"Love and Courage in the Midst of a Crisis"
Scripture – Matthew 21:1-11
Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020

Covid-19 has dictated that lacrosse seasons, senior proms, and graduation ceremonies for tens of thousands of young people will probably end with an incomplete sentence rather than an exclamation point.

Everyone's lives have been derailed. Weddings and concerts and all types of events have been postponed; even memorial services. The disappointment of cancelled athletic seasons and graduations pales when I consider how people are dying in the hospital these days. They die alone. Their loved ones cannot gather around them at the end, because they are barred from the hospital. It's crucial not to expose more people to the deadly virus, but being separated from your loved ones at the end of life is so cold, so bleak, so grim. It unsettles our souls.

Today, Palm Sunday, is the day in our liturgical year when we remember Jesus' entry into Jerusalem to the shouts of his crowd of followers. Every year we celebrate this day in worship with our children and adult choir processing down the center aisle and the rest of us singing and waving palm branches. However, this year, the image of Jesus riding into the Holy City surrounded by a throng of well-wishers is juxtaposed by most of us sheltering in place. As I reflect on that first Palm Sunday, in my mind's eye I picture a swarm of people marching along with Jesus shouting "Hosanna!" and no one is practicing social distancing. No one fears catching a deadly virus from anyone standing nearby. Is the Palm Sunday narrative too discordant for today's crisis or are there lessons to be gleaned that can speak to our unnerving situation?

Keep in mind that Jesus did not simply show up at a random moment in Jerusalem. He calculated his arrival to coincide with the week of Passover when thousands of pilgrims flooded the city for the annual celebration. This was the religious festival when Jews celebrated Moses liberating the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt centuries earlier. Dreams of freedom filled the air.

The Romans, who now occupied the land and kept their boots firmly planted on the necks of the Hebrews, became nervous each Passover. Passions ran at a fever pitch and the Romans had to dispel any notion that the time was ripe for another liberation, so extra troops were dispatched to this epicenter of activity as a show of force.

Pilate was the Roman governor who ruled the territory of Palestine that included Jerusalem. Each Passover it fell to him to reluctantly leave his plush villa overlooking the Mediterranean and lead additional soldiers into Jerusalem to create an intimidating presence.

Jesus was well aware that this was a hazardous moment to enter Jerusalem with his ragged band of followers, but he was undeterred. He summoned enormous courage to oppose both the political and religious hierarchy that was oppressing the people.

Why did he embark on this mission that was doomed to fail? One word: love. His intense compassion for people made him a fierce opponent of every power that enslaved. Later in the week, when he gathered with his followers for the Passover meal and he sensed that time was running out, he called on his followers to love. "I give you a new commandment," he said, "that you love one another just as I have loved you."

Courage and love marked his final week. And it is those two traits by which the followers of Jesus are to be recognized. Surely, in the midst of this pandemic, these are the traits that we are to display – courage and love.

Natural disasters and war bind people together and call forth the best in them. If a hurricane rips through a city and people are stranded by flooding, not only first responders, but nearby neighbors will jump into their boats and head to the rescue despite the risk to their own lives. If an earthquake topples a building and people are trapped under the rubble, people will dig with their bare hands and crawl into crevices that could collapse any moment to try to save the victims. Those not on the front line will make financial contributions to help those who suffer. A natural disaster reminds us that we are all in this disaster together.

A similar dynamic occurs when we are under attack. We rally collectively and watch each other's backs. Side-by-side, we focus on a common enemy.

But what about an invisible, deadly virus that is transmitted person to person? Will fear that another might contaminate us along with the practice of social distancing incrementally construct a protective wall that alienates us from one another? Will the threat of death or the routine of isolation shred our empathy for others?

What will be the lasting effects of this time of anxiety and fear and avoiding contact with one another? What psychological toll will be extracted from being warned hour after hour that being around other people can be deadly?

Our nation faced a similar situation before – the 1918 flu pandemic. Many of us knew little to nothing about it until the current crisis struck. I was stunned to discover that more Americans died in the 1918 flu than World War I, World War II, and the Viet Nam War combined. The reason few of us knew much about the 1918 scourge, was because so little was written about it. It appears to have been an event people wanted to forget as soon as possible. One writer suggests that Americans "did not like what it revealed about their character. It was everyone for himself and little empathy for others. It was a shameful memory and therefore suppressed. Author, Dorothy Ann Pettit says that Americans 'emerged from it physically and spiritually fatigued. The flu had a sobering and disillusioning effect on the national spirit.'"1

As we watch the daily number of cases and deaths escalate, anxiety grapples with our confidence and fear claws at our courage. Anyone who does not have a drop of worry or dread about Covid-19 is simply not paying attention. There is good reason to be afraid and apprehensive. However, despite our fear, we must summon courage. Not phony bravery that ignores sound medical advice or imagines oneself to be immune, but the kind of intrepid spirit that stands firm and does not collapse because we know God is with us whatever may come. The kind of courage that is fortified by knowing nothing can separate us from the love of God. The kind of courage that gains energy from bonding with one another, our brothers and sisters in Christ. As Jesus was bold to enter Jerusalem when people in power were gunning for him, we too must be bold in the face of this pandemic.

Finally, we must not allow the threat of death or the routine of isolation dwindle our empathy for others. Jesus said, "Love one another as I have loved you," because love is what makes life rich, love is what creates a meaningful life, love is what spreads joy and inspires hope.

It has been inspiring to see those on the front lines – the nurses, doctors, and other health care workers keep heading into the hospital day after day to do their best to heal those with Covid-19. It has been inspiring to see people creating protective shields in their homes to help with the shortage. It has been inspiring to hear about women pulling out old sewing machines they haven't touched in over a decade, sewing masks for nursing homes and hospitals. It has been inspiring to see the music videos people have been creating and people joining their neighbors in singing from their balconies. It has been inspiring to see our members making hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to feed the homeless men, women and children who suffer the most. It has been inspiring to hear about the phone calls and zoom meetings to remind people that they are not alone; they are still connected with their church family.

What is your unique calling in this crisis? What does God want of you?

Whatever it is, do it with courage and do it with love. Remember: God is with you.


  1. David Brooks, “Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too,” The New York Times, March 12, 2020.


Prayers of the People ~ Sudie Niesen Thompson

Steadfast Lord – Though we are scattered – around our city, across state lines – we join our voices with the crowd that gathered long ago: "Hosanna! Save us, Lord!"

"Save us," we cry. For – like those who flooded Jerusalem's streets to welcome the Son of David – we are weary. We are weighed down. We feel as though we are held captive to the forces of destruction and death. We long for the One who comes in the name of the Lord to set us free, to make us whole.

Save us, Lord, from the disease that is running rampant throughout our world. That is the desire of all our hearts. But we also realize that you, O God, call upon us to slow its spread, to safeguard our communities, to shield the vulnerable from this virus. So save us, we pray, from all that causes us to turn inward, all that causes us to view others simply as threats to our safety and security.

Save us, Lord, from the fear that binds our compassion and blinds us to our common humanity. Save us from selfish impulses that tempt us to hoard resources, leaving some with too much and others with too little. Save us from the delusion that we are powerless in the face of this invisible threat, when – in fact – our power lies in sacrifice and service. Save us, Lord. Hosanna in the highest heaven!

Loving Lord – Today we remember that your Son chose this power to heal the world. While Roman authorities opted for warriors' steeds, you rode into the city on a humble donkey. While Caesar commanded honor and tribute, you kneeled like a servant at the feet of your friends. While the empire wielded military might, you embraced the weakness of the cross. All this to show the world that love triumphs. Over tribulation. Over sin. Over evil. Over death.

God, help us to use this same power – the power of sacrificial love – to pour ourselves out in service. As we turn toward Calvary, give us the courage to face the suffering of this world. By your Spirit, give us tender hearts so that we might offer comfort to those who grieve; give us helping hands so that we might lift up those who are caring for the sick; give us discerning minds and a shared determination, so that, together, we might develop solutions that will ease the suffering of sisters and brothers near and far. Enter our hearts and homes this day, and set us free to love with your love, until we all experience the joy of new life.

This we pray in the name of the one who comes, the one who gave us words to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.