April 17, 2011


“What You See Is What You Get”

Matthew 21:1-11




Isn’t it funny how our perception of people can change so quickly?  Think about Tiger Woods over the last year or so.  The press may be many things but they are not loyal.  When he was a senator, some said President Obama, would be getting a free pass.  I don’t think so.  Crowd commentary in the ancient world was no different.   They say, This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee: The mob acclaims him “Prophet,” an ascription of honor, perhaps hoping for prophecies of deliverance and victory like those of Isaiah 62. They did not materialize and the crowds soon denounce him, and repudiate his honor.  In little less than a week they will be chanting, not for him, but for Barabbas.


Sometimes our perceptions are based on what we see.  Let us put ourselves in the crowd.  It is common to talk about the things we observe.  “I saw the first robin,” or “We went to Philadelphia and saw the Independence Hall”  This initial statement is sometimes followed by another kind of statement, sometimes flowing with emotion, sometimes pointing toward meaning that exists only deep within ourselves.  Today we observe a re-enactment, in word and deed, a processional.  We hear that some, despite conflicting indicators, saw this as a ‘royal’ processional and their hearts overflowed with joy.  What did you come to see today?  Is it just a parade of enthusiastic youngsters waving palm fronds? 


Perception, by definition, has the possibility to change.  In her memoir Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on exhaustion-colored perception: “I started seeing things that were not there. Driving home in the evening, I would see the crushed body of a brown dog lying in the middle of the street up ahead … By the time I reached the ‘corpse’ I realized it was a crushed cardboard box instead. When this happened twice in a row, I knew I was tired.” Though misperceptions may be caused by exhaustion, true perceptions see God and God’s creation, even in the most unlikely places. Barbara Brown Taylor grew up with a sense of God surrounding her in Kansas.

I will visit the small crystal stream that runs through my field to see what is moving in it today. God’s Presence is there lighting up everything … I have met salamanders there, tadpoles, crayfish, and water bugs. I have watched the moss on the bottom ripple as the water runs over it. Years later I discovered that this was no crystal stream … it was a drainage ditch.[1]


Palm Sunday is a day of perceptions. Those Jerusalem pilgrims who sang, “Hosanna — save us,” saw a Messiah. They spread cloaks on the road and waved palm branches. Contrary to their hopes for an earthly leader, Jesus chose a donkey rather than a horse to set his message in the visual context of peace and humility. Perceptions continued to diverge in the week that followed — the songs turned to “crucify,” the cloaks to thorns, the palms waving to dice thrown.


Oh, to see what the disciples saw must have been magnificent! This is a procession of apparent triumph.  It begins with accolades.  It begins with a scene that moves everyone to walk away with some pep in their step.  The shouts of Hosanna are not scripted; people are moved to shout such things.  The disciples must feel encouraged.  They’ve watched closely, they’ve seen just who this man is and to have the crowds say it, affirm it; does it feel like a dream? 


Yet, Experience is not a ‘slice in time.’  Rather experience is culmination of time. Unlike us, these people had the prophet’s voice ringing in their ears.  No great theatrical emphasis is necessary for them to hear Zechariah speaking to them about the messiah today.  That is what they see.  The crowds perceive this rider to be the messianic hope; the “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” they sing is much more akin to “We Shall Overcome” than “My Country Tis of Thee.”  They see in this  person Jesus, the Divine, not the Emperor.

Not every redeemer is the same.  Some may expect a great white war horse with a warrior astride it, making its way down from the Mount of Olives, the traditional place where the Messiah would appear.  This scene is such a contrast, it differences cannot be missed.  Matthew describes the event as the deliberate attempt by Jesus to reveal himself; if that is what he is doing, he must be seen as the peaceful Messiah.  Hence the choice of his mount, the humblest of beasts of burden.  No warrior rides into town wearing a tunic with his sandals dragging the ground because of the diminutive size of the steed.

The contrast continues.  Though he had no intention of being king, his disciples and others thwarted him by throwing their garments and branches before him as Jehu had been hailed as king. (2 Kings 9:13)  People saw what they expected to see.


Experience effects our perception of the present.  We are primed to see some things and to be blind to others by a lifetime of stories and expectations.  What we see, ask any investigator, is not only based upon the physical realities present in the experience.  What we see is based upon what we expect to see, what we want to see.


So we have this experience this morning.  And so this shall be our ‘back story’ for the remainder of this week.


Do not forget the reality we experience today during the next week.  This week, and every week, our perceptions shape our reality.[2]  This story, this experience, has the power to change our lives if we let it…if we are willing to enter into this parade ourselves, just long enough for it to shape our own hopes and dreams, our perceptions.  This is more than a feeble rehearsal of a scene from long ago when a marginal rabbi took up a humble donkey and rode up the old Roman road into Jerusalem.  What do you see?  What do you choose to see?


Two men, both seriously ill, occupied the same hospital room.

One man was allowed to sit up in his bed for an hour each afternoon to help drain the fluid from his lungs.
His bed was next to the room’s only window.

The other man had to spend all his time flat on his back.

The men talked for hours on end. They spoke of their wives and families, their homes, their jobs, their involvement in the military service, where they had been on vacation.

Every afternoon when the man in the bed by the window could sit up, he would pass the time by describing to his roommate all the things he could see outside the window.

The man in the other bed began to live for those one-hour periods where his world would be broadened and enlivened by all the activity and color of the world outside.

The window overlooked a park with a lovely lake. Ducks and swans played on the water while children sailed their model boats. Young lovers walked arm in arm amidst flowers of every color and a fine view of the city skyline could be seen in the distance.

As the man by the window described all this in exquisite detail, the man on the other side of the room would close his eyes and imagine the picturesque scene.

One warm afternoon the man by the window described a parade passing by.

Although the other man couldn’t hear the band – he could see it. In his mind’s eye as the gentleman by the window portrayed it with descriptive words.

Days and weeks passed.

One morning, the day nurse arrived to bring water for their baths only to find the lifeless body of the man by the window, who had died peacefully in his sleep. She was saddened and called the hospital attendants to take the body away.

As soon as it seemed appropriate, the other man asked if he could be moved next to the window. The nurse was happy to make the switch, and after making sure he was comfortable, she left him alone.

Slowly, painfully, he propped himself up on one elbow to take his first look at the real world outside. He strained to slowly turn to look out the window beside the bed.

It faced a blank wall.

The man asked the nurse what could have compelled his deceased roommate who had described such wonderful things outside this window.

The nurse responded that the man was blind and could not even see the wall.


Look, what you choose to see is what you get, what you choose to participate in is what you experience, in faith, and in life.  I am not talking about vision.  I am not talking about psychology.  I am talking about a Savior.




[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Leaving Church,”  San Francisco: Harper, p.

[2] Note Immanuel Kant’s response to Hume’s denial of our ability to have knowledge of the external world.  Kant called his assessment of epistemology “transcendental idealism.”  He distinguished between noumenal, or the realm of real things, and the phenomenal, the realm of things as we know them.  It is the subjectivity of the mind that is responsible for determining the way things are in our experience; the actual essence of things is unattainable.  During the Enlightenment,  scientific and individualism reigned.  It was not until Hegel that the emphasis was shifted to include the supernatural and communal as epistemological sources.  Thus, tradition, and the movement of the Spirit are resources to our perceptions.