14 April 2019
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Nicholas Mercer
Last summer, I almost took part in a riot with my sons
We were staying in an apartment in Santiago and there was, what appeared to be, a perfectly friendly demonstration going on in the street below us
There was chanting and someone banging a drum but nothing to be alarmed about
Half way through supper, there was a loud explosion
On looking out of the window, my wife saw the mist of tear gas floating down the street
She quickly closed the windows and curtains.
However, always eager for adventure, I decided to go out onto the street to watch the protest with the boys
It was very South American, with carabineros using tear gas and water canon to disperse the crowd.
What started out as a peaceful demonstration, suddenly turned very ugly indeed.
[I am sure the boys would be happy to share the pictures with you after the service]
The only other time I have become involved in a demonstration was when I was staying in Brussels in 1991
I was staying with a great friend from University and, as I went out of his apartment for some milk, I stepped right into the path of a demonstration.
I think it was about Higher Education but this time the mood was very ugly indeed from the outset
I was swept along at the front until I was able to escape down a side street
The crowd behaved like a herd and, like a mounted parade, you could spook the horses.
Being part of a crowd, can be quite frightening
You can get trapped and it is very hard to leave
On both occasions I felt that I had been caught up in something much larger than myself
Rightly or wrongly, I sensed danger.
Today is Palm Sunday and, in a sense, is also about crowds
As we have heard from our first reading in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem with the crowds cheering him on
“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”
He is feted by the crowd
It is a career high for him
Having been a relatively insignificant itinerant preacher in the Judean countryside, he is now treated as a hero, a King, the Messiah.
However, as we heard from our Passion reading, a week later, the mood had changed dramatically
Having shouted “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord
Six days later, the crowd are shouting “Crucify him”
In our current febrile political climate we can relate to mood swings by the crowd
One minute a politician or celebrity is feted as a hero
The next minute they are deemed to be a traitor or something worse
Just open the papers today and you will see what I mean
We can all relate to situations in public life and, possibly our own, when people have been feted and have risen to exalted heights
But, as any politician, celebrity or sports star will testify, crowds bound together in adulation can quickly turn nasty, particularly if you do not meet their expectations
Indeed, things turn nasty very quickly indeed for Jesus this week
The chief priests, elders and scribes begin to resent his authority and celebrity
Jesus challenges their power and they don’t like it
They don’t like his style of ministry either
By reaching out and speaking out to the marginalised and oppressed, by challenging the temple authorities, the status quo is, again, challenged
The arrogance of the religious leaders is staggering but so is the fickle nature of the crowd.
One of the points that is often missed about Holy Week is that we tend to identify with the first part of the week only
We readily identify with the crowd waving the palm branches on Palm Sunday
But we somehow uncouple ourselves from the second part of Holy Week when Jesus is surrounded by treachery and betrayal
But in this service both readings are set alongside each other
And for good reason
It is highly likely that, had we been living in Jerusalem, two thousand years ago, we could have been part of the crowd which said “Hosanna in the Highest” on Palm Sunday
But called for his crucifixion by the end of the week
And if you think this is unlikely, ask yourself
How many times do we betray Jesus in the week having sung his praises the Sunday before?
There is an interesting study on crowds by a Romanian called Serge Moscovini
He spent much of his life studying crowd behaviour and made similar observations about the herd behaviour of crowds
However, he also noted an interesting phenomena which he later termed “minority influence”
He started with the assumption that, if the majority was all powerful in a crowd, then we would presumably all end up thinking the same way.
But we don’t
He is most famous for an experiment which was termed “influences of a consistent minority on the responses of a majority in a colour perception class”
The experiment was very simple
In an experiment involving colour recognition, he placed stooges within the crowd to contradict the colour
Even though they had seen the same colour, the majority were swayed at least on one or two occasions by the consistent minority
He went on to point out that most major social movements have been started by small groups or individuals swimming against the tide
He cited Christianity, Buddhism, suffragettes – all of which spread globally across the globe
You might wonder where I am going with all this?
However, it strikes me from this research that, not only can we recognise our own failings as part of the crowd which cheered on Jesus and then rejected him
But there is also be something to be derived from the consistent minority observations at the same time
There is no doubt that we, as Christians, find ourselves as being part of a minority in the world today
I am very struck by the worshipping community of Bolton Abbey amongst the vast number of visitors
We are very small church community in the midst of a very large world
123 on the electoral role compared with 160,000 visitors – less than 1% (0.07%)
We are certainly not the crowd although we are capable of behaving like the crowd
However, if, instead of being the crowd, we become the consistent minority instead, it seems that we can influence/ and even change/ the majority opinion around us.
- Visibly bearing witness to Christ
- Witnessing to the truth
- Challenging the status quo
What an impression we can make
So this Palm Sunday, let us behave, not like the fickle crowds over Holy Week, but like the consistent minority of the Early Church
And if we do so, we might be surprised by the change we might bring to the crowds around us