On Working The Crowd

Matthew 21.8-9

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and other cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Romans 8.31-39

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Working a crowd can be an art form. Comedians walk back and forth casually across a stage making the crowds feel relaxed and ready to laugh. Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly punctuated and staccato’d his refrains like the rhythm of a song to get the people connected to the message. Even our President, Donald Trump, knew how to work the crowds at his rallies leading up to the election. You don’t win elections by laying out the step-by-step plans to make economic, ethical, political, and militaristic changes. You don’t win elections by calmly reflecting on the days of the past and a desire for simpler times. You don’t win elections with PowerPoint projections of pie-graphs and political policies.

We all know you win elections by firing up the people with a litany of complaints about what has gone wrong. You win elections by throwing gasoline onto the fire. You win elections by working the crowd.

And Jesus, like Donald Trump, knew how to work a crowd.

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You spread the word and get thousands of people outside to hear the message, you keep them on the edge of their, you know, ground area, and then wait for them to salivate with under the sun and then transform a loaf of bread and a couple of fish into a buffet the likes of which had never been seen.

You get the crowds riled up about working on the Sabbath, even quote some of the prophets from the past, and then heal a cripple man and leave everyone with a rhetorical question: Is it better to heal someone on the Sabbath or let them continue to suffer?

Walk into the middle of an angry mob about to stone a woman to death and quietly write a couple choice words in the sand to let them peer deeply into their own sinful souls and then empower the woman to live a new life.

Jesus knew how to work the crowd.

And Palm Sunday, this strange occasion where we pass out palm branches at the beginning of the service, is perhaps the best example of Jesus’ perfect political ability to work the crowd. We read that many people spread their cloaks; they literally take the clothes off their backs, and placed them on the road. And still yet others even cut down palm branches to prepare the way for the king who entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

We know the story. We can imagine ourselves there on the side of the road with the dust hanging in the air. We can feel the buzz of expectation around the one who will come to change it all. We can feel within ourselves that same desire to scream out “Hosanna!” “Save us!”

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem by Hippolyte Flandrin c. 1842

But, unlike the crowd, we know how the story ends.

We know what awaits us this so-called Holy Week. We know what will happen in the temple when Jesus flips the tables. We know what kind of strange sermon Jesus will offer from the mountain. We know that Jesus will get down on the floor and wash the feet of his disciples. We know that Jesus will gather his friends around a table to share bread and wine. We know that Jesus will be betrayed, arrested, beaten, mocked, and nailed to a cross. We know that before the end of the week, Jesus will die.

And because we know how the story ends, it becomes clear to us that may not have known what we were doing by joining the crowds along the road, or by joining the crowds in a place like this one that we call church.

The crowds who gathered to sing their “hosannas” wanted a king, but the only people who continue to admire him as a king at the end of the week are the sadistic soldiers who made him a crown of thorns and drove it into his skin.

Jesus, it seems, was not the right kind of king. He was not the one they, or even we, were hoping for.

Maybe Jesus wasn’t all that gifted at working the crowd. After all, it took less than a week for the shouts to go from “Hosanna” to “crucify.”

Jesus is a King unlike any other king. Other kings, who are also at times called presidents, know they have to work and manipulate the crowd to bend them according to the desires of the powerful. Kings and Presidents may even rely on the power of the sword to control and handle the crowd to bring forth their hopes and dreams.

Such is the reality of worldly power.

But Jesus, our King, does not take advantage of the crowd’s enthusiasm. Rather than a call to arms to storm the city gates or to murder the ruling elite, Jesus suffers humiliation, abandonment, and death.

Do you still want to be part of the crowd by the side of the road? Do you want a place in Jesus’ kingdom? Do you want to follow the suffering King?

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Don’t be mistaken; Jesus is as political as they come. But he rules not at the head of an army, but from an old wooden cross. He rules not by filibustering particular Supreme Court nominees or demanding democratic political policies, but by laying it all down for the ungodly. He rules not by ordering his troops to use chemical weapons against innocent civilians or even sending tomahawk missiles to destroy a military base, but mounting the cross and saying, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

In America, we pride ourselves on being the ones who can defy the whims of the crowds. Freedom! We think for ourselves! Or at least, we think we can think for ourselves. But here’s the irony: The moment we are so sure that we have thought something up for ourselves, the moment we believe we are most free, is really when we’ve been co-opted by the powerful.

I know that we like to think that if we had been there, we would’ve been good disciples and that we would’ve stayed with Jesus to the very end. I know we like to think that if we had been there in Germany all those years ago, that we would’ve protected the Jews and rallied against Hitler. I know we like to think that if we had been involved in politics at the time, we would’ve voted against going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the truth is a whole lot harder to swallow: We are easily manipulated.

Which is precisely why we sing awful songs like “Ah Holy Jesus.” God will not allow us to get away with perennial self-deception and arrogance. We killed Jesus.

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.

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We know who we want Jesus to be. We want Jesus on our side in our petty arguments with friends and neighbors. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to disagreements in the community. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to the trajectory of our country. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to politics, and Syria, and Healthcare, and Immigration. We see ourselves as Jesus in the story of his entry into Jerusalem, when in reality we are far more like the fickle crowds on the side of the road than anyone else.

And that brings us to Romans 8.

Romans 8 is an unsettling text. Sure, we’ve heard it and used it at funerals; it offers us comfort and hope in the midst of sorrow and loss. It is important for us to declare over and over again that death will not separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

We know this passage. We know it just like we know the story of Palm Sunday. In fact, if you can remember, months ago I asked the congregation to imagine what scripture you would use to comfort someone on death row, and this was the overwhelming favorite.

But these words from Paul can tempt us to forget that it is not just death that threatens to separate us from the love of God. Instead, we imagine the other things in the list to be good: life, angels, rulers, powers, things present, things to come. But all of them can threaten to come between Christ and his church; between God and us.

When we are comfortable, when we can’t imagine our faith requiring us to suffer, the list remains easily ignorable. However, we become true disciples of Jesus when we are willing to take risks, when we are prepared to go against the flow, when we resist the manipulation of those in power. And risks are called risks for a reason: following Jesus is a risky thing to do because it always involves the possibility of rejection.

Many of us know that this week marked the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King stood firm while the waves of the status quo crashed around him. Dr. King called out the principalities and powers for being wrong. Dr. King worked the crowds to a belief in non-violent resistance. And it got him killed.

Here in Staunton, like I said last week, we don’t feel very revolutionary, we don’t equate our faith with taking risks, and we can’t even imagine having to lay down our lives for the sake of the gospel. We can’t imagine ourselves being like Dr. King or questioning what our country is doing in Syria. But if we are serious about following Jesus, we will suffer; it’s just a less glamorous and more mundane form of suffering.

You know, like being mindful of other people; not getting stuck in our own unending bubble; asking hard questions that other people would rather ignore; acting like Jesus; sacrificing our wants and needs; calling someone in the midst of grief; showing up for a funeral when we might have other things to do.

Following Jesus in this place these days might not get us killed. But it might mean reaching out to someone who is totally unlike us. It might mean having a conversation with someone who voted for the other candidate. It might mean asking our spouses to forgive us for what we did. It might mean repenting for the way we spoke to our children or our parents. It might mean confronting our friends about their addictions. It might mean asking for help regarding our addictions.

And in so doing, we will suffer.

But nevertheless (!) nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ! Not a bitter parent who refuses our apology; not an angry child who resents us for a past decision; not a nation who indiscriminately persecutes the poor and the marginalized; not a king or a president or a politician; not standing against the powers that be; not going against the current for a strange and more loving way of life; not anything now; not anything in the future.

We will surely suffer for the sake of the kingdom, but we will never be divided from the Lord. Amen

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God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It

Deuteronomy 23.12-14

You shall have a designated area outside the camp to which you shall go. With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement. Because the Lord your God travels along with your camp, to save you and to hand over your enemies to you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you.

1 Corinthians 14.32-35

And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

 

 

We have a problem. I’m sorry that I have to use the pulpit to bring it up, but this is the best way to reach the highest number of people. We, as a church, have fundamentally broken one of God’s laws and we need to do something about it. We need to pray for forgiveness. We need to seek God’s mercy. And, we should get moving on this issue quickly in order to establish our faithfulness before the Lord.

We need to stop using the church bathrooms.

Now, some of you might be thinking: What in the world? Stop using the bathrooms? We’ve heard him say some strange stuff from the pulpit, but this has to be the strangest!

But scripture is pretty clear. We are supposed to have a designated area, outside the church, where we shall go when nature calls. We are supposed to keep a trowel with us at all times so that when we relieve ourselves outside, we can dig a hole and then cover up our excrement. We need to do this because the Lord is with us when we are in church, therefore this church must be holy and we can’t let the Lord see anything indecent among us.

So, after prayerful consideration, the trustees have voted to permanently close all the bathrooms in the church building, and we will construct some outhouses on the edge of the property for excrement disposal.

Just kidding.

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Have you ever heard someone preach on Deuteronomy 23.12-14? I haven’t, nor have I even encountered it during a bible study. But in the 1880’s, churches and bathrooms were quite the topic of sermonic conversation. The advent of indoor plumbing had arrived and the question about whether or not to have bathrooms in churches started to pop up.

By the logic of the Old Testament, churches were seen just like the Israelite encampments and because of this the same rules about where people could relieve themselves were applied. Many preachers used this argument from their pulpit more than a century ago to fight the growing trend to build bathrooms in churches!

Today, when designing a new church, one of the first questions isn’t what the sanctuary should look like, or what kind of design will enhance the altar, or even how many people can fit in it, but how many bathrooms should there be, and where should they be put.

How do we understand the Word of God? Do we believe that all scriptures have been inspired by God and are useful for teaching? What does it even mean that God inspired the writing of scripture?

Years ago I was invited to participate in a bible study that met once a week. At the time we were going through the gospel of Matthew when one of the women in attendance interrupted with a dilemma for the group. Her son told her that he was thinking about getting a tattoo and she knew that God forbids this kind of behavior in the Old Testament. It was clear that she was looking for approval from the rest of us, but I opened my big mouth and said something like, “Well, I don’t think its that big of a deal” To which she replied, “If God says it in the bible, then the issue has been settled!”

I should have stopped right there, but I couldn’t help myself. “So, you don’t eat pork or shrimp? And you are going to rally the community together to stone your son to death for rebelling against you? And you didn’t mean to wear earrings today because you know the bible forbids them as well?”

This sort of extreme biblical literalism is problematic, and basically impossible. If we try to live by the Word with extreme rigidity, we would not be allowed to wear clothing with blended fabrics, we’d have to completely rethink our diets, working on the Sabbath would get us killed, and men would not be allowed to trim their beards. Ever.

            God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

This is another one of the trite and cliché Christianisms that float around in conversation. When Christians get into an argument about a particular biblical precept, like prohibitions against tattoos or homosexuality, they will take a verse and use it like a weapon against the person they disagree with. God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

But, whether we admit it or not, rarely do we read the bible and think, “Okay, that settles it then.”

Today, no one worries about whether to build a church without a bathroom, we don’t hear preachers belabor biblical dietary restrictions, and we neglect a great number of scriptures while at the same time we use scripture to attack others.

There are all sorts of rules and regulations in scripture that, if we’re honest, we pick and choose to emphasize.

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As we read earlier, Paul is clear in more than one letter that women should not speak in church. And yet, this church had a female pastor for a number of years, and our liturgist this morning just read out loud from the bible! Heaven forbid! A woman speaking in church! Can you believe it?

Of course, some churches still believe that the words about the subordination of women are the gospel truth. In those church, women are not allowed to serve in leadership positions, they are not allowed to teach Bible Studies where men are present, and they are not allowed to serve in any capacity that would require them to speak in front of the congregation.

I’ll tell you right now, this church would not be here if women kept their mouths shut. We are as faithful as we are because the women in our midst have been brave enough to speak what God has placed on their hearts, and because we have listened.

So what are we to do? We can’t just throw out the bible, but at the same time we can’t live by every single word within it.

Like the apostles and disciples before us, we read scripture and we hear God speaking through it. But we also ask questions of it. We consider context. We wonder if God really intended women to remain silent in church. We recognize that things like slavery are counter to God’s will, despite more than 200 verses that support it in the Bible. We don’t preach and teach that having bathrooms inside churches are offensive to God.

We follow Jesus’ example.

Jesus, Son of Man and Son of God, did not adhere to strict biblical literalism. He had different interpretations of the Sabbath restrictions, he had stronger opinions about divorce and adultery, and he regularly disobeyed the Law by eating with those deemed unclean.

Living as a Christian, reading the bible, it’s all about interpretation. And, to be clear, interpretation does not mean to change the text, or to ignore it, but to proclaim it for this time and for this place.

Even the Bibles in our pews are themselves a work of interpretation. Someone, and more often than not some people, made particular choices about how to translate particular words from Hebrew and Greek into English. This might not seem like a big deal, but if you take something like one of the most beloved of all scriptures: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believe in him may not perish but have everlasting life. The word for “perish” in Greek is apollumi which can mean perish, but it can also mean to die, to be destroyed, to be lost, killed, or ruined. Each of these translations can change the meaning of the text slightly, and are therefore a product of interpretation.

So whenever we take up a bible, whenever we flip to a specific passage, the work of interpretation started long before our eyes flow over the English translation. But nevertheless, even the best translations leave us to continue the task of interpretation.

How do we do it? Well, we don’t do it in isolation. We don’t read our bibles in our living rooms never to speak about the words again, we don’t listen to a sermon only to have that be the only time we encounter the words.

We interpret God’s Word in community. We go to bible studies, we send emails to our friends and to our pastor, and we do what we need to do in order to comprehend that which is often incomprehensible.

And we let Jesus help us interpret. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. As the definitive Word, Jesus helps us to understand the words of scripture. We read from the Old and New Testament alike through the lens of Jesus and we begin to wrestle with how these words continue to live and breathe in our lives today.

But that requires a lot more work than “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” It compels us to actually take up our bibles, read them, and talk about them. It challenges us to ask hard questions and produce new ideas. It requires us to believe that this book is in fact the living Word of God and that it continues to speak truth in new and exciting ways, perhaps in ways we cannot even imagine.

This last week has been filled with controversy from the Oval Office. In their first week, the new administration put forth a number of executive orders including a call to begin construction on a wall at our southern border, a gag order for the EPA, and the halting of refugee migration from a number of countries.

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On the same day we celebrate the liberation of the concentration camps in Europe, our country said, “we don’t want them” to people fleeing persecution and destruction.

Now, no one has said that this has been done because of scripture, but the bible should have played a role in the decision if our politicians are going to keep claiming their Christian allegiance.

Moses was a refugee after fleeing from Egypt.

            Ruth was a refugee after her husband died and she followed her mother-in-law to a strange new land.

            The entire Israelite people were refugees in Babylon.

            Jesus, the one we worship here in church, was a refugee. Jesus, like people in the Middle East today, had to flee his home out of fear of violence, persecution, and even death.

And yet, we tout these certain stories from scripture and hold them over people’s heads about behavior and identity. But when we start actively preventing the oppressed from entering the country, we forget all about the story of our Lord and Savior.

People have used this book, with understandings like “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” to attack and belittle people for far too long. It has been used to justify the horrific practice of slavery. It has been used to subjugate and relegate women’s rights. It has been used to rationalize physical violence and aggression toward people of different religions. It has been used to incite fear and terror in those who do not believe. It has been used as a weapon again and again and again.

And now we, the people of God, join together to say “no more!”

“No more!” to the use of scripture like a weapon to oppress the weak and the marginalized. “No more!” to the complacent Christianity that stands idly by as people are attacked for whom they are. “No more!” to the backwards ways of the past that lose sight of God’s grace here and now.

“No more!” to God said it, I believe it, that settles it.