The Big Parade

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | April 2, 2023

Psalm Sunday 2023

*Note: I presented this sermon on what would turn out to be my ‘first’ Sunday leading worship at McGrath and Wahkon in 2019. I think people might like to hear it again, four years later.

In Clarion, Iowa the second Saturday of June is Festival in the Park. It is the day when the town celebrates its civic pride. Everybody gets involved – the churches, the clubs the schools, merchants and civic organizations.

The highlight of the day, the big event of Festival in the Park is the parade. There’s nothing quite like a small-town parade. People start gathering along the parade route an hour or so before the parade starts. Friends meet, neighbours chat. There’s a general air of anticipation. Parades don’t happen everyday. The final minutes before the parade starts are almost tense. You hear children asking, “When will the parade be here?” They run into the street and peer down the road, as if maybe they’re missing something.

Then you hear the sound some distance away of a police car blowing its siren. That’s the signal; the start of the parade. You hear the deep muffled beat of drums from the high school band. Then way down the street, you see the flashing lights of the police car and maybe a fire truck in the lead, and you know the parade is coming.

Since the small-town parade is a celebration of local culture, you see all kinds of things. Local dignitaries – there’s Bernie the manager at the local grocery store; but for today he’s the Grand Marshall. You see farmers driving their tractors, the town fire truck; the marching bands may play a wrong note or two, but they play with pride.

There’s something you can always count on in the small-town parade. Behind that first police car there marches a group of men from the community. They are the military veterans. Some of the older ones ride in a golf cart, but the younger ones walk. Some of them wear their old uniforms, some of them just the hat. They carry different flags, the state flag, and their unit flags. The one flag that draws everyone’s response is the familiar colours of the stars and stripes. As the American flag approaches, people along the streets stand up. All the hats come off. There’s a smattering of applause and some people stand with their hand over their heart as the flag passes.

For a brief moment people are reminded of something greater than themselves. Sure, it might be Bill the high school custodian or Bud the insurance rep bearing the flag, but people are reminded of all the people who put their lives on the line in service to their country; some of whom never came back.

Patriotism goes in and out of style, but in the small town it lives close to the surface. People seem to think that because the flag can be held high at the front of a parade, then maybe it’s worth standing up for, worth taking off a hat for, worth a round of applause. Sure, to some people it might seem silly, but there’s nothing quite like a small-town parade. It’s a unifying act, in that for a few moments, differences are laid aside and people focus on a central theme: celebration.

Primitive peoples danced around the firelight in celebration of the hunt. Royalty hold stately processions in celebration of their coronation. Empires put on a show of military power. Soldiers march to and from war with a parade. If we have something to celebrate, we do it with a parade.

Even Jesus had a parade. We call it the triumphal entry, because it was a great celebration of Jesus. But if a few days later Jesus was crucified, where’s the triumph? What was it about a man riding into town on the back of a donkey that caused such a joyous commotion?

The story is told that when Jesus and his disciples neared Jerusalem, the disciples began praising God for all the deeds of power they had seen. Jesus arranged for the donkey, but I doubt he organized the parade. It is unlikely that he said, “Okay folks, when we round the next curve, everyone start singing.” I think the parade was a spontaneous event.

Jesus and his group were part of the crowds making their way into Jerusalem to observe the Passover. Jesus was riding the donkey and his followers were with him. It would have been a good-sized crowd; the disciples, their families, friends and other followers. 

At first, they might have just been talking about general things, the way conversations sometimes go. After awhile, maybe one of them said something like, “Remember when we had just a few loaves and fishes, and Jesus used them to feed that whole crowd?” “Or what about the time we saw him walk on water?” “Or just the other day when he raised Lazarus from the dead, I still can’t get used to that one.” “Or when his mother made him change the water into wine at that wedding.” 

Then as they traded stories of the things Jesus had done, miracles they witnessed, a sense of awe began to overtake them. One of them, quietly perhaps at first, began singing a hymn. Then other voices picked it up. Soon it swept through the crowd. People started laying their cloaks in front of the donkey. People started breaking off palm branches and waving them in the air. 

Some of the Pharisees were in the crowd and they thought enough was enough. “Hey you people, pipe down. You don’t what you’re getting yourselves into. Jesus, make them be quiet.”

Jesus replied, “How can you silence praise to God? Why if these people were silent on this occasion, the very stones would shout God’s praise.” 

That’s a parade I would like to have seen. Imagine what it would be like to join in the procession. Of course, we can see the parade through the eyes of others. And we can use our imaginations to construct a picture of those events. Who might some of those people be? Certainly, there were people along the road to Jerusalem whom Jesus had met over the course of his ministry. People whose lives he had transformed. Their stories are in the gospels; since they were the examples of the miracles for which the disciples were praising God, what would it have been like for them to see the Triumphal entry?

I imagine some of the folks from Nazareth saw the parade. They ran Jesus out of town. You can hear them say, “Look at him now, riding on that donkey. He’s gained quite a following. Who does he think he is, anyway? One of these days, he’ll get what’s coming to him.” And as they muttered their disapproval, the parade would pass them by. 

Maybe a man was there with his friends. The last time he saw Jesus was when his friends lowered him through the roof of a house where Jesus was holding a meeting. That was when he was paralyzed. He can still hear the words Jesus spoke to him, “Rise up, take your mat and go home.” He remembers too the inner wholeness he experienced when Jesus told him, “Your sins are forgiven. As the parade passed by, he runs to catch up. 

The Romans were in the area. They’re edgy because of all the people coming to town. They’re concerned about crowd control. But when the Centurion sees Jesus, he remembers his servant whom Jesus healed, just by saying the word. “Its okay men,” he says, “we won’t get any trouble from this crowd.” 

There could have been a woman there who knew what it was like to be an outcast. The songs of praise remind her of the time she crashed a party at the home of a Pharisee. They would have tossed her out, but Jesus stopped them. She clung to his feet, weeping in gratitude because he was the first person who told her that God’s grace was for her, too. As the crowd passes her by, she joins in the celebration. 

Perhaps on the road that day was a man who once had leprosy. When he sees Jesus, he remembers how he and his nine friends called to him from a distance, “Jesus, heal us.” He remembers how Jesus healed him, and how he never really thanked him for it. As the parade draws near, he steps into the road and says, “Thank you Lord.” 

Maybe a woman was there who once made the rounds of every doctor in the area. Not one of them could ease her chronic illness. Then one day, in another crowd, she saw Jesus and just reached out and touched the edge of his robe. She tried to slip into the crowd, but he found her and commended her for her faith. As Jesus passes by, once more she reaches out and touches the edge of his robe.   

Of course, there would be children there. They might be having more fun running in and around the people than in singing hymns. Parades are always exiting, and they were just happy to be there. Their spontaneous joy would be praise enough. 

Maybe a wealthy young man was making his way into town for the celebration. He remembers the time he met Jesus. He sees the joy of the disciples and he hears their song of praise. Maybe he thinks to himself, “I could have been a part of that.” He still feels the emptiness inside when he thinks of how he turned away from Jesus, unwilling to let go of his riches. As the parade draws near, he catches Jesus’ eye and sees a look there that says, “There’s till time friend.” 

And what would a parade of miracles be without Zacchaeus? The last time Jesus went by, Zacchaeus was watching from a tree. He remembers Jesus picking him out of the crowd and coming to his house for lunch. He remembers Jesus challenging him to be a true child of Abraham, and the joy he experienced in learning how to be a generous person. This time when the parade draws near, instead of people crowding him out, they say, “Make way for Zacchaeus. Let Zacchaeus get through.” 

And so the Messiah, who came in the name of the Lord, rode in triumph on the back of a donkey. The whole crowd shouted their joy. They were so caught up in the moment that few of them noticed the tears running down Jesus’ face. He wept not for joy; he wept because he knew what lay ahead for the city he entered. He knew that the people he called his own would reject him. He wept over the city like a parent weeps over a lost child. 

Yet in those tears there was peace. Peace, because no matter what happened, the victory belonged to God. That was the true triumph; that was what his ride was all about. It was what all the shouting and singing was about. If the disciples hadn’t praised God that day, well then, the stones would have shouted out. It would have been a great parade to see. We see it from the distance of many centuries, yet even today, Jesus can still work miracles in our lives. So let us join our voices to the chorus. Amen.

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