April 5, 2020 – Palm Sunday
Rev. Todd Weir
I love a good parade – always have. As a child my mother loaded me in a red wagon and took me to the humongous parades at Iowa State University. Students put all their Springtime yearnings and creativity into the floats. It was Spring 1968, and I remember marching bands and one group of hippies, all wearing overalls and playing “This Land is Your Land” by blowing on Coke bottles. The PRIDE March in Northampton is my favorite parade, with its rainbow of joy, and celebration that love is love. Parades celebrate who we are. They can also be a protest against what is unjust, and a hope for a better future. It is heart-breaking when it rains on our parade, or worse, an epidemic leads to cancelation.
That is our context today on Palm Sunday. It’s one more cancelation, one more of many losses and disappointments. We tried for days to figure out if we should have a physical distance parade down Main Street, or carefully pass out the Palms to have at home, or cancel it altogether. Some churches have figured out how to have a car parade in their parking lots, tuning into the service on their car radios. I’m in awe of the creative energy, and the desire to keep our traditions even in the face of a pandemic. I’m in a different place this morning and I want to invite you along on my spiritual wandering this week.
I’ve been reading the history of the Great Pandemic of 1918. It was called the Spanish Flu, though it originated in an army barracks in Kansas. In Philadelphia, just as the first victims fell ill, a parade was scheduled to promote the purchase of War Bonds. The mayor forged ahead, believing it was his patriotic duty to do his part. St. Louis also had scheduled a War Bonds Parade, though the health commissioner and Mayor postponed it. They chose to shut down not only the parade, but restaurants, bars, theatres, schools and churches. There was an outcry. What about the war effort? The Chamber of Commerce was furious about lost business, even clergy protested. But the health commissioner helped everyone hold firm. Courage in the face of opposition saved thousands of lives. The city of Philadelphia lost eight times as many people to flu as the city of St. Louis. America paid a great price for focusing on the war effort, and more people died worldwide from flu than from the horrific battles of World War I.
I’m telling this story not just to bolster our resolve to stay home, or justify canceling activities, but to reflect more deeply as we begin Holy Week. Both Holy Week and epidemics are great disruptions. The commotion interferes with business as usual. The pandemic interrupts economic and social activity, rearranges our priorities, changes who we think are heroes, exposes are fears and anxieties and reveals our weaknesses. Trying to force business as usual is disastrous. We have to take life on life’s terms.
Lent and Holy Week lead us to this place spiritually, as we voluntarily pay attention to our dependencies, our misplaced priorities and morally examine ourselves. Both Lent and the pandemic reveal hubris and strike at our sense that we are in control. Just as Jesus kicked over the tables of the Temples’ moneychangers on Palm Sunday, many things I was holding feel scattered all over the ground.
My frustration flares with all the changes. Trying to be church here in the cloud feels so tenuous. I’m no tech genius. This disrupts months of strategic planning, and how we do Stewardship and pastoral care. Other times I get angry, as I hear stories like someone renting a bouncy house for the neighborhood kids when they should be social distancing. Or I text my mother in Iowa asking, “Why has your governor not declared a shelter in place order?” I realized my favorite emoji this week has been the little swirly poop with eyes.
But if I stop and listen, deeper down the real issue emerges. Underneath the anger, there it is. I am not in control of this situation. And neither is anyone else. COVID is in charge. Not Andrew Cuomo or Tony Fauci or the Federal Reserve, but a virus we cannot see is driving the bus. Before I go on, let’s all pause and take a breath. OK, the truth is we are not really in charge of very much beyond ourselves anyway, but I do like the illusion I can control a lot more than I do. I often say the Serenity Prayer, “Lord grant me the courage to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It helps, but right now I also need to acknowledge that we are going through a massive fracturing of our sense of control of anything outside of ourselves.
What I’m watching for right now is grief. Grief – “a poignant distress when we are feeling loss of something important to us.” It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a death of a loved one, or the loss of a job, though we have plenty of that happening right now. Even if you are working from home and doing OK, there is a loss of normalcy. You may be experiencing “anticipatory grief” which is a distress about what could still happen. Therapists sometimes call this “aweful-izing,” imagining the possible downward spiral in the days ahead.
If you are struggling to maintain focus, or can’t seem to get done what you think you should, grief is probably one of the reasons. Just because you are not breaking down in tears does not mean you aren’t feeling this deep inside. Many of you may be familiar with Elizabeth Kubler Ross, who wrote about five stages of grief -denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. If you are feeling any of the first four of these, you might just be grieving something lost. I will give you a moment to just think to yourself which of these are real for you right now.
We have probably heard how important it is to accept things, to let go. In truth, much of spirituality is learning to let go. But I want to acknowledge how complicated that is. I’m not sure I ever fully accept bad things that happen. I don’t simply accept social injustice, or people that hurt me. I still sometimes really miss my Dad who died eight years ago. Or I ruminate about my divorce which happened 15 years ago. Acceptance doesn’t mean that we are over something. “Get over it” is one of the most insensitive things someone can say. And we probably say it the most to ourselves. We don’t get over things, but we can get through them. Sometimes we have to revisit losses and get through them again.
Acceptance is an acknowledgement of how things are. That can be both calming and empowering. Acceptance means we are functioning less by our illusions and more within reality. I was talking with Jacob Chapman this week, a member of our church who is an emergency room doctor. I have been worried about everyone who works on the health care front lines after seeing all the chaotic scenes of suffering from New York City and other hospitals as the COVID virus spreads. Jacob talked about all the adaptations to his work, but he seemed remarkably serene. He said, “My work is going fine, in part because I’m never really in control, so I think I’m used to that.” This really struck me, because I usually think of doctors as people who are really in control, after all, they got through medical school. Some doctors seem, well, controlling after all. Here is a profound truth. You can do your job, and do it well, even if you aren’t in control. You can live well, even if you can’t control some things.
Think about it. If you are a parent, are you ever really in control? Do you control your spouse? Does it do any good to try? Sometimes when we try to control things, we break things. Acceptance is not giving up. It is acknowledging that what we can gain control over is ourselves, our reactions, our words, our decisions, who we decide to be.
In January and February I did an eight week morning retreat called “An Ignatian Prayer Adventure.” The online retreat leader kept repeating that prayer is taking a loving look at reality. Look at yourself, the hours of your day, the people you meet, the world you live in, and see it all through the eyes of love. This is how we deepen our relationship with God. We have a continued gaze into reality through the eyes of love.
Christianity is not about what we achieve, it is about what we can receive by the grace of God.
Friends, as I draw this sermon to a close, I am very mindful of how this unfolding pandemic effects of all in different ways. We were hoping for a parade, instead our tables get turned over. But we are all going through this together. We will get through it. The world may change very quickly, but as Psalm 46 says,
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,