“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Luke 19: 40
I hope you’ll indulge me in one of my favorite activities, while I preach: playing with clay. I’ve got two pieces here, one of which I played with a few days ago and left on my desk, and then this fresh piece, still moist and soft. This one I can make into all sorts of fun shapes: snakes, giraffes; this one, however, resists all my efforts to make of it anything other than what it is: basically, a rock.
Oops. I dropped it and it broke. But if I drop this soft, malleable piece, what happens?
So, why is this piece of clay so soft and easily shaped into anything I want, and why didn’t it break when I dropped it?
Because it was broken already, and remains broken.
That’s what clay is: rock that is broken down to tiny, sticky pieces, and remains that way. All clay starts out as certain kinds of rock, rock even harder than this piece that I dropped and broke just a moment ago. Start with the right kind of rock with the right chemical elements and molecular structure, and over millions of years, wind, ice and water break it down into super-fine particles of dust. Water carries those tiny pieces of dust until they settle gently into the bottoms of slow-moving backwaters or of lakes as soft, gushy mud. Then the water dries up, or the land rises to expose it, and it dries into something hard. But when wet, it again holds water and sticks together, like this clay does. That’s how, over time, the hardest rocks can become plates or bowls or cups or snakes or any other playthings in the hands of children, artists and potters, just by being broken enough, and by staying broken.
Did you know that rocks can also sing? That’s one way of interpreting Jesus’ words to the Pharisees: “if [these singing, celebrating people] keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” The stones might cry out in songs of praise like all creation does in Psalm 98, where we hear: “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; 9 let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.”
Such joyful song of all creation to the coming of the Lord our children acted out today in our Palm Sunday procession. Jesus is effectively telling the Pharisees, that if we don’t have the sense that God gave rocks to bust loose and celebrate his coming, then the rocks along the roadside will just have to do it for us. The noise would be deafening, because there are lots of rocks in Judah and Jerusalem.
Or the rocks might cry out in anger and outrage. The phrase Jesus used, “the stones will cry out,” might have made the Pharisees think of the prophecy of Habakkuk, where he says, “Woe to him who builds his house by unjust gain, setting his nest on high to escape the clutches of ruin! 10 You have plotted the ruin of many peoples, shaming your own house and forfeiting your life. 11 The stones of the wall will cry out, and the beams of the woodwork will echo it. 12 Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by injustice!”
If that passage in Habakkuk is what Jesus wants the Pharisees to think about, then he is warning them that they and Jerusalem are no better, no safer, than was idolatrous and imperial Babylon, when Habakkuk gave his warning 500 years earlier. Jesus’ warning would prove true 40 years later, when the Romans destroyed the city and the temple.
Which stones then does Jesus want people to hear? Singing rocks along the roadside, celebrating, with all creation, his coming, or the stones in the city walls, crying in outrage against the idolatry, immorality and injustice of Jerusalem? I’d lean 60-40 in favor of singing, celebrating rocks along the roadside. But there’s value in either meaning. I think that if I were to ask Jesus personally, “Which stones did you have in mind?” he would ask me, “Well, which ones do you need most to hear?”
There’s a third kind of rock present at Jesus’ triumphal entry, crying out along that road to Jerusalem. It’s the most dangerous kind of rock. Yet it’s also the one with the greatest treasure inside, but only if it gets broken and softened enough, like this wad of clay. You won’t find this kind of rock on the ground nor in the city walls. You’ll find these rocks inside each person’s chest. It’s the kind of rock that Ezekiel mentions in chapter 36: “26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
These rocks are human hearts. Like clay, human hearts can be soft, pliable, responsive and therefore useful in the creative and skillful hands of God. Or they can be hard and resistant, impenitent and impervious to the work of God’s hands. I call this the most dangerous kind of rock because the Bible speaks of hardness of heart, against God and our fellow creatures, as the worst of all things that can happen to us.
One reason has to do with all the good things we keep out of our hearts, by hardening them, when we think we’re only keeping bad things out of them, like pain or grief. If we are impenitent and impervious to the counsel of God, we will miss out also on the consolations of God. If our hearts are hard against the sorrows and sufferings of the world, they will also miss and resist the joys, the glory and the beauty of the world. If we defend too strongly our hearts against the risks and uncertainties of life, they will be untouched by the rewards and the comforts of life. If our hearts become fortresses protecting our own power, privilege or egos on our own personal thrones, then we will miss out on the kingdom of God. For the king who came in such joy and jubilation to Jerusalem will not share his throne with any other.
Another reason why hardness of heart is so dangerous, is because it masquerades so skillfully as virtue. We can confuse hardness of heart for good qualities, like firmness of conviction, commitments and purpose. I don’t want anything I say in favor of soft-heartedness to be confused with soft-headedness. Open hearts are not to be confused with empty heads. But if our firmest commitments and convictions do not include having soft, open, loving hearts, then we risk having rocks for hearts.
Now please don’t take what I’m saying as license to divide people up into those whose hearts are only hard and stony, while others have hearts that are totally soft, sweet and supple. Dividing and categorizing people as either hard-hearted or soft-hearted is itself a very hard-hearted thing to do. No, we’re all a mix of hard and soft, resistant and responsive, in strangely self-contradictory ways.
For example: many years ago, while I was in college, I would have congratulated myself on how open-hearted and open-minded I was toward my African-American and Hispanic neighbors. But I have had to face how fearful and judgmental I can be toward working class white people sporting military or biker tattoos, wearing muscle shirts, driving muscle cars or pick-up trucks, with cigarette packs in their shirt pockets, including the time one such person picked me and some other college students up alongside the road in Arkansas, after our car broke down. He willingly and cheerfully drove us to a gas station with a wrecker, which another guy just like him drove to get the car and the rest of us. Then another person like him came, got us and put us up for the day in his trailer. He fed us, and then took us to the Greyhound Bus Station that evening for the rest of our journey home, a journey with more people whom we would likely never meet in our college classrooms. They were all very soft-hearted toward us poor, stranded college students.
It seems like God is often putting his finger on the hidden hard spots of my heart. Sometimes, it’s surprising how much that can hurt.
That’s one thing that hardens hearts: pride. The pride that tries to raise ourselves up by putting others down, the pride that seeks to defend our self-righteousness by finding others to attack and condemn.
Remember the story that Jesus told about the two men who went into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector? The tax collector could not lift his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The Pharisee prayed, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like this other man, a sinner.” Which one went home justified before God? Jesus asked. And which one exhibited hardness of heart, which one, a softened heart? Perhaps the Pharisee who prayed that way was one of those who told Jesus, “Tell your ignorant, low-life, semi-literate, uncredentialed, unrestrained, undignified, unrefined friends to stifle themselves.” Something about Jesus and his Triumphal Entry touched the hard spot in those Pharisees’ hearts and provoked an outcry of pride.
At the root of such pride is always fear, another guaranteed heart-hardener. I would guess that those Pharisees cried out against Jesus’ joyful demonstration for fear: the fear of losing control, the fear of losing their power and prestige, the fear of a reaction from the Romans.
Fear can also lead to another guaranteed, proven heart-hardener: resentment. Resentment that this carpenter-turned rabbi not only claims to be the Messiah, but he does so without consulting nor including them, the experts, the self-appointed gate keepers of respectable religion. If anything, he goes out of his way to bypass the gates that they keep into respectable religiosity. Where will that leave us? they wonder. And they resent that!
But the Pharisees are not the only ones with hard spots in their hearts. Some of those whose hearts on Palm Sunday melted and opened up with joy at the coming of Jesus, who cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” would in a few days cry out, “Crucify him!” When it became apparent that Jesus was not going to be their kind of Son of David who would kill Romans and their collaborators, and install them in power at his right hand and his left, that exposed the hard spots of pride, fear and resentment in their hearts.
So, how do hardened hearts become soft? Often, through life’s school of hard knocks. Through the terrible, incomprehensible events of Good Friday, and the crushing silence and emptiness of Holy Saturday, the disciples would find their own hearts breaking and crumbling. Their hearts were broken by their own faults and failures. Failures of their own understanding, their failure to stick by Jesus in the Garden, Peter’s failure to stick up for Jesus three times in the high priest’s courtyard. Those failures could lead to the greatest danger of all: that their hearts would respond to these hard knocks by hardening into permanent hopelessness, despair and disappointment with God and with themselves, even to the point of self-destruction, as happened to Judas.
But for those with just enough faith and patience to stick around and stay open to whatever happened next, the hard knocks of Holy Week would break in their hearts the hard spots of pride, fear and resentment toward God and others, and soften those places so that God might shape resistance into receptivity, fear into faith, grief into gratitude, resentment into release, arrogance into appreciation, and judgmentalism into joy. But with that I’m getting into next week’s celebration of Easter.
We all carry hard, rocky, resistant and heavily-fortified places in our hearts. Because our hearts have all been broken at some time, by something or someone. These hard walls of stone protect our weak and wounded places, bruised and left hurting and fearful, either by the sins we do or have done, or by sins done against us. St. Paul calls the inner rock walls of our hearts, “strongholds.” About these strongholds, he says, “…the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.”
Don’t let the military imagery of those words fool us into thinking that these hard, stony places within us are to be assaulted with hard, hateful, fearful and condemning tactics, with hard, hateful, prideful, fearful motives. Condemnation only hardens the strongholds of our hearts even more. The only thing that really changes us is a love so great, so meltingly warm, so inviting and disarming, that it doesn’t need to change us to love us more. The strongholds of our hearts can only be melted and softened with love, by the One who comes “lowly, and riding on a donkey,” to the accompaniment of saints and angels and all creation (including the rocks) busting loose in joyful chorus with songs of praise and thanksgiving, relief and release, and who invites us to join in. If we have half the sense that God gave rocks, we’ll come out from behind the stony walls of our inner strongholds and join them in singing, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And blessed are we by having the stones of our hearts softened into clay, by the Potter of our souls, for the Potter of our souls.
As…… leads us in the song of response, Jana and I will do something like an old school altar call. I’ll be up front and she’ll be in back for anyone who feels strongly like they need a stone softened or broken in their life, their heart, maybe a stony stronghold of fear, or of resentment, of regret, pain, guilt, shame or trauma, and who wishes to name it and pray about it with us. Or if this would be the first time you might want to say, in prayer, “Lord, take hold of my self, my heart, soften me and shape me as you wish; I am yours for remaking,” come to either of us for that, too. And if you wish not to share and pray about it now, or if care and conviction come over you later to do so, Jana and I will still be available anytime for listening and praying with softened hearts, because the Master Potter is still working and shaping ours, as well.