"What makes this day special?" asked Pastor Bruce Humphrey of the crowd seated beneath the octagonal dome that is the roof of Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church. The congregation answered, "This is the Sunday we remember that when Jesus entered Jerusalem the crowds gathered to celebrate his entrance as the Messiah."
"How did they show their joy?"
"They cut palm branches and laid them before him. They shouted their hosannas."
"Who made up the crowd?"
"The crowd included not only adults, but also children in the temple."
As we sang the opening hymn, lines of children processed through the aisles, bearing frilly palm branches.
"This is the Sunday the children lead us in praise.... This Palm Sunday, we recall through music the story of Jesus' last week of ministry. Remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, pleading with his Father for the cup of suffering to pass from him: 'Lord, have mercy.' Or in the Greek, ' Kyrie eleison .'" And with that, the children began to sing: girls in matching pink dresses, boys in black pants, white shirts, and pink ties, standing at the forefront of the choir on the stage, a choir four risers deep. Below the children sat the miniature orchestra; to their right, two vocal soloists and a harpist; to their left, the ringing organ and rich piano.
"Awake my soul, and with the sun/Thy daily stage of duty run/Shake off dull sloth, and joyful rise/To pay thy morning sacrifice." The opening of the Kyrie in John Rutter's Mass of the Children .
The sung Mass, which took up most of the service, proceeded through a Latin Gloria ("Glory be to God in highest heaven") and Sanctus ("Hosanna in the highest"), before borrowing a William Blake poem for the Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us").
Next Rutter adapted prayers from Lancelot Andrewes and St. Patrick into an entreaty -- that the Lord would open eyes, lips, and heart; defend and keep; be guide and companion. And as sunrise had opened the Mass, so nightfall closed it. "Glory to Thee, my God, this night/For all the blessings of the light..."
Meanwhile, across the hall, Pastor Tim Beal was preaching in the Worship Café. The room was almost dark; candles in the center of the round tables paled before the spotlights shining on the black stage with the white railing. Beal was holding a plastic Roman sword; on the screen beside him was what looked like a movie still of a Roman confronting Jesus. Beal spoke in the Roman's voice. "These Jews are a very strange people.... They claim there is only one God.... But what's really curious is these Jews claim to be that God's chosen people." The Roman, here to keep the peace at Passover, had noted Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem, but thought it was going to be "a tempest in a teapot...after all, he came riding into town on a donkey."
Beal put down the sword and picked up a dagger, assuming a zealot's persona as he did so. The picture changed to that of a zealot attacking a Roman. "What we hope for is to reestablish the glory of the kingdom of the Jews. But people just don't seem to care. What we need is a catalyst."
Then a prayer shawl for a Pharisee, worried about Jesus' apparent disregard for the law that gave the Jews their identity as God's chosen people. Then a palm branch for James the disciple, convinced that Jesus "is in control. Even when enemies confront him, he never seems to get flustered."
Finally, Beal spoke as himself. "What strikes me is how those voices must have been heard by Jesus. He weeps as he sees Jerusalem.... He knows that destruction is ahead...' Because you did not know the time of the visitation of God.'"
But the real message of Palm Sunday was, first, "that God has a plan, just as Jesus showed in sending out the disciples to get that donkey." Second, that the plan "is revealed in God's compassionate commitment to seek us out despite our sinfulness." And, finally, "God needs our help. Just as Jesus said when going to get the donkey: 'The Lord needs it.' It's a matter of the strategy of touching the lives of people. Some people cannot and will not give God the time of day. How will God touch and reach them? Through us, because those persons like us. They know we have their best interests at heart."
After Beal's final prayer, the band, a four-piece combo, broke into "Sing or the Rocks Will Get To" -- "When the mountains sing their praises/I will sing all the louder..."
What happens when we die?
"We find out what our relationship is with God," says Beal. "And we get to celebrate that forever."
17010 Pomerado Road, San Diego
Denomination: Presbyterian Church USA
Address: 17010 Pomerado Road, Rancho Bernardo, 858-487-0811
Founded locally: mid-1960s
Senior pastor: Dr. Bruce Humphrey
Congregation size: 2500
Sunday school enrollment: 2800, including Bible study and weekday classes
Annual budget: $3.1 million last year
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: yes
Dress: formal in the Sanctuary, casual in the Worship Café
Diversity: mostly Caucasian, but some Hispanics and Asian-Americans, and an Arabic congregation
Sunday worship: Blended traditional, 8:30 a.m.; Worship Café, 8:30 a.m.; contemporary worship, 10 a.m.; traditional worship, 11:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, both services