Monroe Congregational Church, U.C.C.
April 8, 2001 - Pastor Diane Schmitz
Once upon a time a spider built a beautiful web in an old house. He kept it clean and shiny so that flies would patronize it. The minute he got a "customer" he would clean up on him so the other flies would not get suspicious. Then one day this fairly intelligent fly came buzzing by the clean spider web. Old man spider called out, "Come in and sit." But the fairly intelligent fly said, "No, sir. I don't see other flies in your house, and I am not going in alone!"
But presently he saw on the floor below a large crowd of flies dancing around on a piece of brown paper. He was delighted! He was not afraid if lots of flies were doing it. So he came in for a landing. Jut before he landed, a bee zoomed by, saying, "Don't land there, stupid! That's flypaper!" But the fairly intelligent fly shouted back, "Don't be silly. Those flies are dancing. There's a big crowd there. Everybody's doing it. That many flies can't be wrong!"
Well, you know what happened. He died on the spot. Some of us want to be with the crowd so badly that we end up in a mess. What does it profit a fly (or a person) if she escapes the web only to end up in the glue?
Crowds: we all experience them, at a baseball game, a college graduation, the Seafair parade or during a WTO convention, or a Mardi Gras celebration.
Webster's dictionary describes a crowd as a large number of people gathered together. "Large" can be a bit nebulous. Twelve people in an elevator could be quite a crowd. Twelve people on the floor of the Key Arena are nothing. We all know how large marches held in our nation's capital get assessed at quite different numbers depending on who is doing the assessing.
We all have different perspectives about what makes a crowd. I imagine there were some people living on Lewis Street who looked out their window this morning to figure out where the bagpipe music was coming from. They may have been curious about the "crowd" of people parading along the street; they may have thought we were very strange. Or if they have lived here a few years they might say, "Oh, that's the church crowd doing the Palm Sunday Procession."
Different experiences give us different perspectives.
This morning we heard the familiar story of Jesus entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey with the crowd shouting, "Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"
I imagine other people there saying different things: "Who is that strange guy anyway and why are people following him and his donkey?" The high priests muttering: "There he is again, stirring up trouble." The Roman soldiers exchanging conversation: "This man is a threat; we must see he is removed." A child: "Look, mommy, how kind his eyes look." Some rebellious teenagers: "Hey, look's like something's brewing, let's go check it out." A street cleaner, detached from what is occurring but impatient for the processional to end: "Oh, we're going to have a mess cleaning up after this crowd."
There were people with agendas: "Finally we have a king to rally our troops." "O good, now that he's here he can do some more miracles." "At last we can overthrow our oppressors and restore David's throne." The disciples were not immune to their own agendas; they were excited to see what they viewed as a successful outcome to this movement they had joined.
All these expectations and here comes Jesus on a colt moving slowly with the people beside him. No chariot pulled by magnificent stallions, no security guards keeping the crowd away, no priestly robes, or galloping down the road with a quick kingly wave towards the people.
"Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." Palm branches and hallelujahs.
Five days later another crowd gathers: "Crucify him!" "Crucify him!" Stones and nails and wooden crosses.
It would be convenient and comforting to assure us that this second crowd was a totally different crowd than those who watched him enter Jerusalem. But, in fact, it's likely there were many of the same people present in both crowds. If, as we learn later, Jesus' own disciple, Peter, three times denied his relationship with Jesus, surely there were others who turned their blessings into curses.
The process of blessings turning into curses is one that is still prevalent among us today. Here is a story:
Janine is a minister. Raised as a Roman Catholic, she first told her parents she wanted to be a priest when she was 4. She forced her brother to play church using cups of juice and saltine crackers to celebrate communion.
After working as a lay professional in the Catholic Church for 10 years she left to join another mainline denomination, which accepted women as ministers. After several intense years of study at a seminary in California she received her first call. "I was so excited I couldn't settle down for days," she recalled. A medium-sized church in Oregon welcomed her into their community.
A member there was charmed by Janine at their very first meeting: "Janine is the kind of person who exudes a warmth and caring that envelopes you the first time you meet her; she's a blessing." The families in the church were impressed by her commitment to the children and how she wisely but firmly counseled their teenagers. "What I recall most about her is the passion of her sermons," said another member. "I would leave church inspired to be a faithful Christian."
For three years Janine was pastor of the church. For three years she broke bread with her congregation and supported them in their sorrow and celebrated with them their joys. "The wedding Janine did for my grandchild was so beautiful," said a long-time member. "She was of such comfort when my wife died," said another.
It was a contented church community. But, Janine was not content for she lived in a world of "don't ask, don't tell." Janine was a lesbian and finally the pain of holding that secret was too much. Even though her denomination did not allow gay and lesbian clergy, she could no longer live a hidden life. She told the congregation of her sexuality and about the partner with which she had had a committed relationship for several years. She stood firmly by her belief that God had called her to be a minister.
That's all it took to turn some of the blessings into curses. In a matter of days a petition began circulating to oust her from the church. Janine was shocked to see some of the names of it; these were people who had praised her. She asked one parishioner about it. "Oh, Janine, I didn't know what to do," he said. "Harry said we would be rejecting our faith if we did not reject you." "But, what do you think?" she asked him. "All I know is you are a wonderful pastor," he replied, "but, Harry, well you know Harry."
Harry was a long-time member of the church wielding considerable power. His background as a Navy officer had contributed to his authoritative manner when speaking with others. Immediately after he heard the news he called a couple of other members who, along with him, yielded strong influence in the church. They decided to forego the normal committee processes because this was a crisis. "I hardly know how it all happened," said one member later. "All of a sudden it seemed as if everything was decided; I said some things in your defense but it's like Harry and Jane just pulled the crowd along with them." She shook her head. "They said some hateful things, some things that no Christian should say."
Blessings into curses. A few people inciting a crowd mentality. People who know better unable to find the courage to do the right thing. Powerful people abusing their power.
Fairly intelligent people like the fairly intelligent fly are still easily swayed by the persuasiveness of the group mentality - whether the group is 5 people, 500 or 5,000. If everyone is doing it, it must be okay. If most people believe it, it must be right. If no one else is disagreeing then my argument must not be valid. Everyday we compromise ourselves by making accommodations to fit in more easily with the crowd.
It's difficult to stand-alone; it's challenging to confront the majority. But, that is the model Jesus gave us as he approached Jerusalem on a mission that was guided by God not by the crowds. He could easily have manipulated the crowd in various ways. He could have reassured those who feared him in order to save his own life. He could have refused to go to Jerusalem where the power of who he was would provide such a threat to others they could not let him live. He could have acquiesced to the strivings of those who wanted him to be the kind of king they envisioned.
But, Jesus had never been a crowd follower and he had a different vision. He refused to fight against the Romans. He ate with sinners. He honored women. He cared for the outcasts and the poor. He healed the sick that others would not come near. He challenged the rich and taught the radical concept of forgiving our enemies. These were not crowd-pleasing choices in the times Jesus lived. They are often not crowd-pleasing choices today.
Where are we in the crowds today?
Who are we following?
These are Holy Week questions. As we journey through this week may we be more than a simple onlooker to the proceedings or a mindless participant because "we've done this many times before." May we be more than merely curious? May we boldly empty ourselves of our crowd mentality and crowd-pleasing ways so as to follow Jesus through dark valleys and strong fears in order to be resurrected into a new life. Amen.
*Spider and fly story by Charles Swindoll, "Living Above the Level of Mediocrity."