WHEN THE STONES CRY OUT
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
April 14. 2019
Texts: Psalm 96; Luke 19:29-45
Above the old city of Jerusalem about halfway down the Mount of Olives is a church called Dominus Flexit. or the Lord Wept. This church designed in the shape of a teardrop by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzzi has a window that looks out on the old city and the sprawling new construction beyond. Built between 1953 and 1958. it is one of the newer churches in the area.
This supposed site of Jesu weeping over the City was unmarked until the Crusader era, a full one thousand years after the event. While the Crusaders held the Holy Land. a small chapel was built on the designated site; after the city fell to the Saracens, the church fell into disrepair. Even though the county was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, the Franciscan monks were able to purchase a plot of land to build a church. Titles changed over the centuries but the Franciscans were finally able to obtain title and begin their work.
In their digging for the foundation of the new
church, archeologists found old tombs and a Byzantine mosaic indicative of the site’s long history. Although the Canaanite and Hebrew tombs did not provide insight into the time of Jesus. it seems that this place had been revered for centuries. Remembering another time Jerusalem had been destroyed. Jesus wept in anticipation of the coming terror.
If you look at a topographical map of the area around Jerusalem. you will see that the only way to get from Bethany and Bethpage to Jerusalem is to go over some very hilly places; the Mount of Olives had an ancient path to get to the city. Right about now in the occupied West Bank the annual pilgrimage for the Western churches began at the church in Bethpage and will end when the pilgrims go over the Mount of Olives into the Old City through the Lions Gate.
Asked by his perennial adversaries. the Pharisees. why he does not silence the crowds that are cheering him onto Jerusalem. Jesus answers that if the people were silent. even the stones would cry out. It’s a phrase that has often been used by Christians through the centuries when they have been told to be silent in the face of evil: even the stones would cry out.
The phrase first occurs in the book of Habakkuk that contains the words of that prophet who lived during the time of Jeremiah. We know virtually nothing about him except that he prophesized during the time of the Chaldean rise to power which was short since they were taken over by the Babylonians.
Habakkuk decried the wealthy in Judah resulting from their corruption of power and oppression of the poor. The coming terror in Jerusalem would be God’s punishment for a nation that had put its trust in money rather than in justice. You may notice that the evangelical “Gospel of Wealth” preachers avoid these kinds of texts and focus only against the so-called sins of same sex love.
“Alas for you who get evil gain for your house setting your nest on high . . . The very stones cry out from the wall and the plaster will respond from the woodwork,” warns the prophet as he bewails the injustice of Judah’s wealthy that leads to the coming calamity. It was not a time for feel-good prophecy.
Neither was it the time for such prophecy when Jesus lived. Our temptation is to jump from today to Easter. Palm Sunday is also called Passion Sunday for a reason. It is the beginning of the week when Jesus will challenge the authorities who wanted to see themselves as legitimate.
As scholars note, the life of Jesus was “framed historically by widespread popular revolts against both the Romans and their client rulers.” When Herod died in 4 BCE. popular revolts broke out in every major district of his realm. The Romans were swift and brutal in their reconquest and retaliation. Entire villages were burned. people enslaved or killed. About two thousand people were crucified as a method to terrorize the population.
The rich, the wealthy who claimed they led the people were also swift in their response – to cooperate with the Romans. When the Romans reinstituted rule over Jerusalem. they picked the high priest from one of the fur priestly families. These collaborators were in charge of collecting tribute and taxes.
This is the historical context of Jesus entry into Jerusalem. Considering Roman actions in the past, no wonder the Pharisees and other religious leaders wanted Jesus to cool it, calm down the supporters. Can’t you hear them saying, do we really need more crucifixions?
Several years ago I got a bumper sticker saying. “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” It had been created in the wake of America’s attack on Iraq in 2003. Just as Rome claimed it was invading countries to create peace and stability. Bush and Cheney made the same claim for our invasion of Iraq.
Now fast forward sixteen years. In spite of the fact that we declared the war “over” in 2011. Americans and Iraqis continue to die. Until ISIS declared a caliphate in the city of Mosul in 2014, most of the 400,000 to 500,000 deaths are attributable to bombings. Sunni-Shiite conflict. and the destruction of infrastructure such as hospitals. That’s a lot.
Now U.S. policy has been to support Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen against the Houthi rebels, who are Shia. To make a long story short, the prior President Ali Abdullah Saleh handed over power to his deputy Manour Hadi. However, due to corruption and religious suppression, a rebel force emerged.
In 2015 Saudi Arabia. fearful of the Shia rebels’ connection to Iran, began a massive bombing campaign. Although the US and the UK do not do the actual bombing, both supply the bombs. Food supplies were cut off in the port city of Hodeidah and Yemenis are starving. Possibly 85,000 children have died. The bombings have destroyed hospitals. Shades of Assad in Aleppo!
Why does this matter and what is the connection with this day when we commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem? We aren’t just selling bombs – after all. gotta keep up our arms industry, right? American mechanics service the planes that do the bombings. The images of starving children even got Congress to do something – pass a resolution under the War Powers Act. Oh boy!
Jesus faced unbridled power when he went to Jerusalem, the same kind of power we as Americans face in the actions of a government that claims it speaks for us. So, what was the response? “It would harm bilateral relationships in the region.” Unfortunately, we do nothing more against the unholy “bilateral relationship” we have with Saudi Arabia.
That government kills Kashoggi and what happens? Sixteen high-ranking Saudis can’t get American visas to go to Disneyland. Congress finally gets off its duff and passes a resolution and what happens? Bombs still fall. But just as the prophet Habakkuk warned, empires will fall due to their inherent corruption. The very stones will cry out.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he knew he was challenging the Roman Empire and the corrupt collaborators who like Quisling in Norway, turned over control of the country to save their own skin. He challenged the Empire in a way it did not understand. He entered on a donkey not a war horse. His challenge to the Empire was far more dangerous than one of arms: it was one of peace.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus proclaims that he has come to bring the kingdom of God. In Mark and in Luke when Jesus casts out demons. they ask. “Have you come to destroy us?” The passage from Luke 11 is even more explicit: “If by the finger of God I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
When the Romans and their collaborators heard Jesus talk about the kingdom of God, they did not assume he was talking about some spiritual realm; they understood very well that this was a threat – a serious threat to their power and to their rule. The Romans didn’t know the history of prophetic ministry but their client rulers, the priestly caste, certainly did.
When Jesus said that the very stones would cry out, the reference could not have been clearer. Habakkuk cried out against the corrupt leadership in his time; Jesus’ reference was a challenge to the corrupt leadership of his time.
What about our time? What is our response to Palm or Passion Sunday? What do we do as a nation? This past week the National Retail Federation predicted that each one of us – you and me – would spend just over $118 on Easter goodies, like candy and those made in China bunnies, not to mention other stuff. Whatever happened to tariffs anyway? Be that as it may, Easter follows Halloween and Christmas as a major purchase time: $13.03 billion for cards. candy, bonnets, and those made in China bunnies.
It is time to remember the real meaning of Palm Sunday: it is the beginning of a week of challenge, not just of Jesus to the Romans and their client leadership. It is a time of challenge to us. This Thursday we will commemorate the night Jesus last ate with his friends and followers, the night he was turned over to those authorities seeking to squelch every possible cry for the kingdom, and the night he knew he faced a cruel and barbaric death.
This Thursday the world will go on as usual. The Saudis will continue their bombing campaign in Yemen. Our so-called national leadership will put more children in cages and refuse to address our own complicity in the root causes of our humanitarian crisis at the border. Consumers will continue to check out those made in China cloth bunnies.
Most of us will just try to make it through the week so we can manage to get to Easter and put all this behind us. We’ll try not to read the words of a prophet whose name looks and sounds funny. But the stones do cry out and it is to our peril that we do not listen.
Let us come to God in prayer: Eternal Creator, you who know our deepest feelings and fears, our hesitation to take on the powers and principalities of this world, give us strength, we pray, to be willing to truly follow the One who came to usher your kingdom of justice and righteousness, mercy and peace into the world. Amen.