The Parade of Life

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

-Matthew 21:8,9

I love a parade.

So, I’m glad that our home is in a small town in Central Ohio where people take the Fourth of July very seriously. Yes, there is all the patriotism that you can imagine a small Ohio village might feature in its observances – red, white, and blue bunting, American flags everywhere. But the Fourth of July in Granville is more of a week-long street party and homecoming than it is a patriotic celebration.

The local Kiwanis club has been sponsoring the Fourth of July observance since 1964. Since the Applegate family hit town almost 20 years ago, the whole she-bang has had a more “new and improved, bigger and better” quality to it with every passing year. I’ll spare you all the details, except to say that the main drag in town is closed off for three entire blocks so that the Kissell Brothers can set up carnival rides and concession stands.

There’s a writing contest, and a photography contest. Runners competing in The Firecracker Five leave town at 7:45 am, head out into the country, come back into town, and finish the race in front of the bandstand. There’s a Fireworks Display and Party-in-the Park at a local playground. And, of course, there’s the Fourth of July Parade which features the Marching Blue Aces – the high school band, and the regional 4-H band, and – always at the very end – every single piece of Kubota equipment that Fackler’s sells – lawn mowers, tractors, utility vehicles – all of them, as one local wag said, celebrating not our independence, but our dependence on fossil fuel.

This past year, daughter Elizabeth and her family decided they had to see the event for themselves after hearing for years about the extravaganza. So, for the first time, they were with us for Independence Day. My grandchildren were 5 and 3, so it was the perfect time for them to come. They liked absolutely everything about it – the rides, the fair food, and the parade – especially the parade.

All of this seems like it happened a million years ago now. That same branch of the family is back in our house in Granville, having driven through the night a week ago from Brooklyn – one of the epicenters for the coronavirus. They’re halfway through their 14-day self-quarantine and show no signs of sickness. If we’re lucky, they’ll be done with their confinement on Easter Day.

Others are not so lucky. Every day, the news media report about the number of new cases of COVID-19, and feature stories about those who have died – famous people – like Ellis Marsalis, Maria Mercador, and Terrence McNally – and not so famous people like a mother of six in Washington state and a grandfather of eleven in Florida. The coronavirus affects public figures like television reporters, and politicians, and artists of all kinds. And it affects regular people who have gone to work, or taken the trip of a lifetime on a cruise ship, or enlisted in the Navy – because they wanted to serve somehow or just needed a paying job.

But these are not the only stories. In addition to the stories of loss and sadness, the news media also report stories of extraordinary heroism – of doctors, nurses, and first responders risking their health and the health of their families to save others – of research scientists laboring long into the night to sequence the virus’ DNA – of wholesalers, and grocery stores, and truckers and clerks insuring there’s food on the shelves – of ordinary citizens feeding hospital staffs and homeless neighbors, donating blood and volunteering for clinical trials. This week, there was even the story of a landlord in New York City who canceled rents for hundreds of tenants in the apartments he owns.

I would be remiss if, when talking about heroes, I failed to mention Dr. Zhong – the 83-year old public face of China’s war against the disease – or Dr. Fauci – the 79-year old doctor whose efforts have earned him a security detail to protect him from conspiracy theorists – or the governors and state health directors of many states, or the Mayor of Chicago – who has appeared absolutely everywhere – standing on the Bean, blocking the entrance to the Grand Canyon – even making an appearance in All Saints’ sanctuary this past week, thanks to some skillful photoshopping. Feel good stories and humor help – even if the humor is pretty dark sometimes. Who knew there were so many clever people out there?

But for most of us, there needs to be more than feel good stories and humor. We need hope of a deeper kind – hope that acknowledges where God is in all of this and an understanding of what God is up to.

What God is up to in this, is what God has always been up to, and that is salvation. When I use that word, I don’t mean it the way it’s often used. I mean it the way the late Marcus Borg meant it when he said, “Salvation has to do with healing the wounds of existence.” In one of his books, The God We Never Knew, Borg continued, “This is no small matter, for the wounds of existence are many and deep.” Some of us have known this for a long time. For others of us, this pandemic has been a sobering reminder.

In the Bible – the record we have of God’s relationship with us and of our relationship with God – the images of salvation are connected to images of our woundedness, or of some predicament from which we need healing or deliverance.

Today’s Gospel has one of these images. The image of salvation is the image of a lone figure riding on a donkey into the city of Jerusalem. Sometime before that first Palm Sunday – maybe weeks or even months before – Jesus “set his face to go” to the Holy City. Jesus made up his mind that the time was right to go to the heart of religious and political power. He chose to go at a time when many others – almost the whole of the surrounding countryside – would be making the same pilgrimage to celebrate the Passover there. This year for Jesus the meal commemorating his people’s freedom from bondage would not end with: “next year in Jerusalem.” Jesus would celebrate Passover in Jerusalem this year – this fateful year.

All four Gospels have the same basic story about Palm Sunday. There are small differences in the details. One or two of the particulars receive more emphasis in John’s Gospel, say, than in Matthew or Mark’s. But all the Gospels say that there was a parade. It was a small one. A young donkey was found; the disciples put their cloaks on it as a sort of makeshift saddle, and Jesus sat on the garments. There wasn’t any marching band playing, or homemade floats with people tossing candy to the kids at the parade.

But there was a crowd that was thrilled by what was happening. The people in the crowd knew of an ancient prediction that said their king would enter Jerusalem in just such a way.

Some of them spread their own cloaks on the road. Others cut down branches from the palm trees that give today its name. There were shouts of Hosanna – a word that means something like “Please, save us” – a word that we shout with greater fervor this year, since being saved, being healed, right now sums up perfectly what we want.

We know these stories from the four Gospels and, if we’ve been at All Saints’ on Palm Sunday in years past, we’ve reenacted this story – marching, and singing, and juggling and carrying our palms – even last year, while the snow was falling fast and hard. What a joyful time it always is!

Some of us also know the story of another parade that entered Jerusalem about the same time as the Jesus movement parade – maybe even on the same day. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan wrote about the second parade in their book, The Last Week. Jesus’ parade arrived from the east and south – from Bethphage and the Mount of Olives. The other parade arrived from the west, from Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast – where the Roman governor had his official residence.

The other parade was comprised of soldiers who had marched the 60 miles from Caesarea to Jerusalem to fortify the garrison there. The Jews often demonstrated, rioted, and rebelled against Roman rule. Passover was a flashpoint not only because so many people piled into the Holy City, but because every Jew knew what they had come for: to celebrate a freedom they simply didn’t have. The Romans sent an army of reinforcements every year, and the Roman governor – in this case Pontius Pilate – came with the soldiers to Jerusalem. A little insurance. Good to be available just in case.

The contrast of the parades must have been striking: the first a parade of one: a single figure riding on a beast of burden – the crowds joyful, unruly, ecstatic, chaotic even. The other of soldiers in armor of metal and leather. Cavalry on horses trained for war. The marching of feet accustomed to close-order drill, stepping off in military precision. For those watching, it would have been an impressive and frightening sight. Its message would have been loud and clear: don’t mess with us. We’re in control.

I don’t know whether it was this way or not, but I imagine that the few people who lined Pontius Pilate’s parade route stood in silence while the Roman soldiers passed by. One parade was a parade representing oppression and death – the other, the parade Jesus led, was a parade representing life and hope and freedom.

We know what happened when the two parades finally met. The parade of death crushed the parade of life and the solitary figure who road on the donkey. It took five days to work it all out – where to arrest Jesus when he wasn’t surrounded by the crowds – what the charges should be – how to translate the religious charge of blasphemy into the political charge of rebellion. But such things can be done, and were done, and still are done. So Good Friday arrived five days after parade day. It’s how the story all too often seems to end in this world – a world marred by brutality, oppression, starvation, and disease – especially, nowadays, disease.

It’s how the story always seems to end. . . . except when it doesn’t. Because of God’s extraordinary love for us, it didn’t when the Jesus parade met the parade coming in the other direction. The parade of life ultimately triumphed. The parade of life always wins in the end.

I would love to tell you that the parade of life wins immediately, but that isn’t how it seems to work. Evil, and sin, and death are powerful forces and, I regret to say, we human beings enhance their potency all too often. But the power of life and love – the power of God – wins out. And God’s power will prevail in this time. God calls us is to join the parade of life. Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest! Please, save us.

Amen.