Table Procession: A Sermon for Palm Sunday

Palm/Passion Sunday

April 5, 2020


There came a day a year or so ago as our family marched with many of you in the streets of San Francisco, amid an exuberant, chanting crowd, when our oldest turned to me and said “Daddy, I feel like we’re out here marching in the streets all the time.” I knew what he meant. The Women’s marches, the airport demonstrations, the march for Science, the Climate March, the DACA/Dreamer demonstrations. I can cast my mind back to much earlier marches, as I know you can. But these last few years we have poured ourselves out into the streets in unprecedented waves to shout forth with our numerical bodies our rage and resilience, our longing to transform our country into a place of justice, equity, and peace. In the mobile outpouring itself, in the walking down Market Street, it is hard to know what exactly will emerge, what precisely it accomplishes. Yet they feel crucial. They enact who we are, who we are becoming, our longing for transformation. Our marches are, in a sense, processions. They feel and in many ways are liturgical, ritual actions of the people. As we carry them out, we are formed together as community, people standing together, determined to make a difference. To do them again and again is, as in our regular worship, to engage in our ongoing formation, our being built up as members of a collective body.

Today, of course, our worship is anything but regular. That would be true even under normal circumstances. On Palm Sunday, worship traditionally begins outside the church with readings, prayers, and palms that evoke Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. We sing “All Glory Laud and Honor” while enacting some sort of procession, whether across the Diamond Heights Shopping plaza, through the Safeway, or into and around the church from our yard or driveway. By processing in these ways, we walk with Jesus as he transitions from his ministry to his final days when the brittle brutality of imperial Rome would try to finally snuff him out. We hear and sing of his strangely embodied authority, a king like no earthly one who rode a donkey rather than a regal horse, his way strewn with the chaos of flung cloaks and waving palm branches. This entry was no mere parade. It was a politically charged procession, an extension of the social upheaval provoked by his acts of healing, his table fellowship, and his teachings. His ride in majesty blessed the poor in spirit, the meek, and those who mourn. It blessed those who make peace, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, those who are reviled on account of the Son of Humanity (Mt 5:3-11). Matthew describes the whole city of Jerusalem being in an uproar as this procession unfolded. “Who is this?” people asked. In response, not simply individuals but crowds were saying, “this is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (Mt 21:11). Behold, here he comes, this holy trouble-maker, a prophet not from here, someone whose activity is making the rounds of the rumor mill. This disruptive procession in Matthew’s gospel transitions directly to the so-called Cleansing of the Temple where Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers and those who sold doves for ritual sacrifice (Mt 21:12). The procession at the head of today’s worship is meant to get us out of our seats, as able, to usher us more deeply, playfully, or as the Apostle Paul might put it, foolishly, into this story.

Of course, we didn’t exactly need our liturgy to be disrupted by design today—this pandemic has already brought us out of our building into our homes where we have been sheltering in place for almost a month now. We began our liturgy today with a collection of videos made by several of you, with wonderfully St. Aidanite whimsy. We were with our dogs, in our gardens or streets, in our houses, waving palms if we happened to have any. Our photographs rooted this procession, these palms or palm lookalikes, here in this place, reminding us that we read these ancient, holy stories through the lenses of our lives here and now. And indeed, here and now Christ processes into our region, our cities, our neighborhoods, our homes. In that strange ride, Christ processes in solidarity with all who suffer, all who are ill, all who are dying, all who are separated from loved ones, all who are lonely and afraid, all who miss getting to see and play with their friends and teachers, or to kvetch with their colleagues, all who have lost their jobs, all who have to work but are terrified of getting sick, all who fear losing everything. Christ rides right into those scenes, which are our scenes, our lives right now. This Christ does not stay away, does not stand by at a remove. He rides right into the heart of it all, pouring himself out into our very midst.

Right into Jackie Buckley’s back yard. Her video, which began and framed our opening compilation, wonderfully enacts Christ’s procession as a walk from her yard and its Rosemary branch palm substitute, inside to her table. Along the way we are introduced to her plants, many of them native to this region. I immediately recognized her Hummingbird Sage and Blue Eyed Grass from my walks on San Bruno Mountain. Her description of the bees as “essential workers” connect our unfolding pandemic to the ongoing environmental crisis. I think of a brief exchange with a man to whom we gave a bag of groceries at the Food Pantry on Friday who shared that he works at Safeway. He was grateful to work mainly at night stocking shelves and not at the cash registers. I think of the food he stocks, or the produce we shared on Friday, processing to our tables, essential to our welfare, connecting us in our creaturely vulnerability.

That very vulnerability is profoundly reflected in our Eucharistic worship, our Communion, which we now experience in a different way than we are accustomed to in our building on Gold Mine Drive. Over the last three weeks we have continued to anchor our worship in our own space, but now we have shifted to a fuller shelter-in-place mode, with all of us connecting from home. As I have been thinking about our worship in this context of pandemic, I turned to a book written by one of my former teachers and mentors, Marilyn McCord Adams, called Christ and Horrors. The God who made us and calls us into union with God deeply sorrows at our radical vulnerability to horror and stands with us in the midst of trouble, Adams emphasizes.. “Divine solidarity with us in horror-participation weaves our own [such experiences] into the warp and woof of our… personal relationship with God,” in ways we may not always be aware.[1] The Eucharist itself reflects that dimension of our relationship with God. Emphasizing the image of the table rather than a more distant altar, Adams evokes the family table and all that is shared around it, the good, the mundane, and the bad. “Dinner tables figure prominently in the psycho-spiritual formation of human beings.” She says. “Table fellowship is a risky business, for eating betrays our vulnerability. By opening our mouths, taking something from outside in, we prove that we are not self-contained.”[2] Communion, as Adams frames it here, provides a table space where we can bring ourselves and our experience, including our uncertainty, our fragility, and even our anger at the horrific things to which we are vulnerable in this life. But no matter what we may bring, “God in Christ crucified refuses to leave the table,” saying “For heaven’s sake, don’t hold back! I can take it all in and still rise on the third day!”[3]

I don’t know how Marilyn would make sense of remote Eucharists such as we have been celebrating these last few weeks. Given her strong emphasis on the corporeal dimensions of Eucharist and her robust theology of presence, I wonder if she might agree with some of my colleagues who have shifted to Morning Prayer given that we cannot all physically partake of this one bread, even as we remain one body. Ultimately, the sacramental heart of our worship is a mystery in which we participate together by the grace of God. One thing is very clear to me as we gather remotely, however: we are present to one another, and God is present with us. We are gathered around a table that extends far beyond the dimensions of 101 Gold Mine Drive, a table open to friend and stranger, a table that welcomes all of who we are, all of our struggles, our fears, our deepest hopes. This is the table to which we have processed this Palm Sunday, following Christ who disrupts all our certainties, who overturns our expectations, who pours himself into our midst with infinite compassion. And today from this table we prepare to set out yet again into Holy Week as we never have before. May we be strengthened today for that journey.


[1] Marilyn Adams, Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 40. [2] Adams, 292. Italics in original. [3] Adams, 294 & 295

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