You are part of a crowd today. I won’t pretend it’s a big thronging crowd here in this sanctuary, although I daresay you were impressive when you walked the aisles during the first hymn. We’re big enough that we can fairly call ourselves o oxlos, the original Greek word for the crowd that gathered there outside the Golden Gate of Jerusalem. Like us, they waved their palms in the air and sang Hosannas. We haven’t thrown our coats in the aisle yet, but who needs a coat on a day like today? 42 and sunny--that temperature might have given us pause six months ago, but today it feels positively balmy.
You are part of a crowd today that, like those gathered outside the gate, has come together to celebrate Jesus’ coming. As God’s people, we walk through this passion story with Jesus year by year: each time, like the circuit of a labyrinth, getting closer and closer to the someday when we walk right into death with him, and then right out again into something more.
This crowd swings from palm-waving to the doorstep of the crucifixion, the audience of Holy Week. Our children in Sunday School are reading a story for each day: Monday is the woman with the alabaster jar. We watch her break it open, and the crowd--that’s us--scolds her for being so extravagant. One day is the day of prayer, Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, when we can’t stay awake for the life of us. One day is the rooster, when the crowd’s threatening questions drive Peter to deny his friend. Thursday, we will be here remembering Jesus’ last supper, when we participate by sharing the bread and cup. On Friday, we watch the cross, wincing at the mockers, longing to be the women who followed him and stood at a distance. We are the chorus of an old Greek drama, following all the action and commenting on the way, half audience and half cast… and never exempt.
We can’t pretend that we play only half the role in life, though we would wish to. The crowd of Hosannas is the crowd that cries “Crucify!” We are the crowd that begs to be saved, and the crowd that, a few days later, has already given up. We are the fickle, capricious crowd: we cry out one day, and a few days later have a tendency to forget ourselves.
Yesterday, in the crowd that gathered in the commons, we were reminded of Maya Angelou’s words: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” I loved hearing that. I want to do better, I don’t want to be fickle, but I know how short my attention span can be. I know better about a lot of things that I don’t do consistently, like most of us. We are the human crowd: with good moments and bad, hopeful hosannas and potential harm living side-by-side within us.
We prefer in all this to be responsible only for ourselves, but personal responsibility is a small part of our call as Christians. Jesus clearly didn’t just live a holy life himself--he always engaged the crowd. Even when he was utterly exhausted, Jesus fed them, healed them, answered them, fed them again, gathered them together and taught them, and did not ever give up--because God knows what we ignore: that we cannot separate ourselves from one another. This is the point I need to make today, and why I had to change my topic from the one you have seen in the bulletin: We are in the crowd whether we like it or not. We cannot separate ourselves from one another without lying to ourselves about how we are. How are you? (“Fine.”) No, we are not.
Let me explain. We sit down in the evening to watch the news, and we hear of a disaster of some kind. The very first question we ask ourselves is, how close is this to our own lives? As soon as we have demonstrated to ourselves that the disaster is far away in some way, we feel quiet compassion. If we are unable to establish some kind of distance, we struggle, wrestling with sadness, fear, anger, self-concern. Rohingya villages have been burned and the people slaughtered: we separate ourselves from this by reflecting, so quickly that we hardly notice it, that they are far away, speak a different language, have homes completely different from our own, abide under a government that was really always dangerously militant, have always known themselves to be a target group, and that in all these ways they are completely unlike us. We are safe; we are separate; we are sad, of course, but resigned, realistic.
Galatians says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female--you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We excuse ourselves from this unity when things are excessively sad or hard, though, as they usually are somewhere. We allow that things will be terrible somewhere, because that somewhere is not here--and thus an illusion of separation is formed.
[There is neither Jew nor Greek, unless the Jews are being targeted by alt-right bigots, or the Greeks are flooded with refugees and crushed by austerity. Then, it becomes very important that we are not Jews or Greeks. We are concerned, but we aren’t staying up nights wondering what to do about it all.
Take another news story, of a young man whose apartment yielded a cache of heavy weapons, ammunition, bomb-making equipment, and medical and survival supplies. Say he was living in Texas--that’s pretty far away, and you’ve probably just told yourself a story about how Texans are about their guns. But that’s not true--he was living in Collegetown, less than a mile from us here, right near the University campus. Suddenly the story is more unsettling.
Most people, upon hearing this, will begin to calculate their distance from this danger. Do you spend time on campus? If not much, you congratulate yourself: you’re safe. Do you inhabit the center of campus, or some outlying area? Would a shooter or a bomber target you and your department? Your mind will tell you all the reasons why he wouldn’t. It will do its best to separate you from danger, to take you out of the crowd, to reassure you that you are not as susceptible as other people. There are two kinds of people in the world: you, and everyone else. Until your mind has reassured you of your separation from the crowd, you will be uneasy. Once you have convinced yourself that you are different, your mind can rest.]
When good people excuse themselves from the crowd, the crowd starts to go bad. The illusion of separation from any part of our human family is incredibly dangerous to us all--because it makes us weak when we should be strong. It makes us ignorantly powerless when we should be doing something. It allows us to rest when we should be rising. The truth is that if we stopped putting so much psychological distance between ourselves and others, we might actually address our problems before they got out of hand. The Bible affirms our human unity from cover to cover. God makes Adam, earth, ground, foundation, and Eve, breath, life: “This is the book of the generations of Adam,” the Bible says, and tells us our story. God says to Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation,” and “in you, all the nations of the world shall be blessed.” Psalm 148: “Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together!”--and the Psalmist includes rocks, trees and creatures in this unity, too. “There is one body,” Ephesians says. Paul tells the Corinthians, “You are one body, but many members.” Romans: “We, though many, are one body in Christ.”
In the story of this coming week, as the Passion unfolds, there is going to come a time when the crowd takes a dangerous, deadly turn. At that moment, the disciples will have fled. Even Peter, the rock, will have succumbed to denial. The good voices have left the crowd--”I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered”--and the crowd begins to turn.
Assuming that we are still living out God’s holy story in our own time and place, what good does it do us to separate ourselves from this crowd? Their bloodthirst is horrid, but so is Pilate when he washes his hands of it all. Turning away helps no one. Our separation can’t change the crowd--only our involvement can. We have to jump into the fray of life with our heart in our throats, and our faith in both hands. We have to put ourselves in the uncomfortable position of belonging to the human story, no matter how bad things might seem.
This challenge to belong to all humans equally may sound like unbearable counsel. Solutions may sound unreachable; fixing may be an impossible task.
But in the end, the story that we tell in God’s book of life is ours together. There is no excusing ourselves. We are the crowd… and we have been given this job:
To love others as Christ loved us,
as though they were our own selves--
as, indeed, they are.