WHEN THE STONES CRY OUT
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
March 25, 2018
Texts: Psalm 119:25-40; Luke 19:29-40
On the western slope of the Mount of Olives, about halfway up is the church known as Dominus Flevit, the traditional site where Jesus stopped as he was about to enter Jerusalem itself and responded to the Pharisees who asked that Jesus keep his disciples quiet. “Even the stones would shout out.” Then, turning and looking down onto what is now known as the Old City, Luke has Jesus saying, “If you, even you, only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!”
Found only in Luke’s Gospel, it is followed by a pre-diction that the city will fall to its enemies, possibly inserted following the destruction of the city in 70 CE. The current church designed by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi is in the shape of a teardrop reflecting the Latin text “The Lord wept” was built between 1953 and 1955 and is held by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, a priory dating from 1217.
The site has yielded incredible archaeological finds, dating from the late Bronze Age prior to the Israelites conquering the old Canaanite city through the late seventh-century Byzantine era. It first became revered as the place where Jesus stopped on his way down to Jerusalem in the middle of the eleventh century when a small chapel was built, which fell into ruins during the Third Crusade.
As is the case with many of the churches I visited when I was in Jerusalem, the most interesting and deeply moving part of the site is the grotto, below the present church. The rough-hewn grottoes of some of the churches date from the third and fourth centuries and you can really get a feeling of what it must have been like in ancient times. They carry their own kind of beauty.
On the wall in my office here at the church I have a little plaque I bought while in Jerusalem. It says, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” There is no peace there today just as there was no peace when Jesus came to Jerusalem in his final journey. Not only is the city divided between Muslim and Christian Palestinians and Israelis, but within our own Christian faith, it is sharply divided with different parts of the Christian world holding different sites and even, for the lack of a better word, sharing the same site – with separate altars, of course.
Even the stones cry out for peace there but the wrong person touching the wrong stone can bring all kinds of trouble. Jesus experienced this as he tried to bring a new vision of God’s peace to Roman-occupied Judea. In the stories of his final entry into Jerusalem, he is hailed as a king, the descendant of David, the king of Israel. No wonder the religious establishment was nervous. The last thing they wanted was a confrontation with their oppressors.
If you think about it, the entry into Jerusalem is really a strange story, not that Jesus was uncomfortable about taking on the corrupt religious leadership of his time, but this kind of confrontation was a direct challenge to their collaboration with the Romans and to Roman power. Cer-tainly he must have seen the hills of Golgotha full of crosses and the remains of those Pilate had crucified.
Pontius Pilate had been appointed prefect of Judea in 26 CE and ruled for ten years. A prefect was equivalent to a high-ranking commanding officer in the army, and he re-ported to a higher-ranking officer called a legate. Willfully ignorant as are some people today, he incurred the anger of the Jews by hanging pagan images all over Jerusalem and minting coins with both the image of Caesar and pagan gods.
The reluctance attributed to Pilate in sentencing Jesus to death did not reflect his personality or rule. He was vicious and cruel. In the end he was forced to remove cer-tain pagan symbols from ensigns but when he attacked a nonviolent group at Mount Gerezim, he was ordered back to Jerusalem and committed suicide on Caligula’s orders. And Caligula was no gem either.
Here and during the week leading up to the Crucifixion, the Gospel writer has Jesus confronting the religious leadership on their willingness to serve their own interests rather than the interests of the people. After entering Jerusalem, Jesus goes straight to the temple court-yard where moneychangers and purveyors of prescribed offerings were doing business. All four Gospels describe this incident that surely angered the temple leadership since they derived profits from the sales.
Jerusalem today is hardly a city of peace, as I said before. There are warring factions within the Christians who hold various places as holy sites and there is the constant presence of the Israeli occupying army. Before 1967 the city was actually two cities: East and West, held by two different authorities, as it were. Now it is little more than an armed camp with pilgrims and tourists in the mix.
More and more the Israelis encroach into the old eastern part of the city and destroy old Palestinian houses to make way for new condominiums with open plazas. And, quite frankly, the idea of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem is only going to heighten the tension.
Ten years ago as I stood at the top of a hill above the Church of the Nativity I looked at a 25 foot high concrete wall with machine gun bunkers on top. The sign on the wall said “Welcome to Jerusalem.” The old olive groves long tended by both Christian and Muslim Palestinians sit on the other side of the wall and an electrified fence with a gate where you present your documents to cross from the Palestinian Authority into Israel proper. Then you get on a bus and ride for 20 minutes through open country up to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City.
The very stones cry out for peace, but there is no peace in a city where you see soldiers with automatic rifles on every street and street corner, pulling so-called “suspi-cious looking Palestinians” and yelling at them. Even though I speak neither Hebrew nor Arabic, the tone of voice made it quite clear who was in charge.
It must have been like that in Roman times. That, too, was an occupying army and perhaps just a bit more relentless than the one today. Crying out against oppression doesn’t sit well with the oppressor, to be sure. In fact, because of the destruction of Christian and Muslim Palestinian homes, the indignity of Israeli checkpoints – and having gone through a few, I can attest to how terribly people are treated – some groups have promoted an approach called BDS, or boycott, divest, and sanctions.
Everyone has a different take on this approach. The Israelis now prohibit anyone associated with BDS from entering Israel. There is actually a proposed bill in the Senate that would make it a felony to support the inter-national boycott of Israeli products. That means that if passed and signed into law, that I could go to jail for 20 years because I tell people they should not buy Israeli oranges. Really?
What happened to the First Amendment? This is certainly not crying fire in a crowded theatre! As Jesus said, the very stones will cry out. As Christians we should be concerned about not just our rights but the human rights of Palestinians who are living under an oppressive occupation. Because Christian Palestinians have been able to leave, hooking up with families in western countries, the Christian population in the West Bank, which includes Bethlehem, has dropped from over 40 percent to a little more than 12 percent since 2007, according to some sources. Christian pastors and churches should be concerned.
As you look down from Dominus Flevit, you can see the Old City and modern Jerusalem behind it. Below the mount is the Kidron Valley to the west, and then a hill as you climb up toward Jerusalem’s Old City. The Gospel accounts do not say which gate Jesus entered but the Eastern Gate was the one closest to the Temple entrance of that day.
Having been told that the Messiah would enter through that gate, also called the Golden Gate, the first Ottoman emperor Suleiman had it sealed in 1540-41. He looked at the world through the literal and limited understanding of his time. One would hope that some leaders today move beyond such a limited understanding of the world in our time.
As Jesus went from entry to realization and confrontation, he understood that his actions would bring the anger of the temple leadership and the Roman authorities down on his head. He called for peace and strove to bring God’s mercy and justice to all. We must do the same no matter the cost.
Let us pray: You call us, O God, to walk in the paths of Jesus of Nazareth and to be willing to take on the powers and principalities of this world. The stones cry out for justice, for mercy, and for peace. May we be doers of justice, lovers of mercy, and messengers of peace. Amen.