Sermon for Palm Sunday, Sunday, March 29 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Is 50:4-9a; Ps 31:9-16; Phil 2:5-11; Mk 14:1-15:47
There is a contradiction at the heart of the Palm Sunday liturgy; a contradiction which is, I think, deliberate, and which the liturgy itself both creates and comments upon, but one which, nevertheless, is easy for us to overlook. It’s a dramatic liturgy, an exciting one, all processions and dramatic performances and waving things and singing rousing hymns—and within that very structure, it indicts both itself and us.
For the story we hear and enact and travel through today is, in large part, a story about the terrible violence of the crowd; the violence at the heart of the parade. We are made, in this liturgy, first to carry palms and shout alleluias—and then, a very short time later, to demand at the top of our lungs that a young man be handed over to be tortured slowly to death on a piece of wood. Very likely, at least some of the same people did do both of those things. Perhaps more importantly, crowds did them both.
It is so easy, so seductive, to lose the self in the crowd, in the parade, in colour and emotion and movement. So easy to be part of a collective shout. There is something in us which seeks that out, this immersion in the group; at dances and sports events, at political rallies. In church. Something in us longs for this, and it is an impulse which has, at its root, a real desire, a wish to go beyond the self. Perhaps this sort of self-surrender is the only kind of self-giving some people have ever experienced.
But even a crowd which has assembled for an essentially good purpose is a dangerous thing, volatile, irrational, open to manipulation. I have seen it too often—what happens when the first person at a demonstration starts to shout abuse. What happens at a soccer game when someone in the stands calls out an insult, throws a punch. What happens at a public meeting, or at a dinner, or in a family even, when one person is singled out as the problem, the wrongdoer, the source of difference and fear. And the crowd turns, effortlessly, almost naturally, into its own dark shadow.
What happened in Bosnia, what happened in Rwanda, these disasters were made up of hundreds of those small moments when a group turned into a crowd, and turned on an imagined enemy. And it does happen here. Mosques have been vandalized — anti-Muslim graffiti was painted on a wall just across our street—and groups out for a night of partying have abused the vulnerable homeless. And we have each of us, even if in very small ways, participated in moments a bit like that. We have all, at some point, allowed ourselves to be swept into a parade, into a collective surge of emotion; and we have, at some point, felt that turn against the other side, the other team, the other party, the other person. It is wise of the liturgy to make us act this out, to make us confront it. To help us, we hope, learn to understand and resist.
And what do we have to pose against the violence of the crowd? One isolated, and ever more isolated, figure, silent for most of the drama, almost motionless. The still point. Jesus of Nazareth, from whom everyone will fall away, first the crowd in general, and finally his closest friends. The one who will not participate in the excitement, the submersion into the crowd. The one who will let his breakable human body be the place where violence ends. And the veil of the temple is torn in two. In that moment when God in human flesh willingly goes into the deepest valley of human suffering and evil, that moment when God definitively and finally takes the side, takes the place, of all those who are hurt and despairing and cast aside, all the tortured and the disappeared, the lost and the abandoned, and tells us that love is there, that love is always there, that we are never separated from God’s love, even when we ourselves feel utterly foresaken.
The resurrection has not yet come—and indeed, in Mark’s gospel, it is never more than distant news, a stirring of light on the horizon. But we are already, in some sense, saved in that moment. For we know that there is one who has taken on himself the violence of the crowd, and made of himself a place where it ends. A place of still, silent, enduring love.
The palms we hold in our hands, they hold this ambiguity. Our demand, as crowd, for victory and for death, our aching longing to be released into the parade; and the truth of our release through the lonely, abandoned self-giving of the one cast off by the crowd. Our complicity and our deliverance.
But what can the story tell us about where else we might be, how to stand away from the crowd? We are not Jesus. Yes, we are baptized into his crucified and risen life, and our own lives are a long process of trying to live into that. But we are poor little human things still, and we will fail. So we look elsewhere in this story for a human alternative.
And I think we may see it in those other silent figures—the women standing far off. They are clearly meant to be important; Mark names them with unusual care, explains who they are. They are not a part of the crowd. They are strangers to this city, and women, and vulnerable. They say nothing to anyone, they seem to take no active part in the drama. But they are the only ones who follow Jesus all the way to the end. The disciples scatter, Peter betrays. But these women are the ones who do not run away. They stand—perhaps as close as the soldiers would allow them to be—and they witness. They have witnessed everything up to this moment, and they will witness this awful moment as well, and then they will continue through the aftermath, they will follow the body and watch where it is placed, because that is what is available to them to do, because that is what their duty demands.
We will come back to these women at Easter, and in some interesting ways. But right now, we see in this small group a way of being with other people which is different from the crowd—not crowd, but community. Not a collectivity swept up in a wave of excited brain chemistry, but a small group of individuals, who have travelled together, worked together, who now stand silently together to support each other through this apparently last and most terrible passage. And sometimes, that is what we ourselves can do. At the least, at the last, to stand aside from the crowd, to be quiet in the midst of the noise. To be aware, to stand in witness, in solidarity with those cast off or victimized. We cannot stop all the suffering of the world. We can, of course, and must, do small things to minimize it, to try to feed the hungry and to change the systems which create hunger, to comfort the lonely, and to create a world in which those who are different or difficult are not so isolated. We can do, like those women, whatever small things are available to us to do, what our duty of the moment demands.
But what we cannot change, we can at least acknowledge. We can at least hold the pain of the world in our witness and our knowledge and our love. We can at least say to someone, I know. Your suffering is not ignored, not unseen.
To stand with the hurt and the lonely and the rejected. And in this, to stand as close as we are able to the God who offers, who is constantly offering, his very self in the silent work of love.