Greetings from` our home in Fluvanna County where I have been in quarantine from my husband Stuart since I returned from the Honduras mission trip with a mild case of the COVID 19. By the time you see this video, I will be on Day 21 of living life in quarantine. I don’t need to tell you how strange this time has been because you have lived it too.
The last week I was in Christ Church before our Mission trip, we were at the Parish Dinner giving a talk on our trip to Israel. It seems like an eternity since then. I think like dog years, we are now counting time in COVID years. Even yesterday can seem like a year ago. At the same time, we are praying for acquaintances, friends or family members who have the virus now, and whole cities we care about who are suffering. We feel so very powerless in the face of something we can’t see. This Lenten season of confinement and fear makes all other Lenten seasons feel like child’s play.
N T Wright wrote in Time magazine this week about church services, “There is a reason we normally try to meet in the flesh. There is a reason solitary confinement is such a severe punishment. And this Lent has no fixed Easter to look forward to. We can’t tick off the days. This is a stillness, not of rest, but of poised, anxious sorrow.” He adds that humanly we try to find an explanation to why we are suffering.
“No doubt the usual silly suspects will tell us why God is doing this to us. A punishment? A warning? A sign? These are knee-jerk would-be Christian reactions in a culture which, generations back, embraced rationalism: everything must have an explanation. But supposing it doesn’t? Supposing real human wisdom doesn’t mean being able to string together some dodgy speculations and say, “So that’s all right then?”
Into the middle of this anxious vulnerability comes Palm Sunday and Holy Week, speaking directly to each of us with the power that only scripture has. As I read the Triumphal Entry scripture today from Matthew, I feel a disconnect with the word Triumph. A Triumphal Entry seems light years away, as I wait in my basement to be free to drive to Charlottesville, or even go upstairs, to embrace people again.
But I have been given a gift that I want to share with you. I have recent life experience of this very road and gate into Jerusalem that Jesus travels on Palm Sunday. Let me describe it to you, since I was there in January. Picture yourself in an orchard of Olive trees on a hill overlooking a narrow, shallow valley. On the other side of the valley stand the limestone walls of Jerusalem and the Eastern Wall of the Temple. Between the Mount of Olives and the city of Jerusalem is this Kidron Valley, a long thin rut in the land that is filled with thousands of white slab Jewish graves, thousands of years old, which cling to the contours of the valley. These graves face Jerusalem because the faithful await the coming of the Messiah through the Golden Gate. The City of Jerusalem spreads out across the valley in front of you with the gated walls and Temple Walls framing the city on the hill.
This is the Valley mentioned in Psalm 23—”Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.” In our scripture from Palm Sunday, the Lord Jesus is looking over this valley of death, knowing that He will be crossing it to enter the city gate. What does the text from Matthew tells us about Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city? That he comes riding on a donkey—just like his mother did when he was born. Not as a mighty conqueror with an army—but he rides on a common animal into the common daily life of the people who need him. Jesus is not above the people in a chariot, He is eye level with them. He rides down the steep, rocky road, through the Valley of death, and through the city gate. As the psalm tells us, He fears no evil.
The people of Jerusalem had been basically quarantined by an occupying foreign government. They needed liberation. They needed to feel safe in their own homes and streets again. They needed someone to understand what they were living through and dying for. As Fleming Rutledge reminds us, “God is down in the valleys where sinful human beings are struggling with their daily lives.”
Are you struggling in your daily life? Honestly, what is daily life anymore?. Each day feels like the precipice of a new cliff coping with the daily changes. What will our lives look like when this is over? Who am I without my daily structure of work, school, busyness and distraction? We are bored of being with ourselves. We are coming face to face with who we are without the scale of achievement we called daily life.
Wal-Mart has sold out of tops, but not bottoms because we are Zooming and FaceTiming. Parents are faced with months of home schooling and lockdown parenting. Seniors are lonely and isolated as they receive meals at the door without social contact. Singles are spending more time alone and feeling the need for company. We need relief and an end date to appear on the horizon.
So, let’s imagine for a moment that Jesus is coming down your street right now, as he was in Jerusalem. What would that be like? There’s not a lot of traffic, so his donkey would have a wide berth as it clip clops in front of your house or apartment. What would it feel like to take off your coat and throw it on the ground to welcome Him? Maybe cut off some Dogwood or cherry blossoms to put on Jesus’ path? Throw some daffodils, peonies or gardenias in the air? Why would we do that? Why did the people in Jerusalem do that? They came out of their houses like we would to be freed from our confinement. The people were surrendering to the coming of hope and love in the midst of their suffering. As we say in our creeds, we believe he came for us. He has not abandoned us in our plight.
We need him and he comes. We have been locked up for longer than a month. We have been locked up in the quarantine of the rules of religion, the piety of trying to be good and justified on our own, wondering if we can free ourselves by satisfying God. We want to love without strings, but don’t seem up to the task, especially in such close quarters. We have been in the basements of our hearts, awaiting the freedom of forgiveness and grace. We have been waiting to really live and not be constantly condemned by fear whispering into our ears to be afraid, be very afraid. We have seen ourselves in the mirror and understood that we are powerless in the universe where there are viruses, addictions, selfishness, and other people. Fear makes us feel as if there’s no way out. Jesus Christ rides through the valley of the shadow of death to be The Way out and we ride with him.
Christ comes to us in humility but with the power of love to set you free from the fear factory of your mind that manufactures worse-case-scenarios and doubts love and connection as heavenly superpowers. The God of the Universe, who came as Jesus Christ to be with us, is humbly riding into the gate of your heart, bringing the good news that God loves you and has redeemed you.
I have one story that stuck with me this week that Lyn in the office shared. It is from a medical professional named Mert Erogul about the kind of surrender that we are experiencing, throwing our lives down in front of Jesus. Here is his story.
So today in the middle of all the madness there was a one-hundred-year-old Hasidic lady with Covid pneumonia, and I was desperate to send her home so she wouldn’t die in the hospital, but she dropped her blood pressure and we had to keep her. And then for an hour her son kept calling me to find out how she was, and I finally told him, “Look. She’s a hundred years old with pneumonia in both lungs. She’s not good. She’s not going to do well. And then he wanted to talk to her, and I said, “You can’t. I’m too busy.” And he called back ten minutes later, and I said, “Listen, sir. Your mother is not conscious anymore.” And he said, “That’s okay. It’s very important that I do a prayer for her, could you hold the speaker to her ear?” I had ten other pressing things to do, but I stopped what I was doing out of respect for this 100-year-old woman and put the cell on speakerphone and told him to talk. He started the prayer of the dead and he began to cry and could barely get the words out. And I saw she had numbers tattooed on her arm. He was crying for his mother and praying the shema, the verses of unity and it woke up some emotion in me that I had forgotten about. Time slowed down and I felt restored to myself. When he was done, he thanked me and blessed me, and I said ‘thank’ you to him.”
Jesus Christ is the restorer of your soul, restoring you to that long-ago forgotten part of yourself. Psalm 23, “He restoreth my soul…Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
May you be grounded and centered in your undeniable existence in God’s world—where not a sparrow falls that God doesn’t know about. Matthew 10:31 tells us, “Even the hairs of your head are all counted. So, do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” God came to us as the Christ to reassure us that He is not a Deist god—remote and far away—but a living God who is with you in the valleys of your life, especially this one.
May you experience a Holy Week as never before in our collective surrender to Christ this Palm Sunday. “Look your King is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey.”
Let us pray a prayer offered by Bishop Goff this week, “Lord God, Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour. God of grace and God of glory, on thy people pour Thy power. Amen.” — Henry Emerson Fosdick 1930