Palm Sunday Sermon
April 5, 2020
Matthew 21:1-11

The story of Palm Sunday is probably a familiar story to most of us, but there are a couple of things that strike me as strange here.

The first is this perennially odd quirk in Matthew’s telling of the story: Jesus rides into Jerusalem sitting on both a donkey and her colt. It seems that the writer of Matthew wants to make sure that Jesus is fully fulfilling the prophecy in Zechariah:

“Look, your king is coming to you,
    humble, and mounted on a donkey,
        and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

I have no deep theological insights for you about the Jesus riding two animals. It’s just strange. But that part of the story is strange every year.

What strikes me as uniquely strange this year is Jesus’ disciples wandering around talking to random strangers—without, I’m assuming, keeping a six foot distance. And then . . . the crowds. It’s so strange to think about being in a crowd right now; to remember that we should be reaching the conclusion of the NCAA basketball tournament—all gathered in homes or sports bars with each other, double-dipping our chips, high fiving, hugging. And when KU won, we would have all run out into the street to congratulate each other, started an impromptu parade downtown—had an actual parade when the team came home to Lawrence.

Crowds. Do you remember them?

Jesus is in the middle of a crowd, and it seems strange.

There is one thing about the story, though, that does not seem strange at all. One thing that feels very familiar: Hosanna!

That word means, “Save us, we pray.” Even though we are not gathering in crowds right now, I imagine most of us are doing our own versions of shouting “hosanna” every day. We are praying to God to save us.

New Testament professor Sarah Henrich points out that the crowd’s cry of “hosanna” is both theological and political. Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem in a way that threatens the political powers of his day: he comes during Passover—an important social and economic event for the city; he receives the accolades of a “large crowd” in the sight of political and religious authorities; his actions place him within the prophetic tradition—a tradition well-known for criticizing the rich and powerful. When we really understand what is happening on Palm Sunday, Good Friday should not come as a surprise.

In so many ways, this Palm Sunday story—with its donkeys and its crowds, its street theater vibe and its scathing political commentary—it seems pretty removed from where we are right now. It feels difficult to have energy for big picture concerns about systemic injustice when we are worried about losing our job or trying to do our job from home with kids around or how to get groceries without getting COVID-19 or where the “unmute” button is on the zoom call or any number of other daily concrete worries that have taken over our lives right now.

This is a strange time for the church. We are called to gather and be church in new ways. We are called to comfort and support each other through an unprecedented and difficult time. I believe we are called to set a healthy example of caring for the most vulnerable among us by not meeting in person until it is safe.

AND as people of faith–who have as scripture the words of the Hebrew prophets and who seek to follow the way and teachings of Jesus–we are still called to work with God for justice. Perhaps you have noticed that the current pandemic is revealing some very significant things about our societal systems:

  • We see that our health care system is a mess—that it leaves many people very vulnerable. And we can clearly see how when some people lack adequate healthcare, we are all more endangered by diseases.
  • We see that our criminal justice system has been incarcerating many people unecessarily—because thousands of inmates have been released across the country in an effort to curb the spread of COVID in jails and prisons. In case you haven’t heard, the Douglas County jail is now below capacity.
  • We see that people who are homeless are particularly vulnerable to health crises such as this and we realize how much un-housed people rely on community services that the rest of us merely take for granted: the warmth and water fountains at the library, the showers at the community centers. For the sake of people without homes and for the sake of the community as a whole there is a new urgency to find housing for people first and worry about other services once they are safely housed.
  • We see how quickly air and water quality can improve when people don’t drive and manufacture and consume as much. Satellite images from space already show a significant drop in air pollution over many large cities. In India, there is a beach where, because people are not using it right now, about 2,500 endangered sea turtles are nesting.

My hope, my prayer, is that we can carry these things we are learning with us even as we move past the pandemic. That this difficult time might bear future fruit for greater justice in our world.

To be clear, I do not believe God caused this pandemic to teach us important lessons. What I do believe is that, since we must endure this pandemic anyway, we might as well search for the lessons that God, in divine grace, may be offering in its midst.

It may be awhile before we can march and shout and sing together in large crowds. But we are—still and always—the church of Jesus Christ; called to share the Good News in whatever ways God makes available to us.

Please don’t hear this as guilt or pressure to be doing something more right now. We are doing what we can do. Some days that’s more than others. We are experiencing a time of collective trauma and our anxiety is high.

So for each of us—especially those feeling particularly fearful and vulnerable—please rest in the ultimate truth of the Holy Week and Easter story: God is God and God’s purposes for justice and healing and life ultimately overcome the worldly forces toward oppression, dysfunction, and death.

God’s got this.

Carry that truth with you in your heart—or your lungs or your gut or your lower back—carry it wherever you need to hold it right now. God is with you in this moment—with you for peace, for healing, for whatever you need.

Also know that all of us—as the church—are called to bear that Good news for our community and our world. And bearing that news is not an obligation or added stress; it is a privilege and a joy.

How you bear the good news will be different from how I bear the good news or how your neighbor bears the good news.

I have a story to tell. Any PK—preacher’s kid—knows that one of the dangers of that position is having your preacher parent tell stories about you in their sermons. It turns out that the danger also applies to PPs—preacher’s parents. So please know that my mom did give me permission to tell this story on her.

On one of our (now more frequent) phone calls last week, my mom was mildly complaining that Justice Matters had called to ask Dave, who is a team leader and board member, to participate in an online meeting. “People have enough to worry about right now without extra meetings,” she said. Then, just a few hours later, she called to tell me how happy she was to have been asked to make encouraging phone calls to some struggling pastors. . . .

Maybe the thought of keeping up with and speaking out about justice issues is exhausting to you right now. Or maybe it gives you energy to imagine that you can still participate in important justice work even under stay at home orders.

Maybe you would love to make encouraging phone calls to people who are struggling—and in fact some of you have volunteered to do just that. Or maybe the thought of having to call people on the phone spikes your anxiety more than the pandemic itself.

We are all coping—and serving—in different ways. Maybe you have already seen the request from the Peace and Justice Committee to share the unique ways you are finding to serve God and others in a time of sheltering in place. I’m excited to see what people share.

Anyway, please forgive me. My mind is doing a lot of wandering these days—there’s an actual thing called “Covid brain”–and I seem to have wandered a bit off the course of the Palm Sunday parade. So lets go back to the crowds (can you imagine!) crying out: “Hosanna—Save us!”

It feels like we are all part of a (socially distanced) crowd crying out to Jesus right now—crying out for whatever we need to sustain us in these days. “Save us, God, we beseech you.”

AND, as Christians, we are also the hands and feet– and letters and phone calls and blog posts and zoom chats and Facebook check-ins and grocery deliveries and prayer supports– of Jesus in this world.

Even as we cry out for salvation, we are called to proclaim and live out the salvation that God, in Christ, has already provided for us all.

Thanks be to God.