4/14/2019: What Must Be Said, Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 19:28-40
What Must Be Said
First Lesson: Philippians 2:5-11
Second Lesson: Luke 19:28-40
It’s not hard to imagine why there were some in the crowd that day from among the Pharisees who wished Jesus and the multitude of disciples following him would stop.
Of course, one possibility is that they oppose what he’s doing on theological grounds. The Pharisees have been Jesus’ primary adversaries in the Gospel to this point and will certainly have a part to play in the drama that unfolds in the week ahead. But it could be that, differences in theology or not, they’re genuinely concerned about Jesus’ wellbeing. He’s still a fellow Jew living under tyrannical Roman rule. A fellow teacher, clearly gifted, however misguided they believe him to be. This sounds odd, but remember it was just a few chapters earlier that the Pharisees warned Jesus to flee because Herod wanted him killed. Could it be that they knew as well as Jesus that this triumphal entry would likely end on a Roman cross, and even one more Roman cross is one more too many, no matter who is on it?
But could it be that they were worried they would end up on one too? Remember that the Pharisees in those days occupied a tenuous space, trying to be good, observant Jews, worshipping their God, the God of the Bible and of the temple and their ancestors, while also living under the tyranny of Caesar, the god of Rome. These two worlds were always in tension, there were always compromises to me made and stomached. “Render to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s” is probably what most Jews tried to do. But as Jesus well knew, after a while it’s hard to tell what is who’s.
There were other Jewish groups who chose a different way from the Pharisees. On one side there were the Zealots who plotted against their Roman overlords and staged violent rebellions—it would be one of their rebellions that would incite the Romans to level the temple just a few decades later. And then on the other end of the spectrum there were those Jews who claimed complete allegiance to Rome, forfeiting in so many ways their identity as Jews. And so there in the middle were the Pharisees: everyday people of faith who wanted to worship their God in peace, even if it happened in the shadow of the empire—a peace that was threatened by Galilean peasants riding triumphantly into Jerusalem screaming, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Maybe the Pharisees in attendance that day truly cared whether Jesus would end up on a Roman cross or not, but they certainly cared whether or not the whole community would go down with him. And so they tell him to get his disciples to cool it, to stop yelling so loud, stop making such a scene, and Jesus responds with his typical flourish, I tell you, if they were silent these stones would cry out!
And of course, there are no stage directions in this script of scripture and so we don’t know exactly how Jesus delivered this line. But I like to think he understood their concern. He didn’t want blood to be shed and more than they. Not his own, certainly not those who have left everything to follow him. But he also knew that what was happening that day and what would happen in the days ahead was bigger than them.
It was bigger than the multitudes crying out in the streets, longing for God’s promises of deliverance to come to pass.
It was bigger than the preservation of this tenuous arrangement between the temple and Rome.
It was even bigger than Jesus, entering this final leg of a journey he first claimed as his own when he met his cousin John down at the river and entered the waters of baptism, hearing the voice come down upon him, telling him, You are my beloved: I’m so proud of you.
He knew the resurrection God had in mind wasn’t just for him. It wasn’t just for the multitudes of disciples, it wasn’t just for the whole of Israel. The resurrection God has in mind was for the whole of creation—the birds of the air and the fish of the sea, the trees and flowers, the mountains and the fields. Even the stones that lay upon that Roman road. The life of the world is in the balance, and so some things simply must be said.
And you know something of how this feels.
Perhaps not with the weight of the actual world hanging in the balance, but what feels like it. There are times when some things simply must be said.
This is a question I always ask families when we meet to plan the funeral of a loved one. What must we say about your father? About your mother? Your son, your daughter? Your friend? If we don’t do anything else when we meet to mark the end of their life and celebrate what they’ve done and who they’ve been, to share in our grief, to lift up our hopes for who has taken them into their everlasting arms—if we don’t say anything else in our time together, what must we say?
Nanna was the mother I never had, and I’m not the only one.
Daddy didn’t always say it but we never doubted for a second that he loved us.
There was always a seat at mama’s table for anyone—anyone.
Sometimes what we must say is hard. Tom Long has a beautiful book for ministers on preaching at funerals and he has a whole chapter on difficult circumstances. The first one is on what to say if the deceased was a scoundrel—scoundrels die to you know, and we’ve got to do something with them. And of course he names the challenge of calling someone a scoundrel at their own funeral. And yet his advice for that circumstance is the same for his advice for other hard circumstances, marking the death of a child or when someone who has taken their own life, which is to speak the truth. To say what must be said. Say it in love. But say what must be said.
I attended the memorial service recently of a friend from growing up who took his own life just before Christmas. It was just awful and I learned after the fact he had been suffering for years. And his service had some of the most moving tributes I’ve ever heard. He was a beautiful, broken person. And yet not once in the service was the fact that he had taken his own life named or that he had lived for some many years with these fierce demons. And knowledge of this seemed to be sitting there in the back of all of our throats. And yes, we read from Romans 8 where Paul tells us I am persuaded that nothing in all creation is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord—not angels not rulers not life nor death, nor things present not things to come—but so badly wanted someone to say, Not even suicide. Not even we are capable of separating ourselves from the love of God. Not forever. Not in the end.
There are certain things that simply must be said.
This past Thursday about two dozen of us gathered down in the fellowship hall with our friend Rabbi Joe Charnes as he led us in a Passover Seder. And as he was giving us some background on the Passover he lingered for some time on the words from the liturgy in the traditional seder, which comes from the book of Exodus, that says, And when your children ask you what this observance means for you, you shall tell them… And then it provides the answer, You shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt.’
But he lingered on this prompt and said, How important is it when our children ask us what all this means for us that we have an answer for them?
How important is it to speak in these moments? Even if our answer is, I don’t know. Or perhaps, I don’t know, but I want so much to find out.
There are certain things that simply must be said. And for people of the Christian faith, Holy Week is when we say them.
This is when we say it all—the whole story of our faith. If we don’t say them now, in this week, when will we say them? In fact, if we don’t need to say it this week it probably doesn’t need to be said. There are so many things that must be said this week, though not all at once—we must pace ourselves, as Jesus did. One day at a time, one step at a time, one breath at a time until it has all been said.
And it begins this Sunday as he rode into Jerusalem surrounded by the multitude of followers—as strange a “triumphal entry” as there ever was.
And so we must talk about this different sort of world God dreams for us that Jesus does his best to show us. How it’s the world we know flipped on its head. Strength revealed in weakness, power revealed in peacemaking. The first becoming last and the last first, the greatest being the one who serves, the poor and outcast and marginalized and forgotten suddenly there at the center. A love and a grace so deep and complex that children are the only ones who understand. And we must be careful not to talk too loudly of victory at this parade, which is the temptation of this part of the story. We remember that this celebration was short lived. That so many of those who walked this part of the journey with Jesus would not be there at the final leg.
On Thursday we gather around a table and we share a meal together, however symbolic, remembering the meal that was shared so long ago. And we remember how among those Jesus sat down with were those who would betray and abandon him. And so we talk about what it means to welcome. What it means to invite, and to be invited. We lift bread and talk about what it means to be broken. We lift a cup and talk about what it means to pour yourself out. We fill basins with water and wash each others feet and talk about what it means to love one another as Jesus loves us. We go to the garden and talk about what it means to pray, and what it means to fall asleep.
On Friday we remember the mockery of a trial and remember all those our own systems fail. We see the crown of thorns and remember we’re still drunk on violence. We go to the cross and we’ll want to talk about sin, but we’ll see that Jesus would rather talk about forgiveness. We watch him breathe his last and remember every last breath we’ve witnessed. We take him to the tomb and see every loved one we’ve ever laid to rest. And we roll the stone in place and remember that they’re gone and one day we will be too. On Saturday we wait as the disciples would have waited, wondering what would be different if the story ended here. Even daring to ask, Would anything?
And on Sunday we go with the women and find the tomb empty and say aloud that word that most other days we would rather whisper: resurrection. And we wonder together that if this is true—in whatever way you need for it to be—then what else might be true as well? And we watch and Jesus reveals himself to Mary and she goes and tells the others—she says what must be said—and we remember that we must too. That it is only by saying what we have seen and heard and witnessed that the Easter happens. And so in that hour or worship together we do—we say things like Alleluia, and gush about hope and joy and promise and faith and laughter and tears and love and death and life and light and darkness and more light—and we remember, as we do each year, that the worst things are never the last things, and for a day, for an hour, we live as if this were true.
Some things simply must be said. The life of the world depends on it. There are times when to remain silent is to say plenty. And so this week we will say together all the things that have been said to us, that have been passed down like heirlooms, holding within them the key to who we really are. We’ll say them for the world, that seems less and less to notice. We’ll say them for ourselves, for we confess we struggle. We’ll say them for the children, that they will know a story where love and light and life win in end. And most of all we’ll say them for each other, for we need to hear this story again, too. I hope you’ll join us as we do. Amen.
 Fred Craddock makes this observation beautifully in his commentary on this passage from Luke in the Interpretation series, 227-228.