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.”
We are in the midst of a pandemic, a world health crisis. All of us are affected. Yet, life goes on, not as usual, but unusually. It is different. We are mindful that we cannot live life as usual. Things will never be the same. Or will they?
I have heard much talk about this new reality of sheltered at home and restricted assembly and challenged health care systems as being a wakeup call, a reset button, an opportunity to take a good hard look at our lives and see whether we need, in the words of Bob Dylan, to “change our way of thinking.” That makes sense to me. After all, we are all in this together and can benefit from cooperation, coordination, and communication. God knows, we are not being served well by our practice of tribalism, personal assault and suspicion that have dominated our political and social discourse in recent years. But, I wonder, is this new reality enough to change our behavior and bring us closer together?
As we have been paying attention to the news and social media, we cannot have missed the stories of hope and care that are popping up all over. People are reaching out to neighbors, spending more time talking to family and friends, making masks, delivering groceries, donating to organizations that provide health resources to hospitals. Crisis can and does bring out the best in us. At the same time, we hear about people being afraid and acting weird out of that fear. There is a town in my home state of Maine where people driving a car with an out of state license plate were blocked in their dwelling in order that they would be forced to self quarantine. There are accounts of Asian Americans being singled out and harassed because the virus was first identified in China. Crises like this one can bring out the best and the worst of humanity.
Into this new reality we find ourselves entering Holy Week. On this Palm Sunday, we are separated by space, existing together in time, albeit with a slight lag due to varying internet connections, and waving palms. We are creating new rituals that are rooted in old rituals. The scripture, however, stays the same. Today’s gospel lesson is a story of a triumphant entry by Jesus on a donkey into Jerusalem. Triumphant is an ironic word here, of course. It is not a real triumph in the usual sense. There are no soldiers, no war horses, no slaves and booty ravaged from a military campaign. It reminds me a little of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. It is a sort of a farce. But, at the same time, it speaks to a real, deep and courageous action confronting the powers that be.
In years past, I have preached on this passage in different ways, first, as a Palm Sunday “stand alone” passage about what kind of king we are called to follow - a king who rules by force and fear, or a king who rules by love and grace. Then, later in my ministry, I used the whole passion story, thereby allowing the congregation to go into that scary valley that exists between Palm Sunday’s euphoric cries of Hosanna and Easter’s exuberant Hallelujahs. This is a powerful way to walk with Jesus and experience the depths of human suffering and compassion.
Today, in this crazy place of the coronavirus pandemic, a place both surreal and uncertain, I see another way to come to the Palm Sunday story. Today I see it from the balcony or, maybe even from outer space. I see a big picture here, the long view, and I am drawn to language that was used, and is still being used, by our African American siblings to describe the civil rights struggle in America. I am drawn to the image and message of keeping our eyes on the prize.
Pastor Meighan often asks the Bible Study group: where do you see yourself in this scripture passage? In this Palm Sunday story, I see myself and all of us in multiple places. We are the crowd, and we are the oppressors of the crowd. We are the ones who cry Hosanna, God saves us! This is our deep cry of hope and our dream for each of us and for all of us. We wish to be saved, to be whole, both as human beings and as what Martin Luther King Jr called, the Beloved Community. At the same time, we are also the ones in the story who are out of sight, beyond the view of the camera, those who are keeping people in poverty, in servitude, and in fear.
Step back with me. In the big picture, Jesus is calling us - both in our being oppressed and in our capacity to oppress others - to see our relationship to God in a new way. He challenges us to name what is important for life, for abundant life, for life that sees our neighbor as ourselves, a life that sees God in the other and in us.
Every story about Jesus, including this one about the palms and the parade, is an Easter story. Each story is about that new life we are offered and invited to live and to envision and to share with others. What does this new life say about people and about society in light of the coronavirus pandemic? I see two ways we can respond. We can be people of hope or we can be people of fear. Keeping our eyes on the prize is our best way to be people of hope. The prize is the Beloved Community. In the words of Sahdguru, an Indian spiritual leader, we will look back on this pandemic either with shame or pride; shame if we fall victim to our fears and pride if we keep our eyes on the prize of our better angels.
Picture this: fast forward one month, or two months, or six months, or whatever time it will take for this pandemic to level off and allow people to congregate together again. What will it be like? What lessons will we have learned? What changes will have taken place in our lives, in society, in our world? Will we continue to practice hospitality and compassion for all who are vulnerable? Or will we go back to the way things have been, looking out primarily for ourselves and ignoring the least of these in our world? Will we see the capacity we have to do great and impossible things to clean up our environment, deal collectively with refugee crises on our national borders, provide adequate health care for all, or will we breathe a collective sigh, thinking we have dodged a bullet and go back to arguing what kind of deck chairs we should buy for the Titanic.
Keeping our eyes on the prize is the long view, the deep view, the marathon, the high ground, the salvation for which the crowd cried with their Hosannas. It was to be temporary for them, as we saw those same people run from authorities and desert the Galilean who stood before Pilate later in the week. Keeping our eyes on the prize is knowing what is important in life and holding onto that knowledge, that vision, and staying that course, even when, and especially when, life is hard, living is hard, and the future is so uncertain.
Waving palms and singing are wonderful actions. They give us joy and comfort. They are signs of our common hope that this new way, this new life offered by God in Jesus, will come to pass, has come to pass. This is the prize we are called to seek. This is the prize on which we are called to focus. This is the prize we have, if only we have faith. Thanks be to God. Hosanna. Amen.