12 The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” 14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: 15 “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
Each morning, as I take a walk along the hiking trails near my house, I notice the little green buds that are starting to dot the once-bare branches. The buds are opening, friends. The forest is coming alive. Spring really is here; green is its tell-tale color.
Of course, I was expecting a riot of green in our sanctuary this week, too. It’s Palm Sunday, after all — the Sunday when we lift our hands and our palms and our voices, singing, “Hosanna!” The ancient crowds welcomed Jesus with “hosannas” and waving palm branches, so that’s what we’ll do, too.
Or rather, that’s what we would have done. Coronavirus has changed that, right along with everything else. We won’t gather in the sanctuary. We won’t hear one another sing and shout “hosanna.” We won’t wave green palms in the air. We wonder: how will we celebrate Palm Sunday without palms?
But then, I start to wonder… are the palms of “Palm Sunday” really that essential? Or are there other ways to welcome Christ? After all, this season of coronavirus, of stay-at-home and shelter-in-place, is a season of resourcefulness. It’s a time of “figuring it out” and “making do.” On Palm Sunday, how can we make do with the things we already have around us? How can we see possibility in those things we might once have overlooked?
Hillary Watson, a Mennonite pastor serving near Chicago, began reflecting on this possibility long before coronavirus. In a blog post from a couple of years ago, she notes the oft-overlooked detail in the gospel passage for Palm Sunday: the crowds cut palm branches down from the trees around them. Sure, the palm had some sacred significance in many of the religions of the ancient world. It may have been a symbolic choice… but it was also almost certainly a convenient one. They used what was around them — what they had on hand — to welcome Christ in their midst. They certainly didn’t have their palms shipped from thousands of miles away, as we often do.
So in an effort to make her church’s Palm Sunday celebrations more organic, to bring it more in line with the biblical text (and to avoid the carbon impact of shipping palms from 2,500 miles away), she began to do what those ancient crowds did. She began to use what was around her — what she had on hand — to welcome Christ. She writes:
In 2014, the first Easter at my current church, we… used branches I cut from the evergreen trees on the parsonage property (they needed trimming anyway, and I needed more sunlight for my future-garden). … The following year, we had evergreens again. In 2016, I had cut all the low-hanging, subtle branches I could reach on the church property, so we used boxwood from the bushes in the same parsonage lot. A congregation member informed me that boxwoods are invasive non-natives in North America.
I haven’t removed the boxwoods from the parsonage yet (it’s in the long-term landscaping plan). We may use them again this year. We may use the (also invasive) honeysuckle, early to leaf, instead. Our most seasonable option in this part of the Midwest is probably using dry, bleached winter prairie grasses. It’s a work in progress, but our palms are becoming more sustainable and more connected to our own lives and livelihoods. You can’t get more eco-friendly palms than from the tree behind the church building. …
Across North America, there are many local substitutes for palms. And of course, there’s always the option to just lay our coats down for the Messiah and his donkey to walk on, as they come into our midst.
I’m grieving the fact that we won’t be in the same sanctuary together, waving our palms this Palm Sunday. But I’m also choosing, in this moment, to be resourceful. This year, my “palms” will be the long green leaves left from the amaryllis plant Pastor Debbie gave me for Christmas. They’ve started to droop, to brown at the tips… but they’ll be great for waving this year. And I’ll help my kiddos make “palms” with paper and glue and their own two hands (just Google “palm sunday craft” — you’ll get the idea). Throughout the day, I encourage you to think creatively about what you’ll use for palms (I’d love if you send me a pic)… and if you’re really stuck, just throw your coat down in front of the computer during the livestream. No matter what we make or wave or throw on the ground before him, our King is coming. So make do with whatever you have at your fingertips… and shout “hosanna” all the louder.
Our God is bigger than coronavirus.
Our vision is bigger than coronavirus, too.
We are people blessing people.
We are Wesley Church.
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