Listening for the Stones

I realized after I had chosen the title for the sermon this week that it may not have been as clear a reference as I intended. I meant “Listening for the Stones” to refer to Jesus’ final statement in the Palm Sunday story you just heard. When the Pharisees are watching Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, they urge him to tell his disciples to be quiet, to which Jesus responds, “if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Those are the stones I was referring to in the sermon title, as we’ll come back to later.

But if you’re someone who cares anything at all about rock music, the phrase “Listening for the Stones” may have conjured up something else: the moment in a stadium when tens of thousands of cheering fans of the Rolling Stones are waiting in the darkness, right before the stage lights suddenly come up, the familiar twang of an electric guitar rings out, and a skinny figures struts across the center, preening for the crowd with a mic in his hand as the rest of the members of the Rolling Stones kick into their first song of the night.

After I realized that, I started trying to think of another title, but then I further realized it’s not the worst image for Palm Sunday. That kind of uncontrolled pandemonium, joy, and adulation by the crowd; that sense among many that they had been waiting their whole lives to see this show; and back in the 1960s, at least, the lingering threat that their provocative show might end up inciting a riot or at least scare the authorities enough to come in and treat it like one; those are all aspects that we often miss in our annual churchy re-enactments of this event but which were very much there as part of the original Palm Sunday experience.

Oddly, Luke’s version of this familiar story omits the two most famous details. The crowd hails Jesus as “the king whom comes in the name of the Lord,” but Luke doesn’t quote them as saying, “Hosanna!” which the other three gospel accounts do. Maybe this is because Luke is writing primarily to a Gentile audience, and “hosanna” is a Hebrew word that was used specifically in Jewish liturgy for appealing to God for help; it literally means, “save us.”

So perhaps Luke omits it the word itself because non-Jews wouldn’t have understood the power of the reference. But it feels a little strange for it to be missing to our ears now, because it became such a standard part of Palm Sunday celebrations for centuries. And second: there are no palms mentioned anywhere. The crowd that is lining the road throws their cloaks down on the road as a sign of honor and submission to his reign, but there’s no mention of people cutting down palm branches and placing them on the road anywhere, which again, all three of the other gospels describe.

So, in Luke’s account of Palm Sunday there are neither palms waved nor hosannas shouted, but there is something that Luke includes which the others do not. As the procession continues into the city, some Pharisees see what’s going on. The Pharisees, as you may know, were a Jewish religious sect of the time, and they and Jesus often got into disputes with one another about the best ways to live faithfully, given the corruption of the Jewish political and religious leadership at the time. Upon seeing this parade of Jesus, the Pharisees get very uneasy, because they know this is not simply a religious demonstration, but a political one. Like most empires and autocrats, the Roman Empire was very suspicious of crowds that they did not gather themselves, because of how easily they could get out of control and be directed against the Empire’s authority. So the Romans would not have liked this parade at all, and if they heard the crowd calling Jesus a king, well, bad things were likely to start happening very quickly. The Pharisees understand that, and they have no intention of getting killed by the Romans because of this street preacher from Galilee, so they urge him to silence the crowd. But Jesus not only refuses, he tells them that the very stones in and around the road he is travelling would cry out if his disciples fell silent, so important and inevitable was this spectacle of celebration and praise.

Which is why we celebrate Palm Sunday every year as Christians, despite the fact that, ironically, the Pharisees were right; the Romans and the corrupt Jewish political and religious authorities were not about to accept this kind of challenge to their own reign. And, ironically, the Romans are right, too, right to be suspicious of how easily the energy and will of a crowd can be manipulated. Because, of course, less than a week later the crowds will not be hailing Jesus as the king who comes in the name of the Lord, but demanding his execution because of it, because he’s not the kind of king they wanted after all, the kind that would lead the violent overthrow of the Roman occupation of Judea.

And yet we still celebrate Palm Sunday because, ironically, the crowd was also right: Jesus is the king who comes in the name of the Lord, who comes to “save us,” as the cries of “hosanna!” in other stories declare, who doesn’t conform to our limited imaginations about what salvation means, but rides as king to conquer death through death, to overthrow power through vulnerability, to reign through love and not fear.

This year, of course, is a very different kind of Palm Sunday celebration. Like Luke’s narration of the story itself, there are no palm branches for us to wave; there are no surging crowds in this Sanctuary with loud shouts and songs of “hosanna!” That’s because we, too, have been told that such celebrations should stop: stop gathering in crowds, stop gathering physically at all, in fact. That is especially hard for Christians here as Holy Week begins. Yes, we are gathered in worship together digitally, but is it really Palm Sunday? How do you re-enact being in a boisterous and celebrating crowd when you’re in physical isolation from others? How do you celebrate a parade if everyone has to stay at home, shelter in place?

As I thought about the sermon title I chose, with its inadvertent double meaning, it struck me that perhaps the greatest song the Rolling Stones ever wrote is called “Gimme Shelter.” The song is generally interpreted as a commentary on what it felt like enduring the social and political violence and cultural turmoil of the late 1960s, which of course it was. And yet, like all great works of art, it speaks in different ways to different contexts. That song was written and released before I was even born, but as I listened to it this week for the first time in a long time, I heard it in light of this present moment we are in. “Oh, a storm is threatening my very life today,” Mick Jagger sings in the first verse; “If I don’t get some shelter, I’m gonna fade away.”

Keith Richards, the main guitarist and half the songwriting team of the Rolling Stones, says that the idea of the song first began with his experience of watching out his window as a sudden and violent storm arose over London, and that when the clouds burst and the rain and lightning came pelting down, all these previously dignified people began bolting like scared animals to whatever shelter they could find in the streets. And in many ways, that is what the last few weeks has felt like.

A friend of mine living in New York City was reflecting on that a little over a week ago, when the threat was descending upon the city and everyone was taking shelter in their apartments in earnest. He grew up in Texas, and noted that this all felt like a slow-motion tornado warning. It’s not like a hurricane, he noted; you have enough warning to evacuate before a hurricane ever arrives, if you have the means.

But when a tornado forms in your area, you can’t evacuate; you can only climb in your bathtub and pull a mattress over you and wait, and wait, and the waiting is horrible because all you can do is try to protect yourself and hope it’s not going to land on you, because you can’t do anything to stop the destruction or even to protect anybody else from it. “But the good news is,” he said, “this isn’t a tornado warning. With this pandemic, the more we hide, the longer we hide, the more people survive. Our self-isolation protects not just us, but everyone, until the storm passes. And pass it will.”

That is why we can and will celebrate Palm Sunday today, why we can celebrate a parade even when everyone shelters in place, even when we don’t have palm branches to wave, even when we can’t crowd together and sing hosannas in the same room. In fact, that is the only way we can truly and faithfully celebrate Palm Sunday today. Now, sadly and disturbingly, there are crowds of Christians in the United States who are gathering in the same rooms today, who are defying the call of the authorities to stop, who are waving palms and singing hosannas anyway, who are saying things like, “Jesus is the only protection I need.”

But that’s not just scientifically wrong; it’s theologically wrong. It’s wrong because it fails to recognize that in the very story of Palm Sunday itself, faithfulness to God is not demonstrated by the size or fervor of the crowd. This crowd may be calling Jesus “the king who comes in the name of the Lord” today, but before the week is out they will gather again and declare to the Roman governor, “we have no king but Caesar.” No, faithfulness is defined by Jesus Christ, who remains faithful to his calling not just when the crowd is cheering him waving on a colt, but when they are jeering him dying on a cross.

And Christ’s faithfulness is defined by love: selfless love, saving love. Which means ours is, too, as those who follow him as Lord and Savior. Which means our staying at home, sheltering in place, right now, is not an act of fear, but an act of love: selfless love, saving love. There’s a sign that apparently went up outside Glastonbury Abbey in the United Kingdom last week that summed this up. It says, “And then the whole world walked inside and shut their doors and said, we will stop it all. Everything. To protect our weaker ones. Our sicker ones. Our older ones. And nothing, nothing in the history of humankind ever felt more like love than this.”

And nothing, nothing could be greater praise and obedience to Christ as the king who comes in the name of the Lord right now than doing that. Because we are doing this not out of fear to try and save ourselves, asking God to “gimme shelter.” We are doing this out of love, out of Christ-like love for everyone: each other, our neighbors, even our enemies. Which means that each and every one of us is not in a shelter right now, but a sanctuary: a place of refuge in the presence of God from which we can praise God far more faithfully and well than if we were gathered here in this space waving palm branches right now.

And I can prove it. Listen…what do you hear? Nothing. Because you are listening for the stones, and the stones in this building are not singing. They are not singing, because we as Christ’s church have not fallen silent. As we enter this Holy Week, as we endure these difficult times, we are singing praises to Christ through our worship and loving service more loudly and clearly than we ever have before, precisely because we are doing from every sanctuary on the other side of that camera lens, praising the one who comes in the name of the Lord, in love so strong and so vulnerable that nothing on earth can stop it, not even death itself. And nothing, nothing in history of humankind, has ever been more filled with love than that.

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