Texts: Luke 19:28-40; 23:13-26, 32-33
Neutrality evades us when we just read this story. We are present in it and we know it deep down, if we have any notion that we can claim to be followers of this man, Jesus.
So where are you standing in these scenes? Are you along the side of the street near the gate of the city when this strange little street theatre begins, with a itinerant preacher, some say prophet, riding into the city on a little horse, or was it a donkey, as Matthew and Mark suggest? Were you so glad to see this healer, this charismatic man finally make his way to the capital, that you are throwing off your shawl, your cloak and throwing it on the road to make a carpet for him, becoming an actor yourself in this theatre of the absurd? because it doesn’t feel so absurd when it happens. Has your heart been so touched that you actually break out of your stiff modest behavior to shout praises, and to trust that somehow this parade, this event, this man comes in the name of all that is holy?
Or maybe you are part of the priestly caste, of the tribe of Levi, and this Jesus seems to you like a radical revolutionary, one of those liberals who is going to bring down Rome’s heavy boot on your people’s neck, who is going to burden the next generation with yet more oppression, and you want him silenced. You want him dumped.
Or maybe, like Pilate, this man standing before you in this story, just still confuses you and you don’t know what to make of him, but you don’t think he deserves what you know he is going to get.
Then there is that fickle crowd that might have been the same bunch that earlier were shouting his praises, now yelling for him to be executed in the most awful way that humanity has ever devised, demonstrating to all of us the human capacity to say one thing one minute and its opposite the next and not even wince at the contradictions. Sometimes when the holy, when God comes too close, really close we fight it off, we rebel, we turn viciously against God. And what will happen to Jesus is surely vicious: not only is there the agony of having stakes pounded through your wrists, and ankles, but there is that suffocation that gravity inevitably causes, ribs pressing into lungs, slowly, slowly taking away the capacity to draw any breath at all. Usually it would take hours, even a day or more for people to die this way, and then their bodies would be left on the cross to be picked clean by the buzzards and vultures that circled around the city dump where it all happened, eyes plucked out before the poor sucker was even dead.
Maybe you are standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, and like Simon of Cyrene, have gotten caught up in something you would never otherwise have given any attention. There are the grieving women, wailing for him, feeling trapped by our position in life to do anything more than grieve and cry. Sadly, too much of what passes for Christianity these days is passive by-standing, nodding our sad approval of this story, and allowing ourselves to continue to feel helpless. After all, HE is the one who will do the work of saving us. We could see ourselves perhaps, God help us, as one of the two thieves on crosses beside him, or worse yet, one of those guards, just doing their job, and we might as well try to get something out of a sorry days’ work, if only through gambling for that cloak of his, not that we really want it, but the game of chance gives us a little excitement in otherwise dreary life.
At the end there are two other groups of people: those who had come to watch a spectacle—like those who used to gather to watch lynchings as happened in 1904 here in Lexington on the courthouse lawn or who say they would be glad to watch criminals who have received the death penalty being put to death; and there are those who had been close to him—his disciples, the women, his friends. The spectators went home because the prophet, presumed Messiah, died too soon and there was no magnificent rescue from a deus ex machina. The others stood grim, full of sorrow, stunned that it had happened at all, and maybe terrified that it might happen to them.
The reaction of the cast of characters remind me of how fickle we human beings are. One minute we are shouting our support of a proposal, an idea, or a person, and the next we are distancing ourselves as fast as we can. We want to be on the right side of an issue, a crowd, or a contest. Who wants to cheer for the home team after they have lost the game in the big dance? Who wants to be counted amongst the supporters of a proposal that another huge group of people oppose? Who wants to stand with a whistle blower whose actions weren’t appreciated and whom security escorts to the boundaries of the company’s property? Oh, we feel bad for those people caught on the wrong side of things, but we know better than to be found with them.
Do you remember the last time you changed your stance in relationship to someone or on an issue in order to align yourself advantageously? We all do it, and though we can find plenty of reasons with a moral resonance to justify our shift of opinions, deep down inside we know we have acted in violation of our own values because we didn’t want to be on the “wrong” side.
Jesus had no qualms about pleasing anyone other than the One who sent him. He didn’t care whether anyone liked him or the horse (or donkey) he rode in on. He would just as soon speak the damning truth to his most powerful critic as reach out in tender compassion to the most powerless people he met. Jesus stood for something—something worth dying for—the love of God and God’s love for all of humanity, a way of peace not a way of power, a way of being, not so much a way of thinking.
Episcopal priest and author Fleming Rutledge suggests that “What we see and hear in Jesus’ death is not just his solidarity with the victims of this world. It is that, but it is not only that. What we see and hear in the Cry of Dereliction is Jesus’ identification in his Cross not only with the innocent victims of this world but also with their torturers . . . What Jesus assumes on the Cross is not only the suffering of innocents but also the wickedness of those who inflict suffering.”
And when Jesus says, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), “he makes himself one, not only with my pain but with my sin–because I myself, and you yourselves, and all of us ourselves, are sometimes victims of others and sometimes torturers of others and sometimes both, and when we recognize this we are, as Jesus says to the scribe, ‘not far from the kingdom.’”
Palm Sunday forces us to ask ourselves again, “what do we stand for?” Is there a time when our love for our neighbor, especially our voiceless, victimized neighbor, would lead us to take an unpopular stand? Where is God asking us to be uncomfortable, maybe even to be insecure and frightened—to cheer the messiah, to follow the messiah, to join the messiah as he walks through Jerusalem, with a cross over his back, with his skin nearly flayed from his back, and a crown of thorns pressed into his scalp.
Ours is faith that invites us to understand that life is not to be measured in what we acquire, the trophies we bring home, but by the measure of our hearts, the depth of our love, the constancy of our commitments.
Christ invites people to stand with him: to see sisters and brothers in every face, and not deny the Messiah whose reflection we see in their eyes. We are the ones who cannot rest while there is injustice in our world because the injustice that is inflicted on others is inflicted on us—we are one with each other as Jesus was and is one with us. This is the truth we proclaim with a palm procession for Christ right down the center of the streets of the new Jerusalem, where ‘mourning and crying and pain are no more, where death is no more, because the first things have passed away,’ and the Kingdom of God has been made manifest in our words, in our actions, in our lives.
So Palm Sunday is an invitation to decide where we will stand, whether we will cheer something on Sundays and jeer at it on Friday, or whether we can, like the women and the disciples, have the courage to let his life-giving, life-sacrificing love live in us.
John Bell of the Iona Community in Scotland has written a wonderful hymn text, “Will you come and follow me?”, that issues the invitation from the man who asks us not so much to believe in him, but most importantly to follow him, as a prayer of the Christ in song for your decision.
May we have eyes to see and hearts to understand, and the courage to follow our hearts. Amen.