Being one of the crowd: Palm Sunday 2016

Every Palm Sunday we start off well enough, praising God and waving palms in the air, waving at the passing traffic, throwing blessings around like confetti. Within the hour we have become the baying pack hounding Jesus to the cross, and to his grave.

If only we could keep the palms for today, send the Passion to its place on Good Friday, celebrate next Sunday the joy of Resurrection, scattering our blessings again, waving to the neighbours passing by, praising God with loud hosannas. We could almost pretend it didn’t happen. Even Jesus wanted to skip this part if it were possible.

We are in no danger of crucifixion. For us, the worry is becoming the baying crowd. We can blame mob mentality, peer pressure. The thing is, we know that those things do not absolve us from morality. In evolutionary terms, our social instincts were designed to promote safety, happiness, health and wellness: to support our goodness to one another. If those influences have turned malignant, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

While the very stones would resound hosanna if we were to fall silent, they would not call out for his blood. Stones don’t do that. Only we do that.

I heard an author interview on NPR the other week. Alex Abramovich wrote about finding his childhood bully, all grown up, running a bike club. It’s a California bike club called the East Bay Rats, so the material is not necessarily suitable for a Sunday morning at church. I won’t describe for you the violence that took place: suffice to say, an outsider, a gutter-dweller crossed the bikers. One man decided to punish him. Abramovich says,

[it was] very horrible to watch and horrible to think about and horrible also to think that I could’ve done something to stop it in real time. And I didn’t realize that in real time and didn’t do anything to stop it, so not a proud moment for me.

DAVIES: And the recycler survived, got up and walked away?

ABRAMOVICH: You know, I turned around and I thought I was going to throw up when I saw them ride over the recycler’s body. And when I turned back around, the recycler was gone. I was expecting him to be lying on the cement with broken bones, but he had scampered away. The next time I saw Trevor, Trevor said, you’d be surprised. Crack heads are surprisingly resilient, and I said I wish I could’ve done something to stop it, and Trevor said you could’ve. All it takes is someone saying stop. [emphasis mine]

All it takes is someone saying, “Stop.”

It couldn’t be the victim of the violence: he was voiceless; his humanity, any moral influence he might have, had already been dismissed in order for the attack to take place. It couldn’t be the biker: his brakes had already failed.

All it takes is someone saying, “Stop:” that someone would have to be a bystander. It would have to be one of the crowd. It would have to be one of us.

Peter failed to show up at the Pavement. He was lost already in his own spiral of shame. What of the others? What of the people cleansed of leprosy? What of the parents whose children had been wrenched from the jaws of death, of the people who had cast their cloaks on the ground, singing praises and welcome a week before? They all were silent now in the face of partisan power plays, the cry for a sacrificial lamb, a scapegoat, innocent blood in which to wash the hands of the guilty. Did they think the stones would cry out for them?

Our bishops met a week ago, and they released this “Word to the Church”:

On Good Friday the ruling political forces of the day tortured and executed an innocent man. They sacrificed the weak and the blameless to protect their own status and power. On the third day Jesus was raised from the dead, revealing not only their injustice but also unmasking the lie that might makes right.

In a country still living under the shadow of the lynching tree, we are troubled by the violent forces being released by this season’s political rhetoric. Americans are turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society. They seek to secure their own safety and security at the expense of others. There is legitimate reason to fear where this rhetoric and the actions arising from it might take us.

In this moment, we resemble God’s children wandering in the wilderness. We, like they, are struggling to find our way. They turned from following God and worshiped a golden calf constructed from their own wealth. The current rhetoric is leading us to construct a modern false idol out of power and privilege. We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we must respect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good above all else.

We call for prayer for our country that a spirit of reconciliation will prevail and we will not betray our true selves.

That we will not betray our true selves.

That is the danger of the Passion for us today, on this day. We are not – that is to say, most of us are not – in danger of crucifixion. We are, with Peter, with the silent shame of the lepers in the crowd: we are in danger of betraying Jesus. We are in danger of betraying ourselves.

We cannot change the path of the story that lies before us during Holy Week. That crowd has spoken, and we will walk with Jesus to the cross, into the tomb. We will, at the end, find resurrection.

We can still change the path of the story that lies before us this Holy Week. We can be the voice for the voiceless, crying, “Stop.” We do not have to betray Jesus; we do not have to betray our true selves.

We are not in danger of crucifixion. Grant then, everlasting God, that this day we fall into no sin, nor run into any [other] kind of danger; but that we, being ordered by thy governance, may do always what is righteous in thy sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 57)

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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