|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe, D.Min.
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
April 14, 2019
Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
It was not a terribly long march, only a mile or so. They left in the early morning hours of a spring day a lot like this one. There were a few hundred people, and nearly all of them were filled with a mixture of excitement and dread. As they walked along, everyone was so quiet you could hear the birds singing and the wind blowing through the trees. Finally, their march reached a long bridge, and they walked in a silent procession up the incline, two-by-two, so that they would obey the city’s strict pedestrian laws, but when the men and women at the front of the line reached the top of the bridge, they saw just what awaited them on the other side: a line of state troopers and possemen, many of them mounted on horseback, nearly all wearing gas masks, standing shoulder to shoulder at the bottom of the bridge. Most held billy clubs, and more than a few held long iron chains and other weapons. On either side of them an angry mob had also gathered, seething with hate and brandishing their own weapons.
The silent procession stopped before this armed wall. First, they asked to peacefully pass, then they asked to kneel in prayer. But after only a few seconds, the troopers and possemen and mounted officers surged forward. They wielded their clubs and chains on every person they met – man, woman, child – cracking skulls, breaking limbs, bloodying dozens. The silent procession instantly broke apart into chaos, with everyone running for their lives, just hoping to get away from the maelstrom of violence, which did not stop at the end of the bridge, but continued all the way back into town, through their neighborhoods, right up to the doorstep of the churches to which they fled.
That spring day in 1965 in Selma, Alabama is known as Bloody Sunday, and I’ve been thinking a lot about it this past week. You may know that 36 members of our church went on pilgrimage to Alabama just last week, and last Friday we visited Selma and joined hands and walked up and over that very same bridge, hallowed by the blood of those beaten that day. Not having grown up in that era, I was essentially taught in school that the civil rights movement pretty much consisted of a series of sit-ins and peaceful marches, a bus boycott, and one great speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Presto, change-o, the nation realizes segregation is wrong, passes a couple of laws, and justice is realized. But going to Selma, and Montgomery, and Birmingham last week, I have come to a much greater appreciation of the sacrifices made by countless women and men in that era. I learned about how much more was risked and sacrificed, how much braver and more patient they were than I had known, and how this history is so much more terrible and inspiring than I had ever imagined.
Maybe it’s because I was just there, but all week I’ve been thinking about how much that procession across Edmund Pettus Bridge echoes another Sunday procession from history, one we came here to remember and reenact today. It happened in a different city, but one that was similarly on edge and also under the thumb of a cruel and oppressive empire. It, too, was riskier and braver than we commonly think, because even though the procession that entered Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday didn’t end in violence on that particular day, we know that by Friday, a mob, not altogether unlike the mob that gathered at the foot of Edmund Pettus Bridge, turned on the teacher of the way of love and had him killed.
Just listen to the echoes between these two Sundays.
Both processions show us just how quickly ordinary people can become a bloodthirsty mob. History witnesses again and again that you don’t have to be a member of a hate group to possess murderous hate. I’ve recently been looking at photos and film footage from the 50s and 60s and I am always stunned by just how ordinary the men and women looked just before their faces contorted in rage and they began to hurl abuse at the black students desegregating their schools. It is downright Jekyll-and Hydian. And not long ago I saw a photo of the crowd of 10,000 people who gathered right here in downtown Dallas in 1910 to participate in the lynching of a black man named Allen Brooks. Men, women, and children, donning their Sunday best, smiling for the camera, enjoying a lovely day of public murder. The event actually became a picture postcard sold for a few cents and proudly mailed by the people of our city to friends around the world. This human potential to transform into an angry mob, almost on a dime, is one of the reasons why we assume the role of the mob in the Passion story, why we are the ones whose voices must speak those awful words, “Crucify him.”
And both processions show just how threatened our world always is by agents of peace and justice. Jesus never picked up a weapon, never incited a riot, never gathered an army. Yet, his perfect witness to the Kingdom of God was so frightening that the only thing his opponents could think to do was kill him. Which is a familiar pattern in history. Just two days after that peaceful march in Selma ended in bloodshed, a young Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire named Jonathan Daniels traveled there to participate in a second march. But rather than return to seminary when it was over, as so many others did who came to town just for the march, Jon Daniels chose to stay and make Selma his home in order to witness for racial reconciliation. A few months later, after having been arrested and jailed for his efforts to register local black citizens to vote, Jon Daniels was confronted by an armed sheriff’s deputy who was filled with murderous rage at goals of the movement. The last thing the young, unarmed advocate for peace and justice did was step in front of the shotgun blast that sheriff’s deputy meant for a young black woman named Ruby Sales, thereby giving up his life to save hers. Yes, the first reaction from the world to the movement for peace and justice has almost always been hatred and violence. It was true in Jerusalem, in Selma, in Hayneville, and it remains true today.
But the greatest connection between Bloody Sunday and Palm Sunday is how the stories end, because these two stories remind us just why it is that we must always hold fast to hope, no matter what it may look like now. What we remember about Bloody Sunday and what we know about Palm Sunday is that God is ultimately in charge of the arc of history, and on the other side of such selfless sacrifice, God waits with Resurrection power. The story did not end at Calvary, or on Pettus Bridge. Hatred and violence do not have the last word. There were more peaceful processions in Selma that made it to their destinations. There was a Sunday after Good Friday in Jerusalem, and an empty tomb where a dead man should have been. There is always another day after the worst day, and because of who God is and how God loves, that new day always has the possibility of resurrection.
The question that Palm Sunday forces us to ask ourselves is this: Who are we in this story? Where are we when the crowd turns into a mob? Where are we when the voices of violence try to silence the voices of love? As much as we like to think we would always be the good guys, today, of all days, we must reckon with the truth that our loyalties have not always been with the Prince of Peace.
But the good news is that Palm Sunday is really always today. Jesus is riding by all the time, inviting us to join him in his movement of love to save the world. And he promises that our past does not have to be our future: that where we might have been on the streets of Jerusalem, or on the bridge into Selma, or any other place in history, does not determine where we must stand today or tomorrow. We can hold fast to the way of love, rather than succumb to the temptation to hate; we can be the agents of peace, rather than the ones who try to silence them; we can hold onto our Hosannas, when everyone else around us is yelling crucify; and we can choose to bear our own crosses, rather than nail others to theirs. Yes, we can always be part of God’s work to make the new day after the worst day; because our God is a God of resurrection, and he is even now making all things new.