If We’d Have Been There…

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On January 13, 2019, we re-entered this study after an Advent hiatus we talked about Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem following the completion of his ministry in the Galilee.  It was an interesting discipline to preach on this on a day that was NOT Palm Sunday.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 11:1-11.  We also heard from the Psalm for the Triumphal Entry: Psalm 118:19-29.

To hear the sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

I’d like to begin by inviting you to consider two phenomena that are both very real and very much a part of your experience, but also appear to be direct opposites.

Does the name Kitty Genovese mean anything to you?  I encountered her name in High School, when I had a teacher who brought up this case with astonishing frequency.  I’m not sure why… Kitty Genovese was a young woman living in New York who was horrifyingly murdered on March 13, 1964.  A newspaper report indicated that there were at least 38 witnesses – people who saw or heard something incredibly wrong, but who did nothing to stop the attack, which lasted more than thirty minutes.

When police questioned the man who was found guilty of this crime, they asked how he dared to attack a woman in front of so many people, and he responded by saying, “I knew they wouldn’t do anything.  People never do.”[1]

Psychologists call this pattern of behavior the “Bystander Effect” – nobody wants to get involved, nobody wants to stick their necks out for someone else, and everybody assumes that someone else will do something…

On the other hand, I imagine that you are also aware of a seemingly opposite phenomenon called “The Herd Effect”. Researchers into human behavior use this term to describe how often we find ourselves adopting certain behaviors as a result of an appeal to our emotions.  This has also been described as “Mob mentality” or “pack mentality”. In situations like this, people find themselves eagerly doing something that they might typically reject simply because other people are doing it or a charismatic leader has incited a crowd. If you’d like to see a demonstration of the Herd Effect, just turn on the NFL playoffs later this afternoon, and you’ll see large groups of overweight middle-aged men stripped to the waist, covered in body paint, and cheering on a football team in sub-freezing temperatures.  Now, you have to assume that these guys are not idiots – but here they are doing something today that they would dismiss out of hand tomorrow – because their emotions got the best of them as they prepared for the big game…

Today, we are resuming our exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  When we left off, Jesus had left his ministry in the Galilee behind and had made his way to the edge of Jerusalem.  Today, we see in the event that’s come to be known as “The Triumphal Entry” evidence of both the Bystander Effect and the Herd Mentality.

The Foal of Bethphage, James Tissot (c. 1891)

Early on in our reading, Jesus instructs his followers to go and retrieve and animal that he’ll need.  When they do so, they encounter a bit of questioning.  “Hey, why are you taking that?” “The Master needs it.” “Oh, OK.” You can just hear the wheels spinning in those ancient Palestinian minds… “All right, this is weird, but it’s not my circus and those are not my monkeys, so I’ll just stay out of it…” The people who watched the colt being led away didn’t say anything to anyone about what had happened – they just went about their business.

Palm Sunday, John August Swanson (1994)

On the other hand, as soon as Jesus shows up riding on this borrowed animal, people seem to lose their minds.  Whereas at our last meeting in Jericho, it was only Bartimaeus who was calling out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”, now it’s a large crowd of people going in front of and behind Jesus as they sing the words to Psalm 118.  There is no indication that these people actually know who he is, and Jesus himself doesn’t speak, according to Mark.  Yet the crowd enthusiastically uses terms that evoke images of the Messiah, the defeat of Rome, and the reign and rule of God.

And yet at the end of the day, what do we see?  Jesus retires to Bethany with his disciples.  Those who had demonstrated the Bystander Effect were presumably satisfied as the colt had been returned and there was no harm, no foul. Likewise, I’m sure that there were many homes filled with people who said something like, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming today.  That was sure different… What do you have planned for tomorrow…”  People removed themselves from the herd and regained a sense of their own distinct lives and preferences.  In fact, many of the voices that had cried out to Jesus as the Son of David on Sunday would be calling publicly for his execution on Friday – but that’s a different day, different mob…

And Jesus?  Well, Jesus begins this day in quiet discussion with his friends, and that is exactly how he ends it.

Back in November of 2017, we began this study of the Gospel of Mark by pointing out that this little booklet was written for a community of Christians who were in the midst of a difficult time. They were in distress, and they were at least witnesses to, if not victims of, injustice.  The group of people for whom Mark was written dwelt in a climate of fear, and lived with an awareness of the fact that outsiders were often distrusted and marginalized.

And it’s important for us as we study these passages that we note that Mark does not use the words “Triumphal Entry”, and he does not mention palms. Instead, we meet a crowd who is obsessed with making Jesus into a conquering King. This Jesus, however, rides not a war-horse, but a colt. The Greek word is not species-specific: it could refer to a young horse, a young donkey, and in fact once in the bible the word is used in reference to a juvenile ibex or deer (Proverbs 5:19). The point is that Jesus presents himself as weak and vulnerable; he comes in humility and is not threatening an uprising.  There are no pretensions here.

As I’ve indicated, Mark was written to help the first generation of Christians improve their understanding of what it meant to be followers of Jesus.  With that in mind, let’s look at what the twelve do in this passage.

First, they obey their friend and master.  When he tells them to go and get the animal, they do so.

Next, they give of themselves in simple and practical ways.  This is a colt – a foal – and it’s never been ridden.  There would not be a saddle or other riding equipment, and so the disciples take off their own cloaks and place them on the animal to help facilitate Jesus’ ride.

Then they stay with Jesus. They’re there during the parade and the shouting of the crowd, and they walk back with him into the night at Bethany.

I think it’s fair to say that those who followed Jesus on that day refused to be incapacitated by the Bystander Effect andthey did not allow themselves to be manipulated by the mentality of the herd.

One of the things that Mark’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem teaches me this year is that an important part of being a disciple is knowing when to use your voice, and why.  In the context of following, serving, giving, and listening to Jesus, disciples have got to figure out when and why it’s time to say or do something.

There is in our day and culture an ongoing controversy as to how to secure our nation’s borders in such a way that allows for the safety of those who are already here and provides a means for those who are persecuted elsewhere to find shelter and hope.

Bystanders simply see what’s happening and change the channel, saying something like, “Well, I’m glad I’m not the President.  I hope this guy knows what he’s doing…” or maybe “I’ve got some ideas, but what difference can I make, anyway.  Forget about it…”

Similarly, there are herds of us who chant “Build the Wall!” or who stand across the street and yell “Bridges, not Walls!”  We do this until we get hoarse, or until our energy is gone, or something else distracts us and then we go home…

What is a disciple to do in times like these?

A Team from CHUP visiting the US/Mexican Border, escorted by a US Border Patrol Officer

We listen for the voice of Jesus.  We look for where God is on the move, and we try to get there, too.  In our case, this has been a ten year process.  In the last decade, more than 25 people from this congregation have visited the border between the USA and Mexico – many of us more than once.  During that time, our group has had the opportunity to ride along with Border Patrol agents and see the challenges that they face each day; we’ve taken several tours of the facility in McAllen where the President visited on Thursday, and we’ve seen children sitting in glass-walled rooms crying for their parents; we’ve met people who have had to flee their homes in other lands after suffering unspeakable violence; and we’ve entered a church and school complex that is now used as a refugee center that offers those who have been terrorized a hot shower, a warm bed, and a decent meal.

In the course of this decade and these many trips, we’ve encountered the complexity of the situation in a way that is different than that which we’ve seen on television.  And I’d be lying if I told you that the 25 or 30 of us who have made this trip had broad agreement as to which simple policies should be enacted in response to this crisis.  But you’d be wrong if you assumed that all we were doing on these trips was hanging drywall.

We make these journeys because we realize that we need to be shaped; we need to listen; we want to grow toward the truth, and we need to find our own voices.

Listen: next week, many of you will be given an extra day off from work or school. It’s a Federal Holiday in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  When he was honored as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Rev. King said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy during this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and indifference of the good people. Our generation will have to repent not only for the words and acts of the children of darkness, but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light.”[2]

Listen: I know that I cannot speak for you, or for anyone else.  I am struggling to find my own voice and my own words as I look for places in the world around me where God is on the move.

My challenge for you this week is to find your own voice.  To listen to the news prayerfully.  To read your news feed with an eye on your Gospel, and to ask the Lord when and how it is appropriate for you to speak out against violence and the oppressor, or to stand with someone who has been victimized.  In what instance will you use your voice to contact your legislators or our policymakers?

Beloved of God, do not look away, thinking that it is someone else’s problem. And don’t get sucked into anybody’s mob. Listen for the Master, and be attentive to the things he does, the people at whom he looks, and the places to which he directs his energy.  And follow Him there.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]Takooshian, Harold, Ph.D., “Not Just a Bystander: The 1964 Kitty Genovese Tragedy: What Have We Learned?”Psychology Today, March 24, 2014.

[2] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., January 27, 1965 Dinkler Plaza Hotel

The LBJ Principle

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

On August 10, 2014 our readings came from Matthew 10:1-31

Think, for a moment, about your passion. What do you love – I mean, really love? Running? Cooking? Sports? Do you remember the day that you fell in love with that hobby?

A Malachite Kingfisher

A Malachite Kingfisher

In 1998 I was traveling through Machinga, Malawi, in Central Africa. My friend, Pastor Mnensa, and I were on our way to the Chikhale CCAP, and were crossing a little “bridge” about 20 kilometers from the nearest paved road. As we came near to the bridge, Ralph began to tell me about a wonderful little bird he had seen near that stream on an earlier trip. We stopped and waited for a moment, and I was delighted to see a Malachite Kingfisher – the most beautiful bird I think I’ve ever seen.

Later that same year, I was sitting in my friend Dirk’s living room in Pretoria, South Africa, and I noticed all the birds that were flocking to his feeder. Of course, to my mind, they were all exotic. I was in Africa, after all. I said something to the effect of, “I can’t believe you have so many cool birds here. If we had nice looking birds in America, I might start watching them there. But all we have are boring birds.”

Fortunately for me, and perhaps unfortunately for anyone who gets stuck in a conversation with me, I have since discovered that we have some amazing birds in the 412 and across our continent.

House Sparrows

House Sparrows

However, at the time, I was thinking about all of the LBJ’s that flock to my feeder every day. An “LBJ” is a “little brown job” – one of those small, undistinguished creatures with dull plumage that seem to be everywhere. There are at least 35 species of sparrow in North America, and by and large, they are (at least from a distance) LBJ’s.

I know, I’m committing some sort of ornithological heresy by saying this, but I don’t see the excitement in watching a flock of a hundred small brown birds looking for the one with a different color eye stripe or bill color. Once in Texas, I talked with a man who had followed a flock of sparrows around the wildlife refuge for an hour because he thought that in and amongst the House Sparrows there was, in fact, a Lincoln’s Sparrow. And there was. And it’s hard for me to envision a scenario whereby that photo would be worth an hour of my time, but…

A Lincoln's Sparrow.  I know - this is sooooo much better than a House Sparrow, right?

A Lincoln’s Sparrow. I know – this is sooooo much better than a House Sparrow, right?

The House Sparrow is a much-despised bird, even among serious birders. There are articles that talk about how to create an environment in your backyard that discourages these LBJs from crowding out the feeder. There are about 150 million of these birds in the United States, and not many people like them.

In fact, in the late 1800’s there was a movement called the “Great English Sparrow War”, wherein this bird was called a foreign invader who was lazy, immoral, and harmful to native songbirds as it stole their food and habitat.

Publicity poster for Mao's "Four Pests" campaign.

Publicity poster for Mao’s “Four Pests” campaign.

Half a world away, a couple of generations later, Chairman Mao named the English Sparrow as one of the four pests that had to be eradicated from China for the country to succeed – again, calling it an immoral and lazy bird who stole food from the native inhabitants. For hundreds of years, people have spent a good bit of energy hating the sparrow.

And yet Jesus says that God actually cares about the sparrows. Billions of sparrows in the world, living, breeding, dying, hatching…and God actually cares for them. God knows what is going on in their lives, if we can trust Jesus on this one.

God gave me one child. I love Ariel, and now her daughter, Lucia, with my entire being. I am not exaggerating when I say I love them more than life. Sometimes I look at my friends with 2, 3, 4, or more children and I say, “How do you do that?” Not so much, “how do you manage to get everyone to school on time, or in dance classes or little league or those activities?”, but “I know how fiercely I love my one child. How do you love that many children as much as I love mine? Isn’t it exhausting?”

Loving people wears you out, doesn’t it? It’s nerve-wracking and annoying – you worry about people making bad decisions and getting caught up in someone else’s bad decisions and…

I am a hover-er. Ask any of the kids in the youth group, and I bet they will tell you, “I know that Pastor Dave loves me, but he sure asks a lot of questions. And he hugs me a lot.” At this moment, I am as drained and spent as I have ever been because of the ways that I have tried to love the kids from this community who have served on a Mission Team for the past week. I would walk across broken glass for them, but I am beat.

But as noble as all that is, I am not that good at loving and caring, at least compared to God. My world is so full…and my head hurts and my heart aches and sometimes I just throw up my hands and sigh.

And yet there is something in the divine nature that loves and treasures even the House Sparrow. These little creatures, which Matthew tells us are sold two for a penny, are noticed and valued by God. When Luke gets around to this part of the story, we see that he must be shopping at Walmart, because he finds them five for two pennies.

They are as close to worthless as they can be. And God cares for them.

What does this mean? It means that in the divine economy, there are no Little Brown Jobs. God refuses to look at some part of the creation and say, “Oh, that? Meh. It’s not my best work. I’ve done better.” God knows, values, and cares for everything in creation.

By extension, therefore, it would seem as though I, made in the image of God, am called to a similar level of attentiveness and care. I am not free to disregard or despise that for which God cares.

Which leads me to some thoughts about the current crisis on our nation’s southern border…or the educational system in our inner cities…or the famine in South Sudan…or the warfare in Israel and Palestine.

It seems to me that so much of what is truly evil in all of those places comes from the way in which one group of people looks at another group of people and says, “Them? Meh. They’re nothing special. Just some little brown jobs. Don’t bother with them. You can’t do anything. They’re lazy, and immoral. They don’t belong in our world. You’re best off trying to find a way to get rid of them.”

Beloved, this is the truth: that kind of reasoning is more prevalent than we admit, and that kind of thinking will kill not only “them”, but “us” as it removes their humanity and tarnishes the image of God in us.

BOrderChildrenSince October of last year, more than 63,000 children have been caught crossing the border alone. Many of these children have run right to the Border Patrol officers. These children tell stories about being sent on this harrowing journey by their parents who have said, “Look, this is the best choice we have right now. Sending my seven year old daughter, by herself, through Mexico and into the USA is the best way I can think of to protect her from sexual predation or murder.” These are parents who love their children as much as I love Ariel.

Just stop and think about that for a moment. How bad must your range of options be if that is the best idea that presents itself? If you would like to explore this a little further, watch the movie Sin Nombre some time. It is harrowing and disturbing.

But back to these 63,000 children. Look, I’m not sure what we are supposed to do with them as a matter of national policy. I don’t know enough about immigration law and the situations in their own countries to be able to pretend that I have a great idea as to how to “solve” this crisis.

But I’m not preaching a sermon because I want to sell you my ideas about solving the crisis. I’m preaching this sermon because I am sure that we are not free to disregard or despise those children. You don’t have to agree with me or anyone else as to which policy is most effective at stemming the tide of children who fear for their lives. But I’m pretty sure that the gospel forbids the church of Jesus Christ from looking at any child of any ethnicity and saying, “Oh, for crying out loud. What are we going to do with all of these stinking LBJ’s?”

This is what I realized last week: I cannot think of a single one of my friends who, if they went down to get their morning paper and found a naked, cold, nine-year old who appeared to have been violated in some horrific way, would turn that child away. I know rich and poor people of all ethnicities. I know liberals and conservatives, crunchy-cons and libertarians, socialists and anarchists. But I cannot think of a single friend of mine who would look at a child like that and say, “Tough luck, kiddo. I think you’re on your own,” and then take the paper and go indoors.

I don’t know any of my friends who would shoot a neighbor for being in the wrong place.

But many of us are content to look at situations on the border or in the Middle East or somewhere in the world and say, “You know what? Let’s get rid of them all. They bother me.”

We wouldn’t say that. But we employ institutions to say that for us. We are fundamentally good people who are kind and generous who find ourselves asking the government or someone else to be ruthless on our behalf. There is an inconsistency in that which threatens our ability to live faithfully.[1]

Jesus says that not one sparrow is forgotten by God. Not one escapes his notice.

Debbie Blue says this in Consider the Birds:

Can you love songbirds and still be compassionate to the house sparrow? Can you have an incisive critique without a hardening of the heart? Maybe it’s tricky, not completely easy, a little complex, but we of all species are especially equipped to handle a little complexity.

The house sparrow is not necessarily dull and uninteresting. In Australia, they’ve learned to open automatic doors. Some hover in front of the electric eye until the door opens. Others…sit atop the electric eye and lean forward until they trip the sensor…

Our hearts beat seventy times a minute; the house sparrow’s beats eight hundred. At rest, we breath about eighteen times a minute; a sparrow, ninety times. I like thinking of them breathing so fast – all this breathing out in the world, all this heartbeating.

Love your neighbor. It’s the most brilliant instruction. It’s wise and wonderful and something we need.[2]

Complexity is difficult, but we can handle complexity. I have to admit, I don’t know how to make love the cornerstone of our social policy. I am not sure what the best way to care for these children is. But I do not want to live in a nation where indifference or vindictiveness is the rationale around which we set up our systems and institutions. I don’t know how to help those children or our Border Patrol or anyone affected by this. I don’t know.

But I don’t want to not help. So I guess I’ve got some learning to do.

Consider the sparrow. There are no LBJ’s in the Kingdom.

Consider your neighbor.

Love – even when it wears you out.

A Savannah Sparrow, whose song, heart, and breath matter to God.

A Savannah Sparrow, whose song, heart, and breath matter to God.

[1] South African theologian Peter Storey has said, “American preachers have a task more difficult, perhaps, than those faced by us under South Africa’s apartheid, or Christians under Communism. We had obvious evils to engage; you have to unwrap your culture from years of red, white and blue myth. You have to expose, and confront, the great disconnection between the kindness, compassion and caring of most American -people, and the ruthless way American power is experienced, directly and indirectly, by the poor of the earth. You have to help good -people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them. This is not easy among -people who really believe that their country does nothing but good, but it is necessary, not only for their future, but for us all.” (this was in an “Open Letter” to the people of the United States, written not long after September 11, 2001)

[2] Consider the Birds (Abingdon 2013), pp. 147-148.