This Palm Sunday service is about as dramatic as worship gets, and also about as disorienting. Tension, confusion, paradox are everywhere. It begins in high spirits – the palms, the procession, the hosannas, the grand, victorious music. We join the crowd in cheering an odd king triumphantly entering Jerusalem, but on, of all things, a donkey. And as we’ve just seen, things then veer sharply and we find ourselves standing in a crowd again, only this time we’re watching the Messiah crucified on a Roman instrument of torture.
Many of us grew up in churches that did their best to avoid the darkness and confusion of the day. Palm Sunday was often a kind of enthusiastic run-up to Easter, focusing on parading around with the palms and leaving the hard business of the cross to the faithful few who came to church on Good Friday. Most of us like our religion positive and uplifting, and if you were a Sunday-only churchgoer you could skip right over the unpleasantness of the cross altogether.
The distinguished preacher Fleming Rutledge tells of arriving to preach at a fancy Episcopal Church in suburban Connecticut on Good Friday. Her friend the rector took her aside before the service and said, “I hope you’re not going to say anything about the blood.”
Well, today requires that we talk about some hard things, including “the blood.” A few minutes ago we, who at the beginning of the service cried out our Hosannas, found ourselves crying out with equal vigor “His blood be on us and on our children,” and, a little later, “Crucify him!” People have told me that they find having to say all this distasteful, that they feel manipulated. On several occasions I have had someone tell me that they refuse to join in at that point. “I would never say that!” one woman said to me a few years ago. But the hard truth of this day is that we who came to church today out of our own good will, we good, decent, even religious people – we are among the crowd that turned on the Lord of life.
These very phrases the crowd shouts out have also created terrible consequences for our Jewish friends. Over the past 2,000 years they were taken to be admissions of guilt by the Jews for the death of Jesus, as if a whole nation were responsible. This, of course, neglects the fact that Jesus himself was a Jew, as were his disciples, as were virtually all Christians in the earliest decades of the church’s life. The story we hear today is in no way about the guilt of the Jewish people, but about the fear, the sin, and guilt we all share as we reject Jesus’ call to trust our lives to God and to love one another.
In fact there is probably a place for us all in the story we just heard. Take Judas, for example. Did he betray his Lord for only a handful of silver, suggesting how the desire for wealth can easily turn us from following Christ? Or was he, as some suggest, a revolutionary trying to provoke Jesus at last to lead a revolt? Then there is Peter, who three times denies that he’s a follower of Jesus. There’s Caiaphas, the High Priest, trying to keep his religion undisturbed by troublemakers. And Pilate and Herod are there trying to cut deals, keep things quiet, and stay out of trouble. It’s the same old story of greed, manipulation, hard-heartedness, and betrayal. It’s as familiar as the daily news.
I just recently had a chance to see the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” and it seemed to me as vivid a portrayal of crucifixion as I could imagine. It tells the true story of a good, decent hotel manager in Rwanda, caught up in the horror of the genocide unleashed there in 1994. There, within 100 days the forces of the Hutu tribe carried out the fastest, most efficient killing spree in the 20th century, in which 800,000 Tutsi citizens were killed in a hundred days using firearms, machetes, and garden tools.
We watch as a whole nation is overwhelmed by evil. But we also watch people like Paul, the hotel manager, who are Christlike in their efforts to resist the destruction. Paul is stunned by the fact that the Western nations, including especially the Americans, actually know what is going on but refuse to stop it. The reasons are many – fear of involving American troops in a dangerous conflict, fear of the political risks involved, a clear sense on the part of the press that Americans really didn’t want to hear about it all.
There is a scene where Paul sees photographs of the terrible killing taken by a press photographer, and the manager insists that the press get the pictures back to the U.S., because if people saw them they would intervene immediately. “You’re wrong,” the reporter says. “They’ll just watch it on the evening news and they’ll say, ‘Isn’t that tragic,’ and then go on with their supper.” It’s easy to look the other way in the face of evil, and make our peace with it.
Those Rwandans were crucified as surely as Jesus was, and the reasons haven’t changed much – hatred, resentment, grasping for power, and many good people looking away, not wanting to get involved.
As a Southerner myself living in the South in the Sixties, I saw how decent, ordinary people could participate in the evil of racial prejudice and discrimination. Good, kind, churchgoing Southerners would turn red-faced with rage at the thought of an African-American setting foot in their church.
And it makes me wonder, where have I quietly bought into the world’s evil? Is it in being part of 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 question other priorities? Or is it, more personally, where I have some forgiving to do but haven’t made myself do it, some going to work on relationships to do that I’ve been avoiding, some giving of myself to human need that I’ve been too busy to think about? Or is it the way I participate in the rush and pressure of modern life, which the monk Thomas Merton called the deepest form of violence in contemporary culture?
We are all caught in what Christianity calls the mystery of iniquity – our natural tendency to cling to what we want for ourselves at any cost, to pay little attention to the needs of the most vulnerable. As we sang a few moments ago, “’Twas I Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee, I crucified thee.”
In ways large and small we human beings crucify Love in an endless cycle of hurting and being hurt. But our deepest hope is contained in the events we are gathered for today. One man in perfect love hangs on the cross to break the cycle and change the pattern of human life.
Jesus didn’t have to go to Jerusalem. He could have chosen a safer life in the Galilee hill country. But he came to see his mission clearly – to take the message of God’s love directly to the heart of his nation. And there with frightening swiftness he found himself nailed to a cross.
Jesus on the cross is the most vivid moment of God’s intervention into history. This is God’s way of dealing with the evil of the world – not by acting as another Caesar with armies, not by a show of force, but in the only way that can ever finally create the world God longs for. Jesus enters into the crucible of human destructiveness with the determination to absorb evil and give back forgiveness and goodness – in the hope that people will see what they are doing and change.
In another account of the crucifixion Jesus, hanging from the cross says, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He shows us a God for whom the only way forward is for someone to break the cycle of violence and greed, to refuse to turn an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and in doing that to begin to turn back the tide of endless conflict and self-assertion.
And there he utters the cry that continues to echo through the centuries: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In this moment of complete despair he becomes at one with all the world’s victims – victims of violence and war, of disease and loss. God has always been that way, suffering with those who suffer. But on the cross the veil is pulled back, and for a moment we see directly into the heart of God. And there we see a God whose loving and suffering with us never stops.
But, and here’s the shocking part, Jesus becomes one with those who reject him too, and with the victimizers as well as the victims. He love those who can’t believe in God and those who believe in other ways. He loves you and me when we are hurt, and when we inflict hurt on others. He loves the killers on Death Row, and the Al-quaeda terrorists too. He hangs on the cross for everyone, for the whole cosmos.
I vividly remember years ago seeing my aunt and uncle deal with their four-year-old child who had a rare neurological disorder. When the little boy became upset he would fall into uncontrollable fits of flailing and rage that no amount of soothing could quiet. There was no treatment for it; no way to medicate it away. All they could do was firmly but gently hold him, to try to keep him from hurting himself, and to stay with him until his destructive energy was spent.
That’s what we see God doing on the cross, Christ’s arms spread wide to embrace us, holding us in our fear and violence, refusing to let go, loving us until our fury is spent and we’re ready to pick up the task of loving again.
Strange as it seems, Christ’s blood shed for us is our world’s deepest hope. How else but by being forgiven and learning to forgive and to love will we ever break the cycle of destructiveness and start anew?
In fact, we will soon feast on Christ’s own blood in the Eucharist. “This is my blood which is shed for you,” he will say to us – his blood of forgiving, healing love, making us whole, sending us out to be agents of healing and peace ourselves. It is the wine of a new movement, a movement determined to live by compassion and love, a movement committed to building a world of justice and peace for everyone.
And so, strangely, we can pray today, “May his blood be on us.” May his love, his way of peace, his blood poured out, pervade us as we walk the way of the cross this week, and may it turn our hearts to follow in Christ’s healing way.