The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
March 25, 2018
The Lines Goes Through Us
It was a Tuesday. April 4, 1865. If you remember your American history, Tuesday, April 4, 1865 was one of the last days of the Civil War. And on that day, Tuesday, April 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln walked into Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate army having evacuated two days before. The President of the United States entering the capital city of the vanquished rebellion. Lincoln was escorted by just a few sailors as he began to walk uphill to the White House of the Confederacy.
Before his little company could get very far, one old man, who only days before had been a slave but now was a free man, saw Lincoln. That newly emancipated man began shouting, “Bless the Lord! He’s been in my heart four long years, and he come at last to free his children from their bondage! Glory! Hallelujah!” As that man rejoiced, the group of freed slaves begins to swell. They start clapping their hands and singing hymns and the buzz around the town began to grow as Lincoln and his sailors made their way up to the capitol hill in Richmond. “Glory! Hallelujah!” The Great Emancipator had set the people free.
But of course, not everybody was happy in Richmond on April 4, 1865. Another crowd also began to gather to see the Great Emancipator walk by. It was a crowd of thousands who stood watching in oppressive silence. They were the white residents of Richmond, watching with disdain as Lincoln walked by. Here was the man responsible for leading the war against them, here was the man responsible for freeing their slaves; the very slaves now singing in jubilant procession behind Lincoln. One white resident of Richmond wrote a letter that day to a friend. In it she says, “I had a good look at Mr. Lincoln. He seemed tired and old – and I must say, with due respect to the President of the United States, I thought him the ugliest man I had ever seen.” [This section comes from “The Civil War, A Narrative: Red River to Appomattox,” by Shelby Foote (1974), 896-898.]
Richmond was a city divided by the arrival of a single man. The lines were clearly drawn.
We can’t help but notice the resonance with Palm Sunday. There’s a beleaguered capital city set on a hill, Jerusalem. There’s a foreign army that controls the city, the despised Roman Palestinian Legion. There is rebellion, insurrection, murder, distrust, mutual hatred. It was a city set on edge. One man enters Jerusalem on that fateful Sunday and the city is torn apart. Some cheer his entry, “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!” Here comes the Son of David to free his people! Others despise him. Jealous of Jesus’ popularity, some worried about what he represents, some in Jerusalem start conspiring to kill Jesus.
The lines were drawn. Not like the predictable lines drawn on April 4, 1865; not like the racial lines drawn in Richmond, Virginia. No, the lines drawn in Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday, on that Holy Week, go right through us.
That’s part of the whiplash effect of Palm Sunday. Not twenty minutes ago, we were standing outside waving our palms rejoicing in the Lord Jesus. “Glory! Hallelujah!” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” For a brief moment we cheer the arrival of this man because he represents hope.
But then we suddenly realize that Jesus has come to upset our apple cart. Jesus has arrived to fight the powers of darkness – of sin, death, the devil, and the grave. And in our shortsightedness, we can’t stand it. We are content in our sinfulness and we can’t stand that Jesus might have a word against us. We prefer death and sin because new life and grace means that we would have to change. And the hardest thing to do is to change a human heart. Since Jesus is not what we want, we are ready to throw him away like a piece of garbage, “crucify him! Crucify him!” The line goes right through us.
This is what Palm Sunday forces us to recognize. All at once and at the same time, we glorify the Lord Jesus and we crucify him. We live in God’s grace and we reject God’s grace. We live in the light and we live in the darkness. We are beloved children of God, and yet we live small, feeble, closed off lives. Hosanna in the highest! Crucify him! The line runs right through us.
Humans are capable of incredible love. Every day people, good people, work to cure diseases, to eliminate poverty, to teach our children, to make the world a better place in the name of Jesus. We, people just like us, love with a love that is astounding.
But humans are capable of incredible evil. Every day people, people just like us, commit despicable crimes, we use other people as if they were expendable, we waste, we consume, without any thought of who comes after us. We, you and I, are capable of extraordinary negligence and malice. It is not “them” that is corrupt, it is “us.”
Or as my youth minister in high school said, “everybody has a little bit of Jesus and a little bit of jerk.”
Now, the most spiritually mature people I have met confess that the line runs right through them. They confess their own frailty, but also how much they desire to be close to God. The wisest Christians I know understand that with their lives they have shouted, “Hosanna in the highest” and “crucify him,” usually at the same time. When you are seeking a closer relationship with Jesus, one of the first steps is acknowledging your own divided heart.
I’ll tone it down a bit and make it personal. Perhaps you took on a Lenten discipline this year. And on Ash Wednesday, you really committed yourself, or, at least, you thought you committed yourself. I’m going to read the bible. I’m going to say my prayers. I’m going to go to church. I’m going to be a better person and a better disciple of Jesus. You shouted, “Hosanna in the highest!”
And then, well, and then life happened. The time slipped away, the day got away from you, you flat out forgot. The seductive power of Netflix lured you away. Your heart was hardened when you judged, condemned, and decided for yourself just how somebody else should live their lives. And somehow, somewhere, in these last forty days you lost track of Jesus. You shouted, “Crucify him!”
Like that day in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, Jesus walks right into the midst of our lives, and everything is called into question – what will we shout? Will we glorify, or will we crucify? Will we open our hearts to Jesus, or will we condemn him? This is the question that Holy Weeks poses to us. Will we sing and clap and dance for joy, because the great Savior of the world has arrived? Or will we stand in oppressive silence and simply watch him go by?
This is not unlike the question posed to us yesterday, as hundreds of thousands of people took to a different kind of march. And again everything is called into question – what will we shout as a society? Are we that crowd that shouts, “crucify him!”? Is our collective heart that callous? Or will we follow the Prince of Peace? Will we love each other enough to actually listen to each other? Will we acknowledge our faults, our past, and our prejudices and strive to be holier? Will we recognize that the Holy Spirit is indeed moving? Will we shout, “Hosanna in the highest!”? The line goes through us.
As we struggle with the enormity of this day, of Palm Sunday, remember that there is one more procession, one more parade. On Good Friday, Jesus makes his way to Golgotha, and there he is crucified. And there we see, to our horror, that our shouts of “crucify him!” have come true. Indeed, we are capable of rejecting the ruler of this world, even crucifying him.
So we look to the cross yes, in hope. But we also look to the cross of Jesus to remind ourselves that the line runs right through us. That we have the potential to crucify the Lord of life. It shows us in gruesome fashion just what we are capable of. When you are tempted; when you are becoming callous; when you are more ready to shut your ears and your heart than to you are to listen and love; when the seduction of wealth, power, money, and notoriety come lurking at your door – look to the cross.
And ask yourself, what will my life shout to Jesus?