Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Witness of the Stones -- A Palm Sunday Sermon

Luke 19:28-40


Concerning the sermon title – this isn’t a sermon about the Rolling Stones!  They may have something to say, but I don’t think it’s connected to Palm Sunday! 

When you drive into the church parking lot, do you notice those two gargoyle blocks of stone sitting on the circle?  Do you ever wonder why they’re there?  I think they come from the old church, and they serve as a reminder of our connection to that former place of worship and service.  We don’t talk about those stones, but they do have a story to tell.  

Stones might be inanimate objects, but they do tell stories.  

When I go to England next fall on my sabbatical, I plan to visit Stonehenge.  That stone structure draws visitors from all over the world, and everyone wonders who built it and why.  These stones have a story to tell, but we must use our imagination to hear it.      

Or, what about the stone monuments in Washington, D.C.?  Consider the marble graves of Arlington or the stark black marble of the Vietnam Memorial Wall.  What stories do these stones tell?  

The Vietnam Memorial Wall was controversial when it was built, but it has become a place of pilgrimage.  Fifty years after that war began, people go to the wall, and rub the names of friends and loved ones, honoring their memories and remembering their stories.   

In Scripture, there are also stones that tell stories.   Remember when the people of Israel crossed the Jordan River after their escape from Egypt?   The Lord told Joshua to select twelve men from each tribe, and have them take a stone from the middle of the Jordan.  Then he told the men to pile the stones at the place where Israel camped that first night.  Joshua told the tribes that when the children asked the meaning of the stones, they should tell the story of how God cut off the waters of the Jordan so that the people, led by priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant, could pass through into the Promised Land.  The stones may appear silent, but they tell a story (Joshua 4:1-7).  

As we gather to celebrate Palm Sunday, we join in Jesus’ festal procession into the city of Jerusalem.  In the words of the Psalmist, perhaps you can hear Jesus, standing above the city and crying out:   
Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. (Psalm 118:19).
Then, riding on the colt that his disciples had borrowed, Jesus heads down from the Mount of Olives into the City of Jerusalem, so that he could worship in the Temple.  And as he does this, his disciples throw their cloaks on the ground in front of him and they shout:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!

Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.” 
Luke’s version of this story may be more subdued than what we read in the other Gospels, but the signs that this is prophetic moment are present even here.  If you know the words of Zechariah 9:9, you will recognize the meaning of a man riding into the city on a donkey or a colt.  It’s clear, at least to some, that Jesus is making a messianic claim.  He is the promised king.   

If you were watching this unfold from the sidelines, especially if you were part of the power structure in Jerusalem, this scene would have to make you nervous.  Even as Jesus enters the city through the eastern gate, it’s likely that  Pilate is leading Roman troops into the city through the western gate.  With pilgrims pouring into the city to celebrate Passover, Jesus’ actions were sure to stir up trouble.    

And so a group of Pharisees goes to Jesus and asks him to make the disciples stop.  Not long before a group of Pharisees warned Jesus to stay clear of Jerusalem, but he ignored their warnings.  He seemed to know that his destiny lay in the city of Jerusalem.  This was to be his moment.  

So when the Pharisees warn him to silence the disciples, Jesus answers:  
“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Preaching on the Palm Sunday story isn’t easy, because we know that the triumphal entry doesn’t seem to end in triumph.  Jesus doesn’t take power from the Romans.  Instead, he is executed for sedition.  He will be accused of pretending to be the King of the Jews, and the Romans couldn’t allow that to happen.  They decided who was to rule – and Herod was the puppet king of Galilee, while Pilate represented Caesar in Judea.  When push came to shove, they had to get rid of Jesus!

But the stones can’t be silenced.  They will have the last word. In Luke’s version of the Easter story, we hear these words:
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.  They found the stone rolled away from the tomb.
The women who had come to the tomb were then asked by two men in dazzling clothes: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.”  (Luke 24:1-5).

Next Sunday, when we gather to celebrate Easter we will consider the meaning of a different stone – the stone that has been rolled away from the door of the tomb.  

But what is the meaning of Jesus’ words here?  In what way do stones declare the glory of God if the disciples remain quiet?  

Fred Craddock writes that “some things simply must be said; the disciples are expressing what is ultimately and finally true: God will provide a witness though every mouth be stopped; opposition to Christian witness cannot succeed and the truth will come out” (Luke: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preachingpp. 227-228).  If we don’t tell the story, God will still find a way to make it known – even if it’s the stones that do the preaching!

One of these stones, which preaches is the “stone that the builders rejected.”  According to Psalm 118, this stone will  “become the chief cornerstone.”  The very stone that had been rejected as having no use or value, becomes the cornerstone.  Why is this important?  Well, in ancient buildings, the cornerstone or the capstone was the key to the building’s stability and completion.  If you take it away, the building collapses.  God has chosen the stone humanity rejected to be the cornerstone for God’s realm. 

    According to the witness of the disciples, Jesus is that cornerstone.  In 1 Peter 2, we read that Jesus is the “living stone” whom we humans rejected.  But the very stone we rejected is  precious in the sight of God.  

Peter writes: “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5).  

We are these living stones, who must declare:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  (Luke 19:38)
What is the story that you and I must share?  How do we become these living stones that declare “peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven?”

The Psalm that is read on most Palm Sundays is Psalm 118.  It begins by giving thanks for the goodness of Yahweh, whose steadfast love endures forever. If you experience this steadfast love, how do you not share this good news?  

Back in early 2009 – four years ago – we gathered for a retreat to discern our core values as a missional congregation.  One of those core values is witnessing.  In response to that realization we participated in a congregation wide study of Gay Reese’s book Unbinding Your Heart.   And some of you had read her earlier book – Unbinding the Gospel – even before I arrived.  It’s been a while since we read these books, but it’s good to remember Gay’s point about our  reticence as mainline Protestants to share our faith stories.  She wanted to help us break our silence about our faith stories so that we can proclaim the goodness and love of God to the world.  As living stones, when asked the story of our lives, we can give our witness to the transforming presence of Jesus in our lives.    

And remember what Craddock said – there are some things that just have to be shared.  If we don’t share the good news, then surely God will use stones!!  On this Palm Sunday, may we be the living stones that declare to the world that God’s steadfast love endures forever!    

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Palm Sunday
March 24, 2013

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