The Great Mistake


Palm Sunday Homily

preached at St. Bartholomew’s Church, New York City

March 20, 2016

When you make a mistake, when you make a big mistake, the kind that hurts people, the kind that makes you wince, what do you do? How do you make it right?

Well, one way out is the safe route:  to pretend like it didn’t happen. Maybe, you just avoid the subject. Actively forget, hoping that others will, too. Or maybe, you take it one step further, saying that it wasn’t your mistake. Or you could say it was someone else’s fault. Or maybe even, and this is especially twisted, perhaps you’ll declare that it was somehow the person you hurt’s fault. With a wave of your hand, you “double-down,” justify the mistake, declaring it to be something it wasn’t, something that had to happen, or something deserved.

Or, you could face up to the mistake. You could recognize the hand you had in it, declare it as unjustifiable, declare it as folly, and then engage with those who were hurt by the mistake to see what is next. But this is not the safe path.  Perhaps you will need to do something new to set things right. Perhaps it will cost you something to repair what you broke. You may lose something, but you will gain even more. A life grounded and rooted in the truth. A life trusting in the power of mercy. We talk about mercy all the time in the church, but every mercy is preceded by some mistake, isn’t it? What if our mistakes are a door to God? Not proactively, but retroactively: our past, as twisted and tangled as it may get, wrestling with it, with its joys and sorrows, with its compassions and cruelties, facing our past is how we face God’s future for us. And if that’s so, when we turn from our past, when we paper it over, when we ignore it or justify it or sell it, when we do that, are we also turning away from God?

On Palm Sunday, we face one of the most dreadful mistakes of all, in our history the greatest. For it has been one that has marked us forever.

On this day, we take on the mantle of the people who made that mistake, facing the stark truth that we would likely have been swept up with the crowd. We resuscitate the mocking words of the soldiers and of the crowd.  We echo the original demand to torture and kill a person that has become a threat to us. Someone we saw as a treasonous blasphemer, enemy of the state and threat to the faith, a monster.  Someone we thought was evil, but was actually innocent.  Today we stand in the shoes of those who thought they were killing a child of the Devil, but were actually killing God’s Beloved Child.

Our mistakes are not there to chase us all our lives. They are not there to hound us into a corner and into a trap. Our deep mistakes, our deep regrets, we keep them, we remember them, not for their shame, not to agonize us, to keep us in their dreaded mournful orbit. God has no interest in that. Our mistakes they are not meant to pull us into a black hole of sadness and regret, they are meant to repel us, for they are repellent, and that aversion that comes with facing the mistakes becomes not just a repellant but a propellant into new life. In that way, our mistakes occurred so that we might never do them again. With God’s merciful help, our mistakes propel us somehow into God’s arms.

So, on Palm Sunday, we, as a people, recall the traumatizing tale of the death of our Lord Jesus Christ to the end that we might never do such a thing again.  Much of this day exposes the horror of the crowd, and how it caused so much pain. The crowd, even now, has a spirit that glories, then chews, then spits out, with extreme prejudice. And so what is to be done?

Just like a vaccine uses a tiny part of a pathogen to inoculate us against a disease, we spend this day taking on the voice of the fickle crowd, to inoculate us against its dark, intoxicating comforts.

We face the heartbreaking wisdom that it was people just like us who gloried in Christ’s coming to Jerusalem.  And it was people just like us who were turned against him and lashed out with such brutality.  And when the horrible deed was done, it was the Centurion, his executioner, who saw the Cataclysmic Error: “Truly, this man was God’s Son!”

Can we trust ourselves to not get caught up something like this again? I think that this is the question of every Palm Sunday to every participant.  It is so tempting to have an enemy! To join a crowd and shame and attack. Yet, if Palm Sunday teaches us anything, it is that when we have found our enemy, we risk losing our true Friend. We can lose ourselves to a “righteous” violence that is never right. Today, we open our eyes to this, with God’s help.

In Christ, the world is enlightened to reveal that every person is an occasion for God’s presence and light. There is no one in whom this light is vanquished, even the most despicable among us. In fact, it is not the despicable we should fear, but it is our becoming despisers that should chill us to the core.

Today we remember the Great Mistake. May the Great Mistake we honor today repel us from our very worst, and, then, by God’s grace, propel us into our very best.

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