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Faces in the Crowd

You can watch the storytelling and sermon here: https://youtu.be/G3oIBlVmLgk

Matthew 21:1-11

Preachers vary on their approach to this day. For some it has always been and will always be Palm Sunday, and that’s all. But many others are now calling it Palm [slash] Passion Sunday. It used to be—or at least there is the perception that it used to be—that the majority of congregants went to church on Palm Sunday, and then again on Maundy Thursday and/or Good Friday, and then again on Easter Sunday.

But then pastors started realizing that people would come to church on Palm Sunday because it was a big, exciting day where the children got to wave palm branches and everybody was happy and joyful, and then everybody would come back on Easter Sunday because it was a big, exciting day and everybody was happy and joyful. Pastors couldn’t help but notice the attendance figures on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, compared to the attendance figures on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We realized that many, perhaps even the majority of church members, were going from happy to happy with no pause for pain.

And that’s not real life. Real life has lots of pauses for pain. Real life rarely goes from happy mountaintop to happy mountaintop without some valleys of the shadow of death in-between. It is tempting, I know, to skip the Holy Week services, and not just because you’re busy and making time for an extra service is difficult. It is tempting because we don’t want to see the pain. We don’t want to witness more suffering. We don’t want to come to church to be depressed. But then we wonder why the church seems out of touch, distant from real life. Jumping from Palm Sunday to Easter keeps us from experiencing the fullness of the story, the fullness of who Christ is, of who God is. It skips the point of Easter. 

So leaders of the church started promoting Palm [slash] Passion Sunday. Palm/Passion Sunday starts with the story of what we call the triumphal entry, but in many churches this morning, the entire Passion narrative will be read: the last supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, the arrest, the trial, the crucifixion. In many churches this morning, you will hear the whole story to make sure you don’t skip the pain.

I never take it that far. I’m always afraid you’ll take it as permission to skip other Holy Week services because, after all, you heard the whole story on Sunday. I handle this challenge by turning us toward the events of Holy Week. Even the bulletin says it: We Turn Our Faces Toward What Is to Come. This, of course, echoes the Gospels where we are told that Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem, implying that he went there knowing what would happen when he did. We turn our faces toward Jerusalem. We shift our gaze. We look ahead at what is to come, even though we know we have some hell to get through. We set our faces.

Faces. That word has been nagging me all week. You may have noticed that I actually put a sermon title in the bulletin this week—which is unusual for me since the bulletin is usually printed on Thursdays and I write my sermons on Fridays. But I chose the title Faces in the Crowd, not knowing where I was going with that idea, but drawn to the question of what faces Jesus saw that day as he rode through town.

Did he see the face of Bartimaeus, the man blind from birth, whom he had healed? After all, Jesus’ face was the first thing he ever saw. I imagine he would want to see Jesus again. I can just see him waving frantically and grinning. What other faces did Jesus see in the crowd? Did he see the face of the woman who had been healed because her persistent hope caused her to reach out and touch his robe? Was she standing in front, alone, where he was sure to see her, or was she surrounded by the community who had welcomed her back? Did he see the faces of others he had healed, others he had encountered through his journey? Did he see the Pharisees at the back of the crowd, glaring, arms folded? Did he see people from Nazareth, his home town, and how were they looking at him now?

What did he see IN those faces in the crowd? Did he see hope? Did he see faith or just conviction? Did he see suspicion or anger? Did he see that they didn’t really see him? Not as he was, anyway. They saw what they wanted to see. Did he know this? Were they a vast sea of faces or did he really see them, as individuals? Did he see their fears, their pain?

I thought about all these faces this week, even as I was haunted by other faces. First it was the faces of the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School. A new documentary came out this week, and many of the parents of the victims asked people to watch it. I recorded it. I couldn’t watch it that night. I don’t want to watch it, but I feel like I need to, like somehow I owe it to them because my child’s school was just 13 miles away, and it could have been us.

And then, later this week, it was the faces of other children that haunted me—the children of Syria, killed by their own government. And I didn’t want to see their faces, either. But I owe it to them, too, to see their pain.

And now I’m bombarded by the faces of politicians and commentators praising or condemning our government’s response. I don’t know what the right course of action is or was. I am not smart enough or wise enough to know whether this was, indeed, a proportional response that will serve as a warning and ultimately save lives; or whether this was a spectacle intended to demonstrate a new leader’s strength or distract us from his weaknesses. I don’t know.

But I do know that it seems easier to care about children when they’re far away than when they’re close at hand. I do know that we are capable of sending a message that their death is unacceptable, but not so unacceptable that we would allow them refuge in our country.

And I know that, regardless of the situation, our calling as Christians is to not look away.

Everywhere I turn, the faces. Faces in the crowd.

But last week something extraordinary happened to me in worship. Twice. A young mom brought her baby with her to the chapel service. During the sermon I watched three or four people behind him smiling at him and waving at him. But then as we got to the prayer time, he started getting fussy. I could tell his mom was getting a little nervous, worried about whether he was distracting others. As I started to pray, I just felt moved to go and take him in my arms.

So I did. I walked over to Chelsea and held out my arms, and she let me take her son in mine. I looked at him as I prayed.

As I prayed for people who are grieving, I looked into his face. As I prayed for people fighting for more time, I looked at his smile. As I prayed for the future of our country, I looked into his eyes. And it changed the way I prayed—maybe not the words I said, but what I felt. Looking at a baby while praying changed me.

I didn’t intend to tell this story later in the sanctuary worship, but as I started to offer the pastoral prayer, it was all I could think of. So I tried it again. As I prayed, I looked out at you. Some of you had your eyes closed and others of you looked back at me. As I prayed for people who are grieving, for those fighting for more time, I looked at those of you who are. Looking at you as I prayed for you changed the way I prayed and once again I got choked up, for I realized how much, in 3-1/2 years, I have come to love you. You are no longer a vast sea of faces I don’t know. I see you, as individuals, and for many of you, I know a little bit of the burdens you carry. And seeing you, knowing you, loving you, changes my prayers and it changes me.

How much more so is it for God? You see, we talk a lot in generic terms about the love of God, but God’s love is like this. It’s seeing us, not as faces in the crowd, but as individuals. It is seeing us and knowing our needs and wanting everything that is good for us and knowing it won’t all happen and knowing all that is to come and never turning away from the pain in our faces. This is the love of God.

This is the love of Jesus, who refused to look away from those he was supposed to ignore, who refused to back down when the authorities questioned his mercy, who refused to turn back when he knew the pain that lay ahead. This is the love of Jesus, who let the crowd yell “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!” even though they didn’t see him, didn’t see who he really was, only their projection of who they wanted him to be. They shouted “hosanna,” a plea for mercy, a cry to the anointed king for deliverance. But they wanted to define what that deliverance would look like. They wanted to be delivered from their enemies, and rightfully so. They didn’t realize that Jesus would die for them but never kill for them. “Hosanna” was the right call for the wrong reason.

On this Palm [slash] Passion Sunday, we , too, call out for rescue. We hold on to the Hosannas—and to the one who knows what kind of rescue we need.



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