Sunday, February 26, 2012

From Palms to Ashes

From Palms to Ashes
A sermon delivered by Peter T. Atkinson
February 26, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 19: 36-40 & 23: 20-23 
Psalm 1

This past Wednesday Lent officially began with Ash Wednesday. Some of us got together here at church for a small service that centered around an ancient tradition: the imposition of the ashes. It is traditional that the Palms from the prior year's Palm Sunday are burned, then the ashes are used to mark the foreheads of the penitent. As the ashes are placed the words, "From Dust you were formed, and to dust you will return," are repeated, reminding us of the frailty of human life. The season of Lent is a time for fasting, for prayer, for study, for self evaluations, and most importantly for repentance. There is great symbolism in the use of the Palms as ashes. It is appropriate because the palms represent the best of our praise for Jesus, the celebration of us at our best, on our best day, and the ashes represent the great depths that seem to always fall to. I chose the two gospel readings this morning to recall that great paradox, that great fall, the fact that in just one week's time the great palm waving celebration, the parade through the streets on the young colt, so quickly turns into the mocking, jeering, march towards the cross. The people who had been cheering Hosanna, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, become the same people who demand that Jesus be crucified.
It is very easy to disregard a shift like this. It is much easier to think of ourselves as the Hosanna shouters. We can relate to them, loving Jesus, being swept up in the excitement, the momentum, the miracles. Few of us allow ourselves to identify with the ones yelling crucify him. Throughout the history of Christianity, we Christians have claimed the Hosanna’s but have discarded the shouts “Crucify him” peddling them off on others, either the Jews, or Romans, or chief priests, scribes and Pharisees. The ugly truth though is that most likely it was the same people, the same crowd, the same mob exclaims both Hosanna and then Crucify him. And we are very capable of shouting both in our lives. And thus the ashes of those palms belong on our faces, and the remembrance of our propensity to go along with such evil needs to find its place in our hearts.
As a captivated student of history, I’ve always been interested in the big events. At Hampden-Sydney I took classes on many, from the fall of the Roman Empire, to the American Civil War, but the period that always peeked my interest the most was the French Revolution, a period of change and upheaval that saw the pendulum shift back and forth, the leaders of one day are the guillotine’s swift victims of the next. It is hard not to see the parallels between such a historical event and the Palm Sunday/Holy Week betrayal of the always fickle crowd.
We ask ourselves how it can happen. We tell ourselves that it never could again, but it does again and again. It is a phrase repeated I think much too frequently that “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Though it is true, that forgetting history makes one apt to relive the patterns, but simply knowing the events of history is not enough. It is much more important to understand history, not just to avoid repeating it, but simply to understand who we are as humans and just what wonders and horrors we are capable of.
How does it happen? What is the force behind the change? How can we shift our position so easily? Simply put, we have no idea who we are, no identity, no true concept of self, so when the winds of change blow us we have no root, no binding principle to hold us, and therefore when the crowd yells Hosanna we join in, and when the tide turns we turn right along with it.
Let’s take a step back though first, and look at the make up of the crowd. As an English Teacher I'm always looking for ways to teach important distinctions between words. One of the big word concepts that opens the door to understanding so many more word distinctions is the important differnece between the words: Denotation and Connotation. For a reminder to those who have been gracefully removed for a long time from the High School classroom, Denotation is the dictionary concise definition of the word, and a Connotation is the feelings or added meanings that a word picks up over time, based on usage and other things. I ask the class to look up three words, one was “group”, the second was “crowd,” the third one was “mob.” Each year they find that basically all three share the same dictionary definition, i.e. that “they are a collection of people,” but then I ask them to look at a selection of pictures and ask them which word fits each one. They have no problem differentiating the four people standing together doing nothing as the "group," the destructive and unruly "mob," and finally the cheering "crowd." This week though as I’ve been wrestling with the fickleness of the mob in the Passion text, I’ve been wondering, what is the inherent difference between a “mob” which we could say that the Hosanna cheering then Crucify jeering folks were and a “community,” which we as Christians are called to be? The distinction in their make up is subtle, but important because though rarely does a mob become a community, but a community constantly is threatened on all sides at every moment with the with danger of turning into a mob.
I would say that the main difference is that a community is made up of individual people who preserve their identity and function together, and therefore remain rooted. And a mob is a mass of people who give up their own identity and take on the identity of the mob. They then become the fickle crowd participating in group think, the dangers of which give us the swinging pendulum of popular opinion, the chopping guillotine, Nazi’s, fascists, a world blown seemingly out of control, and the shouts of Hosanna to Crucify, again and again throughout history.
 The difficult part of becoming a community is that it is truly hard to know who we are in this world and what defines us. So many things work together in our lives to form our identity. They seem to shape us, and give a semblance of meaning to our lives, but they can hide from us the real truth about ourselves.
There is a modern parable that has been used by many people in recent years. I’ve seen it used to show the difference between Christianity and other religions. It has also been used to show how Christ himself functions differently than other people. Today I want to use it to show how many different things can work to define who we are and how we act. This is the parable of the man who fell into the pit.
So a man falls into a pit and tries and tries to get out but just can’t. He cries out for help but no one hears him.
One of the things that work to define us are our emotions.
A happy person came by looked down saw the man in the pit and said my what a lovely day to be in a pit.
A sad person came by said, I don’t think being in a pit could be any worse than what I deal with everyday.
An angry person said, I wish that I could put my enemies in a pit like that.
And a jealous person wondered how come this guy’s pit was so much bigger than his own.
Another thing that can define us is our job. For instance:
A policeman might ask the man if they have a license for that pit.
An IRS agent might ask if he’s yet filed his taxes on his pit.
An insurance salesman might ask him if his pit is in the good hands of All State.
A news reporter might ask if he could interview the man for an exclusive story on his pit.
A sportscaster might say, Well sports fans it appears that the man has fallen into a pit.
Sometimes we are defined by our race
If you were more like me I’d save you from that pit
If you were more like me you wouldn’t have fallen into this pit to begin with
If you could speak my language, if your skin were my color, if you were just. . . not in that pit maybe we could get along.
Sometimes our actions are defined by our politics
A Liberal might say, let me give you some money while you are in that pit that should solve all your problems
A Conservative might say, how much is this guy’s pit going to cost me
Sometimes our actions are defined by our religious affiliation or philosophy
A Pharisee might tell him that only bad people fall into pits
A Fundamentalist might tell him that he deserved to fall into his pit
A Charismatic might come by and say if he would only confess he’d be out of the pit
A Christian Scientist might tell him, “you only think you are in that pit”
A Realist might say, “That surely is a pit”
A Calvinist might say, “If you were saved you never would have fallen into that pit”
A Wesleyan might say, “You were saved and still fell in that pit”
An optimist might say, “Things could be worse”
A Pessimist might say to him, “You know what, things will get worse”
The parable though always ends the same: Jesus pulled the man out of that pit. And it is possible that any of those other individuals might done the same on any given day. When the weather and circumstances was right, their best and true selves would reach down and help him out of the pit, but Jesus would always do it because Jesus knew who he was, and what he was, regardless of circumstances, regardless of temptations, regardless of what the herd said. Jesus was the Son of God when he healed all of the people he healed. He was the Son of God when he preached the Sermon on the Mount. He was the son of God when he was out in the desert for forty days of temptation. He was the son of God when he rode into Jerusalem on the Colt amidst praising shouts of Hosanna, and he was the Son of God when he stumbled broken to the cross amidst shouts of Crucify him.
Do you think it is possible that we could live our lives like that? Completely free from the whims and wishes of other people. Independent to an ever changing world. Independent in an ever changing world? Perhaps.
Psalm 1, which Pat read for us this morning, captures some of this important grounding nature in following God:
Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
 2But his delight is in the LORD;
he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, and not scattered by the wind.

Paul also points to our need to be this way in his letter to the Galatians, writing, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." This is the foundation for our new community. We must find  our identity in Christ Jesus, as a child of God because that identity is constant, complete, and eternal. That identity does not change with the times, with the fads of the day, or with the herd. That identity is like a tree planted.
We live in an interesting time, where people seek to define us, with labels, in groups. None of these labels fit a child of God because God made all of his children completely unique. There has been no other you, and there will never be another you. This is important to remember because your gifts are unique, and the role that your life will play is unique. Remembering that we are children of God gives us unity, but a unity that is not meant for the mindless mob, but rather for the more rooted Community. If we are shaped by our identity as a child of God, then we are free to become a true actualization of the potential of ourselves. We become empowered to be the person we were created to be.
And it is during Lent that we search for just who that person is. We look inside at the person we are, honestly. Where are the shadows within ourselves? Where do we not allow in the light? Where are we filled with the darkness? What are the parts of us that are not accepting of the identity of a Child of God? Where do we feel inadequate, unworthy, unlovable? Where in ourselves are we capable of shouting crucify him, instead of Hosanna? Where in ourselves is there the capacity for evil, or violence, or racism, or genocide? Where in ourselves do we feel fragmented? Where in ourselves do we seek the acceptance of the herd? Where in ourselves do we abdicate our identity and assume the identity of others?
Are we children of God or are we still the man in the pit? We may find that our Lenten preparation has made us aware that we are very much still in the pit. That may be so, and if it is so, Christ will pull us out. . . that's what Easter is, and if we find that we have already been taken out of our pit, let us be completely about the business of Christ, that is not sympathizing with those in the pit, not making their pits better, or livable, or pretending that they don't exist, but to be completely about the business of Christ, and bringing them out of the pit.