April 14, 2019 Sermon
“What Are We Cheering For”
Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a
The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens — wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
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; he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?
New Testament Reading: Luke 19:28-40
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it'"
So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?"
They said, "The Lord needs it." Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.
As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
"Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!"
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop."
He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."
Sermon: “What Are We Cheering For?”
It feels good to cheer, doesn’t it? To be with a group of friends at a superbowl party, or to be in the stands at a play-off game, or to go to a concert of our favorite band. It feels good to just let it all hang it, to enthusiastically yell and shout, give full voice to our feelings. It’s wonderfully liberating to cheer. For just a little while, we aren’t so self-conscious, so inhibited. It’s kind of a primal feeling, to scream our support for our favorite team, or favorite music group.
When I was in Grand Junction, I was playing a valentines day gig for a local really big church, the Fellowship of Excitement. No, that really was its name. One Sunday morning, the pastor rode his motorcycle down the center aisle and on to the stage. Talk about an alter call! I could do that too, if you like, just let me know.
Anyway, back to the Valentines day gig. We were there to play background music during dinner, and then play for the dance afterwards. The pastor, you know, the one with the motorcycle, got up to give thanks for the meal. And the weirdest thing happened. After he finished giving thanks, everybody applauded! As though he had just scored a touchdown or something.
To his credit, the pastor seemed uncomfortable with the applause, and I think that a lot of people in the audience did, too. It was strange. It was just your normal, everyday table blessing, nothing special, but, then, the cheering started. Like I said, weird.
But it made me realize that this was probably a normal, everyday event. The pastor would talk, and the people would applaud. If you watch bit church TV, you see a lot of that. “Give God a hand,” the preacher says, and crowds oblige. Now, I think that’s weird, but to each their own. But, what had happened was the congregation had become so used to applauding whatever thepastor said, it just became a habit. It wasn’t heartfelt, or authentic. It was part of the prayer. They had lost track of what they were cheering for.
Of course, there are times where I know that I would love to hear applause after a particularly well crafted sermon. Wouldn’t that be great? “And that is how we know that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior!” Wild applause and cheering.
But, we probably won’t ever see that. And there’s probably good reasons for it. I mean, it would be weird to cheer the sermon. It would be weird to cheer for the assurance of pardon. It would be weird to shout our support and encouragement during the Communion Liturgy.
On the other hand, there’s a part of me that thinks that we spent a lot of our time cheering for the less important things in life. We cheer for a football player that we don’t know when he advances the football 1 or two feet. We don’t cheer for acts of kindness, or charity. We have VIP boxes for millionaires in tax supported baseball stadiums, but there isn’t a section in the stands set aside for social workers. There are fantasy clubs for baskball teams, but there isn’t a booster club for the foodbank. Our cheering is reserved for when our team is on top, the champion, the best, the winner. Acts of kindness don’t seem to get us as excited.
We are headed to an election in just a little while, and if it it anything like previous elections, we will have a year of candidates speaking to cheering crowds of enthusiastic supporters, followed by the political conventions, week long cheer fests. The crowds will be fed the red meat of partisan rhetoric, and they will reward the speakers with their whole hearted shouts of approval. I’m not sure what all the shouting is about, but there will be a lot of it.
If we were to judge the importance of an event by the amount of cheering it provoked, then it’s pretty obvious what our priorities are: Politics and sports and entertainment.
And this is not a new thing. The great cities of ancient Greece were filled with amphitheaters where political and cultural theater thrilled the masses. The Roman coliseum was the ancient equivalent of our stadiums, only instead of giant football players trying to give each other concussions, gladiators fought against lions and criminals to the cheers of the crowds.
And in the intervening years, to our very great shame, humanity has gathered to cheer at public executions, lynchings, dogfights, bear-baiting, and wars being fought at a safe distance. Wherever there is a group of spectators and the possibility of a winner and loser, there will be cheering.
And it’s not always easy to be sure that we are cheering for the right things. We get caught up in the mob’s blood lust. After all, that is part of the allure of cheering. We lose ourselves, just a little bit, in all the excitement. We are set free from the grind of our daily existence and are given permission to be just a little bit crazy.
On this day, 2000 years ago, there are two groups of people cheering. Today, we read about Jesus entering Jerusalem, accompanied by a throng of supporters and disciples, all cheering, proclaiming Jesus King, shouting the psalms that speak of a Messiah, the fulfillment of prophecy.
But there was another group of people cheering the entrance of another important person, Pontius Pilate, made a practice of coming to Jerusalem every year during Passover. While Jesus entered Jerusalem from the East, seated on a donkey, Pontius Pilate was entering from the West, riding in a chariot, accompanied by a Roman Army Contingent, carrying the standards of Caesar Tiberius.
There could not be a more stark difference between these two figures: Jesus, son of a carpenter, an itinerant Rabbi, with no name or stature, humble, riding on a donkey; and Pilate, from the Royal Class, appointed by Caesar, representing the full civil and military authority of Rome.
And the people of Jerusalem cheered for both. For some, Jesus promises revolution, for others, Pilate represents institutional power. All of Jerusalem were going to be challenged in the coming days to choose between these two. Would they choose to be on the side of the iron-fisted Roman control of an occupied city, or the self-giving, sacrificial kingdom of Jesus?
It is the choice between the power that comes from imposed will, and the power that comes from liberation. A choice between power that is taken, and power that is given. A choice between power that comes from the sacrifice of others, and power that comes from the sacrifice of self.
And as that week of Passover so long ago continued, we can see the balance of that power shifting, as popular opinion turns against Jesus. He alienates the temple Priests by overturning the tables of the money changers. He makes the Romans anxious with all the talk of revolution. And when he is arrested, it is clear that not only is the crowd against Jesus, cheering for the release of Barabbas, a common thief, his own disciples, who were so wildly cheering for him at the beginning of the week have disowned him, and disappeared into the woodwork.
Because it’s hard to cheer for someone who has so completely lost as much as Jesus has lost. From a church of thousands on the mountainside, to a church of none, alone, beaten, disavowed, and booed. Because that is what we do with losers.
We are attracted to winners. And sometimes, we don’t care how we win, we just care that we win. Just ask Bill Belichek and the Patriots.
I remember a video I saw of a pee-wee football championship game. The coach called a trick play, a play called the wrong ball, in which the offensive line never actually gets down into a three point stance, and the center casually hands the ball to the quarterback instead of hiking it. The quarterback walks toward the sideline indicating to the coach that there is something wrong with the ball. The defense doesn’t even know that the play has started, and before they realized what’s happening, the quarterback sprints down the sideline for an uncontested touchdown.
You should see the comments on YouTube. Folks are passionately in favor of using this play to win games. But, it’s the fourth grade, when most of the kids are still trying to figure out the basics of the game. Yet, people cheer as the coach takes advantage of their ignorance of the most arcane rules of the game to win at all costs.
But that’s what we do. We cheer winners, and we boo losers. It’s the way the world works.
But, not always.
A few weeks ago, I ran across a story that reminded me that occasionally, we still do cheer for the right things. It takes place at Benton High School in St. Joseph, Missouri.
With Benton trailing Maryville 46-0, the Benton coach called a timeout and ran across the field to the Maryville coach. He had a request. He asked if Maryville would allow one of Benton’s players to score a touchdown. Hearing the details, the Maryville coach agreed, and St. Joseph's sent out Matt Ziesel to play running back. Ziesel, who was born with Downs Syndrome loves sports and always wanted to play. That day he ran for a 70-yard touchdown as Maryville made their pursuit seem as legitimate as possible. The fans went wild, cheering for their team, who lost 46-7.
The crowd that night was cheering for something worth cheering about. They were cheering for self-giving, for decency. The players and the coach from Maryfvill didn’t didn’t know Matt Ziesel from Adam, but they knew a fellow human being when they saw one, and they knew how much he was loved. And so they reacted in a way that we don’t see very often.
And we can cheer for that. Because some things are worth cheering about. Some things, even the rocks and stones will cheer about.
Every day, we are given the choice to cheer for the right things in life. We can applaud unselfish acts of generosity, or we can cheer me-first greed. We can cheer for the empowerment of those who have no voice, no support, no resources, or we can cheer the powerful, those who use their influence for their own benefit.
We can cheer for Jesus at the East Gate, or we can cheer for Caesar in the West. We can cheer for humility, or pride; love or tyranny, The kingdom of God, or the kingdom of this earth.
During this coming week, I invite you to walk alongside Jesus during the last days of his life. On Thursday, we are offering a seder service, a ceremonial remembrance of the Jewish Exodus from Slavery in Egypt, which is perhaps the same meal that Jesus ate with his disciples before his betrayal and arrest. On Good Friday, we will be a witness to Jesus’ final hours, remembering the betrayal of Judas, and the sacrifice Jesus makes on our behalf on the hilltop at Calvary.
And then, on Easter Sunday, I invite you to come cheer with me the greatest event of human history, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Blessed is the King, who comes in the name of the Lord.” Hosanna to our Lord most High.
Thanks be to God. Amen