A homily preached at St. James Episcopal Church on Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday. April 17, 2011. Matthew 21:1-11 and Matthew 26:14- 27:66
How many of you grew up in home that had one of those large family Bibles? We had one and when I was just a preschooler it seemed really huge. We kept it down in the bottom of a cabinet, but like the good Baptists we were, we pulled it out, dusted it off and displayed it if we knew the pastor was coming for a visit. That huge Bible is one of my earliest memories. I was hooked on it long before I ever went to kindergarten and long before I ever learned to read. You see, ever so often in that massive book there would be a section of full page, full color reproductions of sacred art. They were scenes from Biblical stories as painted by famous old masters. I was so fascinated by them that I just sit and pore over those images. In fact, there are still some Bible stories that when I hear them read I picture them in terms of those images. It was through those images that I first encountered the story of Jesus. I remember the picture of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; the adoring crowds lining the road and bowing down to Jesus as rides along on a donkey. But in just a couple of pages there was also a scene with Jesus and Pilate standing before a different crowd of people---their faces looked angry and they shook their fists at him. I could not make any sense the contrast. I remember asking my Dad why that crowd was so angry with Jesus when everyone was just so happy with him a couple of pictures before that? What did he do to cause that? I remember that sudden shift from happy crowds to angry mob frightened me.
We are now on the threshold of Holy Week; it is both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday. As I was reflecting in preparation for this homily on what is essentially two Gospel readings (One from Matthew 21 one from Matthew 27) I realized that in one sense I understand a lot more now than I did when I was four years old, but in another sense, the contrast between to two different crowds Jesus encountered in these readings still baffles me. And yet it’s a contrast that probably resonates with experiences of everyone in this room. I suspect that all of us here today have, at some point, experienced a sudden reversal of fortune where everything rapidly shifted in front of you. Life is like that isn’t it? Some days you feel like Jesus on Palm Sunday and you ride the donkey. Other days it feels like you are the donkey.
The other thing that I remember from those sacred art images from my childhood is the surprising portrait of the serenity of Jesus in both of those scenes.
I used to think that the reactions of Jesus described in these scenes almost sounded detached and aloof, but that’s not really the case. I have come to believe that what we see in the behavior of Jesus is an image of a person who has his eyes on something larger---something that transcends the both the approval and disapproval of the crowds. Jesus has fixed his vision to a point much farther on the horizon: the approval of God. That is the voice that speaks louder than anything from the crowds. No matter what the crowds yell---from Palm Sunday right up to the taunts on Good Friday, EASTER is God’s final word on the matter. The only verdict that matters is the last verdict to come in.
The example of Jesus throughout Holy Week shows us that true courage is not the absence of fear, but rather it is overcoming our fears through confidence in God. That is how followers of Christ throughout the ages have summoned the courage to do the right thing even when it defied the values of the culture around them. It’s not so much simply tuning out of the voices of the crowds, but the tuning into the voice of the One who has the final word.
During Apartheid in South Africa St. George’s Cathedral was a focal point of nonviolent resistance to the injustice and oppression that was the law of the land there. Blacks and whites had the holy audacity to worship together at St. George’s in defiance of the directives of Apartheid. Desmond Tutu was the Anglican Archbishop of South Africa. During one particularly tense encounter during a worship service security forces arrived with armored vehicles outside the cathedral. Listen to what one of the witnesses who was present had to say about it, “…the police were massing by the hundreds on the outside and they were there to intimidate, to threaten, to try and frighten all the worshipers. I will testify, being on the inside, that I was scared. You could feel the tension in that place. The police were so bold and arrogant they even came into that Cathedral and stood along the walls. They were writing down and tape recording everything that Archbishop Tutu said. But he stood there to preach… a little man with long, flowing robes, and he said, "This system of apartheid cannot endure because it is evil." That’s a wonderful thing to say, but very few people on the planet believed that statement at that point in time. But I could tell that he believed it. Then he pointed his finger at those police standing along the walls of his sanctuary and said, "You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked." Then he flashed that wonderful Desmond Tutu smile and said, "So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!" And at that the congregation erupted. They began dancing in the church. They danced out into the streets and the police moved back because they didn’t expect dancing worshipers.
Was Archbishop Tutu just a reckless, suicidal man without any natural fear? No, he would later admit that he had plenty of fear. He knew full well what could happen to him. He knew the people trying to intimidate him had power and weapons. He knew they had a history of not hesitating to resort to violence to silence critics, but he also knew something else: Archbishop Tutu wrote: “During the darkest days of apartheid I used to say to the president of South Africa, that we had already won, and I invited him and other white South Africans to join the winning side. All the "objective" facts were against us-the laws, the imprisonments, the tear-gassing, the massacres, the murder of political activists-but my confidence was not in the present circumstances but in the laws of God's universe. This is a moral universe, which means that, despite all the evidence that seems to be to the contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression and lies can have the last word. God is a God who cares about right and wrong. God cares about justice and injustice.”
That is where his uncanny confidence came from. His fixed his vision to a much larger point on the horizon: the approval of God----and so should we.
Last week during our Diocesan "Service of Repentance, Healing and Reconciliation" Bishop Taylor offered an amazingly direct and honest apology for our diocesan complicity in the sins of slavery segregation and racism. In that apology he said ,
“I apologize for the loss of the future God had in mind as our Church forgot what our Lord preached and instead accepted what the racist culture said.
I apologize for all the times the Church has said, “Not now” instead of speaking for the truth.”
It was at that moment that I realized just how much I do not want my great grandchildren to one day have to be holding a service of repentance for my silence in the face of injustice simply because the voice of the crowds. The voice of the culture around us will always try to intimidate into fear and conformity.
Martin Luther King said, "Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles…Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency ask the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”
My brothers and sisters our courage to do the right thing should come from the fact that in the end we are Easter people. That means we are more concerned with God’s final verdict than the crowds’ fickle approval. Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday teach us that when we do the right thing sometimes the crowd will applaud and sometimes it will want to see you crucified! Some days you will be hero and some days you will be a zero, but the only voice that should matter is the one that will have the final word!
As we enter this Holy Week, I was us to pause and remember that as Christians we are called to follow the example of Jesus. It is a summons to live into the type of moral courage that breaks free of the voices of the crowds around us and enter into that place called the Kingdom of God where the injustices of Good Friday are never the final word. Easter is the final verdict where we hear that God’s final word always favors justice over injustice, love over hate, life over death.