals where we stand in this rubble of our enthusiasms, dreams and desires; and where God stands, and where he calls us to be.

Prospero says, ‘We are such things as dreams are made on’, and yet we are also the children of bleak and bitter shadows. Of nightmares. Our dreams, our failures, our folly and glory are inscribed in bodies and ultimately in the Body, the body which is us and which is God. And we cannot see ourselves clearly. We cannot face the implications of our precarious love and grace. We reel in terror.

Perhaps part of the mystery of Holy Week is the discovery that we are both radically simple and utterly complex. The simplicity lies in the way we cannot avoid this wound of glory and failure in our bodies. We are never safe. None of us. We are all capable of sacrifice and service and love, but carry a trace of betrayal and fear and bitterness in our skin too. The complexity lies in the endless ways we live this wound in a compromised world.

So, we are those who cheer and welcome the revolution of love and reconciliation. We wave our palm branches. We feel our muscles grow taught as we raise our fists in solidarity. We feel lactic acid burn through our legs as we march on and stand for hours, waiting, waiting. We grow hoarse with joy, now the hour of our salvation has come. We are in the vanguard. For into our midst has come the One who gives sight to the blind, lets the lame walk, who sets the prisoner free. We wave our banners that say now austerity is no more, now the oppressed are fully alive; the outsiders are made centre stage: LGBTI people, people of colour, people who are disabled, the whole variety of human being is to be rejoiced in, celebrated; now #MeToo will actually mean something. Our hashtags will count. Now the abused will know restoration and justice. Pick your pet issue! God will throw the oppressor off. God will set his people free! We travel into glory and we feel good. Nothing can stop us now! Nothing!

And it is evening, and our placards and our slogans have grown old; the cardboard on which we’ve written our clever words has become tired and dog-earred. The retweets have stopped. We wonder: what now? We mumble the old chant: ‘Hosanna, hosanna! Nothing can stop us now!’ Nothing! Nothing. Except us. Except the facts of us. Our fears and fragilities. Our doubts. We have marched, we have known the saviour…but our bodies are such wounds. Can we be sure?

We know words are dangerous, we know that they cannot always be trusted. We have marched and waved palm leaves, and we’ve claimed to know The Word, but can we sure? There have been those who have been proclaimed messiah before…scoundrels and criminals. There have been those who have proclaimed a New Jerusalem, a Thousand Year Reich, a Workers’ Paradise, and led us to the shores of destruction and hate…We know that rhetoric and data and information are used to make fake news, alternative facts. Can we be sure we truly have Good News? Have our profiles not simply been manipulated? Perhaps we already ask that question which Pilate, the representative of power, shall ask later this week when face to face with Christ: What is Truth?

We want to be good. We think we’re basically good. We have been in the vanguard with Jesus, our subversive King…but we are also just faces in a crowd…perhaps, we are also those who do not want too much disruption in our lives. We enjoy stability. We benefit from the status quo. We want to be seen as respectable. Perhaps we are respectable – perhaps we’re priests and lawyers and officers of the law. Lay clerks. Perhaps we are on the side of property, suspicious of those who might threaten our magnificent buildings and the civility of our streets. We welcome protest, but please do not threaten our church, our Cathedral, our Town Hall it is too valuable. In abstract, we like the idea of revolution, of God transforming the world, but please could he do it without too much cost to us?

Inside each of us, inside our community, is a wound of grace and fragility. It invites us to follow the way of hope. It tempts us to betray or run away and hide. We so easily fall away. Perhaps we are Peter – ‘Not me Lord, all the others will desert you, but not me!’. Perhaps we come ready to fight back with swords; perhaps we are Judas. Perhaps we discover that we are simply faces in a crowd who will cheer one minute and call out ‘Crucify’ the next; perhaps, we are tired and resentful, feeling hard done by. We just want a scapegoat to unite us and make us feel better. Or perhaps, just perhaps, we are one of the women who will stay faithful to the end, who will dare to head to the place of death, the dump of skulls, to be with the Word when he, she, it dies…when we kill him… Perhaps, like Mary, we were warned and nonetheless persisted.

Evening falls on Palm Sunday. Some have travelled far for a festival and wait with expectation: what next? Is the Kingdom coming? Is the City of God about to be known in its fullness? Others creep indoors glad to be off the streets after a day tramping the streets. Some have no home and are too tired or too desperate to care about rumours of God or Messiah. Others plot, asking how they can take back control.

Somewhere in all of this lies you and I; somewhere there is ‘us’. And we do not know yet what will be our part. And somewhere – somewhere – is the One who has been the focus for it all. The one some of us claim to know; some of us say is our friend or master, our Lord perhaps, our guide. The one some of us also find threatening or frightening or terrifying. He is everywhere in this story and yet he is so difficult to behold; to see him as he really is. His is the body with whom we walk in the days to come. He will show us our selves in their grubbiness and glory; in their grace and their need. He will bring us to feast and thanksgiving and he will taste our transgressions in his blood.

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