Lord, Have Mercy

The crowd which welcomed Jesus and his merry band into the streets of Jerusalem is the very same crowd that, at the end of the week, would scream, “Crucify.  Crucify.  Crucify.  Giddy and bursting with excitement over a possible comeuppance for their Roman occupiers, they ran and pranced along with Jesus, waving palm branches, shouting, “Hosanna.”    The air was electric with the possibility of miracle.

Cruel irony, how the crowd can turn so fast.  Cruel irony, how we can turn so fast on our highest ideals.  Through our lofty proclamations, runs a bitter streak of violence.  Lord, have mercy.  We crucify him time and again.

In her book, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson narrates a litany of betrayals of our American ideals.  All in defense of the caste status of those on the top rung.  This is a history of our nation you didn’t, and our kids still don’t, learn in their eighth grade or high school history classes.  You probably didn’t learn it in a college course.  Yet, it’s an indispensable part, for we are again on the verge of its repetition.  This book is required Lenten reading for Americans.

In 1951, Youngstown, Ohio, the city championship was won by a team that had one black kid on it.  The coach, unthinkingly, took the team to celebrate at the city swimming pool.  When the lifeguard saw Al Bright, the only black player, he forbade the boy to enter the enclosure with the other boys.  Al was forced to sit outside the fence and watch the others eat their picnic lunches and frolic in the water.  From time to time someone would join him out there and bring him something to eat.

Even though several parents and coaches attempted to persuade the pool staff to change their minds, there Al sat on a blanket outside the fence enclosing the pool that one of the lifeguards had laid out for him. 

Finally, the supervisor of the pool was persuaded that Al could get in the pool.  Only if everyone else, who was white, got out.  Al was led to a little rubber raft.  As he got in it, the lifeguard repeated over and over, “don’t touch the water.”  The lifeguard entered the pool and towed the raft with Al around the pool for a single turn as parents and coaches watched from the edge.  All the time the lifeguard kept repeating, “Don’t touch the water.  Don’t touch the water.”

Al was then escorted to his assigned spot on the other side of the fence.

“The lifeguard managed to keep the water pure that day, but a part of that little boy died that afternoon.  When one of the coaches offered him a ride home, he declined.  ‘With championship trophy in hand,’” Watkins, a boyhood friend, would later write, ‘Al walked the mile or so back home by himself.  He was never the same after that.’”[1]

Imagine the pain of that crown of thorns pressed down upon the brow of that little boy.  Christ crucified again.  In our own day.

This week we call Holy, for it contains both the bitter pain and sublime hope of the Gospel.  We behold the sorrow of the world, sorrow like none other. In the poignant moment of fellowship Jesus and his companions gather for a last meal.  This Holy Week is every week, as will Easter arrive every week.  The bitter mixed with the sweet.  But this week we face betrayal, torture and abject forsakenness.  Can you not keep awake?

As the old hymn puts it, “If you can’t bear the cross, then you can’t wear the crown.” 

Communists, in rejecting religion, called Christianity the opiate of the masses.  As if faith was some sort of blinders that might enable us to ignore and skirt the ugliness of hate and tragedy — the ugliness of what we do to our fellow human beings. 

Not so.

Faith is what allows us to look death and tragedy straight in the eye and carry on, find a way, make a way when there is no way..  And when we’re called to our Maker, it is faith that enables us to hear that clarion sound, “Well done, my beloved.  Well done.”

Through our community in Christ we are surrounded and upheld by that glorious company of the faithful.  It is only through their strength, through their encouragement and support, that we complete the race we’ve been assigned.   Even Jesus needed a few others.  And we’re just not in his class.

Yes, many were willing to watch a little black boy slowly diminish, to shrink and to spiritually die on the edge of a municipal plunge one warm day.  But not all.  Some knew this wasn’t right.  Some knew this was diametrically opposed to everything they had been taught in their churches.  They may not have had the tools resistance champions of justice now have.  They may not have understood the power of civil disobedience, but some, that afternoon had their hearts ripped from their breasts.

That is the first step – a willingness to let the pain of rejection and tragedy enter one’s soul.  To feel at one’s root core Al’s rejection.  But that is only the first step.  Imagine if the entire team and bystanders had, instead of yielding to passivity, marched outside the pool enclosure and joined Al.  Imagine the power of that NO.

Today, as Christ is dismissed and scorned through Jim Crow voter suppression laws, we are being confronted with the same choice as those onlookers at a Youngstown municipal pool in 1951.

The question always is, which side are you on?  The side of complicity through silence?  Will you, too, avert your gaze and refuse to see?  Not act?  Or, will you be on the side of “necessary trouble?”  Will you be on Al’s side?

Mother Teresa puts our Palm Sunday choices this way in a simple poem, “Forgive Them Anyway.”

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.  Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.  Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.  Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.  Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.  Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.

Do not forget — It is God who brings Resurrection Joy even through the most bitter tears.  Amen

[1] Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (New York: Random House, 2020), 120-121.

“Lord, Have Mercy”

Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

March 28, Palm/Passion Sunday

Mark 11:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-9a; 31:9-16;
Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1—15:47

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