To follow the mob or not

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A sermon for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, and Luke 22:14-23:56.

A couple of years ago, Derek Sivers, (soft “i” like the “i” in sister), gave a TED talk [Technology, Entertainment, and Design; a series of conferences intended to spread ideas.] with the use of short video.  The video was quickly re-tweeted and blogged about because the Sivers talk points to something that happens in any movement.  It happens al the time, but it’s something we don’t always notice.

The little video is entitled, “How to Make a Movement: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy.”  It shows a bunch of people picnicking, lounging around, playing Frisbee, hanging out in a park. All of a sudden, one guy just starts dancing.  He’s letting loose, just wearing shorts and no shirt, dancing his heart out, even though everyone else is ignoring him and he’s all alone.  Everyone else is simply going about their business—until another person joins him. That person joins in the crazy dance and keeps going, complimenting and responding to the moves of the first guy.  Sivers names this person the “first follower,” and goes on to draw conclusions about just how important this first follower is.  “The first follower,” he says, “transforms a lone nut into a leader. If the leader is the flint, the first follower is the spark that makes the fire.”  But then comes a third person, a second follower behind the first follower. Sivers notes, “The second follower is a turning point: it’s proof the first has done well. Now it’s not a lone nut, and it’s not two nuts. Three is a crowd and a crowd is news.” And on it goes, the crowd forms and grows, and a kind of group mentality takes over.

What’s amazing about the little video is just how infectious the fun is.  Every time I see the clip, I sort of wish I were there on that hill, joining the dancing group, jumping into the fun, adding my moves to the movement.

But then a thought occurs:  What the meaning behind this movement?  Is the dancing guy (and the crowd that follows) drawing attention to some good cause?  Is he raising money for children, or building energy to clean up the environment, or work for reform or change in some important way?  Or is he stirring up the crowd in an effort to go spread hate, to silence some voice that is in the minority, or to push the way of the group onto some other group?  The first and second followers, the mob itself, can easily develop around a negative motivation just as quickly—if not more so—than a positive one.

Let’s think about that for a minute. Bullies aren’t possible without the first follower who usually remains silent, but who exerts tremendous power in their silence.  The mob often stands by quietly as well, pretending not to be a part of things. But even in its indifference, or perhaps especially in its indifference, the mob is deeply involved.  St. Peter does this with the little mob warming themselves by the fire after Jesus has been arrested.  Others stand by and watch, as Jesus makes his way of the cross.  For some, like his mother, it’s a way of tears.  But for others, for many probably, it’s a way of mockery and mayhem-of-the-day, a first-century version of the Jerry Springer Show or True Crime TV.  People watch unattached, unaffected, immune from the pain and the heartache.  Because if they noticed the pain of Jesus, the pain of the victim, the pain of the innocent… they might have to notice feelings deep inside themselves, as well.

We know the power of a mob mentality without watching it form in the video at the TED talk.  We know the history of the Holocaust, how over time, even Christians (people presumably of love and justice) pulled out of scripture verses like those we heard today which refer to the religious leaders of the day simply as “the Jews.” They then used such phrases to encourage superstition and slander to build a made-up case against an entire people.  Whether it’s the schoolyard bully, the desperate and corrupt leader, or the advertising executive, a mob mentality can be extremely useful at moving people in such a way that they by-pass thinking, consideration, or intelligence.

The Roman authorities were probably right to mistrust the mob attaching itself to Jesus.  Jesus himself seems reluctant to form a large crowd around his message or his miracles.  On several occasions, when he does a miracle, he asks the person healed to tell no one, keep it quiet, don’t draw attention.  Jesus sees, at one point, that the crowd’s only motivation for following him that day is to get more bread and see another show like the one they saw with the feeding of the thousands.

And so the Roman authorities were probably right in wondering what this crowd following Jesus into Jerusalem was up to.  The crowd itself might not have known where it was headed.  Where would it lead?  As the Pharisees say in John’s Gospel, “You see, [we] can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”

The crowd around Jesus, those who know him, and support him, and have benefitted from him, and love him, is overtaken by another mob, an angrier one in which the first follower of this group yells, “Away with this fellow. Release Barabbas.”  Someone else adds, “Crucify him.”  And so the crowd continues to jeer, to mock.  The mob begins to rule the moment.

The way of the cross through the streets of Jerusalem must have been a collision of crowds—the larger one taking in the spectacle, but a smaller one forming around Jesus.  First Mary and the disciple Jesus loved.  Then Simon of Cyrene.  A nameless woman wipes his brow and follows. A few other women of Jerusalem.  Joseph of Arimathea and even a criminal join this smaller mob.

Where are we, in the various mobs?  “Where do we find our place,” is the question of the day.  Two years ago, the Spring was a mixture of mobs bringing possibility and promise and hope for justice.  Our own new spring is upon us and, as in other years, it is a season of runs, walks, and fundraisers for all kinds of good causes. This week alone, there are demonstrations for a stop to gun violence, marriage equality, and other huge issues of our day. And then there’s the walk through Jerusalem, the march toward Calvary, the Way of the Cross.

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ gives us a focus for any of our followings.  Whatever other cause we may join—whether it’s simply a mood of the moment with no enormous consequence, or it’s a movement for justice, freedom, and life…. We are called to follow the way of the cross.  The cross leads the way in sacrificial love that allows us to move through any crisis, pain, or even death… because there of the promise of resurrection.  That video from the TED talk I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon never does say what the goal of the dancing guy might be.  But I like that he’s dancing and the people who follow him join in the dance.  Dancing can be sorrowful and silent, like the mothers of the disappeared in Central America, like the Mother of Jesus as she struggles to stand at the cross.  But there is also that wonderful image from hymn set to the old Shaker tune that thinks of Jesus as a dancer, in fact, as Lord of the Dance.  Christ is master of the revels who leads the way—through the city, up the hill of Calvary, through the resurrection, and even into eternal life.  The hymn sings

I danced on the sabbath when I cured the lame,
The holy people said it was a shame;
They whipped and they stripped and they hung me high;
And they left me there on a cross to die.

I danced on a Friday and the sky turned black;
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back;
They buried my body and they thought I’d gone,
But I am the dance and I still go on.

They cut me down and I leapt up high,
I am the life that’ll never, never die;
I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.

In the dance of life, who will we follow? May the prayers and promises of Holy Week show us the way.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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