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April 5, 2020 / Palm Sunday
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones
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We Christians are entering into the holiest week of our year. Usually, Palm Sunday is a celebratory gathering of the faith sandwiched between the solemn self-examinations of Lent and the lamentations of following Jesus’ death march to the cross. But we cannot gather this year. In my typical Midwestern backyard, I could not find any branches that resembled palm branches in the least. Christians around the world are not joining in a mock parade but are secluded in fear behind locked doors like Jesus’ disciples after his crucifixion. Jesus knew the jubilant crowds that gathered to meet his entrance into Jerusalem would only incite the political and religious authorities to fear and anger. But the parade must go on.
Matthew’s gospel is characterized by its repetitions of words and themes linking the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and the history of God’s Chosen people with the New Testament and the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ. In the scripture readings of Holy Week, you will find many direct and indirect references to the words of the Hebrew Prophets, many spoken by Jesus. In particular, the events of Palm Sunday and Jesus’ march into Jerusalem highlight the opposition of God’s kingdom to the world’s political kingdoms. Also, we see an ever-present conflict of self-service versus service to others that afflicts humanity which reaches its ultimate intersection at the cross. “The knowledge of the cross brings a conflict of interest between God who has become man and man who wishes to become God.” (Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, SCM Press (1974).
Jesus received accolades and support from the crowds upon his entrance to Jerusalem. They did not understand who he was or his divine mission. They believed he had come to release the people Israel from the oppression of the Roman Empire. the cloaks and branches were meant “to connect Jesus to the kingship of Israel.” The term “Son of David” was also a clear messianic reference that hoped for a new political ruler. The word, “hosanna” is neither Hebrew nor Greek. It is an Aramaic word meaning “save us.” (Matthew 21:9 footnote from The Jewish Annotated New Testament, ed. Amy-Jill Levine, NRSV, Oxford University Press, 2011.
But, by Friday the people, gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, understood his message of healing a broken world was not for their political, economic or social advantage. They realized that following him could make their lives more difficult as it would put them in direct opposition to the Roman Empire and their religious leaders. On Friday, the crowds cursed him and even his closest disciples, abandoned him at his crucifixion.
Recently, Christian historians have reminded us of how the Church has reacted in past pandemics. In the years 1348-49, the Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, swept across Europe. When the plague reached Strasbourg in the Alsace region of France, civic authorities scapegoated the Jews living there by accusing them of poisoning the wells. These authorities, with no opposition from the Church or Christians, rounded up all the Jews and demanded they convert right then and there. Around 1000 Jews were burned alive. Sadly, Humanity has not evolved from crowd mentalities that are easily manipulated to make enemies out of innocent people who are not members of their own tribe. Today we see Americans of Asian descent being targeted for harassment violence because the idea has been put forth to the public that China is responsible for the COVID-19 virus. This week, a young man stabbed 4 members of a young family of Asian descent, including a 2 and a 6-year old, who was shopping for groceries.
The Medieval Church in the era of the Bubonic plague, engaged in terrible acts of theologically based violence. But before the Church became a political force, there was a very different response when a plague nearly spelled the end for the Roman Empire in the third century. The plague of Cyprian so weakened the military force that maintained Roman control that the empire was in dire peril. People fled the cities to escape the plague, but many Christians stayed to care for the afflicted. Christians became known for performing acts of compassion and self-sacrifice. Cyprian, who was the bishop of Carthage at the time, wrote these words:
“How pertinent, how necessary, that pestilence and plague which seems horrible and deadly, search out the righteousness of each one, and examines the minds of the human race, to see whether they who are in health tend the sick; whether relations affectionately love their kindred; whether masters pity their languishing servants; whether physicians do not forsake the beseeching patients; whether the fierce suppress their violence. . . . These are pieces of training for us, not deaths: they give the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown.”
In the same way, the COVID-19 virus is challenging us today. We are blest that so many health workers are sacrificing themselves by continuing to care for the sick; that volunteers are still working in food pantries; that “essential workers” are still working outside their homes, even the ones our political and financial leaders are not willing to pay a living wage. This pandemic has the potential for our society to be transformed if we do not go back to business as usual when the virus has been contained. We do need a health care system that serves all people. We do need an economy that provides security and opportunity for all people. We do need a political system that allows for civil rights for all, including the right to participate in the nation’s political system with the right to vote. When Jesus marched into Jerusalem it was in a parody of Roman military parades. The peace of Christ, Pax Christi, ran headlong into the peace of the Roman Empire, Pax Romani, which was sustained by violence, injustice, and impoverishment.
Health crises, whether individual or pandemic, compel us to contemplate our own mortality. Envisioning our own death can shatter our false gods and realign our priorities. Jesus knew his own death was coming soon. How did he spend his last few days in Jerusalem? He drove the moneychangers out of the temple. He called out the religious leaders who were more concerned with maintaining their own power and privilege than service to God and their flock. He did not castigate them because they were Jewish, but because these Jewish leaders had taken on the tactics of the worldly empire to retain their own power. They did not want any confrontation with the Roman Empire because that would upset the status quo that was working for them, but not for their people.
We must observe Palm Sunday. The parade must go on if the Lenten work of repentance is to be continued to Good Friday. The juxtaposition of the crowd’s behavior on Palm Sunday with that of Good Friday is essential to understanding the powerful intersection of humanity’s sin and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Palm leaves will not cover the nakedness of Jesus hanging on the cross with a crown of thorns. The Good News is that God redeemed humanity’s most sinful act by raising Jesus from the dead on Easter morning. Are we going to be closer to the kingdom of God after Easter, after the coronavirus? In Christ, we have the opportunity to rise to the occasion.
All power, honor, and glory to Christ, our King.
© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2020, All Rights Reserved
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“Why am I a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church? Two words keep floating up in a rather persistent way – “home” and “family” – and I realized that it is an inescapable fact that is what this church means to me. During my 40 years here, so many life events have happened and Westminster has been there for me through all those times – good and bad. It has been my home and family. They say “home is where the heart is” and I’ve found the heart of Westminster to be as open and warm as a family’s!”