Sermon by the Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan, Associate Minister.. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight oh God our rock and redeemer amen. The people who lined the streets of Jerusalem to cheer on Jesus that day thought they knew who they were cheering. They shouted hosanna as he passed. Hosanna is not an exclamation of joy, hosanna is not a shout of praise, it is in fact a desperate plea. Hosanna literally means save us.
The people in the crowd thought Jesus would save them, save them in the ways political leaders and revolutionaries promise to save by overthrowing the powers that be, in this case the oppressive occupying forces of Rome. They thought Jesus was the one who could save them from the iron fist of the Roman empire. They thought that was how he was going to relieve their suffering. Surely Jesus and the God he served would act decisively on behalf of the oppressed by defeating their enemy but the people did not know the Jesus they were cheering. They did not know who they were asking to be saved by. That's because they did not know what kind of salvation he was offering.
As would become clear in the days that followed, God's chosen one did not come to prevent suffering, ours or his own, rather he came to share in our suffering, to stand with us in our suffering. He came to offer strength, peace and comfort. Noted preacher and social justice activist William Sloane Coffin gave a sermon the Sunday after his 24 year old son Alex died in an auto accident. In that sermon Coffin stated his belief that God gives us minimum protection, maximum support. He went on to testify to the ways in which he had experienced that kind of care from the many who had reached out to him in his loss. He said to his congregation, "You gave to me what God gives all of us, minimum protection, maximum support. I swear to you, I wouldn't be standing here where I not upheld."
As Coffin attested at the most trying time in his life God can be at work through us, yes even through us, in offering maximum support to others in their need. We may not be able to provide protection even though we longed to protect others from harm but we can offer the kind of support that can make all the difference, the kind of support that reflects something of the love of God. That is to say the spirit of Christ who comes to us and supports us at our times of greatest need and can work through us to aid the suffering of others.
As Saint Francis famously prayed, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." It seems to me that this prayer is one that we can hold particularly close today. Many people are suffering and in so many different ways, some are ill, or dying or facing danger, others are suffering from isolation. Social distancing so necessary at this time for some has turned into social isolation. A recent article in the Washington Post described this isolation so many are experiencing, "Don't go to work, don't see your friends, don't visit your grandmother in the nursing home, don't bring food to your sister who works at a hospital, don't hold your wife's hand while she gives birth, don't play together, don't pray together, don't hug." Of the many cruelties of the coronavirus pandemic this is one of the hardest to accept. In a time when we all want to be close to the people we care about closeness is the one thing we can't have. The article goes on to conclude, "Six feet has never felt so far away."
I want to spend a few minutes this morning thinking with you about how we can be instruments of God's peace and how the Spirit of Christ can work through us, how we can provide maximum support to others at this time. The first thing to say is that for us to be of support to others we need to put on our own oxygen mask first. It is hard if not impossible to be an instrument of peace when we haven't taken the time to do those things that make us more peaceful. We can't be of much help to others when we are totally stressed out ourselves. Our words can leave more of a sting, our patience can grow shorter and we can begin to look to blame someone else.
So when I say that we need to put on our own oxygen mask first I mean that we need to do those things that are restorative for us not only for our own sake but also for the sake of those we aim to support. I don't know what is restorative in that way for you, what brings you peace and it's different for each of us. It could be a spiritual practice like prayer, meditation or yoga, it could be a simple activity like sewing or cooking, it could be something seemingly frivolous like binge watching Parks and Recreation, and for all of us it means getting sleep. If we do whatever we need to do to feel restored then we may be able to put into practice Saint Francis's prayer and ask, "Lord, how can I be an instrument of your peace today?"
The current situation is so overwhelming that it is a temptation not to do anything at all but we can all do something. We all have a part in the healing of the world, not the whole world just a part of the world and perhaps just a small part. We all have a part of the healing of the world. So the question becomes which part has our name on it? Which part is mine to do? For those of us who are not in the medical professions our part of the healing world may not be physical healing but there are other kinds of healing that are needed at this time as well.
The same Washington Post article I referenced earlier states that decades of research has shown loneliness and isolation are associated with high blood pressure, chronic inflammation, weakened immune systems, and a host of other health issues. We all know people who are feeling particularly isolated at this time or are especially vulnerable in other ways. We may not be able to be at their side physically but gratefully we have other ways of expressing our care. We can reach out in relatively new ways like email, FaceTime, or Facebook. Or perhaps we can rediscover old ways of staying connected by picking up the phone, writing a note, or sending a card. We may hesitate because one of the symptoms of our being overwhelmed is that we don't know what to say or at least we don't know what to say that seems like a match for this moment.
But you know what? I don't think we need to come up with new magic words or just the right words. At such a time what can be most helpful are old familiar words that still have a lot of magic in them. How are you today? I've been thinking about you. You are important to me. How can I hold you in prayer? I love you. No new magic words, old words, whereas many of us have expressed many times before but still have a lot of magic left in them.
I don't think I can fully explain why such simple expressions of care can mean so much, it's a bit of a mystery, but I think it has something to do with this. When we share the suffering of another person not to remove it or explain it but simply share it we reflect something of God's love and God's love can somehow work through us. After all, the God of all comfort explains little but loves abundantly and shares our suffering.
So when the people on the road shouted Hosanna that day God was not saving them from pain but God was saving them from having to endure it alone. God is the one who has the strength, and courage and love enough to wade into the deep tides of our greatest needs and to share the hurt as if it were God's own. And when we do something like that ourselves we can be instruments of God and God's peace. Amen.