Sermon for Palm Sunday, Sunday, March 28 2021, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47
“Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people,” say the authorities, as they begin to conspire against Jesus, just a few sentences before the reading we heard this morning. 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. Even in our pandemic-stripped liturgy, we hold palms like those who acclaimed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem—and then, a very short time later, we demand at the top of our lungs that this man be handed over to be tortured slowly to death on a piece of wood. Very likely, at least some of the same people, in those days in Jerusalem, 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 the powerful people in this story 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 the murder. Even Peter fails, surrounded by another gathering crowd, knowing now their potential violence, afraid to stand against them.
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 mob 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 forsaken. Each of us as an individual, not a collective, not a mob, not a crowd, but beloved persons, individually responsible to that 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.
Of course the crowd as a physical assembly of people has been, necessarily, not much in evidence lately—leaving aside the destructive anti-mask, anti-lockdown rallies, and their ties to far-right white supremacists. This is, perhaps, a kind of distillation of all the wrongness of the crowd. But the mind of the crowd can be active without people physically gathered. The mind of the crowd, the search for the scapegoat, the refusal of individual responsibility, underlies the documented upswing in violence against Asian Canadians. It is in us whenever we allow violence and exclusion, in their many disguises, to become our idols.
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—be community, rather than crowd. We stand in witness to the injustice of the world, and we support each other. We do what we can to care. We do, like those women, whatever small things are available to us to do, what our duty of the moment demands—even when that duty requires us to refrain from being with those we love. We can at least hold the pain of the world in our witness and our knowledge. We can at least say to someone, I know. Your suffering is not ignored, not unseen. We may stand—even at a distance, indeed now often at a distance—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.