Sunday, April 5, 2020

Phil Kniss: Singing a hushed hosanna

Lent 6 (Palm Sunday): “Show us how to balance celebration and grief”
Matthew 21:1-11; Psalm 31:9-16

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As each day unfolds, living with COVID-19,
    we get to have some new experience or insight or loss
        or grief to wrestle with.
    We could spend all day, if we were together right now,
        swapping stories of how our particular part of the world
            has been turned upside-down,
            where the old patterns or rules or expectations
                simply don’t apply anymore,
                and we have to make it up as we go along.
    We all share that experience right now.
    Including pastors and preachers and worship planners.

One of the biggest points of conversation
    among pastors the last couple weeks
    has been, how are we going to celebrate Holy Week and Easter?
        This is the High Season of our Faith.
        It’s the pinnacle of the saving story of Jesus.
        It’s when we pull out the stops in joyful celebration,
            and affirmation of Resurrection.
        How do we do this during a global pandemic?

I have been saying, and still say,
    time is moving at a different pace right now.
    Our season of Lent will be much longer than usual.
        If Lent is a season for fasting,
            then we have all been fasting—
                voluntarily or involuntarily.
            We are all giving up something important for us,
                as an act of love for others, and love for God.
        And the giving up will continue.
            There will be more and bigger and weightier things
                that we will need to give up
                in the weeks and months to come.
        Fasting will go on, through Holy Week,
            through Easter weekend, and beyond.

So how does this reality change how we walk through Holy Week?
    One new insight for me this week,
        is that suddenly the spiritual essence of Holy Week
            is a lot easier to grasp.
    As a preacher,
        I don’t have to persuade or cajole or remind people,
            to embrace the darkness of Holy Week.
            We know it intuitively.
            We can’t avoid it.
            We are all in the deep darkness together.
        I often say to the church around this time
            that we won’t be able to fully know the joy of Easter,
            if we don’t spend time in the darkness,
                of Jesus’ passion and suffering and death.
        This year, those are unnecessary words.

    Resurrection Sunday is made for times like these.
        Yes, Easter is going to be different next Sunday.
            We are going to delay some of the exuberant aspects
                of the celebration.
                Our songs will be softer.
            We are going to fast from singing
                the Hallelujah Chorus next Sunday morning,
                    one of our beloved Easter traditions.
            We will save that one for our first Sunday back
                as a face-to-face worshiping congregation,
                when we celebrate the victory of life over death.
                I promise you we will sing it then.

        But a week from now, it will still be Easter Sunday.
            We will still marvel at the beauty of springtime blooms.
            We will still read and sing about God’s triumph over death.
            We will still celebrate communion together.
        But we will do all these things while
            being trapped together in a very dark place.

When we stop to think about it,
    our lived experience right now,
    takes us at least a little bit closer to the lived experience
        of the Jewish people living in the time of Jesus.
    The so-called “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem,
        by Jesus and the noisy crowd that followed him,
        was not the kind of event we often think it was.
        It was a dark time,
            when the people were feeling lost and hopeless,
            when they were up against an enemy
                that they knew could easily wipe them out.
        This was not a happy-go-lucky kind of parade,
            this was a daring, and dangerous, confrontational march.
        It was the people living in darkness,
            choosing to boldly face off against the source of darkness.
        It was more like the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama
            across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

    And their shouts of “Hosanna, hosanna” did not necessarily mean
        what we think they meant.
        The word “hosanna” means “save us!”
            It’s not simply a shout of praise.
            It’s a cry for help.
        Yes, it can certainly have the connotation of praise.
            And it is often used with that connotation.
            That crowd of people were really shouting it in both ways!
            They were saying, “Help, we need to be rescued!
                We need to be saved from our oppressors!
                Down with the Roman Occupation!”
            And they were also praising Jesus
                as the anointed and appointed Messiah
                who was there to save them!
        They meant it both ways.
            “Help, save us!” . . . and
            “Here is the one who saves!”

    So, when we joyfully wave our palm branches,
        as many of you did in the video
            at the beginning of our service,
        we can also mean it both ways!
        “Jesus, Savior! We welcome you!
            Thank you for coming to save us.
            And we can also mean it as a yet-unfulfilled
                cry for help.”
        The meaning of the word can change,
            according to what we feel and experience at the time.

    So today, in this time of human suffering and catastrophe,
        we don’t take this procession of palms lightly.
        We do it out of a deep sense of need, and of hope.
        We cry out, with all our heart and soul and being,
            “Lord, save us! Hosanna! Save us, please!”
        And we cry out,
            “Lord, you are the One who will save us!
                You are our one and only Savior!
                You are the source of our hope!
                And you are here!
                Hosanna! Savior!”

This year on Palm Sunday,
    just as the crowds did that day in Jerusalem,
    we dare to shout “Hosanna!”
        in the face of the enemy—
            whether Rome, or COVID-19,
                or other enemies we face in our daily lives.
    We are marching in the light,
        even though it is dark all around us.
    We don’t know how long the darkness will last.
        We don’t know if our earthly, physical lives
            will even survive this darkness.
        But we will not stop crying “Hosanna!”
        We will still proclaim our hope in God’s salvation.

This is a time when the cries of Hosanna
    may in fact sound very different to our ears.
    They may not be as loud, or confident, or boisterous,
        as they do sometimes.
    They may sound more like whimpers than shouts.
        Each of us are experiencing this darkness in different ways,
            and our hosannas will be spoken
            in different tones of voice.
        In our voices, whether loud or soft,
            we may hear grief, or sadness, or anger,
                or even hope, or gratitude.
        Whatever the tone of voice, the word is the same,
            “Savior! Save us!”

Maybe we aren’t up to shouting and singing a loud hosanna this year.
    And that’s fine.
    A hushed hosanna means the same thing: “Savior! Save us!”

    In a minute, we are going to pray and speak a poem of confession,
        in which we acknowledge our hosannas
            are hushed, whispered,
            broken, betrayed, tortured,
            scourged, and crucified.
        But they are nonetheless “hosannas!”
        We are singing a “hushed hosanna” this year.

This is a poem by Roddy Hamilton called
    “Let the stones remain silent.”
    I love that phrase, let the stones remain silent.
    It’s a reference to the Gospel of Luke’s version of this story,
        when the Pharisees were worried about all the noise,
        They didn’t want the Roman authorities to crack down,
            so they told Jesus to quiet down the crowds.
        Jesus replied, “If they are silent, the stones would shout out!”
        In other words, this injustice will be addressed.
            If not by the people, by nature itself.

    So when this poem ends with the line,
        which you will all read together,
        “ . . . and let the stones remain silent,”
            you will be saying, by faith, it won’t come to that.
            We won’t be silent.
                So the stones won’t have to speak.
            We will speak aloud our hosannas,
                even if they are broken hosannas,
                even if they are in hushed tones.
            We will sing hosanna.

Now, before we speak that confessional poem together,
    hear these words of lament from the Psalmist,
        from Psalm 31:9-16.
    But I will make one change.
        I’ll change the first-person singular to first-person plural.
        Because we are all in this place of distress, together.
        This is a time of communal lament.
        Afterward we will sing together,
            “When Jesus wept, the falling tear.”
        And then, together, we will read the poem,
            “Let the stones remain silent.”

    Here are the words of the psalmist—
            9 Be gracious to us, O LORD, for we are in distress;
                our eyes waste away from grief,
                our souls and bodies also.
            10 For our lives are spent with sorrow,
                and our years with sighing;
            our strength fails because of our misery,
                and our bones waste away.
            11 We are the scorn of all our adversaries,
                a horror to our neighbors,
            an object of dread to our acquaintances;
                those who see us in the street flee from us.
            12 We have passed out of mind like those who are dead;
                we have become like broken vessels.
            13 For we hear the whispering of many—
                terror all around!—
            as they scheme together against us,
                as they plot to take our lives.
            14 But we trust in you, O LORD;
                we say, “You are our God.”
            15 Our times are in your hand;
                deliver us from the hands of our enemies and persecutors.
            16 Let your face shine upon your servants;
                save us in your steadfast love.

—Phil Kniss, April 5, 2020

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