"Praise Is Cheap"
Sermon Delivered By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 28, 2010
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11
One of the common themes I have tried to pass on to listeners in my sermons and during the July and August courses on Spirituality is the idea that they should never anchor their identities to anything in the external world. Such words may sound abstract but they are among the most important that that we can hear.
For example, when our children’s identities begin to form almost immediately, very little training and education is provided to parents about the importance of this slow, incremental process that can literally set the tone for the rest of a child’s life.
This morning we are going to be discussing this process because of what Jesus experienced as he entered Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. His success at not being seduced by the perceptions of his disciples, as well as those that flooded the streets to greet him is what permitted him to stay faithful to his mission. Before we consider what buffered him from the influences coming from the external world, let us consider what frequently happens to us.
We have known people who suffer from what we refer to as low self-esteem. When children begin to made decisions and reason for themselves, none of them automatically begins to think, “I am a stupid person. I am just taking up space on the planet. I do not understand why I was born. I cannot manage to do anything correctly.” Where does such a self-image have its origin?
Such thought patterns began when they taught themselves to respond this way when they encountered others who were less than kind. Without knowing any better children begin to personalize criticisms and teasing when they loose their baby teeth, when they have to wear a retainer that interferes with their normal speech patterns, when others tell them that they are not as attractive or as well dressed as some of their peers, when they recognize that they have difficulties mastering a number of basic skills or when they are labeled as slow and immature.
Parents need to counter such comments with stories, anecdotes and supportive words that remind them that they are one-of-a-kind, unique creations that have never been in the world, nor will their mix of emotions, intellect and spirit ever appear again. This is not just a child’s issue; the external world can impact adults as well.
When I hosted our ministerial group in Martinsburg, West Virginia, a priest from the large Roman Catholic Church in town sat his coffee cup down on a crack where two tables joined. Because the tables were not the same height, the coffee spilled. No harm was done! I used some napkins to absorb the coffee. The priest, however, grew silent and looked extremely discouraged.
When our meeting was over, I noticed that he was still sitting at the table. He appeared to be preoccupied about spilling the coffee. Obviously, far more was going on with the Monsignor than just the coffee incident. We talked. He said, “Dick, the way I feel has nothing to do with the coffee spill. Earlier this week, I backed into traffic without looking carefully and I caused an accident. Recently, I forgot a meeting I had scheduled with a couple that will soon be married. I am afraid that I’m losing it.”
When a string of small failures is clustered in this manner, often our fears feed our imaginations with thoughts that attack our identity. The mantra, this too shall pass, is a wonderful concept to repeat to ourselves during such occasions. My point is that our external world will often present us with cues that suggest the possibility that we are a failure.
Many Christians have learned to recite the scripture that can become another mantra during such moments -- “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” When we remind ourselves who we are, we can defeat our fears more easily and sail past these little failures as experiences that come with the territory shared by our common humanity. We must learn to laugh at ourselves and immediately move on.
What Jesus was presented with on Palm Sunday was not the culmination of a string of failures; quite the contrary. Rumors were circulating that he was coming from Bethany where he had raised Lazarus from the dead. Stories circulated everywhere about his feeding 5,000 people, his healing of lepers, of the lame being able to walk and of blind people receiving their sight. Had Jesus paid attention to what others were saying about him, he could have lost his focus and taken his mission in a very different direction. That did not happen.
Again, the external world can do a lot of damage when we believe the compliments and the accolades that come our way. We can and should appreciate all of them while continuing to remember that what we are hearing is strictly the perceptions held by other people. If anything we should counter such words with humility.
Imagine yourself being a very attractive teenager, one that is repeatedly told, “You are absolutely gorgeous. I envy you! You can eat anything you want and you never put on an ounce of weight.” Imagine what would happen to any of us if we actually believed that, particularly with restaurant portions growing more enormous than at any other time in recent memory.
There was a young man in my past who was one of the most gifted athletes I had ever seen. He was handsome and a pure shooter in basketball. Everyone imagined that he was a sure bet to get a full-collegiate scholarship and perhaps one day play for the NBA. He did not negotiate very well the steady flow of external compliments. He traded on his good looks and became casual with his personal disciplines. His over-inflated self-esteem allowed him to drift into indulgences that caused his life to unravel very quickly. He never recovered when his cheering audience was no longer around.
As Jesus was coming into Jerusalem, a large crowd came out to greet him by placing their garments in his path and saturating his hearing with, “Praise to David’s Son! God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord! Praise be to God!” Our Gospel writer wrote, “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was thrown into an uproar.”
Jesus had learned much earlier in his life to pay little attention to the external world. Once during his ministry, Jesus was teaching and performing miracles when he heard some of his listener’s say, “Surely this is the Prophet who was to come into our world.” He knew they were about to seize him in order to make him the king by force, but he quickly left the area and went into the hills to be alone. (John 6:15) Where did Jesus learn that the external world could offer him nothing?
After the birth stories, Jesus entered the stage of our faith-history as the bread winner for his family. Mary had a large number of children – five boys and a number of girls. (Matthew 13:55) If traditions that were circulating in the early church are accurate, Joseph was killed in a construction mishap while working on Herod’s fortress at Masada. When the eldest son suddenly found himself responsible for the well-being of his family, life focused very sharply on his internal world.
Jesus learned that the external world was not going to give him anything. He had to produce. The businessman within him had to surface. The need to develop products that were competitive with other carpenters had to be perfected. He had to take his four brothers through the Jewish right of passage when each reached the age of twelve. The eldest son had specific duties prescribed by the Law and by custom. As a young man, Jesus had been imprinted with how not to confuse the promises of the world with his personal responsibilities. What he learned from that experience surfaced during his ministry.
Several weeks ago, I was one of the speakers at Karen Allen’s memorial service. Karen grew up on a farm and I mentioned how Karen’s inner world may have been formed.
Tools and farm equipment have a place. When a piece of equipment is used, it is critical that it is returned to its proper place. Farm implements must be maintained. Family members learned the importance of caring for everything. There is a schedule that must be followed not only for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but also for the life-patterns governed by the growing season – planting and harvest time. Young lives learn very quickly that an organized life is one that maximizes personal freedom.
Children, while they dread doing it, learn that when they weed several rows of strawberries, sugar peas, squash, tomatoes, lima beans and beets -- they can see instant results from their labor. Eggs had to be gathered, animals had to be fed and watered.
Children grow up with a keen sense of what it means to follow through on all responsibilities. They also grow up with countless domestic skills. No doubt, Karen’s mother, Ruth Lawrence, knew how to sew clothing. She knew how to darn socks. Today, most children have no idea what is meant by the process of darning a sock.
Karen’s parents had grown up during the Great Depression and they learned and taught their children how to be frugal with money. The children learned a strong work ethic. They learned that getting their hands into the soil was a metaphysical experience of bonding them to the sacredness of the earth. The values that are learned and maintained in a farm family are second to none.
Jesus had this same kind of imprinting. Imagine how prepared he was with life-skills following his baptismal experience. It did not matter what those around him heard or did not hear during those moments; what mattered was how he discerned the direction for the rest of his life as God’s Son.
His unique calling was almost impossible to fulfill but he persevered in giving away what he knew. Think about this – he had to persuade people to anchor their identities to a reality that no one could perceive with their senses. He had to become a walking advertisement for what such a life would look like once people made their decision to follow him. He called that reality, The Kingdom of God.
This is why Jesus did not align himself with the politics of the Jews with respect to the Roman occupation. This is why Jesus said to Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” Equally, this is why his disciples repeatedly missed the mark in their understanding while Jesus was alive. Only after Jesus’ resurrection did his disciples begin to understand the significance of his words. They finally learned that there is a lot more going on in this life than they could recognize through their senses.
Jesus taught that it was a person’s spirit that inspired the words they used, that motivated every deed they did, that created healing thoughts, and that evoked innovative ideas and integrated each person’s personality. This is the source of our vast treasure, the source of our radiance and the source of Jesus words, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and everything else that you need would be yours as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
Jesus understood that what he was pointing to with his words and his life was almost impossible to grasp by people that would continue being imprinted by the teachers of this world. This is why he said, “The gate to understanding life’s potential is narrow. The way that enables people to find it is hard and there are only a few who find it.” (Matthew 7:14) Fortunately, we do not have to earn God’s love before we find our place in God’s care.
Perhaps, now, we can understand why the shouts from the crowd on Palm Sunday had no impact to Jesus. Praise is cheap, particularly when it was coming from people who were still thinking that Jesus could fix their external world. Jesus did not come to fix our world; he came to teach humanity the truth of how to live in this world while keeping each person’s identity anchored in the world from whence all of our spirits came.
Ever present and merciful God, thank you for giving us a glimpse into qualities that are essential to life. We have learned that our vision is often blurred when life presents us with a crown of thorns. There have been moments when our friends have misunderstood our most sincere desires. We have known times when we have experienced feelings of abandonment, when our visions were ignored and when it was a challenge to make our compassion for others visible. God, help us to empathize with what Jesus experienced when the shouts of joy from cheering crowds were gone by the end of the week, when he was alone in the garden while his disciples slept and when his intimate friends fled when he was arrested. Awaken us to the same inner presence that sustained Jesus when his world turned against him. Amen.
Loving God, we thank you for sensing our desires long before we express them. We thank you that you filled our lives with the potential to experience peace, hope, patience and joy. When we discover such a treasure trove, turning the other cheek is no longer a chore, remaining flexible in challenging circumstances is not difficult to negotiate and being creative in our thinking appears to come naturally. All this happens when our minds, hearts and spirits are not cluttered or burdened by issues we cannot solve or by conflicts in which we were always an active participant.
Continue to lead us during our Palm Sunday experience as we learn from Jesus how to navigate through waters that were storm swept by both praise and later by false accusations. Help us to learn his skills of displaying a spirit at peace when detractors challenged him publicly. Guide us to learn how to remain in control of our values when faced with others who have values and goals far different from our own. In every way, Jesus modeled for us what we can be when we swallow our pride and aggressive attitudes and follow him.
In all that we do in every circumstance, inspire our lives with the ability to make your spirit visible. Help all of us to understand what it means to live in our world while our spirits remain anchored to another world that no one can see. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ who taught us to say when we pray . . .