A Sermon from Sherborne

To go with Him in faith and love

A sermon for Evensong on Palm Sunday, preached on 25 March 2018 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods

 

This morning’s Palm Sunday procession from The Green, sadly without donkey, began with these words to the gathered crowd:

Dear friends in Christ, during Lent we have been preparing by works of love and self-sacrifice for the celebration of our Lord’s death and passion. Today we come together to begin this solemn celebration in union with the Church throughout the world. Christ enters his own city to complete his work as our Saviour, to suffer, to die, and to rise again. Let us go with him in faith and love so that, united with him in his sufferings, we may share his risen life.

‘Let us go with him in faith and love.’ Good and powerful words. But what exactly do they mean? What, we might say, is their ‘cash value’? What is their significance for us as we begin our Holy Week observance?

Well, it seems to me that if Holy Week is not just to be a stale and formal religious observance, then somehow we have to enter into Christ’s suffering and his death with our hearts and minds and imaginations, so that as far as we are able we are truly there: there when Christ enters Jerusalem; there during his agony in the garden; there at the arrest and the trial; there in Herod’s palace and before Pilate; there as Christ is mocked and whipped and spat upon; there during that painful walk to Calvary; there as he dies on the cross; there in the darkness of the tomb.

But two questions cannot help but come to mind, two very reasonable questions. Why? And how?

First, why try to be there in heart and mind, there at events of nearly 2,000 years ago? Why not simply accept that they happened, and build on that fact? The reason, I think, is this. If we are there when they crucify our Lord, then we will be there too when on Easter Day the women find the tomb empty; we will be there when the disciples run to investigate; there when the angels ask them why they look for the living amongst the dead. We will be there in the Upper Room to greet the risen Lord; there to walk with him along the Emmaus Road; there beside Lake Galilee and on the Mount of Ascension. We will be there in heart and mind to share in the joy and the glory of his resurrection, because we have first shared in his passion and his pain.

And then again, this exercise of heart and mind and imagination is surely the essence of what we mean by love. Love has been beautifully defined as the outgoing of the imagination to comprehend the being of another. If we really love someone, then we try to see things as they see them, try to share their happiness and their grief, we begin to suffer when they suffer and rejoice when they rejoice. Let me give you an example. A short while ago Charlotte – Charlie – the two-year old granddaughter of Stuart and Lesley McCreadie lost her long battle against illness. Her funeral was here two days ago. During that battle her parents Anna and Steve, and her grandparents, entered into every moment of her struggle, every crisis and every reprieve, with all their heart and mind and soul. They suffered when Charlie suffered. They rejoiced each time she seemed to turn a corner. They wept when finally she died. And of course they didn’t do all that because they knew they ought to do so, because that is what is required of good parents and grandparents. Oh no. They suffered with Charlie because they loved her, and that is what happens when you give your love to another: you make yourself vulnerable, you suffer when they suffer and rejoice when they rejoice because that is what love means. That is what love is. And we have all discovered in the course of our lives that love, real love, is a very expensive commodity. It costs. And sooner or later we have to pay for it in the coinage of tears.

And this gives us the answer to our second question as well, about how we enter into another’s suffering and pain, how we enter into Holy Week with our Lord. The essence of it all is knowing and caring, knowing and being able to picture what it all means. Until I told you about Charlie, those of you who didn’t know about her couldn’t enter into the feelings and sufferings of her family. But now, unless you are so wrapped up in yourself that your feelings and emotions are immune to her story, you will already be identifying with her parents and wider family, and I hope that you will not forget to pray for them, and for all sick children and their families, with all your faith and compassion and love focussed on them.

And if doing that makes sense to you – as I hope it does – then in exactly the same way we need really to know the story of Christ’s passion and death, to reacquaint ourselves with that old, old story and relive it and focus on it in heart and mind. It isn’t hard. Why not commit yourselves to reading the Passion story each day between now and Holy Saturday, so that by next Saturday you have read right through the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ last days before his death. And then, next Sunday, Easter Day, read again the four gospel accounts of his resurrection. And each day try to enter into the feelings and emotions, the fears and the anxieties, of those who were there – the disciples, the women, the soldiers, Judas, Pilate, Herod, the High Priests, Simon of Cyrene, Joseph of Arimathea, the two thieves, and Christ himself. And then, yes, you will know that fear and anxiety, that grief and pain; you will know the horror and dismay of Good Friday; the darkness and void of Holy Saturday; the bewilderment at the empty tomb; the dawning of joy and supreme happiness as the realisation that Christ is alive takes possession of you once more.

It isn’t difficult, not if you have the eyes to see and the hearts to understand, and the love that wants to be there and the courage that will not flinch from the heartbreak and the pain. Try it and see, and know what that old slave on the American plantations knew when, from the depths of his own captivity and hurt and pain, he first began to sing:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

 

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

 

For it was by being there that he was able to go on to sing:

Were you there when he rose up from the dead?

Were you there when he rose up from the dead?

Oh! Sometimes I feel like shouting glory, glory, glory.

Were you there when he rose up from the dead?

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 25/03/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne