A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, Palm Sunday, March 28, 2010
Text: Luke 22:14-23:49
We want the world to be perfect. Why not, if that is a live option? We want the world to be perfect. But it simply isn’t.
What would perfect be? I don’t know. Maybe it would be a world that had no evil, and thus no good. Maybe it would be a world that knew no shadows or sunsets, only eternal noon. Maybe it would be a world free of snowstorms or thunderstorms, safe from earthquake and flood, full of mild spring days showered by cherry blossoms.
Instead, the world we inhabit is a world where the innocent are crucified.
Palm Sunday begins as if the world were perfect, on tiptoe awaiting the arrival of its Savior, singing, “Blessed is the King who comes in the Name of the Lord.” Glory, laud, honor, palms, parades, victory are all in place; but the whole thing quickly sours and darkens as we see the king of glory shamed, taunted, abused, and finally killed. And that is the way life in the world is. However wonderful that life could be, it carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. Palm Sunday only puzzles us if we have not yet learned the truth of that.
There are, of course, multiple ways in which we can look at the passion of Jesus. A conventional way is to see him going about all this as if he knows the script perfectly well, moving from Bethany to the Temple Mount without a moment’s hesitation, heading towards the Passover in which he himself will be the slain lamb with not so much as an emotional hiccup. Luke will not allow such a view. He draws us close to Jesus at his last supper, clearly knowing that death awaits him, aware of imminent betrayal, fully expecting the most stalwart disciple to deny him, and overwhelmed with anguish as he prays to be spared the time of trial. There is nothing phony or superhuman about this Jesus. Yet Luke makes it clear that Jesus is not thrown off center by any of this. He has his wits about him, and he is no less here than throughout Luke’s gospel, full of Holy Spirit.
But this story is more than Jesus’ story. Or rather, in Jesus’ story we see caught up a host of other stories. The righteous suffer all the time, not just on Calvary. Evil hunts down Good every day of the week, not just on Friday. And innocence is slaughtered throughout the world, not just in Jerusalem. We tell this story over and over not only because it happened once and not only because we believe that it is about God’s Son, but because it rings true to what we know about our own lives. And lest we rush to conclude that we are the victims in this cosmic drama of the slaughter of innocence, we might remind ourselves that, like the players in a Passion play, we can switch parts with ease. Out of our mouths sometimes comes, “Hosannah!” and sometimes, “Crucify!” Sometimes we are rubbing our eyes trying to stay awake and watch with Christ, and sometimes we are busy negotiating the best way we can shut him up. At times we are walking behind him, carrying the cross, and sometimes we are running away from the scene lest we become involved. We can work ourselves up into paroxysms of pity for the innocent and in the next breath poke fun at the little prophet and dress him in purple drag as cheap entertainment. We usually do not one or the other but both.
And you know it. You may have been fired without just cause, discriminated against, hated without reason, brutally raped, robbed, or ridiculed. Or you might have been the one to inflict harm, or maybe just stand by looking and shaking your head–or less–when somebody else has been busy executing innocence. The tale goes on. Truer words were never spoken than his admonition to the women who followed and bewailed him: “Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but for yourselves and for your children.” The story is about them and us, not just about him. And so when he prays, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he is talking past his own age and down the centuries. Yes, we keep killing innocence because in part we don’t know how to stop. We keep killing innocence because we refuse to become conscious about what we are doing. And we continue to be victims because as long as somebody is out to kill innocence and we happen to be in the way, we will get it between the eyes. The tale goes on, in my life and in yours, which is precisely why we need to pause and see that in this archetypal story of Jesus’ passion our own passions find healing and resolution.
Herman Melville gave us the character Billy Budd, the handsome sailor, naïve and beautiful, charming and well loved, who loses his temper when falsely accused of fomenting mutiny, strikes and kills his accuser, the jealous, evil Claggart. Captain Vere who passes sentence on him has Billy hanged not in the usual place but in the main yard of the ship, the center crossbeam unmistakably reminiscent of the one on which hung the Savior. Standing there with his neck in the noose, Billy says in clear accents, “God bless Captain Vere!” and all who stand watching with one voice echo him. It is the Christ story told again. “Bless them that persecute you; bless and curse not.”
There is a time to bless and a time to take up the fight against the slaughter of innocence; a time to say “No more!” to the shameful abuse of children and the exploitation of the helpless; a time to wage battle to protect the vulnerable. But there is never a time to give way to hating, nor a time to lie like those who lie about you.
We have no guarantee, only a promise that behind the shadows is the all-seeing Eye to whom not even a sparrow falls unnoticed. One can imagine that as the noble Joseph took the body of Jesus and wrapped it for burial in his own new tomb hewn of the rock, that no one spoke a word, if indeed anyone was around to see it all, grief locked in their throats. We can imagine that perhaps only the birds sang his dirge, as did the gulls when Billy Budd’s body dropped into the sea, as they flew “screaming to the spot,” and the silent ship under light airs passed on.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010