Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, March 21, 2016

Palm Sunday: Hearts of stone, cry out.

3-20-16, Palm Sunday
Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and savior Jesus our king, Amen.

Welcome to Holy Week, where up is down, and down is up. Where a crowd shouts “Blesses is the king” one minute and “Crucify him!” the next. Where bread becomes Jesus’ body and wine becomes his blood. Where a king is killed for not being the right kind of king. Where a criminal walks and an innocent man dies. Where Judas betrays and Peter denies and a Roman solder confesses the truth about this king on a cross.

This is it. We made it. This week is what the forty days of Lent have been leading up to. This is why we’ve swathed ourselves in purple: the color Jesus wore to be mocked, the color of royalty and bruises. We are about to enter the most important week of the church calendar. We are about to enter a week where time gets wibbly-wobbly and seems out of joint. We are about to enter a week where an instrument of torture and death becomes the means by which we are rescued from death.

This week begins with a parade. Jesus comes down the road into Jerusalem, like kings of old, riding a colt and surrounded by his disciples laying their cloaks before him like a royal procession. They are filled with praise for all the deeds of power that they had seen Jesus do – for the healings, the feeding of over five thousand people, the casting out demons, calming a storm and raising a widow’s son – feats so astounding that Jesus’ followers called out their praises from all along the parade route. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Now, the last time we heard those same words actually wasn’t all that long ago, back in December - when the sky was filled with a multitude of the heavenly host, appearing to shepherds late at night. These poor shepherds, scared out of their wits, witnessed the first proclamation of the good news of great joy for all the people, the birth of a savior, a messiah, the Lord. That night, the sky was filled with the shouts of angels:  ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”

THAT night, Christmas night, shepherds bore witness to the arrival of God’s glory being birthed into the world. On THIS day, Palm Sunday, Jesus’s followers are the ones shouting for joy, heralding the time has come, the king has come, to bring peace to heaven and earth.
But not everyone is shouting for joy. The Pharisees, too, have seen these deeds of power that Jesus has done, and they are concerned. And they were absolutely RIGHT. They remind us that the Jewish people at this time were under the oppressive thumb of Rome. Whose idea of peace was subduing the people with threats, violence, might of the sword, and death by crucifixion. You don’t mess WITH ROME. Especially by proclaiming that there is another kind of peace out there, another kind of king, another Lord who rules heaven and earth, one that is NOT ROME. Not exactly a good plan, disciples. You might want to rethink that one.

So it makes sense that the advice of the Pharisees to Jesus is for his disciples to  “back up, hush up, shut up, and keep your head down.” Don’t rock the boat. Put a lid on it. “Ex-Nay on the Osanna-Heys.” 

Solid advice, from a human point of view. But then we heard Jesus’s surprising response – “If these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Thanks to Jesus, we might need to rethink that old phrase, “dumber than a box of rocks.” If Jesus own disciples didn’t cry “Blessed is the king,” the very creation would be compelled to. Stones, boulders, rocks, and pebbles, are all on standby to pick up where the disciples leave off.

The stones probably knew, as we all know, that the time was very near that the praises for Jesus would stop, and the crowds instead would cry out for his death. They probably knew that his disciples would be silent from heavy sleep as Jesus prayed alone in the Garden of Gethsemane. That they would be silent in the face of the chief priests and the officers of the temple police taking him away. That they would be silent, standing at a distance as Jesus was crucified.

The stones might see what Jesus’s disciples cannot – that this king does not go into Jerusalem to set up a peace that is like that of Rome, a peace brought by might and sword. This King doesn’t enter the holy city to set himself up as RULER, but to give himself up as SACRIFICE. As Paul wrote, the one who in the form of God and had equality with God empties himself and becomes obedient – even so far as death on a cross.

And this is what Holy Week is all about. Up is down and down is up. Time is out of joint. Stones would shout when we are silent. The King of the universe comes to die. This king that we welcome, we then abandon and reject. We turn our backs and trust ourselves rather than the king who created us. We long for the king of king WE want, not the kind of king that we NEED. We embrace peace that is not peace, but power. Our hearts of flesh become like hearts like stone, silent in the face of evil days and evil deeds. (Bonhoeffer)

Still. There is clearly a place in the story, in this week, for stones.

Stones can still be called upon to praise Jesus for showing us what the glory of God looks like in the flesh. A stone sealed the tomb where Jesus lay after his death, but stones of tombs can be rolled away to make room for the power of resurrection and new life. The stone that the builders reject can become the cornerstone, the very source of our faith. Hearts of stone - like ours - can be gathered together into spiritual house around that cornerstone, gathered and loved by their creator.

In just the next chapter of Luke, Jesus describes himself as the cornerstone to same Pharisees who would continue to reject him. And Peter, our favorite “open-mouth-insert-foot” disciple, the same who denied Jesus three times, his very names means “Rock” or stone. And this rock – Peter - would later write about Jesus as a living rock, a living stone, rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight. He says that we are God’s own people, living stones, stones that are at the same time dead and alive. Stones that are gathered together in order to shout out, as stones are called upon to do, to praise the mightily acts of our King of Peace. Peter continues, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” 

Down is up and up is down. We who have hearts of stone cry “hosanna” and “crucify.” We who would not show mercy, have received it. Hearts of stone come back to life. Despite our willingness to turn away from God, God will never turn away from us, and will go all the way to death and back in order to prove it.

In the meantime, join us on the road through Holy Week. Be a witness with the disciples and the stones:

Behold the king of peace, who comes in the name of the Lord, as he rides on to face his death.

Behold our king of peace, surrounded disciples and stones to cheer him on – for now.

Behold our king of peace, who eats his last meal with those who betray, deny, and abandoned him in silence.

Behold our king of peace, who did not resist when he was mocked, beaten, and nailed to a cross.

Behold our king of peace, on a cross flanked by criminals, and dying in darkness.

Behold our king of peace, who was hastily laid in a borrowed tomb.

And lastly, three days later, behold a stone that has been moved,

a grave with no body,

and death with no more power over us. Amen.

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