"Two Crowds"

Message preached April 8, 2001
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Luke 19:28-40 and 23:13-25

Order of Worship

(note - this is transcribed as remembered. It was delivered "amble and ramble" style)

            Are you familiar with the classic tale by Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? In it, a scientist discovers a way of allowing two very different parts of himself, two aspects of his personality, to each have a separate existence. Through experimentation, he finds a combination of chemicals which help him, on the one hand, to be the person his friends have come to know and respect: the serious, hard-working Dr. Jekyll. But he also has the ability to be the more fun-loving, wilder Mr. Hyde, a character which, as the novel progresses, grows increasingly more out of control - such that, by the end, he becomes capable of murder. As the title suggests, this is a story of two distinct individuals, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. However, they are one and the same man...

            Today, in the life of the church, in the course of the Christian year, has become known as "Palm Sunday." To be honest, this day has somewhat of a "Jekyll and Hyde" character to it, if you will. Every year, those of us who plan worship face a decision as to how we will approach this day. Will we celebrate it with a liturgy of Palms, or a liturgy of Passion? Will we bring out the palm branches, wave them high in the air, and shout out our "Hosannas," as we sing our blessing to "the king who comes in the name of the Lord?" Or will we recognize that this day begins a rather dark week in the remembrance of our faith, a week which ends with a cross and our Lord dead in a tomb? Which will it be? Of course, palm or passion, itís the same day.

            Celebration is vital for Godís people. Thank you, children, for dramatically living out the story of Jesusí entrance into Jerusalem, as you processed into our sanctuary with singing. I could imagine Jesus himself riding on a donkey as you made way for Carson, with such a determined look on his face, to "ride" between you. The rest of us didnít join in very much with your waving of the branches, did we? Letís try that one again, how about it? Raise them high, adults, and letís shout out, "Hosanna, blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord."

            Indeed, celebration is important, isnít it - those bright moments when we let loose and rejoice in the Lord. Anyone remember what we did a year ago? The weather was not much different than today, and we wondered if weíd be able to do as we planned. However, the clouds parted and the sun emerged, and we did go outside to plant a dogwood (not a palm) tree in honor of the new millennium. We called it our "J2K" (Jesus 2000) tree. Remember?

            These bright moments are fun, and we need them. Sometimes, though - like with this "Holy" week in the church year - we can go from Palm Sunday (a bright day) to Easter Sunday (another bright day), and never get to the "stuff" in the middle of them, the rougher part of the story which makes the celebration possible.

            Letís spend a few moments in this middle time just now, focusing upon the two crowds that seem to frame it. Weíve already heard of them in this morningís scripture readings. The one was presented so well by you children. Jesus entered Jerusalem seated on a animal (was it a colt, a donkey, or both - does it matter?). All these people gathered around Jesus as he processed. Some laid down their cloaks on the ground before him. Others brought branches from trees, or vegetation from the field and did the same - preparing the way for him. By the way, only the gospel of John has any mention of Palm branches, but so what?

                [Bulletin cover art by Paul Grout. 
                      From Church of the Brethren Living Word Bulletin series,
                       copyright 2001. Used by permission of Paul Grout.]

            As we hear the story, we wonder - at least I do - did these folks really comprehend what it what they were saying as they shouted their Hosannas? Did they know who this man was who was entering Jerusalem, or were they just Ďcaught upí in the celebration? Itís easy to get Ďcaught upí in celebration. Could it be that many were just mouthing the words of this festive time? The "hosanna" and the "blessing" and the "festive branches" come out of Psalm 118, which is just right for times like this, when pilgrims come to the city for celebrations like Passover. Was it just another celebration, one among many, in which this crowd was Ďcaught upí?

            There is another crowd to remember this day, one which was not about blessing, but cursing. Jekyll and Hyde - one man, Palm and passion - one day, two crowds - one and the same? The flow of the story (especially when viewed from the vantage of all the gospel accounts together) seems to encourage us to see the same crowd, whether or not they are composed of the same individuals. At one moment in time the crowd cries, "blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" Not all that much later they shout, "crucify him!"

            Two crowds. As those who hear the story now, a few milennia later, we mustnít place ourselves outside the story. After all, as we love to sing, "this is my story, this is my song." If it is, indeed, "our" story, then we are not mere observers from the outside. We are part of the story. We stand among both crowds. What does our faith tell us? Was it "the Jews" who killed Jesus? No, that is the path of anti-Semitism. Was it the Romans? Well, strictly speaking, yes - but our faith tells us that crowd was composed of you and me. "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" Maybe not in an historical sense, but yes - "I was," and so were you. And it was just as much our voice which both blessed and cursed.

            The "crowd" is powerful, isnít it? We only have to look at the newspaper this past week to realize the pull. For instance, what happened last Saturday night after (the University of) Maryland lost to Duke (University in the NCAA menís basketball final four match-up)? Thatís right, there was a riot on campus. Students were caught up in the moment and went out of control, damaging property, starting fires. I heard a social psychologist interviewed on a local station talk about how, in such situations, those who might not otherwise do such things, who believe they have personal safeguards against going overboard like that - how even persons like this can get caught up in a crowd. The pull is powerful.

            Another "for instance" - what those lacrosse players from St. Paulís school for boys nearby did. You know what Iím talking about. [On a dare, imitating a scene from a movie, one boy secretly videotaped himself having sex with a 15-year-old girl, then passed the video to others on the team.] Somebody in the crowd had an idea that took on a life of its own, and everyone got caught up in it. Stupidity? Yes! Letís also call it what the newspapers canít. Sin.

            The pull of sin is powerful. And the truth is, we are all not that far from feeling its effect. As scripture says, if we say we have no sin, we are liars - plain and simple. But how do we deal with it? Do we reach for Dr. Jekyllís answer? What did he do? He poisoned Mr. Hyde. The only problem with that course of action is that, in the process, Dr. Jekyll also died. They were, after all, one and the same man.

            Letís recall more of the story of this "holy" week... Amid the crowds on that bright day outside the gates of Jerusalem, Jesus paused (according to Luke) and gazed at this place toward which he had so long been aimed. "Jerusalem," he said, "would that you knew the things that make for peace, but now they are hidden from your eyes." ... Jerusalem is not just some place in far off palestine, or some location in the far distant past of a dusty, old book. Jerusalem is our town, folks. Just as we are the crowds which both blessed him, and cursed him. And what Jesus later had to say, when he was strung up on the cross; his words were not just for the soldiers who did the dirty work, nor just for the crowd way who earlier had cried "crucify!" His request was for you and me, as well. "Father, forgive them, for they donít know what theyíre doing."

            Forgiveness is the beginning of something altogether new. No, we canít poison the Mr. Hyde within - who originally was the more fun-loving side of a very serious man, by the way. God, however, is about creating something new - a new heaven, a new earth, a new man, a new woman. God is at work upon us. We speak of baptism in this light, but baptism is itself merely the beginning of a long process, something which is ongoing in our life of faith. In the catechism of the reformer Martin Luther, he wrote that baptism is a daily affair - every day we die to sin and rise with Christ. The possibility is always there.

            Speaking of possibilities, let me provide some forewarning - or call it scenes from coming attractions. Next week, there will be a time for you, if you are in need of taking a deeper step of faith, to claim this new possibility in Christ, to step forth in faith, responding to Godís call, and declare yourself for Christ. Easter is an appropriate time for such a step. Call it "stepping out of the tomb." As we step forth, we sing, "my life is in you, Lord; my strength is in you, Lord; my hope is in you, Lord."

            Today is Palm Sunday, whether we celebrate it with palms or passion. But Easter is coming. Yes, Easter is coming.

This sermon was published in Lectionary Homiletics, April/May 2004, vol. XV, no. 3, p.6.

©2001 Peter L. Haynes

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