On Palm Sunday, we remember an ancient practice. When the conquering hero would ride into town, people would welcome him by carpeting his path with palm leaves. In the case of Jesus, the people are expressing their hopes. He’s there to lead them against the Romans!
Of course, he’s not mounted on a mighty stallion; he’s riding a lowly donkey. Connection has been made to the book of Zechariah, which says in chapter 9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (v. 9).
In his gospel, St. Mark tells us, as Jesus rides a colt into town, “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (11:8-9).
Are the people cheering really interested in being his disciples? What would that mean for them?
I’m not the first to point out how the crowd on Palm Sunday bears little resemblance to the crowd on Good Friday. Or does it? In neither case is the spirit of discipleship demonstrated. Jesus shows how fleeting and fickle fame really is. In a matter of days, the people go from calling for a crown on his head—to calling for his head. In doing this, the crowd has a mind of its own.
Our reading in the book of Isaiah has an interesting Hebrew word. In verse 4, we hear, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher.” The word used for “teacher” (לׅמֻּד, limmud) can also mean “disciple,” one who is taught. God has given me the tongue of a disciple. That word is also at the end of the verse. “Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” Those who are taught: to listen as disciples.
According to the prophet, the teacher is a disciple. The disciple is a teacher. This is a person who always wants to learn, and who always wants to share what has been learned. We’re reminded that “the speaker is aware of his need to learn, and has the humility to confess that need.”
The path of discipleship is one of endless training. It is one of endless training of others. That’s a calling that we share with the prophet, the Servant of the Lord. Being a disciple of Christ means wanting to be like Christ. That requires both meekness and courage.
On the point of the crowd having a mind of its own, I have a story to tell, one I’m not too happy about. It involves the Texas state Capitol, the KKK, some hardened clumps of dirt, and a moment about which I’m not terribly proud.
In 1983, during my freshman year of college, I went with a friend (and more than a thousand other people) to watch the Ku Klux Klan as they marched on the Capitol building in Austin. Police and news helicopters were flying all over the place. It felt almost like we were about to be occupied by an army!
Among the crowds were people carrying signs, people yelling at the Klansmen, and others (like me) who were just curious and wanted to see what was going on. As the marchers made their way toward the Capitol building, they moved through thicker and thicker crowds along the road. You could feel the hatred in the air. It was just a matter of time before someone got bored with hurling insults and decided to hurl something else.
It began with a couple of small stones and quickly escalated into a barrage of rocks. Even though the Klansmen came equipped with plexiglass shields (maybe they expected this kind of reception!), some projectiles managed to hit home. There was more than one bloody face among them. (I should say they were wearing their pointy hoods, but they were unmasked).
When they reached the spot where their cars and vans were parked, demonstrators started smashing the windows. It was the final angry act of the day.
There’s one moment, though, in that afternoon of violence that remains with me. At one point, when the Klansmen had circled around behind the Capitol, people were running in all directions. I had stopped and was surveying the scene (being careful to avoid the crossfire of rocks!). Suddenly, a young black man who was about my age stopped running and knelt about ten yards from me. He was gathering some hard, dry clumps of dirt to fire at our white-robed friends.
He must have noticed out of the corner of his eye someone was standing there; he just froze and looked up at me. There we were—two young guys, one white and one black—the black one probably wondering what the white one would do. And what the white one did was to give the black one a little smile, as if to say, “Go for it!” He returned the smile, picked up his weapons, and disappeared into the crowd.
I believe now, as I did then, that the constitutional right to peacefully assemble is vitally important. Even a group I find as repugnant as the Ku Klux Klan has the right to express its opinion, as long as they’re not advocating violence. (Admittedly, that’s a tough sell with a group like the Klan.)
The irony on that day was the KKK was being peaceful, if it’s possible for them. Still, wearing those bedsheets stirs up the legacy of terrorism. At the very least, they were just walking; they weren’t shouting or shaking their fists. It was the onlookers who were violent. And I was a part of that violence. In my own way, I became a contributor to mob mentality. That’s not a good feeling. I allowed the crowd to do my thinking for me.
For those interested in being interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires two weeks of training, at least six months apart. One of the main things we looked at was the congregation as a system: a family system, an emotional system, and so on. We also looked at how systems get stuck—how they get paralyzed and can’t seem to progress.
There are a number of reasons, but one of them is something I’ve been talking about. It’s the mentality of the mob, the herd mentality. Maybe some of us have had an experience of church like this. There can be a group dynamic in which the congregation bands together and shames those who have questions. There can be cult-like behavior. Compulsion is used to whip people into shape.
Many studies have been done about herd mentality. As individuals, we can feel anonymous in a crowd—or sometimes on the internet. No one knows who we are. Sometimes it leads us to do things, that if we were by ourselves, we would never dream of doing.
This doesn’t have to work for the bad. When the community of faith works in a healthy way, those things we would never dream of doing are awesome and beautiful.
For example, by ourselves, it takes added courage to protest for justice. With others, we are heartened in an amazing way. By ourselves, singing and praising the Lord is definitely a beautiful and soul-enriching thing. But with others, singing and praising becomes a powerful and magnificent wave.
In the Palm Sunday story, along with the sincere adoration of Jesus, can’t we also sense an element of desperation—the desperation of a people who feel beaten down? When these desperate people realize that Jesus won’t comply with their wishes, things get ugly. They get anxious, with a vengeance. (But that’s the story of Good Friday!)
When we’re anxious, we become reactive, as opposed to responsive. A good way to think of it is to compare “reacting” to a knee-jerk “reaction.” It’s automatic. It doesn’t take any thought. When we respond, we’re taking a moment to actually think things through, to weigh the options.
Being reactive is often a good thing; it can save our lives. If our hand is on a hot stove, that’s probably not the time to think and weigh our options. Get your hand off the stove!
Getting back to my story about the Klan, we see an extreme example of reactivity. (I would say that throwing rocks at people qualifies as “extreme.”) Of course, it helps if there’s a group that is easy to hate, like the KKK.
Going along with this, we see violence cloaked with righteousness. Too often it seems like justice has to be served by wiping out somebody else. If I disagree with you, then you’re my enemy. Forget for a moment what Jesus says about loving our enemies.
Church consultant Speed Leas has done a lot of work on congregational conflict. He says that situations sometimes get to the point where people “won’t stop fighting because they feel it’s immoral to stop. They believe they are called by God to destroy the evil.”
At our interim pastor training, a story was told of a minister who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country. However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down. To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him. Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan. They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.
To use a term which seems to have become popular, maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test. Or perhaps there’s another explanation. Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?
As we can see, giving in to the herd mentality can lead to some unpleasant, even fishy, outcomes.
So, today on this Palm Sunday, where are we? (Presumably, not gathering up rocks or thawing out fish!)
The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr reminds us, “Once we let the group substitute for an inner life or our own faith journey, all we need to do is ‘attend.’ For several centuries, church has been more a matter of attendance at a service than an observably different lifestyle.”
Sometimes we’ve been swept along with the herd; we’ve disappeared into the crowd. At such times, we have lost ourselves; we have forgotten who we are and whose we are. Sadly (and speaking for myself), we might have chosen the path of cowardice.
But much more importantly, we have also experienced communion, the solidarity of the saints. We have discovered and welcomed the courage of Christ.
So, regardless of what the herd says or does, be it the cheering and joy of Palm Sunday or the jeering and rage of Good Friday, we take hold of Christ and confidently say with the prophet in Isaiah 50, “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame” (v. 7).
 Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010), 276.