March 20, 2016—Nancy Bancroft
American historian Gene Smith wrote a book in 1964 entitled When the Cheering Stopped. It’s the story of President Woodrow Wilson and the events leading up to and following WWI. When WWI broke out in 1914 Wilson tried until 1916 to keep America out of it. However by mid-1917 when he saw that war was unavoidable he announced that the country was entering the “war to end all wars.”
When the war was over Wilson was viewed as an international hero. In Europe he was hailed as a savior. On his first visit to Paris after the war Wilson was greeted by cheering mobs and revered as a man who saved Europe. It was the same in England and Italy. A story is told that in a Vienna hospital when a Red Cross worker had to tell the children that there would be no Christmas presents because of the war and the hard times, the children didn’t believe her. They said that President Wilson was coming and they knew that everything would be all right.
There was a great spirit of optimism abroad, and people actually believed that the last war had been fought and the world had been made safe for democracy. During 1918 and into 1919 Wilson worked tirelessly to promote a peace plan that he had developed; a League of Nations, and for his efforts was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The cheering lasted just over a year. Then it gradually began to stop. It turned out that the political leaders in Europe were more concerned with rebuilding their own individual countries than collaborating on a complex project that might insure a lasting peace. At home, Woodrow Wilson met opposition from Congress for his plan.
Wilson was convinced that without the US in the League, there would soon be another even more devastating World War. When, the treaty failed to be ratified in the Senate, though he was still exhausted from his role as commander-in-chief during the war and his travels in Europe he decided to gain public support for his plan by taking his argument directly to the American people by way of a national tour; 8,000 miles in 22 days.
From Washington to California and then back east again his train paused at every whistle stop for an appearance. With no microphones or loudspeakers available Wilson exerted himself to insure that the people heard what he had to say. As his traveling progressed his health declined. Eventually he had to be stopped from shaking hands because of his weakness. Then, just before his scheduled appearance in Oklahoma City, he suffered a stroke and his trip was cancelled. The stroke was so debilitating that he was incapable of any real work for the remainder of his Presidency. Less than two years after he had been heralded as the new world Messiah, Wilson came to the end of his days a broken and defeated man.
It’s a sad story, but one that is not altogether unfamiliar. There are many stories about people who have tried to translate their ideals into reality and who have ended frustrated, rejected and defeated.
It happened that way to Jesus. When he began his public ministry, he rose quickly in esteem and popularity. The scriptures tell of great crowds coming to hear him preach and Jesus trying to go off to be alone only to be followed by the people. In today’s account of Palm Sunday we here of the masses lining the streets as he came into town, leafy palm branches spread before him and shouts of Hosanna.
But the cheering did not last for long. There came a point when the tide began to turn against him. Most likely this was gradual. People still came to see him, but the crowds were not as large as they had been. His critics, who had been afraid to speak out for fear of the masses, now began to publicly attack him.
Why did the so many followers of Jesus abandon him and even turn against him? How did the shouts of “Hosanna” on Sunday change into the shouts of “Crucify him!” on Friday?
In five days it all fell apart. Why? Why did the cheering stop?
One reason why the cheering stopped is that Jesus seemed to be saying, “The time for miracles is over. The time for commitment is now.” It is interesting to note that in all four Gospels after Jesus enters Jerusalem to the shouts of Hosanna and palm branches there is not another public miracle recorded.
At the same time Jesus began to talk more and more about commitment. Up until now, Jesus mostly performed miracles and spoke in parables. Those of us in this Lent’s bible study can attest that parables are not easy to understand, and it is very conceivable that many of the people who heard them were unclear about what was being asked of them. During the last week of Jesus life he leaves no doubt. A rich young man comes running to Jesus enthusiastically asking him how he can be a better disciple. You are all familiar with the dialogue that took place. Jesus says: “Go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor and then come follow me.” The masses were stunned. The stories of Jesus recorded as taking place in his last week include him expelling the money lenders from the temple, cursing a barren fig tree, condemning the scribes as dishonest hypocrites, making it clear that all were welcome into the kingdom of God, not just those who understood themselves as chosen, that we must love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, that in order to be great, we must be servants, and on and on. And so the cheering stopped.
Another reason that the cheering stopped is that Jesus turned out to be a disappointment to those who expected him to be a political messiah. The Jews were under Roman oppression. There were heavy taxes, restrictions, numerous executions by means of crucifixion. The Jews awaited a Messiah who they understood would be a conqueror, someone to set them free. They had seen the mighty works of this man Jesus. They had recently heard about Him raising Lazarus from the dead. They listened to Him teach with authority. Displaying power like that, many believed that Jesus was the one for whom they had been waiting. So, Jesus came to Jerusalem, and the crowds began to cheer. They waved palm branches, a long-standing symbol of Jewish nationalism. They shouted, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” Cheering, praising, exalting; but Jesus didn’t lead a revolt and the cheering stopped.
Finally, the cheering stopped because Jesus began to talk more and more about a cross. In the early part of his ministry Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God. This they wanted to hear about, especially since they thought that this kingdom would be a restoration of Israel to the days of King David’s glory. But increasingly Jesus began to talk about sacrifice; even giving up one’s life. The followers of Jesus were good people. They were faithful Jews interested enough in religion and spirituality that they went out of their way to listen to Jesus. But now their religious leaders had condemned him. This drastic lifestyle was putting his life in danger and theirs if they followed in his footsteps. And so the cheering stopped.
When the cheering stopped, not everyone abandoned President Wilson. For seventeen months after his stroke he never saw anyone except his wife and his doctor. Both conspired to keep the public and even the leaders of government unaware of the degree of his infirmity. Wilson’s personal physician never expected the president to survive. Still he never briefed even the Vice President on the situation; no details, no explanations. The President’s wife, Edith Galt Wilson, with only a second grade education, took charge of all correspondence and business with his cabinet. She would send their requests back each day with a note, in her 2nd grade scribble, saying, “The president says ….” To this day, no one knows if the president ever saw any of the requests or if Mrs. Wilson made all the decisions. Perhaps she was actually the first woman president.
When the cheering stopped, not everyone abandoned Jesus. There was a small faithful crowed who stayed with him even to the foot of the cross. They then kept the laws of the Sabbath, and the next day at the crack of dawn, went to the tomb carrying oils and spices to anoint his body.
And now it comes to us. For most of the liturgical year we focus on God’s love for us and the many blessings that we have been given. We reflect on the beauty of creation and God’s presence in us and in all things. For most of the year we have reason to cheer. And then we come to Holy Week.
Most of us are in or have been in long term relationships – with parents, children and/or spouses. We know from experience that even in the best of relationships there are periods of tension or obstacles to continued peace. There are times in our primary relationships when the cheering stops. We also know that those conflictual times require that we die to self; that we give up doing what we want to do when we want to do it, or give up having what we want when we want it. There are times when we need to put our ego aside and ask for forgiveness and try to make amends. There are times when we need to overcome our hurt and anger, and forgive. All of this required dying to self. These are experiences of the cross for us. And we have also experienced that the longer we wrestled with ourselves, resisted dying to self, the more we prolonged the agony. And when we finally gave in and paid the price that the relationship required, not only did it improve, we grew. We rose. We began to live more fully. We experienced a resurrection.
As Christians we are committed to being in a long-term relationship with the God of our understanding. Hopefully during this period of Lent you have been able to carve out some time to deepen that relationship, and have had several experiences that warranted cheering. But like all other relationships, if it is to deepen, if we are to grow, we need to respond to the next opportunity with generosity. Richard Rohr asks, “Now that I have chosen to serve God, what does that really mean?” It’s a question that requires an answer many times in our lives as our relationship with God evolves; as our union with the divine deepens.
Now the cheering has stopped. During this week we are challenged to consider the obstacles in the way of advancing our intimacy with God. I have chosen to serve God. What specifically does that mean for me in my life at this moment? Now that the cheering has stopped will I die to self so that I can truly celebrate new life next week?