Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Sermon for March 24, 2013 / Palm Sunday

Even Stones Cry Out

Jesus went on toward Jerusalem, walking ahead of his disciples. As he came to the towns of Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives, he sent two disciples ahead. “Go into that village over there,” he told them. “As you enter it, you will see a young donkey tied there that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks, ‘Why are you untying that colt?’ just say, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So they went and found the colt, just as Jesus had said. And sure enough, as they were untying it, the owners asked them, “Why are you untying that colt?” And the disciples simply replied, “The Lord needs it.” So they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their garments over it for him to ride on. As he rode along, the crowds spread out their garments on the road ahead of him. When he reached the place where the road started down the Mount of Olives, all of his followers began to shout and sing as they walked along, praising God for all the wonderful miracles they had seen. “Blessings on the King who comes in the name of the LORD! Peace in heaven, and glory in highest heaven!” But some of the Pharisees among the crowd said, “Teacher, rebuke your followers for saying things like that!” He replied, “If they kept quiet, the stones along the road would burst into cheers!” Luke 19:28-40

(Holding a stone, reverently) =Do you hear it saying anything? I haven’t heard any over-the-top-joyful, ear-drum piercing, contagious shouts for joy this morning -- yet. I hoped that this stone would begin to sing or shout, maybe something like: “Peace in heaven, and glory in highest heaven!" or, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Didn’t we just hear Jesus say that if his followers were silent, the stones would burst into cheers? When was the last time you joyfully praised God with such a loud voice that someone had to tell you to sit down and be quiet? Let’s listen carefully to the stone again.

Jerusalem has stones everywhere. We hear a lot about the holiness of the rocks in Jerusalem, especially when it comes to the adoration of ancient stones. Jews pray at a stone foundation called the Western Wall -- all that’s left of their holy temple. Muslims pray at the Dome of the Rock -- the third holiest site of Islam that sits atop the old Jewish Temple. Listen carefully to these stones. Are they singing the praises of God? The stones of Jerusalem have witnessed bloodshed, cruelty and atrocity. It’s part of the ancient city’s history. Jerusalem today still hangs on the edge of destruction. As the stones are thrown by Palestinians at Israelis and by Israelis at Palestinians, those stones may be whispering echoes of Jesus’ words when he visits Jerusalem, Jesus looks at the rocks of the old city and says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Lk. 13:33).

It’s as true right here in our lives as it is in the Holy City. That’s what we do, sometimes. We throw stones. You know it. You’ve thrown some stones in your life. I’ve done it, too. Stones of inadequacy – stones that say, “Go away. I’m not worth your time or love.” Stones of arrogance – stones that say, “My way is better.” Stones of isolation – stones that say, “I can do this all by myself. I don’t need you.” Stones of fear – stones that build walls instead of a home in which all are welcome. Stones of immaturity – stones that say, “I don’t want to grow. I don’t want to take responsibility. Just let me play by myself.” Stones of prejudice – stones that say, “You’re different from me. You’re not wanted or needed around here.” Stones of defensiveness – stones that say, “Don’t change or challenge me. Let me stay in my narrow little world.” Stones of violence that deny another’s dignity and humanity.

Listen to these stones. Are they singing praise?

This stone in my hand is not from Jerusalem. It’s not a holy stone from a shrine. It’s an ordinary hunk of Maryland quartz. It’s job is to get in my way when I’m trying to mow the yard. I move it around from place to place. Sometimes I hold it and listen. But it hasn’t said anything to me yet.

Poet Annie Dillard writes about a neighbor who lives alone with a stone. He is trying to teach the stone to talk. He spends time each day at their lesson. She writes: “He keeps it on a shelf. Usually the stone lies protected by a square of untanned leather, like a canary asleep under its cloth. Larry removes the cover for the stone’s lessons, or more accurately, I should say, for the ritual or rituals which they perform together several times a day.” Some, of course, laugh. They laughed at Jesus, too. God only knows which parts of creation are filled with messages for us. I suspect the problem is that we do not have the ears to hear. Or maybe it’s not an ear problem. Maybe it’s a heart problem.

When the Bible talks about the heart, it’s often used as a symbol. The heart refers to our emotions, thought or will. The biblical writers saw the heart as the seat of moral responsibility. The problem is that from the beginning of human existence, the place that controls our desire and will to follow God has been diseased. The Bible talks repeatedly about the various spiritual heart diseases:

There’s the condition of an unclean heart. Hear the words of King David after he sleeps with another man’s wife and has her husband killed. He cries out, “Create in me a clean heart, O God . . . “ (Psalm 51:1).

There’s the condition of a deceptive heart. These days the popular assumption is that the heart is basically good. The prophet Jeremiah thought differently. “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

Then there’s the disease of a stony heart. A stone is dead. It has no feelings. Talk to it; it will shed no tears of pity, even when you tell it your saddest tales. No smiles will gladden it, even when you tell it the happiest story. It has no consciousness. Prick it and it will not bleed. Stab it and it cannot die. You can’t make it wince or show any emotional response. Tears are lost on it. You can try to threaten it, but you might as well be whistling into the wind. All these efforts fall hopelessly to the ground because a stone is dead, and hard, and cold.

As we approach holy week, we remember a Sunday that began with the waving palms and cries of celebration turned into stony silence by Friday. Jesus rides to the cross. Friday’s stone-cold darkness will swallow up all the joyful shouting that rang in the streets on Sunday. No palms waving. No disciples shouting. The open mouth of the stone tomb is sealed with a stone. And we wait for the stone to speak.

You know how today’s story ends: Once, long ago, on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women found the stone rolled away from the empty tomb. They were frightened. I get it. When there’s a Palm-Sunday-type parade or a party, we might be willing to shout and sing. But when God mixes that celebration up with suffering and death, we become awkwardly silent. Our hearts grow fearful and cold. Even when we know the end of the story is good news of life, joy and peace, it can be hard to wave our branches and cheer. How can we shout our joyful praises of God in the midst of a world that seems so stony, so cold, so unresponsive to love and so far from the peace of Christ? How can we wave our palms when we realize that we have let our hearts become hard as rocks?

(Addressing the stone) I’m waiting for you to cheer. I’m waiting for you to tell me the hidden things that make for peace and joy. Listen! Can you hear this stone’s cries? Listen, and listen, and listen.

I may never teach my stone to speak. But it may teach me to listen. The stones we stumble over, the stones we throw, the stones that others may throw at us, the stones rolled away from the tombs of our lives . . . they all have a message. We may discover that we do indeed have ears to hear what Jesus is saying to us. This time we might hear and recognize the time of God’s visit.

This time God’s peace may not come in the tears of a rabbi entering Jerusalem on a young colt. It may not come with fanfare and waving palms. This time God’s peace may arrive in your neighbor – the crazy one teaching a stone to talk, the caring one who bakes you cookies, the lonely one waiting for an invitation to anything, or the angry one taking you to court. Learn from the stone. Listen to it. Don’t let God’s visit pass you by Listen. Listen to these stones speak. Listen and recognize God’s presence in them. You may just find yourself shouting joyful praises.

• “The Stony Heart Removed”, A Sermon Delivered on Sunday Evening, May 25th, 1862, by C. H. SPURGEON, At the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington,

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