Notes from the sermon given by Richard Burton on Palm Sunday
One of the advantages of being married to an artist, as I am, is that you get to learn about and see some very inspirational pieces of art. The artist Stanley Spencer who some of you will know, was born in 1891 in a small village in Berkshire, called Cookham. He was a prolific artist and had what Wikipedia calls a “fervent if unconventional Christian faith”. In the 1920s he painted a series of pictures of biblical scenes and one of these is “Christ entering Jerusalem”. But one of the striking aspects of this picture is that the Jerusalem Christ is entering is, in fact, Cookham High Street. What Spencer was imagining was not an event happening in faraway Palestine but right on his doorstep.
The story of Palm Sunday is a familiar one, its described in all four of the gospels. Jesus and his disciples were on they way to Jerusalem stopping in Bethany a village outside the city and to the East, Jesus ask his disciples to go to a village ahead of them where they will find a colt, untie it, explain to the owner rather mysteriously why they are doing it, and bring it to him. Then spreading cloaks on the animal they make their way into Jerusalem. They hadn’t even got into the city when coming down the mount of Olives a crowd gathers, sings the praises of God and chants: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Praise to God” and throw down cloaks in his path and wave palm branches.
There were at that time actually two contrasting processions. Pilate had moved into Jerusalem from the west at the beginning of the week of Passover as well, with the Roman army, keen to kwell potential uprisings. That procession would be one of a show of strength and domination, with promises of violence and brutality. The image of an occupying force. In contrast Jesus leads a band of disciples in a show of gentleness and humility, he arouses a sense of celebration and joy, with promises of peace and love. But as we know the joy and thanksgiving of this procession are short lived. In the next verses we get sorrow and anger. Jesus weeping over Jerusalem and the lack of peace, and then the scenes in the temples where an ordinarily placid Jesus turns over the tables of the money changers in anger at turning the house of prayer into a den of thieves.
Then the last supper and arrest of Jesus and events of Good Friday. Whether or not it’s the same people who shout Hosanna who then call for Jesus crucifixation we will never know, but clearly the mood changed completely.
It was suggested to me that rather than finding it hard to understand the crowds who called for Jesus crucifixation, what is harder to understand is why the crowds would come to celebrate Jesus entry to Jerusalem.
Its true that Jesus did a lot of healing, and some amazing miracles, but this was the man who said: “Let the dead bury their own dead”, “The poor will always be with you” – what a terrible thing to say! The man who noted that it was only a foreigner who came back to give thanks when he had cured 10 men from disease, the man demanded people leave their families to follow him, the man who advised people trying to work hard and save up for rainy days were foolish and those who didn’t worry about a thing because birds and flowers did’t worry, would be blessed!
The man who said the most ridiculous thing of all: “That we are to love each other, even those who hate us”. You could, it seems, write a book about all the outrageous sayings of this man. Or four of them! They are of course called the gospels.
Yet his was the man that everyone was cheering on, waving bits of tree, throwing down their coats so the colts feet didn’t get dusty, for the one moment in his short life, the whole world rose up to see him, to cheer him to acknowledge him, the whole of creation even.
But not everyone was happy about this. In the reading from Matthew we hear that on entering Jerusalem the whole city was in uproar and people were asking “who is this?” Perhaps in the sense of “ who does he think he is?!” In Lukes account the Pharisees told Jesus to “command your disciples to be quiet” or as they might say now “just tell them to shut up!” Jesus was no great friend to the Pharisees, in the previous chapter he had compared the arrogant complacency of a Pharisee in the Temple with the recognition by a penitant tax collector of his bad ways. He called them a brood of vipers, whited sepulchres he had no time for their hypocrisy and their blinkered adherence to the scriptural laws.
But in response to this Jesus echoes a verse from Habakuk, “If the disciples were quietened, the stones would cry out!”
This response is perhaps telling the Pharisees that the truth of the Good News is too great toe silenced.
Furthermore, Jesus is perhaps predicting that even if his disciples fall silent through cowardice or compulsion, others will take their place to shout Gods praises and welcome the Christ.
But, Jesus, if we know anything of him, was a scholar of the scriptures. As I said he was quoting a text from the prophet Habakuk
“Your schemes have brought shame on your family: by destroying many nations you have only brought ruin on yourself. Even the stones of the walls cry out against you, and the rafters echo the cry.”
Jesus was talking about how the shouts of the people was not just to acknowledge and welcome him, but to bring about a new kingdom of justice and bring down the corrupt and the oppressors. If they try to silence this movement, even the stones will bear witness against them. Again more outrageous words from Jesus.
There are many examples in history of how people of faith who speak out against injustice, are not just told to be quiet but are forcibly silenced. Archbishop Romero in El Salvador was murdered while celebrating mass in 1980 for speaking out against the human rights atrocities committed by the El Salvadoran government, he was beatified and his witness lives on. Martin Luther King was killed, but his peaceful and powerful prophetic dream of equal rights lives on.
And it is not just the religious who some try to silence. The more I hear of the Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, the more I believe he is a prophetic voice for our time. Most recently I have seen a video clip of him under a plastic sheet in the rain in a Syrian refugee camp with a woman playing a piano. He provided the piano to enable the woman to play and highlight the plight of the displaced in Syria. Only a few years back the Chinese government held him under house arrest for spurious tax evasion changes, but in practice for criticising human rights in China.
If you are new to All hallows, I can tell you that our church is one which has a strong emphasis on social justice, as a key expression of how we try to bring about Gods Kingdom here on earth.
We support asylum seekers and refugees. Next week we are welcoming people seeking refuge in this country who have nowhere else to stay. We try in various ways to shout about the injustice of people in this situation. I recall Linda and I joining a crowd last year, including many here, on Kirkstall Road outside the centre where Aslyum seekers go to sign on each week, to protest against the treatment of our friends from Syria – Raja and Mahmoud facing at the time imminent deportation. The waving of placards and singing of peace songs was vaguely reminiscent of the Palm Sunday story.
All Hallows also makes a stand on issues of sexuality within the church and looks to support people looking to find their gender identity.
All hallows wrestles with the weighty issues of inequalities in our society. I may sound like a broken record but I cannot preach without mentioning the work of the Real Junk Food project café here where the cafe provides meals from food saved from landfill on a pay as you feel basis, providing food and fellowship and volunteer opportunities for people who live on the margins of society here in Hyde Park.
Spencer’s Christ came to Cookham High street, here Christ comes to Hyde park and to wherever we live and work and we need to shout about God and about Justice and about the outrageous truth of the Gospel. And I speak as someone who finds it hard to make a noise either as an expression of faith or protest against injustice. I know its not easy.
An there are those who do not want to hear any of this – who want us to be quiet.
So to those who don’t want to hear anymore about social justice for asylum seekers.
To those who are tired of hearing that God creates all of us equal in an amazing and wondrous diversity of sexuality, and for some there is a difficult and complicated journey to find sexual identity.
To those who are fed up with talk about inequality in our society here or anywhere in the world
To those who just don’t want to hear anymore talk of Jesus
Just tell us to be quiet, just tell us just to “Shut up”
And the stones themselves, will cry out!