That Stones Will Speak
Psalm 118, Luke 19:28–40
As an aside, and one of the things I think is interesting to know, is that a parade with palms and people shouting “Blessed is the one…” didn’t start with Jesus. On that day when Jesus and his disciples were walking toward Jerusalem, crowds of Jews would’ve been moving right along with them, many of them carrying palm branches and chanting these words whether or not Jesus was there. They were chanting a certain section of the Psalms, from 113-118, that Jews call the Hallel. This means praise. Jews pray aloud these 6 praise psalms as a unit before certain feast days. By Jesus’ time, the crowds were saying “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” – complete with waving greenery – on their way to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. The reason they chanted these psalms was to express their gratitude to God for the foundations of their faith and the truths that brought them together as a people: the Exodus, the law given to Moses at Mount Sinai, the someday resurrection of the dead and the someday coming of the Messiah.
So, the idea of children waving palm branches and chanting “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” was not unfamiliar to the Jews – and certainly not unfamiliar to the Pharisees.
But that doesn’t mean that our Christian celebration with children parading in with their palms isn’t special. I had this romantic idea of asking Joe to give Owen a palm and let him be in the parade…but then I imagined my little tough guy parading right up to the chancel and thought better of it. I’m sure that the parade was just as exciting for him to watch this year as to be a part of.
We’re forever in search of things to do with Owen. I’m so grateful for PBS! I’ve tuned in more than a few times to find programs that would catch his attention. Not too long ago, I found a new show, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. It’s a take-off on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Those of us who are on facebook were reminded that we just passed the 10 year anniversary of Mister Rogers’ death. There were posts all over of how this kindly Presbyterian pastor from Pittsburgh taught us life lessons grounded in Christian faith and truths.
I don’t think I’m taking too much of a leap to suggest that everyone here has heard of Mister Rogers. As a matter of fact, I’ll bet that no matter where you’re from, everybody has a similar image – if not the same image – when I mention his name: a sweet-smiling, light-skinned man wearing a cardigan sweater. But can you shut your eyes and picture Mister Rogers getting mad? That’s more difficult. I’ll bet that there would’ve been nothing that would’ve made Mister Rogers throw his cardigan sweater down on the ground of his neighborhood faster than someone not being nice. People in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood were nice. They were good. They were principled, just like Mister Rogers. Anything that would disrupt this truth would have made Mister Rogers furious.
But I think sometimes as progressive Christians, we allow ourselves to become too comfortable with “nice.” We’ve become so comfortable with the simple truth of nice that we forget the bedrock of what makes us nice, or those principles upon which our niceness is based. What are the foundational truths that we so often allow to be silenced in what just might be our desire for everyone to just feel good about being in the neighborhood?
To avoid potentially trivializing what for me is a vital concern, I’ll walk away from my Mister Rogers analogy and take us to some documented findings.
Since at least the 1960s, mainstream, Protestant Christians have taken pains to make known that we embrace with loving-kindness all people. This is a very good thing. It’s a principled thing. It’s led to a movement to promote interfaith dialogue, religious tolerance, More Light churches, diverse neighborhoods, and fair employment practices – very good things — throughout the United States and much of the Western world. Churches like Western Presbyterian Church are lifted up as beautiful embodiments of how Christians embracing principled loving-kindness leads to extraordinary ministries and life changing situations for the betterment and well-being of thousands of people over the years.
But as we move forward in this tradition, we need to safeguard against a dire potentiality. We need to safeguard against the dire potentiality of becoming more like silenced disciples, conceding to modern-day Pharisees and downplaying the very principles upon which our goodness and niceties are based.
Let’s talk about how this could unfold.
This one’s easy: “Evangelism.” The Big E Word. We’re taught to comfort each another without suggesting any Godly reason for extending our care. When we’re talking with someone who might not be Christian, we’re encouraged to use universally accepted language: “I’ll pray for you” is just fine, but beware of asking someone if he’d like us to pray with him, right then. Using the name of God is fine. But the name of Jesus Christ? Stay away. We are told to never bring up the bible.
Here’s another example: Often when progressive Christians go on mission trips or even local projects, we’re told to sidestep any language that would label our actions as “Christian.” Justifiably mindful of some Christian missionaries’ legacies of oppression and injustice, we wouldn’t want to make the beneficiary of our labor to believe that he was being proselytized or expected to convert to our way of viewing the world in order to receive what we’re offering. So, our mission work in a lot of cases becomes community service work, as if we were members of the Rotary or the Junior League.
Then, let’s address mainstream, Protestant, Christian education. As Paul and I were talking the other day, we have to be mindful of the possibility that our Adult Christian Education could become more broadly encompassing, good-person education if we don’t end each class with a word or application of Christian hope. I remember offering a Lenten Lecture Series a few years ago and inviting a founding member of the Jesus Seminar to speak about metaphoric interpretations of scripture. How could I’ve ever guessed that he would end with an aside about how the resurrection didn’t really happen as if he were talking about the Easter bunny? While he didn’t offend anyone who values a more liberal take on the gospel, the other half of the room left in shock.
Net/net, it seems to me that those of us who call ourselves Progressive Christians have allowed the Christian right to appropriate the language and thought of Jesus, himself. It’s as if we’re embarrassed by Christian language so that we usually dance around it in open company. It’s like we’ve allowed the Christian right to steal Christian language away from the mainstream world so that any time Christian language is heard people get their backs raised. I will go so far to say that in a lot of ways, I’ve been perpetuating this problem, myself, for years. It’s a lot easier, you might agree, to sidestep the name of Jesus than possibly rub someone the wrong way. What I’ve recognized for myself in the recent past is that I’ve become in certain situations, anyway, almost apologetically Christian?
The Pharisees told Jesus, “tell your disciples (or, from the Greek word, mathetes, thosewho learn from you) to stop. (Jesus) answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”…the stones would shout out!
I fervently embrace the philosophy of the mid-60s progressive Christian movement that identifies as essential the right for all people to voice their religious perspectives and to be encouraged to feel comfortable expressing their religious truths. I do not believe and would never intend to suggest that intolerance is a virtue. That said, it seems that the progressive religious movement can be a two way street. If we do really wish to respect others, we won’t be apologetically Christian any more than we would hope that our friends and new acquaintances hide who they are. If we really are living Christ’s call to embrace others, we need to allow our whole selves to be embraced, too. At the end of the day, it is most right and good – the principled thing – to share our whole selves with the world. Anytime we layer a protective shield over our Christianity, we hide a bit more from those we purport to love. That doesn’t play well in the neighborhood, and it could be one reason why there’s been a precipitous drop in membership among mainstream protestant Christian churches since the 1960s. Sometimes correlation does mean causality.
Our children learn from us and I’m going to bet we teach them pretty well. But beneath the weight of secular pressures, stones often crumble. Beneath the weight of gossip and discontent, and personal insecurities, stones often crumble. Beneath the weight of even our high regard for family and friends and those we’ve never met before, stones often crumble. Remember: we are not alone. Beneath the weight of a crowd, Peter, the rock upon which Christ built the church, crumbled not once but three times. Sometimes it takes courage to acknowledge Christ in our life.
And so I suggest that it is of the highest import that mainstream Protestants begin to sidestep our apologies – even implicit ones. Can we become unabashedly Christian, carrying our palm branches outside of the church walls, and without hesitation embrace our role as conduits for proclaiming the good news. – not as a rejection of what other people believe, but out of conviction for what we know to be true and life-saving news. While we serve those most in need, can we feel comfortable in explaining that we are serving as Christ first served? When we’re teaching one another about so much that is interesting and good, can we end with a note of hope, remembering that it is God who is at the base of goodness and that the good news is the final point of all of our education? When we are exploring how we can respond to people in emotional or spiritual or personal want, can we feel emboldened by the gospel to tell our friends and neighbors the promise of Christ that carries us through our pain?
Resting on the bedrock of our faith in Jesus Christ, let us live out our call by God to live our lives with integrity for who we are and what we believe. As we faithfully embody the principles of Christ – as well as the goodness of Christ, let us remember to share the mystery of our Lord who ended this passionate week nailed to the cross for what he knew to be true. That all the stones might speak to the glory of the one who lived and died and rose to save us all we offer our thanks and praise. Amen.