“Why Stones Don’t Shout”
April 1, 2012—Palm Sunday
On the Sundays of Lent, I’ve been examining the Lord's Prayer in my sermons. Today we come to the last petition: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
Now, you may have heard of the child who prayed, “Lead us not into Penn Station.”
Or maybe you’ve seen the bumper sticker that reads “I can resist anything—except temptation.”
In the musical My Fair Lady the chorus sings: “With a little bit of luck, when temptation comes you'll slip right in.”
Why do we laugh about temptation?
Maybe because each of us knows how ready we are to “slip right in.”
Maybe because it is such a “heavy” subject that sometimes we need to treat it lightly.
Maybe because we sense that temptation is a universal part of the human experience—and at times if we didn’t laugh, we’d cry.
To be human is to face temptation—to be pulled toward those things that tear down.
The forms of temptation are many and varied.
We can be tempted by riches, power, honor, and the glitter of the world that can make us captive.
Just as easily, however, we can be tempted by poverty, affliction, disgrace, or contempt that can make us despondent and lead us to cast away hope.
Human temptation is not always to do something wrong. Often it is the lure to do what looks like the right thing. One of the lessons of the last century is that most evil—serious evil—is done by people who are convinced that they are doing something good. Evil itself is not that popular. If evil were only done by those who got together and said “Let’s do evil things,” it wouldn’t spread very far.
When the trains run on time, when we are convinced of the “rightness” of our cause, when we are surrounded by “our kind of people,” when the market is giving a good return, we easily think that all’s right with the world. And just as such points, temptation begins to deliver us into evil.
Since temptation is a part of being human, temptations are as diverse as individuals.
What tempts you?
You know, but you're just not going to say, right?
Well, as much as I am reluctant to do so, let me speak about myself for a minute—not because my temptations are yours but out of the sense that what is particular to one person might have some general significance as well.
A strong temptation—for me—is to say nothing.
That might sound strange for someone whose job involves not just speaking, but preaching, that is proclaiming the good news of God's love in Jesus Christ.
Still, I am lured by the temptation to not be pinned down about this, to say nothing, even to say nothing in such a complex way that it sounds like something is being said.
It’s not that I don’t believe in God’s love.
I do. In some sense I think I wouldn't even be able to get out of bed in the morning if it weren't for some abiding sense that my life has been caught up in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that because of those events two thousand years ago, my life today has been unalterably changed—and I think for the better.
No, it’s not out of a lack of belief.
The temptation comes more from a fear that I will be held accountable for my words, as I should be, and that my words will not be good enough. After all, sermons are more than a proclamation of God’s love in Jesus Christ. They have become “objects” to be held up, examined, and judged like last night’s movie or today’s dessert.
There is also a temptation rising out of a desire for security, from the realization that my words could get me in trouble. Someone said that ministers who desire to speak the truth will either loose their faith or loose their job. How many times can a minister speak words that disturb before the congregation says, “Enough!”
And so fear makes the temptation to say nothing very—well, very tempting.
Each week I have to overcome that temptation—and some weeks, by the grace of God, I am better able to do that than others. The prophet Bob Dylan still challenges me to “stop talking falsely,” and my hope is that I will continue to grow in my courage to speak from my heart.
Still, I recognize that if I were there as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, I would rather have let the stones do the shouting and kept silent myself.
Thankfully, I wasn’t. Thankfully, over the centuries the disciples of Jesus have spoken out when necessary and the stones have remained mute.
The new Broadway production of Jesus Christ, Superstar opened recently, with the crowd once again wildly singing: “Hosanna, hey sanna, sanna, sanna ho.” As Jesus approached the city the crowd cried out “Hosanna!” It is a shout of acclamation, but it is also a prayer: “Save us!”
An alternate translation of ‘lead us not into temptation” is “save us from the time of trial.” Save us! Hosanna!
Save us because we aren’t able to save ourselves. Save us because we all get the problems that we can’t handle. Save us because the temptations, the trials that we face are too much for ourselves alone—or as Nietzsche put it, we all have bait that we can’t help but swallow.
Save us because—and we don’t like to admit this—we are lost.
Temptation is about losing our bearings. It’s possible for our moral compass to be so off that we think we know where we are but we're actually quite lost.
“Save us!” we pray. “Hosanna!”
“Save us in the time of trial and deliver us from evil.”
“Deliver us. . .” The Greek words have the sense of “snatch us from these jaws.”
Do not spare us from struggle when it is necessary.
Do not spare us from suffering when it must be faced.
But snatch us from the jaws of evil—from the encounter with the enemy who is stronger than all our strength, more clever than our intelligence, more pious than our piety.
I don’t like to talk about evil. I don’t even like the word. It sounds so—what—judgmental, old fashioned. And yet over and over in our age we have come up against, well, evil—a force, a power that would chose hate instead of love, death instead of life. In our age evil goes by names like racism, sexism, homophobia—or greed, hunger, homelessness.
And we've had to deal with the mystery that all too often those who will not be silent, those who speak up against evil are not delivered from, but seem to be delivered unto evil.
“Hosanna! Save us!” We cry to the One who rides into Jerusalem and was himself delivered into the hands of those who would kill him. Remember the song? “Hey J.C., J.C., won’t die for me, sanna, ho, sanna hey, Superstar.”
Neither Palm Sunday nor this prayer Jesus teaches us gives us a quick escape from the temptations and evil that surround us. Both Palm Sunday and the Lord’s Prayer invite us deeper into the mystery of suffering in the presence of evil. This week we stare that mystery in the face.
The prayer that we learn from Jesus speaks to us about what it means to be human--to be hungry for daily bread, to be hurt enough and hurtful enough to need to forgive as we are forgiven, to be tempted and to live with the threat of life-denying evil. As such human beings we learn to pray to a God whose love is life giving, whose realm is growing silently among us, whose will is our good.
When we pray we say “Amen,” that is “so be it.” For prayer is not an undertaking left to chance, a blind leap. It’s said that prayer must end as it has begun, with conviction: “Yes, may this be so.”
As we live, so we shall pray.
The stones need not speak for we shall not be silent. We will join in the long line of people crying out “Hosanna! Save us!”—people who follow a new king—a king born in a manger, a king who comes lowly on a donkey, a king dead on a cross, finally a king raised from death by the glorious power of God to whom we say Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.