Sermon: “Faces in the Crowd” (Palm Sunday, 3/28/2021) Mark 11:1-11

In preparing for Palm Sunday, my mind keeps drifting to Epiphany.  January 6th.  Our nation’s capital.  Insurrection.

On the face of it, the two events–a hoard of people violently over-running the halls of Congress and the cheering crowd in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday–seem to have little in common, except for the large number of people involved.

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But…I wonder.  Who was in the crowd in Jerusalem that day?  Was everyone cheering for the same reason?

Things were so chaotic on January 6th in Washington, it’s taking a lot of time to sort out exactly what was going on.  Was it an insurrection?  Was it a protest of a so-called fraudulent election?  Was everyone there intent on taking over the government?   

Interviews with rioters after the fact reveal a diversity of reasons people stormed the Capitol that day.  Some wanted to “take back their country.”  Some were intent on harming legislators.  Some wanted only to follow their president.    

Why did people line the streets of Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday?  Why did they wave palm branches, then lay them on the road to prepare Jesus’ way?  Why did they cry, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!”  Did everyone in the crowd that day come for the same reason?  

As reports and photos from January 6th emerge, many of the protesters are being identified; some of them are well-known.  Papers often publish pictures with the image of the person in question highlighted.  Those pictures humanize the crowd.  A mob isn’t just a mob, it’s a conglomerate of individuals, each with his or her own reason for being present and participating.

If they’d had cellphones that first Palm Sunday, and if the faces of those in the crowd were highlighted, who would we see?

We’d see one of Jesus’ disciples, who’d just completed yet another weird task for Jesus, aka, stealing the colt he was riding into town.  We’d see a pilgrim, just arrived from a nearby village, ready to celebrate the high holy days of Passover.  We might see the formerly hemorrhaging woman standing a little taller in the crowd that day, or the man with the formerly withered hand, clapping for joy.    

Cellphone photos that first Palm Sunday, would, no doubt, have revealed many adoring followers in the crowd.  If what happens at the end of the week is any indicator, though, all of the crowd that day wasn’t adoring.  

Some were looking to Jesus to overthrow the Roman government.  Even one of the twelve disciples–Simon the Zealot–was in this group.  Others were looking to make Jesus a king.  Then there were those who’d heard the rumors about Jesus overthrowing the government and becoming king…and didn’t like it.  I’m talking here, of course, about the people in power– the emperor, the ruler of the region, Pontius Pilate, the leader of the Jewish community in the region, Herod, and the religious leaders, the Scribes, Pharisees, and Saducees.  

Were some of these powerful people in the crowd that day?  Did they incite the crowd?  Or did they simply observe and begin making their plans to erase this threat to their power?

Mobs or large crowds–for whatever reason–they don’t happen out of the blue, do they?  The women’s march on Washington in January 2017–that didn’t happen out of the blue, did it?  No, it grew out of a weariness of centuries of the diminishment and denigration of women.  The women–many from this congregation–traveled to Washington to demonstrate and celebrate women’s strength and solidarity.

The protests after George Floyd’s murder didn’t happen out of the blue, did they?  No, they grew out of the agony of centuries of oppression and dehumanization of our sisters and brothers with Black skin.  The gatherings the past two weeks in support of Asian Americans, whose experience of racial violence often is overlooked…they didn’t happen out of the blue, either.  No, people who’ve endured violence in silence for so long have had enough.  

The mob at the Capitol building on January 6th didn’t come out of the blue, either.  The crowd was groomed and prodded and prepared.  Decades of frustration with the political system in our country made people vulnerable to the manipulations of the people who incited them.  It’s clear from interviews after the fact that some of the rioters regret having participated.  They weren’t there to hurt anybody.  It’s likely they’re beginning to realize they were simply pawns in someone else’s game.

Were the people gathered in Jerusalem that day, the ones who were throwing down palm branches and cloaks to pave Jesus’ way….were they also being manipulated?  Later, when Jesus was crucified, did they realize they’d been used and were only pawns in someone else’s game?

One of the sadder parts of growing up is learning to recognize power games going on behind the scenes.  We look at a situation and celebrate it.  But when we look deeper, we see the power differential, we see injustice.  For instance, we celebrate the large number of homes purchased by veterans returning from World War II on the GI bill, but the vast majority of the 2.5 million homes purchased went to white families.  Unfair lending practices to black farmers has recently come to light, as well.  And we celebrate pioneers in the early days of our country, but tend to gloss over the fact that their land was obtained by cheating–and worse–the native people already on the land. 

Learning to recognize power games going on behind the scenes is one of the sadder parts of growing up, and it’s important.  It’s important that we learn to see the unlevel playing field created by our social, economic, justice systems.  It’s important to learn to see the world as it really is.

As grown-up followers of Jesus, we’re called, not only to see those systems, but to do what we can to transform them.  That’s where Jesus can be our guide. 

Besides the Palm Sunday story, there were several times in the gospel of Mark when the people wanted to make Jesus king.  Every time, he refused.  Why did he refuse?  Maybe because he understood that becoming king, or emperor, or chief priest wouldn’t change anything.  If Jesus were to become a king, emperor, or chief priest, the oppressive political, religious, and social systems wouldn’t change at all; they’d just be replacing one leader for another in a system that still would be unjust.  Maybe Jesus resisted calls for his coronation because he understood that, if the oppressive system was going to be transformed, something different, something more profound would have to happen. 

Today’s story ends with Jesus in the Temple, “looking around at everything that is there.”  The next day, he’ll clear the Temple out.  But on this day, the day when the crowds celebrated him, the day when he heard more calls for him to become king, he entered the Temple and “looked around,” then, because it was late, returned with the twelve to Bethany.

But those moments in the Temple, seeing evidence of the religious system that was in place, did Jesus also get a glimpse of what it would take to transform that system?  Like the prophets of old, did he get a vision of what to do and say to wake people up to what was happening?  Standing there in the Temple that evening–loud hosannas still ringing in his ears–did Jesus begin to grasp what would happen by week’s end?  Did he get a vision of what profound thing would need to happen in order for the world to be transformed?

Did he have a vision of a cross?

The invitation as we enter Holy Week is to open our minds and hearts again to this pivotal part of our faith story.  Each step of the way, let us ask, What is Jesus doing?  How is he seeking to transform and heal the world? 

And what might we learn from Jesus’ journey to the cross about transforming and healing our own world?

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness, Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2021

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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