Sunday, March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion - March 20, 2016 ("The Cry of the Whole Congregation")

If you haven’t personally taken part in a political rally or a political counter-protest this year, you’ve no doubt heard about them on T.V. They’re practically inescapable. We’re in the throes of an election season that is turning out to be more tumultuous than usual, and many of people’s anxieties and hopes seem to be coalescing and sometimes erupting at these large group gatherings. Hardly a week goes by without reports of some mob violence getting a bit out of control. There have been roadblocks and protests, and now there are Anonymous hacking attacks on a lead candidate. We hear all kinds of shouting, both from excitement and from fear. Hopes are pinned on a particular outcome, only to have them dashed on an election day.

So, rallies and protests all around us—sick of them as some of us may already be—and here we come into church on Palm Sunday to find out we’re going to be in one! This entire week—that is, the defining story of Christian faith—culminates with one giant mob scene surrounding a guy who seems, at least at the beginning, to have a direct pathway to a coronation. It’s worship, yes, and we’re reading from Scripture, but there is an unmistakable crowd mentality at work this morning. We have shouting, underscored by a palpable fear. There’s even an Anonymous hacker (“Is it I, Lord?” “Is it I?”) who knows secret information about the leader’s identity and plans to reveal it to the public.

I promise I’m not being clever here, drawing out some strained connection between our faith and modern-day events. Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem is a political rally. The people who shout Hosannas, waving palms with one hand while trying to figure out how to balance their bulletin open with the other so they can sing the hymn, have political hopes for their candidate. They want him to topple the oppressive, out of touch rulers. They want him to establish God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness. They have professed all kinds of loyalty to him, but they are still fickle in their hearts and if he goes off-message they will jump ship. In the course of that one week, the overwhelming majority of them do just that. Disappointed with his message and unimpressed with his power, they congregate in a big angry mob and demand his downfall.

It’s a funny thing that in both of the Creeds of the church—the Apostles’ and Nicene—it is Pontius Pilate who gets directly associated with the crucifixion.  Pilate did have legal jurisdiction over this event, and early Christians found it important to include a mention of his governorship in their statements of belief, probably because it gave it some historical credibility. However, it is clearly the crowd who rises up and demands Jesus’ death. In Luke’s account of the trial and crucifixion, especially, Pilate seems to do everything he can to proclaim Jesus’ innocence, but to no avail. Encouraged by the religious leaders and egged on by the rising sense of frustration surrounding him, the crowd is enraged, whipped up into a frenzy, They are the ones who become primarily responsible for sending Jesus to the cross.

A large part of the experience of Holy Week involves searching our souls and realizing we’re in that crowd, somewhere. As much as we’d like to distance ourselves from it all, as much as we’d prefer to lump these crazed people separate from us and remain objectively distant and collected, the cross won’t really let us do that. Jesus’ path of suffering and death involves each one of us at some point, whether it is our outright denial of him and his peaceful way before others…or our willingness just to go along with the flow…or our ability to shrug off others’ suffering as “just the way the world works”…or our inability to do anything about the rampant brokenness we see around us and in us. We are in the mob, and the mob is within us. We are anonymously part of the in-group that betrays him whether or not we want to be. We all, in our own ways, want to bring him down.

And here’s the thing. Jesus does not choose a side in order to vindicate any one side. He chooses death to free everyone. He chooses the cross, revealing to us the dead-end of all our dark ways, liberating us from the temptation to save ourselves, the temptation to think we’re better than all that. He chooses the cross, electing to hand himself over to the masses and die so they may eventually see, with eyes of faith, that he’d rather love all of us and forgive all of them than begin making distinctions of who is worthy and who is not. He chooses the cross, or it chooses him. And his path to the coronation takes detour through some suffering where he takes away the sin of the world.

So, I hate to break it to you, but this is a rally. By all means. Every worship service is, come to think of it. God is rallying God’s great love for us, even though we do not always claim it. God is rallying life for us, even though we hand him death. God is rallying through the shame of the cross to set us free for him.

That’s what is so evocative in the imagery on these new stoles Pastor Joseph and I are wearing, made by Ms. Mary Cathron Brown. Made to match this hanging here, they show a cross bordered on one side by black, thorny branches, the kind that would like to choke it. They are thorns that scream, “Crucify!” and thorns that say, “I know him not.” But on the other side, growing from the same root, is a green, vibrant branch, rallying to new life, reaching out in welcome. Know this: God promises that this kind of Jesus-growth is going on in our lives right now, right in here amongst the rabble. Our thorns giving way to his righteous new life. Right in here amidst our mob.

I believe we may pin your hopes on this one, this strange king. Let’s see how things turn out next Sunday.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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