Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The One Thing, the Only Thing” (Psalm 31:5, 15)
Palm Sunday: April 5, 2020
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In what may be the most famous opening sentence of any classic novel, Charles Dickens wrote:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
These opening words from A Tale of Two Cities sum up what was taking place in London and Paris during the tumultuous years of the French Revolution. And as Dickens wrote, they also reflected the extremes of the tumultuous times of the mid nineteenth century. And his words ring true today in our present situation as the ripple effects of the coronavirus continue to wreak havoc on our lives while yet also providing ample opportunity for beautiful expressions of generosity and grace.
Dickens’ words also describe the changes that so quickly occurred for Jesus from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. Palm Sunday was “the best of times…the season of Light…the spring of hope.” Jesus appeared to have everything before him as he entered Jerusalem triumphantly, crowds of joyful people laying down their clothes on the road in front of him as they praised him with a loud voice, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” And yet, because people are fickle and duplicitous and two-faced, only five days later on Good Friday, these crowds of people were chanting something very different about Jesus, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”—and on Good Friday Jesus experienced “the worst of times…the age of foolishness…the season of Darkness…the winter of despair” with absolutely nothing before him.
The psalm appointed for today, Psalm 31, is a psalm to which Jesus turned in his worst, most foolish, darkest, despairing hours on the cross. Psalm 31 shows us the one thing, the only thing, we can ultimately do when faced with the worst of times: “Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth…My times are in your hand” (Psalm 31:5, 15, The Book of Common Prayer 622-623). You can commend yourselves into God’s hands because God is your Redeemer, because all your times, including your best of times and your worst of times, are in God’s hands. In Luke’s account of Jesus’ passion we read that “Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46).
This commending ourselves and our circumstances to God is a recurring theme in The Book of Common Prayer because it is a recurring theme in our lives. Again and again we face challenges and difficulties in which the one thing, the only thing we can do is commend it all to God. In “Form I” of “The Prayers of the People” our final petition is this: “In the communion of saints, let us commend ourselves, and one another, and all our life, to Christ our God” (BCP 385). And in “An Order for Compline” we read from Psalm 31, “Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth” and later we pray the exact same thing in the suffrages, “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit; for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth” (BCP 129 and 132).
Commend ourselves into the hands of God, commend one another into the hands of God, and commend everything into the hands of God. This is the one thing, the only thing we can do when we face things that are just too big for us and defy any effort on our part to resolve them—be they physical challenges, or financial challenges, or emotional challenges, or relational challenges—areas in which every single effort you make to fix them only makes things worse. (Not that I have never experienced this but I have a “friend” who has). There is a saying along the lines of “The Lord never gives us more than we can handle.” This sounds good, but it completely unbiblical and pastorally cruel. Biblically speaking, the polar opposite is true—the Lord often gives us more than we can handle so that our dependence is on God, not on ourselves, so that we are brought to a point of commending ourselves, and commending one another and commending all things into the hands of God because only God is our Redeemer and only God can redeem all things.
This is certainly the case when it comes to your mortality. You may postpone death, but you cannot avoid it. As my friend James Wilson of the band Sons of Bill, puts it, “There ain’t no skatin’ by, we’re all gonna die, no matter what the plastic surgeon told you” (from “Santa Anna Winds” on their 2012 album Sirens). This is neither cynical nor nihilistic; it is simply the way it is—and it is exactly where the gospel meets us at our hour of death, as we will pray for each of us:
In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother, our sister, and we commit their body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless them and keep them, the Lord make his face to shine upon them and be gracious to them, the Lord lift up his countenance upon them and give them peace (BCP 501).
In 1998 Bob Dylan won the Grammy for Album of the Year for his masterpiece double album Time Out of Mind. There are two songs on the album that connect directly with Palm Sunday (I bet you did not know that). The first is called “Not Dark Yet”, in which Dylan describes what it is like to face one’s mortality:
Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there…
He later sings about the same two cities in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:
Well, I’ve been to London and I’ve been to gay Paree
I followed the river and I got to the sea
I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies
I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes
Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
The other song from this album that connects with Palm Sunday is one Adele later made popular, “Make You Feel My Love.” Dylan describes love this way:
When the rain is blowing in your face
And the whole world is on your case
I could offer you a warm embrace
To make you feel my love…
I’d go hungry, I’d go black and blue
I’d go crawling down the avenue
There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do
To make you feel my love
And that is what Jesus did for you on Good Friday as in his passion he found himself at “the bottom of a world full of lies”, as his burden seemed more than he could bear, as time was running away, as he went black and blue and crawled down the avenue all the way to Calvary, as “it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” eventually “got there” and the sky itself grew dark (Matthew 27:45) and Jesus cried the one thing, the only thing, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Back to A Tale of Two Cities and then I’ll close….in the novel Sydney Carton is a drunkard who thinks he has squandered his life. And yet out of unrequited love for the beautiful Lucie Manette at the end of the novel he carries out a beautiful expression of generosity and grace as he substitutes himself for Lucie’s husband, who had been condemned to the guillotine. The closing words of A Tale of Two Cities are Sydney Carton’s final thoughts as he ascends the scaffold and places his head underneath the blade, “It is a far, far, better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far, better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
And that is exactly what Jesus did for you during Holy Week. In the most beautiful expression of generosity and grace in the history of the world Jesus substituted himself for every Sydney Carton who thinks they have squandered their life, and for you. This love of God transforms your foolishness into wisdom, your incredulity to belief, your darkness into light, your despair into hope. This love of God transfers you from the path to “the other way” where you have nothing before you to the path to heaven you where you have everything before you—and in response the one thing, the only thing you need do is echo the psalmist and echo Jesus, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”