|Minister's Sermon - Palm Sunday 14th April 2019 9am|
|Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen|
|Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church|
Sunday 14th April 2019 9am Palm Sunday
The stones that will not keep silent - even if Jesus’ disciples are – have become more and more significant for me over the years. My first awareness of them was when I spent 6 weeks on Iona in 1982. Every morning, at the end of morning worship, I responded to the words “If Christ's disciples keep silent”, with, “these stones would shout aloud.” It made complete sense in an abbey built of massive stones where every day there was talk of peace and justice. But when I went back, being invited to respond as I did then, I found myself being drawn to the matters large and small on which I am silent.
A few years ago, in the week before Holy Week, I watched a TV drama that crystallised this is for me. It was called “Passer By”. The main character was Joe – played by James Nesbitt. He thought of himself as an upright citizen with a social conscience. Then one day it all began to unravel. He was on his way home from work - later than usual – and there were only a few people in the carriage. Soon, everyone but a young woman had got off, and he and she were alone. Until a group of young men got on. They sat near her and tried to chat her up. Joe thought she seemed uncomfortable, especially when their jokes became menacing, and he nearly said something. But he was nearly home. As he waited for the doors to open at his station, he looked at her, and she looked up, worried. He wondered whether she was appealing for help – but it wasn’t clear. He hesitated for a moment. It was clear what was thinking. “I’m not sure if she’s in trouble. The doors will shut soon and I’ll be really late. I don’t know…” He got off. As the doors closed, he looked back, and saw fear in her face. He stopped at the information desk, but no one was there, so he went home. A couple of days later, a police notice appeared outside the station, appealing for witnesses to a serious sexual assault. He ignored it and did nothing until a week later.
Joe was struggling. His lack of action surprised him. It wasn’t like him. It challenged his self-understanding and he didn’t know what to do with this new revelation. So, for a week he did nothing, but deciding to give a statement made him feel better. He convinced himself, he did what he could, and forgot the new insight into his character – until he got to court. He was the only witness, and when the lawyer for the accused men questioned him, he focused on Joe’s lack of action. He can’t understand how this upright, family man, whose whole life appears to be committed to serving the public, didn’t help the woman. He was even more confused that he didn’t come forward to make a statement for a week. The lawyer exploits Joe’s hesitancy and suggests he can’t have been sure about what he said he saw. There’s a moment in the questioning when it becomes all too clear. Just when Joe could have convinced the jury that the men had been menacing, he hesitates, because then he’d have had to admit that he’d passed by on the other side. All he had to say was, I made a mistake, I failed to be the good citizen I think I am. But he couldn’t. And he couldn’t, because he couldn’t cope with not being the person he thought he was, and he didn’t want to appear weak to his work colleagues or his family.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey reinforces our understanding of Jesus as a humble, servant leader, someone with the courage to turn the expectations of those looking for a powerful leader, upside down. It’s consistent with his life. And with his words about the power that is scarcely noticed – in a child, a mustard seed, in yeast or salt. Yet as we move into Holy Week we often forget this sort of power. It seems irrelevant in the face of armies, governments, and the world’s economic institutions. It seems hopeless as a response to school bullies, rapists, and the perpetrators of domestic violence. And it looks totally useless when faced with terrorist bombs and dictators.
This was the sort of power Jesus faced when he arrived in Jerusalem. He knew it awaited him. He’d challenged religious practices that made people into outsiders. He’d questioned the right of the rich to oppress the poor. He’d stood against the right of the strong to use violence to protect themselves from their weakness. Yet he still goes. And after arriving on a donkey, turns the tables over in the Temple, allows himself to be arrested, and accepts the outcome of his trial. He did not fight against the violence that the religious authorities, the Romans used, because he did not believe in the violence that they lived by. And when he allows himself to lose to them, to be killed by them, to be sacrificed on their altar, he shows them that the violence they believe they need to maintain stability and power is entirely unnecessary.
We’re so used to seeing Jesus’ death and resurrection as victory, that we forget that it initially looked and felt, like failure. Jesus’ disciples feel asleep in the garden, failed to stand up for him in the courtyard, and ran away when things got tough. They didn’t act as they’d expected. They couldn’t keep the promises they made. They were silenced leaving the stones to speak. But Jesus wasn’t deterred. His willingness to empty himself of power makes it possible for him to “lose”, to “fail”, showing us that “having to win”, having to have power, success, reputation does not matter at all. For when we are in the grip of these things they lead to death. Not life.
As Joe faced that moment in court, I was struck by his humanity. Most of us don’t like admitting we’ve failed, or got things wrong, in case people think we’re weak. Yet he would have been the best a human could be, if he could have said, “yes, I saw, and I didn’t do the right thing.” But that would have meant taking a risk with his reputation. And he couldn’t. Joe’s inability to do this condemns him to days of torment. He can’t face himself. So, he tries to blot it all out, by drinking. It’s only when he allows himself to see that he has failed, and decides to tell his family the truth, that things change. He’s sure they’ll reject him – but they don’t. Their love makes it possible for him to ask for forgiveness and go back home. And as he does, they all begin again with a more human assessment of themselves, knowing that failure is a part of being a human being.
As the crowds that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem with “Hosannas”, turn against him with shouts of “crucify”, Jesus’ disciples are silenced. In their confusion and self-preservation, they fail, remaining silent. Leaving the stones to shout out aloud. On Iona, where peace and justice are the topic of daily conversation, it’s easy to say, yes, I’ll speak up. I’ll speak up about climate change, poverty and war. I’ll take the risk of intervening when I see someone being threatened. I’ll act when the powerful use their power against the weak. But back at home, in every-day life in situations like Joe’s, in work, at home, and even in church it’s more difficult. The pressures of life numb us to the suffering and pain of others. We get caught up a self-preservation that prevents us from seeing that we are protecting ourselves from the reality of our own humanity. And because we do we are silenced. Only when we recognise we’re human, that human beings fail, and that it’s OK to say, “I got it wrong,” will we discover the voice that God longs for humanity to use. Only when we realise there’s no point in trying to protect our reputation, trying to win, or holding onto power. And let go of the things that prevent us from speaking out – will we gain life. Then God will no longer have to depend on stones to speak out. For God’s people will! Amen.
Sue Keegan von Allmen
14th April 2019