Homily for Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017 – The Rev. Stephanie Shepard
“open heart, open arms”
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
A couple of years ago, some of the people I knew were having a particularly difficult time during Lent. One had been struggling with mental health issues, several had expressed feelings of deep depression, others were overwhelmed with responsibilities for aging and ill parents and their own children. They came to me as a pastor for comfort, hope, and healing. At 10 pm on Good Friday I received text messages from a fellow who was suicidal. I spent the weekend wondering if he were alive or dead. On one level, I knew I was being drained by all this need and hurt, but I kept going and giving as I could. The breaking point, literally, came the day I got word of a mother I had worked with who was abandoning her life and leaving town, refusing to speak to any of her friends or support services. After that phone call, I started having chest pains.
In the first few minutes, I couldn’t believe what was happening. I was more embarrassed and annoyed: I had too many things to do, I didn’t have time for feeling sick. But then I began feeling like I was suffocating from a tight band around my ribs, that I couldn’t move, couldn’t think straight. I bargained with myself. I had to go up to the hospital to visit two people anyway, so maybe I would get it checked out while I was up there. I got in my car somehow and drove, and by the time I reached my destination had convinced myself it wasn’t so bad. Still, I presented myself at emergency feeling rather sheepish at this point and told them I was having chest pain. Onto the examining table, electrodes attached, blood drawn: nobody was taking any chances. And hours later, the tests came back normal, and I was allowed to leave, with a warning to follow up with my doctor.
I followed up with my doctor, with my bishop, and with a retreat. And in prayer an image came to me of the world, surrounded by a broken heart, surrounded by a second and larger heart. I believe it to be God’s answer to my question of why this had happened: my heart is not large enough to hold the world. Only God can. In my attempts at love and compassion, there is a temptation to shoulder the pain of others and feel somehow responsible for fixing it myself. But only God’s heart is large enough to encompass and hold all of ours as we live in the midst of brokenness and hurt. And this is why we hear again the terrible and awesome story of the passion of Jesus on the cross. In this work, God submits to open-heart surgery. Let me explain what I mean by that.
Elie Wiesel is a holocaust survivor, a journalist, an author, and a Jewish theologian. In his 2012 book Open Heart, he reflects on his experience as a patient who has suffered a heart attack and has undergone open heart surgery:
“I didn’t know, I couldn’t know, just how complicated it is, with risks and dangers that defy imagination. For the layman that I am, this surgery is not unlike a walk on the moon. There is the frightening discovery of the need to temporarily stop the heart, to replace it with a machine while the surgeon operates… I was coming back from far away, very far away indeed. And I just as easily could have stayed on the other side. I am overcome with a feeling of gratitude. Still under the influence of anesthesia, I try to whisper: ‘Thank you. Thank you, doctor.’ At that moment, did I think of thanking God as well? After all, I owe him that much. But I am not sure that I did. At that precise moment, only the surgeon- his messenger, no doubt- moved me to gratitude.” (p. 26)
I believe that the image of the heart stopping in order for the body to be healed is a powerful metaphor for what God does in the person of Jesus. God submits to death in order to restart and restore humanity. And God can only do this through a human being who is ready, willing, and able to die. The crucifixion is not just “kenosis” in the sense of a self-emptying or limiting of God into a human body, but a willingness for the Creator, Godself, to stop, to die, in order for creation to be reset for new life.
This is not a magical moment of restoration, however. It is a painful, tearing, struggling, desperate last attempt at reconciliation. There is no plan B. Jesus doesn’t argue with the process, but he is not serene about it either. The only words we get in him in the gospel of Matthew are at the beginning and the end of the passion. When asked, “Are you the King of the Jews”, Jesus responds, “You say so”. In doing so, he accepts the label that the governor Pilate gives him, though this is what will lead the authorities to condemn him for blasphemy and treason. Then, as he hangs on the cross, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”. God and Jesus are so deeply fused in person that there is no-one outside to call upon for help. God enters the depth of the human experience of despair. And God’s heart stops within the human one.
Creator and creation hold breath, suspend heartbeat… And then start. And there is resurrection. Every year we enact this liturgically between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, especially in the between-time we call Holy Saturday. But it is not just at Easter that we die inside and live again. Every day we can know this to be true as an action we carry within each of our bodies. When we cannot pray, when we cannot find God in anything that we do or experience, our bodies still pray for us. Each breath is a prayer. Each heartbeat is a prayer. And each pain and question that we cannot heal for ourselves, that others cannot fix for us, is still held in the heart of God.
We call ourselves a resurrection people, acknowledging that there is death and there is life, and that one grows out of the other. Today we carry palm crosses to remind us. But deep in our bodies we carry the cross of Christ, and the love that not only dared to die, but to live again for us. We are marked because we are humans who are made in the image of God. Our bodies are made of the same stuff as Jesus. They are weak and finite and fragile things. Living again is not easy. It is painful. It will never be like it was before we experienced our individual wounding, whether they are physical or emotional and spiritual. But the past is indeed dead, and we cannot return to it or recreate it. We were not redeemed to remain ghosts in the shadows. The cross proclaims that we are not abandoned even in death, for hope comes even with Jesus’ exultant last cry that reunites his breath to the Spirit of Life.
We may not see God, but if we look, we will see the person who acts in God’s place in our situation. For Elie Wiesel, the surgeon acted as the hands of God to operate on his heart. In this he was able to voice his thanks. On the cross, we are shown Jesus as the heart of God. In our every day, who do we see as the messenger of this good news?
If we try to save others, our hearts will break. If we try to save ourselves, we will fail and despair. But there is One before us with an open heart, and open arms, who has the power to restore our human hearts to health. Amen.