The holy gospel according to Mathew.
Glory to you, O Lord.
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
I need to begin by admitting that I can’t stand parades. I’ll be standing at a parade and see the fire trucks, the police vehicles, the high school band, maybe some sports team’s float; and I see people smilling and laughing and cheering for someone they know and I’m just standing there like “I just don’t get it.”
At first I thought this was just a small town thing, but I’ve seen the Macy’s Day Parade, and I’ve been to the St Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City and it’s the same thing and I just don’t get it.
When we do the tent at the Holiday-At-Home parade I’m always more than willing to be at the grill or serve people water or information about Good Shepherd when they walk by because I could care less about the parade itself. But I love the community. The parade may not be my thing, but there are plenty of people having a good time at it so that makes me happy.
I know we are told that everyone was shouting “Hosanna” when Jesus came into Jerusalem, but I also wonder how many people were dragged there against their will. When a ruler came in to town people were expected to be there so the oppressors could feel good about themselves. You have to do that enough times and your will breaks and you just go without even thinking about it.
History tells us that there were quite a few “would-be messiahs” who rode into Jerusalem to the accolades of crowds. This time though is different. This Messiah, the radical rabbi from Nazareth, comes riding on a borrowed juvenile donkey; it appears to be a powerful piece of street theater, the first act of a story that continues to be told today.
Imagine the thinking of those oppressed people upon seeing this miracle-working, dead-raising, radical rabbi heading into town to confront the forces of Empire and power head-on. Jesus is a wanted man; the religious leaders are keen to have him silenced. Jerusalem would have been packed with the faithful gathered to observe the Passover. Political tensions are running high.
Pilate can’t afford an uprising in the backwaters under his governance. And the people, the dear, fickle, oppressed and degraded people, have high expectations. It is, in many ways, the perfect storm.
Today people around the world are experiencing the perfect storm of a vicious viral disruption to all areas of life. COVID-19 is no respecter of age, race, ethnicity, gender, or economic status. Our lives have been overturned, at least as we knew and understood them. A sense of oppression rises out of confinement in tight quarters, the rhythms and safety nets of imperfect life disrupted. We don’t know what to expect because we cannot see the enemy, and since it is new our trajectory is uncertain. We need someone to save the day with a vaccine, a cure, enough medical supplies and personnel to address the growing number of cases.
In the midst of all of this I just can’t get over the irony at the heart of our gospel reading. The crowds expect one kind of Messiah and get another. Their disappointment is heartfelt and, truth be told, understandable. As is ours.
Don’t we also long for a God who is strong, someone who will come in to whatever challenging or dire situation we face like a knight on a horse to save the day? Particularly now, with fear coursing across our Church and country, with most churches closed and health professionals and civic leaders nearly overwhelmed by the challenges in front of this.
I’m not sure we’re all that more faithful, all that much less fickle, than the crowds who play significant roles in both today’s readings and the readings during this Holy Week.
Which is not to condemn us, but rather simply to remind us that God chooses another way. God chooses to meet us in our vulnerability, to accept us in our weakness, to love us in our un-lovability, to redeem us amid our sin.
Yes, the irony between the jubilant cries on Palm Sunday and the bloodthirsty screams a few days later may make us uncomfortable. But perhaps the greater irony is that Jesus still came, embracing their shifting character and faithless temperament, reaching out for those who were about to do all kinds of harm out of fear, those who hailed him as Messiah until the requirement was too great and then denounced him as overly demanding or at least ignored him as well-intentioned but hopelessly idealistic. Jesus came for them. And he comes for all of us.
Perhaps one of the things by the current crisis is our need to call on God only in great need and expect just what we want from God. The irony is that how God comes to us—in vulnerability and weakness to identify with and embrace us rather than in might to rescue us—is rarely what we would desire. But the greater irony is that God comes anyway, committed to loving us and redeeming us no matter what the cost.
I have talked to many people who are worried about these high Holy Days that are this week in the Church. Wondering what it was going to feel like when we couldn’t gather together and have a Procession of Palms, except we have many processions going on at the moment.
- Many of us were planning on processing to the ballot box, to be told that their ballot procession will be delayed.
- Many of us have processed to the grocery store to stock up on staples, and what is a parade when you’re mandated to stay six feet apart?! It’s no parade at all…
My brothers and sisters there are many processions to lift up, even in these times, as our communities are in the diaspora. And that might have been a great place to start instead of ending my message. That we are marching in the parade this week, the march of the faithful, even in this time a part.
Ancient Judaism made such a claim when Babylon shipped them off to parts near and far. Our Christian heritage is not one that is unaccustomed to having the procession of the faithful in spirit rather than body, and we can take strength in that on this day.
We wave our palm branches in a long procession of the faithful, both present and long departed, believing that the thing that connects us is not proximity, but rather the God who knows no such thing as “social distancing.” In Jesus God is extremely close.
And we have the duty, on this Palm Sunday, to walk ahead of the Jesus processing into our reality, exclaiming, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Because even as we are a part, we are brought together in our praise for the God seen in Jesus.
Because anytime, Sunday or otherwise, the church gathers not just with those who are within the walls, but also those who are across the continents, in the fields, in the valleys, and in those places we never think of on a pedestrian Sunday morning.
ELCA World Hunger continually invites us to consider our neighbor not seen, and on this Sunday when even our closest neighbors are not seen, we are once again invited to consider our neighbor that we never see, reminding us that this, and every Sunday, we are in the long procession of the faithful.
God always connects us. Always. Not just when we are practicing conscious social distancing, but also in those times when we don’t even perceive that we are distant from one another.