Preaching Palm Sunday is awkward. While we are waving our palms in the celebration of Jesus in our parades and processionals, our liturgy is shifting to Holy Week. By Thursday, we will be remembering the Last Supper and the Garden of Gethsame in our Tenebre Service. There is an emotional dissonance that we go through moving from waving Palms, to Last Supper, to Cross before we get to the empty tomb by next Sunday. But that is as it should be. The original Palm Sunday was filled with tension and dissonant voices. Remember Jesus Christ Superstar?
CAIAPHAS: Tell the rabble to be quiet, we anticipate a riot.
This common crowd, is much too loud.
Tell the mob who sing your song that they are fools and they are wrong.
They are a curse. They should disperse.
JESUS: Why waste your breath moaning at the crowd?
If every tongue were stilled. The noise would still continue.
The rocks and stone themselves would start to sing:
CROWD AND JESUS: Hosanna, Hey Sanna Sanna Sanna Hosanna
Lyrics from the Song “Hosanna” in Jesus Christ Superstar
Stones shouting and rocks singing captured my imagination this week. What was Jesus trying to say to the religious establishment with this metaphor? At first you might think a stone is the least likely object to communicate. Stone deaf means you can’t hear, hearts of stone means you can’t feel. Stones seem to be the epitome of an inanimate object that have no feeling or senses. If they speak, that is unexpected. Stones do speak, if you know how to listen. People have used stone to communicate in many ways throughout history.
When I was young I spent hours looking at an album of the best photos from LIFE magazine. I was riveted by a picture from the Iron Curtain of Soviet rule coming to Czechoslovakia. As tanks rolled into Prague, a photo captured a picture of man throwing a rock at a tank, as the cannon barrel swung towards him. I thought he looked like a baseball pitcher throwing a fastball. I remember asking my mother, “What is he doing? Doesn’t he know that he can’t stop a tank with a rock?” But that is not the point. It was an expression of rage, anger, defiance. There was no hope to stop the tanks from coming in to Prague, but a desire to communicate one person’s truth to power. This happens all over the world, from 12 year old Palestinian boys hurling rocks at Israeli soldiers in Gaza, or angry unemployed Greek youth sending a hailstorm of rocks down on riot police. Rocks are thrown to communicate when leaders are stone deaf.
In this sense, perhaps Jesus tells a truth that the religious establishment, and all tyrants, refuse to hear. No matter how much you try to bottle up dissent, at some point it will become so intense, it seems that even a stone might begin to shout.
While Jesus would understand stone throwers, he had reservations too. He came upon an angry group of people who wanted to stone a woman caught in adultery. They asked him to play judge, and he said, “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.” At that moment it became almost blasphemous to throw a rock, appointing yourself as God. Knowing human nature I’m a little surprised there was no follow through. There has been too much of stone-throwing religion.
Humans also try to communicate great and wonderful ideals through stone. Stonehenge, the Great Pyramids, Mount Rushmore, all built at great cost to show what people revere. We seal our love with diamonds and precious gems. The Ten Commandments were carved into stone tablets to show their enduring message. Stones speak of wealth, power and permanence. When Jesus takes his disciples into the Temple in Jerusalem, one of them remarks, “Look at the enormous stones!” This was the pride and joy of the religious establishment, a wonder of the ancient world, but built with Herod’s burdensome taxes. This is where Jesus rides his donkey on Palm Sunday, to the temple to throw out the money-changers and to say, “You have turned a house of prayer into a den of thieves.” Jesus was not impressed with stone monuments, and said that not one stone would be left in the future. The Romans fulfilled that prophecy a generation later in conquering Jerusalem, their main strategic goal was to knock down the great stone temple, undercut national pride and send a message that their god was of no use compared to Roman legions. Their stones would no longer shout.
Stones speak, and even sing, but must always carry the sounds of others. If you happen to be in a stone canyon, and you shout, you will have your words come back at you. Stone creates the best environment to hear plays and music. Ancient stone amphitheaters naturally conducted sound so that people far in the back could hear as well as those in the front row. Notice Amphitheatre gets its name with the same root as amplify. Stone actually helps us speak and hear.
We talk of sound bouncing off stone, whereas softer materials like cloth seem to absorb sound. Actually stone vibrates and reverberates with sound, because sound waves travel faster through solids than through air. The molecules of a solid are closer together. The so-called sound barrier of 740 MPH is only a barrier in air, sound moves thousands of MPH through stone. Sound does not travel at all in a vacuum. There is nothing there to conduct the sound so it dies at the source. All those explosions in the space battles in Star Wars, not realistic. You would only hear the sound of silence in space.
Ancient peoples were fascinated by the now lost arts of stone acoustics and incorporated fascinating features into their religious temples. In the Mayan temples of Chitzen Itza, when you walk in the stone stairs it sounds like rain fall. If you snap your fingers, you will hear a bird call of the Quetzotal bird coming from the wall across the room.
At the Hindu temple of Tamil Nuda, some master mason created singing pillars centuries ago. You would have no idea if you looked at the temple. Someone would have to tell you to strike the pillars with your fist. You would then discover that each pillar is tuned for a specific pitch and with a dozen musicians you could pound out a song on the great stone pillars. Imagine the call to worship there, with people pounding on great pillars invoking the Holy Presence. Ancient people understood that stone could be used to create awe and wonder as we come into the presence of the holy.
Stone is a medium for what people want to say. Stone can reverberate our praise, or can be thrown in anger and judgment. This morning we gather in our great stone church? What do we want our stones to say? What does it mean to the passerby? Are they moved to awe or do they see a forbidding fortress where they do not belong? Does it communicate reassuring permanence, the arrogance of wealth and power, or is it just interesting historical architecture? There are some days all this stone may seem like a worry and burden to keep up. The ultimate meaning of our stone ultimately comes down to what we do to shape its message.
We are the living stones, I hope that our stones can sing, as Jesus said they could to Caiaphus. I saw the power of singing stones last week when 7 Open and Affirming churches gathered outside the Academy of Music. That night, the controversial play, “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told” was playing, and we heard protestors were showing up with an anti-gay message. The new tactic of the religious right is to take anything they disagree with and say that is an assault on their religious freedom. Our clergy group decided that we don’t want angry verbal stone throwers speaking for all Christians, so we showed up with bright banners saying everyone is our welcome in our churches and sang Gospel hymns, and the joy of 50 people signing reverberated around the dozen people with their angry signs. Jesus needs more singing stone and less stone throwing.
In our Psalm 118, it says that the stone the builders rejected became the cornerstone.
When I was a youth we sang a song at church camp from Noel Paul Stookey, the middle man of Peter, Paul and Mary, that went, “The building block, that was rejected, became the cornerstone of a whole new world.” Let’s close with that.
The building block that was rejected
Became the cornerstone of a whole new world
The building block that was rejected
Became the cornerstone of a whole new world
When I am down and unsuspected
With a burden that does not show
I think what time has resurrected
And how the sun can make the water flow
There is a man who has collected all the sorrow in our eyes
He gives us love as God directed but is seldom recognized
When all your dreams have been connected
And your vision has been returned
Remember, love, you are protected
By the truth your heart has learned.