Phillipians 2:511; Psalm 118:12, 1929; Luke 23:149
Sometime ago, not long after the war in Iraq began, I remember seeing a photograph from Iraq that appeared on the cover of the New York Times. It showed an American GI, dusty, looking tired in his helmet and battle garb, cradling a little Iraqi girl six or seven years old, her face crinkled with weeping. The caption explained that both her parents had just been killed in a battle explosion.
The picture captured the dark ironies of these times. A soldier, sent to fight and kill, on a mission to liberate an oppressed people, now holding the innocent young victim of a war she couldn’t begin to understand. The picture said more than words ever could—about the intermingling of good and evil, love and hate, violence and compassion.
I thought of that picture two weeks ago, when the Cathedral hosted a service of prayer for peace and an end to the war in Iraq. Representatives of peace groups from nearly every Christian denomination across the country gathered here to listen, sing, and pray together. No one who was there that night will forget the simple witness of a woman whose son had been killed in Baghdad. In a quiet, heavy voice she described answering her door, only to see a man in uniform, who said to her, “Are you Sherwood Baker’s mother?” That was the day, she said, that death came to her door, and she said she collapsed on the ground and realized she was screaming. She went on to speak that night of the tragedy of war, of the terrible losses to Americans, and the even more terrible losses to the people of Iraq.
I remember, as I sat in the nave and listened to her, that it seemed as if there were a great cross standing here, in the crossing of this Cathedral, and on it was hanging Jesus himself. As she spoke, it seemed as if her grief was God’s grief, and that it was something we all shared. And for some reason the words of a haunting song came to mind, an old Billie Holiday jazz song that goes, “There’s a strange fruit hanging from the tree.” It was a song about the lynching of African Americans in the South, and I first heard it on a television documentary that showed old photographs of those brutal deaths.
It struck me that both these moments, the soldier cradling the child, the mother grieving her son, are strange fruit, the fruit of a human race that has not learned to live without destroying one another, that has turned to violence time and again to solve its problems. We are part of a species that will easily seek vengeance, that will steadily ignore the suffering of others, that seems to know little about forgiveness. Think of the massive toll of the wars of the 20th century, the devastations of Hitler and Stalin, of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the warring tribes Rwanda. Here in Washington the murder toll continues to climb. Our own country sees far more people die from gun wounds, more than 30,000 per year, than the rest of the developed nations combined. One billion of the world’s people aren’t sure they will live until tomorrow. And our world has the capacity to end this, but doesn’t.
There is strange fruit hanging from the tree, the fruit of our selfish, fearful, violent ways. We human beings have a lot to answer for.
Palm Sunday is a complex day. Things shift so fast it makes your head spin. In the last few moments we have hailed Jesus as the triumphant king entering Jerusalem, and then we’ve heard his anguished cry from the cross. We have waved our palms in praise, and then stood in the presence of a dying man crowned with thorns. We honor a king who becomes a convicted criminal. And we realize that we ourselves began this morning crying out “Hosanna,” and have ended up in the last few moments crying out the awful words, “Crucify him!”
You know, in the old days the church didn’t put us through this unpleasantness on Palm Sunday. This day used to be what a friend of mine called the “let’s have a parade day,” a happy Sunday the children always loved because they got to march around the church, sometimes, even with a real donkey, and with glorious music. The story of the cross was saved for the faithful few who came on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. That suited a lot of people. Anne Lamott in her recent book, Plan B writes, “I don’t have the right personality for Good Friday, for the crucifixion. I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection.”
So now it all happens in one service, on one day. Palm Sunday is one of our most indispensable days. We cannot know the meaning of Easter without the Cross. It exposes our lives and God’s life in all their depth and complexity. This is the whole thing, the full picture of our human lostness and of God’s rescue mission.
Two New Testament scholars, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, have written a book called The Last Week, which details the social and political dynamics of what was happening in Jerusalem in the final days of Jesus’ life. And they begin by saying that there was something uneasy in the air already as the week of Passover began in the year 30 A.D. It was the holiest time of year for a frightened and oppressed Jewish people. And into the city that day came not one procession but two.
Riding in from the east was a man on a donkey coming down from the Mount of Olives and being cheered wildly by his followers. This man Jesus had come from the peasant village of Nazareth, with his startling message about the kingdom of God, and his followers were mostly the poor. He had been teaching, healing, calling people to follow. Now he was going public. He was taking the demands of God’s justice and compassion directly to Jerusalem, the Washington, D.C. of ancient Israel, where he could confront the political and religious powers of his day.
Then entering the city from the other side, the west, was Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, leading a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. It was the standard practice of Roman governors of this area to come to Jerusalem for the major Jewish festivals, in case there was trouble, and this was Passover, the biggest of them all. Pilate came to keep the peace. There had been riots this time of year before. Sometimes it took crucifying a few troublemakers to settle things down.
Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God. Pilate proclaimed the power of empire. These two processions were headed for a collision.
Once in Jerusalem Jesus would soon be turning over the tables in the Temple, whose leaders were now collaborating with the Romans. Soon his support would fall away, and by the end of the week his disciples would be hiding as the religious leaders condemned their leader and the political leaders sentenced him to death. The story would end with Jesus hanging alone in agony. Perfect love, hung on a cross. Strange fruit hanging from that tree.
Do you remember the stir made several years ago by Daniel Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners? It is a quietly chilling account of how ordinary German people participated in Hitler’s “final solution.” It took a whole society to keep the death trains running, to round up the Jews, to be careful not to question what was going on. He describes the sheer ordinariness of it all. Plain people slowly, subtly became part of overwhelming evil.
As a Southerner living there in the Sixties I can tell you plenty about that—about kind, good, churchgoing Southerners who would turn red-faced with hatred at the thought of an African American setting foot in their church.
And it makes me wonder, where have I quietly bought in to the world’s evil? What is my part in a nation with an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, a nation that is the world’s greatest exporter of weapons, cigarettes, and violent movies, a nation that will unravel its social service net, before it will raise taxes or challenge other priorities?
And what can we make of this war in Iraq that has clearly drawn us into the world’s violence and destruction? We are implicated in this war. Regardless of how we got here, or of the solution that any of us could propose now, we should perhaps pause to reaffirm a few Christian essentials. One is that war always represents a failure. We are made to be people of peace, to pray and work for peace, and Christ calls us to use our resources not to kill but to heal. But secondly, as long as there are dictators and terrorists, a strong military will be necessary, and we must be grateful to our soldiers who risk their lives to defend our country and helpless people around the globe. Third, nations with power run special risks—of assuming that military might is the best answer to the problems they face. Force is a clumsy, destructive instrument, better at halting evil than building something good. And fourth, given our capacity for self-deception, and because the line between good and evil runs through every nation and every human heart, we must be slow to fight and quick to listen to the voices who challenge us. And finally, we must not leave Iraq any worse than we find it now, and must commit ourselves to rebuilding a shattered nation.
It is easy in a world like this to hunker down and think only about me and mine, or what our nation needs and wants. Let the rest of the world with all its problems fend for itself. Like the people of Jerusalem, it’s easy to say, ‘Who needs this troublemaker, or these troubling questions, intruding into our lives?’ “Crucify him.” We said it a few minutes ago. In some ways we’ve been saying it all our lives.
There’s strange fruit hanging from the tree. It’s the fruit of my fear and yours, my self-protection, my desire to make the world work my way, and yours.
But that’s not the whole story. This fruit reveals something more. It shows us a Love that will stop at nothing to go with us through the evil and lostness of our days. Here on this cross, God takes all of our fear, violence, and anger into his own life, accepting the consequences of what we do to each other.
With war so much on our minds, I want tell you about a scene from a novel called The Soldier’s Return, in which British writer Melvyn Bragg recounts the story of a soldier named Sam returning home from the battles of the Second World War. In it there is a scene in which the soldiers were sitting around in a large clearing, hundreds of them resting after hard days of fighting. They were cleaning their equipment, getting everything organized. Everyone sensed they had a day or two to relax. But then Ian, one of the soldiers sitting there casually cleaning a grenade, for some reason no one could understand, pulled the pin out before removing the fuse. So all of a sudden he had a count of five before it blew up.
Sam saw the look on his friend’s face. Both knew that there was nowhere to throw the grenade without killing some of the others. Then, Sam remembered, Ian smiled gently, sweetly, and he tried to say something before he violently twisted himself over and flattened himself onto the grenade, taking the full blast. He lived for two hours after, and all he could utter was, “Sorry. Sorry.”
We are here because we believe that Jesus, hanging on the cross, has twisted his body to take the full cost of our human folly and failure. Why did the pin come out of the grenade? We don’t know, just as we cannot explain why we human beings continue to kill each other. What we know is that we humans have unleashed immeasurable damage on ourselves and our world, and today Christ throws himself on the explosive force, taking it all into himself.
The evil of our world will never stop unless somehow the evil can be absorbed. That is what Christ does today. Today he takes the explosive evil into himself, smothering the evil in love, forgiving, embracing the human race. He takes on your sin, betrayal, and fear, and mine.
And the hope of the world is that we human beings will slowly learn to let Jesus’ way be ours. Ian used his body to give life. And that is our calling as followers of Jesus—to use our bodies to give life, in how we live with each other, how we serve the world’s pain around us, how we forgive, how we shape our nation’s life. Christ died so that you and I, one by one, can learn to be people of peace and healing ourselves. It is a hard task in a culture that is violent and self-absorbed, but if we let him, Christ will make us people of peace.
There’s a strange fruit hanging from that tree. Today we have seen the fruit of the human race’s ways, its violence and arrogance and love of power.
But this is stranger fruit yet. He hangs there now loving us, forgiving us, giving his life for us. He offers us his strange fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness. And in a few moments he will offer us his life, his Body and Blood, and we will feast on his love.
This is the beginning of Holy Week. In the days ahead, let us feast on this strange, life-giving fruit. He did this for us. What will we do?