By Dr. Rev. Barbara Barkley
Scripture reading: Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11
Sermon for April 16, 2017
We know the story. We hear it every year. On Palm Sunday, the people are so excited about Jesus, they line up along the streets, they wave palms, they put their cloaks on the ground, they shout out “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” they treat Jesus like the King they hope he will be. Within a very short time many of the same people are shouting “Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!” We understand this story. The people had expectations, they had high hopes, they put all of their dreams onto one man. But they wanted him to change their lives in a very specific way. They wanted him to overthrow the control of the Roman government over their lives. They wanted a military leader who would end their oppression and set them free. They wanted a Savior, but one who met their ideas of what that looked like and how it would affect their lives. One who would save them now from the hardships of this lifetime by ending those hardships, by coming in glory and allowing them to live full, vibrant and rich lives. And when he did not live up to their expectations, when he did not do what they wanted in the way that they wanted, when he overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple, when he confronted both the ways they were thinking and the ways they were behaving, when he acted from a place of peace rather than in a military fashion, when he called them to fix themselves and care for others rather than having him fix “the others” (the Romans) and pamper to their wants in the way they wanted them, when he called them to faithfulness and love rather than simply making their lives better for them - they became so irate, so angry, so disappointed, that they had him killed.
Jesus went in a week’s time from being lauded, sought after, adored, worshipped, hailed as the Messiah and the promised King to being seen as a villain. I’ve shared with you before Kierkegaard’s saying about grief – “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you'll never have.” Well, they had envisioned a future that Jesus was not going to deliver. And the disappointment from that was so real, so great, so tangible for people; those in this capital city felt so broken-hearted that they felt personally betrayed that Jesus was not the person they wanted him to be, and they responded by rejecting him to the point of wanting him dead and having him killed in a most horrible way.
Do we do this? Is this a mirror for us into our own feelings and thoughts? When our hopes and dreams are disappointed, when the future that we envision will not come to pass and we have to let it go, we can feel so hurt and betrayed that we want another’s destruction. We can feel so angry and harmed by the behavior and disappointing actions of people who are not the way we want them to be, who do not do what we hope they will do, who do not live up to our hopes and dreams or even our expectations, that we can have deep and repeating visions of revenge. But while we may feel this way, I think very few of us are actually people who would actively work or even actively wish for someone to die, and certainly not to die in this kind of horrible way in which Jesus was killed. What would it take for us to feel that way? What kind of pain must those who were shouting “crucify” at the end of the week have been feeling that they wanted him dead? The pain must have been intense. It must have been deep. What kind of disappointment would it take for you to feel that way?
My experience of this community is that it is made up of very thoughtful, caring people. We are thoughtful and caring enough that I would imagine we would probably recognize our disappointment at some level as being about ourselves. We are thoughtful enough that we might know that it was our issue, at the core level, that caused us to envision who someone else should be, what they should do and how they should do it, and what our future should look like. But even when we can’t do that, even when we still blame the other for what has come to pass or failed to come to pass, even when we are heart-broken, we still probably wouldn’t try to kill the object of our disappointment. It would take something enormous for us to feel that way. Even in the situation we read about surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion, in which the hopes of a future free from political oppression, the hopes of a person who would save them in this political and practical way were dashed, I still think that we probably would not, even so, be baying for blood. That kind of violent reaction is just not normally how we behave. But then I find myself wondering. Where were the people who could have stood up next to Jesus and supported him when the crowd became angry, violent and cried for his death? Where were they? Where were the people who could have said, “No! He is doing what God has called him to do. It may not be what you expected. It may not be what we wanted, but we need to open our hearts, open our minds to the new thing that God is doing.” Or even those who had less insight into who Jesus was and his identity, but who still must have seen that killing him wouldn’t solve anything – where were those sane voices of calm and reason? Voices that said, “Killing this man will not make you feel better! It will not ease your disappointment, it will not bring about the peace that you are hoping for.” While there can be a mob mentality towards destruction, I think most of us probably would not have been part of it.
But still, where would we have been? My fear for myself is not that I would have been fighting for his death. My fear for my own place in that scenario is that I would have been the quiet voice that failed to speak out against the injustice of their cries for his death. I think it is more likely, in other words, that we would have been part of the silent crowd, celebrating his entry into Jerusalem, and then being silent when those extremely disappointed with the reality of God’s reign of peace turned to violence. We would have remained silent. We would have stood by, maybe shaking our heads at the insanity of it, but not acting ourselves to stop it. There are a lot of reasons for that silence. The strongest reason of course being fear. If they stood up to those crying for his crucifixion, they, too may have ended up dead. There children might have been left without parents. Their children might have been killed too. But despite that fear we are called to ask, what is that silence? Is that less evil? Is that less guilty in the face of Jesus’ death?
Bonhoeffer said - “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” He said this during World War II as he saw the many people who may not have participated in Hitler’s reign of terror, but who also failed to confront it. These too were people who were afraid. They were afraid for their own lives, afraid for the lives of their families. Their fear makes sense. But standing and being silent witnesses to Jesus’ entry, to Jesus’ actions in that week and to Jesus’ death – these are acts that leave us guilty as well. They also call us into the current reality of our world. And we have to ask ourselves in what ways do we remain silent now. Who do we fail to defend? Who do we fail to stand up for? What injustices and even evils in the world do we choose to be silent about? To simply stand by and watch, or wait, for God or someone else to fix. What things are we afraid to take a stand on, for good reasons? I watched a documentary this last with with my son on Anne Frank. One of those who lived through the Holocaust, I believe it was actually Anne’s father said that the nicest people in the world were the Germans who did nothing. They were nice, they did not create waves. But they also did not stand up to injustice. Again, we can understand the danger, the risk they would have been taking had they chosen to speak. But in failing to do so, they allowed great evil to occur and were participants in it.
It is hard to stand up to injustice. It is even harder to defend people whom we, too, may not like, may not understand, or who may have disappointed us. But Bonhoeffer also said, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.” Scott Peck described evil as the inability to face the dark sides of ourselves, which we then project out onto others and work to destroy in the other. And Mitch Albom in his book, “the Five People you Meet in Heaven” put it like this. “Holding anger is a poison. It eats you from the inside. We think that hating is a weapon that attacks the person who harmed us. But hatred is a curved blade. And the harm we do, we do to ourselves.”
It is important for us to understand the pull within our own beings towards either destruction or silence in the face of injustice, especially when we are afraid. It is important as we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem those things that cause us to react with such rage and anger in the face of disappointment. It is important as we remember the passion of Christ to remember the times that we, too, stand by in silence. And then, as we look at that square in the face, as we are called to face our own destructive tendencies and our own tendencies to be silent in the face of evil, we are called to two things.
The first is to own our own part so that we can change it. We cannot become the people God calls us to be without seeing, owning and repenting our own destructive tendencies and our own failure to speak against evil. To work to change it. To commit to standing for those who have no one to stand up with them. This is not easy. It is deeply hard, especially when we are afraid. But when we cannot face the evil in ourselves, we are in grave danger of letting it take us over. We must face it, we must confront it. Especially when it takes the form of apathy, and of inactivity.
But the second thing that we are called to, which can be even harder, is, even in the face of such evil as the crucifixion of Christ, to try to respond with some grace to those who did react to Jesus in this way, these people who turned 180 degrees in their behavior towards him. We are called to search out and find compassion, rather than judgment and condemnation, even for these people. That doesn’t mean we allow them to act this way. It doesn’t mean we allow injustice. But when we can understand the other, the one doing evil, we have a much greater chance of changing it, of confronting it. We must do this – see the other with compassion for two reasons. First because they are ourselves. And second because Jesus calls us to love and not anger, rage or destruction towards others. Connie Schultz put it like this, (56), “If we can’t remember the wrong turns, we’re bound to get lost again.” Passion week, Holy week, calls us to remember the wrong turns and to strive to get it right the next time.
As I wrote this sermon I was reminded of a scene from MASH. In this episode, kids from the United States wrote letters to the MASH doctors and staff. Most of the letters were positive, expressing gratitude for the work the doctors had done. Some asked questions. But one of the letters that Hawkeye received was from a kid who was spouting deep anger and even hatred at the MASH doctors. He wrote that his brother had been injured and had been sent to a MASH unit. The doctors in the MASH unit fixed him up, but in doing so, they enabled him to return to fighting and he had then been killed. The young kid hated the doctors who had made his brother better because in making him well, they had sent him to his death. The letter deeply affected Hawkeye. But eventually, he responded in this way:
“Ronnie, it’s not a good idea to take the love you had for your brother and turn it into hate. Hate makes war and war is what killed him. I understand your feelings. Sometimes I hate myself for being here. But once in a while in the midst of this insanity a very small event can make my being here seem almost bearable. I’m sorry I don’t have an answer for you, Ronnie, except to suggest that you look for good wherever you can find it.”
We are called to love. Love is action. But it is not the action of simply joining a fickle crowd who moves from worship to destruction in the course of a week. And neither is it the silent standing by while the destruction takes place without standing up to say “no”.
I’ve shared this poem before, but every Palm Sunday I am reminded of it again: by Martin Niemöller.
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Perhaps we would write the poem differently, and I would encourage you to think about how you might write this poem today. Maybe we are called to reflect back on what we studied in Matthew this month and rewrite it this way:
First they came for the hungry, but I did not speak out because I was not hungry.
Then they came for the thirsty, and I did not speak out because I was not thirsty.
Then they came for the naked, but I did not speak out because I was not naked.
Then they came for the stranger, the immigrant, but I did not speak out because I was not a stranger, not an immigrant.
Then they came for the sick, but I did not speak out because I was not sick.
Then they came for those in prison, but I did not speak out because I was not in prison.
And finally they came for me…and there was no one left to speak for me.”
As we walk this week through the Passion of Christ once again, I invite you to spend some time reflecting on and striving to understand all of those who acted in this part of our faith story. To understand, I invite you to take some time to picture and to place yourself in all of those positions. See yourself as one who went from hailing Christ to shouting for his death. What does that teach us about ourselves? How do we have compassion for that kind of pain and disappointment that can turn so quickly from love to hate and destruction? See yourself as one who stood by silently. In what ways do we still do this? In what ways is it easier and yet just as evil to fail to stand by those who need us to speak for them? See yourself as one who did take a stand but found your voice silenced and ineffective. How did that feel? Where are you able to find God and hope and life in that? And finally, picture yourself as one who takes up your cross and follows Christ all the way to the end. Where does that lead you in your relationship with God?
We walk towards this cross this week. We go from hailing and celebrating Jesus’ coming to finding ourselves in pain and loss. The good news, even in this hard, holy, passionate week, is that God is with us at every step. God understands how we feel and why. God has compassion and forgiveness and grace for us even when we can’t find it for ourselves. And God calls us beyond even the cross – and eventually into the new life of Easter. It is just around the corner, waiting for us with lilies and joy. Amen. Click here to follow Barbara's Blog