2500 year ago a bunch of refugees were living in squalour in camps in what is now Iraq. They had been forcibly deported against their will by the Babylonian Empire - much the same as Stalin forcibly deported Cossacks from the Crimea, or parts of the British Empire such as Australia and Canada took the children of indigenous people and had them adopted by white couples. It was a deliberate attempt to destroy the ethnic identity of these people and create a single Empire wide culture across the Babylonian expanse.
Among those forced refugees were Hebrews deported from Israel. For them their culture was associated with their faith in God Yahweh. And their worship was centered on the single sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem
Psalm 137, written at that time expresses that pain -
1 By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
And yet - despite the awfulness - adversity was the mother of creativity. Much of what people in the time of Jesus took for granted about their faith was developed during that awfulness 600 years earlier when people had no choice but to do things differently. Much of the Old Testament was written down for the first time. Poems and Prophecies and songs and stories and sayings that for generations had circulated orally now had to be written down to make sure they were not lost under the yoke of the Babylonian oppressor. Synagogues were invented - if you could not go to the Temple to offer sacrifice at least you had to have somewhere to pray. The Sabbath and keep kosher became extra important - clinging on to the details became a way of marking yourself out as God’s people when you were surrounded by people who thought nothing of your God.
Worship was reinvented to cope with the unusualness and awfulness of the situation. You probably see where I am going. We are locked up in our houses unable to go to church, with frightening news circulating around us. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land” What are we meant to do - just hang up our harps and say “That’s it - worship is over for three months” Apparently one church warden wrote to the Daily Telegraph suggesting that all clergy should be furloughed because there was nothing for them to do at this time.
Well I can assure you that as well as funerals and pastoral care there is plenty of worship going on - even if like the refugees by the waters of Babylon, we have to reinvent it. And it’s good that worship is still going on- because worship is such a special thing
Today is Palm Sunday - a week before the Cross, Jesus and his followers arrive at the edge of Jerusalem -
Matthew 21:1-11 (The Message)
21 1-3 When they neared Jerusalem, having arrived at Bethphage on Mount Olives, Jesus sent two disciples with these instructions: “Go over to the village across from you. You’ll find a donkey tethered there, her colt with her. Untie her and bring them to me. If anyone asks what you’re doing, say, ‘The Master needs them!’ He will send them with you.”
4-5 This is the full story of what was sketched earlier by the prophet:
Tell Zion’s daughter,
“Look, your king’s on his way,
poised and ready, mounted
On a donkey, on a colt,
foal of a pack animal.”
6-9 The disciples went and did exactly what Jesus told them to do. They led the donkey and colt out, laid some of their clothes on them, and Jesus mounted. Nearly all the people in the crowd threw their garments down on the road, giving him a royal welcome. Others cut branches from the trees and threw them down as a welcome mat. Crowds went ahead and crowds followed, all of them calling out, “Hosanna to David’s son!” “Blessed is he who comes in God’s name!” “Hosanna in highest heaven!”
10 As he made his entrance into Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken. Unnerved, people were asking, “What’s going on here? Who is this?”
11 The parade crowd answered, “This is the prophet Jesus, the one from Nazareth in Galilee.”
I love Palm Sunday. On a normal year we will be out there on the streets walking down the Fairway, singing loudly as our music comes out of our portable speaker. Colourful robes. Every one waving Palm Crosses. In some churches they even have a donkey. It’s a joyful celebratory occasion. The heart of worship. I do miss the fact that we are not doing that this year.
But whatever we do we must not stop worshiping - not because God will be cross with us if we do but because we will miss out if we do. God has made us to worship. We don’t go to worship to enjoy ourselves - that would be like wanting to have sex just for your own satisfaction rather than wanting to make love to the most special person in your life - We don’t go to worship to enjoy ourselves, and yet we come away happier and healthier. I repeat that - healthier!
So four lessons from today’s festival that hopefully will lead to you being happier and healthier from giving yourself to God.
1) PRAISE UNDER PRESSURE or AN ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE
Palm Sunday comes just five days before Good Friday. Jesus rode donkey back into Jerusalem amidst a pageant of celebration knowing that just days later he would be nailed to the cross.
That’s not as crazy as it sounds. During soviet times, a Christian called Dimitri was imprisoned as the only believer in a prison with 1500 hardened criminals. To keep himself going in prison he would praise God and sing the few songs he could remember every morning. After several years there, the prison guards finally marched him out of the prison cell to his execution. Suddenly all the 1500 other prisoners in their cells stood to attention and started singing the songs they had heard Dmitri singing every morning. The guards were so shocked they asked him “who are you?” he replied “I am a son of the living God whose name is Jesus” - they cancelled the execution and took him back to his cell. (1)
In the 1990 I met a lovely Coptic deacon who had come to England as a refugee - while in Egypt he annoyed the authorities by being too Christian and had been imprisoned for a while. He told me that what had kept him going while in prison was saying the psalms that he had learnt in church. Praising God through the words of the psalms had been his lifeline in that cell
Of course it doesn’t always lead to a happy ending - on 15th February 2015 twenty one Christians (twenty Egyptian Copts and one Ghanaian) were murdered by Isis. They died praising God. It’s what kept them going through the awfulness of the experience.
We read that all down the centuries.
Giving thanks is really positive thing. Up and down the country for the last two Thursday nights people have been outside the door clapping and cheering and giving thanks for the NHS workers and other key workers. And all the key workers who heard it will have felt supported. But more than that - everyone who clapped came away feeling better - feeling better because they had spent time not thinking about themselves but thinking about other people and thanking them.
There is an old adage - “Count your blessings” - and it actually works. In 2015 there was a study of 293 adults accessing university pyschological services in America. All of them recieved counselling. In addition a third were asked to write a letter each week to someone to say thank you for something, a third were asked to write about their deepest thoughts and a third were asked to do nothing. After four weeks those who had written the letters showed significantly better mental health than the other two groups - and this continued for at least 12 weeks after the counselling and letter writing had finished. And what is more amazing is that it was irrelevent whether they actually posted the letters or not. Don’t get me wrong - it will have been really encouraging for the people who were thanked to get a letter - but just giving thanks made the people who did it happier and healthier. (2)
Of course as Christians we are aware that it is not just other humans we need to thank. G.K. Chesterton was once asked what he would miss most if he was an atheist. He replied “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.”
Times are hard at the moment, and as the Baptist preacher Dr Walter Richardson says - in the difficulties of life “Praise has to be practised” (3) After you have finished this sermon, take out a piece of paper and write down some the things you want to thank God for!
2) THE SANCTITY OF STUFF
On that first palm Sunday the disciples threw their cloaks on the road and waved branches. It was not an etheral out of this body experience. Because we are physical human beings. Several times on Facebook we have had pictures of virtual hugs - expressing the longing people have for physical contact - I am sure when this is all over there are going to be a lot folks needing a hug.
One of the hardest parts of the current situation is the difficulty of the physical side of worship. For some of you I managed to get out the Blessed Sacrament to you before the lockdown started and we are doing the services by phone. Like everything in this crisis it was a matter of acting fast, and I know that for some of you missed out because of the deadline. For all of you I encourage you to find ways especially to mark this week. On Thursday - Maundy Thursday can you pour water over your feet or hands and remember Jesus washing his disciples’? On Good Friday do you have a little cross in your own house you could venerate instead of the big one in church? And Easter Sunday why not make a big and prayerful thing of taking back up again that thing you gave up for Lent? That first bite of chocolate or sip of wine or cup of tea.
But isn’t it interesting how on Sunday nights so many people (not just Christians) have lit a candle of hope in their windows - humans need to express themselves through physical rituals even if they don’t know that the hope their candle burns towards comes from God.
3) THE CRAFT OF CREATIVITY
On that first Palm Sunday the crowd did not wait for someone to pass them a professionally made palm cross. They picked up branches that were lying around and turned them into the instruments of praise. Those happened to be Palm Branches because it was the Holy Land - but if it was England they might well have been willow branches or reeds.
Genesis 1 tells us that human beings are made in the image of God. It also tells us that God created the universe - so if we are in God’s image we should be creative. We are not all creative in the same way- you may be a knitter or a painter or a poet or a sermon writer. And we don’t all have to be Michelangelo or Keats. . But it is good and Godly to express our creativity in whatever way we have been given.
And interestingly - though unsurprisingly - as with so many elements of worship - creativity is good for our mental health. Psychologists have long know that there was an association between creativity and happiness but they were not sure whether it was happy people are more creative or creative people are more happy. But a 2015 study in New Zealand found that engaging in a creative task actually made people happier.(4)
So - your third piece of homework - we don’t have Palm Crosses this year but neither did those people in the crowd on the first Palm Sunday. Why not make yourself a cross - Not a Palm cross because you probably don’t have a palm tree in your garden - but a cross made out of whatever branches or leaves or plants you can find in the garden.
Here’s my attempt [made out of privet bush]- God has gifted me at not being good at this particular form of creativity so I can be an encouragement to you - whatever cross you make will be better than mine! Go for it.
4) THE SOUND OF SINGING
“Crowds went ahead and crowds followed, all of them calling out, “Hosanna to David’s son!” “Blessed is he who comes in God’s name!” “Hosanna in highest heaven!”
We don’t know if they were singing - perhaps it was more like a football chant - Ho-san-Nah! Ho-san-Nah! Ho-san-Nah!
On the other hand, given they are quoting Psalm 118 - they may well have been singing. Certainly when we process with gusto down the Fairway, we sing with gusto.
Singing is at the heart of worship. As St Augustine says “He who sings prays twice”. “He who sings prays twice”.
Actually it is what I have missed most when I have been to secular weddings of funerals. I mean I expect there to be no God - that’s a given. But there is also no singing. There might be some music played over a cd or a string quartet - but there is no singing. You are just an audience watching. But at a church wedding or a church funeral as we celebrate our friend's love or give thanks for a loved one's life we get to join in through singing. We are not just an audience but a congregation - we are part of it.
Singing - yes like all aspects of worship - is good for us, because God has made us that way. Communal singing is particularly good and sadly we can’t do that at the moment - but any sort of singing is good for us. To quote a doctor -
“Music making exercises the brain as well as the body, but singing is particularly beneficial for improving breathing, posture, and muscle tension. Listening to and participating in music has been shown to be effective in pain relief, too, probably due to the release of neurochemicals such as ß-endorphin (a natural painkiller responsible for the “high” experienced after intense exercise).
There’s also some evidence to suggest that music can play a role in sustaining a healthy immune system, by reducing the stress hormone cortisol and boosting the Immunoglobulin A antibody.” (5)
What more could you want at a time of Corona virus?
Now I know several of you have said to me - you are missing our music group, missing Jane’s playing, missing the choir. Yes…
But you know the good thing about being in lockdown (see: counting my blessings!) the good thing about being in lockdown - we can pick our favourite worship songs and sing them at the top of our voices. They probably can’t hear you -and even if you sing loudly enough that they can hear you - they can’t come and stop you because they are on Lockdown too! So sing your heart out!
In Acts 16:25 When Paul and Silas were in prison - we read
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” That was just two of them and they sang - if you are on your own in your house - sing your heart out!
And if you are worried about the quality of your music -don’t worry God’s tone deaf - he can only hear your heart not your notes.
Surprising isn’t it? - So much about worship is actually good for us. It’s not why we do it. Like the disciples wanting to express their joy about Jesus coming into Jerusalem, we want to express our joy and our love towards the God who is always there for us. But even though that’s not why we do it, worship is actually good for us - and that shouldn’t be a surprise. As the Westminster Catechism put it in the 16th century - the “Chief end of (humanity) is to worship God and enjoy him for ever”. So if worship lifts depression and builds your immune system - don’t be surprised. That’s how we were made. Worshipping God is just going with the grain.
(1) “Singing dangerously- how Christains endure persecution through song” Frank Fortunato
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