A Sermon by the Rev. Kathy McAdams
Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
St John’s Episcopal Church, Franklin, MA
Luke 19:28-40; 22:14-23:56
On the day that the first Gulf War began in the 90s, I was so full of emotion that I just needed to yell and scream. I wanted my government to know that they were not representing my views, that I was not behind this war. I took to the streets of San Francisco and became part of a crowd that marched up Market Street, chanting slogans and yelling at the top of our voices - some crying, some praying, some sitting in intersections, but all seemingly united behind one purpose - protest of our government’s foreign policy. I was a part of that crowd - turning the way they turned, and chanting the words they chanted. My mind was in sync with the mind of the crowd for many blocks…until, that is, we reached Union Square, a popular shopping district. At that point, some members of the mob began throwing bricks at the Macy’s display windows. Other members reached in and grabbed merchandise. I stood by watching quietly, as did Peter and Jesus’ acquaintances while he was being crucified. While I didn’t participate in this behavior, neither did I try to stop it. I was too afraid. I was both afraid of this minority group - that they might turn violently on me; but also, of the police - that I might be associated with that minority and arrested. So, at this point I was starting to doubt whether I wanted to be part of this crowd, yet still I continued walking the route and chanting the slogans. The breaking point for me was when we reached the Embarcadero, and some members of the mob started turning over police cruisers and setting them on fire. That was the point at which I decided that, not only did my government not represent me, but neither did these people. I walked home in horror, no longer part of the crowd.
I am fascinated by this mob psychology. How does such a mob get started - is it one person who instigates it? If so, why do the others go along with the plan? Or does it just happen spontaneously in the moment? Does everyone go along with the actions, or are there dissenters?
We witness this power of a crowd at Jesus’ trial. What changes after Jesus enters Jerusalem, when the crowd throws their cloaks on the ground in his honor, waves palms at him and hails him as the Messiah, the anointed one of God. The crowd glories in Jesus from Sunday through at least the first part of the week, but by Thursday night, they are shouting, “Crucify him!” What happens in those few days? Does someone, or a group of someones, go about Jerusalem campaigning against Jesus? What happens to so severely change the mind and behavior of the crowd in this story? Why do they go from welcoming Jesus to demanding that he be crucified - even to the extent that they prefer to free a convicted murderer and leader of insurrections, instead? Why are they all willing to go along with this unjust punishment – torture and execution of a man they know has been healing and giving people hope, whom some believed to be God’s son? Do they pay people off, threaten them, offer them some reward? John Dominic Crossan1 suggests that the crowd may have been paid to turn on Jesus; and that Jesus was tried at night so that the religious authorities would have control over who was present. Even if Crossan is correct, those in the crowd still had to consent to selling their voices.
Why are we willing to go along with something in a group that we would never agree to as an individual? Why do we stop thinking for ourselves and let the mind of the crowd, or the values of our society, become our own?
How difficult to be a lone voice crying out, “No!” when everyone else is screaming, “Crucify him!” But perhaps that one voice might become many, if only one has the courage to start. How different history would have been if Pilate had stuck by what he believed, rather than succumbing to the mind of the crowd. Neither he nor Herod find Jesus guilty, and both are willing to simply punish and release him. Yet that isn’t enough to appease the crowd’s vengeance, and he gives in to their insistence that Jesus be executed.
There are a couple of independent thinkers in the story. The first is one of the criminals crucified with Jesus. While the soldiers and the other criminal are deriding Jesus, he exclaims, “Do you not fear God?”, and proclaims his expectancy toward the Kingdom of God. In fact, Jesus assures him that by his faith, he has already entered it. The other person in this story waiting for the Kingdom of God is Joseph of Arimathea, who refuses to stand with his Sanhedrin brothers against Jesus. In fact, after Jesus dies, Joseph claims his body to give him a proper Jewish burial. Neither Joseph nor the criminal are able to completely change the mind of the crowd, and they aren’t able to prevent Jesus’ crucifixion, but perhaps they do change a few minds, and move a few hearts to God, as they make their protests public.
Crowds have the power not only to breed evil, but also to direct immense good, as long as each of us continues to think for ourselves, and to listen for God’s call to us, and to contribute our own voices to that of the crowd, to contribute our own sense of the Spirit, and our own reasoning to the good of the whole.
As Christians, we need to contribute our minds and our hearts to steering the mind of the crowd, rather than letting the crowd steer us. We need to be the ones shouting “No!” when others are shouting, “Crucify him!” We need to be able to say, “That’s not what I hear from Scripture, from my prayer life, or from my religious tradition; therefore, I can’t go along with that.” We need to be able to say, “Here’s what I believe God is calling us to be.” We need to be able to assert our values against those of the crowd, against those of the larger society. Christianity is inherently counter-cultural: it values the good of the whole above the good of the individual, it values justice above competition, and it values God’s will above our own. Christianity is completely radical, if compared with society’s values of individuality, consumerism, and profit margins. So being a Christian is risky. We risk being outside the in-crowd; we risk not having the most or the best stuff; and we risk being perceived as unsuccessful by society’s standards. But by following Christ, we gain the most important thing of all; we receive our place in the Kingdom of God. Now that’s a crowd I want to be part of.
1 Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at DePaul University in Chicago; Fresh Air with Terri Gross on National Public Radio 4/1/04