I recently heard an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation speak about the challenge presented by the level of crime in our cities. Our newspapers routinely report on violent crimes, hate crimes and crimes of passion which impact every part of our region.
No one, no neighborhood and no city is exempt from the epidemic madness. From Anchorage, Alaska to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; from Honolulu, Hawaii to San Antonio, Texas; from New York City to Fargo, N.D.; from Salt Lake City, Utah to Peoria, Ill. – our cities seethe and fester everywhere.
So much so, that, as newspaper columnist Anna Quindlen puts it, “Looking at our cities today is like looking into a deep abyss so deep that we get dizzy and recoil in fear and despair.” Many people, therefore, pull down their blinds, beef up their security systems or move to a rural area and hope that the government or law enforcement will somehow solve the problem, remove the specter of terror and threat to life, that someone will clean up our cities, restore order to the chaos and make the cities habitable again.
In many ways we are like Jesus, when 2,000 years ago he left the hills and villages of Galilee and headed toward Jerusalem, to what for him was a city of unknown outcomes. While going to Jerusalem heightened expectation, Jesus knew it could also be a city of frustration and disappointment. While Jerusalem was a symbol of promise, it might also be a place of despair.
While it was the holy city of God, it could likewise be the locale of evil. While it was for Jesus a city of destiny, he knew it could also be a dead end of lonely struggle and tribulation. While the very name Jerusalem stirred people’s hopes for peace and light, Jesus knew it also might be a dark battleground of ugly violence and intrigue.
Little wonder that as Jesus journeyed south with his followers, he one day cried out: “O Jerusalem! Jerusalem! Killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not” (Matthew 23:37).
Little wonder that when he finally arrived, stood on the Mount of Olives, looked across the Kidron Valley at the panoramic view of Jerusalem before him, tears filled his eyes as he said to the city, “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace. But now they are hid from your eyes. ...” Yes, Jesus came to the city expecting the best, but he was very much aware that he might find the worst. So with us today. What does the future hold for our cities and for us? Do our cities have a future?
We cannot know for sure; we can only live the question, as the poet Rilke suggested, by living in hope rather than in despair, by believing in God’s answer as we give ourselves to following Jesus. That is why the Palm Sunday event is so cogent to our understanding and to our faith, especially for us who live in the midst of urban chaos and are frustrated with the dilemmas we face.
See, first of all, that Jesus crossed the city limits and entered Jerusalem. He did not remain in the bucolic ambiance of Galilee and continue his ministry, but chose to come to the city because it was the only way he could complete his purpose. He came to the holy city because he knew that God’s truth must be revealed there, that God’s Kingdom must be announced not only among the echoing hills of rural Galilee, but in the din of crowded streets and among the restless throng who jostled each other and sought what would fulfill their deeper need.
Ours is an incarnational faith which holds that God is revealed in feet hurrying along busy city streets, as well as in the majesty of mountain peaks; that God’s presence is as real on city thresholds dark with fear and need, as in a desert ablaze with spring wildflowers; that God is at work in the brokenness of human relationships, crime, drugs and exploitation, as surely as God is at work in bringing new worlds into being in the expanse of galactic space; that the power that holds the planets in their places and sets the limits on the restless seas, also holds our cities and us and seeks what is best for us.
Jesus entering Jerusalem is a reminder that God crosses all limits, barriers, borders, walls and artificial boundaries in order to reach us; that God is always loving us. It is the same word enunciated by the apostle Paul when he wrote to the Christians in Ephesus: “For he is our peace, who has made us one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility ... that he might reconcile us to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing hostility to an end.”
Yes, the hostility, the conflict, the alienation, all the defenses and differences that divide us from each other and from God can be overcome through the power of love in the Cross of Christ at work in and through us. We can get along together in our cities if we try, if we determine we are going to live side by side in love. No barrier is too high, no difference too strong, no distance between us too great that God cannot and will not overcome it. No problem, no breakdown, no evil is so intractable that it can withstand God’s ultimate purpose.
A symbol of this for me is a small palmetto tree that I have watched grow out of the asphalt and concrete on South Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach. I look for that palmetto tree every time I go to Myrtle Beach. Whenever I see it, my spirit is lifted. It reminds me that God can make things grow where they are not supposed to, that God can heal our most grievous wounds, that God can save and redeem even the most reluctant heart and the most desperate human condition, that with God all things are possible.
Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.