A Sermon for Covenant
“Ground Breaking, Stone Bellowing Truth”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
March 24, 2013
Kyndall Rae Renfro
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
In Genesis chapter four, when Cain kills his brother Abel, God approaches Cain about the coldhearted murder, to which Cain says, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God replies, “Listen!”
your brother’s blood
from the ground
the ground which gaped
wide its mouth
to swallow the blood of your brother
which dripped from your hands.”
your brother is dead
but his blood still lives
and cries and moans
with the earth as its witness
you thought you were alone
but the dirt and the trees saw
and heard and smelled and tasted
and with blood still on its tongue
the ground whispered your secrets
to my ear and I am here
to call you to account
It was not what Cain expected. He had committed a hidden crime; he wasn’t supposed to get caught. Besides, in his private thoughts he had quite thoroughly justified his deeds—never would he have been provoked to such anger, had it not been for the extreme unfairness that had wounded his pride. He was a good, decent, hard-working man after all.
We do not get to hear Abel’s side of things, for he was dead before a word from his mouth could be recorded or heard, but the very dust of the earth woke up to tell his story in the ear of God, and this is the part Cain did not anticipate or plan for. That Abel’s lifeblood would continue to speak, even after Cain thought he had shut it down.
But apparently, despite the recent curse of the earth, God’s creation was still fundamentally good and operating in league with its Creator, telling God the things it saw, crying loudly on behalf of the wronged, begging God to intervene and set things right.
The vision of a nonhuman voice crying out on behalf of justice—in this case, blood and dirt —is one of the most profoundly moving images for me in all of Scripture. A similar theme shows up in Habakkuk chapter 2. The prophet is exposing the injustices that pervade the lives of the people, and he says,
“Woe to him who builds his house
by unjust gain,
setting his nest on high
to escape the clutches of ruin!
You have plotted the ruin
of many peoples,
shaming your own house,
forfeiting your own life.
The stones of the wall
will cry out,
and the beams of the woodwork
will echo it.”
In this instance, those who build houses by unjust gain will experience the very building materials of their homes turning against them! The stones will cry; the beams will echo it. Inanimate objects will be provoked if the people do not maintain justice. One gets the eerie sense that there is at work in the world an underlying current of truth and justice that works to restore all things, a current that cannot be silenced for this is God’s world. No matter who thwarts the way of truth and justice and kindness, something will rise up in dissent, because God created a world that cannot be mute in the face of injustice. When human beings fall silent, other voices will come out from the woodwork to speak the truth, to decry the cruelty and oppression. Stones, wood, dirt, blood—all around us the earth erupts in protest. We may remain as deaf and oblivious as Cain, but God hears every sound, and when the earth rages, the heavens are moved.
Now in today’s story, Jesus rides in on a donkey (which, by the way, in biblical lore is an animal known to speak up when needed). Anyway, Jesus rides in on a donkey, perhaps to fulfill prophecy or perhaps simply as a way to say to the downtrodden and the oppressed who pressed in around him, “I belong with you.” He rode in on a lowly donkey so the lowly would know, here’s a guy who wants to be with us. These were the people without a voice, the silenced, the shushed, the hungry, and the sick. And for one short day in history, their voices rang out loud and clear and defiant, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” This was their king, and they were proud to proclaim it.
This made the religious leaders a mite uncomfortable. They liked to control who speaks and when, you see. They definitely didn’t like the rabble picking new leadership on their own accord, and they didn’t want anybody stirring up political trouble when they’d worked so hard to maintain some peace with the powers. “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” they tried desperately to regain control, to which Jesus, of course, merely gave a genial wave and a nonsense reply. “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
You see, Jesus heard things that only the gods can hear, that is, the creaking and cracking of the earth under the weight of injustice and violence. If the religious leaders had paid much attention to old Habakkuk, they would have been less perplexed by Jesus’ baffling belief in the rocks, but as it was, they scratched their heads and walked away not knowing what Jesus knew: that the people crying “Hosanna! Our King Comes!” were not singing a new song, but were joining the echo of the woodbeams, entering the chorus of the stones and the ground and Abel’s blood, adding their voices to the choir that has been singing the truth since the beginning of time.
And it is on the wave of this melody that Jesus will dismount his donkey, stride into the temple, and drive out the money-changers—one of the few recorded acts that display Jesus’ righteous anger. I imagine he walked into that place with the sounds of his people and the songs of the stones reverberating in his ears, begging him to set things right and confront every Cain.
There is an infectious energy to the Palm procession and the temple purging that feels like it cannot be stopped. The people have found their voices; their leader has unloosed his fervor. The next thing that happens is Jesus starts teaching in the temple every day, and the chief priests and leaders try to kill him, but “they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words.” There’s no stopping him, no shutting down the people who follow him, no silencing of the stones. Only, those of us who know the rest of the story know to feel a little wary of all this raging success . . .
Palm Sunday is that odd celebratory moment that pitches us headlong into passion week. In less than a week, the tables will have turned entirely . .
As soon as Jesus gets captured by the soldiers and stands his trial, the adoring crowd will go back to being who they were before: silenced slaves without a voice. Perhaps they will protest his death in their own subtle ways, like the women who follow Jesus all the way to the hill with tears in their eyes, beating their breasts, or the two Mary’s who will not leave his side, following him even to the tomb. But by and large, the only voices that ring out on that fateful Friday are the ones shouting, “Crucify, crucify!” Imagine the horror of the Hosanna-crying crowd as they watched their dreams slipping away. They did not know how to fight back, how to speak up, and the words that rang out around them, “Crucify, crucify!” dropped like lead in their stomachs and drowned out their hopes and filled them with dread and they wept and they wept until their Savior was dead, salvation no more, with despair in its stead.
It is a gut-wrenching turn of events when the celebrated Savior with the gumption to purge the temple ends up beaten and bruised and silenced, just like the silenced ones he’d come to care for. It must have seemed to the people like the very end of all their hopes, a complete and total loss. He hung from that tree and the world fell silent, the people struck mute in terror and disbelief and loss . . . Yet, not all was quiet.
In the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus breathes his last, the earth shakes and the rocks split. Having been around for ages, the stones could sense that even now, in the darkest hour, Jesus was altering the course of things. He wasn’t giving in or giving up, he was giving himself into the suffering, entering death freely in audacious solidarity with the broken. Was the earth opening that day in order to receive the blood of our Savior as it mixed with the spilt blood of all the Abels before him? It was a dark and terrible hour indeed, but the earth knew it couldn’t possibly be the end, could it? Were the rocks splitting in agony or in protest or in both? Did they emit a terrible sound when they cracked, could God the Father stand to listen or did God’s own voice join the wail?
We hail Jesus as the supreme example to follow, but really, what he did was an act we could never follow. He took on the pain of the world, let them kill them, and then he came back living, and I can’t even make it so far as to handle my pain and forgive my enemies, much less die and come back. Which is why I wave palm branches this day to hail him my king, because here is a man who comes among us, comfortable in the presence of average folks like us, but unafraid to suffer and forgive, die a criminal’s death, then live. I don’t know if I could ever be like him, but praise God he became like us, human and hurting, to share in our suffering and redeem all pain.
Sometimes we are the desperate Hosanna criers, you and I, joining the groan of the earth that waits for the world to be made right and seeing in a poor carpenter boy from Nazareth the making of a king. Sometimes we are more like the religious leaders, a bit put out by Jesus’ strange success and the threat he poses to our security and our way of seeing the world, and without even meaning to, we try to crucify him out of the picture. Some way or another we are part of this story every Lent and every Easter, and only the Spirit of God can discern which crowd defines us this time around.
Though what I really find myself wondering is, what would a choir of rocks sound like, anyway? Would they have a gravelly sound or would they make a smooth, melodious ripple? Did it even matter if they could hit the right notes, or was any noise at all enough to catch the notice of God?
This year, when I read the story, I find myself identifying with the stones. I want to be like a rock who stubbornly sings, however off-key the notes, however bland my stories, however pervasive my lisp, I want to be the one who finds a thousand new ways to speak, to tell the one nugget of truth that’s been entrusted to me, however inadequate I may say it. My part will never sound perfect because it is only a part of the larger whole, but without my part the world will miss something crucial, and so I must find a way to tell it and tell it bold, the part of God’s righteous truth entrusted to me, I must find a way to let it shine. Whether anyone hears me or not, I want to know I joined the chorus with heart and soul. I want to sing for those without a voice, calling out to God on their behalf, joining the great choir of justice that sings on and on and on . . .
“Hosanna! Blessed is the King!” Amen.