On this Palm Sunday, a day when we are called to consider the power of gates and mobs, let’s consider the story of Shannon Harris. Mr. Harris returned home to his small town in Newfoundland after attending the funeral for his girlfriend, and, according to a story in The Globe and Mail this past week, he received a call from the local grocer, whom he knew personally. His friend was not calling with condolences, to ease the pain of the grieving Mr. Harris. That would have been kind – his girlfriend had died from complications of diabetes at just 36 years old. No, the grocer wanted Mr. Harris to know that he would no longer be welcome to shop at the store. Word had travelled back. The funeral home in St. John’s was believed to be ground zero for a large cluster of COVID-19 cases. It had started with someone. And rumours were spreading. Panic was taking over. The gates were rising. The mob growing. And Mr. Harris, who would test negative for the virus, was shunned, and cast out.
A tale of gates and mobs.
This is the story of Palm Sunday. Jesus and the disciples arrive at the Gates of Jerusalem, the official beginning of the final chapter of the gospel story. Jesus arrives humbly on a donkey; he doesn’t swan in like a king, seeking adoration. But the mob offers it. They spread palms; they cheer: Hosanna!
And the gates of the city open for Jesus; he is welcomed inside. The mob are asking: who is this guy? What happening? How should we respond? Our gospel this morning contains a foreshadowing: the whole city was in turmoil.
Surely, that is a good word for our current state: turmoil. That is, a state of great disturbance, confusion, and uncertainty. We are living through that right now. Our regular lives are disturbed by physical distancing and isolation. We are confused about how best to protect ourselves. We are uncertain about how long it will last.
Just like those citizens of Jerusalem, we are in turmoil.
We know what happened in Jerusalem. The gates opened and then they closed. With a little push in a convenient direction – a few well-placed rumours, a bit of planted panic – the people decided they were lukewarm about this guy named Jesus. Was he really that great? Then they were suspicious of him. What did he really want? And then they hated him. Surely, he should be punished for something. They were the mob; they guarded the gate.
We are all the mob. We guard the gate.
And, boy, do we have a lot of gates to guard right now. Who gets close to us, who steps inside our house, who walks through the park, who crosses the border, who gets a ventilator.
These are legitimate gates, and we are right to tend them – for the safety of our families and the safety of our community. Maybe we have to be smart about it, and not just leave them wide open right now. That makes good sense, because physical distancing isn’t just about us; it will help our hospitals cope better and our health care workers stay safer. We have to wrestle with those ethical questions right now – if supplies are short, who gets them? Those aren’t easy discussions; not everyone will agree, but they are necessary.
What we do choose every day is who will be in the turmoil of the mob that guards the gate. Are we the ones easily swayed into judgement by fear and panic? Are we the ones who get a rise out of putting the blame on an easy target? Are we the ones who rile up everyone else?
Or, are we the voice that calms and soothes? The one that asks: what’s different today for this person than yesterday when you were shouting Hosanna! The one that suggests: we can be better than that, we can aim higher, we can be kinder.
The sad truth is when people feel very passionate about their gates, when they are most afraid, and the mob runs hot and loud, that voice of reason is often drowned out. Certainly, the thoughtful presence in the mob didn’t carry the day after Palm Sunday.
So, it may be tempting to stay quiet; not get involved. But then we know what happens. Things go wrong. People like Shannon Harris are mistreated. Roman guards show up to take innocent rabbis away.
In these times especially, let us remember to guard our gates responsibly. To follow the mob carefully. To pause when fear might cloud our judgement.
This is the sad reality of what happened to that mob on Palm Sunday. It wasn’t that there weren’t kind and reasonable voices in the midst of the turmoil. It’s that there weren’t enough of them. Amen.
(prepared for Sunday of the Passion—April 5, 2020)