Friday, March 26, 2010

Palm Sunday

This sermon is based on a reflection by Martyn Percy in “Darkness Yielding”, Liturgies, prayers and reflections for Advent, Christmas, Holy Week and Easter, Cairns Publications, Dwylan UK, 2001.

A while ago I happened to see some old footage of a Suzi Quatro concert.  For those who don’t know, Suzi was the original 1970s rock chick, the diminutive leather-clad crazy-wild blonde with a bass guitar and a big-decibel voice.  I checked her biography the other day and found she’s turning 60 this year - apparently still singing, too.  Back then, in the 70s, Suzi epitomised everything that was wild and exciting and dangerous about rock music.  The fact that she was only about five foot nothing just made her even badder.  Anyway, I happened to see this video clip of Suzi Quatro performing in her high-octane days.  She was absolutely alone on stage - no backing band, no giant-size screens either side or whizz-bang laser-lights, just Suzi and an amplifier turned up so high it must have been shattering windows a mile away.  Just Suzi, belting out some grungy rock ballad with her bass guitar - and about ten thousand fans going absolutely wild with delight.

I realised this pocket-diva knew a thing or two about working a crowd.  She started out quiet, barely a whisper, and she reeled them in with a couple of bars of something sweet and tuneful.  Of course they knew what was coming.  As soon as she’d got them humming along, bodies swaying, looking mellow, then she belted them between the eyes with a wall of noise pounded out wave after wave from an epicentre of sheer physical fury.

Psychologists find crowd behaviour fascinating.  The oldest theorists on crowd behaviour, like Sigmund Freud, all noticed the depersonalising effect, the stripping of inhibitions, and Freud thought we tend to revert to animal behaviour in a crowd.  Modern theorists think it’s a bit more complicated than that - certainly the emotions of a crowd tend to be pretty basic - just joy, fear or anger - and fairly unflatteringly psychologists can’t distinguish much difference between a crowd celebrating a nail-biting win at a soccer match from the religious fervour of a charismatic revival meeting.  Crowd behaviour seems to follow a sort of spontaneous problem-solving logic - individual actors switch from being followers to leaders, from heroes to villains, becoming the focus either of copycat behaviour or reprisals as the crowd tests out various strategies for survival or solidarity. The one basic, or course, is that crowd behaviour is unstable, uncontrollable, creative, fluid and chaotic.

Like Suzi, Jesus knows how to work a crowd.  You get the picture that he knows how to work an audience. In his teaching he uses humour, he engages his listeners’ emotions. He is persuasive. His stories keep thousands of people listening way past lunchtime. He knows the techniques of storytelling, vivid imagery, repetition, how to draw examples from everyday life. In Jesus we see wisdom, the technical skills of a top-class orator, empathy, passion and coolness, all rolled into one.

Palm Sunday is not really the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Certainly, he is cheered and egged on by the crowds, who in Luke’s version of the story throw not palm fronds their own clothing down on the road as Jesus rides along on a donkey. He's getting a pop star welcome. The crowds lining the street have come out to see a Galilean prophet who has acquired quite a reputation as a crowd pleaser. The word the crowd are calling out, “hosanna”, literally means "save us", "rescue us"- perhaps the sense is "do something for us"-or even "entertain us". For the crowds of Passover pilgrims jammed into Jerusalem for the holiday weekend, Jesus is a lifesaver, something to gawk at. And the way he comes in to town is pure street theatre-as John Dominic Crossan points out, a parody of the triumphal entry being made at pretty much the same time on the other side of Jerusalem by Pontius Pilate.

Understanding the whys and wherefores of crowds gives us an important key to seeing what's going on. An over-excited crowd is a paradox - far from being just a passive collection of spectators, the crowd defines what they think is going on, feeding on the perception of power and charisma, building momentum and pushing events in a certain direction. Communication and clear thinking break down, giving way to the desire for more and more stimulation, a sort of social drug. I think that's part of the problem of Palm Sunday, the very behaviour of the crowd that is worrying. In the space of a few hours Jesus is swept along from a position of being a minor Galilean prophet with a little bit of recognition, to a dangerous celebrity status, one in which he's been crowned as the "People's King". Holy Week begins because it's obvious that the people who set him up are going to bring him down. That's how crowds work. Any politician or celebrity will tell you that crowds, glued together by excitement and a sense of power into a kind of single many-headed organism, can quickly turn nasty, especially if you don't meet their expectations.  Just ask Britney Spears.

But Jesus know something else about crowds. Because it's in the middle of crowds, agitated and chaotic, jostling him and clamouring for attention, that Jesus has always been alert to other things. He's alert to the nobodies, those who are doubly anonymous in the crowd. Refusing to be swept along by the weight of other people's expectations, Jesus is in the habit of reaching out towards those who are excluded from the mainstream current of emotion. The ones Jesus heals are mostly outsiders, unimportant people whose names the gospel writers don't even bother to tell us. The small voice drowned out by all the noise, Jesus hears. The untouched and untouchable body, isolated in the middle of an intensely physical, jostling crowd could Jesus feels. The short man who can't see above the heads of the crowd, Jesus sees.  Jesus, the Son of Man at home in the heart of a crowd, is exquisitely sensitive to the presence of those who are beneath notice.

So in the gospel according to Luke, Jesus’ pop-star entry into Jerusalem comes straight after his encounter with Zacchaeus, the collector of taxes. We’re told Zacchaeus is too small to see over the heads of the crowd. So he climbs tree for a better view-and it is from this comic position that Jesus calls to him, invites himself home for lunch. Jesus notices something about Zacchaeus that drew his attention in a way that the dozens of others who must have also been up in trees or on rooftops didn't.

Of course in Christian memory and in countless sermons, Zacchaeus has got the reputation of being either a rip-off merchant, or a collaborator with the Romans. That's certainly what the crowd thinks. The muttering starts, it's not right, Jesus yet again going off to be the guest of the sinner. Zacchaeus meanwhile has responded to Jesus’ noticing of him by giving away half of everything he owns to the poor, and just for good measure adding that if he has defrauded anybody he’ll pay it back four times over. That little word "if" is the thing. It's dead obvious that Zacchaeus is despised by the crowd, but nowhere in the story does it say he is dishonest. He is hated for what he does - but given the opportunity he reacts with honesty and integrity.

So what have we learned about Jesus in this encounter?  Just that - he doesn’t get seduced by the approval of a cheering crowd, and neither does he get caught up in their prejudices.  The one who is beneath notice is affirmed for who he is, acknowledged as a person of generosity and justice.  As always, Jesus sides with the one who is ostracised and rejected.  Far from being a crowd-pleaser, Jesus is a confounder and disturber of crowds.

Even before the palm branches are ripped off the trees or barracking starts, the seeds of the crowd’s rejection of Jesus have already been sown.  Jesus isn’t interested in their praise - what he wants is nothing less than a fundamental change in how they see reality, how they see themselves, how they see each other.  And even though they don’t know it yet, the crowd are going to make him pay for it, for his failure to give them what they expect.

Palm Sunday sets the scene for Holy Week.  The shallow commitment of the disciples, the coarse bravado of Peter’s empty promises, the crowd’s inflamed and uncomprehending cheering - in the end it all counts for nothing.  Words fail, fair-weather friends disappear.  The crowds melt away.  Hundreds of followers reduced to a few standing in shocked silence, keeping their distance on a dull Friday afternoon.

Where will we be, this week?