Date: March 20, 2016
Title: “Off the Record with the Crowd”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Matthew 21:10-17
Hosanna! Such a strange word we chant today. I wonder – when was the last time you used that word in ordinary conversation? Have you ever used it at work? Or maybe when you were out to dinner with some friends, you found yourself jumping up to make an important announcement by first shouting “Hosanna!”? Perhaps you’ve interrupted a family gathering, or found yourself in a public park, or even alone on a mountaintop, shouting “Hosanna!”
Probably not. Probably, the last time you heard that word “Hosanna!” or used it yourself was about a year ago, on another Palm Sunday. Hosanna is a strange word, and it is difficult to define. Biblical scholars’ best guess is that it is a contraction of two Hebrew terms – the first, yasha, meaning “to save” or “to deliver”; and the second, na, meaning “to beseech”, or “to pray”. So when the crowds begin shouting out “Hosanna!”, what they really are saying to Jesus is We beseech you to deliver us. The crowd is crying out “save us!”, which leaves me wondering… save you from what?
Here it is, the last Sunday of Lent, and the beginning of Holy Week. And at this end of our sermon series, we are going “Off the Record” with that Palm Sunday crowd, asking them: “Why are you lining the street to see a purported prophet and his ragtag group of followers? Why are you waving your branches, spreading your coats on the ground? Why are you shouting your excitement loud enough for the whole world to hear? And from what – precisely – are you hoping Jesus will save you?”
It might be fairly simple and straightforward, the answer we receive. For that first century Jerusalem crowd, the salvation they seek is immediate and concrete. They are hardly standing around worrying about heaven or hell. They are not spending any time at all waiting on or hoping for an afterlife of any kind. They are looking for deliverance in this life, wanting a savior to take them away from poverty and violence, away from disease and hunger, and above all, away from the oppression of an occupying army.
So they give Jesus a hero’s welcome, the ancient Jerusalem equivalent of a ticker-tape parade. They are clearly cheering on a winner. And yet, how quickly, the Gospels tell us, the crowd changes its tune! Jesus the victor of Palm Sunday becomes Jesus the villain by Thursday night. I can’t help but wonder – how does anyone fall that far in the polls in the space of just a few short Gospel chapters?
Maybe it has to do with what Jesus does when he gets inside Jerusalem. There, he turns the tables on the economic structure of the day, he chooses justice over commerce. There, he refuses to be an insider, and sides instead with the outsiders. No wonder what had started out as adoration soon turns to thoughts of assassination.
If we were to go “Off the Record” with the crowd outside the Temple, watching Jesus in horrified silence as he drives out their placid acceptance of the status quo, they might say something altogether more unsettling than “Hosanna”. Their cries for deliverance might very well turn into please for Jesus to STOP. Stop interfering, Jesus, with our economic system. Stop intervening, Jesus, in our political structures. Stop intruding into the world as it is, stop invading our false sense of security and our incomplete sense of identity. Just stop, Jesus… stop being who you are.
Like many of you I have become increasingly distressed by the political discourse of our day. The level of vitriolic uncivility, the personal attacks, the broad sweeping generalizations, the appeals to our basest instincts – all of that is out of control. It is unprecedented in this campaign season. Sociologist Tizinia Dearing puts it this way:
We have become shockingly comfortable with hate and fear as core elements of our public policy discussions today. The problem with hate and mistrust is that they limit our collective imagination, and therefore place pernicious boundaries around our solutions. They lead to public policy that lacks compassion and fails to focus on our inherent strengths, and that may even become punitive and oppressive.
It is as if we as a nation have joined the Palm Sunday crowd outside the Temple where we are now shouting at Jesus to “Stop reminding us who we are!” It seems the big “T” Truth of God’s imperative for love and justice, the big “T” Truth of Jesus’ model of compassion, kindness, respect and integrity is too much for us to bear. It is as Martin Luther King, Jr. once reminded us: The truth will set you free, as Jesus said. But first it will make you very angry.
First that Truth will chew you up and spit you out and leave you feeling bereft, unless you leave the crowd outside the Temple and go inside to help Jesus turn over a few tables of your own. What if we together were to go inside and turn over the table of our arrogance, that lie which says we are sufficient unto ourselves, that we have no need of community, and no need for God? What if we together turned over the table of our fear, that deception which paints every stranger as an enemy and puts monsters under every bed? How about if we tackle together the tables of our busyness, or the tables of our stuff, or the tables of our closely held wounds and resentments we cannot seem to let go of or get beyond? We could turn the tables of all the stories we tell ourselves which only serve to limit us, enslave us and keep us from being ourselves – the beloved children of God we were intended to become.
Again, in Dearing’s words:
If being hateful – or at least fearful – is core to our public discussion, then LOVE should be, too. Every ying deserves its yang, especially one that works.
Kathleen Norris, when asked to put the truth of the Gospel into seven words or less, wrote this:
God is love. This is no joke. She then went on to explain:
We use flippancy and irony to shield ourselves from feeling. We relegate love to the realm of the romantic and sentimental, and dismiss it. But Gospel love brings us to our senses. The love epitomized in Jesus Christ is serious and demanding, merciful and not judgmental. It is life-giving and self-sacrificing. It is love that sees and tells the truth, whatever the cost. It is the love of God.
Now all of a sudden our parade has gone beyond a superficial celebration. We are not just marching from Collins Hall to the Sanctuary. We are traveling instead from the most vulnerable places inside of us, to the most honest and real parts of ourselves. We are finding the courage to be who we are, to parade past our ordinary lives into God’s extraordinary presence. So we should shout “Hosanna!”, as we ask God to deliver us from all that tears us apart. Hosanna – save us from all that limits the imagination of our hearts. Hosanna – deliver us at last into the depth of our love. For then, we shall truly and finally be saved. Thanks be to God! Amen.