Palm Sunday Sermon
Sunday 13th April 2003A sermon given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr, Jerusalem.
At the beginning of Holy Week, we stand with Jesus before the gates of a city. We know that once we have entered we shall be swept up in events that we cannot control and that will bring us to the very edge of what we can bear, as we walk with him to Calvary and the tomb. This week tells us that God is able to change everything about us – our fear, our sin, our guilt, our untruthfulness. But to receive that change in the actual circumstances of our lives asks of all of us such a revolution in our hearts that we are stunned and frightened at the thought. 'In his death is my birth, in his life is my life', as the song says; but the new birth is for us a kind of dying too. Remember this morning's epistle: 'Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus'.
As believers and as human beings, we stand at the gates of the city – a 'city of wrong' as one great Muslim writer called it in the title of his fictional meditations on the last week of the Lord's life; a city where so many sufferers are silenced and where so many innocent on both sides of the terrible conflict are killed and their deaths hidden under a cloak of angry, selfish, posturing words, whatever language they are spoken in. We know that in this city, trying to live by faith, hope and love leaves us looking pretty helpless. And we also know in our hearts that so much of what fuels the violence is in ourselves too: the passionate longing never to be a victim again, the hunger for security expressed in the ownership of the land, the impotent near-mindless fury that bursts out in literally suicidal ways, and brings destruction to so many. We know the urge to defend what can't be defended because we can't lose face; the urge to make a dramatic gesture that destroys the future because we need to feel that we can do something. We too are citizens of this city of wrong.
Jesus does not steer us away from the gates and send us back into the holy silence of the desert or the peace of the countryside. He keeps us close to him as we stand at the gates, and he tells us that these are also the gates of heaven. If you recognise your involvement and prepare to walk with Jesus into the city, to the cross and the tomb, there is a joy and a mystery at the end of the path, because it is inexhaustible divine love that walks with us. We stand not just at the gates of the city of wrong, the great city where the Lord was crucified, as revelation says, but also at the entrance to the Garden of Eden.
Some of you may recognise the title of an extraordinary and heartbreaking book by the Israeli journalist, Yossi Klein Halevi, in which he describes how he, initially knowing almost nothing about Christianity and Islam, and fearing or loathing what little he did know, discovered ways of speaking of God and worshipping God in a quite unexpected fellowship with those of other faiths, without abandoning his deep Jewish commitment. In surprising and challenging words, he says that it was only as an Israeli, not a diaspora Jew, that he found the confidence to engage compassionately and acceptingly with his neighbours – a profound testimony to the true, confident Jewish commitment to the stranger, the minority, the other. He describes how he absorbs the teaching of Sufi masters into his own Jewish devotion, how he overcomes his fear of the Christian Holy Week, which he had always seen as the focus of violent anti-Judaism. He brings us with him to stand at the gates of the garden, sensing the ways in which those who call themselves Abraham's children might live together in some kind of humility and willingness to learn. It is a book full of wonders – not at all sentimental – here too there are corrupt and lazy souls, here too there are good men trapped by prejudice; but overall a real glimpse of the hope that might be.
The Epilogue, written in June 2001, begins, 'And then the madness came'. He can no longer travel and keep connection with the Palestinians he has befriended; they are at deadly risk, and some disappear. One of his children narrowly escapes a suicide bombing. The roads are literally blocked. 'I had stood at the entrance and glimpsed the garden, but that was all.' It's as if he is forced to stand instead where we stand today, looking through the gates into a city where we cannot as yet see the light of the garden, where violence seems to reign, and death waits for us.
Yet, as we have seen, that city of wrong where we are citizens is the place where, if we are willing, God works transformation. At the end of this week's story is the garden of resurrection, where our wounds are healed but not hidden away. Are we willing to move towards that garden, learning the mind of Christ? We, Israeli, Palestinian, British, American, Iraqi? It probably means an infinity of small gestures that won't be noticed, tiny personal admissions that we cannot live forever in isolation, pride or unforgiveness. Even at the end of Halevi's book, he is able to affirm the all-importance of such gestures, insisting, as he says, on reverencing the other's dignity before God. That is the insistence that will finally bring reconciliation. Yes, faced with threat and oppression, we must insist on the dignity due to us as fellow-humans; but Halevi reminds us that we must insist to ourselves on the dignity due to others.
' It is precisely at times like these', he writes, 'that the beautiful teachings of faith become either real or mere sentiment. More than ever, the goal of a spiritual life in the Holy Land is to live with an open heart at the center of unbearable tension...The best I can say is that I'm struggling, and that maintaining a painful awareness of the gap between what I've been taught and my inability to embody those teachings defines my spiritual life.'
At these city gates, we see the possibilities. We can enter with Jesus and walk with him to his garden of new life. Or we can enter and find ourselves caught up in the murderous crowds, and, at the end of it all, find ourselves with hands both empty and bloodstained. Or we can stay at the gates, unwilling to commit ourselves because we know that as soon as we enter there will be trial and suffering; but if we stay there, we shall never reach the garden. How much do we want to be there, where God walks with us again in the cool of the day? Halevi takes his title from a story of one of the rabbis, who related how Abraham was given a vision of 'an opening to the Garden of Eden'in a mysterious cavern; and it was so wonderful that 'Abraham yearned to dwell in that site; his heart and will focused constantly on the cave'.
Today we reaffirm our desire to live there, whatever the cost. We pray that God will raise up leaders, on all sides, whose vision of this is clear. Halevi quotes a Muslim friend saying: 'There are enough politicians in the land of the prophets. But where are the prophets in the land of the prophets?' Prophets arise when there is real, hungry openness to the healing Word of God; perhaps things have to be very dark indeed for such a hunger to be felt. But we look to One who is more than a prophet, who has cleared the way for us not just back to Eden but forward to the new city, new Jerusalem, in which the nation are healed and strangers live gratefully together. This Land was touched by God so that it would be forever a sign of our hope for the commonwealth of heaven. The gates are open. Let us with Jesus prepare to go through, to walk with him to his cross and his resurrection.
© Rowan Williams 2003