Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday: It's only fun until someone loses an eye!

O.K., no one lost an eye at my church this morning, but I have been poked in the eye when some short people related to me got over-enthusiastic with their palm fronds. And I'm sure it happened again today to someone, somewhere. People say Christmas is for children, but it's got nothing on Palm Sunday for pint-size congregant participation. With fronds like these, who needs enemies? 

Palm Sunday is a strange holiday. Even staid congregations that don't usually leave their pews for any other reason have processions. People who would normally never raise their hands in church are waving tree branches. And think about it: palms--which would never survive the winters here--before the first hint of buds on local trees. 

But the strangest part is this: we praise Jesus by reenacting a scene in which we play the crowd that turned on Him and demanded his crucifixion. I still remember telling my mother about the morning's Sunday school lesson on our way home from church, Palm Sunday, 1975. How Jesus rode into Jerusalem, and the people recognized Him as the Messiah, and cheered as he went by, saying, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" We relished the story together, but then she pointed out, "Those were the same people shouting, 'Crucify Him!' a week later." 

Oh. The teacher hadn't mentioned that. It worried me a bit that people could be so fickle, so treacherous. But I thought I could never do that. Over the years, I noticed that the two stories were kept separate in most of the churches I attended. The connection might be mentioned in passing, but the stories were told on separate occasions. I still waved my palm branches, but I felt vaguely guilty doing so. Should we imitate these people who didn't stay true to Him?

Fast forward to my first Palm Sunday at an Episcopal church. We had the procession, we waved our palm branches, I got poked in the eye, all in the usual way. But when we got to the Gospel reading, instead of the rector reading the entire passage, there were parts for him and parts for the people. When I heard my own voice crying out with the whole congregation, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" an old lesson hit home in a powerful way. My heart is fickle, even treacherous. The choices I have made (and continue to make) sent Him to Calvary. It is only when I recognize my voice in the crowd saying, "Crucify Him!" that I am truly able to cry out, "Hosanna," literally, "Save us!" I was reluctant to identify with the hypocritical crowd, fearing it would make me a hypocrite. What I'd failed to see was that identifying with the crowd only revealed the hypocrisy that was already there. Which of us has not, by our words or our silence, by our actions or our failure to act, failed and failed again to live up to the faith we profess?

The most persistent objection of unbelievers is that "there are hypocrites in the church." Now we all know that there are those in every church who are not yet truly converted, those who pretend to be holy to impress their friends, families, or neighbors. If we forget, there are Christ's own words to remind us: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven." But the reason this accusation stings is that no one is so aware of his own sin as a true believer. We are commanded to confront and eradicate it, even at the cost of a hand or an eye. You can fool your neighbors, you can fool your friends, you can fool your pastor, and, most frightening, you can even fool yourself, but you can't fool God. What happened when Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Holy Spirit and were struck dead? Great fear came upon the whole church, and more than ever believers were added to the Lord.

Outsiders who complain of the hypocrites in the church seem to imply that they are above that sort of thing, perhaps not so holy as the holiest believers, but wholly without pretense. Hogwash! Why is the church so full of hypocrites? Because the world is so full of hypocrites. Every problem in the church is a direct result of the fact that we keep letting those damned sinners in, but the reason the church exists is to bring in damned sinners! Some of them will continue to deceive themselves, and those who will become holy will become holy over time. We can't be sure who's who. If we try to uproot the weeds, we will uproot some of the wheat with them. We are commanded to let both grow together until the harvest. 

So I admit it, I'm a hypocrite. But if I stayed away from church, I would still be a hypocrite. The church has my only hope of a cure. Seeing hypocrites in the church and saying the church causes hypocrisy is like seeing cancer patients in the hospital and saying the hospital causes cancer. At times, I'm tempted to rap with Steve Taylor:
Can't understand those Christians, so
You type us all in stereo:
"They're hypocrites! They're such a bore!"
Well, come on in! There's room for one more!
But when I look at my own heart, I have to say what Edmund said to Eustace after he'd been un-dragoned: "You were only an ass, but I was a traitor."

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Blogger Brian@bothsidesofthecoin said...

Well said. I appreciate the reminder.

April 17, 2011 at 8:07 PM  
Blogger vividbibliomaniac said...

How very true! I tell my kids: The things we don't like in others are the things we do ourselves. Thanks for sharing this.
--Rebecca Miller

April 18, 2011 at 12:53 PM  
Blogger Arby said...

Very well written.

April 20, 2011 at 9:12 AM  

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