"Are We Part of the Crowd?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 4/16/2000
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; John 12:12-19
We find that some of you concentrate on a particularly small flower arrangement that attempts to fill the large space on our altar. You focus on parents who are allowing their child to talk or cry during a part of the service. You wonder if they realize that we have a nursery. You are tempted to tell them about it, but you fear they will think you are being less than kind. You wonder why we had to sing a hymn that no one knew. You concentrate on the four letters on the cross, and you want to know what they mean.
Then there is another level of awareness that can fill your minds. You know that tomorrow you will be going back to work. You are thinking about the dynamics at the office or a project that has people frantic. You are thinking about some drama in the life of your family. Your physician's office has contacted you following a routine chest X-ray, and they want you to schedule an appointment as soon as possible.
Then there is still another level of awareness. You have come to church prepared to evaluate what is being expressed during the service. Does it resonate with what you have been taught or believe? Or, you can easily tune out when what is being said has nothing to add to your life-experience.
At the other end of the concentration spectrum, you can be totally absorbed by a thoughtful and meaningful service, but by 3:00 p.m. you cannot remember what had been so pleasing to you. Life has taken you further downstream by mid-afternoon, and you cannot remember the elements of the service that had inspired you.
Of course, we could go on and on with every manner of distraction that lines up on the horizons of our consciousness. We are all individuals and we bring to life exactly what we are from where we are. We seldom pause to think how our personal issues flavor what we experience, but they do. In fact these issues make an enormous difference. Some of us become bored immediately in worship while others of us remain focused because we do not want to miss anything that has the power to make us think differently about our life-experiences.
All of us in the sanctuary today have a lot in common with the large gathering that filled the streets to observe Jesus on the first Palm Sunday. Tens of thousands of Jews were in Jerusalem because it was the Passover Festival. This was a very sacred time for the Jews who observed their faith-traditions. Passover marks the period when they celebrate the moment in their history when they believe they were spared death as God killed the firstborn of the Egyptians. Passover also serves to remind them of their hasty departure from Egypt. To refresh our minds on this significant moment in Hebrew history, here is the reference in Exodus: "Moses called for all the leaders of Israel and said to them, "Each of you is to choose a lamb or a young goat and kill it, so that your families can celebrate Passover. Take a sprig of hyssop, dip it in the bowl containing the animal's blood and wipe the blood on the doorposts and the beam above the door of your house. Not one of you is to leave the house until morning. When the Lord goes through Egypt to kill the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the beams and the doorposts and will not let the Angel of Death enter your houses and kill you. You and your children must obey these rules forever." When you enter the land that the Lord has promised to give you, you must perform this ritual. When your children ask you, "What does this ritual mean?" you will answer, "It is the sacrifice of Passover to honor the Lord, because he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt. He killed the Egyptians, but spared us." The Israelites knelt down and worshiped. Then they went and did what the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron. (Exodus 12:21-28)
Just as we are in church on Sunday mornings for worship, the Jews from all over the world were in Jerusalem for this very specific occasion. As Jesus road into town, some people turned aside to see Jesus undoubtedly because others were doing so. Some people engaged in praise and thanksgiving, believing that he might be their long awaited Messiah. Some had become part of the gathering because of hearing rumors that in Bethany Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. The Pharisees were watching with a completely different point of view. They were calculating and suspicious. There was not room for a message that was vastly different from their own.
Of course, we do not want to miss discussing Jesus' own disciples. They had to be glowing with pride because they were walking beside this instantaneous celebrity. They had been with him since the beginning of his ministry and were also experiencing honor and praise vicariously because they belonged to Jesus' inner circle. They were the chairpersons of the various committees. One was even the Treasurer. How interesting that our lesson states that even the disciples were not clear on why they were entering Jerusalem in this fashion.
What we do know is that whatever meaning we give to Palm Sunday today, it had no immediate impact on the lives of those who participated. We know this because the crowd quickly dispersed and went back to their family reunions and Passover celebrations. We know this because once Jesus was arrested, his cherished disciples scattered and would never be with him again. We know this because one of them committed suicide. We know this because many in the once adoring crowd would soon be shouting for the release of Barabbas as well as crying for the crucifixion of Jesus. All this high drama took place in less than a week.
What lesson can we draw from this? Are we part of the crowd? You bet we are! The aspects of life that are intensely emotional to us today may represent nothing a month or year from now. We can easily go from one drama to another and call it living. We can hold on to our particular point of view and miss what God is communicating to us.
Are we aware of what we miss in life? Probably not. We could accurately speculate that all but a very few people who watched Jesus ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday died not giving their experience a second thought. Many of them did not know the gentle man because their minds were engaged in matters that seemed far more important. We often live on the surface of most events.
Consider what frequently happens to us when our daughter is getting married. Go back in your minds and try to remember what was happening to you during such a moment. "Can we get into the church ahead of time so that we can fasten the bows to the pews? Where can the videographer stand? I wonder if we have enough flowers? Do you suppose Aunt Gertie will be offended if she does not get a corsage? She considers herself the closest to you. Oh, the people managing the reception are just impossible! What do you mean the dress is too tight? Honey, we can't make adjustments to it now; you'll just have to be uncomfortable! What do you mean the soloist has laryngitis?"
Often the day after the wedding we cannot get out of bed. We are exhausted mentally and physically. Why is this? How easy it is to focus our energy on the unfolding of perfect plans and miss the event. Even during the ceremony, our minds frequently leave what our eyes are witnessing. We are thinking of what could happen if the receiving line is too long, if the photographer takes too many pictures at the church, or if the flowers on the reception tables will be wilted. We never run out of issues that demand our attention. Yes, we are quite normal and part of the crowd.
We can smile at many of our well-documented responses, but do we really want to get further down the road in life and discover that we never found the time to live? Do we want our attitudes, our perceptions, and our strong desire to be "right" to prevent us from seeing something even more magnificent? Many of us respond in this fashion, and we may not be aware we are doing it.
One of our constant struggles is learning how to keep our minds quiet so that we can experience God loving us. Jesus rode into Jerusalem as a King, but he was not like any King humanity had ever seen. In fact, he was so aware of the attitude of the crowd that he said, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone the messengers God has sent you! How many times I wanted to put my arms around all your people, as a hen gathers up her chicks under her wings, but you would not let me."
We are so busy with our interpretations and our expectations of what we want Jesus to be that we miss the presence of God who sent him. Be not mistaken, we are part of the crowd. Jesus said, "I have come among you as one who serves" while we want to make him into what we want him to be. That should make all our thoughts and theologies suspect. It is not God's love that divides people into different faiths. What builds walls are our interpretations of how that love is expressed.
We flavor everything with what we want, need and expect. Many in the crowd wanted a particular kind of Messiah. The Pharisees did not want anyone to upset their authority and power. The curious wanted to see Jesus perform even more astounding miracles.
It is not easy to experience being loved by God. It is not easy to understand why Jesus used the symbol of an earthly King to lead us to find the meaning of his Kingdom. Jesus once said to Pilate, "I am a King, but my Kingdom is not of this world." It is a Kingdom where the ability to love is not dependent on our circumstances.
In his Kingdom, beings simply radiate whom they have become. Jesus came into Jerusalem and nonverbally announced that he was the Messiah. When we follow him, there is nothing that can defeat us. He once announced that he had overcome the world, and then he showed us that not even a crucifixion had defeated him. Yet we struggle over meaning and interpretation instead of falling on our knees and saying, "Thank you, Lord! I now understand who you have called me to be."
Jesus did not come to give us a magic formula that will "fix" our relationships, or will make our work environment a place of joy, or will recreate the world into a place that will make us happy. In fact, he demonstrated just the opposite. Nothing about Jesus "fixed" his relationships. But he showed us the place where our spirits can be even when our physical world appears to be shattering. Jesus is the Lord of life, not the creator of days when the sun always shines. The ecstasy some people experienced on that first Palm Sunday well illustrates just how long such sunny days last.
Just before Jesus was conceived in Mary's womb, an angelic presence said to her, ". . . and of his Kingdom there will be no end." In a day when nations nurse their hatreds, when issues of true justice become clouded and confused, when children are plotting to kill their "friends" and when stock markets rise and fall, it is nice to know that we do not have to remain a part of any crowd. We can join with Jesus in our giving witness to and thanksgiving for a Kingdom that, indeed, has no end. Will you join him?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving and always present God, we find ourselves coming to you for many reasons. We seek direction for our lives. We come wanting a miracle. We search within our confusing experiences for the source of peace. How often in our requests of you, we neglect hearing Jesus' invitation to follow him. In our desire to escape frustration and pain, we forget to love our neighbor and to pray for those who are hurting us. Today, as we follow Jesus into Jerusalem, may we understand anew how it was he changed the world. He came to give. He came to serve. He came to teach. He came to heal. Guide us, O God, so that as we give ourselves away, others will find healing as they follow. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
O God of love, we thank you that each of us can enter this place and become transported to another day that occurred nearly 2,000 years ago. As we go there now, we watch as the unpaved streets become filled with an increasing number of people. When we listen closely, we can hear questions about the gentle man coming into town. We hear the rumors about a man being raised from the dead in a village not far from Jerusalem. We hear that this man is hoped to be the Messiah.
And yet once the hour of heightened praise and song of Palm Sunday has ended, how quickly we find ourselves returning to the activities from which we excused ourselves. We love parties, celebrations, song and laughter. We enjoy believing that a Savior has come into our midst who will do for us what we seemingly cannot do for ourselves. How we long for such a Messiah. How quickly we forget Isaiah's words, "Here am I, Lord. Send me."
Yet even in our poverty of spirit, you bless us. You come to us with opened arms and hold us even in our blindness. You forgive us long before we sin, because you would rather teach us than punish us for not knowing a better way. Help us to seek, find and live in that Kingdom Jesus died to show us, for it is through his spirit that we now pray the prayer he taught us to say. . .