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April 2020

Back to a New Normal

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Back to a New Normal”

Rev. Art Ritter

April 26, 2020



Luke 24: 13-35

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.


Several years ago, the Washington Post conducted a social experiment.  They took Joshua Bell, one of the best violinists in the entire world, and set him up to play at a Metro subway station in the heart of Washington D.C.   Earlier that year Bell was voted the best classical musician in America and had played to sold out crowds in many cities.  On that particular morning, Bell started playing about 7:45, right in the middle of rush hour commuters, wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt, blue jeans, and a baseball cap.  He put his violin case out, put in a couple of dollars and played to see how much attention and money he would garner.  Bell used his own violin, one valued at 3.5 million dollars.  He played six classical pieces in a style and manner that few artists could match.   A hidden camera documented everything that happened.

A total of three minutes and sixty-three people passed before finally a middle-aged man altered his gait for a second and turned his head to listen to the music.  A bit later, Bell got his first donation, one dollar thrown into the case.  In all, Bell played for forty three minutes.  Only seven people stopped and stood nearby him to listen.  It is estimated that 1,070 people hurried by, oblivious to the musical master who was playing for free.  Inside Bell’s violin case was a whopping $32, $20 of that from the only person who recognized Bell from a concert the night before at the Library of Congress.   Most of the money in the case was pennies.

Few people that morning recognized the beauty of the music and the talent of Joshua Bell.  Not many even saw him.  Only one knew who he was.  Their heads were down, their eyes looking straight ahead, and their minds were focused on the world as they knew it to be that morning.

Last Sunday night we had a session of B3, our pub theology discussion here at Meadowbrook that meets monthly.  We had not met since the stay at home discipline has begun but Sunday we met via Zoom technology.  After checking in with everyone to share how we were experiencing the pandemic, I tossed out a simple yet profound question.  Where have you experienced God in our current situation?  In the spirit of the season I rephrased the question to where have you experienced the Risen Christ in your lives in the past month?  There were lots of good answers and some of those I expected.  People saw the presence of God in the actions of doctors and nurses and medical workers who have been brave and unselfish and compassionate.  People saw the presence of God in those who risk their own health providing safety and essential services.  People saw the presence of God in hospitality and concern in friends and family.  But the responses got even more interesting and perhaps a bit more unexpected.  One person said that they found the presence of God in understanding those things beyond the ordinary, seeing and cherishing something eternal that has suddenly been elevated above the normal concerns of work and meetings and leisure.  Someone spoke about gratitude and appreciation and an awareness of the gifts of others.  Another person talked about a new realization of what is important, of the meaning of their life.  I believe that because of the current situation, all of us are more likely to reflect upon our life and understand more clearly where God has been with us and how God’s promise builds hope for our future.

The bottom line is that the current pandemic has taken the blinders off many of us.  What we deemed as crucial and important a few weeks ago suddenly doesn’t seem as crucial or important.  We are in a place where we more readily appreciate the gifts of our work and of the labors of others.  We are in a place where we better understand the sacrifice that comes with ordinary compassion.  We are in a place where we look upon the world with a fresh perspective, one that views our lives from a transcendent and holy angle, rather than the immediate, utilitarian perspective that we are used to using.

The Scripture lesson for the third Sunday of Easter is the familiar story of the road to Emmaus.  Emmaus was a village located about seven miles from Jerusalem and was perhaps the hometown of one of the two followers of Jesus who were walking there.  As these men walked, they talked about the death of Jesus, perhaps about the rumors of his resurrection, but certainly about the disappointment they held that he was gone and their dreams and plans were now shattered.  Their words express a lot of failure and regret.  They wanted things to return to normal but the new normal was going to be one without the presence and promise of Jesus.  “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

Suddenly Jesus appeared to them as a stranger.  He asked them about their conversation and reminded them of the promises that he had made to his disciples.  But their eyes were kept from seeing him and their minds were kept from understanding his power.

At the end of their walk, they shared a meal together.  Jesus took bread and blessed it and passed it to them.  Suddenly their eyes were opened and saw him.  At that very moment he vanished from their sight.  But also in that very moment they began to understand what Jesus was talking about on the road to Emmaus.  Their hearts began to burn with inspiration and meaning.  “The Lord has indeed risen.”  Their perspective on life had suddenly changed.  They were moving on to a new normal but that new normal would not be the same old things.  Now they were the resurrection people.  Now they were living out their daily lives in the promise of new life.

I think that we are all in a place like those disciples leaving for that walk to Emmaus.  This pandemic has given us things that are perhaps more than we can handle.  Our world has been turned upside down.  What is next?  What do we do?  Where do we go with our lives?  Will things change soon?  Will things ever change?  It is a place of pain and sorrow and loss.  We don’t want to stay in that place.  We want to get back to normal.  We want to get to the place where life was predictable.  We want to go back to the routine.

In the midst of this, some of us may be having an Emmaus experience.  We are discovering the hand of God that has really always been behind the things we have overlooked or taken for granted.  We are seeing something sacred in the gifts of family and friends, in the sacrifice of health care and essential workers, and in how we better use our time.  We are feeling more connected to the holy, taken off of the treadmill of obligation to cherish those things that are truly important.  Our eyes are opened to a new way of seeing, to a new recognition, to community and welcome and hospitality and love.  God hasn’t abandoned us in this hour.   God is there in our fear and our worry, providing hope and promise.  The Risen Christ is there, just like always, only now perhaps we see and understand.

There will come a time when we enter the new normal.  Like those disciples we will leave Emmaus and return to our Jerusalem.  Yet Jerusalem will no longer the place that it used to be.  Jerusalem won’ be the old routine and old habits and old way of seeing our work, our friends, our family, and our place in the world.  Jerusalem will be a place of new life.  It is in the new normal where we must take our new understandings and live them out in our priorities and choices and decisions.  We are partners in this resurrection life of Jesus.

There has been a popular meme this week on Facebook, quoted by Brene Brown but written by Sonya Renee Taylor.  “We will not go back to normal.  Normal never was.  Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection. Confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack.  We should not long to return, my friends.  We are given the opportunity to stitch a new garment.  One that fits all of humanity and nature.”

In the meal at Emmaus, Jesus wasn’t just giving his followers bread.  He was giving them back their true selves.  He was restoring them to the gift of life.  As we look to what is ahead, may we find these days to be a portal to a greater self-awareness, to a vision of the fullness of God, to an appreciation of ourselves and those around us.   May the new normal, whatever it might be, not be a return to what was, but an understanding of something better that is yet to be, created by the hands of God and inspired by the Risen Christ.


Peace Be With You

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Peace Be With You”

Rev. Art Ritter

April 19, 2020


John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.



These are times in which some long forgotten memories of the past are brought to the surface again.  A story I read about a hospital chaplain’s experience brought to my mind something I experienced during my Clinical Pastoral Education at Harper Hospital in Detroit in 1983.  I had my first night on-call during my third week of the program.  It was a very frightening thing.  I was the only chaplain in the entire facility and I wore a beeper.  Every time it went off I had to respond.  I didn’t get any sleep waiting for the beeper to go off.  And I was terrified, thinking only of the massive size of the hospital, the number of patients and their needs, and the doubts and inability of the chaplain on call that night to meet those needs.

About midnight I was summoned to a floor where a Code Blue had been issued.  When I arrived a cardiac team was working urgently to revive a dying patient.  I observed it all quietly, standing in the doorway, trying my best to stay out of the way.  Soon the team retreated, resigned to the fact that unfortunately the patient had died.  They loaded up their equipment and left the room.  I was stunned at the reality of it all.  It was the first death I had ever witnessed.  I didn’t know if the cardiac team needed any pastoral care.  I didn’t know if there was a family in a waiting room to whom I needed to speak.  There I was in this very quiet hospital room, alone with the deceased.  I didn’t have a textbook or instructions about how to minister.  This was only my third week of chaplaincy training!  I moved forward and placed my hand on the hand of the deceased and I prayed.  I prayed for her and for her family.  And I prayed for me, that what I was doing would be helpful to whomever needed God’s help at that moment.  It felt a little selfish but it was what was coming from my heart.

I remember that at the end of the prayer, a floor nurse came back into the room and said that she was going to call the deceased’s family and wondered if I would be on that call.  She was so kind and I was so glad to get any kind of help.  I remember the nurse telling the family that there had been a change in their loved one’s condition and that they needed to come to the hospital.  I remember meeting with them in the family waiting room later.  I remember praying with them in the hospital room.  But what I most remember about that night was the fear and the feeling of inadequacy in everything that was happening.  At that point in my seminary study, I had learned a great deal about Biblical Study and preaching and constructive theology.  But I certainly wasn’t prepared to find and offer the words that would heal someone’s brokenness or put someone life back together.  I had this ill-conceived notion that my words and my actions were going to be responsible for putting these lives of mourning strangers back together.  At that moment I struggled with whether or not I could be a minister.

This past week, the Executive Director of the National Association of Congregational Churches shared a sermon by Chuck Bugg, a retired professor of preaching from Southern Seminary in Louisville.  The sermon was pointed to the feelings of clergy, and probably all of us, as we deal with the enormous issues and complicated feelings surrounding the COVID 19 crisis.  Bugg quoted Frederick Buechner, a wonderful preacher and Christian writer.  Buechner said that all of us who preach have just 26 letters in the English alphabet.  Ministers try to craft words to say in each and every sermon, words that they hope will touch and change lives, but ultimately they have only 26 letters in which to work with.

These days I have felt the return of that feeling I had in the hospital room over 35 years ago.  Perhaps you have experienced the same kind of feeling also.  How can we say anything that brings hope and healing into a world that is in the midst of pandemic?  What can we do to make a difference in anyone’s lives in the midst of such fear and anxiety?  We want to make an important difference.  We want to heal brokenness and offer release to those imprisoned by their circumstance.  But we are afraid ourselves.  We’ve never experienced this before.  We are left helpless in our own inadequacies.  How do we serve?  How can we help?  How do we make a difference?

This morning we hear more of the Easter story from the gospel of John.  The 20th chapter of John is a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples.  They were gathered in a locked room.  They had heard rumors of Jesus’ resurrection.  The women who went to the tomb told them that the tomb was empty and that Jesus’ body was gone.  But the world hadn’t changed.  They still weren’t certain of what to do.  They were afraid as the circumstances of their lives and of their world overwhelmed them. Could they trust this news of resurrection?  Could they deal with the darkness of fear and death?  These disciples had locked the doors and rendered themselves powerless.

Jesus came to these disciples.  It is interesting to me that he didn’t say or do much.  He didn’t offer them a pep talk.  He didn’t chastise them for their inaction.  He didn’t pass out a written plan for the future.  He came, he stood among them, and he said, “Peace be with you.”  Peace be with you.  In this brief post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, recorded in the gospel of John, Jesus says this three times.  Peace be with you.  It didn’t change the circumstance.  If we read on we discover that the disciples were still too timid to venture out into the world.  But it gave them some kind of assurance, some of reminder that he was present with them.  And that assurance was peace, a peace in knowing that they could not change the circumstances of the situation, but they could offer Christ’s presence within that situation.

There are things to fear.  We are in the midst of pandemic.  We are locked up in houses in fear of a virus.  We look ahead to an uncertain time in which we will have to try to live life within the threat of that virus.  Today we remember that Jesus keeps popping up in the rooms of our fear and anxiety.  He keep presenting us with evidence that somehow, some way, he will offer a life worth living.  He reminds us that we may have the power to change the circumstances.  Yet he brings us peace that helps us face troubling times without being swallowed up by our fear and worry.  He gives us a quiet confidence to guide our hearts as we face challenging decision.  In his sermon, Chuck Bugg tells us that in Jesus’ peace we can live simply, love generously, care deeply, speak kindly, listen respectfully, pray daily, and then leave the rest to God.  He reminds us all that we have the equivalent of 26 letters but that those humble and faithful efforts, given in this time of crisis. God’s peace will come to us and to others.

In a time in which we don’t know what the future holds, in a time in which we can see each other’s faces or shake each other’s hands, Jesus comes among us and says, “Peace be with you.”  Jesus’ peace is ours – a powerful lasting presence.  Again – live simply.  Love generously.  Care deeply.  Speak kindly.  Listen reverently and respectfully.  Pray daily.  And leave the rest to God.




Good Fear

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Good Fear”

Rev. Art Ritter

April 12, 2020


Matthew 28:1-10

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”



As I was taking my walk the other day, I encountered an unforeseen obstacle in my path.  A large Canadian goose stood there literally daring me to walk past.  At first I wasn’t alarmed but when I moved closer and the goose refused to move, I grew a bit concerned.  When I attempted to move around the goose, it seemed to follow me and stick out its neck as if it were ready to be aggressive.  I couldn’t see any mate or nest that the goose was trying to protect but I began to feel a little afraid.  It seemed within the realm of possibility that this goose was going to attack me.  I turned around on the walking path and after a safe distance went into the nearby grass and made a wide path around the creature.

My experience reminded me of a story told in a sermon by Andrew Greenshaw of New Orleans.  Greenshaw’s nephew Oscar was visiting him and he decided to take Oscar to a nearby park to feed the ducks.  Armed with a loaf of bread he and Oscar headed toward the ducks.  Understanding that Oscar tended to be a rather timid boy who was somewhat afraid of birds, Greenshaw tried to reassure him, “Oscar, the ducks may look funny but they won’t hurt you.  I promise that they won’t hurt you!”  With that Oscar began to toss bread to the ducks.  Soon the ducks moved past the point of contentment to greed.  They began to notice who was holding the bread and who was feeding them.  They began to walk with a purpose, straight toward little Oscar.  Now terrified, Oscar hid behind the legs of his uncle.  He started to cry in terror, screaming out the words that his uncle had used to reassure him, “They won’t hurt you!  They won’t hurt you!  They won’t hurt you!”  So great was his fear that his uncle picked him up, tossed the rest of the bread aside, and made his way to the car.

In the midst of this virus pandemic, all of us are experiencing a range of emotions.  There are moments of joy and gratitude, when we suddenly appreciate ordinary things that we had previously taken for granted.  There is anger and frustration for this terrible interruption in the midst of our everyday lives.  We all want to live a normal life again.  There is grief for the loss of what was and will never be again.  There is grief for loved ones passed and for opportunities that will not come again.  And there is fear.  My good friend, David Bard, bishop of the Michigan Conference of the United Methodist Church writes, “There is the fear we know, the virus and its effects.  There is the fear about what we don’t know.  How susceptible are we?  How will this affect our work and our finances?  How much longer will we have to stay at home to stay safe?”

Bishop Bard reminds us that fear is a powerful emotion.  It is one of the earliest emotions that we experience as a human being.  It alerts us to danger and keeps us safe.  In the midst of this pandemic it moves to better hygiene and social habits.  Fear is normal.  It moves us from complacency and helps us to take whatever action needs to be taken to keep us out of danger.   But we also know that fear is a negative thing.   Fear limits our ability to think clearly and assess our situation accurately.  Fear leads to blame and to narrowness of mind toward others.  Fear is not a good thing when it paints a darker picture of reality and moves us to be less than the people we are created to be.

There are many examples in Scripture of people who are afraid, and of God or God’s messengers speaking directly to them about their fear.  I have always been told that “Do not be afraid” is one of the most repeated lines in all of Scripture.  There is the story of the little girl rehearsing her lines for the annual Christmas program.  She was the angel who got to speak to Mary and to the shepherds saying, “Do not be afraid.”  When the moment came to deliver that line, the little girl paused and said, “Angels are always saying stuff like that.”

God is always saying stuff like that.  To Moses.  To Elijah.  To Zechariah.  To disciples on a boat in the midst of a storm.  To the churches in the book of Revelation.  To Mary.  To Joseph.  To shepherds.

Here in Matthew’s account of Easter morning we hear those same words again.  First to the women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who had come to the tomb only to find the stone rolled away by a great earthquake.  The mighty powerful forces of the Roman army, the guards at the tomb were shaking like leaves.  But an angel tells the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised.”  Then the women leave and tell this unexpected news to Jesus’ disciples.  It is Jesus who meets the disciples saying to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Do not be afraid.  This might be the place where you think I would tell you that fear is a bad thing and we should do our best to just get rid of it.  But as I read over this resurrection account I get the feeling that fear isn’t always such a bad thing.  It is fear that puts us in a place where we begin to understand ourselves a little better- who we are and what we have to deal with our situation.  It is fear that keeps us from being dormant and idle and demands that do something, hopefully that which God is calling us to do.

Another one of my colleagues Robert Baggott, former minister at Community Church of Vero Beach wrote this in a Facebook post this week.  He said, “Turbulent times like these, teach us- in such harsh ways- that life is so vulnerable, that seeming certainties are so uncertain, and that material achievements are so fleeting.  The fear that then naturally emerges from these realizations can rattle us profoundly.  But it can, and it must, also awaken us to a renewed appreciation and commitment to all that is firm and certain in our lives, such a deepening our relationships with our spouses, children and friends, re-dedicating ourselves to living a life of purpose, and learning to recognize, and be grateful for, the infinite blessings that God bestows upon us each day.”

Patricia Adams Farmer writes, “Fear may be our companion, a needed companion during times of war and natural disasters, but there is more- so much more.  May we take a breath of hope, not to rid ourselves of all fear, but simply to calm the loud and noisy clamor.  Then take another breath of compassion for the world and its troubles…Invite fear in for a conversation.  Sit with it.  Listen to it.  Then, respond with honesty and self-compassion.  After a time, let it go to the backseat of your mind while you breathe and smile for all that is still good and true and beautiful in the world.”

As I read this lesson I began to embrace that God isn’t asking us to never be afraid.  I have a feeling that Moses and Elijah and Zechariah and Mary and Joseph, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, and the disciples still were at least a little fearful, even after hearing those reassuring words from God.  It is normal for us to be afraid.  But we have to move in faith within our fear.

God is asking us to honestly face our fear and to understand the divine reality that is beyond those fears.  Fear is not the end.  Let fear be a spark that moves and renews and resurrects you to new understandings and renewed commitments.   Let us acknowledge our fear but put them in a smaller place that doesn’t hide our hope our joy and our love.  The Easter story teaches us that things in life may go wrong.  Things will not be perfect.  But whatever happens, no matter how bad it may seem, God has the power to carry us through.  Even death is not stronger than the love of God.  In Easter, God overcomes death and darkness.  In Easter we know that the ways of God are much stronger than any of the ways of fear that we feel.


Who is This?

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Who is This?”

Rev. Art Ritter

April 5, 2020



Matthew 22:1-11

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe.


Many years ago, when my daughters were much younger, I looked forward to taking them back to my hometown of Stanton for the summer celebration known as Old Fashioned Days.  Old Fashioned Days is one of those events every small town has with a talent show, kiddie rides, softball tournament, classic car show, beer tent, and of course – a parade.

The parade took place on early Saturday afternoon and we had to arrive almost an hour early to set up our lawn chairs ad secure a good viewing spot on Main Street, on the lawn of the county Court House.  And then we waited and waited and waited for the grand parade to begin.  Maren and Amelia did not like this long wait.  Their eyes and attention were focused on the face painting, kiddie rides, and snow cones that I wanted to happen after the parade.  I told them to just be patient because the parade would be most exciting.

Finally we heard the drum beats and the police sirens and the parade began to make its way past our viewing point.  There were two sheriff’s cars, a couple of fire trucks, the high school band, the VFW, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, lots of tractors and horses and antique car, some local politicians, a couple of honored citizens in a shiny convertible, some souped up lawn mowers and some racing cows from Carson City.  I remember being pretty excited about seeing the racing cows!  But that was the parade.  It was over pretty quickly.  I remember Amelia asking, “What kind of parade was that?”  Maren was even more specific in her criticism.  “Where were the floats, the queens, the balloons, and the candy?  I sensed that this parade wasn’t the kind they imagined or even the kind that their father was advertising.

I thought about that day when I read over the description of a parade in Jerusalem long ago.  Jesus, having earned some reputation with his miracles, healings, and teaching, arrived at the holy city.  Everyone was anxious to see him.  Expectations ran rampant.  Some hoped he was the Messiah, God’s chosen one to bring the Kingdom of God into reality.  Other dreamed that he would be a gifted political leader, one to stand up to the abuse of the occupying Roman authority.  As Jesus entered Jerusalem, the hopeful and adoring crowd cut branches from the trees and waved them into the air.  They threw their garments onto the street ahead of him.  They shouted at the top of their lungs, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  It was a big thing, in expectation of a bigger thing.  I mean, there were no racing cows but things like that only happen in Stanton!

Yet there was something unexpected about that parade, something disappointing about the guest of honor.  He wasn’t exactly what the crowd was hoping for.  He wasn’t riding on a white horse or even on the back of a shiny convertible.  He rode a lowly donkey.  He didn’t offer a rousing speech or accept the key to the city with his hand upraised with a victory sign.  He remained silent.  He didn’t stand with the city and temple dignitaries for a photo opportunity.  According to the gospel of Matthew he went to the Temple and threw out the moneychangers, upsetting the disposition of the authorities.  Jesus acted like he had something more important in mind, something not related to comfort and celebration and easy victory- but something that would confront the logic of the world and lead to a cross.

It is no wonder the author of Matthew quotes the crowd asking the question, “Who is he?”  Others might have been wondering, “What kind of parade is this?”  Even on that day of apparent triumph, Jesus didn’t seem to be what the crowd expected or wanted.  He wasn’t bringing them the easy, final celebration that would remove them from fear and darkness and death.  He had something else in mind.  He was going to bring hope and ultimate victory, but not through a grand parade.  He was going to bring God’s way through the midst of suffering and death.

The late Harvard University chaplain Peter Gomes wrote that the dual nature of Palm Sunday makes it difficult for us to know what to do.  Our heads say it is a day of triumphant entry, a festive dress rehearsal for an Easter triumph.  But our hearts focus on what is to come for Jesus in the week ahead, the sacrifices and sufferings that are yet to come.  And that picture isn’t so pretty.  As we watch this Palm Sunday parade in the midst of pandemic fear and isolation, we might better understand.  We would like a God who comes into our midst to remove the virus and change our situations quickly and with minimal pain.  Instead we are called to find the presence of God in the midst of our doubt and fear and struggle.

Gomes added that the only thing we can be certain about on Palm Sunday is the arrival of God’s love in the person of Jesus the Christ.  God is present in the parade.  The God who enters Jerusalem and who enters our lives this day will not take away our fear, our suffering, and our pain.  Instead God will enter into our fear our suffering, and our pain- to hear us, to understand us, to share it with us, and to help us pass through it- just as Jesus experienced it himself.

I am a huge Frank Sinatra fan.  I can listen to “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” over and over again.  I used to listen to Sinatra every Christmas Eve when we returned home from worship, and the kids were in bed, and the presents were under the tree.  Scott Hoezee of Calvin Seminary writes that Sinatra prided himself on looking back upon his life compared to the lyrics of perhaps his most famous song, “My Way.”  There is one tale that these lyrics were part of his last words.  But in reality, as Sinatra neared his death he whispered to a family friend, “I’m losing.”  Perhaps he understood that he could not control all of life, that he could keep life as he wished it, living it on his own terms.  Hoezee writes that maybe Old Blue Eyes was in touch with something fundamental in the human soul: the aching sense that we were made for life and that death and darkness gets in the way.  That is why we want to avoid it.  That is why we wish it would go away.

Maybe the crowd that Palm Sunday hoped that Jesus would be different.  They hope he would remove all of the pain and hardship of living so that life could be something celebrated in ease and comfort and certainty.  Instead he rode before them humbly, going all the way to death, just so he could be like you and me, convincing us that he truly understood the entirety of our human experience and bringing hope and meaning to us even when times and circumstances are most difficult.

Jesus leads the way, helping us to find our way by assuring us that what we see is not all that there is.  God will redeem these present moments and bring new possibilities and new life.  Believe the promise and be exceedingly glad.  Hosanna.  Hosanna.  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  Things may not be as easy as we wish.  We may not have the control we desire.  But God is with us.  And God will have the last word.