Shouting Stones

Posted by secondchurch on April - 18 - 2019

On the south shore of Lake Superior, on the edges of Chequamegon Bay, there is a little stretch of beach where one can find, if one is patient and determined, the most remarkable, perfectly round stones.  They are dark reddish brown and they have been shaped relentlessly by the pounding waves, the ebb and flow of the ice, the turning and scraping motions of water against rocky shore.  The Ojibwe people that live near and on the Bad River Reservation that includes that stretch of Lake Superior shoreline call them grandfather stones, telling us that these unique, perfectly formed spheres speak the stories of generations past, that if you listen quietly and carefully and patiently, holding one of these stones in your palm until it is as warm as your body, you will hear the wisdom of generations before you.  You will receive the counsel you need.


I’ve known about the grandfather stones for years since I grew up on the edge of the Bad River reservation.  I’ve often gone back to the southern shore of Lake Superior.  That little stretch of beach on the Bad River Reservation is now a protected area, which means, among other things, it is illegal to remove any of the grandfather stones from the beach.  Years and years ago, before the protections of tribal lands were enforced, I gathered a few of those stones. I need to return them to that stretch of beach, and I intend to do just that, perhaps this May when Warren and I go back to Minnesota and Wisconsin to visit.  They are not, after all, my grandfather stones.  Oh they do speak to me, though not of the wisdom of my ancestors.  No, they speak to me of stolen land, genocide, broken treaties and promises.  But, I am getting ahead of myself.


A traditional observance of Palm Sunday is a rather unique thing, not having strong roots in Scripture.  Of the four gospel versions of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, only John mentions palms.  And Jesus was certainly there longer than one week.  We assume that this day celebrates Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, but Luke doesn’t talk about triumph and certainly Jerusalem isn’t depicted as anything other than going about its usual urban business.  Jesus’ disciples were the ones, according to Luke, who accompanied him with joy and the hopeful assurance that he is the Messiah, the Redeemer of Israel, the Savior.  Some of the Jerusalem Jews, the Pharisees in fact, would have preferred a less conspicuous arrival.  “Rabbi!  Silence your disciples!”  Can’t you make them a little less obvious?  This is embarrassing, you’ll bring the whole Roman guard down on our heads. Make them be quiet!


But there was an irrepressible noise throughout Jesus’ entire ministry that grew with every disenfranchised person he met, that turned into songs of rejoicing with every life that was transformed. There was an irrepressible energy, a compelling cacophony of hope in those who had lost all hope, of strength for the weak, of rest for the truly exhausted, of peace for the traumatized, of vindication for the victimized.  There was a compelling testimony that even the stones would tell when the human voices had been stilled.


The Pharisees were guardians of religious ritual and the laws that had kept many of Jesus’ followers from experiencing God.  They were pious Jews who were being confronted by one of their own, an impoverished rabbi who knew Scripture, who commanded tremendous authority, whose own mysticism was compelling.  The Pharisees had made something of an uneasy truce with Rome there in Jerusalem.  If they were quiet, paid taxes, just assimilated, the Romans allowed them to worship in their temple and observe their own religious laws without much fuss.  Jesus and his followers threatened that tacit agreement with their noise and joy and hope for a new way of life, when their dignity and worth would be restored to them.  So this noisy parade was more than just an embarrassment to the more constrained Pharisees.  It was dangerous.  It drew the attention of the Roman oppressors.  Jesus threatened their status.  “Rabbi, make them be quiet!”


Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem brought him to the center of the very conflicts that made his ministry as much a political coup as a spiritual revolution.  By his very presence in Jerusalem, Jesus not only exposed the duplicity of the priests. He confronted the powers of Rome.  He brought turmoil into the lives of those who were deeply invested in keeping things calm, both Jews and Romans.  He was a lightning rod, subversive, counter-cultural, and extremely dangerous.  Jesus brought an alternative authority with him into Jerusalem and the powers and principalities wanted it and him gone.


There is this thread through the entire Christian story – one that we who are so very privileged both appreciate and resist – not unlike the Pharisees.  The weak will be made strong, the powerful will be brought low, the rich will be cast from their thrones, the silent will speak, the weary will find rest, the hopeless hope.  God’s judgment won’t be easy or light on those who stopped hearing the cries of the oppressed. We needn’t look too deeply in the gospels to read Jesus’ condemnation on those who have watered-down their faith to such an extent that it causes not so much as a ripple, a stir, a moment’s hesitation in the urban centers of power – like Rome, or Boston, or Washington – wherever there has been acquiescence to the exploitive halls of so-called justice.  Those first disciples knew there would be a revolution when all God’s children began to act the way Jesus taught them how to act, taught them they were entitled to live. 


A friend of mine, Lloyd Steffen, professor of religion and chaplain at Lehigh University, wrote an article for Christian Century nearly thirty years ago now about a course he and a colleague taught in a small college on that southern shore of Lake Superior. They were worried that undergraduate students, while smart as the dickens, had simply no ability to listen. Lloyd wrote “the ability to listen depends not in the first place on any particular skill or technique, but on a fundamental respect for one’s partner in conversation. Listening is thus a moral act. Not listening becomes a way of securing ourselves from encounter with the mystery of otherness. Listeners are required not only to welcome the strangeness of the other but to risk self-disclosure in the act of listening.”


The course was called “The Listening Point”, taken from the book of the same title by Sigurd Olson, an environmental poet/essayist who believed people must find a “listening point” in the natural world.  The course used no books. The students were required to engage one another in conversation, to develop listening skills, and to learn to think through their own and one another’s ideas on such questions as: “How do we know what we know?” and “If you could change two things to make this a more just world, what would they be and why?”


The students, in threes, discussed one of the assigned questions – two would talk while the third listened. They then reported back to the class of the experience.  Several students complained that they got headaches from having to pay such close attention; others said they couldn’t seem to relax after class, and that they kept conversations going into the wee hours.  Students were evaluated not only on how well they listened to each other but on how much they helped the other person clarify and articulate his or her positions. That is, they were evaluated on how well they helped another person listen to him or herself.


According to my friend, the course was incredibly eye-opening.  “Students seemed amazed by how much they disagreed with one another – something they had not discovered from their other classes or even from their social life.  They found that their disagreements were interesting and not cause for alarm or embarrassment or increased defensiveness.”


“We are in need of a theology of listening,” he went on to say, this, thirty years ago.  “A willingness to listen ultimately expresses an attitude of love.”  Which takes me back to the grandfather stones and the Ojibwe people whose grandfathers they were.  The history of the native peoples of North America is heart-wrenching and embarrassing to those of us who are descendants of the conquerors.  So it is with so many people, so many cultures living within a dominant culture that has abandoned both the ability and the will to listen.  It wasn’t only those undergrad students, now in their 50’s, who, thirty years ago, needed a class to learn how to listen.   


When the Pharisees told Jesus to keep his disciples quiet, they were worried about the noise the attention would draw to their tenuous peace with the Romans, shallow and precarious though it was.  Jesus would have none of it.  “If these were silent,” he said, “the stones would shout out.”  Could they listen, those Pharisees?  Can we?  Amen.  

Luke 19:28-40

April 14, 2019

Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor


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