SERMON PREACHED BY
THE REVEREND DR. HAROLD T. LEWIS, RECTOR
CALVARY EPISCOPAL CHURCH,
PALM SUNDAY, 2003
"They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked" (Mark 14:51-52)
If we are honest, we will admit that at some levels, we really
can't identify with a lot of Bible stories. Oh yes, we
them, we accept them through our eyes and ears of faith, we allow for the fact that they really happened, but they bear
little resemblance to our day-to-day lives. Angels don't usually fly into our bedrooms with great pronouncements. We
have never seen a little boy's lunch miraculously "stretched" to feed five thousand hungry mouths. Instantaneous healing
of crooked spines, withered hands, epileptic fits and hemorrhages are not among our everyday experiences. But this is
not true of the Passion. We know the people in this story, because they are all us. We identify with the characters in this
story big time! We identify with the fickleness of the crowd who in one breath cries "Hosannah in the highest!" and in
the next, "Crucify him!" We identify with the steadfast, loyal disciples who become, in an instant, deserters and deniers.
And we even identify with Jesus himself, from whose lips we hear both "Let this cup pass from me" and "Not my will
but thine be done."
But there is another person in the Passion with whom we can
identify. He is the mysterious character who appears only
in Mark's Gospel. The Evangelist doesn't even tell us his name. He simply writes: "Now a certain young man followed
Jesus, having a linen cloth thrown around his naked body. And the young men laid hold of him, and he left the linen
cloth and fled from them naked." There has been wide speculation as to who this person is, who makes his first
appearance in the Gospel as it is coming to a close. But one thing is certain. He must truly have loved Jesus, because
St. Mark tells us that he followed Jesus to the Cross, just after all the disciples "forsook Jesus and fled," and immediately
before Jesus is led to the High Priest for the death sentence. He was really in the thick of things. He must have been
convinced that the way of the Cross was the answer. But something happened. He was stopped in his tracks --- we
presume by soldiers --- and he had a change of heart. Maybe looking ahead at what Jesus was to face, he decided that
discipleship was too costly. Aren't we so often like that? Doesn't this sound like a version of "When the going gets
tough, the tough get going?" We decide that there is a limit to our devotion or dedication. There is a limit to the number
of times we will "stand up, stand up for Jesus." We love to belt out "0 for a thousand tongues to sing our dear Redeemer's
praise," but when faced with a challenge to our faith, we often don't use the one tongue that we have! And so we flee, and
like the young man, become naked --- exposed, vulnerable and alone.
Today is Palm Sunday. The palm is the sign of victory --- or is it? Most of you will take your palms home, and what will
happen to them? We will make little crosses of them and place them in your Prayer Book or Bible, or, stick pieces of them
behind a crucifix on the wall, and watch them lose their color. These lush fronds will lose their moisture and become brittle
to the touch. And before Lent begins again next yew, we will ask you to bring in those dried up branches so that we can burn
them, so that they become the dust with which we will soil your foreheads on Ash Wednesday, saying, "Remember that
thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return." The sign of victory becomes the sign of mortality, the sign of vulnerability,
the sign of our very humanness --- and yes, "human" and "humus" have the same root.
Victory is elusive. Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently said that
his fellow citizens who find themselves in the poverty and
squalor of South African townships and whose lives seem to be virtually the same as before apartheid was dismantled, have
every right to wonder if the Peace and Reconciliation Commission did any good. Haitians danced in the street when
Baby Doc Duvalier was overthrown, but their lot is not improved under the regime of President Aristide. And today, we
wonder if the victorious celebrations of the jubilant, "liberated," statue-toppling Iraqis will also be short-lived.
Palm Sunday speaks to our human condition, it hits us in the
gut. It reminds us of our fickleness, our feebleness, our
frailty, our folly. It reminds us, or at least it should, that we are not in charge. The One Who is in charge is the One Who,
according to the Epistle to the Philippians, achieved victory by "humbling himself and becoming obedient unto death, even
the death of a Cross."
Let us pray:
Ride on! Ride on in majesty, Hark! All the tribes hosannas cry;
Thy humble beast pursues his road with palms and scattered garments strowed.
Ride on! Ride on in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die;
Bow thy meek head in mortal pain, then take, O God, thy power, and reign.*
*Henry Hart Milman, "Ride on, ride on in majesty," The Hymnal 1982, 156.