Holy Week is an emotional roller coaster - filled with passion and realities that touch us all
Today is one of those days in which the fullness of our humanity is on complete display. We see that fullness in our two readings today. We start with the liturgy of the Palms. In Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, everything is right. The disciples finally follow instructions by Jesus to perfection. They do not ask questions, they do not fumble – they simply listen to Jesus, do what Jesus says, and enable the procession of a lifetime. And the people show us a glimmer of perfection too. When Jesus comes down that Mount of Olives, the traditional location from which the people expected the final battle for Jerusalem’s liberation would begin, [i] the people respond as though they understand. They spread cloaks before him, they wave palms, and they proclaim, “Hosanna! 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!” Despite text after text of the people debating who Jesus is, finally there is clarity – a moment of truth. And that moment is perfectly good.
But then of course, we also read the passion today. And all that is awful about humanity is fully exposed too. Religious leaders are plotting to kill Jesus, his disciple betrays him, the disciples deny him though they swear never to do so, they sleep when he begs them not to, the people turn him over to be crucified, they humiliate him, and they mock him, even until he is dead on a cross. No one escapes guilt. All are to blame for what happens that day. And even we in our liturgy shout with the people, “Crucify him.” We do not shout those words because they are comfortable – in fact, we like to believe that we would have never shouted those words. We like to believe that even though Peter could not be loyal, we would have been. But the truth is that we too have denied Christ in our lives – both publicly and privately. This moment is perfectly horrible, and full of human sinfulness.
This is the frustration with the readings from Palm Sunday. Today would be a lot easier if we could just read the palms lesson or the passion narrative. To do both takes us on too much of an emotional roller coaster. The extreme high of the palms juxtaposed to the extreme low of the Passion is almost too much to bear. We would rather focus on the relief of the palms, knowing that we sometimes get things right, or we would rather focus on our sinfulness, knowing that we often get things wrong. But doing both in one morning feels confusing and disorienting.
But that is the brilliance of this day. All of humanity truly is exposed – the good and the bad. Just like in each of us there is goodness and sinfulness. We are never fully one or the other. Think of the person you most revere in life – that grandparent, that teacher, that community leader. They taught you so much about how to be a good human being. And yet, even they had flaws. You probably saw those flaws once or twice, but you buried them or ignored them so you could keep them up on their pedestal. Likewise, if you were to think of the person you most detest in life – that bully at school, that slimy politician, that addict in your family. As morally depraved as they are, there have been moments – tiny glimpses of goodness or at least vulnerability - that you saw in them. Yes, they too are not wholly evil or sinful.
In 1969, Bill was a single, gay man in San Francisco who had always wanted to be a father. Word got out that Social Services was having a difficult time placing boys with adoptive families, and so Bill went to the offices to find out if he might be eligible. He met Aaron on one of his first visits to the adoption agency, but Aaron’s mother had been a heroin addict, and the two-year old had serious developmental issues. At first Bill declined, but he found himself at FAO Schwartz later, buying a teddy bear to give to Aaron. When Aaron heard his voice again the next day, he ran to Bill and threw his arms around him. Bill and Aaron shared a happy family life. Aaron ended up having neurological damage, and was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. By his teenage years, he became a drug addict. When Aaron was 30, Bill got a call from coroner’s office. Aaron had overdosed on heroin. When Bill was asked whether he ever regretted the adoption, he said, “You know, I still cry over the ending. But I would do it again. I loved him so much. And he loved me too. I was lucky in so many ways.” [ii]
That is the rub today. We both celebrate the good and honor the depravity in ourselves because we know that God loves us no matter what. God’s love is not sentimental. As one scholar says, God’s love is “more like the love of a parent who washes feces from a pouting three-year old.”[iii] That kind of love knows the moments of our goodness and the moments of our awfulness, and loves us anyway. That kind of love is able to look back at a life tormented by addiction and mental illness, and know not only that he loved, but that the addict loved too. Perhaps that is why we read both lessons today. We need to know that despite the ways in which we betray our Lord and Savior, we also have moments of honor and goodness. And despite the fact that we are sometimes the beloved, obedient children of God, we are also sometimes the disobedient, hurtful children of God. And our God loves us anyway. Amen.
[i] Charles L. Campbell, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 155.
[ii] Story recorded through StoryCorp on NPR, and can be found at http://storycorps.org/?p=57072.
[iii] Michael Battle, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 156.