Fasting from Cowardice; Feasting on Celebration
Let's start with the title for today's sermon. Cowardice comes from an old English word that means "tail" or "end." Like the Latin word "coda." The "-ard" ending is a pejorative ending (think words like "buzzard," and others). In a sense, cowardice means the quality of turning tail.
But I prefer Ernest Hemingway's definition. He defines cowardice as "a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination." In other words, cowardice recognizes what is coming next and is unable to put that aside in order to function.
Today's lesson from Luke isn't so much about cowardice as are the events that follow. Think about what comes next. Jesus takes this cheering crowd in through the Eastern gate of ancient Jerusalem and heads straight to the Temple where he overturns the tables of the market that has been set up there. At that point, the crowd abandons him, leaving him with the twelve disciples. And at the Last Supper, Judas heads out, leaving him with eleven. Then in the Garden, prior to his arrest, it's just three: Peter, James, and John. Finally, he is abandoned, all alone; on the cross, he feels that God has even forsaken him. Everyone else sees what's coming and cannot suspend those hideous images to proceed with him.
It's important to recognize what Jesus had actually done in the eyes of those who would have been there that first Palm Sunday. We might have the view of this as a pitiful little procession, led by Jesus on a tiny horse. But if the Pharisees' reaction is any indication, there was a lot more at stake. A few years ago I talked about the many Old Testament and contemporary historical images that would have come to mind for those in the crowd. In short, Jesus was leading nothing short of a revolt; not a political one, though one with political implications. Instead, it was a revolt of the soul. And when the crowd thought it was a purely political one, they were there cheering him on. But when the spiritual aspects became known, they turned tail and fled.
Two notes from today's lesson that come into view in particular. First, there's the use of "Hosanna." For us in the church, it has come to be almost a synonym for "Halleluia" or "Thanks be to God." The truth is that it literally means, "Save us." It is the cry of those who are in need of salvation. And so, as we use it in a celebratory sense, it reminds us that our celebration, our worship, is just that: a cry for salvation. Every Sunday, our worship begins with a prayer of confession, admitting to God that we haven't done so well the past week and we are sorry. And in our communion, we begin at the table by crying, "Lord, have mercy," continuing with sung refrains of "Hosanna in the highest." Our worship is a desire for salvation.
The second thing that I note today is that curious phrase at the end, where the Pharisees call on Jesus to introduce some crowd control. But if he did, he says, the stones will shout out." What an image; those stones crying out to the Prince of Peace! But it makes me wonder: what have those stones seen? What if the stones could talk? The stones that lined the road that day, watching this revolutionary procession, what would they tell us? What about the stones on which the bread for the Last Supper was baked in that crude oven? And those paving stones of old Jerusalem, as Jesus dragged the cross through the streets, the screaming crowds that had once asked for his saving grace, now mocking him? What would they tell us? And that burial stone, as it was sealed, the savior of the world dead and buried? And, finally, that same stone which was rolled aside to give witness to the empty tomb, the resurrection absence before our eyes? If these stones could talk...
In worship, we had a collection of stones. I invited everyone to take one. If you weren't able to be with us, go outside on a walk. Grab a stone. Let it be your companion this Holy Week. What would it say about what it has seen? If you do come to our services, bring it with you. Let it be your companion, your Holy Week guide. And remember: even if we are silent, even if we turn our tails, the stones themselves will cry out on our behalf. God will be praised. The revolution will happen.