I'll be the first to admit it, Palm Sunday is kind of confusing.
It is such spectacle, and we know what comes next so it feels strange to make a big thing of it. We’re mixing all these 1st century customs with 21st century interpretations and generally make kind of a mess of things. In fact, it feels like Jesus himself is messing with things. He is doing these big symbolic and prophetic things, things that seem fraught with meaning, layers of impenetrable meaning, and he doesn’t feel compelled to explain any of it.
The way Matthew tells it, immediately after the triumphal entry, Jesus heads into the temple and overturns the tables of the moneychangers and yells at them, then he turns around and heals people, and children and grown ups are cheering and calling out and it all sounds very chaotic and uncontrolled, and it angers chief priests and scribes, and then Jesus tells them off and leaves town.
So in one sweeping move we see Jesus go from parade to protest to provocation and it all kind of screams parable because his actions both reveal something about the way of fear and illumine something about the way of God but leave it all wide open to interpretation. We know that pattern! Having spent Lent with the parables, and knowing that is exactly what parables do, clear open space for God to speak into our lives, invite us to be disturbed and challenged and stirred, it almost feels like this is a parable acted out instead of told. Once there was a Messiah, who told his followers to go and find a donkey and also a baby donkey, for a parade he was about to hold….
What do you want us to see, Jesus?
If we are anyone in this living sort of parable, we almost always see ourselves as the people lining the streets, laying down our cloaks, taking up branches, celebrating the arrival of a savior, or curiously watching a spectacle, whichever the case may be, but most likely shouting along with the rest of them “Hosanna!’
And most of the time, most of us think of Hosanna as some kind of celebration word– like the word we will find again next week when we celebrate the resurrection. But Hosanna literally means “Save us.” Save us in the highest heaven, save us, O blessed, Son of David! He is coming to save us!
And I wonder, as those lining the streets before Jesus’ arrival, what are the hosannas that we shout?
There is so much in a hosanna, so many unspoken beliefs about ourselves and God and the world, and what or who needs saving, and what we need to be saved from and how it this saving should happen, or who is worth asking.
In their hosannas the crowds are projecting onto Jesus everything they want Jesus to be – king, deliverer, conqueror, overthrower of oppressive Roman rule, redeemer, worthy of all glory, laud and honor, even if he is only riding on a donkey and not being drawn by a team of horses in an ornate carriage, even if he is wearing peasant garb instead of dressed in robes of royalty, even if his procession is made up of children and day workers and the sick and broken seeking healing and ordinary passers by, instead of dignitaries flanked by guards in polished silver, even if the authorities are hiding away plotting his death instead of rolling out the red carpet and setting out the feast to welcome him to town.
They all see Jesus as they want him to be, and ignore all the inconsistencies before their eyes, and their hosannas are filled with who they think Jesus should be for them.
But then, it’s kind of always been this way with him, hasn’t it?
Messiahs are supposed to be heroic, brave and strong, obviously! and striking, and larger than life and not really in any way weak or ordinary or foolish.
But Jesus was born in a smelly barn in a thrown-together moment of making-do, to a shamed girl and her frightened husband, and he was celebrated and welcomed by nobody sheepherders and suspect foreigners.
And now, this moment of triumph, this debut to all the world, is mirroring the first pronouncement and debut in its last-minute, rinky-dink wrongness, when angels sang to peasant shepherds on a hillside announcing that God is breaking in, that God has come to share this life with you and me, that something irreversible is about to take place.
But all along God is seeking to give up power and take on weakness. Real, raw, basic, dirty, complicated and dying humanity. And so, in this moment that has the whole town in tumult, Jesus’ entrance on a donkey and it’s colt, the crowds are saying something true, about themselves and about the world and most importantly about Jesus – who he is and what he’s about. But they don’t really know they are.
This parade, protest and provocation, unfolding amidst all of their various hosannas, this too declares that God is breaking in, God has come to share this life with you and me, and something irreversible is about to take place.
But just maybe not like you think.
If the crowds that day were designing a savior, he would ride into town and materialize an army – human or angelic, and bring vengeance and justice and take down their oppressors – preferably humiliating them in the process. We have a pretty good idea what their hosannas were crying out for.
Even the religious leaders who asked him if he heard what the children were saying about him – they had their idea of what a savior should be, one who would behave with decorum, and not a hint of the kind of profanity that would desecrate the temple and then heal people willy-nilly and let everyone get so worked up and turned around. Their salvation plan would unfold decently and in order.
And I must say, If I were God – a kind of risky game to play but go with me here – if I were God, I would NOT have done it this way either. This week would NOT begin with this strange, ridiculous parade and end with a cross. I would not have done it in such an ugly, tragic, cruel and base way.
My way would be cleaner and softer. I’d make the world a guest room with crisp sheets and a thick comforter and flowers in a vase and warm, homemade scones waiting on a tray. And the world would just get it, just apologize, and forgive, and choose love, and come and have a nice warm bath and put on a big fluffy robe and tuck in for the night and I’d make the world a huge pancake brunch in the morning and we’d all start over the way things were meant to be. That’s how I’d bring salvation.
If we were saving the world, let’s face it, we’d all do it differently. We’d accost the world Robin Hood style, relieving the rich of their horded wealth and delivering it triumphantly to the poor so they could be fed and clothed and nobody would be hungry or in need.
Or we’d convert the world to our own faith, or our own version of our own faith, so any arguing would simply cease in the pervasive daze of unconditional agreement and happy conformity. Done, salvation.
If we were saving the world we would immediately cure cancer and wipe disease from the face of the earth through some miraculous ingenuity and global generosity, and everyone would have access to any medicine they needed at any time, and it would always work. Saved. You’re welcome.
Or we’d summon the world to our office and close the door and have a respectful, firm and informative conversation that would change the world’s mind and open the world’s eyes, and the world would leave enlightened and empowered and it would waste not, want not, reduce, reuse, recycle and start taking family vacations and stop taking mood-altering substances.
Or we’d put the world into a deep sleep and give the world a life-changing dream, everyone simultaneously, and the world would wake up and pile all their weapons on a big bonfire and sing cumbaya and roast marshmallows over its embers and give each other carpool rides home afterwards. Salvation complete.
But not this way. I would bet not a one of us in this room would choose to ride a donkey straight through people’s wildly wrong expectations and competing agendas, into controversy and conflict, politics and power - not once calling any of them wrong or defending your reputation, intentions or very life, by the way - and submit to whatever comes of it.
All of the ways we would bring salvation pick whatever we find most disturbing and fearful in the world and try to escape us from it.
But God’s way of salvation comes into all things, in weakness, to live with us and die for us. Who would’ve believed it?
Did the angels in heaven join in the celebration the street that day?
How silent was the shock of the cosmos when it led to the cross?
Way back at the beginning, when God spoke existence into being, God made all things to be in harmony, in perfect trust and interdependence, completely connected to our Creator in love. All throughout scripture and history God continues to relentlessly draw us back into this connection, and then, in Jesus Christ, God crawls inside the human experience and shares it with us, to ensure that we are not alone, to expose every single thing that separates us from the love of God and connection with each other, and to illumine the core of it all, that we belong to God, whose love permeates and transcends all things.
Like it or not, the parade of Palms finds its response in the cross.
And as the people gathered there to see Jesus and shouted out their cries for salvation - in all their hope and anticipation, their fear and desperation, the needs they knew and the ones they avoided knowing, and all the expectations and assumptions that they waved before them when he rode by on his donkey, and everything that they wanted Jesus to be - God heard them, as God always hears them, and God answered.
The answer is just not one we would choose.
It is not our answer. It is God’s answer to us.
We think we know what we need. So when we pray, we lift up all our own ideas about what we think will save us, and we address them all to who we think Jesus should be, waving them around in God’s face, and even telling God, from time to time, what would work best, in our humble opinion.
And God gently takes all of that into Godself, and then does salvation God’s way instead. God’s answer exposes the way of fear within all our Hosannas – all the ways we wish to “be saved” that would help us to feel secure or strong, protect us from our insecurities and our losses, keep us from suffering or sorrow. It exposes all the ways we try to make Jesus who we think Jesus should be.
And then God’s answer illumines the way of God – which is, from the beginning, to, in every possible way, continue to draw us into the love of God – to join us in suffering and take it into God’s very self, so that nothing might separate us from the love of God.
So whatever our hosannas may be, however pure or selfish their intention, however well spoken or wordless, God takes them in, and bears within Godself all life and death itself, for us.
And I, for one, feel a brief moment of wanting to stop God – like, wait, God, isn’t there another way? I can think of all sorts of better ways, why this?
But God, who came to share EVERYTHING with us, shares even this sentiment, a few days after this scene, when Jesus, sweating blood he’s so freaked out and shaken up about what’s coming, prays his own hosanna, his own “save me from this hour” begging that there be another way.
And then he surrenders again to the way of God, and finds the strength to move into the days ahead in complete connection to the source of his being, to the love that claims us and transcends even death.
Instead of all the strong and sexy and sterile ways we’d bring salvation, all pain-free and perfect, and completely outside our experience as human beings, God chose to do it this way: vulnerable, weak, messy, and foolish, letting what breaks us break God too, so that nothing, ever, can separate us from God’s love which is the source and conclusion of our being.
So today our palms represent our hosannas, our “save us”es, and we’ve got all kinds: honest hosannas and defiant hosannas, hopeful hosannas and desperate hosannas, deluded hosannas and tentative hosannas.
And they are all welcome, they are all part of the story; God has invited us to wave before Jesus our hearts on our sleeves. Our own schemes and hopes for salvation, while perhaps misguided, reflect our need and our hunger and our longing - for healing and wholeness, for reconciliation and forgiveness, for things to be made right, for God’s way to reign.
So God, who came to share our humanity, hears our hosannas.
And also, like the crowd gathered there that day, when we gather in our brokenness and belovedness, lifting up our own hosannas to our own versions of Jesus, we nevertheless say something true to, and about, the real Jesus.
We say something maybe without realizing it, and even when it doesn’t feel like it, and even when we don’t believe it, and even when we KNOW we will turn our back on it at one point or another.
When we stand here with our palms and dare to lift our own hosannas, then, like the crowds in Jerusalem and the angels over Bethlehem, we too announce to each other and to the world that God is breaking in, that God has come to share this life with you and me, that something irreversible is about to take place.
So, come, sisters and brothers, and lift up your cries for salvation to the Lord our God, Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the Highest Heaven!
Prayer exercise for Holy Week:
Take home a palm and this week let it represent your own hosannas.
God comes not how we think God should come, thank God, but how we most need God to come. Let the palm represent for you that tension,
How might God expose the hold the way of fear has on you, and illumine the freedom the way of God has for you?
How will God meet you anew this week, and draw you deeper into God’s love?
If you would like, use a sharpie to to write on the palm anything you would like to remember during the week.