Reflections on Palm Sunday online

It wasn’t that long ago that many Protestant churches had two worship services per Sunday. In those older times your commitment to God was judged – at least partially – on whether you were a once-r or a twice-r. In our family we were twicers.

In these days of viral assault on human health, we use telephones and computers to try to worship together in some way or another. On Palm Sunday I heard four sermons! 

One of the sermons followed the tradition of calling this day Passion Sunday. Litanies were read, video clips of various clergy members standing alone, outside or in their church buildings and waving palm crosses or (my favourite) a spruce branch, and saying “Hosanna” with the amount of fervor acceptable to that tradition and video-recorded sermon. Music was by pipe organ and piano with the words provided for us to sing at home.

The second sermon followed the same tradition and focused on washing hands, making an apt connection between COVID-19 prevention and Pilate’s non-committal hand-washing (hand-wringing, I think, was more the point of the sermon). This sermon came via email. There were no litanies or hymns or other prayers. 

The third sermon came from a priest from a liturgical tradition. We watched the next sermon via computer screen with a high-quality recording of the priest who did focus on the triumphal entry and delivered a cogent, carefully-phrased sermon that did as much as it is possible to do to “speak with” a virtual congregation. No songs, no litanies, either. 

Communal worship
The fourth sermon was . . . well, it’s not the sermon that I wish to talk about. This was a Zoom service with participants from six tiny congregations there, most on video and some on telephone audio only. The service was led by the minister, who included introduction, call to worship, some responsive prayers, the gospel reading, and an offering – an announcement about offerings, Christian charity, duty, and how to make financial donations to the congregations represented. 

So it’s not a sermon I’m talking about, but a time of communal worship. There were occasional times of glick, beep, chokkbc, grblle, and then the minister’s words would return. Mostly, participants kept their microphones on Mute, especially when we were singing. Once we thought we heard a rooster in the background, but one of the participants told us it was her clock making what it thought was the sound of a loon as it struck the hour. (A loon with a rooster complex?)

Music was complicated. There is what one computer technician told me is a “latency” – a delay – that makes it almost impossible to have communal singing without undoing Pentecost and returning to Babel. 

I have a small portable keyboard set up on an ironing board next to the computer; the minister sends lyrics of hymns to all possible participants ahead of time for them to print. Everyone sings along but hears only Betsey and me while they sing alone with their machine.

It is this service that made the biggest impression on me. The minister would tell us where we were on our previously-sent orders of worship and then, from time to time, would say, “Well, Curt, should we have a song here?” Or, “Let’s sing, ‘Hosanna, Loud Hosanna’ now.” After making a reference to the appointed psalm (Psalm 31:9-16) the minister spoke about Lent, Holy Week, COVID-19, and lament. While she was speaking I was scrambling in my grey Psalter Hymnal for an appropriate lament and when she asked if “Curt had another song,” I sang Genevan 77 and followed it up with all of us singing “The King of Glory.”

It is this back-and-forth of a small group (30 people in all, I think) that spoke to me: I could see people dressed in their Sunday best, others reclining on a couch, a couple (they told us) still wearing pajama bottoms with a dress shirt or blouse. There were a few prayer requests, lots of waving to one another on the screen, and lots of “Oh, it’s good to see you!” 

Nothing beats worshipping with real people with real bodies, but I’ve found that a Zoom meeting can offer a spontaneity and unsophisticated one-ness that sermons alone can not bring. 

If Christian Courier had audio, I’d offer to sing you one of the songs that we sang, a song I wrote decades ago when our own children were young. Here are the lyrics. It strikes me that Palm Sunday drives home a point about human leadership, red carpets, carefully coiffed hair and beard, photo ops, government jets, palaces, mansions, and . . . meekness. If you sang “Meekness and Majesty” on Maundy Thursday, I think you celebrated the Leader to whom our Hosannas should be voiced. Meanwhile (as Stephen Colbert might say), we would do well to remember the humble king riding a donkey when we think about our own leadership in home, family, church or government. 

Hosanna! How Unusual!
Jesus told his disciples: “Goin’ to Jerusalem town.
Well, my friends, this is the end: Death instead of a crown. Oh!
Death instead of a crown.”
Hosanna! How unusual! King without a crown.
Hosanna! How unusual! Lays his glories down. Oh!
Lays his glories down. 

“Now, my friends for our journey. I’ll need somethin’ to ride.”
“Cadillac, or thing like that?” “No, no mention of pride. No!
No, no mention of pride.”
Hosanna! How unusual! No war horse if you please.
Hosanna! What a conqueror! Jesus, Prince of Peace! Oh!
Jesus, Prince of Peace. 

Entered into the city. No red carpet today.
“He’ll not lack the shirt off our backs. (He’s the) Son of David, we say. Oh!
Son of David we say.”
Hosanna! How unusual! (His) carpet’s a bed of palms.
Hosanna! There’s no tickertape: greet him with a psalm. Oh!
Greet him with a psalm. 

Scribes react with fine horror. “This is blasphemy, sir!
Only God deserves this laud.” (But the ) stones to Jesus defer. Yeah!
Stones to Jesus defer.
Hosanna! How unusual! Cops can’t quell the rout.
Hosanna! Quite remarkable! Kids and the stones’ll cry out! Oh!
Kids and the stones’ll cry out! Oh!
Kids and the stones’ll cry out. 

If you liked this column, you might also like our news story: “Benediction from the Kitchen: Five B.C. pastors take us behind-the-scenes of church online.

  • Curt Gesch and his wife lead the singing via Zoom for a combined service of small United Church congregations in central B.C. each Sunday morning. In the afternoon, they lead a Friends and Family Zoom worship from their home. If you'd like to join that service, please write Curt at moc.liamg@36hcsegc

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