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Julian of Norwich: All Shall Be Well

Click here to watch the sermon.

Mark 11:1-11 and Mark 14:1-11

Denominations and individual preachers vary on their approach to this day.  For some it has always been and will always be Palm Sunday, and that’s all.  But many others are now calling it Palm [slash] Passion Sunday.  In the “good old days” when church was the center of communal life, there was at least the perception that the majority of church members went to church on Palm Sunday, and then again on Maundy Thursday and/or Good Friday, and then again on Easter Sunday.  But then pastors and denominational leaders started realizing that wasn’t happening any more (if it ever did).  People would come to church on Palm Sunday because it was a big, exciting day where the children got to wave palm branches and everybody was happy and joyful, and then everybody would come back on Easter Sunday because it was a big, exciting day when the children dressed up and everybody was happy and joyful.  Pastors couldn’t help but notice the difference between the Sunday attendance figures and the attendance figures on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  We realized that many, perhaps even the majority of church members, were going from happy to happy with no pause for pain.

And that’s not real life.  Real life has lots of pauses for pain.  Real life rarely goes from happy mountaintop to happy mountaintop without some valleys of the shadow of death in-between.  It is tempting, I know, to skip the Holy Week services, and not just because you’re busy and asking time for an extra service is difficult.  It is tempting because we don’t want to see the pain.  We don’t want to witness more suffering.  We don’t want to come to church to be depressed.  But then we wonder why the church seems out of touch, distant from real life.  Jumping from Palm Sunday to Easter keeps us from experiencing the fullness of the story, the fullness of who Christ is, of who God is.  It skips the point of Easter.

And that is something that Julian of Norwich would never let us get away with.  I chose Julian for this Sunday because she straddled this divide.  She had the most grace-filled theology, bursting with good news and assurances, AND she had detailed, horrific visions of Christ’s suffering.  And she couldn’t get to the first without the second.  I took a whole course in seminary on Julian of Norwich.  Don’t worry—this sermon won’t last that long—I’ve forgotten a lot in 17 years!  But still, there’s too much—too much material to cover, too much I want to say.  Palm / Passion Sunday is already a lot to juggle—how much Palm Sunday and how much Passion Sunday? what’s the right mix?  I heard a preacher this week say that one woman came to him in tears on her first Palm/Passion Sunday, saying he had ruined Palm Sunday for her.  At what point am I ruining your Palm Sunday?  And if I take the Passion story too far, and share the whole story, will you have any incentive to come to the other services this week?

It’s a lot to juggle, this palm-slash-passion Sunday question.  And then you throw Julian of Norwich into the equation, and she is bound to complicate ANY equation, and it’s a lot to juggle.  But when you add in the marches of yesterday?  My Facebook feed is completely dominated by news of marches all across the country, millions of people gathering to call for an end to gun violence, and how can I ignore what’s the biggest news story of the week?  And if I was having trouble juggling Palm / Passion Sunday and Julian of Norwich, well, I just dropped all the bowling pins because I can’t juggle that much.

I wasn’t there yesterday. I wasn’t able to march.  I was sick on Friday—a stomach bug that kept me at home all day—and by Saturday morning I was feeling better but still weak.  I didn’t trust that a youth-planned march would have paid attention to trifles like port-a-potties so I gave in to my queasiness and my weariness and I didn’t attend.  I missed the march, which means I missed so much.  I missed the signs.  I missed the solidary with others who shares my concerns.          I missed the chance to hear teenagers speak their truth.  I missed the chance to bear witness to their fears.  Of course, that was not my only chance.  Participating in yesterday’s March for Our Lives was only one way to support our teens in their work for common sense gun legislation that respects the second amendment while still respecting their right to go to school with their greatest fear being grades, not bullets.  That was not my only chance to hear their voices.  That was not my only chance to show support.  That was not my only chance to take a stand.  It was just the easiest.  Marches and rallies and vigils are important, and I strongly support them, but it’s far too easy to march on Saturday and move on by Sunday and forget entirely in a year because so many kids have died since then, who can keep track?  At what point do we give in to resistance fatigue?

I remember my first gay pride march.  And it wasn’t a parade. It was a march.  A parade is when you celebrate diversity.  A march is when you demand respect for it.  On the streets of Asheville North Carolina in the 1990s, we were demanding to be seen.  I didn’t realize it at first.  The gathering was so festive, the young people in particular so flamboyant, how could this be anything but a parade?  We had joined with other churches and we walked along behind a banner that said simply “Faith Communities,” and we got applause and cheers and thank you’s.  I saw tears.  Some even left the sidewalk to come and shake our hands.  There, in the South, 20-plus years ago, it meant something real.  It meant something tangible.  There were Christians who didn’t think that gay people were going to hell?  It was still a new thought to many of them.  The cheers went to my head.

But then we got to the corner, where the parade turned to make its way back down a parallel street.  And there they were—the protestors—protesting not just homosexuality, but us—faith communities who dared to share an image of a different God.  They yelled at us, saying we were the blind leading the blind.  They shook their signs at us—signs that read “Abomination” and “Repent”—signs with scripture references on them, references from my Bible.     And a boy who couldn’t have been more than ten, holding a sign of condemnation—a boy who probably didn’t even know his sexual orientation yet—and he looked so scared.  I wanted to break the line and go hug him and tell him it was OK, he didn’t have to be afraid, but he was afraid of US, and that made me want to cry.  I went from being applauded, cheered, praised—to being admonished, ridiculed, and feared—in the space of one block.  It wasn’t a parade.  It was a march.  And it felt like a march for our lives.

In Jerusalem that day so long ago, there were people who thought it was a parade.  There were people who lined the streets to see the celebrity, to say that they were there when, to cheer for someone who might be able to do something about their plight.  But there were other people in the crowd who knew exactly what this was.  Scholars have recently told us that Jesus’ parade wasn’t the only one happening in and around Jerusalem that day.  Jesus came from the east, but from the west came the Roman army led by none other than Pontius Pilate coming to maintain order during Passover.  Passover was a celebration of liberation from Pharoah in Egypt, and Rome was uneasy about the anti-imperial message of this association.  Plus, the population of Jerusalem would quadruple during Passover.  Best to keep a tight rein on that situation, with so many outsiders in town.  Pilate’s march was intended to show the might of the Roman Empire, might that demanded allegiance, might that was maintained through violence.

So Jesus entering Jerusalem on the other side of town, riding a donkey, a symbol of peace, was a counter protest.  It was public drama, street theatre.  It was one way of saying to Rome,     “You think your weapons are powerful?  You have no idea what power is.”  It was a protest rally.  It was a march—a march for their lives, a march for freedom from violence,     a desire we all share.

This brings me back to Julian of Norwich because she had three deep spiritual desires.  One was to have a bodily sickness so great that she would be at the point of death.  She did, indeed, have such a sickness, and nearly died, and her visions came from that time period.  Another one of her three great spiritual desires was to have what she called three wounds—the wounds of contrition (sorrow for sins), the wound of compassion,             and the wound of longing for God.  We don’t often consider such things to be wounds, but compassion for others can certainly be a wounding experience.  But her great spiritual desire was to have a recollection of Christ’s passion.  What she meant by this was not to experience Jesus’ wounds herself, but to have a vision of being there so that she could experience the suffering of the people who were around Jesus.  She wanted to feel the pain of those who loved Jesus the most.  Her writings do give us detailed visions of the suffering of Jesus on the cross, but her purpose was not to glorify the suffering.  It was to show us the pain, particularly of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Julian wanted to experience Mary’s pain in watching her son die.

I can’t imagine wanting such a thing.  I can barely keep myself from turning away every time I see one of the Sandy Hook parents holding a photo of their smiling child, forever six years old.  I don’t want to know the suffering of yet another parent.  If I did—if I truly knew how bad it hurt—I don’t know if I could ever let my child step on the bus.  I don’t want to share in the suffering of others. I have enough, thank you very much.

But Juliann did, and I think here’s the reason why: because first she had a glimpse of a hazelnut.  She wrote:

“Then our Lord showed me a small thing, the size of a hazelnut, nestled in the palm of my hand.  It was round as a ball.  I looked at it with the eyes of my understanding and thought What can this be?  And the answer came to me: It is all that is created.  I was amazed that it could continue to exist.  It seemed to me to be so little that it was on the verge of dissolving into nothingness.  And then these words entered my understanding.  It lasts and will last forever because God loves it. Everything that is has its being through the love of God.”

The world is small and fragile, but it was made by God and is loved by God and is sustained by God.  I am small and fragile, but I was made by God and am loved by God and am sustained by God.  This is why Julian could write her most famous line:

            All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

All shall be well because we are held in God’s hand, because we were created by love and held in love.  Everything that is has its being through the love of God.

So whatever comes, in Jesus’ story or in our own, all shall be well.  It won’t be the same.  It may not feel well at all.  But we all are held in loving hands.  So march.  Raise your voice.  Or, if need be, shut your mouth and listen to other voices for a change.  We can take the risk to get beyond our queasiness and uneasiness.  We can take the risk to experience another’s pain.  For we are held—we all are held—in loving hands.

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