Year C: Palms and Passion

I am going to guess that you already know the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, and then I’m going to tell it to you, anyway.

Once there was an emperor, who wanted a splendid new costume for his grand procession. His tailors were terrified, because he was an exacting and rather mean man. In fact, their terror gave them tremors, so that they couldn’t hold their needles because their hands shook too much, and their panic paralysed them, so that they were unable even to choose a design of cloth for the emperor’s new clothes.

The emperor returned for his fitting, and in a flash of brilliance born of despair, one of the tailors wove a tale of fabric so fine that it could only be seen by the most discerning eye. Of course, the emperor immediately imagined that he could see splendid clothes and rich robes. The tailors were commended, and the emperor went out happy, ready for the great parade.
But what would happen when the people saw that there was nothing to this fabled fabric? The tailors told their friends, and begged them to go along with the ruse, and quickly the rumour spread that the emperor’s new clothes were so fine that they could only be seen by the most discerning eye, and the people convinced themselves and their neighbours that they were impressed.

Then, a small child – and if you don’t know this about small children, they are not easily impressed, or fooled; they are too busy learning what’s what in the world, and exercising true discernment – this small child said,

“Well this is silly! The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes!”

And the people finally saw through the ruse and saw a lot more of the emperor than they had bargained for.

It took one voice, telling the truth with piercing clarity, to burst the bubble of illusion.

In Matthew and Mark’s accounts of Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey and hailed by children and the hopeful people, we find none of the grumbling that Luke reports by the Pharisees. In John, the Pharisees see the parade and are resigned, “You see that you can do nothing; look, the world has gone after him.” In Luke, they order the people to cease and desist from their praise. They are afraid, with reason, that such an outpouring of joy and hope and messianic expectation will rattle the Romans and bring down trouble on the nation of Israel. Jesus laughs them off, and quotes psalms about stones singing praises. But it may be that Luke reports a detail that is important to the story; that the crowd was not all in agreement, that there was dissent, and that the dissent was given a voice.

The Pharisees may have been wrong, but unfortunately, their lone little voices seem to have been heard, because by the end of the week, the crowd is jeering Jesus, and calling for his crucifixion; one man given up for the safety of the many.

Our voices can be used for good or for ill, but they do make a difference.

It’s been a rough news week for Ohio. Last Tuesday, the young man who shot classmates at Chardon High School was sentenced, and his words and actions once more shocked and rocked those around him. Last Sunday, two teenagers were found guilty and sentenced for their part in a horrible attack on an unfortunate girl. We have been left wondering what has happened to our culture, and why we seem unable to stop the cycle of violence and abuse, of denigration and the denial of one another’s humanity. We wonder why, in that basement in Steubenville, no one said, “Stop.”

We have voices, and one voice in the crowd can be powerful. We cannot rely on the stones to shout out for us. We, the disciples of Jesus, need to raise our voices in support of justice and mercy, God’s love for each of God’s children.

This week, representatives of Greater Cleveland Congregations, including some of our Episcopal neighbours, met with Governor Kasich and testified at the State Capitol in support of Medicaid expansion. They spoke up for those in need of mental health care, in need of basic health interventions and medicine. Next week, Christians led by the Episcopal bishops of Conneticut will walk the way of the cross in Washington, praying for an end to gun violence, and urging urgent action to bring that end closer.

When his disciples attacked with the sword, Jesus said, Stop, and he healed the one who had been hurt.

But Peter failed to speak up when he had the chance to affirm Jesus, and he ended up weeping bitterly. Joseph of Arimathea – how much of his extravagant expense in opening up a new tomb for Jesus was spent out of guilt because he knew what the council was doing was wrong, but he did not speak out, speak up, tell them blunt and outright, plain and simple, “Stop.”

The power of the crowd is great. We like to think alike; we like to get along. We like to go with the flow, to be accepted, to belong. But we cannot rely on the stones to shout out for us.

Yesterday’s Lenten reflection from the collection that I’ve been posting day by day on our facebook page came from our colleague in ministry, the Rev Jan Smith-Wood of Grace Episcopal Church in Sandusky. She said,

The other day, I heard our bishop say that all Christians are leaders. A few days earlier a Pentecostal pastor of more than 50 years said that the world really needs the church to be the church, now more than ever.

What if our Lenten spirit-work were devoted to finding out what it takes to be courageous Christians? Brave leaders? Followers of Jesus in his fearless reaching out to the overlooked and wounded with healing love and life-changing words? What if we sought to be true imitators of Christ in his fierce advocacy for the poor and his courageous alignment with the disdained?

When we witness the world’s opposition to the gospel, that God loves and values each person that God has made, without exception,
when we witness racism and homophobia, sexism and the casual denigration of those who are different to the main group, the in crowd,
do we laugh at the off-colour joke to keep the peace and save our own embarrassment?
do we stay silent in the face of misinformation and discrimination, or do we set the record straight?
do we accept the world’s report, or do we point out the emperor’s nudity, the narcissism of Rome, Steubenville’s failure to protect the most vulnerable, our own capitulation to the unchecked availability of weapons of war for use in our homes?
do we close our ears to the ugly slur against our neighbour, or do we open our mouths and say, “Stop”?
Are we waiting for the stones to do it for us?

At the end of the Passion gospel, the centurion speaks, “Surely this man was innocent.” And he praised God. A little late, but still, who knows what he started. Earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus told this little parable: The kingdom of God is like a woman who took three measures of flour, and seasoned them with a small measure of yeast, and left it there until the whole heap of flour was leavened and risen.

A pinch of yeast. The word of a small child. The courage to speak, to say, Stop, in the name of God. It’s never too late to speak up, to speak out, no voice is too small to be heard. God can work wonders with small miracles.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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