Palm Sunday in a Time of Coronavirus

New Hope Fellowship, April 5, 2020, Martin Shupack

Scripture text: Matthew 21:1-11

This passage is traditionally read on Palm Sunday, and it’s commonly referred to as Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. That’s because when he rides in on a donkey a huge crowd of people proclaim him as Messiah, the anointed King coming to save his people, and they spread their cloaks and placed palm branches before him.

The crowd likely consisted mostly of the people who had been following Jesus along the road, and which kept increasing in numbers and excitement as he got nearer to Jerusalem. They showed Jesus tremendous honor by spreading their cloaks before him for the donkey to walk over because most people only owned one cloak. They were treating Jesus as King Solomon had been honored at his coronation. The crowd praised him as the “Son of David,” which was a Messianic title, and they called him “the coming one,” which had become a technical name for the expected Messiah.

So the crowd got that much right. Jesus was the Messiah, God’s anointed King who came to save. They were right about that. But beyond that they really didn’t know Jesus very well. The crowd expected him to throw off the oppressive Roman rule and restore the Kingdom to Israel.

Jesus knew, however, that he had come to Jerusalem for another purpose. He came to save not only Israel, but the world. And not, at least immediately, from political and economic oppression, but from evil in its deepest form. Jesus came to save from sin and death itself. And to do that he came to Jerusalem to die.

The crowd however was excited about the arrival of a King who would make life easier for them That’s what they hoped for from the Messiah. And that is indeed something that King Jesus does for us in many ways. He assures us, “my yoke is easy and my burden light.” He brings us new life and joy, provides for our basic needs and helps us make progress on many of our goals in life. But at that moment Jesus was focused on something else. He knew that his death was only days away. And that was very much on his mind.

Thankfully our own death is not something we have to think very much about under normal circumstances. But, of course, the coronavirus has changed that. The coronavirus makes all of us aware that death could strike any of us or a loved one at any random moment.

Now this may feel to many of us like a new experience. But the Coronavirus pandemic is really just an intensification of what is true of everyday life in this fallen world. Simply being human means that any of us could pass from this world at any time, from any number of causes. In more ordinary times most of us don’t have to think about that on a daily basis. Most of the time the reality of our mortality and vulnerability and that of those we love can be stored away in some corner of our mind so that we don’t have to look at it. And that’s a good thing.

Without that ability to forget and compartmentalize we wouldn’t be able to live healthy lives. Plus, the odds are that most of us here are going to live a long life — life expectancy in the U.S. on average is 79 years. So ordinarily most of us don’t have to think much about death. And that’s a thanksgiving.

That’s most of us. For some of us, though, the threat of death, or unemployment or hunger or homelessness is never far away, even when there’s no coronavirus in the land. This is the everyday reality for those who live in neighborhoods with high levels of crime and violence. Or who are discriminated against and hated because of race, ethnicity or as members of some other minority community. Or who live paycheck to paycheck and are always one crisis away from catastrophe. Or don’t have medical insurance. Or live with the daily threat of deportation. Or who live in chaotic or violent countries, or in countries where there is rampant poverty and hunger. Or languish in refugee camps waiting endlessly for a place to call home. Or who struggle with serious illness, or are very old, or whose families are in chronic turmoil.

For those in such situations, the plague is always at hand — not of disease necessarily, but of the undoing of our life. This is an everyday experience for some of us. But the truth is that this is also the deep reality for all of us. Mortality and vulnerability are facts of life for every human being — whatever our circumstances and with or without the coronavirus. The pandemic simply makes that obvious.

So what can we learn and how can we grow in this moment? The Coronavirus pandemic teaches us that our only true security is Jesus and one another. The Good News is that our fears can be managed, and peace can be found in intimate fellowship with Jesus and the loving embrace of friends. We find comfort and strength when we draw close to Jesus. And we find help and confidence when we support and encourage each other. The plague focuses our attention on what is truly important — the love of God and one another. 

So whatever ways we’ve found to get close to Jesus, now is the time to do that.  Jesus certainly wants to get closer to us. And in this time of “socially distancing” our well-being still depends on finding ways to connect to and care for each other. To check in with each other, encourage each other and help meet each other’s needs. By phone, “face-time” or Facebook or Zoom, or  even in-person when that’s needed. And we can unite as a nation through our government to provide the help that many of us need. Jesus and one another are our salvation.

And something else — there’s yet another kind of clarity that the Coronavirus brings. It enables us to see the historic inequities and injustices that some in our society face daily. Because even during this pandemic some of us are more vulnerable than others. Some of us may be able to keep our jobs and income, while others of us have already lost our jobs and primary means of support. Some of us may have savings to see us through, while some of us already can’t pay our rent and buy enough food. Some of us have underlying medical conditions traceable to systemic racial and ethnic inequities in access to health care or safe housing. Some of us can tele-work from home, while others of us have to go work in dangerous conditions. Some of us will receive a special check from the government, while others of us have been excluded from the government’s programs to help.

The Coronavirus has more widely revealed this unfairness, these wrongs, and should spur us to work to overcome them. The pandemic can make us aware that there is no “us and them.” Rather, they are us. We are all in this together as the human family, all children of God. The coronavirus shows us our neighbors’ immediate needs that we must try to meet now. And it reveals the inequities and injustices in our society that we must try harder to correct when the plague passes.

God is not responsible for sending the coronavirus. This isn’t a judgment from God or anything like that. But God can use it to teach us the need for courage, steadfastness and unselfish care for others. The pandemic provides an intensive course of growth in faith, hope, and love. So that when the coronavirus finally runs its course, we will be more aware than ever of our daily need to stay close to Jesus.  And to encourage and care for one another – as a church, as a community, as a nation and as humanity.

On this Palm Sunday as Jesus rides into Jerusalem proclaimed as King and facing his future with absolute trust in his heavenly Father. Let us give thanks that whatever happens, we are secure in the everlasting arms of Jesus. And we are sustained by the love and support of one another. 

Because of this confidence, we can courageously face our future, whatever it may be, with faith, hope and a new commitment to love.