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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Folks Like Us: Faces in the Crowd


2007-04-01 Luke 19:28-40

“Folks Like Us: Faces In the Crowd” (Palm Sunday)

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

We're starting a sermon series for April called, “Folks Like Us.” Each week, we'll study a person or a group of people from the Easter story to see what they have in common with us. Or, what they don't have in common, in some cases. Looking ahead, I can tell you that one of the people we won't be directly comparing ourselves with is Jesus. But I can assure you we will be talking about Jesus, just not as one of the people in the Easter story who are “Folks Like Us.” That may seem obvious – we're not like Jesus, Jesus isn't like us – that may seem obvious, but the easiest sin in the world (right after lust) is idolatry. Idolatry is when we picture ourselves to be more like Jesus, more like God, than we have any right to. Or, the other way around, idolatry is when we take pictures of Jesus and Photoshop our face onto his. But there are people in the Easter story we could be superimposed onto, without a lot of difference. Because just like us, the people who interacted with Jesus were normal (whatever that means to you). They're Folks Like Us. The better we know who they are, the better we'll know who we are. And the better we know who we are, the better we'll know how much we need Jesus to be better than we are.


We've got two gospel lessons today. The first lesson is from Luke, chapter 19, where Jesus enters Jerusalem like a king. Everyone's shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” The second lesson is from the same book, Luke, but four chapters later, in chapter 23, when Jesus is condemned like a criminal. This time, everyone's shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” Welcomed like a king; condemned like a criminal. Four chapters. Same Jesus. Same people. Different shout.

We all know this is how folks can be. Especially when there's a big crowd, when they get in a mob mentality. We see this a lot at sporting events. You get a hundred thousand of your closest friends together, everybody yelling the same thing. Your emotions go up and down like a yo-yo. (“We're up by 20 points at halftime! Yea!!!” “We lose by one point in regulation. Aww.”) Even if the sport's, like, cricket, you get the whole crowd screaming (and at cricket a crowd's, what, fourteen?) - you get a crowd of screaming people and even if you don't know who's playing, even if you don't know anything about the sport, you get caught up in the frenzy. Is that what happened between chapters 19 and 23? Did following our Lord turn into sport?

I've heard the Palm Sunday scripture preached this way. In fact, I think I might have preached it this way. If I have, I'm sorry. You probably forgot it really fast, anyway. Because that interpretation's very superficial. It's safe. Of course crowds are fickle. You don't need the Bible to tell you that. It's easy – too easy -- to point the finger of shame at the crowds in the Bible and say, “Well, if we'd been there, things would have been different.” Just as it's easy to point a finger at the flow of today's society and say, “Shame on you!” As if the force of the crowd is responsible for all our problems. The Democrats say it's the Republicans. The Republicans say it's the Democrats. The Christians say it's the Muslims. The Muslims say it's the Christians. Everyone's blaming the other side for everything that's bad. Until something good happens. Then every side wants credit. It shouldn't be any surprise that all it takes is four chapters for the crowds shouting, “Hosanna!” to start shouting, “Crucify!” because we do it all the time. Crowds are crowds. The lesson there is that if you're waiting on the crowd to point out the Messiah, you'd better be really, really careful. Because this week's king is next week's criminal. And vice versa. You may find yourself worshiping Barabbas while the real Son of God is hanging on a cross. When the only face of faith is the face of the crowd, ask yourself – are you shouting what you believe? Or are you just shouting because of everyone else?

OK. Here's where I think – I hope – the sermon's going to go beneath the superficial this time. If I don't get it right today, we'll try again next year. The story of Palm Sunday is in all four of the Gospels – it's in Matthew, Mark, John, and the telling of the story we read today, Luke. In the other three Gospels, the people parading around Jesus, shouting “Hosanna!” are referred to as, “the crowds.” In the other tellings, they're just the random crowds that made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover. Only in Luke, he calls them what we read from the Bible today. Luke calls the people not “the crowds,” but, “disciples.” Luke calls the people of Palm Sunday, “disciples.” What does that mean for us?

Think about the whole story of Jesus' teaching. He was always asking the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” He was always trying to teach his disciples who he was. And even in the times when they got the answer right, like when Peter said, “You are the Messiah,” even then, there was always this disconnect between the words and the understanding. It's like the rule of the Children's Sermon – no matter what the question, the right answer's always, “Jesus.” Just keep saying, “Jesus,” and it'll make the preacher happy. Now, remember, these are the disciples who are trying to figure out who Jesus is. These are the people who should have known, the ones who walked and talked and shared meals with him. Even when they get the answer right, they still don't know what it means. It's just words. And if you don't understand what you're saying, the distance between “Hosanna!” and “Crucify!” is very, very small. Even for the disciples.

We are here – you, me – we're all here because we've heard about Jesus. We're not just a random, fickle crowd that happened to assemble at the corner of Montlake and Maloney at 10:45 on Sunday morning. We're here because we believe - or we want to believe, or we just want to learn more about - the Jesus Christ we call our Lord. In other words, we're disciples. The good news is, we're disciples. The bad news is, even the disciples of the Bible don't get it anywhere near 100% right 100% of the time. Defining disciples by scripture, we're all a lot closer to the other end of the scale. We don't know what to say. We don't know who this Jesus is. We have some clues, but our words, our knowledge, our understanding still falls so painfully short. Standing before God, we feel so painfully dumb. We can go from loving God, to being angry at God, to doubting God's existence so quickly. In our hearts we praise Jesus, and then crucify Jesus about a hundred times in the space of a week. And why? Because we're evil, fickle people? No. Because we're disciples.

I was talking with one of our folks last week who had recently gone to take a meal to the Owens. If you're new to worship here and you don't know the Owens, their daughter, Caroline, who's now 21, had a car accident and a Traumatic Brain Injury. She's recovering at Patricia Neal Rehab Center and our church takes her mom and dad a meal every night. Anyway, I was talking with one of our folks and she was saying that she arrived at the room and it just so happened that Susan and David were out the room, which is rare. But Caroline was there, sitting up in her chair, awake. So our member sat down and tried to have a conversation with Caroline, which is hard because Caroline can't really speak or respond to what we would call a normal conversation yet. And so the member was telling me she didn't know what words to say, and she felt really dumb. She knows I visit people in similar situations and asked me if I had any advice. And before I really knew what I was saying, I just blurted out, “I think I've just gotten more comfortable feeling dumb.”

Here we are, disciples. In our prayers and in our praise, trying to talk to Jesus, trying to talk to God, trying to talk to someone we know, we hope, we believe is there – trying to talk to someone we know, we hope, we believe understands us – but someone who doesn't respond in the same ways as you or I might in a conversation. We believe Jesus knows us, understands us, loves us – but it's so hard to know if we're getting our words anywhere near right. One day we say this, one day we say that – and if only Jesus would give us a clear sign back, then we'd know, but we don't. Not yet. So the choice is not to show up, not to try to talk to him. Or to do our best and just try to get more comfortable feeling dumb.

Jesus prayed for all his disciples, for all the crowds, “Father, forgive them; for the do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Did he ever get that right. But he didn't pray that prayer from the safety of heaven; he prayed it from the cross. Where our feeble words and minds fail, God's love prevails. Even at the rock bottom of our dumbness and our mixed up words and lives, even there Jesus prays for us. Even the stuff we get so incredibly wrong, Jesus makes right.

Those faces in the crowd are folks like us. On Palm Sunday, and on Good Friday. The voices in the crowd are voices like ours in this fickle, confusing world of 2007. The Bible tells us God's never going to get comfortable with that. And so we have Easter. God sets us free from the graves of our own stupidity. God sets us free to be disciples in the most hopeful sense of the word. Jesus doesn't call us to get everything right. Jesus doesn't call us to make everything right. Jesus calls us to be disciples. Choose to be a disciple. And let God make you right.