Listen to the Stones

March 28, 2021
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Luke 19:29-42

One day last summer in my long-range planning for the upcoming preaching year I was working on the Palm Sunday scripture and what I might say about it. At the end of the day I told a friend the title I’d come up with for my sermon: Listen to the Stones.

“Well,” he said, “That’s no surprise. Today’s July 26: Mick Jagger’s birthday.”

As much as I enjoy listening to the Rolling Stones, I want to be clear that I have different stones in mind this morning.

Anyone who’s been to Jerusalem knows about the stone. The city’s built of it. The roads are paved with it. The parks are littered with it. The two valleys that cut through the hill on which the city sits are lined with it. The distinctive stone is everywhere. It even has a name: Jerusalem stone. It’s a type of pale limestone and dolomite native to the area, in use since ancient days. The city has been constructed and reconstructed of it many times over the ages.

The stones of Jerusalem have been eye-witnesses to history. They were thrown down from the walls of Solomon’s Temple by invading Babylonians led by King Nebuchadrezzar II in the year 586 before the common era.

The stones of the Second Temple, destroyed by Roman soldiers in the year 70 of the common era, can be seen today in an excavation beneath the place where the Temple once stood. One enormous block must have been set at the very corner of the high wall above. It bears an inscription referring to “the place where the trumpet is blown.” In the time of Jesus that stone listened as the priest alerted the city that the Sabbath was beginning. Jesus may have seen that stone.

In more recent times the stones of the city have been knocked down once again, this time by Israeli authorities as they demolish Palestinians homes and buildings. And in response to 54 years of occupation, the city’s stones are thrown by Palestinian youth in lopsided exchanges with armed Israeli soldiers. In my office sits a bowl full of bullet casings fired by the troops and chunks of white stone hurled by the youth, sent to me from Jerusalem by a friend.

The stones of the City of David have seen a lot over the years. If they could speak, they would have much to say. Jesus knows that, which is why he replies to the Pharisees who tell him to order his disciples to stop as he enters Jerusalem surrounded by noisy, palm-waving crowds: “If these were silent, the very stones themselves would cry out.”

Jesus isn’t referring merely to a few loose pebbles at his feet as he enters the city. He’s speaking of stone-lain Roman roads over which soldiers march to bring destruction, oppression, and death. He’s speaking of the stones in houses where people cower in fear, the stones in dungeons where prisoners languish in misery, the stones upon which sit people with blindness or leprosy, poverty or paralysis, or some other human condition that has stolen their humanity.

Yes, those stones would have a lot to say.

The stones under the olive trees in the Garden where Jesus will kneel and pray after a last supper with his friends later this week, will hear words of betrayal and arrest. The hard stone of Pilate’s palace will watch them whip Jesus and mock him, and then observe a trial with a pre-determined outcome.

The smooth stones of the city streets will hear the moans of Jesus laboring under the weight of his own cross on the way to the crucifying place. The street stones will bear the marks left by drops from a head bloodied with a crown of thorns. The stones on Golgotha into which holes had been cut will feel the weight of three crosses raised upright later this week. And, finally, the rock of the tomb hewn into the stone will shelter his lifeless body.

“If these were silent,” Jesus says of his disciples, “The very stones themselves would cry out.”

What about the stones of our time? What would the building blocks in the walls of schools and theaters and houses of worship say about gun violence they have had to watch? What about the stony floor of buildings in Atlanta and Boulder that now share the same stain as Jerusalem stone? What would the walls of bedrooms and the stones of street corners and the rocks in the Rio Grande say about the death they have witnessed? What about the stony confines of prisons where people unjustly condemned quietly await their fate?

Wouldn’t those stones cry out, “Enough! Enough!” Wouldn’t they shout an Hosanna for our time – the Hebrew meaning, “Save us!” Save us from ourselves! Save us from our destructive ways! Wouldn’t the stones of our time call for marshaling public will to find a new way to live together that would diminish the violence? Wouldn’t they call for new laws and regulations that define parameters within which we could live more peacefully – if only we “knew the things that make for peace” – and with more equity?

Listen to the stones. Wouldn’t they cry out, “Enough!”

What will the stones in the walls of this church hear from us as we listen to and watch the indignities and injustice visited on our siblings in the human family? Will those on the receiving end of racial hatred – Black Americans, Indigenous People, Asian Americans – will they have to depend on the stones to speak up, or will they hear our voices joining others in calling for the power of love to dismantle systems and structures of human sin?

It’s the Sunday of Palms and Passion, with the strange juxtaposition of a triumphant entry that concludes in death. The stones of Jerusalem will watch it all. They will hear the Hosannas – and then the cries for crucifixion, from the same, fickle crowd.

Seven hundred years before Jesus entered Jerusalem, the prophet Isaiah came to the city. He stood on the same stones, looked out, and saw devastation. He called the people to repair the breach in the broken walls of a nation in ruins after the exile in Babylon. He called them to restore streets to live in – to put the stones back where they once had been.

“Morning by morning,” Isaiah says, “God wakens – wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear.”

The prophet links the discipline of listening to the work of justice. The prophet shares a divine dream that the ears of the human family finally would be unstopped, that they would listen to one another, that they would hear the cries of those who have been dispossessed of hope, and find a way to renew that hope and repair the damage.

Listening ears, the prophet is saying, make for wise and courageous hearts, and if we – you and I – want to work for change in our lives and, with others, in the world, we will need good ears and strong, humble hearts. It will not be easy, and the way forward will be full of challenge. Isaiah knew that.

“I did not turn backward,” the prophet says of the movement for justice in his day.

“I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.”

When I hear this text from the prophet, I imagine Jesus – whose ministry began by reading from Isaiah – quietly reciting these words during that fateful week in the city of stone:

“The Lord God helps me…therefore, I have set my face like flint…The Lord God who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together.”

Let us stand up together. Our listening and our faith give us strength and wisdom and courage to do what is right, to set our faces like flint toward the change we need in our lives and in the life of the world.

“If these were silent,” Jesus says of his disciples, “The very stones themselves would cry out.”

Jesus must have found solace in the defiance ready to be shown by earthly elements: if everyone else were shut down or too afraid, he could count on the stones. The irony, of course, is that later in the week his disciples will go silent, out of fear. They will melt into the Passover crowds in Jerusalem, and go so far as to deny knowing him. The palms they had waved will be thrown away and the Hosannas they had shouted long forgotten.

And even when confronted with an empty tomb, they will keep their silence – at least the men. The women, thank God, speak up – but that’s next Sunday’s story.

So, Jesus, on the Sunday of Palms, in this Week of Passion, politely declines to try to quiet the crowd. After all, he says, it would be futile. If they were silent, creation itself would cry out! The rocks would take up the Hosannas. The stones would start to sing.

When Jesus refers to the voices of inanimate objects he’s offering the religious leaders of that time a window into the bigger picture. Do we see it? They may have thought he was merely using a figure of speech; little did they know that “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God and the Word was God…All things came into being through him… And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, full of grace and truth.”

This is the one who was present when those very stones were made; they know him, as all creation does. They are prepared to speak up on his behalf. Are we?

The clear implication in his words that day is that there’s no stopping this movement, no stopping what Jesus came to Jerusalem to do: to show the power of God’s love, even from a cross.

Anyone who’s been to Jerusalem knows about the stone. What would it say? What stories would those old stones tell? What overheard hopes would they share?

If we pay close attention, what would we hear from them?

Let us, you and I, let us learn to listen to the stones.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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