Sunday, March 24, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Stones of Silence, Stones of Speech"

Luke 19:29-40

29 As Jesus came to Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives, he gave two disciples a task. 30 He said, “Go into the village over there. When you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If someone asks, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say, ‘Its master needs it.’” 32 Those who had been sent found it exactly as he had said. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They replied, “Its master needs it.” 35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their clothes on the colt, and lifted Jesus onto it. 36 As Jesus rode along, they spread their clothes on the road. 37 As Jesus approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole throng of his disciples began rejoicing. They praised God with a loud voice because of all the mighty things they had seen. 38 They said, “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.” 39 Some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.” (CEB)

Palm Sunday 2013

The old Crusader city of Acre is such a stunning artifact.  Nestled on a tiny little piece of land that juts out into the Mediterranean sea, it was built to be a stronghold of the Latin Christians who had gone on the medieval-era Crusades.  Much of the structure and buildings survives to this day today, with the walls still acting as a barrier, demarcating old from new but also marking off where the Arab population of Acre generally lives, cloistered off in an ancient city from the rest of the town around them.

And with the Arab population came a wide religious diversity to the Jewish city of Acre—of course there are mosques to serve the needs of Muslims, but there are also Christian churches and Baha’i centers as well.  And during my second week there while on an archeological dig and pilgrimage in 2010, I realized something—you could actually climb the stone walls of the old city.  And so I did, and walking along the parapets of the Crusader walls, I snapped several photos of the old city’s skyline with my super-deluxe disposable camera.

But I also noticed a funny thing—the skyline wasn’t like most skylines.  And I don’t mean in the sense of, it lacked the skyscrapers of, say, a Manhattan or a Los Angeles.  For a city build, literally, almost a thousand years ago, that’s a given.

No, it’s that the highest points I saw were all part of religious buildings—the steeple of a Christian church, the minaret of a Muslim mosque, the tall slanted or domed roofs of more churches and mosques…it was like each religion had endeavored to build its own Tower of Babel—you know, the story in Genesis where humanity says to itself, “Hey, you know what would be a really swell idea? If we built a tower that reached to Heaven.”  And of course, it turns into a giant farce because God declares the idea dead-on-arrival by giving everyone different languages so that nobody working on the tower can understand each other.

And that’s what I saw basically going on in  Israel—each religion building a Tower of Babel—or several—and all the while, doing so while speaking a different language than all the others.  It really is remarkable—the more things change, the more things stay the same (does that make me sound old?)

But that is also what we have here in the story of Palm Sunday—people trying to reach for God but not always speaking the same language.  Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is depicted by Mark, Matthew, and Luke—whose version we will be studying today.  And it’s pretty standard fare—Jesus sends His disciples to Jerusalem to boost a colt from its rightful owner (you think “grand theft donkey” was a thing back then?  Imagine if we used that excuse today… “Hey, where are you taking those bags of money?!” “The Lord needs it!” Yeah, that’ll end well).

The disciples come back with the hot-wired…I mean borrowed…donkey, and Jesus rides it into Jerusalem as crowds of people gather to shout Hosannas to His name and to literally lay down their clothing on the ground before Him so that Jesus does not have to ride in the dust and dirt.

Now, there are two perspectives in this event—Jesus Himself, and the crowd.  This is what I noted in my Palm Sunday sermon last year about Jesus’ possible intentions or motives:

I really worry that Jesus would come back, see what we are doing, and just say, “What the heck?  I never did it like that!  Is this some kind of spoof that’s going on Youtube as soon as this is over?”  I tend to worry that when we try to re-enact the Bible today, we sometimes come so far from the mark that what we end up creating isn’t an homage (or church), it’s a parody.

And, in some respects, us doing Palm Sunday is a parody of a parody.  The triumphal entry of a hero into a city would have been nothing new to Jerusalem in the time of Jesus—Alexander the Great held one such entry when he conquered Babylon, for instance, 300-some years before Jesus.  But such spectacles were reserved for kings, rulers, emperors, or their proxies—the people who represented imperial power to the masses—and certainly not reserved for a humble Jewish carpenter.  But those emperors, governors, and soldiers, they would have entered the city on their finest horse, not a donkey or a poor little colt—it would be like President Obama pulling up somewhere in a motorcade made up entirely of clown cars!

And so while scholars agree that Jesus riding in on the animal that He did was meant to fulfill Scripture and to fulfill prophesy (Zechariah 9:9), many will also say that there is a certain amount of theatrics that Jesus is employing here.  It is a spoof of the Roman power-that-be whom Jesus, or the Jewish rank-and-file population of Judea, probably didn’t much care for.  If Jon Stewart and The Daily Show were around back then, this entry by Jesus might have been something that they would have concocted!

In other words, Jesus is satirizing His earthly overlords, the Roman Empire.  He’s discrediting them publicly, something He has been so very good at doing time and again with the Roman Empire’s local puppets, the Pharisees and the scribes.

And on the other side of this, you have the Jerusalem people themselves.  And I’m not sure that they got the memo that this might have been a satirical stunt.  Notably, there are no palms in Luke’s version—seriously, go back and read it if you don’t believe me.  There are no palms.

Why is this important?  Because olive palms in particular are a symbol associated with victory, the exact same way a gold medal is today.  In the ancient Greek Olympics, victors would be awarded with, among other things, a wreath of olive laurels that they’d wear around their head.  You’ve probably seen pictures of that.  And that tradition carried over, in a manner, to Roman tradition in that victorious rulers or generals might also have palms to greet them, either as a wreath or to wave at him, when he entered a newly-conquered city as part of a victory parade.

Instead, people sacrifice their clothing for Jesus’ mount to have something to trod on, and they shout praises to His name.  In other words, this is the real deal for them.  Even if for Jesus this is a farcical poke-in-the-eye to the powers-that-be, for the people, this is real.  So you see…they are speaking two different languages, Jesus and the people.

But Jesus rolls with it when the Pharisees come a-knocking and tell Him to instruct the crowd to pipe down.  And I love this—Jesus says that even if the people were silent, the stones around them would begin to shout out those very same praises.

I love it because Jesus saying this is a subtle tribute to the man who came before him whom the powers-that-be have already disposed of: John the Baptist.  In Luke’s accounting of John the Baptist’s ministry, way back in Luke 3, he quotes John the Baptist as saying, “And don’t even think to yourselves of saying, ‘Abraham is our father.’  I tell you that God is able to raise up children of Abraham even from these stones.’”  In other words, “Don’t think you’re a special little snowflake just because Abraham is your ancestor.  God can call anything He wants to be a child of His.”

And that is, in so many words, what Jesus is saying—even if the people were not here to take Him seriously and praise Him and shout Hosannas to Him, even the stones, He says, would take on this role of welcoming Him in to Jerusalem, even though they neither live nor speak.  It reinforces a central theme of Luke’s Gospel: the message is for everyone.  And here, Jesus, in keeping with his ridiculous sort of satire, takes it even further: the message is for EVERYTHING, even those things that aren’t alive—I mean, talking rocks?  C’mon.  We don’t say that the message is for chairs or tables or light bulbs.  That’s too silly.  That’s too incredible.  That’s too radical.

But that’s also the true power of God, right?  To take that which might not otherwise hear a word of grace or of mercy, and to transform it into something that not only will do so, but which will also express thanksgiving and praise for having done so.

It’s a new language.

It’s a new language that we, like the stones themselves, begin not knowing how to speak.

But over the course of this Passion week, may we learn how to speak it.  And may we then begin to do so—to not only speak the language of grace and mercy and love, but to sing it, to shout it out, to declare it from the rooftops to whoever will hear:

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

Hosanna, hosanna in excelsis, indeed!

By the grace of God, may it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
March 24, 2013

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