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Palm Sunday 5 April 2020 – Online Eucharist
By the time my Mum died, she’d managed to amass a wonderful array of fridge magnets, ranging from the humorous to the serious. Two always used to catch my eye. The first would invariably make me smile, ‘We plan; God laughs!’ The second never failed to bring me up short. It contained a line from a song by John Lennon, one of the 1960’s pop group, the Beatles. Beautiful Boy was written in 1980 for his young son Sean, and towards the end we hear these words: ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
We’re always busy making plans: for holidays, for what to buy at the supermarket, for how to celebrate a wedding. Right now, planning’s going on with a vengeance, from government downwards, across this country and throughout the world, in response to Covid19, and it’s absolutely vital and necessary; lives and livelihoods depend on it.
Behind all our plans lie certain expectations, not least that we’ll be able to bring our plans to completion and that things will go the way we anticipate. Many are fortunate to see plans come to fruition: for starting a family, for a building project, for establishing a new business. It’s not always like that, though: life happens, life takes over, life intervenes, and all our plans go out of the window.
Barely weeks ago, many of us might have expected to gather today outside the Mansion House in York to begin our Palm Sunday procession to the Cathedral. The Precentor would have made elaborate plans for the smooth running of the service: palm crosses would have been ordered, the brass band invited, rotas sent out, and the donkeys booked. Which of us could have predicted then that we’d be taking part in this service from the confines of our own homes, effectively under lockdown? It would have seemed unimaginable. But then life happened, upsetting all our plans and expectations.
On the surface, it appears very different from that first Palm Sunday, but I wonder. The gospel narrative itself suggests a degree of planning in advance. Jesus himself had arranged for donkeys to be available, two disciples were despatched to collect them, and a crowd seems to have assembled in anticipation of something historic taking place in the city of Jerusalem. What were the expectations of the crowd, though? What kind of a king did they think they were acclaiming? Perhaps the hopes and expectations of many were invested in and projected on to Jesus: that at last there’d be a king to overthrow the hated Romans, and that, after centuries of occupation and oppression, another golden age like that of King David would be inaugurated. It was so full of promise and hope.
But then life happened. Within days, this ‘King of the Jews’ was betrayed, arrested, subjected to a mock trial, tortured and executed, dying an ignominious death on a cross as a common criminal. All the pent-up hopes and aspirations of a forlorn people, all the mental planning for the day that was so longed for, all the expectations for the future, evaporated into thin air in moments. Above all, the people had longed for God and they’d dared to hope that God had come in the person of Jesus, but then life happened.
Good Friday, of course, is the supreme example of how we can’t plan life, of how things don’t always go the way we expect and, most of all, of how we can’t control God. God happens, so often in unexpected ways, and constantly breaks free of the limitations of our expectations and plans. Who in their right minds would have expected God to happen on a cross, in the midst of suffering and death? We could have planned God in a much better way, couldn’t we? And yet that wouldn’t have been God, not the God we see in Jesus.
So here we are with a global pandemic turning our lives upside down and inside out. Life has happened. Can we dare to see God in it, as we see God on the cross? It’s an unpalatable thought, isn’t it? It offends all our sensibilities, and it would be the height of insensitivity to dismiss in a cavalier fashion the suffering and deaths of so many. But what we see above all else on the cross is the immense love and compassion of God embodied in the one hanging and suffering there, containing, embracing, enfolding everything and everyone in it. The cross invites us to see in it more than just suffering and death, but also to find in it the love and compassion of God, present, paradoxically, in the most seemingly God-forsaken circumstances. Jesus shows this love and compassion to be not just who God is, but who we truly are, too. And we can see it, can’t we? Love and compassion are happening across the world in ways we could scarcely have expected, revealing who we really are. With this divinely-grounded love and compassion we can meet everything that occurs when life happens, including Covid19. For when life happens, God happens.
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