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When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” -Luke 21:5-6
Jesus is such a killjoy sometimes.
Here they are, going into Jerusalem, Jesus and those who have followed him. Jerusalem, bigger by far than the places they had so far been; the sights unusual for so many of them. Many of the Galileans, and certainly the Judeans in the group would have been to Jerusalem for the festivals; yet we know from Luke that there were non-Jews among Jesus’ followers as well, perhaps some who had never been there. We don’t know who, among this group, spoke with such awe; what we hear is simply the understandable amazement. The temple, that almost impossibly huge, beautiful, solid structure, would have seemed almost as though it had always been, would always be; as though it had not been created by human hands. It would have been hard to imagine its not being there, this building which dominated Jerusalem skyline; this building which housed God.
It would have been overwhelming, if not impossible, to conceive of the disappearance of such an important structure: how could something so present, so much a part of life, no longer be?
When you’re in place of transition – even good transition, even expected transition – imagining an “after” is nearly impossible.I know something about this in my own life, and suspect many of you do as well. Transitions mark end points in many ways, even the transitions we have most desired; they invoke grief, with all its associated emotions and stages. Living in transition, we find ourselves living in the unimaginable; feeling our way forward, and having the familiar become suddenly strange. Both Jesus’ followers, and those who author of Luke in 85CE, inhabited such transitional periods, as indeed we do now. Theirs were comprised of the power plays between Jewish autonomy and Roman occupation; between factions of religious and secular authority; between regions; between classes; between sects… all trying to imagine an unimaginable reality, in a way that would bring the most benefit to their own.
In either time, Jesus’ words prophetic. Not because he was predicting a future reality, for the destruction of Temple had already taken place when Luke wrote, but because he was, in tradition of prophets, speaking the hard truth of the current situation. Jesus spoke the truth that nation has already begun to rise up against nation, betrayal has already occurred. Jesus spoke the truth of our reality in which the ground is shifting beneath us; in which people are hungry, in which people are suffering; in which speaking truth does not make you popular, but dangerous.
Jesus speaks the truth that does not make him popular, but dangerous.
Jesus speaks the truth, right before this passage in Luke, that the widow who gave her last coin – her entire livelihood – to the Temple treasury, was betrayed by a system that was supposed to care for her rather than starving her in the name of God.
Jesus speaks the truth, in the passage before the widow, that there have been authorities in all times who prioritize social standing and visible piety over acts of compassion and grace; who would more easily devour than build up.
Jesus speaks the hard truth, throughout the scriptures, that we will be judged not by our finery, not by our beautiful buildings or our social or political or religious achievements, except insofar as we use these to care for the marginalized: the ones whose blood and sweat built the edifices we so admire, and the structures in which we so easily house God.
Because even the places we build for God; even the structures that we make for our dearest hopes, our sweetest dreams, our noblest visions; even these are simply structures of human design and construction.
Certainly, the God who consented to be contained within human flesh has consented as well to dwell in human buildings, for our God does not require perfection as a prerequisite for presence… or for grace. But we must not mistake God’s presence for approbation, just as we must not mistake God’s grace for a get-out-of-jail-free card. Rather, as the 20th century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, grace should be that undeserved gift that changes our lives, which makes us strive to live up to that which has been freely bestowed.
God’s free gift of grace should have some cost on our hearts.
So indeed, God’s presence in our human bodies and structures should be that which makes us strive to build as God would, in the image and likeness of the divine, rather than in the reflection of human failings.
God’s willingness to dwell in our imperfection is not cause for calling our efforts “good enough” and letting go the rest; rather it should be a constant impetus to do better: to acknowledge the imperfections, the inequities and injustices on which we have built; the lives and bodies that our impressiveness have cost; and to find new ways forward.
God’s willingness to dwell in our imperfections is no reason at all for us not to take it all apart: to live into the transitional time, as hard as it will be. For as nation rises against nation, as we are tempted to fight for our own short-term self-interest, as we are tempted to see other as inherently enemy, God calls us to build something new. God calls us to stand on the side of the widow, the hungry, the homeless, the excluded, the marginalized, in ways that tear down the systems that have been used to exclude and dehumanize.
God’s willingness to dwell in our imperfections should not make us less willing to speak the truth: that we are imperfect, yes, but that we can do better than these human structures that serve the powerful to detriment of the least of these.
For as frightening as it may be for us to acknowledge that our great structures, which inspire in us such awe and reverence still have their flaws, still might not stand; as painful as it may be to see that the structures we love and in which we find God might be built upon the suffering and oppression of those deemed “lesser”, “other”, “enemy”; we recall that God’s grace both forgives and changes us. God’s grace turns our hearts to follow the one who showed us what human flesh is truly capable of doing and of being.
As impossible as it might feel to dismantle the huge, beautiful stones until not one stands upon another; as tempting as it may be to turn inwards, to side with our own; to build, upon existing structures, walls to keep out other nations as they rise up: in so doing we risk being, not betrayed but betrayers of this beloved Creation.
It feels impossible, especially in this time of shaky ground, of transition and uncertainty. But this is the call of our God of grace, for whom and in whom we do our building.
For the stones of human construction cannot stand. The stones of misogyny and racism, of fear and suspicion, cannot contain God, larger than any human creation. The stones of xenophobia and exclusion, of hatred and distrust must fall before we can begin to build the kin-dom. The promises of God cannot be built on that which has been used to exclude and oppress. Rather that which has been must fall before the new city of God, the holy place of peace, can come into existence.
We must learn to choose carefully the stones for our construction. We must learn to build upon compassion, inclusion, equality. We must learn to rely upon God as architect and builder. For only when we have removed the blocks of fear and hatred from our structures; only when we have dismantled the suspicion and fear in which we have tried to contain our God and ourselves, can that time come when the wolf and the lamb lie down together; when the lamb need not fear being devoured and the wolf has no need of getting fat off of the vulnerable. Only then can the marginalized live without the fear of attack, and the privileged share freely their power. Only then shall all eat and be satisfied. Only then shall all live well their days upon this earth. Only then shall we all know the true peace that is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of compassion and justice.
The promises are before us, that the ways we have known – though familiar and sometimes comfortable, though solid and seemingly immovable – need not be our way forward. There is a better way: a way that is good, rather than “good enough”; a way that follows the path of God’s grace; a way that will require something of us, which will cost us; a way to which our uncontainable God is calling us right now.
God’s grace is before us, giving us the words of challenge and of promise. Will we listen? God’s path is before us, leading us along the road to a New Jerusalem, a promised realm of justice, equality and peace. Will we take the first step?
Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” -Luke 19:40
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem has got to be one of the great stories of our faith. I know this, because I remember coloring in the pages in Sunday School; the pictures of the palms – bright green crayon – cloaks spread out; the semi-condoned “borrowing” of a donkey, which we assume got returned later. The Hosannas, the cheering crowds, the wondrous procession – this huge parade through throngs of people shouting out, as though all of Jerusalem had shown up at the foot of this hill on the outskirts of the city. As though this were some sort of a spontaneous demonstration of the populace that served to make the events of later in the week all the more devastating.
And I can see why the narrative developed in this way – why we tell the story the way that we do. I can even see why we call this the “Triumphal entry”: as though Jesus were some sort of conquering hero or warrior, the Messiah that we all wanted Jesus to be. As though he had overcome Roman legionnaires and all that Herod and Pilate could throw at him. As though he simply were just another temporal leader. Or as though we ourselves had some stake in the Roman occupation of Palestine.
It makes for a better holiday, to have a narrative like this; it makes for a break in the depths of Lent during which we stop saying “Alleluia”. Having a day when we can shout Hosanna feels pretty good after nearly forty days of discipline, and fasting, and repentance. Moreover, it makes for better pathos later in the week – it makes for a more poignant moment of betrayal and desertion, when it isn’t only twelve who vanish but an entire city that just days before had been shouting Psalms, singing hymns, spreading their cloaks on the ground.
The narrative doesn’t surprise. At some level, it makes so much sense. We know Jesus could draw a crowd, we’ve seen it before. How many did he feed with loaves and fishes? Three thousand? Five thousand? That’s a big crowd! How many were gathered on the coast of the Sea of Galilee as he sailed across? How many gathered to hear the Sermon on the Mount?
But there is a difference between being out in the Galilean or the Judean countryside, and being on the outskirts of a major city – even on the outskirts, in the poor neighborhoods, away from the seat of power. There’s a difference. There’s a difference between going out to hear good preaching, and participating in an overtly political act. We’re not totally off our rockers to see, in this triumphant entry, the movement of a temporal leader, the movement of a powerful human. That’s not an accidental maneuver, that’s not something we added to the narrative later on to make Jesus into the Messiah that we expected. That was Jesus’ choice: to make the entry that way. It was not accidental, but it does point to something other, something much larger. Jesus is, in this moment, using the lens of the familiar, the hoped-for, the expected, to point beyond all of those things. This is, for all intents and purposes, a parable writ large, and acted out for all the world to see.
What we have here, though, is not a popular uprising, but a political stunt. This may look like a large crowd: according to the Gospels a lot of people were there, but let’s remember that a lot of people followed Jesus around. Not just those twelve disciples, but all of the followers, all of the hangers-on. Let’s remember that there were women in the crowd. It would not surprise me that Lazarus – not one of the twelve! – but Lazarus, who had been resurrected, had followed to that moment, and Mary and Martha with him. We know Mary Magdalene was there. We know Joanna was there, we know Salome was there. This was a large crowd, just his followers.
And they came into Jerusalem – not for the first time, but for the most potent time. In a way that looked like what it was: a mockery, a challenge to the powers-that-be. But in a way that went so far beyond that, and we hear it in the words they chose, because that wasn’t accidental either. I don’t think they called it “Psalm 118” in the way that we do, but they chose that scripture deliberately. The Psalm invokes the promises God’s abiding love, that tells us that God’s steadfast love endures forever. That verse is repeated throughout the Psalm, and that is not accidental. They chose a scripture that reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways, that the chief cornerstone shall be the one that was rejected. And in that, how can we see anything but a challenge. Not a challenge to the Romans – we hear this and we know that this isn’t really about the Romans. As much as we want it to be, as much as we want to have a stake in overthrowing occupation, that is not what is happening here. When we read this and we read the Psalm that goes with it we realize that this isn’t even about Herod, or Pilate. This isn’t even about the Jewish establishment and the Temple practices, this isn’t even really about humanity at all.
The past couple of weeks, we’ve mostly been preaching out of the Gospels. It’s not unusual, during Lent, as we are working our way towards a particular, expected end. But we’ve also been hearing quietly from the prophet Isaiah, and Isaiah has had a consistent, clear message these past couple of weeks: that God’s ways are not our ways. We heard that in Isaiah 55, a couple of weeks ago. That God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. That God doesn’t see the world in the way that we do – we need that reminder on a pretty regular basis, I think. Last week, we heard that God is preparing something totally new, totally different, that we can’t count on previous experience to be our guide, that we must simply be prepared for whatever is forming, whatever will be coming.
And so the fact that we see Palm Sunday as triumphal rather than subversive, as somehow being somehow in opposition to Good Friday, rather than otherwise, strikes me simply as a failure of human imagination enshrined in tradition and coloring book pages.
It strikes me as a failure to understand that the God who requires our death and rebirth in the waters of baptism; the God who requires our continual renewal in repentance and grace might just, it strikes me, have something beyond-the-normal-human-scale of revolutionary in mind.
We know the end of the story. Why is it so hard to see?
But if you look at it, and the way in which we have traditionally viewed it: that failure of human imagination to grasp and to comprehend, the failure to put ourselves honestly into the narrative. It makes you wonder where in that story we really would be. It suggests that we would not, actually, be among the disciples, throwing our cloaks down and shouting Hosanna and quoting the Psalms. Rather, it suggests that we would be with the Pharisees, running up to this loud and boisterous procession, entering the city in such a mocking and challenging fashion, and fearing for Jesus and for ourselves. It strikes me that we would be with the Pharisees shouting, “Be QUIET! Don’t you know what could happen to you? Do you have any idea what it is you’re doing?”
Which sounds harsh. Because we all want to be the disciples, right? We all want to have those palms, throwing them down before him, and shouting praises and singing Psalms but… really? Can we honestly say that?
It sounds harsh, but I stand here before you, someone who has been told many times to be silent because of what might happen, and so it rings true.
It sounds harsh, yes it does, but we had a reminder just a couple of weeks ago: when it took 50 years for the Chief of Police in Montgomery, Alabama, to apologize for what had happened during the Civil Rights Movement, when a bunch of people came in on a bus and the city had turned its back, knowing full well that those people had been attacked and beaten in every city in the South where their bus had been. The Montgomery City Police refused to even show up at the bus station. And so those people got attacked, and beaten, and terrorized yet again. And those who might have followed them were silenced. “Be quiet, you, do you know what might happen?”
We got a reminder this week – like we needed another? – in Steubenville, Ohio, of what happens to women on a regular basis. Of how often women are silenced and shamed for being victims. Of how they are re-victimized after the crime for daring to speak the truth, for daring to ask for justice. And that that second victimization, the social victimization that happens afterwards, only serves to silence hundreds more who might have spoken up themselves. “Be quiet, little girl, don’t you know what’s going to happen to you? Don’t you say a word.”
We have reminders daily of how hard humans will cling to the status quo. Of how fierce is our resistance to change, even when change is for good, and change is for love, and change is for justice. We have reminders on a daily basis, and it is not hard to find them, of what happens to those who do work for love, and for justice: of what happens to those who seek to live the Gospel message.
So where do we stand, in that story?
We have reminders as well, that God’s ways are not our ways; that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. And we have reminders of the power of God who is not like us, the power of God to break through into the story and to break us open. The power of God to refuse to be silenced, no matter the cost. “Silence these,” Jesus said to the Pharisees, “and even the stones will cry out.” All Creation shall sing Hosanna, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. All Creation shall sing praises to God, but let’s remember that we’re silencing that, too.
Where are we, in this story?
We have reminders on Palm Sunday, of the radical and subversive nature of God. OF the radical and subversive nature of the one whom we are all, here pledged to follow. Of the responsibility that we all accept as disciples, to participate in what is, inherently, a political – not a partisan, but a political – act. Because if we are to be partisans to anything, to anyone, it should not be to those who have temporal power and human soapboxes, where stone will not stand upon stone; but to the one without whom those very human structures cannot stand, who will break the stones apart as they sing out. It shall be to the one who builds the things that humans would otherwise reject; who takes the least, and lays it as the cornerstone of the strongest foundation. It shall be to the one who rides a donkey through back roads, knowing exactly what he is doing. Knowing the cost of that act, and the cost of those Hosannas, knowing the cost of speaking out.
We have reminders, each of us in our hands, of the real triumph of this entry and of this day. Take your palms, carry them out into the world unafraid to shout Hosanna. Go out into this world, disciples of subversive love and radical vision. Preach the Gospel. Live the Gospel. Live it out loud, and refuse to be silenced.