April 5, 2020

Lily Osler Palm Sunday 4/29

Lily Osler Palm Sunday 4/29
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Holy Week is such a compressed drama. We go from jubilation to despair to exalting in the resurrection within seven days. And in trying to remember the broad strokes of everything that happens, we often forget its smaller moments. (At least, I do.)
I’d like to focus on one of those moments today: in our Gospel reading, we see Jesus’ trial before Pilate. And right after Pilate realizes that Jesus’ accusers likely have motives beyond simply pursuing justice, his wife sends him a stunning message: have nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth. She tells him that she had a dream – we never learn the dream’s content – and she is in agony over it.
I am struck by this moment for a few reasons. First, by the power of Pilate’s wife’s plea. She is not simply advising her husband, she is commanding him – “have nothing to do with that innocent man.” And she appeals both to Pilate’s sense of justice, calling Jesus “that innocent man,” and to his love of her, invoking her own suffering on Jesus’ account. She is making herself both vulnerable and powerful, asserting her view without apology without shying away from her personal stake in the matter. For a one-sentence message, this is powerful stuff.
I think it’s also important that this message came to Pilate’s wife in a dream. In Matthew’s gospel, visionary dreams are very rare and always of the utmost importance; the only other dreams in his account are the ones surrounding Jesus’ birth and the Holy Family’s flight from Herod. Dreams are what kept Jesus safe from the gravest dangers he faced until this moment, when he stands silent before the judgment seat as the crowd grows restless and furious.
But a dream and an impassioned plea cannot keep Jesus from the cross. After hearing his wife’s message, Pilate tries to reason with the people, but gives up and relinquishes his privilege of clemency to the crowd. He washes his hands to symbolize his refusal to accept responsibility for Jesus’ now-inevitable execution, and he hands the Son of God over to be crucified.
I read this passage the other day, and all I could think about was: did Pilate’s wife do enough? Jesus’ death is not entirely her fault, of course, but if she had a vision that told her Jesus was innocent, wasn’t there more she could do in her position of power?
And I think the reason I found that question so pressing – wasn’t there more she could have done? – is because it’s a question I suspect we are all asking ourselves in this moment of crisis, as we watch the slow-motion catastrophe of this pandemic play out from behind laptop screens. I know it’s a question I am asking myself.
My grandparents live in the suburbs of Detroit, which is one of the epicenters of the pandemic. Unlike Seattle or Chicago or New York, Detroit is a city built without density in mind, and so in my grandparents’ suburb there are no corner stores, no easily-accessible groceries or pharmacies, no infrastructure for delivery services. The hospital systems are inadequate even in regular times. Both my grandfather and grandmother are in their eighties, and my grandfather has a compromised respiratory system. It is terrifying.
Last week, my family was debating whether we should drive out to Detroit and bring them to Minneapolis, where they could be around family and have others do their shopping for them and would no longer feel quite so lonely. It felt like the right thing to do. But every doctor we know advised against it; the safest place for a couple in their eighties to be, they said, was alone in their own living space, without any potential virus carriers around. Even as it made sense, it was crushing to hear.
And so we are doing what we can. My dad wakes up at the crack of dawn to get a delivery slot at my grandparents’ local supermarket so they don’t have to leave their house for groceries. We call them all the time and have convinced them to only chat with their neighbors from across the street. We’re praying. We know it’s not enough, but it can’t be, not right now.
The Passion narrative is made for every season of our lives, but it feels, today, as though it is made especially for times like ours, when everything seems to be collapsing in on itself and our best is not enough. Resurrection will come, but that doesn’t mean this this moment is not unbelievably hard, that this Holy Week is not an especially difficult one.
What we can do in this moment is be Pilate’s wife. We can speak with conviction against injustice. We can donate what we have to those whose lives are in peril. We can call our family members and friends and distant acquaintances and make sure that they know they are not alone or forgotten, that they are loved. Even knowing that it may not be enough, we can be Christ’s body in the world for the least of these.
And we can believe that Resurrection is closer than we dare hope. Amen.

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