April 18, 2014

Why the Change in the Crowd?

Palm Sunday Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest!” Matthew 21:8-9

22″What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!”

23″Why? Whatcrime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” Matthew 27:22-23

(Originally posted May, 2008)

What a difference a week makes! In one week, the people have gone from shouting “Hosanna” to shouting “Crucify him!” Unfortunately, in almost every sermon I have heard on the topic, the pastor gets it wrong. (Not picking on any particular pastor here, I have heard this preached badly six or seven times.) The Pastor assumes that the crowd in Matthew 21 is the same as the crowd in Matthew 27. But this is not the case.

In Matthew 19 we find Jesus way north of Jerusalem, in Galilee, his home turf so to speak. This was where Jesus had grown up, based his ministry, and performed most of his miracles. Like most others he starts to make his way south to celebrate the passover in Jerusalem.

First he heads down to Judea, to the far side of the Jordan (possibly on the route that skirted Samaria.) He crosses back over the Jordan into Jericho, which we find him leaving in Matthew 20. He arrives at Bethpage and Bethany which he makes as his headquarters for Passover week (Matthew 21 & 26). Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims, and Jesus did what many others did who lived outside the immediate area, they slept in the towns surrounding Jerusalem, and then came into Jerusalem for the events of each day.

So when Jesus has his triumphal entry that we read about in Matthew 21, he is surrounded by his supporters from the north. They had also camped outside the city and were also coming in for the day.

In Jerusalem awaits the political elite, the leaders of the temple, who are quite happy with their lifestyle and the degree of autonomy that they have under Roman rule. Someone who might upset their applecart would need to be dealt with quickly.

So what does Jesus do? He drives the money changers and sellers from the temple, directly challenging the leadership of the temple. Then he heads back to Bethany for the night.

He comes back in the next morning, curses the fig tree on the way in, and then spends the day telling parables that insult the chief priests and pharisees. It is then that they decide to arrest him (Matthew 21:45-46). Note that the passage says that they were afraid to arrest him because of the crowd.

Christ continues to clash with the teachers of the law and the pharisees in Mattew 22 & 23. Jesus continues to teach in Matthew 24 & 25 and heads back to Bethany where we find him again in Mattew 26.

Meanwhilethe chief priests and elders meet to plot against Jesus.

3Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of

the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4and they plotted to arrest Jesus in

some sly way and kill him. 5″But not during the Feast,” they said, “or there may

be a riot among the people.” Matthew 26: 3-5

Notice that the plot involved getting Jesus away from his followers. That is the ones who camped outside the city.

Jesus comes back into town to pray on the Mount of Olives at night. It is at the Garden of Gethsemene that he is arrested at night (Matthew 26:47). Jesus himself comments (verse 55) that he was in the temple all day, why didn’t they arrest him then? Why, because his supporters were all in the temple area during the day!

He is immediately taken before the sanhedrin for his first trial. Again, this was still in the middle of the night, and the sanhedrin had gathered for the express purpose of getting rid of Jesus.

Matthew 27 opens by saying that “early in the morning” he was taken before Pilate. It is when he is before Pilate that the crowd shouts “crucify him”.

This is not the same crowd that shouted “Hosanna”. The “Hosanna” crowd are still camped outside the city or making their way in. The “Crucify crowd” is made up of the priests, elders, and pharisees, and those that they have assembled, who wanted nothing to do with Jesus and just want him out of the way.

So why the change in the crowd? Two different crowds. The second crowd planted at a time when the first crowd could not be there.

So why does this matter?

What struck me about this story is that the chief priests, temple leaders, and pharisees represented what society would have considered to be among the most spiritual people in society. Yet these people were the ones that were most threatened by the new wave of the Spirit that had come in the form of Jesus Christ. It is a natural inclination to be suspicious of change, to be resistant to ideas that might threaten your place in society, and to be wary of a new religious movement.

Then I thought of us today in our churches. Are we suspicious, resistant, and wary of new things. Do we like things just the way they are? “If it ain’t broke. Don’t fix it.” Over the last couple of years I have heard a couple of astute church leaders suggest that if the congregation is quite happy with the status quo, then some faith stretching exercises are in order. What happens when a new Pastor comes into our church (I am speaking generically here) and suggests that significant change is necessary in order for the church to move beyond its plateaued state? Are we part of the crowd that shouts “Hosanna!”, or are we part of the crowd that shouts “Crucify him!”

That is not to say that resistance to change is necessarily wrong.  I do think however it is important for us to examine ourselves, and make sure we are responding with the right motivations.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Holy Thursday at the Tea Party

mad_hatter_teapartySometimes, I’ve got nothing.

Nothing to write about. No insightful words to impart. No interesting metaphors to spark the imagination. No provocative prose, no poetry to prime the pump. I’m sitting and trying to think, but everything is fuzzy, my mind full of inchoate thoughts, like bats fluttering around in an attic.

I get the sense that these are auspicious days, that we have important things to talk about, that if we don’t we might miss the moment and the parade will have passed us by. But I’m blank, bleary, and “I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore” (Paul Simon).

I’m like the disciples on Thursday evening.

There I am, in the upper room — right there mind you — but I haven’t a clue about what’s going on.

Jesus is washing our feet (what?) and Peter is complaining (of course!).

We recline around the table and though the tension is palpable, no one can seem to put a finger on it.

Between bites Jesus is saying something about going away.

There are whispered conversations between him and individual disciples.

Every now and then I suspect covert signals are being passed, but I’m apparently outside the loop.

John leans over and whispers to the Master.

Judas leaves the room.

I keep hearing mysterious words and combinations of words, like body and bread, paracletes and orphans, branches and vines, wine and blood, joy and tribulation, judgment and the ruler of this world — what in the world is Jesus talking about?

To see him is to see the Father?

To be hated by the world is to be loved by the Father?

For Jesus to go away is better than to have him with us?

I’m in over my head and feel as clueless as Alice at a tea party.

Alice_in_Wonderland_by_Arthur_Rackham_-_08_-_A_Mad_Tea-PartyThe Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he SAID was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

`Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. `I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, `that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, `that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’

`It IS the same thing with you,’ said the Hatter, and here the conversation dropped, and the party sat silent for a minute, while Alice thought over all she could remember about ravens and writing-desks, which wasn’t much.

I suppose it will all make sense eventually.

I suppose I’ll find words to articulate this fog.

Maybe tomorrow, on Friday, things will be clearer.

Church: Not Where We “Find God”

BrightAbyssGeoffrey Hill:

What is there in my heart that you should sue
so fiercely for its love?
What kind of care
brings you as though a stranger to my door
through the long night and in the icy dew

seeking the heart that will not harbor you,
that keeps itself religiously secure?

- from “Lachrimae Amantis”

Religiously secure. A brilliant phrase, and not simply because it suggests the radical lack of security, the disruption of ordinary life that a turn toward Christ entails, but also this: for some people, and probably for all people for some of the time, religion, church, the whole essential but secondary edifice that has grown out of primary spiritual experience — all this is the last place in the world where they are going to find God, who is calling for them in the everyday voices of other people, other sufferings and celebrations, or simply in the cellular soul of what is…

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer
- Christian Wiman

* * *

One great misconception about the Church is that is to be the place where people go to “find God.” It is natural to think this way in a consumer society, where it seems you can always go somewhere to find what you’re looking for. The Church is the place to go to find God.

Except — everything in the Bible protests against that notion. For God is Creator of the world, the Giver and Sustainer of life. In him we live and move and have our being, and he is not far from any of us. The idea that there are particular places where we go to access God, specific places where God “lives,” waiting for us to come and find him, is the essence of idolatry not genuine faith.

For spiritual seekers, churches and faith communities function (or should function) more like signposts, pointing their neighbors to the God who made them, who knows them, who is at work already in their lives, and who loves the ordinariness of their daily worlds every bit as much as he delights to hear praises in the sanctuary.

For people of faith, who have found a home in the Church, this means learning to view our gatherings as only a small part of the story. For God is with us, close to us, speaking and working as much when we scatter into our communities to work and play as he is when we come together. We do not “leave the world” to “come into God’s presence.” I am not denying that there is something special about how God meets his people in worship, especially in the Word and Sacraments, but I am protesting the common assumption that our services are somehow more “sacred” than our daily lives.

Unfortunately, local churches try to make hay on this bad theology all the time. In fact, they go further than calling people to “the Church” to find God. They then identify what is happening in their particular congregations and church programs with God’s presence and activity. That in turn unleashes the tendency to compare and compete with other churches, and the message easily becomes: God is here in a way that he is not in other congregations. Come here = find God. Go there = be disappointed (and risk your soul!)

All of which guarantees that Christian Wiman’s words will be verified. Church is the last place in the world where many people are going to find God.

Before you jump all over me (or Wiman) for promoting a kind of spirituality without religion and encouraging people to abandon the Church for a fuzzy, undefined “personal faith,” please know that Wiman dismisses that notion as a “modern muddle of gauzy ontologies and piecemeal belief.” He commends definite beliefs and practices as necessary, steady spots from which we may glimpse the truth, give some form to the mysteries of life and faith, and withstand the sufferings that threaten to uproot us. I agree, but religious practices, such as involvement in a church, are meant to enrich our lives, not take over our lives.

My big point is simply this: we don’t really find God anywhere but in life itself. Real life. Daily life. Not just “church life.”

If any church tries to tell you God is present in some special way among them and you need to go there to find him, smile politely but shake the dust off your feet. Hard.

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Saturday Ramblings, April 12, 2014

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