Palm Sunday, 2020, adapted from RCL and Daily Office readings
St. John’s, Kitchener, during COVID-19
Zech 9:9-12 * Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 * 1 Tim 6:12-16 * Mt 21:1-11
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil.
The city was shaken, it was agitated. The city was disturbed.
We will encounter this word for turmoil again, in Matthew’s gospel, when Matthew writes about the death of Jesus. When Jesus cries with a loud voice, yielding up his spirit on the cross, “the earth,” much like the city Jesus was entering, “shook,” was agitated, disturbed, at the final breath of Jesus.
For Matthew, it seems the triumphal entry of Jesus is not far at all from the cross.
This agitation, the shaking of a disturbed Jerusalem at Jesus’s entry into it, was on account of the political turmoil of the time. Jerusalem was a political hotbed, with a whole lot of different responses to the Roman occupation. Some groups were inciting rebellion, trying to push the Romans out by violence. Some co-operated with the Romans to their own benefit. And others yet abandoned the city in favour of social and political isolation.
Many also looked with joy for the Messiah to come and bring peace. So Jerusalem was in turmoil, agitated, disturbed. But not so much for those in the crowd we hear about today, a crowd yelling out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” For those waiting on God to bring peace, it was a moment of triumph, of jubilation, of thanksgiving: a moment of joy! Joy at the arrival of the king who would “command peace to the nations,” entering the city as Zechariah had said he would, “humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
How different things feel today. While Jerusalem was in political turmoil, we have largely come together in order to combat a common enemy with a shared strategy. And while Jerusalem had crowds spilling into the streets, yelling in jubilation—our streets are mostly empty, while we spend time at home, flattening the curve. And very few of us feel particularly jubilant.
And I for one hope it stays this way, at least in our effort to flatten the curve. I hope that our governments—who won’t do a perfect job of this—still do close enough to a good job that we can maintain a sense of shared responsibility, a sense that we aren’t against one another, but for one another. That we are together sharing the burden of this costly intervention for the sake of health care workers, and for the sake of those who would be at risk of complications, and death, were they to be infected. Jerusalem in turmoil, in this sense, we are most certainly not, nor do I pray, will we become.
We do, though, live in times that are turbulent in other ways. Our lives have been turned upside-down, and we are asked to face some things that we aren’t often asked to face in such a pressing way: we are asked to recognize that our world is occupied by a threat —the invisible threat of death.
But so long as we haven’t come to terms with our own frailty, our own illusions of self-sufficiency, control, and independence, we will not respond to this king with joy, this king who rules by dying, dying in frailty, obedience, and dependence on others. So long as we wish to avoid the truth of our frailty, we too would shake at the sight of this king, whose crown is thorns, and whose throne is a cross. All we will see is death, and what we will feel is fear.
But the truth of this king is that there is joy, though a joy that will not come in resisting the truth of our own frailty at any cost. This joy comes in the truth that this king has to tell. This king is about to tell us the truth about our frailty, primarily by showing us how to die. And there is a joy that comes in his showing us how to die, because in showing us how to die, he would also show us how to live: to live is to be dependent on others, dependent on God, and to follow God—even through the most difficult of times—in his abiding love and service for others.
This life given, this life where we can embrace our frailty and dependence, is to hear the Good News of the King of Peace whose crown is thorns and whose throne is the cross. A Good News that can even, I hope, break our gaze from other kinds of news, at least in its disheartening demand of attention to the moment-to-moment of pandemic spread. And this Good News would bring us true joy, not the false joy of trying to cheat death by relying on ourselves or by abandoning others, but the joy that comes in gazing upon the one whose death defeats death, the one who defeats death for us and on our behalf.
In this king, death is defeated.
And if death is defeated, what is there to fear?
And if death isn’t to be feared, then we can look upon the cross without fear, where we will see that there is no real profit in violence, self-interest, or in abandoning others. Rather, life and joy comes through self-giving, and serving others. That is, in the rule of this king, the King of Peace, we are wholly embraced, and welcomed into the Kingdom of Peace, and yes, welcomed even into the Kingdom of Joy—the joy of life lived for others.
We need not tremble. We need not be shaken, agitated, or disturbed—not at the King of Peace, nor even at the cross, nor even at the occupying forces of death. We might be moved, surely; but we need not be shaken, agitated, or disturbed. And if we do find ourselves shaken, may it be the flickering extinction of our own illusions of self-sufficiency, control, and independence. May it be the flickering extinction of our fear of death.
There may be turmoil around us, and even in us. May we be reminded, though, that we celebrate today the arrival of a king whose crown is thorns and whose throne is a cross, a king who welcomes us into the kingdom of life and peace, a kingdom of loving service, a kingdom where we find ourselves shouting out for the one who has come to defeat the occupying forces of fear and death. May we shout for joy:
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”