Luke 22: 3923:49
I don’t know of any experience of worship that is more complex than this service for Palm Sunday, and none more intense. There are contrasts and tensions everywhere in what we are doing today. They are captured in the titles we give this day: It is both Palm Sunday and the Sunday of the Passion, the death of Christ.
In just the last few moments we have hailed Jesus as the triumphant King entering Jerusalem, and we have heard his anguished cry from the Cross. We have waved our palms of adulation and stood in the presence of a dying man crowned with thorns. We honor a king who is also a convict. We experience triumph and bitter tragedy. And we realize we ourselves have shifted from crying out “Hosanna” to uttering the terrifying words, “Crucify him!” This is not a day for the faint-hearted.
Today we see our lives and God’s life in all their immense depth and complexity. This is the whole thing, the full picture of our human lostness, and of God’s redeeming work. Today, we will trace three key moments of truth as we follow the way of the Cross.
It all begins with a joyful parade and with our hopes and longings for full, deep life. We gather, palms in hand, and join in the triumphant cry, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna!” we cry, as we place ourselves with the crowds who flocked along the road leading into Jerusalem to greet this rabbi who spoke with unheard of authority. It all seemed like a fulfillment of the words of the prophet Zechariah’s anticipating the coming of the Messiah: “Rejoice! Your king comes to you humble and riding on a donkey.”
He was entering the city in the most dramatic way possible. He had healed the lame and the demon-possessed, the heartbroken and the lonely. He had gathered around him people whose lives had worn them down and who longed for something better—people who were notorious, or poor, or losers, or just people stumbling and searching. He created a community where everyone was invited and no one was turned away.
And these struggling people had begun to believe in themselves and in their lives, because they began to trust again the Love at the heart of life. God would finally act to make things right. And they began to hope that the Kingdom of love and justice he spoke of just might be breaking into their lives. They wanted life, just as we do. And this man from God seemed ready to give it.
Now he was making a dramatic move, entering Jerusalem in this provocative, public way, like the arrival of a different kind of royalty. On Palm Sunday, Jesus goes public, taking his vision of a world ruled by God’s love and justice. The crowds flocked to greet him.
Flannery O’Connor once wrote a story called “The Displaced Person,” which is her retelling of these Palm Sunday events as they might unfold on a small farm in the South in the 1940’s. The story focuses on Mrs. McIntyre, a proud woman who is trying to keep her farm running as best she can despite lazy and incompetent farm hands all around. One day a Displaced Person arrives, a refugee from the German concentration camps now transplanted to America. He is a quiet, odd man who simply does his job day in, day out. Finally someone has come to the farm who will get the work done, Mrs. McIntyre thinks. He repairs the equipment, he puts in long hours working the field. Things are finally beginning to work well. Mrs. McIntyre is jubilant. “He is my salvation,” she says.
“Hosanna!” we cry as this service begins. The first moment of truth of this day is our hunger for a better life than we have, a life that works, and our looking to this man from the outside, this man on a donkey, to lead us.
But all of sudden in this Palm Sunday service the whole thing turns bitterly sour. The story turns dark, and it can feel as if we have been tricked. Some people tell me that they refuse to utter the words “Crucify him,” when the congregation is asked to do its part. But this service asks us to face a second moment of truth: that among the crowds who celebrated Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem were the ones who would call for his death, and all of his disciples eventually abandoned him. The very life we hunger and long for also threatens us. Finally we, like the crowd, can’t follow him, or won’t, not completely, and we realize that his kind of love is so threatening that we would rather get rid of it.
That’s what happens in Flannery O’Connor’s story. The Displaced Person, who at first seems to be the salvation of that struggling farm simply by doing what he is given to do, begins to threaten everyone around him. First the country white workers find their laziness exposed and Mrs. McIntyre fires them. Then the black workers discover that they can’t get away with their old patterns any more. And finally the Displaced Person arranges for his niece from Poland to join him in America by agreeing to marry one of the black teenagers on the farm in order to gain admission as an immigrant, and Mrs. McIntyre finds her whole way of life threatened.
Finally everyone on the farm realizes they would rather have their life the way they had it. It’s better to get rid of him. “He’s extra. He doesn’t fit in,” Mrs. McIntyre says.
And as the story works its way to the end, the Displaced Person is killed in what is supposedly an accident. A tractor slips out of gear as the Displaced Person is working underneath, and slowly rolls forward crushing him. As it happens, Mrs. McIntyre and the farm workers are all standing there numb as they watch it happen. And, they stand there motionless when it is over, realizing that they are free again, free of the hard claims of his truer life.
It is startling but true: Christ was crucified in the name of God by decent, responsible people who were for the most part doing what they told themselves was necessary. He seemed irreverent and anti-religious. He seemed cavalier about obeying religious traditions and laws. When it came to politics, he spoke of a new social and political order—the Kingdom of God, he called it—that challenged the authority of Rome and anyone else whose practices failed to reflect God’s love and justice. He was seen as subversive. He made harsh demands: Lose your life to find it, turn the other cheek, forgive seventy times seven, take up your cross and follow, love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul. The love he brought threatened their religion, their politics, their whole way of life. It would change how they treated the poor, the prisoner, the left out.
It was too much, too hard, with too many risks. Life is too complicated. Their lives, like so much of ours, were built on fear—fear of the unknown, fear of the future, fear that without power we are lost, fear that we are unlovable and unloved, fear that our selves might melt into insignificance if we don’t assert ourselves and fight for our place in the sun.
“We would rather be ruined than changed,” as T.S. Eliot once put it.
And so they, and we, place on him all our fears and wounds. He becomes our scapegoat, the one to get rid of, who takes the brunt of our fear of becoming our real selves.
“Trust me, trust God,” Jesus says. “We can’t,” we say. “The world is too frightening.” “Trust me,” he says. “God is holding you. You don’t need to be afraid.”
“Get away from us,” we say. “It’s too much, it’s too hard.” Finally, we say, “Get rid of him. He’s extra. He doesn’t fit in.” And in our fear we kill him. As we sing in one of the great Holy Week hymns, “ ‘Twas I Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.”
From “Hosanna” to “Crucify him.”…That is a long and terrifying journey this day asks us to make. We have seen two great moments of truth—our need and longing for God, our fear of being changed.
But we would not be here were it not for the third and greatest moment of truth. Because this man whose life we envy, but whose love we fear, finally now hangs on the cross for us, loving us, forgiving us, taking our pain and our betrayal into himself.
With so many images of explosions in our memories from the Iraq war, imagine a group of soldiers in the field who see a hand grenade lobbed into their midst. Without thinking one of the men throws himself on it, and as it explodes in a blast of fire and dirt, the man dies and his friends survive. One man has taken the destruction into himself, allowing it to rip through his own flesh, to tear him apart, so that his friends could live.
The evil of our world will never stop unless somehow it can be absorbed. That is what Christ on the Cross does today. He takes the explosive evil of the world into himself, smothering it in His love, forgiving, embracing the human race even in its destructive life. And we Christians believe that he is showing what God has been doing from the beginning of time. He takes on the evil of war and cruelty and betrayal. He takes on your sin, your wounds and fears, and mine.
If our faith only proclaimed the Palm Sunday parade and joy and admiration of Jesus, it would be a thin thing, leaving out the truth of how caught we are, how unable we are to be as free as we wish.
The only answer to those fears that bind us is the gift of a love that will not stop forgiving us and healing us. Christ’s suffering is for our healing. By his wounds we are healed, just as in a few moments his Body and Blood will feed us with his life.
The whole truth…that is what today is about—a deep, strong, demanding love that will stop at nothing, not even a cross, to heal us and our violent, selfish world. We have all of Holy Week now to let this truth sink into our lives. Today it is enough to be grateful.