A Long Way Gone
Isaiah 50:4-9Psalm 118:19-29 Luke 19:28-40
Hosanna in the highest.
There are many familiar details in the Palm Sunday story. There is journey from Bethphage down to Jerusalem, the colt Christ rides, the cloaks that the crowd places on the road before him, the palm branches, which are absent from Luke’s telling of the story, but make up an part important part of our liturgical understanding of the day. But there is one aspect of the lesson that keeps drawing me in: the crowd.
As Jesus makes his triumphal ride into Jerusalem, crowds gather by the side of the road. They quote from Psalm 118, our second reading this morning, essentially identifying him as their Messiah King. The ranks of Jesus’ followers have swelled since the story first began, and now, here at the heart of the religious capital, and are stirring things up. It is enough to catch the attention of the Pharisees, who are distressed by all the racket.
The crowd welcomes Jesus to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. They sing his praises this morning. And yet, four days later, they will call for the release of Barabbas and demand that Jesus be crucified. Now, it is true: the word “crowd” is vague enough that we could be talking about two distinct groups of people: one singing his praises, one calling down damnation from Rome. And yet, when we look at those who are most loyal, closest, to him, Judas who betrays him, Peter who denies him, it seems reasonable and even faithful to say that those who celebrate Christ are those who want him destroyed within the week.
It is for this reason that the crowd seems so compelling a character, if you will, in the unfolding drama. The represent the best and the worst of humanity and teach us something about our shared condition.
I am reminded of the recent bestseller by Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone. The book, from whose title the title of this sermon comes, is a gripping memoir of his early childhood, caught up in the bloody civil war that gripped that West African nation throughout the 1990s and into our own decade.
As a young boy, Beah found himself first separated from his family and then orphaned by the violence. For months he wandered the countryside, sometimes by himself, at other times with other children, barely surviving by his wits. He witnessed scenes of unspeakable brutality, and yet, the worst days were still to come.
He and his friends come upon a village that has been taken over by the Sierra Leonean army as a base of operations. Beah thinks he has finally made it to safety, and that his days of wandering are ended. It is there that he and his friends are recruited into the army, given some basic training on the usage of an AK-47, and sent out into the bush to hunt and destroy the rebels – boys who, like them, have been recruited to fight. They use drugs liberally, including a particularly noxious mix of gunpowder and cocaine. Now Beah finds himself not only witnessing scenes of unspeakable brutality, but carrying them out himself. He seeks only revenge, for the loss of his family, and does so through a drug-filled haze.
How is it that a child can go from playing simple, childlike games one day to participating in carnage and war crimes the next? Surely, the context gives us some clues. He has been driven to it by grief and hunger, by desperation and loneliness. On top of it all, it is the older boys in the army who give him a sense of purpose as he wields his weapon, tortures, and kills rebels and civilians alike.
And yet, one of the most poignant moments in the book comes when Beah and hundreds of other children are rescued from their conscription and brought to the capital city, Freetown, for rehabilitation. The assumption seemed to be that, if you take the child out of the war, you take the war out of the child. That first night, however, the children soon discover that some of them are army and some of them are rebel soldiers. Bloody fighting breaks out in the camp. The carnage continues. The violence remains.
As I read the pages of this unflinching, up-close look at one of the most distressing conflicts in recent history, I couldn’t help but think about our crowds back there in Jerusalem; waving palm branches and dropping cloaks one minute, shouting “Crucify him, crucify him” the next.
I don’t think that there’s any accident that we play the part of the crowd this morning. We join in the shouts of praise, raising our branches, and singing our Hosannas to the Son of David. There is something within each of us that makes it possible for us to join the crowds, whether on Palm Sunday or Good Friday.
Psychology has taught us this in profoundly disturbing ways. There is a new book out which retells the stories of the famous Stanford prison experiment, where students play roles of guard and prisoner and become so brutal within thirty-six hours that the experiment is cancelled. Another book writes of Stanley Milgram’s famous Yale experiments where ordinary people were willing to administer lethal amounts of electrical shock to an anonymous subject simply because a man in a lab coat told them to do it. In both of these experiments, psychological results point to a disturbing reminder that each of us is capable of great evil.
And yet, do we really psychology to remind us of that capability? Do we really need theology to convict us and persuade us that there is darkness within us? Or perhaps have we had some experience, whether carried out or not, that distresses us to our very souls? Have you had those moments of darkness, of rage, of pain and anguish so severe that they cry out to you for some kind of recompense, revenge, payback?
Maybe it’s one of those moments of suppressed road rage, when that knucklehead behind you rides up your tailpipe, or that jerk cuts you off while talking on the cellphone. We may not act on it, but the moment of fury rises up, like a lump in the throat. Or perhaps it’s a conflict with a family member, a friend, a co-worker or colleague, a moment of betrayal or humiliation so painful that we are disturbed by the thoughts that seep into our conscience. Or maybe it’s something we do without even intending or knowing.
As I read Beah’s book, I couldn’t help but think about what it is that I have done, or haven’t done, to make it possible for warm-hearted children to be transformed into cold-blooded killers. There’s the diamond trade that haunts that nation; what about that engagement ring my wife wears? There’s the shameful history of slavery and the unceremonious dumping of former slaves on Sierra Leone’s coast; what role did my ancestors in North Carolina and Virginia play in all of that? There’s the weapons trade that runs rampant across the African continent; does my portfolio rise at the expense of others? Is it possible that there is darkness within my soul of which I’m not even aware? Could it be that I really am part of the crowd?
Friends, today is a celebration. We celebrate Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, the fulfillment of Scripture, the perfection of time. And it is a feast. We gather around this table this morning in anticipation of Thursday’s feast of the Last Supper, which itself is an anticipation of the heavenly banquet. And yet, as we celebrate today, let us hold fast to one word of our songs of praise: “Hosanna.”
Hosanna, as the translation comes through in the Psalm we read, means “Save us.” It is not, in fact, a word of praise, but rather a moment of profound recognition, that we ourselves are in need of rescue, of salvation. We need to be saved from our life with the crowd, turning this way and that as the wind blows. We need a divine presence in those moments of darkness and anguish that haunt us to remind us of how broken we really are and how in need of healing we truly remain.
And in that way, Ishmael Beah’s memoir is not unlike the gospel we proclaim in this place each and every week and hope to live out in our lives each and every moment. Beah ultimately ends up rehabilitated from the violence that engulfed his young life. He works for UNICEF on behalf of other child soldiers in other conflicts. And yet, he is haunted in his nightmares and in his memories of the things that he saw and the things that he did. He cannot erase them. But they do offer, in his case, the possibility of transformation to a new way of being in the world.
In the same way, our gospel is not an easily digestible one of “happily ever after.” Later this week, Christ is betrayed, arrested, denied, tortured, and killed. The crowd’s acts, and those of his disciples, do not simply go away. Instead, there is this paradox that engulfs the whole scene. It is the very acts of cowardice and duplicity that lead to Christ’s crucifixion. And it is that crucifixion which absorbs our betrayal and denial, our inner darkness and pain, promising us the hope of renewal and resurrection.
Do we see it? Are we willing to open ourselves to that healing light?
Hosanna in the highest. Save us, Lord Christ.