April 23, 10:00 a.m.
Palm Sunday A* 2017 St. John’s Church
Rev’d Jennifer Phillips Isa50:4-9;Philip.2:5-11;Matthew 27:11-54
Whatever rollercoaster you might find yourself on in life, God is your companion in the ecstatic highs and the stomach-dropping plunges. The experience of Jesus in his mortal life - of a family that loved him but didn’t understand and got in the way; of poverty and flight as a refugee; of homelessness and the kindness of friends; of hunger and of wonderful meals; of witnessing terrible illness and powerful healing; of friends who would follow anywhere and friends that ran away when they were most needed; of incredible intimacy with God and feeling utterly abandoned by God; of persecution, being interrogated, imprisoned, beaten up, tortured, and executed as a hated criminal -- all of that has been taken into the very heart and mind of God and made holy.
And our own dying and loss of everything we love in this world, also has been taken up and transformed into a new, a resurrected life in which there will finally be no separation from God or one another ever again. This Sunday of Palms and Passion presents us with the rollercoaster ride of Jesus from acclaim and celebration to dishonor and death. But we gather not to visit it the story as spectators, but to return thanks and praise to God whose life-bringing movement of love encompasses the whole sweep of Jesus’ life and ours. God desires our praise, our worship, our appreciation - the signs of our being in relationship with God. We are here because God desires it, and we desire God and the life God invites us into. This dance of worship - the little procession and palms, the singing, the standing to pray and sitting to listen to Scriptures both hard and comforting, the embrace of peace, the bread and wine and bringing our gifts and then our whole selves forward to receive God - this is the dance of desire and longing, a kind of courtship dance with the Holy One.
When I was in the seventh grade my Mum enrolled me in a ballroom dance class - a conspiracy with my best friend’s Mum who also enrolled her. Maybe you’ve been through something similar - the leggy 40-something teacher blonde as a palomino and very vigorous; the boys awkward in their jackets and ties shuffling their feet and wiping their sweaty palms on their pants. The taller girls giggling, whispering uncomplimentary things about the boys, or -us shy ones - doing the wallflower impression in the dark corners and awaiting doom in the form of the least attractive boy being forcibly paired up with us. But it ended up being worse. There were a third more girls than boys, thanks to Dads who felt baseball was more suitable for their sons and sons who threatened to run away and join the army before attending a single dance class. So, as a newly tall girl - who rocketed up alarmingly from petite to a conspicuously giant 5’8” in one semester - I and the other tall girls got assigned to be “boys”. So I learned to lead and didn’t learn to follow, and the whole matter was pretty joyless and embarrassing. But in college, swept off by a good friend in a VW stacked with young adults to the first annual Grateful Dead dance marathon in the Manhattan Ballroom in New York City, and to the blaring warm-up music of the Rolling Stones playing Honky Tonk Woman and surrounded by some fifteen hundred exuberant strangers, I threw off my coat and started to dance! Isadora Duncan move over! Ecstasy to dance in joy and not give a darn who is watching or what they might think…and to dance for hours.
My priest colleague Donald Schell writes of a similar experience in his adolescence- obligatory dance lessons in gym class. :
“One day on the other side, I found that odd fate left the girl who was universally reckoned most desirable of our whole class standing alone against the wall. I approached her cautiously and asked, barely speaking, “May I have this dance.” She grimaced and said, “With you? You’ve got to be kidding.” The girls gym teacher insisted she had to dance with me. I didn’t die, though I felt like I might.
“An intellectual pal who was easy to talk with and only happened to be a girl classmate suggested I put some music on at home and try ‘just wiggling’ in front of a full length mirror. I tried. Even with no one watching, I couldn’t cut loose and wiggle my hips. Sunday School had frozen my hip joints, spine and shoulders. Though I felt stupid, I knew condemning words like ‘profane’ and ‘lewd,’ lay in wait for me if I let the music move my body. I wanted to dance, and I wished my body could hear, but the music drenched my cells in adrenaline for flight.
“I first got what I wanted in a high school visit to an Episcopal Church. Hearing the Christian call to prayer, “The Lord be with you,” unlocked my hips and I knelt. My body in that small way was expressing something that mattered to me. The joy at bending knee and hip for prayer was so exhilarating that I refused to hold myself back, so went forward to kneel at the rail to receive communion, even though I wasn’t confirmed and knew I was breaking the rules to receive. This was an altar call I welcomed joyfully.
“Finally had desire unlocked what was frozen? Desire hadn’t let me rest, and in the end it moved me to a path I’m still pursuing. Gregory of Nyssa in his Commentary on the Song of Songs says that we are most like God in our infinite desire.”
Donald later married, and with his wife Ellen took ballroom dancing lessons and writes of this shared learning: “Week by week for three years, we danced our way to deeper understanding and love. Learning to dance together was as deep as any conversation we’d ever had.”
To learn to dance with God, we first must let our locked joints and mental reservations go, and surrender to the music and the impulse to move and live equally in our bodies and souls. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi quotes what is believed to be one of the most ancient of Christian hymn texts: Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be exploited - literally to be grasped and hung onto - but emptied himself. Desiring nothing but God, Jesus moved into the empty space where God could neither be seen nor felt: an utter letting go of control, expectation, ambition, status, power, hope for a certain outcome, comfort, abandonment - of everything that had gone before - emptied out. God’s movement then became everything - the movement of lifting up what was cast down; resurrecting what had died into a greater glory and a larger life; filling humiliation with meaning and honor, and defeat with vindication and joy.
So here, today, we open our hands in our desire for God. We empty a space - just an hour or so once a week - and relinquish our control, our habits, our take-charge-take-the-lead-be-at-the-center usual mode of living, and allow ourselves to be led in the divine dance. It is really good practice for riding the roller coaster, too - which is a more frightening sort of relinquishing control and opening ourselves to the mad rush of air and speed and anxiety of our lives. (Especially this year!) We are here because God desires it. We are part of God’s story still being told, part of the suffering and part of the joy yet to be fully revealed. God is the partner of our heart’s desire - no withering looks, no sweaty palms! You are God’s beloved. Come and join the dance.
This is St. John's Episcopal Church...
Want to check on the readings for a particular Sunday or other day? Click below to go to the Lectionary page... all readings available for 2017:
Rev. Dr. Jennifer M. Phillips
Tuesday, April 18:
No Bible Study
Wednesday, April 19:
No Holy Eucharist
Sunday, April 23:
10:00 a.m. Holy Eucharist
Flowers enhance the beauty of our church and greatly contribute to our worship. We place flowers near the altar to remind us of Creation, which brings us to the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, which we celebrate every Sunday. Here at St. John’s, rather than have a general budget item for flowers, we invite our parishioners to provide the flowers in memory or honor of loved ones, or in thanksgiving for special events. There is a sign up sheet on the bulletin board on which one may select a Sunday, (or Sundays!), for a special tribute. The cost for flowers, which the Altar Guild orders, is $35. (Please be sure to note on your payment that it is for flowers.) We are grateful to Westwood Gardens Florist, which, for many years, has provided beautiful arrangements to us for a modest price.