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The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston

The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston is senior pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, NY.

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, NY


The Witness of Stones

Luke 19:28b-40

November 11, 2012


'I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.'

If you listen to the critiques of religion in the world today, they fall into two basic categories.  The first criticism is that religious people are hypocritical.  This is true.  We are hypocrites.  We are sinners.  We are fallen beings who belong to messed-up institutions.  We do not always (or even most of the time) live up to our highest ideals. 

The interesting thing about this critique of religion is that--while it is accurate--it does not knock the pins out from under the faith.  Our holy book is full of stories of people who are not perfect and yet are summoned to work with God for the redemption of the world.  We may be sinners, but we are still called to give water to the thirsty, food to the hungry and comfort to the sick. 

The second critique of religion is more straightforward and, potentially, more devastating.  It goes like this: religion is a lie.  Religion is untrue.  In the words of evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins, religion is a collection of made-up-stories that have been passed down--from generation to generation--through the ages.  These stories have been around a long time, says Dawkins, but there is no evidence that they are scientifically or historically true.  To the contrary, religious people say things like: "The stones will shout out to declare the presence of God," but we all know that such talk is just plain silly. 

Is our religious language just plain silly?  When Jesus says to the authorities in Jerusalem, "If you were to silence my disciples, even the stones would cry out," does he cross the border from "sensible" to "senseless" and perhaps wander over to the land of downright crazy?

Annie Dillard, prolific American writer and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is a keen observer of both nature and human nature.  During a time when she lived on an island off the coast of Washington State, she wrote an essay that begins:

The island where I live is peopled with cranks like myself.  In a cedar-shake shack on a cliff--but we all live like this--is a man in his thirties who lives alone with a stone he is trying to teach to talk.[1]

Reports differ on precisely what he expects or wants the stone to say.  I do not think he expects the stone to speak as we do, and describe for us its long life and many, or few, sensations. Instead, I think that he is trying to teach it to say a single word, such as "cup," or "uncle."  For this purpose he has not, as some have seriously suggested, carved the stone a little mouth, or furnished it in any way with a pocket of air which it might then expel.[2]

Only a "crank," says Dillard, would listen to a stone, an entity without a mouth, without lungs, without a brain, waiting for it to speak.  Can you picture the faces of the patrol in Jerusalem that has asked Jesus to shush his followers?  Not only does the rabbi ignore their request that he fade back into the woodwork, but he spouts off: "If they weren't waving palms... If the people weren't lining the streets belting out songs, nature itself would burst forth.  Even the stones would shout out."

Comments like this are the sort of thing that make religious people seem like cranks.  If we really want to understand the world, says Dawkins, we must use rational thought and scientific language.  We must resort to facts and not fantasy.  A stone has color and texture.  It is composed of basic atomic elements.  It has a melting point.  It has mass and velocity.  These are the factual things you can say about a stone.  Now, you might imagine that a stone can talk, but this is either poetic license or deluded thinking.  It is not a fact.  It will never be true.

Dawkins' critique of religious language is incredibly significant.  It raises the most important question imaginable in today's cacophonous world: Who is telling me the truth?  Who is lying?  What data will show me how to live my life?  What deserves my time, my energy?  What is true? 

In trying to answer these questions, I have a deep appreciation for rational dialogue, careful argumentation and scientific thought.  My friend Brandon tells me that one of the slogans at Google, where he works, is "Say it with data."  Don't just toss out an opinion; give me some facts.  Say it with data.  I like this sentiment.  I like it a lot, but it begs a crucial follow-up question.  What counts as data?

Scientists will tell you this all depends on the instruments--the technology--available to measure and study an object.  They are right.  You can use scales and thermometers and electron microscopes to study a rock, and these devices will provide a certain kind of data to you.  But is that the only way to study a rock, to encounter a rock?

In the winter of 1924, the composer George Gershwin was asked by a bandleader named Paul Whiteman to compose a new jazz concerto.  He was given the month of January to complete the piece.  The pressure of this tight deadline got to Gershwin, and the music wasn't there.  He told his brother Ira that he wasn't sure what he was going to do, until he was on a train journey to Boston.  Suddenly, the music began to flow.  Gershwin described it this way to his biographer:

It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang... I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise... And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper--the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end.

My friends, you can describe a passenger train in physical terms, you can measure its weight and its velocity and its horsepower, but those measurements are only part of the story--only a slice of the truth.  Sometimes the truth sounds like this: The K-5 Pacific steam locomotive weighs 327,000 pounds, has a boiler pressure of 250 pounds per square inch, and could pull 12 passenger cars.  Sometimes, however, the truth sounds like this:

[Audio excerpt from Rhapsody in Blue]

In describing Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin would later say: "I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness."

Some of the most important "data" about the world cannot be measured with a microscope.  Gershwin listened.  With the ears of an artist, he listened to the click-clack of a train and heard the pulse of an entire nation. 

Of course, it still seems far-fetched to say that you might learn anything about the universe by listening to a rock.  We doubt, don't we,  that the man, sitting quietly in his cabin in the Pacific Northwest, will ever hear a peep out of the smooth stone sitting in his hand.

In central Texas, about twenty miles north of Fredericksburg, lies Enchanted Rock State Park.  The gigantic rock for which the park is named is a batholith.  Now a batholith, for those of you who have not been boning up on your geology this week, is a single piece of rock that has been partially uncovered by erosion.  This particular rock, and, yes, it is one huge rock covering 640 acres of land, is made of pink granite.  It is one of the largest batholiths in the world. 

There is a plaque out in Enchanted Rock Park that explains that the Tonkawa Tribe, who inhabited the region in the 16th century, believed that the rock was a magical place.  They spoke this way because the immense rock creaks and groans in eerie ways at night.  Geologists will tell you that the rock makes noise because it is contracting after being heated all day in the hot Texas sun. 

One dusk, almost twenty years ago, I was lying on my back on the warm, almost hot, surface of that great pink boulder, watching the stars appear, which, like the song, really are clear and bright, deep in the heart of Texas.  I was lying there with friends when the cooling rock shook with an enormous, deep boom.  It was as if we were lying on the exposed heart of a giant and could feel, really feel, the thrum of the world's pulse.  I left there thinking that the Tonkawa were right to call that place "enchanted."  Lying there, I had a deep sense that the great stone, the stars, the universe itself was talking, was witnessing, to the glory of God. 

Annie Dillard puts it this way: "I call these noises silence.  It could be that wherever there is motion there is noise, as when a whale breeches and smacks the water, and wherever there is stillness there is the still small voice, God's speaking from the whirlwind, nature's old song, and dance."

At the end of his life's journey, the Messiah rode an unbroken colt into Jerusalem.  No trumpet's blare, only the clip-clop of hooves on cobblestones announced his arrival.  The locals sang their welcome.  They hollered their praise.  Although, if they had they been silent, Jesus says, even the stones would have cried out. 

They aren't alone.  The mountains, the seas and the stars are straining to sing for us.  Our Christian testimony is that the entire cosmos is creaking and groaning, chirping and thundering, in response.  The stones are crying out, my friends, and they are calling us to add our feeble, warbling voices to the chorus.

Let us pray.  God of God of the sparrow, God of the whale, God of the swirling stars, give us ears steeped in the boldness of your poetry, give us keenness so to hear you above the din of our noise, and courage to throw our own voices in with creation's choir.  Amen.

 


[1] Teaching a Stone to Talk, p. 67.

[2] Ibid, p. 68.

 


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