By Pastor John Johnson

Into the City

April 5, 2020

Well this is a strange Palm Sunday! No singing, “Hosannas, loud ‘hosannas’ the little children sang,” no parading around with palm branches — although, truthfully, when was the last time we did that, — and no playing of that wonderful song, “The Palms,” my first hearing of which was on a Palm Sunday fifty-two years ago, as the procession of the funeral caisson of the late President and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, perhaps too belatedly now one of my heroes, proceeded down Pennsylvania Avenue (or was it Constitution Avenue? I’m not sure) Palm Sunday of 1968.

I do not know whether that church in Tampa, Florida, whose pastor was cited by the police this past week because the church had worshipped together last Sunday in defiance of local stay-at-home efforts, I do not know whether that church will be open for worship today, but he and it certainly gave a bad name to us religious Christians. That pastor is not the only one who has claimed that his — I have not heard of any women pastors with similar hubris, though I am sure there are some — that pastor is not the only one who has claimed that because of the faith of his particular congregation, Jesus would save them from the threat of the corona virus, COVID-19.

Balderdash. And let me go further: While I would not say that miracles do not happen, they would not be miracles if they were the ordinary, and in the history of human kind, if not in the course of most human lives, pandemics happen, which is to say, that in the longer course of human history, pandemics, terrible as they are, have been normal. I referred to a seventeenth century incident of the bubonic plague in my remarks last Sunday, as I quoted from a sermon of almost four hundred years ago that I believe speaks to us today.

Balderdash, in that Jesus did not promise that if we were faithful — or that if we prayed hard enough for another — or for ourselves, He, Jesus, would not let that other or us die. That is not the fundamental healing power of Jesus, a lesson I learned, as I have previously shared, when my friend Chuck Skelley, often hospitalized from extensive wounds from shrapnel experienced in Vietnam, died from a cancer originating in his pancreas and that moved to his brain, and for whom I prayed intensely, thinking I had a special line to God.

No; that was a misunderstanding of what Jesus promises, and so again this Sunday, this Palm Sunday, we substitute for regular worship as best we can while respecting that our duty as Christians is to be loving to our neighbors, and that “being loving” means, among other things, not putting ourselves forth as more special than they.

Palm Sunday, Palm Sunday; this is the day we observe Jesus’ “triumphant” entry into the City of Jerusalem. “Triumphant”? Jesus knew this was a step on the march to His death, which does not sound particularly “triumphant,” rather “resigned,” and as I have suggested on previous Palm Sundays, once I studied Hebrew and developed an understanding — or at least an attitude — as to what the crowd’s “Hosanna’s” meant, I was led inevitably to question whether Jesus might have felt frustrated or disappointed rather than “triumphant.”

For those “hosanna’s” were cries not of praise of Jesus, but of pleas to Jesus: “Save us!”

“Save” from precisely what, I am not quite sure. Was it that people had heard of miracles of healing, and wanted that healing for their own ailments, or was it “Save us from the Romans”? or “Save us from the hypocrisy of the Pharisees”? I really do not know.

But in any case, they shouted, “Save us,” as Jesus entered into the city.

Into the city. Into the city, the place — or places — where on this Palm Sunday, avoidance of crowds rather than being a part of the crowd is what we want for those living there; cities, where in a real sense, we most assuredly want the healing and calming power of Jesus to enter into the lives of those who dwell within.

Because into the cities has ridden not the Savior of Humankind, but that awful enemy of humankind we have come to know too well as “COVID-19.” Cities, because of their higher population densities, which is to say, cities, where what we have come to call “social distance” is, during the course of a normal day, so often shorter, substantially shorter than six feet, cities are where the spread of corona virus is most prominent — think of the horrors in New York City right now. Cities are places where surely many are, even if to themselves, calling out, albeit, in different words, “Hosanna; save us!”

And, alas, neither you nor I nor Jesus alone can save the people in cities from exposure to, nor infection from, this corona virus; we cannot save them other than by our exhibiting and thereby encouraging others to follow the kind of social distancing recommended by the medical and scientific experts. That is as an example of how we Christians care not only for one another, but for all humans, for all of God’s children; we do not show that love by flaunting our religion with the claim that Jesus will protect us above others, as have said some ministers in churches like that in Tampa, the city of Tampa.

Christians need not be wimps, the minister who said that is correct, but Christians absolutely are not being Christians when they are behaving like fools, or  are placing themselves above just — and just does matter, segregation laws were not just, — Christians do not behave like fools or place themselves above just laws and edicts, even if they — we — find those laws and edicts inconvenient, for the stay-at-home rules are just.

But into the figurative city in which dwell all of us who are under constraints and perhaps under fear because of COVID-19, and while I do not recommend fear, I do recommend respect, into this figurative city comes someone who can help us withstand what those constraints and fears and respects present to us, and that someone is the same one who came riding into the city of Jerusalem, two thousand years ago.

And Jesus can save us, although in a different way than with respect to our physical health, and Jesus can calm us and reassure us.

Can he save us from COVID-19? No, certainly not directly, though as I talked about last week, and repeated a moment ago, if we truly have faith in Him, then we want to show love for our neighbors, and in this instance, we show love for our neighbors by practicing social distancing that can perhaps lead to saving not only them but most of us.

And on a more personal level to those who do accept Him and believe in Him, it is the calming and reassuring power of Jesus that might affect us most.

This is an emotionally trying time for us all. Are there any of us who do not have a sense of claustrophobia, or — as for me — a sense of resentment that there are those who have hoarded, such that we find empty shelves when we are looking in the store for paper products or disinfectant wipes or liquids? Are there any of us who are not concerned with what the financial impact of all this will be on us?

I think the answer is “no.” It is a trying time. I, for one, certainly have been even more irritable and impatient than I normally am — and I am normally adequately irritable and impatient. Yet when I reflect on the goodness of what God through Jesus accomplished for me that was brought to a head when Jesus went through the gates of Jerusalem on his path to the inevitable, I know that, well, perhaps Paul, Saint Paul as he is perhaps more widely known in the world, said it best:

Romans 8:31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Being faithful is not a guarantee of a pain-free earthly life, nor can shouting “Hosanna!” save us from incurring or suffering from COVID-19, but if shouting, “Hosanna” makes us reflect not just on Palm Sunday, but on what Jesus achieved for us on the following Friday and Sunday, well, we will benefit. We will benefit, because we can know that what Paul wrote is true: Nothing can separate us from the love of God shown in the one who rode, not so much triumphantly as resignedly, into that City, so that even death can not and will not separate us from Him.

And in His name. Amen.

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