Will you pray for me? Lord, may the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
When I was in college, one of our favorite dance clubs to go to in New York City was the Limelight. One of the coolest things about the Limelight, we thought, was that it was located in former Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion on Sixth Avenue. It still looked like a church on the outside, more or less, with its stone walls and stained glass and pointed arches. It still looked like a church on the inside as well, but it was harder to notice because of the strobe lights and neon-lit bar and the trapeze artists. The Limelight has, sadly, closed, but I understand that another has taken its place, and the Church of the Holy Communion is now the city’s premier location for bachelorette parties looking to get their freak on, because it is the home of the, well, let’s call it “stage show” Hunk-O-Mania. No one who ever went in there back in my day, and I daresay no one now, was ever invited to learn anything at all about the God of the people who first put those stones on top of one another.
If you go to the corner of Mass Ave and Beacon Street here in Boston, you will see there the former home of the Mount Vernon Congregational Church, our sister congregation. It was destroyed by fire in the 70s, and later rebuilt into the fancy, high-end Church Court Condominiums. It’s still visibly churchy, with parts of the old stone walls and the bell tower, but no one would ever mistake it for a place of worship now. I have no particular reason to think that anyone who lives there is ever invited to learn anything during their residence about the God of their building’s first builders. If you go to the corner of Washington and Milk Streets, you will see there the former home of this congregation which, though looking like a church, is now a museum, a temple to history and ideas. Everyone who walks into that building is invited to learn important pieces of our national history; no one, so far as I know, is invited to learn anything about the God that the people who made that building worshiped.
If you go to Jerusalem, to the site of the Temple toward which Jesus was making his way, you will not find there a Temple to Yahweh. You will find a complex of buildings wherein people worship Allah. And you could walk all the way around three and a half sides of that building without ever even suspecting that any other god had ever been worshiped there.
But. Should you find yourself at the southern end of the western side of that complex, and should you make your way through the security checkpoints and metal detectors, you will learn a new thing, fast. You will see hundreds, sometimes thousands of Jews there facing that wall. Some will be reading at lecterns and some will be dancing and some will be rocking as they pray and some will be dressed in ways strange to you and some will be tucking notes into the crevices between the stones and all of them, all of them will be communicating by everything they do, “Look, look at the Holy Place of our God.” And if you ask about the God for whom those stones were raised, they will tell you about the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and Miriam and the Red Sea, of freedom from bondage and the gift of the law and of wandering in the desert. They will tell you why it matters.
If you were to go to Jerusalem and there was no one at the Western Wall, and you looked at those stones and thought of the al-Aksa Mosque up there just above your head, you would think that those stones were put there by people who worship Allah. But it will never happen that you see those stones without people there to tell you about them. Because an entire religion has made it its business to show up to make sure you and everyone know that those stones were put there by people who worship the God of Abraham.
Up to Jerusalem he came. Up to Jerusalem he came with his followers, and they planned it like this: he rode from the East, down from the Mount of Olives, just like the prophets said the new king would. He rode on a colt, just like the old kings had, just like the new king would, and those followers treated him like a king, like a Messiah; they put their cloaks down so even his mount’s feet wouldn’t touch the dirt. And as he rode, and as they walked, they praised God for what he had done, and they pointed to him and they quoted the king’s Psalm and as loudly as they could, to anyone who would listen, they said that because this man, this man was coming to Jerusalem, Heaven itself was at peace and the light of God was shining through the entire universe.
You know this story. You’ve heard it before. But did you notice this: not everyone who was there knew who he was. Not everyone who was there was calling him “king.” Matthew, and Mark, and John claim that the whole crowd was singing hosannas to Jesus. Luke claims no such thing. Luke says that it was just the Disciples that were quoting the Psalms and calling him king and laying down their cloaks.
We know there were other people on the road that day; some Pharisees at least were there, and we assume others must have been going up to the Holy City as well. What do you think they thought when they saw this random group of people singing praises to God and bowing down to the stranger on the colt? We know the Pharisees’ reaction; what was everybody else’s?
Here’s what I think: I think some of them probably thought it was funny, and laughed outright at the Disciples. I think some of them just wrote them off as religious lunatics. I think some of them were too busy to notice. I think some of them were angry, I think some of them were confused. We know that some would turn out to be scared enough that they would kill him dead.
But I think there were some there who needed to hear what the Disciples had to say. I think there were some there that believed the disciples when they said what Jesus had done, there were some there just hungry enough, just desperate enough, just sick enough of the ways of the world to be ready to believe an impossible thing when someone told them it was true with enough conviction. And maybe, just maybe, some of those people followed Jesus the rest of the way home.
And what about the Disciples? What of them? How must they have felt? I mean, they’d never done anything like this before. They’d been following Jesus for quite a while. They’d seen amazing things; they’d done amazing things. They’d helped heal people and helped feed people. They’d had their hearts and their lives transformed by this guy, but they’d never done anything like standing up in front of a crowd of people and saying loud and clear, “That guy’s the one. That’s the king of my life and I believe that heaven is closer because of him.” How do you think they felt when Jesus told them the plan for his triumphal entry?
I think they probably felt just about like you did when your pastors suddenly started using the word “evangelism” six weeks ago.
When the Pharisees told Jesus to shut his disciples up, he said that if he did, the stones themselves would shout out. Well, it may be that if Jesus himself, in the flesh, had walked by and nobody noticed, the stones would have shouted out. But would they today? If all the disciples everywhere fell silent today, stopped pointing to God with word and deed, how long would it be until the world forgot that it was held together by grace, and how many lives would go down to misery in the process?
If we were all to stop our shouting, how long would it be before even these stones, even these gorgeous stones, stopped speaking to the world of God? There’s a professor of Christian education at Andover-Newton Theological School who says that Christianity is always exactly one generation away from being lost forever.
I mean, look at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion. Those stones still say, “church,” those arches still point to heaven, those windows still speak of light and beauty, and yet, without Christians inside to speak of God, nobody thinks of God at all when they go in. Look at the stones of the former Mount Vernon Church, look at the bricks of the Old South Meetinghouse. What do they say without the Christians there to tell the world why they were put there? How long would it be before the importance of the Western Wall in Jerusalem was forgotten if faithful Jews stopped going there? How long before the al-Aksa Mosque would stop meaning anything if Muslims did not pray there every day?
Stones might have sung when Jesus walked by, but these days they, like the faith, will just sit there not doing much at all without the faithful there to tell the world what they, and what the faith, mean. This Lent, we have been engaged upon exactly this: learning to do what the Disciples did that day outside Jerusalem. We have been learning to point to Jesus and say, “There! There is the one who guides my life. There is the one from whom food, and healing, and grace flow into the world. There is the one I love. Don’t you want to join this party?”
Over the course of these six weeks, we have shared our anxieties about coming out as Christians, and our worries about the mixed reactions from the crowd around us. We have studied, we have strategized, we have prayed. And you have been brave. We have heard from you your willingness to take on this challenge. We have heard from you about your attempts to walk through the crowd pointing to Jesus and naming the deeds of power you have seen. We have heard about the many ways you have gone about it, from forwarding Stillspeaking Devotionals to your friends, to talking about church on Facebook so the name “Old South Church” shows up in your friends’ newsfeeds, to inviting people to church, to talking with your cousin about God. You have been brave, and you have been bold, and you have been trusting, and I think that in you, God is well pleased.
We will continue to learn to sing the old Psalms in new ways, just as the Disciples did. We will continue to worry about the reactions of the crowds, and we will continue to sing and to point and to invite anyway. We will fail, sometimes. We will succeed, sometimes, and we will praise God when we do. We will pray, we will walk. We will point and say, “There. There.”
And if the disciples fall silent and the Christian Church does one day pass from this world, it will not be on our watch. Church, if you believe that, say “Amen.”
So may it be. God help us, amen.