Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Monday, April 18, 2011

The stone the builders rejected (4.17.11; Palm Sunday)

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
1   O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures for ever!
2     Let Israel say,  “His steadfast love endures for ever.”
19  Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.
20  This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.
21  I thank you that you have answered me  and have become my salvation.
22  The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
23  This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
24  This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
25  Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!
26  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.  We bless you from the house of the LORD.
27  The LORD is God, and he has given us light.
     Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.
28  You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.
29  O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.

Matthew 21:1-11
1When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5   “Tell the daughter of Zion,
     Look, your king is coming to you,
          humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
     “Hosanna to the Son of David!
          Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
     Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

            Who can tell us what this Palm Sunday parade is all about?

            Tell us a little more about that.

Part of me really hates Palm Sunday. We sing praises and celebrate Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem. We play the role of the crowd and joyfully welcome him with palm branches held high. But even as we shout with joy we know the crowd’s love for Jesus is fickle. We know that not even a week later the crowd will be calling out for his blood.

            On Palm Sunday I feel like we’re celebrating hypocrisy: “Hosanna to the son of David,” then “Crucify! Crucify!” Maybe if we can’t quite give all our enthusiasm to the singing and palm-waving this morning it’s because we don’t really want to be this crowd. We know their love for Jesus is unsteady, untrustworthy. We know that even the inner circle of disciples won’t be able to hold their ground when the time comes, despite their passionate words and their best intentions.

            What would the crowd say in their defense? How would they respond to the charge of hypocrisy and betrayal? I think they would point the finger at the religious leaders who led them astray. They are right to do that, too, that’s where all the Gospels put the blame for Jesus’ condemnation.

            After all, the crowds were accustomed to trusting their leaders; they were trained to think the religious leaders knew best. The Pharisees and chief priests were all the crowd had left of the once glorious kingdom of David. It made sense that they longed for a king to fill that void. But maybe it also made sense that when the initial excitement wore off they second-guessed themselves. Sure Jesus looked like a king at first, but as the excitement faded, the leaders’ arguments started to make sense.

            Why didn’t this king take action against the pagan Romans? Why didn’t this king start recruiting an army? Why didn’t this king team up with the priests and other leaders? Maybe the religious leaders were right. Maybe the leaders knew better. If Jesus really was the Messiah the teachers would believe in him, right?

            We know now that Christ’s kingdom is different from the kingdoms we’re used to. The Psalm Al read a little earlier gets at some important truths about that kingdom. For one thing, the Psalm begins with praise to God for God’s steadfast love. God’s love shows up in many different ways, including providing kings for Israel in the past and now sending Jesus to show the new kingdom of God. No matter how we wander away from God, God’s love for us is constant and persistent.

            The Psalm also says “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” The builders, the leaders entrusted with power, the leaders who were counted on to guide Israel with wisdom rejected the cornerstone. Psalm 118 doesn’t tell us why the builders rejected that stone, only that God sometimes makes the rejected stone the most important.

            God builds differently than we do; especially, God builds differently than people in power do. People in power usually build society to increase their power, but God’s kingdom is about sharing and justice for everyone. Even the kings of Israel, who were chosen to be God’s leaders for God’s people, built walls to protect their power. So it’s with a long sense of history and human sin that the psalmist knows that God often chooses the rejected to be the cornerstone.

            True to the Psalm and true to historical pattern the scribes and Pharisees reject Jesus. They question him and try to trip him up; they accuse him of blasphemy and try to stone him. Finally later in the week they will find a willing betrayer in Judas and will finally be able to arrest him away from the eyes of the crowd. They will manage to trick the crowd into turning their backs on Jesus and even calling for his death. They will force Pontius Pilate to give way to their request to condemn Jesus to the cross, and then they will mock Jesus in his last hours. Their rejection will be complete, but God makes that rejected rock into the cornerstone of a new kingdom and a new creation.

            There’s a haunting word of warning in that story for those of us who lead in the church. There’s nothing unique about scribes and Pharisees that led them to reject God’s anointed. Instead, their desire to hold on to their own power, and even their true dedication to God’s Law made it hard for them to see Jesus as anything but a threat.

Time and time again leaders of Christ’s church have made the same mistake. Whether it’s standing in the way of racial equality, supporting oppressive power over the poor, blocking women’s contributions in the church or rejecting the gifts of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Christians today, we still fall into the same trap Israel’s leaders did in Jesus’ day. Power and dedication to tradition can blind us to the new things God is doing now.

And time and time again God shows that the stones that builders reject are precious to God. New voices proclaiming gospel freedom, gospel hope, gospel love, sing out to challenge the self-serving stubbornness of modern builders. God keeps sending gifted people we might not expect to remind us that whatever we’re tempted to reject, God can use as a cornerstone to build up the kingdom. God keeps reminding us that it is God’s kingdom not ours.

There’s a warning for us in the crowd’s role as well. That’s the more troubling piece of the Holy Week story to me. After all, it’s been clear throughout Christ’s ministry that the most of the religious leaders aren’t going to get on board. But the crowd has seen his ministry; they’ve been touched by his teaching and healing. They’ve been welcomed by his open arms and forgiving heart. In our passage for today the crowd finally puts it together and recognizes that Jesus is the king they’ve been waiting for. They welcome him as God’s Messiah.

In these last days the religious leaders need to arrest him secretly because the crowd loves him. The crowd gets it; they even rejoice in Jesus getting the best of the religious leaders. What goes wrong between Palm Sunday and Good Friday?

The stakes of that question are pretty high for us, because we are the crowd. We listen to Jesus’ words each week. Something about him keeps us coming back. We love when he defeats the sneaky leaders with a clever response that helps us see God’s truth in a different way than we did before. Most of the time what God does in Christ is marvelous to us, like the psalm says.

But sometimes we let those other voices lead us away. Sometimes we let the religious leaders convince us that they know best and that Jesus is leading us in a dangerous direction. Sometimes we let political leaders convince us that they know best, and that Christ’s values are impractical for us today. Sometimes we let social leaders convince us that success or wealth of comfort are the most important goals and that when Jesus talks about giving radically or taking up our cross he’s just using a charming metaphor.

Sometimes we let our own comfort convince us that Christ’s calling is too hard or too distant or too spiritual for us to take seriously. Sometimes we leave that cheering, Palm Sunday crowd wondering if we’ve gotten carried away in the moment, or grateful for the distraction but ready to get back to our more important concerns, or too tired to look outside our everyday world for our true calling.

Then we let the fear take us; we let the rush of everyday “necessities” distract us from the calling to look deeper. We hear the voices of the leaders. We listen to their arguments that Jesus is a threat: a threat to tradition, a threat to family and temple and all we hold dear. We listen to them tell us that there are dangers we don’t understand, dangers that Jesus doesn’t know about and doesn’t care about. He’s too much of an idealist; he doesn’t understand the world we really live in. He doesn’t understand the pressures they face from government and how their strictness might seem oppressive but is necessary to preserve our identity from the secular world.

Little by little the good sense of their arguments sinks into our minds. We wonder if Jesus’ words are just a fantasy. We might not be all the way convinced, but usually we’re too scared or too tired to argue. Maybe then we go back home and put Jesus out of our mind as a closed chapter in a longer story about fitting in and finding our way in the world.

If we stay in the public square a little later that morning we see Jesus led out looking haggard and bruised. We keep hearing the leaders reminding us of their practical concerns, of their important duty to protect us and the delicate edge that our religious freedom rests on. Pilate asks the crowd who they want released from prison. A solid core of the crowd around the leaders shouts out Barabas. Pilate asks, “What should I do with this king of yours?” with scorn dripping from his words. A knot in your stomach tightens as you hear that group in the center of the crowd shout, “Crucify him!”

Slowly the cry spreads through the crowd coming closer to you. More and more people join in the chant; you recognize people from your village nearby. What will they think if you refuse to join the crowd? The noise grows louder; surely nothing you can do now will save this man, this gentle teacher, or is he a dangerous madman? We know where this story goes; we know what the crowd does and where that Friday afternoon ends up.

But each Palm Sunday finds us back in that more optimistic crowd welcoming Jesus like the king he truly is. Each Palm Sunday gives us a glimpse of Christ’s kingdom, a beautiful, chaotic, diverse crowd of people shouting for God’s marvelous salvation. Each Palm Sunday puts words of longing for a just and transformative world in our mouths. Each Palm Sunday gives us the chance to be that crowd turning away from the cynicism and oppressive rule of religious and political power and bringing Jesus into the royal city.

Each Palm Sunday gives us the chance to decide if we will truly welcome Jesus as our Lord. This time, will we allow the hope of Christ’s kingdom to triumph inside us? Will we welcome Jesus into our hearts and let him change our lives? Will we stand up to the voice of religious fear and traditional suspicion? Will we stand up to social acceptability and culturally sanctioned selfishness? Will we stand up to the crowd’s fearful voice that turns to violence?

Will we stick by our claim that Jesus is our Lord? Will we live the trust and joy we proclaim with our songs? Will we let Jesus be our King, our humble and welcoming king?

Where will this Palm Sunday lead us? How will this Palm Sunday change us to be more like Christ? How will we keep this song of welcome going when the world around us tempts and threatens us to reject Jesus? How will we be part of the kingdom God builds with the rejected Christ as cornerstone?

Thanks be to God.

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