I don’t know if stones shout, but they do sing. While living in West Virginia, I often took my out-of-town guests to the nearby Lurray Caverns, where they have an organ that derives much of its musical power from playing among stalactites—those ceiling-hung “icicles” of calcium carbonate that form in limestone caves.
Apparently, one way in which geologists differentiate between slate, mudstone, and shale is because only slate will ring when it is struck. There is an ancient pyramid in Mexico which creates a variety of sounds due to the way the water has worn away its limestone. Evidently, also, sand dunes sometimes sing. This phenomenon has been studied in many parts of the world for centuries and occurs when idiosyncratic weather conditions occur over dunes composed of specific kinds of sand. When the right combination of wind and humidity obtains, and these particular crystals of sand drift, the dunes literally sing, sounding like a human voice or a softly bowed violin. Ringing, singing stones? Who knew? Jesus knew: if people are silent, the stones will shout out . . . .
There are no palm branches nor Hosannas in Luke’s version of what Christians have come to call Palm Sunday. Shouting stones, however, play a major role in his story. Luke does not relate a triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The Lectionary reading for today doesn’t depict an entrance into the city at all. Jesus and his disciples are on their way from Jericho to Jerusalem, and, as they draw near to Bethphage and Betheny, Luke tells us that Jesus sends two unnamed disciples on ahead to the village to fetch for him an unbroken colt.
Imagine what it would be like to be doing whatever it is you do on a Sunday afternoon and, suddenly, you realize that two men are pushing your car out of your driveway. How would you respond? Would you go out and confront the two? Would you call the police? Perhaps you would mention--in your kindest and most generous voice--that you would be happy to let them take your VW bug, but that they would have more room and be much more comfortable in your neighbor’s SUV! Or perhaps you would simply ask, “Why are you taking my vehicle?” To which they would respond, “The Lord has need of it.”
Do some 2,000 years change the parameters of this predicament? Why does the man in Betheny (or Bethphage) allow the disciples to take his colt without a murmur of protest? What is it about the disciples’ response that makes it OK from them simply to walk away with his property?
If we look closely at the stories in Luke’s Gospel, we will notice that there are several characters who respond to Jesus’ empowering presence in ways that are without reserve and calculation. Jesus has a way of bringing out the extravagantly impractical side of people such as the woman who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair; Zacchaues, the pint-sized tax collector/cheater, who climbs a tree to get a closer look at Jesus; the four believers who dig a hole through a roof in order to lower their sick comrade into Jesus’ healing presence; the fishermen who leave their possessions and livelihoods to follow him; the woman, who, after hemorrhaging for 12 years, reaches out from the midst of the crowd to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment; and the brave women who refuse to leave Jesus alone as he is dying on the cross, thus risking their lives to bear solemn witness, while other followers cringe before power and flee into the dark corners of the city.
The owner of the colt needed only to hear the words: “The Lord has need of it.” This message is enough to move him, and he thus becomes a significant participant in the story.
The disciples brought the colt to Jesus, and and throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. And as he rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road.
We, like the owner of the colt, like the disciples, are sometimes asked to provide a means, a way, for the coming of God’s realm. Instead of waiting around impatiently, tapping our feet when God’s realm doesn’t materialize as or when we want or expect it, or shaking our heads when it doesn’t come as we think it should, we are called to be active participants, to throw off our cloaks and perhaps even give up a colt.
As I was thinking about this, I remembered something that happened to me many years ago. I don’t remember the exact year, but I was still a little girl. At that time, the small church in the rural town where I grew up took on a huge project. The members of our diminutive congregation pulled together and hosted a family from Vietnam; providing housing, food, and clothing to a young refugee couple and their four daughters. I remember the exact moment my mother asked me to participate in this ministry.
I had named her Patty, but her official name, given by Mattel, was “Baby Pataburp.” She was soft and cuddly, with beautiful, sleepy eyes and, when you snuggled her over your shoulder, she actually burped like a real baby. Of all the dolls I ever owned as a child, this one, “Patty,” was my favorite. But it was as though my mother had said, “The Lord has need of it,” when she asked me to give Patty as a present to five-year-old Treigh, the youngest of the four daughters. I remember wanting to give the doll, I remember recognizing the significance of the moment in my emotional and spiritual growth, AND I remember the incredible sadness and loss I felt sitting in the back seat of our car with my baby wrapped in a blanket in my arms. More than anything, however, I remember the look of utter joy and gratitude on little Treigh’s face as I handed over my bundle. I learned a great deal that day about the nature of the God, Divine love, and the moments in life that are truly life-giving. My hope is that some fifty-plus years later, I can call up the love, courage, and generosity of the little girl who silently wept in the back seat of the car. My hope is that today, and every day, I might get caught up in God’s deeds of power and selfless love.
The Gospel writer Luke tells us that the disciples rejoice and sing praises to God because of the mighty works that they have witnessed.The blind are healed, the lame leap, the faithful walk across water, all sorts of people leave behind homes, families, and occupations, extravagant gifts are offered up joyfully, the sick are healed and the dead are raised. Deeds of power, indeed, worthy of sustained, loud, and joyful praise.
A feature of the Palm Sunday story which is unique to Luke is the report of the rebuke delivered by some of the Pharisees, who instruct Jesus to silence his disciples. Jesus’ one-sentence response to them draws to a conclusion our Lectionary reading for today: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would cry out.” Some things must be said. The disciples are expressing what is ultimately and finally true. Deeds of power and love will be revealed even if every voice is silenced; every mouth stopped up.
Several years ago, soon after my ordination and call to my first church, I was contacted by member of that congregation living out of state who wanted me to make a pastoral call on a distant relative, Beverly, who was a resident of a local nursing home. It was my first Holy Week as a pastor, and I was burdened with creating extra worship services and sermons. I remember being overwhelmed by unopened mail and phone messages to which I had not yet replied. Making a trip to a nursing home was the last thing I wanted to be doing with my time during such a busy season.
As I stopped to put gas in my car (which, in those days, was almost always on empty) the sky opened up and poured down rain. I needed to make one more stop: with no umbrella, and dodging puddles, I ran from the parking lot into the supermarket to buy a loaf of bread and a bottle of grape juice. By the time I reached the nursing home, I was cold and wet and crankier than anyone delivering Holy Communion has a right to be.
Since I was new to the 250-member congregation, I had not yet met Beverly, who was nearly blind and could not speak after suffering a stroke. Her room, which she shared with another woman who was comatose, was dark: the shades were drawn, blocking out the stormy day. As I glanced around the space, I noticed that there were no family photos, no memorabilia, not even an artificial flower arrangement. The room was stark and devoid of any personal touches.
After fumbling through a formal and awkward introduction, I tried to connect with Beverly by asking simple “yes” or “no” questions. I was so young, and I felt so incompetent and inexperienced. When I failed to get Beverly to respond, I finally proceeded with the communion liturgy, taken straight out of the Book of Common Worship. As I went through the motions of administering the sacrament, I became keenly aware of the despair attending the moment. Beverly had been, for God knows how long, confined to this small room with a view of nothing but another wing of the nursing home. She was cut off from her family, her church, and from the world. At the conclusion of the communion service, I took Beverly’s hand and prayed aloud: “Merciful God, please be here with Beverly. Help her know she is never alone.” After a few moments of silence, I breathed a sigh of relief, stood, and turned to leave.
“God is good,” came a voice from the bed. I stopped and turned back towards Beverly and, a second time, just as clear as the first, she spoke: “God is good.”
I moved back to the chair and took her hand in mine. I’m not sure how long I sat there with her, but I remember feeling suspended in the moment; not wanting to withdraw from her presence. I knew I was in the company of the sacred, and I knew I had much to learn from this faithful woman. “God is good.”
Though it may be uncomfortable, or frightening, may we all be moved to throw off our cloaks, to have the courage give up a colt, that we might live among and—decidedly--be part and parcel of God’s deeds of power and Love. Let us joyfully—loudly--proclaim the goodness of God; for all of life, for the entire universe shares together bane and blessing, life and death.
And if we are silent, the very stones will cry out.