This sermon was preached on Palm Sunday, 2020, April 5, at St. Mark’s, Berkeley. This is the fourth Sunday of public services suspended due to Coronavirus; the recording of the service can be found on the St. Mark’s website, here. I realize I’m well behind in posting sermons, but hopefully this can serve as something of a fresh start; as time allows I’ll start filling in the (substantial!) gap.
Collect: Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
On Palm Sunday, I always find myself a little bit uneasy: we rejoice with the crowd in the Gospel, carry palm branches, and sing Hosanna to the Son of David. And then, not more than a few minutes later, we’re all shouting “Crucify.”
I’m not the first person to note the radical shift in tone in today’s liturgy, many have already commented that we’re taking a fairly extreme emotional journey today. In some corners of the church, the journey from palms and donkeys to scourging and the cross is so stark, the celebrant and sacred ministers even change vestments in the middle.
It’s not a new comment, but I do want to spend a moment here this morning. If we’re all shouting “crucify” just now, what were we so thrilled about before? What were the Hosannas for? There’s no question the crowds in both Gospel passages are made up of largely the same people. Why the sudden shift? Is it really so easy to adulate and adore in one breath, and then to shout murder in the next? Of course it is, as anyone knows who watches professional sports, or who follows politics. Someone will say, ‘Oh that’s different, we know better now.’ But I’m not so sure. Crowds have a mind of their own, and it’s amazing what a mob will perpetrate that individuals would recoil even from contemplating.
There were people who warned Jesus: in Luke’s account of the triumphal entry, there are Pharisees in the crowd, and they seem to know what kind of trouble gets stirred up when a mob starts forming. “Teacher,” they say, “tell your disciples to stop.” And Jesus replies, “I tell you, if these were silent, even the stones would cry out.”
This year of course the crowds are silent. There are no hosannas in the streets, there is no “crucify” coming from the square; only a small few here in church, and otherwise we are scattered across the many places where you’re watching from home. This year the crowds are silent, and so the stones take up their part. What do they cry?
Stones are perhaps wiser than the rest of us mere mortals. They have long memories. This road Jesus travels, from Jericho to Jerusalem, has seen its share of pain and suffering. These stones had seen desperate refugees fleeing the city’s destruction by the Babylonian army. They had seen David escaping Jerusalem after his son Absalom usurped the throne. They had seen the arrival of Joshua’s army, and before that they had seen Abraham leading his son Isaac to sacrifice. These stones have drunk blood, and no doubt they would again. Would this crowd be the next, if Rome’s hand fell hard? Or would it be this man on a donkey?
The long scale of geologic time helps make the perspective stones offer. Buildings which to us seem solid and everlasting, stones know are anything but. Even if the builders’ art is perfect, and every stone stacked upon another endures for an age, stones remember the quarry, and before that the hill, where for countless eons the earth has moved and shifted. Imperceptible to any lifespan, the shifting earth has introduced cracks and faults by the million deep within even the firmest rock. Stones know, the strongest building is no monolith, but a perpetual trapeze act of balance and motion, no less complex, no less tenuous, for taking longer to play out. The slightest shift in the earth, just as much as the strike of a ruthless, conquering army, will cause the whole thing to collapse. The stones on Jesus’ way didn’t need the fickleness of a crowd to remind them of the fragile impermanence of their lives.
It’s not only earthquakes and conquests they’re aware of, either, but the long slow drip of the elements, too: moisture, wind, even changes in temperature, all have their effect. Any stone must know it’s only a matter of time before the elements do their work, and a rock is reduced to soil. Oh they know it will take ages, but stones must be proud that the living things around them grow, draw their sustenance, and bear fruit from the residue of their long endurance.
Are there stones in your heart? I’m sure there are in mine. Some have been there forever, some are new. Many I have collected and piled there, many have been dropped in by others. A few I have polished smooth and bright and cherished as if they were gems, and a few others are sharp enough that brushing against them scrapes and cuts. But stones they all are, heavy, burdensome, impediments at best and obstructions at worst. Can anyone build from these stones? Can they ever be worn into soil? If they topple, could they take my soul with them?
Today the streets are silent, the crowds are all in their homes, and the stones finally have their chance to cry out. What do they cry? Do they recognize the one for whom the crowds would shout Hosanna? Can they hear his voice who called them into being? Do they join the crowd, shouting as if for a conquering hero? Or do they rather cry out their premonition that a death is coming?
In a week’s time, a soldier will dig a foundation pit among these stones, a small one, for a single post. A man will come, losing his footing on the gravel, carrying a wooden cross. And here where they have dug they will nail him to it and raise it up. The stones will have their fill of blood once again. This blood falls like Abel’s so long ago, unjustly killed by a jealous brother. But where it lands it does not sear, it does not salt with death, as Abel’s did and so many others since. This blood lands like rain, watering the earth, filling it with plenteousness. And where it touches stone, it cracks: the work of a thousand ages accomplished in a single moment; the stone of the tomb, of every tomb, broken forever and its door left wide: all the dead released from their prison, and where there was barren stone, there is now a heart of flesh, bearing fruit to eternal life.
Yes this is the death these stones have been waiting for, the death that will make them the very first witnesses to the resurrection of the Son of God, before even the angels, from inside the tomb. And this year, with the streets silent, they cry out: “Behold the lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. . . He will wipe away every tear from your eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”
In silent streets, in heavy hearts, hear the stones cry out. May their cry light a flame of hope in all of us, a flame growing to a blaze, which the darkness shall not comprehend, till the Sun of Righteousness rise with healing in its wings, and darkness shall be no more.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.