Mark 11:1-10 Psalm 118:22-29
The Rev. Tom Herbek
March 20, 2016
It was Palm Sunday. A celebrity was coming to town, so the people in Jerusalem that day spread their cloaks on the ground. The crowds waved palm branches as he rode by. And the crowds were big. He came to Jerusalem at Passover, a huge festival that swelled the city from 40,000 to 250,000 people. Over 200,000 visitors came to Jerusalem to celebrate their liberation from slavery under the Egyptians. Since the Jewish people were once again under oppression- this time, by the Romans- the message of liberation from earlier oppression raised hopes that the hated Romans would be overthrown, as well.
Jesus was aware of this, and he knew what he was getting himself into. He expected a hero’s welcome on Palm Sunday, but he also knew how this was all going to turn out. He had been alluding to it for weeks, to the dismay of his disciples. But Jesus knew it would not last.
Gen. George Patton, a man who studied history, tells the story that the Roman emperors would have a slave, who stood next to them in their war chariot as they triumphantly entered a conquered city, and the slave’s job was to whisper in the emperor’s ear: “All glory is but fleeting.”
Jesus did not need a slave to tell him this. He knew that he would be a celebrity on Sunday, feel the disappointment on Monday, the betrayal on Thursday, and the rage on Friday. The events that would kill him on Friday were set in motion on Sunday. His opponents knew how easy it is to turn a crowd. The same crowd that was shouting his praises on Sunday was shouting curses on Friday. Jesus knew that a celebrity is only well-known for his well-knownness.
Maybe we’d like to be at least a celebrity for a few minutes. It’s not so bad wanting to be a celebrity, to be “somebody.” But as Lily Tomlin once said: “I always wanted to be somebody, but I should have been more specific.”
There are lots of “somebodys” but maybe we also have to be more specific. People use their celebrity to become arrogant, and to think they’re better than anyone else. We all know people who think they’re better than everyone else because they have a little fame. Celebrity isn’t so bad, unless we think we’re better than everyone else. Or unless we use our celebrity in ways that hurts us or someone else, or we use it to divide people and cause us to forget our common humanity.
Celebrity can also cause us to lose ourselves, to become fake. There was nothing fake about Jesus. In a cruel and violent world, where celebrity was fleeting, Jesus put his energy and efforts into healing and wholeness, into showing people and teaching people who God is and what love means. He understood that celebrity is not what matters, but compassion is what really matters. There are those who, even without knowing it, affect others. They affect others in positive ways. They use their moments of celebrity to make a difference:
On a stifling June afternoon in Philadelphia, New York Yankees Manager Joe Torre was about to step into the air-conditioned comfort of the players’ entrance at Veterans Stadium when a middle-aged man called his name.
Torre is not one of those celebrities who walks past people head down as if they didn’t hear a thing. So he stopped, assuming he would be asked for an autograph.
He was wrong. “I met you almost 30 years ago,” the man said. “I was in high school, and I wanted to drop out. My parents asked you to talk to me one day because they thought I might listen to a ballplayer. They were right. I’m a lawyer now. I just wanted to tell you thanks.”
Torre was pleased by the story, albeit a bit stunned. “I had a little, tiny, vague memory when he brought it up,” he said. “But that was it.”
Before he could take the last few steps to the players’ entrance, Torre was stopped again, by a younger man. “Twenty years ago I had cancer,” he said. “They thought I was terminal. You were with the Mets. You came to see me and gave me a pep talk. I never forgot it. When you were sick, I realized I had never said thank you to you.” Again Torre was rendered speechless.
Later, he said, “It makes you realize what all of us in sports can do if we put just a little effort into things. And I mean just a little. A word here, a pat on the back there, a phone call. Right or wrong, because of who we are and what we do, it can have a tremendous effect on people. It’s something I wish we could all be a little bit more aware of.”
— John Feinstein, “Pride of the Yankees”, The Washington Post
We need celebrities who use the attention that they receive to make a difference. And we must use whatever power or influence we have to make a difference. We need to redefine what it means to be a success. Marian Wright Edelman, Founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, once said: “We need to redefine success. We need to teach our children that it is not about things. We need to focus on heroes rather than on celebrities. We need to focus on spiritual values rather than on material values. Parents are going to need to think anew and decide what it is that we want this country to stand for. I think we have lost our way.”
We need celebrities who model for us and for future generations what real success is all about. After he was president, Jimmy Carter was asked what he could possibly do with the rest of his life. Jimmy Carter replied: “I have one life and one chance to make it count for something… I’m free to choose what that something is, and the something I’ve chosen is my faith. Now, my faith goes beyond theology and religion and requires considerable work and effort. My faith demands – this is not optional – my faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I can, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”
Jimmy Carter has done more in his retirement than many people do in their lifetimes. “I never did care very much what my children thought of me,” the former president said. “But I am very eager that my grandchildren approve of me.”
There are other famous celebrities who have understood what is most important. Someone once asked Albert Schweitzer to name the greatest person alive in the world at that moment. The doctor, whom many would have named as deserving the honor, replied quietly: “The greatest person alive in the world at this moment is some unknown individual in some obscure place who, at this hour, has gone in love to be with another person in need.”
Jesus understood completely what his Palm Sunday celebrity was all about and what would happen afterwards. Jesus was acutely aware of what is most important in life.
Only Jesus fully understood what was happening during his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Everyone else missed the real meaning. Many of the people expected that the events of Palm Sunday would begin the overthrow of the Romans. After all, look at the reaction of the people!
Certainly we all need some hope in life. And there are times when people around us enable us to hope, because they see a vision of life that is quite different from what we see. Jesus saw a reality that was quite different than what the people around him could see with their eyes. On that Palm Sunday, he looked beyond the cheering crowds, even beyond the heavily-armed Roman legions. Jesus’ hope was based on something different than what most people saw. Jesus’ vision was based on a reality where ordinary people were changed by events that contained God’s essence in surprising ways. Jesus found the presence of the holy, the essence of God’s powerful presence, in normal people, average people, those who everyone else missed.
Certainly we need to redefine success. We need to find our way again. It is not celebrity that matters. What matters is how we use our moment of celebrity, how we use whatever power we have. What counts is that we are willing to make the sacrifices that matter, to do things that really do make a difference. Jesus was willing to make the sacrifice that mattered.
On Palm Sunday, the celebrity Jesus came triumphantly into Jerusalem. And the crowds cheered, and it was assumed to be the high point of Jesus’ career as a leader. And it was the beginning of the end, which came very quickly. From celebrity to disgrace, Jesus’ fall was fast. From victory to defeat in one week, or was there more? Was it the end? Was it defeat? Was Palm Sunday the pinnacle of Jesus’ power and glory? Was it all downhill from there? Or was it simply the high point of his celebrity status?
It would be nice if our lives could be filled with celebrations, and filled with people who are able to continually inspire us. The people of Jesus’ day wanted the Palm Sunday celebration to continue.
One of the things that Jesus knew was that God was still at work, even in the absence of celebrations and cheering crowds, even when evil and suffering seemed to be triumphant. Perhaps we all need to remember on Palm Sunday that there are wonderful days of celebration and cheering crowds, even in our lives. But, especially in the ordinary moments, there is more meaning in our lives then even we can see. In the ordinary hectic, stressful, sometimes devastating moments of life, God is also present.
In between our plans and our celebrations, God is also present. In the disorganized noisiness of our lives, God is also present. In the stories of those in our lives who give us hope when we are ready to give up, God is also present.
May we redefine success, redefine celebrity in such a way that we honor those whose compassion, sacrifice, and desire to bring people together- rather than divide people- is paramount. May this Palm Sunday be a reminder to each of us that in our faith journey, there is always more meaning to life than what we can see at the moment, always more possibilities then we can see in the moment, and let us always remember that celebrity is not the same as success.
“Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!’