These Things Last

 (Sermon for Sunday April 17, 2011 || Palm Sunday Year A || Psalm 118; Matthew 21:1-11)

You may or may not have noticed that we skipped sixteen verses of today’s psalm. We read verses one and two, and then we leapt to verse nineteen and read to the end. Now, I don’t know about you, but the lectionary prompting me to skip things just makes me more and more curious about what I’m being told not to read. Perhaps this is the rebellious streak that never manifested in my adolescence finally coming out in bouts of unruly biblical interpretation. If so, I invite you to join me in my insubordination for a few moments.

Steve McQueen's Capt. Hilts goes to the "cooler" for insubordination about once every half hour of the legendary film "The Great Escape" (1963).

The opening verse of the psalm, which we did read, says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures for ever.” Other translations render “mercy” as “loving kindness” and “faithful love,” as in “his faithful love lasts forever.” The psalmist then moves from this declaration of love to the verses we skipped, which tell of a difficult military campaign. The middle section reads: “All the nations surrounded me, but I cut them down in the Lord’s name. Yes, they surrounded me on every single side, but I cut them down in the Lord’s name. They surrounded me like bees, but they were extinguished like burning thorns. I cut them down in the Lord’s name!” The psalmist continues with a victory shout: “The Lord’s strong hand is victorious! The Lord’s strong hand is ready to strike! The Lord’s strong hand is victorious!”

With the bloody, militant verses through, the lectionary picks back up on safer terrain for the final ten verses of the psalm. Isolated as they are in this morning’s reading, these ten verses depict an innocuous procession to the temple for some sort of sacrifice of thanksgiving. But the militant verses show this psalm in a different light than we might have otherwise expected. This is no ordinary procession to the temple; this is a victory march. This is the triumphant rally following a hard-fought war. The victors parade into the city with verse 19 on their lips: “Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter them; I will offer thanks to the Lord.”

A few verses later, we hear the chants of the crowd lining the streets as the troops pass: “Hosannah, Lord, hosannah! Lord, send us now success. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Wait just a second. We heard these same words again this morning, again from a crowd, again during a parade. As Jesus rides into Jerusalem, the crowds chant, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Could we have just heard the same story twice in a row? We sure did, but you’ll notice some glaring differences, which show that the story in the Gospel will soon come to quite a different ending, which we will hear at the end of this service.

In the psalm, the ones who come in the name of the Lord are the ones who cut down their foes also in the name of the Lord. In the Gospel, the one who comes in the name of the Lord is the prince of peace.

In the psalm, the speaker shouts that the Lord’s strong hand is victorious and ready to strike. In the Gospel, Jesus offers no retaliation upon his arrest and reprimands the disciple who lashes out with the sword. Jesus shows his power not in victory, but in sacrifice.

In the psalm, the speaker declares: “I won’t die—no, I will live and declare what the Lord has done.” In the Gospel, Jesus gives up his life in order to declare what the Lord is doing.

In the psalm, the people call out for success. In the Gospel, Jesus knows that sacrifice, rather than success, is his calling.

In the psalm, the parade “form(s) a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar,” where the blood of the animal of the ritual sin offering will be smeared. In the Gospel, Jesus takes on the role of sin offering and sacrifices his own life for the sins of the whole world.

Whereas the psalm tells this story of a parade as the end of a triumphant military campaign, the Gospel tells this same story as the beginning of a defeat so great that the subject of the parade is put to death and his followers betray him, deny him, and desert him.

And yet, we are left to wonder: which one is the true victory? Which parade truly tells the story that the first and last verses of the psalm proclaim: “Give thanks to the Lord because he is good, because his faithful love lasts forever.”

God’s faithful love lasts forever. The triumphant military campaign in Psalm 118 is fleeting. Those same victorious soldiers marching through the gates of the city will, sadly, march out into battle again. But the death of the one whose only crime was truth-telling, the defiance of the one who stands against the forces of darkness and domination, the sacrifice of the one who drew all the world to himself while being raised up on a cross – these things last.

Jesus says to his disciples, “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). Jesus modeled this commandment in his own magnificent defeat. But we know that this isn’t the end of the story.

Because God’s faithful love lasts forever.

Stone Symphonies

(Sermon for March 28, 2010 || Palm Sunday, Year C, RCL || Luke 19:28-40)

“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones themselves would cry out.” So says Jesus to some Pharisees, who want him to corral his exuberant disciples. If we lived anywhere else, I would be tempted to take these words of Jesus merely as metaphor, as a turn of phrase intended to illustrate the remarkable nature of the event taking place. But in the month that I’ve been in Cohasset, I’ve walked on the beach several times, and I’ve heard a certain, special noise that has made these words come alive.

As you know, small stones populate the beaches here, stones that were once boulders and are not yet sand, stones made round and smooth by the ebb and flow of the tide, stones good for skipping on the ocean. Waves break over these stones and cover them with foamy surf. As the tidal forces suck the waves back out to sea, the water runs through air pockets between the round edges of the stones. And as the water vibrates the stones, they cry out. The stones sing with a quavering voice, a thousand violins playing the same note but each with unique rhythm and tempo. As the waves flow out, the stone symphony plays the chords of creation, joining the great company of all the myriad instruments in God’s terrestrial orchestra.

If we attune our ears and eyes and hearts, we can hear these chords and we can witness all of Creation praising God. This praise happens when God’s creatures fulfill the purposes for which God made them. The sun praises God by shining, the moon by reflecting the sun’s light. The thunder praises God by crashing, the rain by watering the earth. The gazelle praises God by running, the wolf by hunting, the rose by blooming, the bee by pollinating. Each member of the great symphony of Creation praises God in an unique way, and all work in concert to glorify the Creator.

Well, all except for one glaring exception. We humans are a thick lot. On our best days, we ignore the symphony, and on our worst days, we spend our time devising ways to silence Creation’s praise. Down through history, we have slowly but surely forgotten how to read Creation’s score, forgotten that we too have parts to fulfill in God’s orchestra.

We are able to join in praise to God when we remember that God created us to display one fundamental attribute: goodness. God created everything that is, Genesis tells us, and at the end of each creative session, God pronounced the new creation Good (and on the last day, not just Good, but Very Good). So, at the fundamental level of our human nature is goodness, which is a reflection of God’s delight in Creation. The manifestation of that goodness is our praise to God. We embody this praise when we sing and dance, when we laugh and pray, when we love, and most importantly, when we serve.

The trouble appears when we forget that goodness remains at the core of our human nature. Instead, we see all the malignant attributes that attack our goodness and mistake this tumorous growth for what defines us as humans. How often have you heard the following statements explained away by attributing the behavior to human nature:

“He’s just jealous because I won the office pool.” “Well, jealousy is just a part of human nature.”

“She’s so petty: who cares if we wore the same dress today.” “Well, pettiness is just a part of human nature.”

“I can’t believe he lied about where he was last night.” “Well, dishonesty is just a part of human nature.”

We make the worst mistake of our lives when we attribute these negative actions to human nature. Our fundamental nature is Good, and anything else is a perversion of the goodness by which God brought us into being. These perversions of our goodness (also known as “sin”) distort our relationship with God. We start playing our instruments out of tune, thus ruining the symphony of Creation.

But when Jesus rides that donkey’s colt down the Mount of Olives, he takes a step in the process of subverting all our tumorous perversions of human nature. On his way to the cross, which is the epicenter of the perversion the Good, he begins showing that goodness (and all of goodness’s positive emanations) still exist, despite the malignancy eroding the nature of humanity.

First, he tackles the perversion of power. Notice that his parade is rather incongruous. Anyone would expect a king to enter the city on an armored warhorse with weapons-laden legions flanking him. But Jesus rides in humility, on the back of a lowly farm animal. He displays that humility (which is one manifestation of goodness) has more majesty than any imperial power could ever muster.

While Jesus subverts the perversion of power, his disciples tackle the perversion of terror. While fear is sometimes a helpful emotion, terror is not simply “really big fear.” Terror is an extension of power meant to control. But at this moment in the Gospel, the disciples walk directly into the most dangerous situation in their lives unabashedly praising God with joyful voices. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” They display courage, another manifestation of goodness, and their courage subverts any attempt by the perversion of terror to control.

The rest of the Gospel plays out in much the same way. Jesus subverts the perversion of greed when he overturns the tables of the moneylenders in the temple. He subverts the perversion of fame when he tells his disciples that he is among them as one who serves. He subverts the perversion of revenge when he stops the retaliation during his arrest and heals the slave’s ear. And in his greatest display of goodness, Jesus defeats the perversion of domination by willingly giving up his life. Jesus brought all our perversions of human nature to the cross and died with them. And in his resurrection, he shows us that these perversions of our good nature have no ultimate power over us.

Because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we have the ability to access the goodness at the core of our human nature. We have the humility and courage necessary to let God excise all the malignancy that perverts our relationships with one another and with the rest of Creation. We have ears to hear the symphony of praise playing all around us, and we have the music within us to add our own harmonies to the orchestra of Creation.

And when we fail, when we once again forget our goodness, we can be silent, we can be still, and we can listen. And then we will hear the stones themselves crying out on our behalf, crying out their praise to God.


For the Internet versions of my sermons, I usually remove the specifics of place, but for this sermon, I really needed to preserve them for the imagery. If you ever make it up to the Massachusetts coast, listen for the sound I’m talking about.