Fair-Weather Friends

Fair-Weather Friends

Matthew 21:1-11

21When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Matthew 27:15-23

15Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 17So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. 19While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.”20Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” 23Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

Fair-Weather Friends

Good morning!  The sun is shining, the day promises to be warm, it is Palm Sunday, and it’s baseball season!! Major League baseball opened this week.  My Maryland brother and sister are diehard Orioles fans.  This week the team opened against Toronto and won both games, took on the Yankees and won X games.  You know, it is really easy and fun to be the fan of a winning team!

How ‘bout Pittsburg?  Our local channels carry a lot of Pirates baseball.  Any Pirates fans?

The Braves? Any fans?  I can remember the excitement of watching Atlanta beat the Cleveland Indians in the 1995 World Series.

And what about those Cubs? Any fans?  I’m not talking about last year’s fans who came out of the woodwork because the Cubs were in the Series.  I’m talking about fans who sat in the stands game after game, loss after loss, rain delay after rain delay for some of the 71 years that the Cubs couldn’t even win a pennant, let alone compete in the World Series.   Those are the fans I’m talking about – the foul weather fans.  Foul weather fans – the ones who are still cheering when their team is down by 20.

Foul weather fans are like faithful foul weather friends – they stick around when you’re not winning, when the storms of life rage, and there is no fun to be had.  There they are sitting beside you, holding the umbrella, never doubting you, holding steady for as long as it takes.

Today’s first gospel reading is the story of Palm Sunday – Jesus, his disciples, and an entourage of people from the villages appear at the gates of Jerusalem.  Christ is sitting on a donkey, or a colt, and his followers are lining the streets, waving their palm branches and strewing their garments on the ground before him.  While the group is initially composed of those who had accompanied Christ to Jerusalem, others – strangers – begin to join in.  The bizarre procession becomes an event, a parade, a flash mob.  “Hoorah!  Halleluyah! Praise be to Jesus!” they shout. “ Hosanna! Save us!”

The incident gives us a snapshot of crowd mentality.  The spirit and energy of a few attracts more and more people to the streets. Whether they fully understood Christ’s entrance for what it was, we can’t know; but I don’t think the parody was lost on anyone.  While Pilate and his Roman officers rode enormous stallions – war horses—Christ sits atop a donkey.  While Roman authorities were accompanied by armor-clad militias, Christ came with a ragtag band of peasants.  The procession was both the fulfillment of prophecy and a parady of all the pomp and circumstance and military might of Rome.  Despite the risk of punishment or even death, the unarmed band of Jewish peasants kept on shouting –right under the noses of the Praetorian Guard “Jesus is finally winning,” they thought.  He was about to assume the kingdom he spoke about.  Despite appearances, Christ was about to hit one out of the park!  The poor and powerless would be delivered – at last!  “Hosannah – Save us!”

So for commoners on the streets of Jerusalem in A.D. 30, the parade held all the promise in the world!   But, for us who know what lay ahead for Jesus, no day in the church year is fraught with more dramatic irony than Palm Sunday.  Because we know the rest of the story, the Palm Sunday narrative has a dark underside – as if, in the midst of a perfectly sunny, cloudless day, thunderheads begin to gather on the horizon.   Reflecting on the little parade is like watching the gleaming ocean-liner– called the Titanic– leave its berth in Southhampton.  We know that danger lies up ahead, and that the gilded ship is doomed.

So, as I imagine myself standing among the Jewish peasants, I know I would be searching the faces in the crowd.  Who will be the first to cry “Crucify him!”   Is it the Pharisee over there — standing apart, just watching?  Maybe the woman whose strident hosannas sound out above the others?  Perhaps the wealthy merchant watching from his seat in the shade?  Who will be the first to demand blood?  Christ’s blood. Who among these fans is only a fair weather friend of Jesus?  Who will turn traitor when the going gets rough?

In only days, the scene shifts to another mob scene – this one outside Pilate’s headquarters.  As per tradition, Pilate offers to release a prisoner, asking the crowd which prisoner should be freed:  The notorious Jesus Barabbas, an insurrectionist and murder? Or the Galilean rabbi accused of blasphemy?  Once again we see mob behavior.  Having been stirred up by the Jewish authorities, one name becomes audible:  Barabbas, Barabbas, Barabbas, Barabbas!  RELEASE BARABBAS.

And what should be done with this man – Jesus Barjoseph?  (whom Pilate believed did not deserve to die)?  What should be done with him?  And two words become audible:  Crucify him.  Crucify him. Crucify him.  CRUCIFY HIM!

How can things have turned so ugly so fast?  There is a line in Hamlet, spoken by a young prince whose mother – the recently widowed queen—has remarried too hastily.  Hamlet mother’s too hasty wedding after the death of her husband. Hamlet sardonically quips, “The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.”  Perhaps Jesus wondered if those now screaming for his death are still hoarse from so recently acclaiming his kingship!

I am a bit of a fan of alternate history.  When I reflect on events o the past, I like to think, “What if this battle had turned out differently,”  or “what if this decision had not been made?  What if a leader had arisen and changed the tide of public opinion.”  How would the world have been altered?

So, with regard to Christ’s passion, what might have happened if, among his followers, one or two or three foul-weather friends had stood up?  What if they had proffered a compelling argument for Christ’s release?  And what if they had turned the tide of events?  Fatalists would argue that Christ was destined to die, then and there, in that place and time, regardless.  But what a lousy showing Christ’s disciples made.  In the three records of this scene –in Matthew, Mark, and Luke—there is no mention of a single dissenting voice.  No mention of a man, woman, or child who uttered a word to dissuade the mob from demanding an innocent life.  No testimony, no impassioned bid for his release.  Even Peter, whom Christ loved deeply, denied knowing him – not once but three times.  No, there was no one willing to stand up for Jesus.

Were there those among the crowd who had participated in the triumphal entry only days before.  I would guess there were — fair weather friends who were happy to join Christ when he was winning.  Were there people in Pilate’s courtyard who disagreed with the verdict of the crowd.  I’m sure there were.  They probably slipped away, just shaking their heads.  “Bad decision,” they might have thought.  “Barabbas was by far the most dangerous criminal!” “They should not have done that!”

But did they speak up?   Did they say a word?  Did they attempt to alter the course of events in any way?  If so, there is no record. And if they didn’t, then is Christ’s blood as much on their hands as on those who screamed for his crucifixion? //

Being a follower of Christ is not easy. While Christ has already won the ultimate war, he does not have a perfect record against present evil.   He does not answer every prayer in the way that we wish.  Because God allowed us free will, and because he does not strike down sinners with lightning bolts, Jesus cannot prevent human suffering; he cannot feed all the poor and bandage all the sick.  For reasons we will never know, Christ sometimes appears to be losing. In the past week, I have struggled mightily to understand why innocent people –adults and children—must suffer undeservedly.  Why are millions starving in South Sudan?  Why did babies die of chemical agents in Syria? Why do people give birth to babies with no intention of loving them?  Why are innocent people accused of grave wrongdoing?  Why doesn’t God fix this?  Why doesn’t Jesus answer.

But I realize we have two choices:  to walk away and not believe in all this “God stuff” anymore, or to put up an umbrella and sit beside Christ, to offer to carry his cross, to keep trusting, keep praying, keep reading his word, and to never doubt that love will ultimately win. Love will ultimately win.

But we also need to speak up.  To cast our vote for God, to wear the T-shirt and walk the walk.  We need to hold fast to what we believe!  Despite a chorus of people saying “Barabbas,” we should be speaking the name of Christ.

I wish, somewhere in our gospel accounts, that there was a little story about a child, perhaps, who had clamored up on a wall, and whose voice rang out above the others: “Do not crucify Jesus!” “Do not crucify Jesus, because he loves us.  He is truly the Son of God.” AMEN