Sermon for Palm Sunday, Sunday, April 9 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Mt 21:1-11; Is 50:4-9a; Ps 31:9-16; Phil 2:5-11; Mt 26:14-27:66
“Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people,” say the authorities, as they begin to conspire against Jesus, only a few sentences before the reading we just heard. So instead, they find Judas, and that betrayal is set in motion. And later, “when Pilate saw that a riot was beginning, he took some water, and washed his hands before the crowd.”
So much of today is about the crowd, the crowd which both manipulates, and is manipulated by, power, which serves as the pretext for nearly every person involved in this story to deny their individual moral responsibility. It is a grim truth which the liturgy itself both creates and critiques. We are made 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. But more importantly, crowds did them both. Individuals allowed themselves to be lost in that collective shout, in the seductive power of immersion, the cheap self-surrender which may be the only kind of self-giving many people ever experience. And even the people in this story with the most worldly power know they are, in many ways, at the mercy of the crowd, that they can only survive in their world of violent games by playing on those emotions themselves, by turning the crowd to their side while claiming to be helpless in front of them, washing their hands and denying their part in murder. Even Peter fails, surrounded by another gathering crowd, knowing now that crowd’s potential violence, afraid to stand against it. And again and again we do it, in the world, in our cities, in our families. We hide ourselves in the group, in the crowd, we let the group make our decisions for us, we play the games of power, we choose someone else to be the other, the victim, against whom the crowd will turn, so that they will not turn against us.
And what do we have to pose against the crowd? One isolated, and ever more isolated, figure, silent for much of the drama, almost motionless. The still point. Jesus of Nazareth, from whom everyone will fall away, first the mob in general, and finally his closest friends. The one who will not participate in the general denial of moral choice. The one who will freely choose to be the offering, the outcast, 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. Each of us as an individual, not a collective, not a mob, not a crowd, but beloved persons, individually responsible to that love.
The palm crosses we hold in our hands, they hold this ambiguity. Our demand, as crowd, for victory and for death, that fierce desire to be released into the parade; and the quiet truth of our release through the lonely, abandoned self-giving of the one cast off by the crowd. Our complicity and our deliverance.
But there is one other group in this story—the women standing far off. They are clearly meant to be important; Matthew names them , explains who they are. Named individuals, together. They are not a part of the crowd. They are strangers to this city, and women, and very 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. They stand as close as the soldiers will allow them, 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. And they continue to hold to that duty, they do not seize on the crowd as a place to hide or an excuse to deny their truth.
We will come back to these women at Easter. 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 persons, 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 see the victim and to continue loyal. To be aware, to hold each other up, to stand in witness, in solidarity with those whom power would destroy.
We cannot stop all the suffering of the world. We must, of course, do what we can to heal the damage, what our duty of the moment demands. And it is necessary, but it will never be enough. But what we cannot change, we can at least acknowledge. We can at least hold the pain of the world in our knowledge and our love. We can at least say to someone, I know. Your suffering is not ignored, not unseen. We can, as it lies in us, stand with, stand as, the hurt and the lonely and the rejected. And in this, 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.