St. John’s Episcopal Church
207 Albany Avenue, Kingston, NY 12401

Sermons

  • The Stones Are Shouting Out – The Rev. Michelle Meech

    April 02, 2023

    Processions and parades are a symbol that means something is beginning. Something is happening. And we are here for it, a part of it. We process into the sanctuary every week as we begin worship. And today, we processed around the space.

    We watch processions all the time. We love them even more than the event itself. The red carpet of the Oscars… which is now the champagne carpet, apparently. The pre-game show of any televised sporting event. The graduation procession of children and grandchildren. Wedding processions. When I was a kid, it was the Halloween parade. It was a big deal every year. I would sit down on the curb downtown and watch everything go by. I felt a part of something. It seemed like everyone in town was there enjoying the spectacle.

    Processions and parades were an important part of the Roman Empire. They were called “triumphs” – a ceremony that was both religious and civil since the two were intermixed in the Roman imperial cult. They worshipped Caesar as a divinely sanctioned ruler. And triumphs were held to sanctify or bless the success of a military commander. Someone who had vanquished an army and took valued items to demonstrate superiority. Triumphs were given to someone who had won.

    On the day of his triumph, the general wore a laurel crown and was dressed in regalia that identified him… always a him… as a near-deity. And he rode through the streets of Rome in a chariot or on a warhorse alongside his army and all the spoils of his war – the captives, the riches, the assets – all on display. He would then make a sacrifice of his tokens of victory, giving them to Caesar.

    It was also custom to erect triumphal arches. Large, free-standing monument-like structure with an arched passageway designed to span a road. And on these structures, the deeds of victorious generals were depicted in stone.

    The arch, itself, was a Roman invention that enabled them to construct buildings that were far larger than any others that had been built before. Because the weight of the walls was now supported by the arch directing the pressure away from the passageway underneath. On one of these triumphal arches that still stands, Titus is depicted in a triumph procession, displaying the loot from his victory in Jerusalem in the year 70 – the same victory that destroyed the temple, putting to an end the on-again-off-again Jewish rebellion in Judea.

    But about 40 years earlier, when Jesus was alive, the religious leaders of Jerusalem, who were, of course, Jewish like Jesus was, were trying to avoid trouble by going along with the Roman occupiers. They didn’t want a triumph. They had received a special dispensation to continue worshipping as Jews, instead of being forced to worship Caesar. They were trying to keep things normal. Business-as-usual. Orderly. In-tact. This has been going on for almost 100 years. Since the Romans first conquered Jerusalem.

    But, as we know, Jesus did not see God being served in this kind of effort. What Jesus saw is that God’s people – the marginalized, the oppressed, the sick… even the tax collectors and the ostracized among the Romans, were suffering.

    Jesus has spoken out about this. He has started a movement. He knows that the religious authorities aren’t happy with him. So, Jesus knows that he is a marked man. A dead man. Because if he chooses to make a scene, he will be forcing the hand of the Roman authorities who are getting increasingly tired of these annoying little rebellions the Jewish people keep trying to stage.

    So, the Jewish religious authorities really don’t want a scene. They want business-as-usual. Controlled behavior. They don’t want anyone… like Jesus and his followers… inciting a riot and giving the Roman occupiers a reason to begin using force. They want to keep their way of life intact. To do whatever it takes to maintain their precious institution at the expense of the people they were supposed to be serving. Much more interested in maintaining the status quo than in serving the God of Life.

    That would risk the institution of the Temple… and all its moneychangers and its power and its precious place in Jerusalem. And it would risk the precarious relationship with the Roman authorities.

    Meanwhile, the Roman soldiers are amped up and ready to use force, to crush any rebellion. They almost want it. Because they want the triumph. They are trained to want the triumph.

    Jesus knows this. He can see it. And he goes to Jerusalem anyway. He understands that the spectacle is going to end in his death, but it will begin the bigger movement. If Jesus had walked away from this moment, he might have been able to live the rest of his life… but a part of him, the part he had been listening to all along – holy wisdom whispered in the silence of his prayer – this heart, this soul. If he walked away, he would lose his soul.

    So, when he goes to meet the crowds in Jerusalem, he asks for a small donkey rather than a warhorse or a chariot as a way of making fun of the Roman triumphs and the false glory that they display. Then, to mock the Roman authorities, the disciples begin to lead the crowds: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

    Jesus, who no more wanted to be called king than he wanted to die.
    Jesus, who took the mantle of both – the king and the dead man.
    Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a young donkey.

    And the crowd responds with Hosannas. The crowd who comes to see Jesus is, of course, like any crowd. A mob of onlookers, really. People there to be a part of what was happening. Wanting to see and feel as though they belonged. Something is happening. Something is beginning.

    Ride on! Ride on in majesty!… the hymn cries.
    The angel armies of the sky look down with sad and wondering eyes to see the approaching sacrifice.

    What did the crowd really know that day? Did they really care? Maybe some of them were tired of the Romans and saw this as a way of making fun of them… so they joined in with the hosannas. Maybe some of them saw Jesus as a miliary hero who really would vanquish their enemy – the Roman state. Maybe some of them were just there at the gate, doing something they do everyday and joined in because it looked like fun or they were curious.

    And the disciples carried on…
    Mocking the Roman occupiers.
    Goading the crowd.
    Making the Jewish religious authorities uncomfortable.
    “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

    From Luke’s Gospel, we are told that some of the people in the crowd were religious authorities, the Pharisees. Luke tells us they yelled directly at Jesus, pleading: “Rabbi, tell them to stop.”

    And Jesus, the one with the dual worldly mantle – the dead man and the king, Jesus knew that something more profound was happening. That it had to happen. That it had already begun. And nothing would stop it now.

    Jesus replied, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

    Ride on! Ride on in majesty!
    In lowly pomp ride on to die; O Christ, thy triumphs now begin over captive death and conquered sin.

     

    As Christians, we don’t use the words majesty and triumphs and conquer and throne in their worldly meaning. We use them to make fun of worldly power. Or, at least, that’s what was intended by the Gospel witness.

    Unfortunately, the institution of church, throughout its history, has gotten so intermingled with the institution of the state, with the customs and practices of capitalism, so conflated with business-as-usual… that the church has done exactly what Jesus would have taught us not to do. In many ways, we have become exactly what Jesus was protesting against.

    The church has used Christ as a weapon to extinguish native peoples, to wage war on LGBTQ people, to enslave millions of Africans and countless others, to do violence against women and keep them powerless. The church has used Christ to defend our own self-righteousness instead of being Christ to lift-up those who need help. The church has used Christ to plunder the environment and rip apart this planet in which we live.

    Is this the triumph of the church? No.

    The so-called “triumph” of the church is to empty itself. To give itself. To ride in on a donkey and sacrifice itself. To risk losing itself to gain the world in the name of Christ.

    As disciples of Jesus, if we are to honor his sacrifice, if we are to follow him, we must read this story as it was meant to be read. And humble ourselves in its shadow.

    We must not sacrifice love for business-as-usual to keep ourselves safe and feeling comfortable. That would be blasphemy. And this blasphemy is exactly why many, many people think Christians are hypocrites.

    Jesus was the anointed one, Jesus was Christ because he knew that if he walked away from this, he would lose his soul. Now, because we are Christ’s Body in this world, we must know that we are in danger of the very same thing – of losing our souls. Are we more interested in maintaining the status quo than we are interested in enacting love and justice in this world? Are we more interested in our own comfort than in proclaiming Christ?

    The stones are shouting out. Can we hear them? Are we paying attention? Or are we too cynical or too arrogant, too lazy or too scared to change our ways?

    What does this mean in a practical sense? For us, here?

    It means that because of church’s historical condemnation of gay and lesbian people and, especially in this current climate of the persecution of trans people, we cannot assume that when we say “All are welcome at God’s Table” that LGBTQ people know they are a part of the “all.” And our defense of the rights of these people must continue to be an explicit part of our evangelism.

    It means that because of the church’s deep connection to slavery and the oppression of black people we, as a church, must be overt, clear, and unwavering in our proclamation for the overturning of white supremacy. We can say that all lives matter but the truth is that all lives do not matter in our society. In proclaiming Christ, therefore, we must bear this witness in the face of continued societal and systemic sin. We will need to continue saying “Black lives matter” for the rest of our lives before the system is overturned.

    It means that because of the institutional church’s ongoing participation in the climate crisis, we must make it our aim to leave fossil fuels behind and do whatever we can to engage in environmentally sustainable practices, educate ourselves about what’s happening in our own communities, and become advocates for God’s creation. Anything less and we are sinning against God.

    We must not sacrifice love, that is, we must not sacrifice Christ for business-as-usual to keep ourselves safe and feeling comfortable. That is blasphemy.

    Because the stones continue to cry out for God’s love incarnate. The stones continue to cry out for Christ.