Tipping Points

Carla J. Bailey, April 9, 2017

Scripture Matthew 21:1-11

Several of my crafting hobbies are really messy. For example, candle-making: You’d be amazed how much wax I have scraped off kitchen counters and floors over the years. It has to do with overestimating how much melted wax a container will hold. I think it’s an indication of my generally optimistic nature. I’m often certain the container will hold just a wee bit more of the hot wax, just another drop or two—until, of course, I’ve gone past the tipping point. Did you know that what actually spills over the rim of any container is more than the final drop too much poured in to the container? It’s true! You would think that one drop more than a container holds would mean only one tiny drop will spill over the edge, onto the counter, down the sides of the cupboard and on the floor. Why is that, I wonder? Why does so much more spill out than that one last drop that went in?

“Tipping Points,” the title for today’s Palm Sunday message, is taken from the book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell, published in 2000. Gladwell defines a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” The book seeks to explain and describe the “mysterious” sociological changes that mark everyday life. As Gladwell states: “Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do,” once they’ve hit the tipping point. In sociology, a tipping point is that point in time when a group—or a large number of group members—rapidly and dramatically changes its behavior by widely adopting a previously rare practice. Gladwell didn’t coin the phrase. It was first used in sociology by Morton Grodzins, who borrowed it from physics, where it referred to the adding a small amount of weight to a balanced object until the additional weight causes the object to suddenly and completely topple, or tip (which means my spilled wax is actually a failed physics experiment). Grodzins studied the racial integration of American neighborhoods in the early 1960s. He discovered that most white families remained in the neighborhood as long as the comparative number of black families remained very small. But, at a certain point, when “one too many” black families moved into the neighborhood, the remaining white families would move out, in a process known as white flight. Grodzins called that moment the “tipping point,” adding that there was not a specific percentage that would mark that point. Rather, it was more a matter of perception, which, of course, means that it could change, culturally, as perceptions change.

I think of the recent tipping point we’ve seen exhibited by President Trump. Just a few weeks ago, he proposed that the United States should accept no more refugees from Syria. Yet, upon seeing photographs of Syrian children and adults choking to death on poison gas, he apparently reached a tipping point and ordered the military response of bombing a Syrian airfield. Tipping points are strange things. One would have thought that the violent gun deaths of 20 six- and seven-year-olds at Sandy Hook Elementary School would have been the tipping point for a national criminal background check law. Gun deaths have not yet reached a tipping point. Sociologically speaking, tipping points are apparently influenced by seemingly conflicting values.

I think of Palm Sunday as that one event beyond Jesus’ tipping point—the beginning of an end he decided to pursue. Jesus turned his face to Jerusalem. The brilliant American theologian and preacher Howard Thurman described that moment in a sermon, saying:

As they were walking together on the road that leads out of Jericho, Jesus and his disciples approached the fork. One road went north to Galilee and Nazareth, the other went south to Jerusalem. As they neared, something strange apparently took place in Jesus’ face and his whole body. He strode ahead of his disciples and when they looked into his face, they were frightened. This is the only place in the Gospels in which it is written that when the disciples looked into the face of the master, they were frightened. They were frightened by what they saw as he moved ahead of them and then made a sharp turn south—to Jerusalem. Any reading of Jesus’ life would indicate that this was one of the critical moments when he had to say, What shall I do if I am to be true to the One who sent me forth? I could go back to my home in Nazareth or I can go to Jerusalem where the powers and principalities thrive. (The Temptations of Jesus, Friends United Press, 1962)

Of course, we know he chose to go to Jerusalem. It is that choice we celebrate today with sweet hosannas and palm branches, vaguely aware of the terrible repercussions of that decision.

Jerusalem was a large city. There is little likelihood that Jesus’ entry caused much of a stir as far as the city was concerned. Of course there were his devoted followers, a few new converts and the regular bystanders who are always drawn to the edges of drama. Matthew made a point of describing the colts on which Jesus rode to reinforce his purpose in telling the story. This was the fulfillment of the prophetic words of Zechariah, pronounced at Jesus’ birth. This is the Messiah. This is the One sent from God—David’s heir, God’s anointed, the Savior of Israel and of the world. Matthew wanted to be sure Jews, many years after Jesus’ death, would understand that this Savior was indeed Jewish. He really was the Messiah.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem raised the stakes of his ministry considerably. It made his life as much a social and political revolution as an individually life-changing experience. The gospel writers tell us what Jesus did to provoke the tipping point that led to his execution: he visited the Temple and turned over tables, chased the money changers into the streets, shaming those who had failed in their responsibility to protect its sacredness. He challenged the Jewish leaders—shamed them actually—for their acquiescence to the Romans. He told stories that tended to make the economically secure squirm. In general, he cast a bright light on the failures of the leaders of his own beloved faith, revealing all their self-serving flaws. There were the scribes, jealous of his influence and resentful of his independent interpretation of the Scriptures. There were the Pharisees, stung by his relentless exposure of their weaknesses. There was Herod Antipas, suspicious of his possible connection with John the Baptist. There were the Sadducees, embarrassed to fury by his interference with Temple worship. And over all these factions within Judaism, there were the Romans, enforcing peace through oppressive, military security. Jesus revealed it all—the hypocrisy, the weaknesses, the compliance with the military rule of the oppressive Romans. I am in considerable sympathy with his disciples, who followed and watched and had to be growing increasingly worried—terrified actually—at their Savior’s surprisingly adversarial conduct. Good grief, they must have thought to themselves, doesn’t he know what he’s doing?

Well, yes, I think he did know what he was doing. The turmoil that resulted from Jesus’ presence in Jerusalem and his actions began with a critical critique of the way things were—a searching and fearless moral inventory. It grew into a religious crisis of values. Then, it was subjugated by a governmental course of action intended to quell the chaos. Then the death penalty was imposed, then Jesus was tried, so to speak, and executed, and Jerusalem settled down again, until, history reminds us, the Jews revolted again and again and again. This day signals the beginning of the public chain of events that resulted in betrayal, abandonment and murder. It began when Jesus decided to confront it all head-on: acquiescence to Roman oppression, the distorted activities of his religious heritage, the rituals of jurisprudence that had gone so terribly awry, the financial exploitation of the poor. How is it so many believe the story of our faith’s struggle with power and authority and distortion and greed and exploitation is confined to those few years in the first-century Middle East? Does this not resemble the existential struggle for justice we currently live?

I think I’ve told you that my sassy daughter, when approaching big Christian holidays, sends me texts asking about Jesus’ status. In early December she wrote, “Has Mary felt the baby moving yet?” Mid Lent: “Is Jesus still in the wilderness?” This past week, “Isn’t Jesus about due in Jerusalem?” I love these messages—they always make me laugh. She knows the events better than she admits. This past week I wrote back that I was interested in the fact that Jesus appears to have intentionally escalated the conflict in Jerusalem—that he publicly confronted the leaders, at great personal risk. “Well yeah,” she wrote back. “Why else would you bother with him?” Why else indeed?

Do you think Christians should commit ourselves to public, noisy confrontation of leaders who exploit the poor, carry out twisted and dishonest jurisprudence, lie publicly about everything from why we bombed a Syrian airfield that was back in business the next day to how cutting funds and regulations for the environment, women’s health care and retirement savings is no big deal? If we were in that same crowd of the welcoming faithful, would we still cheer after Jesus threw tables around the sanctuary; broke Sabbath laws by healing the sick and the lame; cursed a fig tree in a fit of anger; slapped against Caesar’s face on a coin and taxes that could be described as unevenly applied? He also told the story about separating sheep from goats with the words that have come to exemplify Christianity at its very best—“when I was hungry you fed me, when I was thirsty you gave me drink, when I was in prison you visited me.” Did you know he told that story while he was in Jerusalem between Palm Sunday and Good Friday? Did you know it was one of the many parables he told that led directly to his arrest and crucifixion? Not because of his description of how we all should act, but because of the accompanying judgment upon those who did not act in this most holy way—who will be cast into eternal damnation.

Paul the Apostle wrote that “Jesus did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself . . . he humbled himself and became obedient, even to his death on a cross.” Yes, he did. Of that there is no doubt. But it would be a serious mistake for us to think that humbling himself meant that Jesus came into Jerusalem with the quiet intent of one who walked, head bowed, straight to Calvary. Between today and Friday, Jesus did some incredibly bold, antagonistic things. Between today and Friday, Jesus turned the world on its head.

Tonight when I send my message to Matrika, I’ll tell her that Jesus made it to Jerusalem this morning in fine form. Tomorrow, he’ll turn over the tables in the Temple. On Tuesday, he’ll heal people of their many sins and heartbreaks and tell some great stories with the priests as the bad guys. On Wednesday, well, you get the picture. Jesus will do all these things, knowing, I’m convinced of it, that the tipping point led directly to his execution. Knowing what lies ahead, will we still sing “Hosanna”? It’s a question we should all be asking this Palm Sunday. Amen.