Sermon for Mirepoix Palm Sunday 2020
Readings: Zechariah 9.9-12; Matthew 21.1-11
May these words and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord…
Oppressed by the tyranny of Rome, ruled by puppet-kings who were not even of the Faith, the Jewish people were desperate for liberation. Perhaps the miracle-worker, the Galilean prophet, this Jesus from Nazareth was the man who could lead them to freedom.
They’d been waiting long enough. Since their return from captivity in Babylon in 538 BC, they had been ruled by the Persians before being caught up in the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s conquests, pawns in the power struggle between the Egyptian and Seleucid empires. Then once the Romans dominated the Mediterranean, independence seemed as unlikely as ever.
The Jews’ sense of oppression eventually came to a head in open revolt against the Romans in 66 AD. The Romans were expelled from Jerusalem and their garrisons butchered. Some minor battles were won by the Jewish armies. But no nation could withstand the might of Rome for long and, in 70 AD, Jerusalem was sacked and the Temple burned to the ground. The Jewish state was obliterated. The Jews were deprived of a homeland until the foundation of Israel in the 20th century.
Like all peoples the world over, when occupied by another nation, the Jews saw liberation in political terms. The occupiers needed expelling. Independence and autonomy needed restoring. Self-determination was the only goal worth pursuing. Leaders, who were prepared to use force and stir the people to armed insurrection, were the only leaders worth following.
But it ended in catastrophic defeat and two thousand years of alienation.
Today, the world is oppressed by a different tyranny. It is the tyranny of a particularly infectious killer-virus, without (as yet) a vaccine to render it impotent. Our political leaders may fall back on the metaphor of warfare when talking about fighting the corona-virus. That’s understandable. The last event of this magnitude to hit so many countries at the same time was the Second World War. And that means Boris Johnson is certainly not going to pass up the chance to be Churchillian! But are we really on a war-footing?
We may see armies mobilised but they are delivering medical supplies to beleaguered hospitals or emergency food parcels to isolated, vulnerable people. We may encounter the police or gendarmerie out on the streets but their role is to remind individual citizens of their duty to be responsible, stay at home and think of others. Indeed, in the United Kingdom, the police have been explicitly told to use encouragement, persuasion and cajolery before resorting to fines, arrests and any strong-arm tactics.
If there are Second World War parallels, they are with the Home Front in Britain. Then, every civilian was expected to do their bit in maintaining the black-out, living with rationing without resorting to the Black Market, volunteering, working on the land or helping the war-effort in other ways, making-do and mending.
The parallels with the armed forces on the battlefield seem less appropriate. This is partly because Covid-19 is not a person. It is not a sentient creature, like us but on the wrong side wearing a different uniform. We need feel no qualms about wiping out Covid-19 entirely. We do not need to rein-in our instinct for revenge. We do not need to try to understand the mentality of this aggressor and provide a positive climate for rehabilitation or restorative justice. Covid-19 is not a conventional enemy so talking about it using the language of warfare does not really work. Instead of talking about war, we ought to talk about ourselves.
We have to find within ourselves the determination to quell the virus through a huge, combined operation. And to do that, we have to confront and subdue what there is in our nature which nudges us to resist the measures which we are told will lead, in time, to lives saved.
It is not easy when the enemy is within. This is what it may look like…
…There is that primal instinct for survival which manifests itself as selfishness, prompting us to bulk-buy and hoard, throwing the supply-chains into disarray and depriving others of necessities.
…There is the deep-rooted tribal desire for company, telling us that self-isolation can be flouted now and again if it keeps us contented.
…There is also the opposite where we ignore others’ needs and tuck ourselves away in the safety of our own castle.
…There is the longing to be recognised and awarded some status, encouraging us to pretend expertise, spouting doom-and-gloom statistics and conspiracy theories.
…There is the weakness and vulnerability which has us demanding medical attention from over-stretched professionals when all we need to do is ride out a temperature and a bad cough. (Though, of course, I am not saying that anyone with acute symptoms should not seek timely medical help!)
In this troubled time, it is so easy to focus on the disruption to our own lives and push to the back of our minds the suffering of the very ill and the bereaved, or the over-worked medical staff and other public workers. We can neglect to imagine the turmoil experienced by those trapped at home with an abusive partner or enduring a strained relationship. Even sitting out the lock-down in a cramped flat with no garden, perhaps with few resources at one’s disposal for entertainment or stimulation, is a torture we can readily ignore.
Instead, the challenge for each of us is to look beyond our own circumstances and forge strong connections with others whoever, wherever they are. We are fortunate in having sophisticated communication and media technology to help us. Our challenge is to strive to turn all to the good.
That means putting ourselves out in ways we have not been used to. It means discovering (to use a 21st century colloquialism) that sacrifice is sexy.
Having made the point that we should be focussing on self-reflection, I have to concede that it’s difficult not to fall back on the language of war as if the enemy is ‘out there’ rather than ‘in here’. (After all, we combat disease. We fight infection. We battle against the virus.)
Zechariah was stuck in the same groove when presenting his prophetic image of the Saviour King riding into Jerusalem. But he found a way to move beyond the war metaphors. So although he talked of a victorious king, he also described him as one who banished chariots and bows, bringing peace to the ends of the earth.
Central to Zechariah’s prophecy, and central to the accounts we have of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (as remembered in the Church every Palm Sunday), is the image of the king on a donkey.
Now a donkey is not a war-horse, pawing the ground and snorting with equine vigour. A donkey is a gentle, domestic beast of burden. A donkey plods. When a man sits astride a donkey, his feet will barely clear the ground. He will look as ridiculous as a chap on a kid’s bicycle, his knees up around his ears with every rotation of the pedals.
What Jesus carefully orchestrates for his entry into Jerusalem is, I think, a deliberate parody of conventional triumph and victory. I am not surprised that, in Matthew’s account, once all the razzmatazz has blown itself out, the citizens of Jerusalem seem to fade away too. They were probably disappointed: “He might be a celebrity but how can this bloke – looking daft on a donkey – amount to anything? What a let-down!”
Jesus set out to be the personification of humility. He is utterly self-effacing. He has dispensed with pomp and dignity. Why? Because he knows the real battle (which, in the end, we shall all have to face) is one where we look – with humility – inside ourselves to confront the negative aspects of our nature, the prickly features of our personality, the arrogance, and everything else which stops us aligning ourselves closely with others….everything, in fact, which stops us aligning ourselves with him, the man on the donkey.
Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem is the perfect image for our time.
We might feel oppressed but we have to see beyond the tyranny of the corona-virus just as the Jews had to see beyond the tyranny of Rome. We have to see the opportunity which lies before us if we can only confront that which separates us from God.
These ‘virus days’ are an invitation; they are offering us an unprecedented opportunity to confront everything within us which is hostile to humanity. This is the real virus. The tyrant is not another nation, nor another person, it is something lodged within us, the flaws in human nature.
But with concerted self-sacrifice, this ‘virus’ can be defeated. We know that is true. We know that self-sacrifice can be redemptive. The man on the donkey showed us that.
I think, if we take a step back for a moment, we can be pretty proud of the way humankind has responded to the pandemic.
Although the emperors of the United States and China have had the odd spat, squaring up to each other as if each is the real enemy behind this pandemic, perhaps positioning themselves in readiness for a new Cold War, most other nations understand that a different sort of struggle is required if we are to be free from the tyranny of infection. Nations, the world over, have made saving lives a priority. It was not always like that.
Within living memory, in the middle of the twentieth century, the world witnessed the barbarity of Stalin, inflicting famine on the Ukraine leaving 8 million dead. And there were the murderous campaigns which Mao waged against his own people, with an estimated 30 million victims. The Nazis persecuted Jews, gypsies and homosexuals, also exterminating millions. And there have been other examples of genocide since then. Nor are we clear of such brutality…yet. But during this pandemic, the nations of the world have sought to save lives rather than let the virus take its toll.
Protecting the elderly and vulnerable has been seen as the right course to take, even if it means subjecting the economy to crippling forces and incurring spiralling debt in the future. All over the world, the same priorities have been clear: lives matter more than dollars. In addition, innumerable acts of kindness have been shared across social media. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers have stepped forward, unprompted, to organise help for the house-bound and keep communication alive with the isolated.
So I see no reason why, this Palm Sunday, we may not be optimistic. We know that in seven days’ time we shall witness the most extraordinary image of hope and salvation the world has ever seen. There may be more distress and hardship to encounter before we get there but nothing we experience during this shared catastrophe should be allowed to negate the hope embodied in the resurrection.
Therefore, when the crisis has eased, I hope…
…that there will not be too much trading of blame. (Although it would be comforting to know that the provincial food markets in China were to be overhauled so the transmission of viruses from wild animals to humans is eradicated.)
…that the USA and China do not see a fragile world as one ripe for easy pickings.
…that political leaders with a thirst for totalitarian rule do not consolidate their power.
…that, more importantly, we shall see a shift in attitudes: away from the pursuit of material benefits to a greater focus on family and relationships, on shared time and simpler pleasures.
…and that, most significant of all, we shall see a fresh appreciation of the human values championed by that man riding on a donkey.
The world is unlikely to be the same once the pandemic has run its course. It would be extraordinary if it were. There will have been so much upheaval, so much disruption to the economies of the world and the old model of globalisation, so much learned about the way our societies function and the way that we, as individuals, cope when thrown back on our own resources. It is inconceivable that we shall go back to the way things were. But that does not mean the world will be in a worse state.
Sadly, two thousand years ago, the Jews did not recognise the model of leadership that Jesus was offering when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Instead, they held on to their traditional belief in a national liberator. Thirty years after the first Palm Sunday, that belief, now realised, led to the utter destruction of their nation.
Today, Jesus invites us again to look at the world with humility, through our own vulnerability. He invites us to see self-sacrifice as affirmative. Self-sacrifice, he says, is what glues humanity together.
Never before in the history of humankind has there been such an opportunity for world-wide collaboration. When the Black Death wiped 100 million off the world’s population (and cut the population of Britain by more than a quarter), when the ‘Spanish’ influenza claimed nearly 40 million lives (more than the number who died in the First World war), humankind could do nothing but endure these ravages. Today, it is different. Today we have the ingenuity, the mass communication, the medical understanding and the technological expertise to combat this new virus. We have the opportunity to work as a race to make the world healthier. We have the space to look again at the road our civilisation is trundling along and consider other cleaner, more sustainable routes to take.
We have a chance – never granted before to humankind – to manage our destiny in unimaginable ways.
Never has a Palm Sunday dawned where there are such grounds for hope. And that is why we should all shout, ‘Hosanna!’