Livestreamed service

Matthew 21:1-11
Philippians 2:5-11

         We’re going to a parade this morning!

         But before the parade begins there is a dramatic musical flourish, a swelling of brass and percussion that announces not only the grandeur of what is about to happen but the holiness of the ordinary, the power of the commonplace, the miracle that is human existence, resilience, and persistence.

         If you close your eyes and listen, you might be able to hear it:

         First, there is the loud and almost frightening banging of drum and timpani and gong. And then, once that has got your full attention, there is a pause, a moment for you to wonder what magnificent or horrible thing is about to happen. That is when the trumpets begin a slow and simple but glorious melody. Then there’s the bass drum again, then the trumpets are joined by French horns and more percussion, and then trombone and tuba add harmony and depth and resonance.

         It is the kind of music that makes you glad to be alive. It is music that sounds like the soundtrack of creation, the crescendo building as God speaks light and life into a dark void. It is the kind of beauty that evokes a visceral response and, sure enough, before you even realize what you’re feeling, your body responds: there are goosebumps rising on your arms, neck hairs standing at attention, tears filling your world-weary eyes.

         What could it be? you wonder. Who could it be? What grand, over-the-top thing is about to happen?

         You open your eyes in expectation, and that’s when you see him: A simple, nondescript Nazarene, a peasant like you, riding a donkey, coming into the city from the Mount of Olives as if to provide the clearest alternative possible to what you and everyone else knows is happening on the other side of Jerusalem.

         There, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, leads an intentionally intimidating military procession. Columns of armor-clad soldiers on foot are followed by spear-wielding soldiers riding atop mighty horses, and then more horses pulling chariots. There is no music there, only the oppressive power of empire reverberating against narrow stone streets. There is no joy or hope there, only the subservient fear of hundreds of thousands of Jews come from across the known world to celebrate Passover.

         But here—here where you are, here where we are—there is the unarmed Jesus riding on a donkey, the very picture of humility, audacity, and love. In a city buttoned down by repression and fear, Jesus’ unorthodox parade has created an opening for something new. And in your heart, you feel something you haven’t felt in a very long time: hope.

         Others must be feeling it too, because anticipation flows like a electric current through the crowd. Before you know it, someone has started cutting branches from the trees, and then you and many others are doing the same, cutting the green branches and then spreading them across the road like some kind of carpet. The people too old or weak to cut branches are taking off their cloaks and putting them down on the road, an invitation for Jesus to walk not just over their clothing but also into their hearts.

         Then a shout rises up like a prayer:

         “Hosanna! Save Us! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

         Then you and everyone else joins in: “Hosanna! Save us!”

         And then there’s that music again.

         Now, I am fully aware that the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say a word about music. And you may be fully aware that the glorious piece of music I have described is Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

         But until I heard it played on the radio the other morning, until I began weeping as I thought of all God’s common children living and dying on ventilators, and all the other common people doing God’s mighty work in hospitals and grocery stores and factories and warehouses, I had never before heard it as the soundtrack of Jesus’ ministry.

         But what is Jesus’ so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem if not street theater for the common person? What is Jesus’ entire ministry of hanging out with society’s outcasts, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, loving the lonely, finding the lost, and threatening the powerful if not a hymn to the lowly? What better mission statement for the kingdom of God is there than to walk alongside the commoners, release the captives, bring good news to the poor, and do justice for the oppressed? What is more majestic than that which elevates the simple and everyday to fine art? And what is more godly and loving than to empty oneself of all divinity, privilege, and honor to live and die as a human commoner?

         Matthew tells us that when Jesus entered Jerusalem the whole city was in turmoil—because the people did not expect their savior to come riding into town on a donkey like any other peasant, and they did not understand who Jesus was. The whole city was in turmoil, because the people did not expect their God to be a commoner.

         Aaron Copeland was commissioned to write a fanfare in 1942, when when many Americans were going to war. “Fanfare for the Common Man” premiered in March 1943, when a majority of Americans were struggling to pay a revised income tax, and both Copeland and the conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra wanted to pay homage to humble workers.

         As much as I love Copeland’s music, it seems to me that God wrote the original fanfare for the common person—a symphony featuring all of creation, the exodus, the wilderness, an enlivening Spirit, a huge cast of unlikely heroes, a million and one tender mercies, countless do-overs, a baby born to poor parents in an occupied land, a refugee fleeing political persecution, a humble healer proclaiming God’s extravagant love from the back of a donkey, a servant washing feet, a rebel-prophet executed like a common criminal.

         And still God’s glorious music plays on, and the parade of God’s love for our world continues: in health workers wearing and re-using protective masks and gloves, in scientists working to create a vaccine, in doctors and nurses and other health care providers giving their all to care for their patients, in family members and friends unable to visit their loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes, in parents teaching their children, in children learning that love sometimes means doing what we don’t want to do and not doing what we want to, and in every person staying home, maintaining physical distance, washing their hands, caring for the sick, delivering food, and praying for ventilators, wisdom, protection, connection, and, most of all, healing for the sick.
The parade continues, and the fanfare rises like clockwork in many cities around the world: every evening as citizens applaud and bang pots and pans and shout their thanks to heroic health workers changing shifts.

         In these days of pandemic and shutdown, loss and death and fear and hope, let the same love be in us that was in Christ Jesus: a love that is willing to sacrifice everything for the good of others, a love that is obedient to the point of staying home—even on Easter, a love that humble and caring and still as committed as ever to bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly, a love that will do whatever it takes to deliver us unto freedom and wholeness and community.

         Let us praise the God who loves the human and the humble. Let us praise the God who exalts the lowly and raises the dead. Let us join the love parade, waving whatever we have, opening our hearts, giving thanks for the one who walks and suffers, lives and loves with us in our common humanity, and letting our souls be lifted by a glorious fanfare.

         God so loves this world. God so loves you.