"Remain Skeptical About Popularity"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - April 5, 2009
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Mark 11:1-11
One of the qualities of life that people most admire in others is their popularity. Popularity guarantees lots of friends. Such personalities are always invited to all the main social gatherings. People line up at the Oscars, for example, to watch all the celebrities as they exit their limos and walk on the red carpet.The critics, of course, make various observations about their dress, their hair styles and who was on whose arm. Society eagerly waits for the list of the ten best-dressed and the ten worst-dressed. I know most of us wait with baited breath for their report. Perhaps The Washington Post gets it right for a number of us when the newspaper entitles one of its weekly columns, “We Watched American Idol So You Don’t Have To.”
So many people struggle mightily to climb to the mountain top of popularity. However, there is something tragic about expending energy for such a fleeting pursuit. Those who make it to the top, struggle for the rest of their lives to hold on to their privacy. They cannot go anywhere without the paparazzi being in hot pursuit.
Sometimes we can imagine numerous scenes that took place during Jesus’ life. We remember the time when the crowd of intrigued, curious people was all around him when a woman touched the hem on his garment and was healed. On another occasion, Jesus got into a boat to escape the crowds. They walked around the lake and met Jesus when he landed on the distant shore. There were thousands of people. Still another occasion, the crowd was so dense that the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, climbed a tree just to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he passed by.
In our society we readily recognize why well-known personalities are hounded by the paparazzi. One picture can bring a photographer $20,000 to $40,000. In fact, a single picture of Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed earned a photographer seven million dollars. Because of that kind of payoff, there is always a feeding frenzy by the sharks armed with their cameras willing to engage in ridiculous stunts to capture what they hope will bring top dollar. Thus, the privacy of high profile personalities is constantly compromised.
There is something about popularity that causes it to come and go in the blink of an eye. That something has to do with the will of the adoring crowd. One minute they applaud and struggle for the place against the perimeter ropes just to watch as their idol passes by, and in the next minute, they are ready to crucify the person who has fallen from their grace. Popularity puts people’s lives under the microscope where every moment of our past is dissected and held up for public scrutiny and interpretation.
It may be helpful to remember some of these less than glamorous qualities of popularity as we celebrate Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem this morning. He arrived in such a dramatic fashion that he achieved instant popularity. Rumors of his past miracles swirled everywhere during casual conversation making him quite a celebrity.
No doubt, stories of his raising Lazarus from the dead preceded his arrival in Jerusalem. Jesus possessed all the goods that caused some in the crowd to exclaim, “God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord! God bless the coming kingdom of King David, our father! Praise to God!” (Mark 11:9-10)
Jesus engaged in the activities that appeared to be designed to capture the attention of the vast number of Jews who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. A number of people thought that he just might be the long awaited Messiah who would restore Israel to her greatness. He chose, however, not to address any of the crowds’ expectations. The result -- his popularity vanished almost as soon as it had arrived. What was his point?
What we hear constantly from his lips is “Follow me.” There were many powerful kings in Israel’s glorious past, but Jesus was teaching about consciousness, about the spirit in which people live and about the benefits of joy and happiness that would result from extending in every possible direction creative, dynamic loving energy patterns. He taught these lessons during a time when the people wanted military victories, political solutions to their society’s problems and the destruction of Roman rule. Even though it appeared as though no one was listening, he sowed his timeless seeds anyway.
Years ago, Sports Illustrated ran an article about Jan Kemp who was a professor hired by the University of Georgia to teach a non-credit course to students who were functionally illiterate. These students were mostly the recruited athletes for the University’s football and basketball teams. On three occasions Jan was ordered by the Athletic Department to change the grade of “F” to “Incomplete” so the students could keep their eligibility to play basketball. Jan refused.
A ranking member in the Athletic Department said, “Who do you think you are? What has more value to the University of Georgia, you, a dime a dozen English professor or a high profile athlete?”
After the third incident, Jan was demoted and eventually she was dismissed from the University’s faculty. She was the victim of a vast political and money making machine called “College Athletics” which can bring millions of dollars into the University’s coffers through television rights, alumni contributions and the like. She was alone and powerless.
Jan was crushed and devastated that her university, that stressed excellence in education, would engage in the practice of graduating students who had little or no command of the English language. Colleagues and friends who had staunchly supported her suddenly abandoned her cause under pressure by the University and fear for their own jobs. Jan was so low emotionally that she made an attempt to take her own life.
One night she heard a voice in her head say, “Don’t throw your life away. You don’t have to be popular to stand for values that are timeless. Don’t run from conflict. Don’t turn your back on what you believe because you fear no one is listening. Find a way to make them hear you!”
She gathered her wits and took the University of Georgia to court, challenging her dismissal and challenging the University’s practice of exploiting students. She won the case, got her job back and she was rewarded a sizeable sum of money for punitive damages.
Jesus confronted the best power brokers that Jerusalem and Rome had to offer. He lost his life but he won something significant for humanity by leaving us with a timeless paradigm -- Great kings and queens come and go, powerful countries and empires rise and fall and all of the material pursuits that the world values will eventually have no value at all.
What has value to us is the quality of our spirits, the source of which no one sees. When we broadcast our loving energy patterns in every direction, we offer to others what Jesus offered the world – how to find peace, love and joy because, by following him, we are saved. We have overcome the world’s power to hold us captive by its rules and by what it values. BUT, in order to have Jesus make something beautiful out of our lives, as the Gaither hymn suggests, we have to follow him. Are all of us doing that?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you merciful God, for giving us a glimpse into what strength of spirit looks like when life is out of our control. We have learned that our vision is often blurred when life presents us with those crowns of thorns. There have been moments when our friends have misunderstood who we are. We have known times when we have experienced feelings of abandonment, when our hopes and dreams were ignored and when it was extremely challenging to make our love visible. Help us to remember, O God, how quickly the enthusiasm of Palm Sunday faded. Life in Jerusalem went back to business as usual. Jesus found himself alone in the garden while his disciples slept. When he was taken into custody by the authorities, his most intimate friends fled in fear for their lives. Awaken within us the sustaining trust in your presence that Jesus demonstrated, even when there is no guidance that we can recognize. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving and creative God, how wonderful it is that we can remember Palm Sunday while imagining all the mixture of emotions that must have been displayed that day by the participants. There was the pride of the disciples who enjoyed being with such a popular figure. There was the mood of expectancy by the Jews that had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover that Jesus might be the Messiah that was promised by their prophets of old. How often we are tempted to want someone in our world to save us with a promotion, to rescue us from our loneliness, to help us lose weight without our need for self-discipline, to stabilize our emotions with a new medication and to supply us with inspiration to reach our dreams. God, we know throughout human history, people have looked for saviors that appear in many different forms. We easily forget Jesus’ words to follow him as we allow our loving spirits to radiate through our personalities as we trust that the rest of life will unfold around us.
As we continue our journey with him, we do so knowing the imperfections of our world. Comfort us with the knowledge that as we follow Jesus, he too experienced the same darkness, the same temptations, the same allergies to issues of injustice and the same lack of fairness within many of our experiences. He won his inner battles and he told us, so can we! What a remembrance -- that we can lose everything and still dwell in your infinite kingdom both now and forever. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .