“Seismic Hope”

April 2, 2023 – Palm Sunday

The Rev. Dr. Seth Weeldreyer, First Presbyterian Church of Kalamazoo

Palm Sunday is such a fun and joyous day. Full of hope. Waving palms, singing strong.

Great to be in the park—Episcopalians with their Ethiopian Umbrella. I asked about Cameroonian traditions. We got a glimpse, though I gotta say the videos they shared … that’s some loud and joyful “Hosannas” dancing down the street! We revel in devotion long ago and across ages—expecting Jesus to reign among us. No Macy’s Thanksgiving or Disney Electric Light parade. No big inflatable balloon, fancy floats, flashing colors with synth music. It was all simply exuberantly human. Hosanna!

It was seismic. Maybe their shouts literally physically shook the streets and stones that day, like Autumn does with our organ, joined by Rick on tympani. Amen! Matthew tells us it’s what they felt inside. The whole city was in turmoil—the word is seismos. Yep, you guessed it—like seismic or seismology. I’ve never really known an earthquake geologically. Faint memory of a barely felt tremor or two. I can start quaking physically in intense suspenseful movies. That ever happen to you? I was surely quaking inside, when in second grade I fought with my good friend about scoring a soccer goal and got sent to the principal’s office—who was my father! Quaking legally in a court room with a judge about a traffic ticket after I hit sheer ice in my Subaru and met a plow. Theologically, I still feel 35 years later aftershocks of what Paul Tillich called “the shaking of the foundations.” I wonder what seismic stories, aftershock memories we could share.

Christian Century magazine invited people to riff on: “quake.” Holly Ulmer writes: My dad called while I was driving on I-95, close to the epicenter in Virginia. I hadn’t felt it. I thought he’s kidding. Then I got to a bridge detour and heard news that the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral sustained damage. Maybe it’s not uncommon. Times our senses miss things, even earthquakes. Life never stands still—though we may wish it would, especially to avoid events that bring our world down. Before my dad died, I felt the ground starting to shake. On Father’s Day at P. F. Chang’s, he shared, “I think this is the last time I’ll eat here.” He got quiet and still. When the day came, we kept vigil through the night in his hospital room. As a chaplain, I’ve witnessed death. But waiting with Dad, holding precious each moment, it wasn’t clear when exactly he crossed the bridge, going where we could not follow. Dad slipped away, gentle in life, gentle in death. How could something so peaceful be so devastating? Our family, lives, home would never be the same. It was off the Richter scale.[i]

I wonder when Jesus disciples’ felt tremors. When he called them from boats and tax booths. Teaching Beatitudes, parables of weeds and mustard seeds. Feeding thousands by the sea or healing one on the Sabbath. When did their world get rocked, good life they’d built— social norms and rules, practices of faith, halls of power—when did it start to crack, crumble. Maybe like Holly Ulmer, they didn’t sense it just going down the road. Then bridges of relationship closed. When he overturns tables, Romans in their Caesar-castle monument, religious officials in the National Temple assess damage. They’ll soon share a meal when Jesus says: last time I’ll eat here. They’ll keep vigil. He’ll cross a bridge where they cannot follow. Gentle, full of peace in life, so he’ll be in death. So devastating? It’s seismic, off the Richter scale.

That’s what Matthew connects with people’s real life in Antioch—now Antakya. Third largest Roman city, center of the early church, first place people were called Christians. Two months ago the earthquake destroyed it. Ancient churches, modern buildings, gone. Yeah, surely Matthew’s people felt that same tectonic rift shift, seismic. That’s what going on in Jesus, he says. Since he died, faithful Jews and early Jesus followers faced major turmoil, life not OK. Faith was no walk in the park. Struggle, persecution, even open revolt in Palestine which Romans rolled in to crush, making the Temple rubble again. Beyond buildings, what’s shaking are assumptions, expectations, worldview, vision for faith, and cultural power structures. It’s a seismic rift in life as they know it.

That’s when Matthew offers good news of hope. Jesus brings God’s Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Gospel writers repeat it. We pray it every week. Yes, there’s a political edge. Today’s parade is a parody of Pilate on war horse leading legions of Centurion soldiers. Beyond protest, crowds hailing donkey-Jesus stake a claim. This is real power! Every Hosanna says: I give you my allegiance, my hope! Jesus is Lord! Roman and religious leaders got it. That’s why they killed him on a cross. Friends, I agree when we resist partisan rifts in church. You see, as Jesus faces personal and communal trouble entwined, he doesn’t play the same game. He changes Pilate and Herod’s rules—of how to rule. From the time magi met Herod, found Jesus in a feeding trough no gold-plated bassinet, and go home by another way. In all the ways Jesus urges blessed are the poor and peacemakers, love your enemies, be perfect in mercy as God is. His reign is different. Taking a stand for the least and lost, oppressed and outcast, hurting and hopeless. Turning loss into resurrection life.

That’s how Grace and Love work amid shock waves in our personal lives, our community, all creation. Loss of one dear to us, a health diagnosis—Hosanna! Another school shooting, an ex-president indicted—Hosanna! Weather extremes and disasters, wars, no job, no money in the bank or pocket—Hosanna! Often tremors ripple more incessantly like generational poverty and bias in society. Sometimes a quake strikes instantly. Still, friends, we live with hope through seismic rocking, we care for someone else quaking—because that’s the love of Christ in us. And as we follow Jesus on God’s way, we find times to stand up with other people, giving them courage to speak up—Hosanna—even when it means we might shake up the world a bit.

Even at its darkest, most difficult, that’s what Lent and Holy Week invite us to share. On Palm Sunday, Scott Black Johnston writes, it’s hope shouted from streets and rooftops. By Friday it’s shattered, like our times of buckled knees, bent backs, shaken souls. That’s when hope sings sweetest. No empty promise, it’s solidarity when life gets emptied in humiliation, pain—the cross. Real hope is right there. Amid all the ordinary imperfect hurting and hurtful people lining that street for Jesus, crying Hosanna. Real hope rises from yearning depths of anyone who cries: “Save me / save us, God.” Friends, let’s get over the whole guilt, woe is me, punishment stuff. As if God intends suffering to pay a holy bill, clear a list of our peccadillos. Real hope even amid the most seismic shifts of life comes face to bloody face with the One who’s right there with us, with loving power always working for us. Real hope gives us clarity and courage to step out in faith.

North of San Francisco, nine-year-old girls in leotards and tights stretched for ballet. A mirrored wall ran the length of the room to help appraise and improve, writes Kathleen Eckert. I’d already learned lessons our culture teaches little girls: Be quiet. Speak up. Do your best. Don’t try so hard. Jesus loves little children, but we’d be more loveable if we’d work on splits. Instantly the world jumbled our little Degas scene as we yelped for something to grip. Our teacher yelled: “get away from the mirrors” as she braced herself in the doorway. We flailed toward barres on the opposite side. Then, suddenly, all got still. We were too far from the epicenter to know about collapsed bridges, crumbled buildings, World Series crowds at Candlestick Park. We giggled nervously, relieved. Our teacher clapped her hands and we got on with it. The mirrors stayed on the wall in unflinching witness. It would be years before I argued with truth I thought they reflected. How many times in my life since has the world shuddered around me, leaving cracks and fissures? After a breakup, loss of a career, death of a loved one, I brace myself in a doorway, waiting. Each time, when it’s over, the mirror offers more truth about who I am, less deceit about who I think I should be. Each time there’s more grace looking back at me. Because after a quake, in that brief stillness, we can hear the voice of the one who breaks the darkness, telling us like Paul and Silas to throw off our chains and step out into the light.[ii]

Friends, in Lent and Holy Week we look into God’s mirror at our lives and society. We walk down the hill with Jesus into Jerusalem. More than school principal or court judge, we’ll go with Jesus before Pilate to argue lessons and truths we’ve been taught about ourselves, our world, to stand for what good life really is. We ride on with Jesus trying to get a grip, bracing ourselves in a doorway to faith. All so that we might rise again, from the empty tomb, striding into God’s way of compassion, truth about love, in a life of service seeking peace. I wonder what’s shaking in our lives today. When we look into that holy mirror what grace do we see.

Friends, Jesus started the Hosanna parade with disciples years before in Galilee. It culminates on Palm Sunday and keeps going over the ages—every year we join again. You see, we still have a ways to go ‘til God in Christ reigns supreme. ‘Til Sacred grace and mercy, compassion and purpose rule in our hearts and transform the world with Divine Peace. We know where this parade leads. What one of us has a perfect life? Who doesn’t face hard choices, regrets, consequences? Who doesn’t face personal concerns, health uncertainty, simply life changes? Who doesn’t know something about bias, getting treated unfairly that helps us empathize with others and want all to know fullness of life in love? Who doesn’t stress about the state of our world and all creation? This parade goes on and the seismic shock waves continue to roll through us, somewhere deep inside and all around.

Imagine the ancient crowd feeling, chanting, singing what Paul wrote to the Philippians. Scholars tell us he’s very likely quoting a hymn from the early church. Hear what the Spirit may say. {read Philippians 2:1-11}

This Palm Sunday parade goes on and on when we share the mind of Christ—more than mental magical calculation of salvation, we take up his orientation, inspiration. We take up our palms seeking courage to join the crowd crying out: hosanna! Even when we’re just trying to get a grip, we raise our palms with ultimate hope that Jesus is Lord! No empty promise, we promise to humbly empty ourselves like him. And so, dear friends, we trust that more powerful than any other Caesar, more enduring than the worst disaster, God’s way of love and service in Christ will right the world again. We will be tested—in our personal lives and all we believe God wants for life in our community and all creation. And even when the world is trembling to its foundations, seems to be falling apart, we will walk on with grateful hope through new insights about ourselves and life together. We will walk on with joyful hope into even whole new paradigms of faith. We will walk on with determined hope in our homes and businesses, living rooms, classrooms, board rooms, worksites, and computer screens … everywhere we share life.

I was 17 at that first meeting for worship, writes Eliza Gilchrist. Now, at college, I wasn’t required to attend church with my father in the pulpit. I enjoyed exploring options and was sampling the small Quaker meeting on campus. I didn’t yet know about literal quaking with the spirit that earned the Religious Society of Friends its other name. For once, messages which broke the silence did not trigger oppositional thoughts. In this strange but comfortable simplicity I took off my armor. I felt at home. Relieved. Relaxed. Trust. Weeks later, talking with a professor who attends the Quaker meetings, I said I couldn’t imagine speaking there. He mentored me—encouraged me—gently but firmly, and I accepted my responsibility to be willing to receive and share a message.

Since then, I stand when it’s my turn.[iii]

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Quoted and abridge from Holly Ulmer, College Park, MD at https://www.christiancentury.org/article/readers-write/quake-essays-readers

[ii] Quoted and abridge from Kathleen Eckert, Denver, CO at https://www.christiancentury.org/article/readers-write/quake-essays-readers Kathleen Eckert, Denver, CO

[iii] Quoted and abridge from Eliza Gilchrist, Yellow Springs, OH at https://www.christiancentury.org/article/readers-write/quake-essays-readers