A Sermon by the Rev. Daniel Stroud
Assistant Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
On Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017
As we sit here in the midst of passiontide we cannot help but feel the incredible tensions inherent in this day. Even as the echo of sweet “Hosannas” resound through the church, we can taste the bitter gall of vengeance rising in our throats, our lust for blood and punishment causing our tongues to tax the leashes of our restraint to breaking point as the shouts of “Crucify Him” erupt from within; our impulse to destroy the beautiful overpowering us.
In this moment, far removed from the event, safe at a distance from the fear and pain and death, we cannot help but be reflective. “How did we get here? How did we wind up in this situation? Who am I that I just called for the death of an innocent man?”
These are, I think, the right questions to ask, or at least are some of the right questions to ask of ourselves.
Just now there are about 11 million Syrians who are either Internally Displaced Persons or Refugees (the only distinction between the two being whether they are in UN camps in Syria or whether they made it across the border.
Last year when it was announced by President Obama that the United States would welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees, or 0.0009% of these refugees, 53% of Americans thought we should let in fewer refugees, only 11% thought we should let in more.
As we awoke on April 4th to videos of injured and sick children gasping for breath, their pupils shrunken to pinpoints and foaming at the mouth, and saw the pictures of the dead, of Abdel Hameed al-Youssef holding his dead 9 month old twins, kids just more than half Charley’s age, and preparing to bury them next to his wife and brothers, we would hear them described as “Children of God” who should “never have to suffer such horror.”
True words, certainly, but words that may ring a bit hollow in light of the fact that both they and those who suffer alongside them were banned from taking refuge in this country, and that most Americans thought that doing so was the right move.
How quickly we turn from hatred and rejection to glorification and adoration.
So let us not wonder how it is that the crowds that greeted Jesus with hymning and palms made the same wild swings in reverse. If we want to understand how the masses can pivot so quickly we need look no further than the mirror. If we cannot see the fickle and turbulent nature that dwells in each of us, if we cannot feel the herd mentality and the desire of the hunt that, from time to time, rises in our chest, then we must look more closely. For just as we are all capable of great wonders, so are we each and every one capable of unfathomable horrors, especially as the mentality of the pack sinks into us its razor sharp talons.
In these moments it is so tempting to withdraw, to cede our agency to those who are the loudest, the angriest, and the most afraid amongst us; those who mistake force for strength, and violence for victory. It’s tempting to wash our hands of it all and say “See to it yourselves (Matthew 27:24).
Let us not forget, however, that Pilate is not remembered for his substantial administrative acumen that enabled him to keep his post for more than three times the usual term, but rather is remembered each week by billions who say of Christ that “he suffered under Pontius Pilate.” He is remembered not for his action, but for his abdication of his responsibility to care for one who was innocent before it was too late.
“On the night before he was betrayed our Lord took bread, and when he had given thanks he brake it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Likewise, after supper, he took the cup; and when he had
given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink ye all of this;
for this is my Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for
you, and for many, for the remission of sins. Do this, as oft as
ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me.”
There is, I think, no denying that our society has been gripped by incredible and increasing levels of selfishness over the last 60 to 70 years. While we have made incredible technological progress, it has arrived concurrently with increasing disregard for those who have less, those who are disadvantaged, and those who will come after us.
This Randian worship of self is satanic in the truest sense; it pulls us inward into our own desires and away from what Jesus commanded us to do: love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. It tears apart and destroys the beloved creations of God.
Whether through causation or correlation, we have seen throughout society in that same time a decreasing reverence for Christ present in the sacrament. When asked to keep watch with Christ for an hour, too many too often decide that they’d rather sleep and stay in bed, or play a sport, or do the crossword and have a coffee, or engage in any number of things that bring us fleeting pleasures that pale when compared to God’s majesty.
Whether it is pure coincidence or one caused the other or vice-versa I do not know, but if one cannot adore Christ on the altar, one cannot meet Christ in the street. And if one cannot see Christ in our brothers and sisters who are tossed about in turbulent seas at the mercy of those who offer them no regard, then how can one adore Christ on the altar.
As we consider today Christ’s passion, there are many places in which we can enter into this story. Perhaps we are the Apostles, called to stand with Christ in the hour of need but unwilling to turn away from our own comfort. Perhaps we are in the crowd, caught up in the moment until we catch the scent of blood, and then vicious as starved rats. Perhaps we are Pilate, seeing the brokenness and horror, but washing our hands of our own responsibility.
Today especially, no matter where we see ourselves in the story, no matter where we land in this scene, we stand convicted.
We have all fallen short of the Kingdom of God. We have all failed to do those things which we ought to have done, and done those things which we ought not to have done. We have all, through our own sin, grieved and broken the heart of God. It is as a result of our sin that we find Christ on the cross.
And so let us do on this commemoration of his Passion what our Lord calls us to do: turn back to God in prayer and contrition. Take an honest inventory of our failings and confess them. Reject the idolatry that tells us our own desires are of principal importance, and that our comfort and safety is worth any cost. Return to Christ on the altar, renew the reverent wonder that comes unbidden as we see the same body, blood, soul, and divinity that was nailed to the tree as it comes amongst us hidden under the shadows of bread and wine. Remember, mortals, that you are dust, and to dust shall you return. Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.
And rejoice. Rejoice that Christ looked into the depths of our depravity, our inordinate cruelty, our unfeeling carelessness and still loved us enough to offer up himself on the cross for our salvation.