Editorial note: I’m working on correcting spacing issues. Thank you for your patience in the meantime.
The realities of the church calendar pose an interesting question
on this sixth Sunday of Lent,
one that I’m sure has kept you up, late night, for weeks:
Do we focus on Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday in worship today?
Not that long ago, this would have been a silly question.
Even fifteen years ago,
it was pretty much a given that Christians
start down the road toward the Passion
by shaking greenery in the direction of the Messiah.
We like to picture ourselves among these crowds
that welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem—
waving branches and singing hymns,
weaving ourselves in with those who hollered,
“Hosanna! Hosanna, to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
On this Palm Sunday, I know of at least a half-dozen churches
who have even conjured up a live donkey—SURPRISE—
to join in the festive processional. In the church!
The pomp and the circumstance: It’s just HOW we begin our holiest week.
So, it may come as a surprise that over the last ten years or so, this focus,
on Palm Sunday, has fallen under scrutiny.
Some theologians, good theologians, have asked if we need to SHAKE it up a bit.
In a nutshell, their concern goes like this…
Mid-week services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday
are not as well-attended as they used to be.
Many of the faithful are not making it to Holy Week worship at all.
Well, your guess is probably as good as mine. Probably nothing is really WRONG.
I have heard some say that attendance is down because we are simply kinda busy.
After all, the rest of the world doesn’t pause on Friday at noon.
Our workplaces, our schools, the rhythms of our society
are not set up to accommodate mid-week worship.
Maybe we’re trying to swim upstream.
Others suggest that problem lies
in the soberness of Maundy Thursday and the sheer brutality of Good Friday.
Perhaps the story of Christ’s final days is too hard for some to bear—
too much of a downer, for a culture that seems to favor a more upbeat religion
if any religion at all.
My pastor friends on Twitter asked the same question: Palm or Passion…
and one, Carol Howard Merritt,
replied “Palms. Jesus dies on Friday. I’m not rushing it.”
Whatever the reason,
it’s true that many of the faithful these days, many of us,
go from the parade of Palm Sunday directly to the party of Easter
without journeying down the rocky trail of Holy Week.
And thus, the theological rub.
What happens to faith that has not had a chance to struggle—
faith that has not grappled with truly difficult moments in the life of God?
faith that does not open up a space to deal with OUR truly difficult moments…?
I fear that it might become a faith that wilts in the face of hardship and tragedy.
After all, if you believe that life is one long party for those who trust in God,
then what happens when the party ends?
Does faith end too?
So we have something of a compromise: Palm/Passion Sunday—
a day on which we recognize BOTH the triumphal entry
AND the events of the Passion that are to come…
As I have thought about all THIS this week, I’ve had to live with these texts for today.
And I keep coming back to that strange word
in Mark’s Palm Sunday account: “Hosanna.”
You’ve got to admit that it is not a word that comes up in everyday conversation.
If you are like me, the last time you uttered “Hosanna” was, well…
a year ago in April, last Palm Sunday.
It is a peculiar word–one that is difficult to define.
Scholars’ best guess is that “Hosanna”
is a contraction of two Hebrew terms: yaw-shah,
meaning to save or deliver,
and naw, meaning to beseech or pray.
So you might translate the shouts of the crowd as: “Jesus! We beg you to deliver us.”
The people cheered.
They tossed branches from the nearby trees to the ground,
and they called out, yaw-shaw-naw, “Hosanna.”
They looked upon this prophet–rumored to be the Messiah—
and they cried out to him, “Save us. Save us.”
I’m thinking that the meaning of Palm Sunday for us, hangs on those two words—
on that simple plea.
When are those moments when our heart cries out “save us”?
A friend who works with youth once met with a group of eighth-graders
to answer some questions they scribbled on 3×5 cards
questions that they wanted to pose to their pastors. [i]
Four of the twelve cards asked: “Is Jesus the only way to salvation?”
And being an annoying pastor, Scott’s term, not mine,
he told them that before he would answer that question,
they had to answer one for him.
“Since salvation implies that you are being saved from something,
what do you think Jesus is saving you from?”
The first answer that came back was “hell.” Jesus saves people from hell.
Now, that’s not a bad answer.
But Scott’s initial reaction was suspicion.
When someone answers that “hell” is what God saves us from,
this pastor gets suspicious.
“I am suspicious: first, because, for a good portion of American Christians,
this is the (obvious and only) “right answer.”
In other words, I had to wonder if the youth were thinking:
Here is the preacher; his question is, “What does Jesus save us from?”
He must want us to respond, “Hell.”
It’s kind of similar to what happens when I go to see my doctor, and she asks,
“So, have you been exercising?” and we both know what she wants me to say.”
There are other good reasons to be suspicious at this answer, actually.
Its a complicated thing to ask, “What does God save us from?”
I am certain that the biblical witness supports me in this.
Take, for example, our Palm Sunday text.
I don’t believe that the people lining the streets of Jerusalem
were primarily concerned about “hell”
when they were shouting out “Hosanna! Save Us!” to Jesus.
If the gospels hint at the crowd’s motivation,
it was that the people wanted to be “saved” from the Romans.
They wanted deliverance from an occupying army.
“All of this is to say…I decided to change tactics with our eighth graders.
‘Let me put it this way,’ I said to them,
‘if God was on the ball, what would God save you from?’
“Suddenly,” Scott said, “our conversation got interesting–very interesting.”
“One of the youth raised her hand and said, ‘Death.’
Another offered that God could really help him out
by saving him from an upcoming math test.
Then one of the eighth graders said, ‘Pressure.’
And another said, ‘My parents’ expectations.’
Then another, a shy kid, almost in a whisper said,
‘Fear. I want God to save me from my fears.’”
All of these answers (Scott said) strike me as more sincere than ‘hell.’
Though, I think you could argue that their comments
give a pretty clear picture of what ‘hell’ looks like to a 8th grader.”
Can we dip down into our souls and be as honest as these young people are?
When we wave our palms and boldly cry out, “Hosanna,”
do we dare imagine what we really want God to save us from?
Save me from anger.
Save me from cancer.
Save me from depression.
Save me from crushing debt.
Save me from the strife in my family.
Save me from boredom.
Save me from my brother, son, daughter
getting sent back to Afghanistan.
Save me from the endless cycle of violence.
Save me from another numbing political cycle.
Save me from humiliation.
Save me from those who hate me but do not know me.
Save me from staring at the ceiling
at three a.m. wondering why I exist.
Save me from bitterness.
Save me from arrogance.
Save me from loneliness.
Save me, God, save me from my fears.
In viewing Palm Sunday from this angle,
we can begin to see the potential for some real DEPTH in this celebration,
for embedded in our quaint pageantry
is an appeal to God that originates in the most vulnerable place inside of us;
and it bubbles, almost beyond our control, to the surface.
“Hosanna.” “Save us.”
take the broken places that will tear us apart
and make them whole.
We beseech you, God,
jump into the water
and drag our almost-drowned selves to shore.
The trajectory suggested by those eighth graders
may redeem Palm Sunday from triviality,
but it also forces a couple of important follow-up questions.
First, after we ask God to save us, we want to know:
Does God respond to our cries?
Does God do anything to save us?
And, second, we ask: how does God save us?
These are crucial questions for those of us who cling to the Christian faith,
and I’ll offer my own humble and partial shot at answering them.
But before I do that, I should say
that I believe that the answer to these questions
is embedded in the mystery of this coming week.
In other words, I think that the journey
from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday
through Good Friday and finally to Easter
is the best answer that our faith has.
The danger in this assertion
is that the story we will experience this coming week
may not FEEL like salvation at all.
That is one of the stark realities that jumps out of today’s text.
The people wanted salvation,
which THEY defined as “freedom from the Romans.”
When it became apparent that Jesus was not “that kind of Messiah,”
the people’s jubilation quickly vanished.
“Save us,” they cried,
but then Jesus did not set about saving them in a manner that they could recognize.
He did not take up a sword and send the Romans fleeing.
Instead, he went and had supper with his friends;
–He went and prayed in a garden.
–He demonstrated what it was like for Love to confront Power…
Not for POWER to confront POWER, but for LOVE to confront POWER…
Ha! Some Messiah!?
It only took a few days for the crowds to switch from crying “Hosanna”
to the shouts of “Crucify him.”
So, yes, the risk of Holy Week is that we’ll take a peek at Jesus’ actions
and think, “Hmm, this doesn’t LOOK much like salvation to me.”
So what DOES it look like to be saved by God?
In experiencing the fullness of Holy Week,
one of the strands that I have always clung to for comfort
is the notion that this story is about God-being-with-us.
Not just in some strange, metaphysical way.
But really, truly with us. The story of the incarnate God in Christ Jesus.
How does God-being-with-us save us?
I am convinced that a good part of salvation involves a God
who would stoop to step right into the messiest parts of life,
to be RIGHT THERE with us.
To confront the power of … whatever HELL truly is for us,
to confront THAT with the saving balm of Love…
Several years ago now this past March,
Peter was standing in the Ward-Van Slyke Funeral Home
in Clear Lake, Iowa.
Outside the snow was swirling,
and the local radio station was predicting white-outs on the roads.
Inside Peter was pacing up and down,
trying to make small talk with old family friends
from a town that is no longer his home.
The most significant presence in the room, of course, was Peter’s Dad
who was laid out in an oak casket—
dressed in the blue suit
and Black Watch Tartan tie that his brother
and Peter had picked out.
Peter’s mind was reeling with the kind of crazy mixture of emotions
that being in the presence of a dead loved one seems to evoke.
He wasn’t sure whether he could stand being in that space much longer;
and yet, he knew that this is where he had to be.
It was precisely at that moment
that two members of Peter’s home congregation in Sacramento,
Sarah and Jonathan, walked into that funeral home,
having travelled miles to be there.
“At that moment, my mind just could not SQUARE their presence
with where I was at the moment, with being there in the funeral home.
I looked away, and then I looked back.
Sure enough, there they were,
two friends, two representatives from the Christian household.
It is IMPOSSIBLE to describe the power of that moment.
I felt… sort of… well… ‘saved.’”
You know this too, don’t you?
To be approached by friends in a time of great need
is to experience a fierce solidarity that smacks of the holy.
I have got to believe that this is, in part, how God saves us.
God doesn’t skype salvation in from some suite in heaven’s ritzy district.
God steps out of grandeur to stand with us
in awkward places at awful times
to experience life and death.
God answers our cries of “Hosanna”
in ways so utterly unexpected
that we have got to look (a second time)
to see if they can possibly be true.
Is there any BETTER way to start Holy Week
than with palms in our hands and “Hosannas” on our lips?
Is there any more faithful way
to embark on this sacred journey than to ask God,
out of the deep, honest places inside of us, to “Save us… please, save us”?
As we walk this holy journey this week…
as we taste the bread and drink from the cup and walk to the cross
and, ultimately, after ALL of that,
as we, with tentative and cautious step,
approach the tomb on Easter morning…
let us catch a glimpse of our God who experiences our Hell
so God can confront it HEAD ON with His Love…
[i] Sermon quotes and adapts work by Rev. Scott Black Johnson, pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church of New York City, particularly his sermon “Save Us”.
Image: Procession of the Palm preparation at the John Knox Kirk