April 13, 2014, Palm Sunday
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
John 12: 12-30 (Psalm 118: 1, 19-29)
When We Don’t Know What to Say
Remember what happens. In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. Then a wind from God swept over the waters and our God spoke up. “Let there be light” and there was light, and God saw that the light was good. The heavens and the earth and every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth, we were called to a life by God speaking words right out loud.
Of course we know what it is to say the things that explain what is going on. We have words to describe the colors of the sunset over the water. We tell stories from long ago and give our own account of the events. Much of the time, our words tell about something. In certain ever-so-splendid moments, our words make something happen.
It’s why magicians say “Abracadabra!” why a couple getting married says “I do” why death is not official until a doctor pronounces its time. This is why there is a gaping space between feeling sorry and saying “I’m sorry;” between feeling love and saying “I love you.”
This is performative speech, and it is all through the Bible, the word of God. Which makes me think this book should come with some kind of warning label or user agreement. When you read in the Psalms, “Praise the LORD!” you are not just quoting the author, what you’re doing is actually praising the LORD. See, we should really warn people about this, don’t you think?
There’s a great scene in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus begins his ministry by reading the scripture in the Temple. He stands up just like Marie did, and he reads from the prophet Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…”
Jesus told the people, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” and when he went on to predict their mistrust, he called it correctly, and they almost drove him off a cliff (Luke 4: 14-30). What happened was that Jesus spoke a world-changing word. You simply don’t get to announce good news to the poor then not change the world. Say it out loud and make it come true.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being (John 1:1-2). This is a world-changing word.
Today we remember the story of the day that Jesus rides into Jerusalem —not on a war horse but a donkey, not for his coronation but for the things leading to his crucifixion. It is a confusing day all around. And in our account from the Gospel of John, the scene does not unfold in awkward silence or a reverent hush. There is a lot of talking!
The action begins with the crowds shouting “Hosanna! Save us!” They’re echoing the praises from the Psalm while Jesus comes riding in. Now some people in the crowd were there because they had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. (I mean, talk about performative speech. Jesus calls out and a man gets up from the dead!) Some people in this crowd were there to testify to Jesus’ saving power. Other people were there to plot his death. The Pharisees said to each other, “You can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” (John 12:19).
Once he arrives in the town, we’re told that some Greeks want to see Jesus; they approach Philip with this request. Philip goes to Andrew, and Andrew and Philip go together to Jesus, and Jesus does not go and welcome the Greeks. Instead, he starts talking about dying. This is what Jesus does:
“Now my soul is troubled, And what should I say —‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’” Then that is exactly what happens! The voice from heaven says, “I will glorify it and will glorify it again.” And you know our God is still speaking.
Of course, the problem here is the problem of our whole story today; you could argue that it is the problem of the whole Gospel of John. The people are confused. Some know more than others, just like some can get close to Jesus while others are standing with the Greeks hoping to get in. And so it is that some people think the voice from heaven is thunder while others think it’s an angel. Jesus says, “This voice has come for your sake not for mine.” Which doesn’t exactly clarify what’s going on.
Here the people are strewn around Jesus in that awkward meeting space between life and death. This is where you feel the pressure changing in the atmosphere, and your mouth starts to turn dry, like when everybody gets cranky before a storm. This is the natural habitat for thunder and angels. And I’m pretty sure we have been to this place of crisis, every one of us. Something is wrong, and there’s not enough information. They’ve started handing out bottled water; that’s never a good sign.
Here in this place, all you know is the truth needs to get told —somebody better speak up! And here, you don’t know what to say. What kind of world-changing word can anybody announce to the universe from this place, this clutch between death and life. Maybe “No!” or “How could you?!” or “Lord have mercy” Or maybe something else…
As you probably know, on Wednesday evenings during Lent, we’ve been sharing the book Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. The book is a collection of spiritual practices for our everyday lives — things like waking up and walking the earth and feeling pain. Well, the book concludes with a chapter called, “The Practice of Pronouncing Blessings.” Blessing is such a churchy word, I know. But as the author points out, all it takes is for somebody to sneeze, then strangers nearby say “Bless you!” I love this. All you have to do to get blessed is sneeze.
A few things to know about blessing: Anybody can do it. Blessing helps us see the promise of God in everybody and everything, but you don’t make something holy by blessing it. Blessing is how we see the holiness already there. That’s how I’d say it. Barbara Brown Taylor says it like this: “The most ordinary things are drenched in divine possibility. Pronouncing blessings upon them is the least we can do.”
But fair warning. You can’t go around blessing without getting it all over your own hands. Or as she writes in the book, “The key to blessing things is knowing they beat you to it. The key to blessing things is to receive their blessing” These words call us into relationship. Simply by speaking this out loud, we become part of that which we bless. A stranger in the elevator sneezes, just try to say “Bless you” without looking at him. If you look at him, you’re going to notice his humanness and holiness, his eyes watering from allergies.
Bless a new baby and the quilt she will sleep in. Bless the seeds you plant and the mission we begin as a church. Bless the person dying in the hospital and every cup of coffee. Bless your hands. Bless the LORD O my soul.
In our story today, the people are confused. Some of them know who Jesus is, but many don’t understand. The disciples don’t get what is happening in the moment. Some hear a voice from heaven glorifying the name of God, and some hear thunder. These people don’t know what is coming later in the week, except for Jesus.
As he is riding into town, the people quote Psalm 118. They remember the lyrics of the song that goes, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD —the king of Israel.” They might not know what is coming, but they sure know the words.
What I’m wondering is this. What if they are not simply declaring that Jesus has been blessed, like you’d state an obvious fact that anybody could see. What if these people are blessing him? Our Lord rides into town on the way to his death, and here on the way, he gets blessed by the people.
I wonder if Jesus can feel their blessing in his being, if for just a moment, it makes him feel a little less alone. I wonder if the people feel themselves change. As the blessing words pour out of their mouths, they have to clear their eyes. This crowd does not get everything right, but here they do. They know how to say the world-changing words.
And so do we.
Even before you get to the other side where you can look back and understand what happened. Even while you are standing in that meeting place between life and death, that holy and awful place where you feel the storm coming, and there aren’t enough chairs, and they’re handing out bottled water. This is the place of crisis where we don’t know what to say.
Of course, no one will blame you at all if you lose your voice. God knows you don’t want to say the wrong thing, and silence can be holy… Or it can be exactly wrong. And it could be this is the place where blessing needs to be pronounced. By you. Somebody needs to announce the possibility of God. Somebody needs to speak up and say a word of love. Brothers and sisters, please don’t withhold your blessing. Do we have any right to do this.
Here in the meeting place between life and death where a dead man was called out of his tomb and a living man will get killed at the end of the week, bless you. Bless your schedules too busy, and your days too long, and your feet too sore. Bless the people whom you always miss and bless those bottles of water that get handed out because the news is that bad. At least, it is not ours to take in silence, not while you can still pronounce a good word. Say the blessing and all the world is changed. Bless the LORD O my soul. Blessed are you. Amen.
Sermon in PDF
Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. Harper Collins: New York, 2009. page 194.
 Taylor 201.