This is the sermon I preached today at North Watford on Palm Sunday. It drew both on the set reading for today, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21: 1-11), and a passages from the letter of James: James 3:2-12.
In a few minutes we shall sing one of the most well-known and best-loved Passion hymns, Samuel Crossman’s ‘My song is love unknown’. The hymn is a worthy survivor from the 17th Century, when it was written, and its verses still have the power to challenge us deeply. None more so than the third verse, which speaks of the events of that first Palm Sunday and the fickle nature of the crowd that cheered Christ into Jerusalem that day:
Sometimes they strew his way,
and his sweet praises sing;
resounding all the day
hosannas to their King.
is all their breath,
and for his death
they thirst and cry.
Many other hymn writers and commentators have highlighted the contrary nature of the crowds in Jerusalem during that first Holy Week, and the dramatic change in the voice of the crowd. “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matt. 21:9), on the Sunday, morphing into the terrible cry of “Let him be crucified!” (Matt. 27:22), on the Friday. Throughout the centuries many Christian writers have associated ordinary Christians with that treacherous crowd, cheering for Christ one minute and condemning him the next. Like the writer of our previous hymn, ‘Come and see, come and see’, they make it clear that it was as much our sin that “pierced him there” as that first crowd in Jerusalem so long ago. They make it only too apparent that we are not just talking about some episode of ancient history here but a vital part of all our human stories: the reality of evil, temptation and the need for forgiveness in all our lives.
The human capacity to do both good and evil, and in particular the ability of our tongues to both ‘bless and curse’ is one that is highlighted in the book of James. This is one of the shortest books of the New Testament yet it is full of vivid imagery and language that still has the power to inspire and challenges its readers today. Some of us have been studying this book during Lent on Wednesday mornings at Bushey & Oxhey and I think we have all been struck by how relevant its wisdom remains. None more so than when its writer, James, the brother of our Lord, speaks about the power of the tongue. It is perhaps a strange passage to preach upon during this Passion season but studying it with others, I was strongly reminded of the power of the tongue that was evidenced among those first Palm Sunday and Good Friday crowds. The power to speak good or evil. Let us hear James’ words now: James 3:2-12 (The taming of the tongue).
As you can hear, James is a skilled and vivid writer. In that short passage he makes numerous images come alive in our minds: tall ships at sea, horses galloping across the plain, babbling springs producing fresh, clear water. And perhaps that most powerful of images: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” (James 3:5-6). As I said earlier, one of the aspects of James that is so impressive is how relevant and contemporary his writing remains. There is no one here today, sadly, who has not experienced or witnessed the terrible power of the tongue. No one here has escaped the temptation of gossip. All of us know how difficult it can be truly to “tame the tongue” (James 3:8).
The story of that first Holy Week bears painful testimony to the truth of those verses. “From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing,” wrote James (3:10). And that it precisely what we saw with that crowd in Jerusalem: blessings pouring from their mouths on Palm Sunday and curses on Good Friday. Truly, springs pouring forth “both fresh and brackish water” (3:11). A phenomenon that has sadly been repeated too many times in human history: a mob praising someone to the skies one day, and crying for their blood the next day. Newspapers using their voice to both laud and condemn the same person or group. And individuals like ourselves using our God-given ability of speech both for good and evil. The writing of James makes it only too apparent that the sin of that fickle crowd in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago is indeed our own sin. With our tongue we can do both good and evil, and too often we choose to do evil.
I was reminded very strongly of what James wrote last Sunday morning when many of us awoke to yet another appalling news story, after what seems like an endless stream of such stories. A 17 year old Kurdish asylum seeker beaten close to death by a mob at a bus stop in Croydon. His offence? Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Waiting for a bus, he was approached by a group of over twenty people and asked where he was from. When he replied that he was an asylum seeker from Iraq, he was savagely attacked and left with a fractured spine, a fractured skull and a bleed on his brain. The hospital where he was treated said that he was lucky to be alive. There was no apparent motive for the attack and police have now charged 13 people with violent assault. It was a despicable act of savagery committed against a young man who was simply trying to escape the terror and warfare of his homeland, and find a better life studying here in the UK.
As with the events of Holy Week, it is tempting to say that this incident, while tragic and inducing our sympathy, has nothing really to do with us. We were not in Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday and we were not in Croydon last Saturday night committing this terrible crime. They are sad events but of no real concern to us.
The writing of James, however, reminds us that through our God-given power of speech, we do have a role. We can choose to bless or curse with our tongue, and with a tiny spark of speech, set ablaze a whole forest fire of destruction. Why was that young man attacked? Partly because he looked and sounded different. Probably because he was in the wrong place when this angry mob appeared, looking for trouble. But almost certainly because he used that loaded term ‘asylum seeker’ to describe himself. A term that has become a byword it seems for all that is wrong with our nation; a group of people whom no one wants to love; an easy scapegoat for our newspapers and the worst kind of politicians.
We did not brutalise that young man in Croydon, just as much as we did not cry ‘Crucify’ on that first Good Friday. But I would argue that the way we speak – the way we use our tongue – as individuals and as a society inexorably helped to create the conditions whereby that attack was justified. The way we speak about ‘asylum seekers’, the way in which we use terms like ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’, ‘foreigner’ all help create an atmosphere that ultimately encourages and permits this kind of abuse and violence. I have no doubt whatsoever that the young people who committed that terrible crime had heard such terms bandied about by their parents and peers, and seen it in newspapers and on social media, and like poison drip-fed into the body, it had inexorably led them to conclude that such people truly were ‘the scum of the earth’. Their values and their attitude towards this young man did not come from thin air; it came from the evil of the tongue, misused.
Now, we could say, ‘Well, that’s nonsense. How can what I say here have any effect in Croydon or anywhere else?’. But let us heed again those words from James: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”. Think of those great forest fires that sweep across places like California and Australia. Huge blazes that engulf whole towns and communities, forcing thousands to flee. Where do they start – most often with a few reckless individuals starting a tiny fire in one corner of the state that gradually gets out of hand until it is a raging inferno. In the same way, as James so appositely observed, by our indiscriminate use of language, each of us has the capacity to set small fires ablaze that ultimately end up engulfing whole communities, and bring down disaster on individuals like that young teenager in Croydon.
When we think of the terrible evil that has been committed over the centuries in our world, how often has it started not with a mighty conflagration but with a tiny spark? With people using their God-given voices not praise the wonders of his creation but to condemn or abuse it. Think of how we have used terms like ‘Jew’, ‘Papist’, ‘Black’ or ‘Paki’ in our history. How the most terrible deeds in our history, like the slave trade, have been justified by the simple repetition of lies and prejudice by ordinary people. Think how the Holocaust did not begin with the gas chambers and mass deportations. Rather it began with people mindlessly echoing stereotypes and untruths about Jewish people: ‘they can’t be trusted’, ‘they’re all liars and thieves’, ‘they’re not like us’. We must reflect how those simple sparks, repeated endlessly by ordinary people and fanned by wicked women and men for their own ends, eventually set ablaze the furnaces of Auschwitz and Belsen.
Like so many people, I am deeply concerned about the divisions within our own society and world today. A world that seems much keener on building walls and barriers than bridges and understanding. I am deeply troubled about how acceptable it is becoming to hate whole groups of people simply because they are different from us in one way or another. I am horrified at the fear I have witnessed amongst people who have, in some instances, lived most of their lives in this country and yet now feel like the ‘enemy within’.
This fear cannot be the will of God. As James says of the tongue: “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” (James 3:9). He rightly reminds his listeners that to insult another human being is ultimately to insult their maker: the Lord, our God. And the words of James, and the example of the Passion story, shows us that the responsibility to tackle evil begins with us. It begins with our lips and tongues. It begins with us choosing to bless or to curse. To speak truth or to repeat easy and convenient lies. It begins with us saying that our mouths shall be like a fresh spring, bringing out only that which is good and pure, not the brackish water of malevolence and fear.
As we enter this most holy week of the Christian year and we reflect on the events that led Jesus from that triumphal entry to the dereliction of the cross, let us take our place in the crowd. Let us acknowledge our responsibility for the sin that nailed Christ to his cross, and continues to nail him there when innocents suffer and evil triumphs. Let us resist the temptation to use the same mouth to pour forth both words of praise and words of hatred. Let us tame our tongues, brothers and sisters, and let us use them only to bless the Lord and all of his creation. Amen.
Words from ‘My song is love unknown’ by Samuel Crossman (c. 1624–1683) and ‘Come and see, come and see’ by Graham Kendrick (b. 1950). Quoted from Singing the Faith Electronic Words Edition, number 277 and number 270. Words and Music: © 1989, Graham Kendrick / Make Way Music Ltd, PO Box 320, Tunbridge Wells, Kent. TN2 9DE UK.