Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
In Ashland, Wisconsin, where I grew up, there was always a big parade the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend. Earlier on that day, the town Christmas decorations would have been put up – the swinging Santa Clauses hanging from the street lights and the brightly colored bulbs on the tree at the bandstand in Memorial Park overlooking Lake Superior. The Middle School and High School bands would march, playing songs like “Angels From the Realms of Glory”. There were floats, built by church youth groups, with chicken wire stuffed with paper napkins. The Catholics always won for the prettiest float because they had the nativity statues, though one year, one of the four Lutheran Churches won because they had a living nativity and their pastor’s wife, dressed as Mary and perched on a bale of hay, was eight months pregnant. I remember joining my fellow Middle School friends in our outrage over a clearly unfair advantage – our pastor’s wife being about 127 years old. The senior high kids all snickered about how some girl they all knew was pregnant could have been Mary that year. The city council members would march in the parade, waving at their constituents and throwing out tootsie rolls. In those days, stores were only open one evening a week, Friday evenings, so the stores along the parade route had scurried to put Christmas displays in their windows to entice shoppers. At the end of Main Street were the bars. The band director always had to be on the look out for rowdy patrons who would run out and try to dance with the majorettes. It was usually really cold in November - Ashland being on the shore of Lake Superior - so the brass players carried their mouthpieces in their hands between songs so as to avoid frostbit lips when they lifted their horns to play. The parade began at 5:30 and was over by 5:45, in time to get a pizza from Frankie’s and do all one’s Christmas shopping. It was called the “Put Christ Back Into Christmas” parade. For years, I assumed the “Put Christ Back Into Christmas” parade was what it must have been like when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
I’ve replaced that childish parade image for something probably a little closer to the truth. A small band of impoverished disciples, poorly dressed, dusty, clearly strangers in the sophisticated city, following Jesus into Jerusalem, feeling a little self-conscious but joyful just the same, shouting down their nervousness with Hosannas to their Savior. At last, they were in Jerusalem, the Holy City, the City of David, the home of God, the place of the temple where all the Jews would come to know and embrace this incredible, God-sent Rabbi, their long-awaited Messiah. Luke doesn’t actually say anything about triumph and certainly Jerusalem isn’t depicted as anything other than going about its usual city business. Jesus’ disciples are the ones, according to Luke, who are filled with joy and the confidence that he was the Redeemer of Israel, the Savior to Jerusalem and therefore, the world. In all likelihood, the city took little if any notice. Some of the more sophisticated Jews who were from Jerusalem, the Pharisees in fact, would have preferred an even less conspicuous appearance. “Rabbi! Silence your disciples!”
The Pharisees were guardians of religious ritual and the laws that had so oppressed so many of Jesus’ followers. They were pious Jews who were being confronted by one of their own, a rabbi who knew Scripture, who commanded tremendous authority, whose own mysticism was compelling. The Pharisees had made something of an uneasy truce with Rome there in Jerusalem. If they were quiet, paid taxes, just assimilated, the Romans allowed them to worship in their temple and observe their own religious laws without much fuss. Jesus and his followers threatened that passive agreement with their noise and joy and hope for a new way of life, when they would be restored to their God-given place in the holy city that should have belonged to them. Jesus and his little group of followers embarrassed the Pharisees. He threatened their tenuous status. He exposed their acquiescence to the enemy. “Rabbi, make them be quiet!”
Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem brought him to the center of the very conflicts that made his ministry as much a political coup as a spiritually life-changing experience. By his very presence in Jerusalem, Jesus exposed the duplicity of the priests, and he confronted the powers of Rome. He brought turmoil into the lives of those who were deeply invested in keeping things calm, both Jews and Romans. He was a lightning rod, subversive, counter-cultural, and extremely dangerous. Jesus brought an alternative way with him into Jerusalem and the powers and principalities wanted it and him gone.
There is a thread, unbreakable, throughout Jesus’ ministry that revealed itself with every disenfranchised person he met, every miracle he performed, every confrontation, every teaching moment, every word he spoke. The weak will be made strong, the powerful will be brought low, the rich will be cast from their thrones, the silent will speak, the weary will find rest, the hopeless hope. God’s judgment won’t be easy or light, and God will be harshest on those who have watered-down their faith to such an extent that it causes not so much as a ripple, a stir, a moment’s pause. But those paraders knew there would be a revolution when all God’s children began to act the way Jesus taught them how to act. It won’t have anything to do with parades or the cultural Christianity as it is practiced with disdain and fervor in our country. You see, deep down, we all remember those “Put Christ Back Into Christmas” days with nostalgia, or through the eyes of the now enlightened, in much the same way most of us think, deep down, about our Christianity – it shouldn’t cause a socio-political coup. If we keep it more about pretty floats, cultural icons, and well-financed public displays of piety, we won’t ever have to do the hard work of confronting and transforming an immoral economic system, penal system, health care system, insurance industry, stock-market gaming, commercialism, militarism, sexism, racism, homophobia, hatred of the poor, snobbish, garish, loud, manic culture. We can live like the Pharisees, get along with Rome and keep things nice.
A friend of mine, Lloyd Steffen, is professor of religion and chaplain at Lehigh University. Twenty years ago he wrote an article for Christian Century (November 21-28, 1990 pp.1087-1088, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation) about a course he and a colleague decided to teach. They were worried that undergraduate students, while smart as the dickens, had no ability to listen. In his article, he wrote, “the ability to listen depends not in the first place on any particular skill or technique, but on a fundamental respect for one’s partner in conversation. Listening is thus a moral act. Listening is an act of attending to the other that discloses the strangeness of otherness, disrupting our comfortable self-images and threatening to undo our everyday experience of ourselves (and others) as familiar and basically unified personalities. Not listening becomes a way of securing ourselves from encounter with the mystery of otherness. Listeners are required not only to welcome the strangeness of the other but to risk self-disclosure in the act of listening.”
The course was called “The Listening Point” taken from the book of the same title by Sigurd Olson, an environmental poet who believed people must find a “listening point” in the natural world. The course used no books. The premise of the course was that the students would be the texts. They were required to engage one another in conversation, to develop listening skills, and to learn to think through their own and one another’s ideas on such questions as: “What makes people happy?” “How do we know what we know?” “If you could change two things to make this a more just world, what would they be and why?”
Each week, students were given listening assignments. They would meet outside class to discuss an issue: two people would talk while the third would listen and then report to the class what happened in the discussion. Several students complained that they got headaches from having to pay such close attention; others said they could not seem to relax after class, and that they kept conversations going into the wee hours. Students were evaluated not only on how well they listened to each other but on how much they helped the other person clarify and articulate his or her positions. That is, they were finally evaluated on how well they helped another person listen to him or herself.
According to my friend, the course was incredibly eye-opening. “Students seemed amazed by how much they disagreed with one another - something they had not discovered from their other classes or even from their social life. They found that their disagreements were very interesting and not cause for alarm or embarrassment or increased defensiveness.” Eventually, most of the students began listening to themselves, to their own, inner voices, the voices of conscience and commitment. “Some students were hostile to the process, and the hostility was often projected onto the instructors. Several students dropped the course. But many students were positively affected, some deeply.”
“We are in need of a theology of listening,” Lloyd wrote, “for a willingness to listen ultimately expresses an attitude of love. Christians believe that Jesus listened to God and to those he encountered in his daily life. We do neither. If we listened for God, we should spend our time not praying for ourselves but listening to our (own) prayers to see what we are saying not to God but to ourselves. The heart is a great mystery. Christians believe that God knows the human heart. God does not need to be informed about our wants and needs. It is we who need to know what we want, what we fear, what we love.”
“The listening point is what Jesus wanted for us—that place where ‘they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.’” (Matthew 13:15)
When the Pharisees told Jesus to keep his disciples quiet, they were worried about the noise the attention would draw to their tenuous peace with the Romans, shallow though it was. Jesus would have none of it. “If these were silent,” he said, “the stones would shout out.” Could they listen, those Pharisees? Can we? Amen.