The Passion of Our Lord according to Luke begins with the Disciples arguing as to who of them is the greatest and ends with Jesus crucified, dead, and buried; His own death a parable of what greatness truly is. We humans are fixated on greatness. We talk about it all the time. Michael Jordon is the greatest basketball player of all time. Tiger Woods, the greatest golfer. Barry Bonds, the greatest home run hitter. Harrison Ford, the greatest box office draw.
I was read sermon this week by the Rev. George Ross, the priest who welcomed me into the Episcopal Church. He was the greatest preacher I ever heard. In this sermon he described his boyhood love of the Lone Ranger – the greatest hero of that age. You remember how, with only the aid of his sidekick Tonto, the Ranger could ride into any situation and, against overwhelming odds, save the day, relying only on sheer grit and guts. Then, once the bad guys were subdued, the town was saved, and the damsel rescued, he would shout his famous cry, “Heigh ho, Silver, away!” and ride off into the sunset alone on his trusty horse.
Mr. Ross said that, as a depression era boy, he and his friends ate it up. And he decided that since the Lone Ranger did not need to go to Sunday School neither would he. “Hosanna” lacked the flair of “Heigh ho, Silver.” Jesus did not have a mask. His “Kemo Sabes” were traitors and gossips and cowards, not the strong, silent type. And when Jesus rode into town, it was on a mangy old mule, and a borrowed one at that! Some savior! “Heigh ho, donkey, away!” did not make much of an impression on an impressionable boy.
Then, one day in college, Mr. Ross found himself in church on a Palm Sunday, not because he had suddenly become religious, but because a certain co-ed who had captured his imagination was know to attend on a weekly basis. As it turned out, the young lady had the flu, but I’ll let Mr. Ross’ own words describe his experience:
“At just the right moment in my life, I heard the story of the Way of the Cross. I had heard it before, but I really heard it that day. I heard the story of how Jesus came to town and went into the temple and threw the rascals out. (I thought to myself: ‘So far, so good’ – Lone Ranger stuff.) Then the story took a strange twist. He went to a dinner party and washed the dirty feet of the other guests. He went to a garden and began to sweat blood. He was arrested. He was stripped naked. He was humiliated. He was too weak to carry His own cross. And then He died a terrible death and was buried in someone else’s grave. Through it all he was the best, the bravest, the kindest, the most loving man there.
I can’t explain – even to myself – what happened on that Palm Sunday. I went to church, a devout disciple of the Lone Ranger, with a girl on my mind; I came out… knowing in my heart that I could not go forward with the rest of my life until I had somehow come to terms with Jesus Christ… I knew that the Lone Ranger in me had to yield to something infinitely better."
The Passion of our Lord has the power to change lives. Years ago, William Temple, who was then the Archbishop of Canterbury, preached a series of sermons over the course of Holy Week attended by the student body at Cambridge University. At a time when Hitler was rising to power and most young people in England were agnostic at best, Temple dedicated the entire week to preaching on the Cross of Jesus and what it means to put away childish things in order to embrace adulthood. The service on Good Friday concluded with the hymn “When I survey the wondrous Cross.” When they came to the last stanza, Temple stopped the singing and paused for some time before saying,
“I want you to read over this verse before you sing it. The words are tremendous. If you don’t mean them, then don’t sing them, just stand in silence. If you mean them with all your heart, sing them as loud as you can. If you mean them a little, and want to mean them more, then sing them very softly. But before you decide, look at the Cross and look at the words.”
Then there was absolute stillness while every person contemplated these words on the printed sheet:
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.
And when the Archbishop began to sing, 2,000 voices softly sang along with him. Years later, one person wrote:
“It was an experience never to be erased from my memory until the whole tablet is erased… There are large numbers of Cambridge alumni all around the world who owe all that is best in them to that Holy Week.”
This morning we hear again what is either a very bad joke or the greatest story ever told. Either it is an unfortunate incident that occurred long, long ago in a far off place, or it is the greatest expression we will ever have of God’s true self. If it is the former, than your being here today is enough. Thank you for helping to keep the memory of that event alive on this day. But if it is the latter, then love so amazing, so divine, demands you soul, your life, your all.