Sunday, March 28, 2010

Where did the Palm Wavers Go?

Rev. Jane Page
Palm Sunday – March 28, 2010
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro

It was Palm Sunday, but because of a sore throat, five year old Johnny stayed home from the local Episcopal Church with his grandmother. When his family returned home, they were carrying several palm fronds. Johnny asked them what they were for.
      "People held them over Jesus' head as he walked by," his father told him.
      "Dang it," Johnny fumed, "the one Sunday I don't go and he shows up."

Well, Johnny really had a pretty good question. What WERE the Palm fronds really for? I did try to do some research to find out the answer to little Johnny’s question. And I got conflicting responses. It seems that the Palm represented something different depending on when it was being waved and who was waving it.

During pre-Christian times, the Palm was a symbol of military victory – especially for the Jews. Jewish historians tell of a revolt of traditional religious Jews, called the Maccabbees who were revolting against the Seleucid (seh–LOO –sid) Empire and their Hellenized Jewish allies. The Maccabbees were especially angry that the government had taken over the temple and installed worship of Greek gods. The Maccabbees guerilla warfare was long but eventually successful. The story is that they marched triumphantly into Jerusalem waving palm fronds as a sign of their military victory.

SO – some interpreters of Christian scriptures share that folks welcoming Jesus were waving Palms because THEY were expecting a Messiah who would lead a military revolt against the Roman government. And the hope was that this charismatic figure called Jesus would be the King that could do just that.

Another source said that Jewish people often waved palms at celebrations. They were especially used at harvest celebrations and represented peace and plenty. But they were waved at other celebrations as well. Hey – they didn’t have balloons back then. So, if you think about it, most of the folks entering Jerusalem were there to celebrate the Passover. Could it be that they happened to have had Palm branches in their hands ANY way – because they were celebrating? Perhaps so!

And then finally, many Christian scholars identify the palm as representing – not military victory – but victory of the faithful believers over the enemies of the soul.

So the answer to little Johnny’s question would depend on which preacher is standing in the pulpit. Since I’m here today, I’ll go with door # 1. If there were Palms, my guess is that the folks were waving them in hopes of being saved from the Romans – not from some spiritual hell.

A second bit of conflicting symbolism related to that little donkey Jesus rode. Now Jesus was a man who walked – he walked everywhere, – as did most folks back then. So WHY ride now? And why ride this iddy biddy colt?

If you study the Christian gospels, you will discover that much was written to coincide with Hebrew Scripture prophesies – like many of the events related to Jesus’ birth. It’s almost like someone took all these prophesies and composed a story that seemed to “fit” – although sometimes the fit was like putting the square peg in the round hole, but nevertheless, it gets in there. And then the writer even says: “This was done to fulfill the prophesy.” The Jews (or at least some of them) had been looking for a messiah for some time – and these Christian gospels seemed to be written, at least partially, to proclaim – hey, Jesus is the man. Now in the reading from John that you heard earlier, the writer quotes a prophesy that says: “Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey's colt." I did a little background research and found this prophesy in chapter 9 of Zachariah – a minor prophet book in the Old Testament that declares visions of horrible destruction followed by wonderful celebrations of the Jewish people after defeating all their enemies. This chapter ends with the following prediction: “How attractive and beautiful they will be! Grain will make the young men thrive, and new wine the young women.” No wonder the crowd got excited! So one obvious reason for Jesus riding the donkey would be because he was well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures, and WANTED people to draw the conclusion that he was the prophesized messiah.

Now some say that Jesus intentionally rode in on this donkey to humble himself. These bible interpreters claim that most leaders would be riding in on a horse – not a slow pokey donkey. And this little donkey – never ridden before – was to convey a message of humility. In any case, I’m sure that if Jesus did arrive on the slow pokey donkey – some might have been disappointed. I know that feeling myself. After the last presidential election, I was hoping for our leader to ride in on a horse called CHANGE – and boldly cleanse our land of evils like “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” “a broken health care system,” “an unfair tax structure,” and certainly, “unnecessary wars.” Instead, I’ve had to adjust to this donkey ride – but hopefully, we’ll get there folks.

Although there are some discrepancies in the three gospels that tell this story, they all have jubilant crowds praising Jesus as he nears the city. One of the gospels, however, also includes some verses that indicate Jesus’ realization that these crowds obviously had not heard his teachings. In Luke, the writer shares that when this jubilant parade was nearing the end at Jerusalem, Jesus wept. Luke 19: 41-42 states: “As Jesus drew near to the city of Jerusalem he wept over it saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace!! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” So while the people were very joyous on this day, Jesus himself was said to be crying. The writer of Luke said he cried for Jerusalem. But one also has to wonder if he didn’t cry for himself, for Jesus likely knew that the end was near. He was seen by the establishment as one who did not follow their rules and who openly criticized them, and he had attracted a huge following. That scared the folks who had been in the more privileged groups of authority. And we know – even looking today – what can happen when folks are fearful that they may lose their power. We’ve been witnessing some mighty ugly interactions up in Washington lately, much of it based on fear – and perhaps greed.

So Jesus was sad – and he wept. After he entered the city, he also experienced some other very difficult emotions. When he visited the temple, he realized that the temple he had loved had turned into a den of thieves – with moneychangers using their positions to take advantage of the poor religious folks who came to make their required sacrifices. We usually refer to Jesus as one who was “meek and mild.” But according to the gospels, that is not the Jesus that entered the temple that day. He was furious! He threw out the merchants and those selling the doves for sacrifice and overturned their tables. Now some scholars tell us that this story is probably metaphorical – with the temple representing Israel and the moneychangers representing the established religious order. Perhaps so! But since we are telling this as a story – anyway – that may or may not be true – anyway, let’s include the angry Jesus.

When I was presenting UU 101 (an orientation to Unitarian Universalism) recently, one of our newer folks who had visited just a couple of times asked me about one of the songs they had heard us singing. The song was “We are a Gentle, Angry, People.” And it was just surprising to this person that we would claim our anger. I explained the context in which the song had been written. Holly Near wrote this song after the 1978 assassination of Harvey Milk – the openly gay San Francisco politician. Like the crowd that gathered in the streets of San Francisco that night, sometimes we gentle folks ARE angry. And that’s okay if we manage it well and channel it in the right direction. So Jesus got angry. Now, I’m not going to claim that Jesus managed his anger very well that day. He probably could have done a little better. But in any case, when he took action, he really made those in authority mad – and fearful – and he probably sealed his fate for sure.

When Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples, he experienced lots of other emotions – including love and compassion for his disciples as he gently washed their feet. And I’m sure extreme disappointment as he acknowledged that he knew his betrayer. Later that night in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus experienced frustration with his disciples for falling asleep, anguish as he contemplated his fate, fear as he begged his Heavenly Father for some possibility for escape. And then…. And then…..

There was another crowd – another huge crowd here in this city that had welcomed Jesus with Hosanna’s and Palm branches just a few days before. But this crowd was not jubilant – this was an angry mob, calling out with the encouragement of the high priests, “Crucify him.” “Crucify him.”

And the title of my sermon is: Where did the Palm Wavers Go? How did songs of praise turn into shouts calling for torture and death? Of course another question is: are these the same people? Maybe the Palm Wavers left the city – all hiding out, like many of Jesus disciples were doing. And maybe those who had stayed away from Jesus’ jubilant entry because they were not fans of Jesus – now turned out to demand his death. That is very possible. But there are probably others who just joined both crowds and were swayed by others to behave with the crowd in both instances.

When I was a young teenager, my mom used to warn me about “the crowd.” She would say – “Now Jane, be careful not to just go along with the crowd.” Well, I took her advice. And here I am. And I would probably bet that most of you sitting here are not easily caught up with crowd mentality – or you probably wouldn’t be here, where we are all pretty independent thinkers. But it even happens with us now and then, doesn’t it? We just want to go along with a different crowd. I want to shop at the farmer’s market, and buy second hand clothes, and drive a hybrid, and come to church here! I hope that I’m doing those things because it’s the right thing to do, - but I also have to admit that I like being with like-minded folks and doing things that like-minded folks do! And that’s okay, as long as I monitor the reasons I’m involved in certain activities and make sure that I’m weighing out whether or not these activities are really the best things for me to do.

The last couple of weeks, I’ve been studying lots of social psychology – specifically related to crowd psychology, herd psychology, collective behavior, crowd manipulation, etc. And I found that scholars are not in agreement about a lot of this – and in fact, many of the theories that were popular in the 19th and early 20th century related to things like “group think,” are now being debunked by others. So I’m not going to go into a lot of specifics on any one of these with you. But I will share a summary of the three major theories and you can see how each of these might present an explanation of the crowds in Jesus’ day and in ours as well.

(Note: The following in italics is quoted from -

The first theory is:
Contagion Theory - the Contagion Theory was formulated by Gustave Le Bon. According to him, crowds exert a hypnotic influence over their members. Shielded by their anonymity, large numbers of people abandon personal responsibility and surrender to the contagious emotions of the crowd…. Le Bon's Theory, although one of the earliest explanations of crowd behavior, is still used by many people. However, critics argue that the "collective mind" has not been documented by systematic studies.

The second theory is:
Convergence Theory - whereas the Contagion Theory states that crowds cause people to act in a certain way, Convergence theory states that people who want to act in a certain way come together to form crowds. It asserts that people with similar attributes find other like-minded persons with whom they can release underlying tendencies…..

And finally, the third theory is:
Emergent-Norm Theory - according to Ralph Turner and Lewis Killian, crowds begin as collectivities composed of people with mixed interests and motives. Especially in the case of less stable crowds—expressive, acting and protest crowds—norms may be vague and changing, as when one person decides to break the glass windows of a store and others join in and begin looting merchandise. In short, people in crowds make their own rules as they go along. And this theory may explain some of the crowd behavior in Jerusalem that week.

Though the Contagion Theory does seem less evolved, I think it’s certainly still valid in some situations. If everyone starts to get up and head out to the dance floor, there are some of us that want to go out there too – and be a part of that crowd. It is a bit contagious. Sometimes you want to be where others are. And now with modern technology – we see the same thing happening. I actually watched some of the super bowl this year – even though I had not watched a single NFL game all year – and didn’t even know who was IN this super bowl till the day before it aired. But in front of the TV was the place to be that Sunday night – and I felt compelled to at least look at some of it. Similarly, we are seeing some of the crowd convergence theory on social networking – where there are groups forming to SEE if they can find thousands of like-minded folks who are fans of someone or who favor health care or who prefer a poodle with a tin hat over Glenn Beck. Now most of us like it when there are lots of others who join our group. (By the way, we have 90 members of our UUFS Facebook group!) One concern related to social networking is the recent phenomenon of the “flash mob.” I heard on the news last night that teenagers in Philadelphia are twittering one another and deciding to meet up downtown – just to act out and misbehave in huge numbers. But, I don’t think most of US join a group or organization because there are lots of others in it. We join the group because it’s meaningful to us. We join the group because we seek community. We, we need community! But most of us do NOT need a crowd. And I dare say – Jesus did not NEED a crowd. In fact, he often tried to get AWAY from the crowd. But he did need community. And his community failed him.

On that fateful Friday as he hung from that cross – where were the Palm wavers then? Where were even his closest disciples? Who was there for him? According to Christian scriptures, his crowd of supporters had disappeared – replaced by the curious and those who enjoyed macabre events like crucifixion. It was too hot for the Palm wavers and disciples – and they left the kitchen. Well, at least according to the three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Now the writer of John places the three Marys there and John as well. So we don’t really know for sure who was there – but certainly not most of those who were supposedly his closest community.

Now, it’s easy for us to criticize the disciples – yet – how many of us are guilty of the same thing. We can hang there when things are going well, but sometimes we find other reasons to absent ourselves when things become more difficult. Can you think of a situation where you have done that? ………………….. Most of us can if we are honest with ourselves. We’ll wave the Palms – thank you very much! But don’t ask us to be there with the pain and suffering. (Now, of course, I’m not speaking of those situations where we must leave to protect our families, ourselves, or our sanity. – Okay?)

Yes, in that old, old, gospel story, Jesus wept that day when he entered Jerusalem – for he knew his message of peace had not been heard and the end was near. And on that cross –forsaken by his community – he cried; he cried out – “My God, my God – why has thou forsaken me?” Is it any wonder he felt forsaken by God when others were not there?

When I was working on this sermon earlier this week, I was also planning to go with two of you to a Brunswick hospital yesterday to represent all of you and be with one of our members who now lives in Florida. Jessie’s doctor was planning some surgery in an effort to prolong her life a bit longer. However, I found out Friday the doctor had decided against the surgery. So we postponed our trip to the next time she travels from Florida to Brunswick for treatment. Now, we will not be going to bring some miracle of healing to this dear friend. We are just going there to hold her hand a bit and say, we do love you – and we have not forsaken you. And though we may have miles between us now that you have moved to Florida, you and your love remain in our hearts – even when you depart. I encourage those of you who know Jessie to send her a card sharing your care and love.

No, we don’t need a crowd of Palm wavers – but we all need a few hand palm wavers to say, “Hey – I see you, and I care.” Do you know of someone you need to wave to today – perhaps with a phone call or card or email? Is there someone here in this congregation who could use a hug today? You can get one here.

You know we folks have different theologies and beliefs. But as UU martyr Francis David said, “We do not have to think alike to love alike.” So wave your hand palms at folks today. Let them know that you see them, you are there… you care.

Oh, may it be so!