Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Never Said a Mumblin’ Word”
April 9, 2017 (Palm Sunday/ Passion of Our Lord)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
Every year, one of the many Holy Week tasks is determining how the Passion of Our Lord will be read. Some years the choir sings of Jesus’ final hours on earth; other years, two people read the entire story from Matthew, Mark, or Luke. This morning, we thought it would be a good idea to involve a host of people in Saint Matthew’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion. As you have just experienced, this offered each of you an opportunity to tell some part of Jesus’ death.
The first decision for today’s reading was to determine how many readers were necessary for the various parts. Next, I gave careful thought to who should read each part. I worried about a few of the key rolls. How to ask delicately: “I was wondering if you would you like to be Peter;” “I think you would make a splendid Pilate;” worst of all perhaps, “Have you ever thought about being Judas at church on Palm Sunday?” More than once in my ministry, someone has been terribly offended by one of my requests; rather than feeling honored, they have blurted out, “Pastor, how dare you ask me to be Judas?” Oh, the landmines of pastoral ministry!
And then, I wondered about the rest of you: would your feelings be hurt if you were asked to shout out the crowd’s atrocities: “He deserves death,” “Let him be crucified,” “Hail, King of the Jews”? I can hear a few of you muttering this very moment, “I would never say such a thing. Who do you think I am anyway?”
After all that, there were two other daunting challenges: who to choose to be the narrator and who to be Jesus? The narrator was easy: pick someone who can read clearly and with solemnity.
But Jesus. That was dicier. This went beyond choosing someone who could be heard. This person, the chief character, must read flawlessly and profoundly.
What surprised me this year and always has—shocked me might be more precise—is how little Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel. Given the scarceness of Jesus’ words in his final hours, a four-year-old could do this part admirably—or even I could. As the old African-American spiritual would have it, “Jesus never said a mumblin’ word.”
How many words would you have uttered if you had been in Jesus’ place—what with Judas betraying you, Peter getting all weak-kneed and turning his back on you, and Pilate being gutless as he gauges the political winds? Add to that cast of hapless clowns, what would you have said in the face of the macho soldiers and jeering crowds, the ripping thorns and driving nails, the sour wine and piercing spear, and the disgusting spitting in your face. Do you think you would have remained silent for even a second in the face of such cruelty or would you have spewed forth heaps of bile?
The old seventh century desert monk John of the Ladder wrote, “Jesus by his silence shamed Pilate.” In truth, Jesus’ silence shames us all. We are, after all, a people of many words and so easily offended; we have opinions on a host of matters regardless of what knowledge we might possess; we abhor silence and covet having the final word on every issue.
There is soaring dignity in this man Jesus, especially given the few words he spoke. There is exquisite elegance in how he let his actions speak for him. So few words…so few words.
During this week, we will once again walk with Jesus. All the characters in today’s story with the exception of Jesus are so maddening. While we hate the thought of filling in for them, honesty compels us to confess that we are much like them. The passion narrative we have just heard from the gospel of Matthew, far from being antiquated and irrelevant, is as fresh and timely as ever.
Oh, how few words Jesus spoke. Oh, his wondrous silence. Jesus never said a mumblin’ word but, oh, how he loves us. On a day such as this, we do well to listen or, better yet, to watch every move Jesus makes.