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April 1, 2012 | 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. | Palm Sunday
“Hosanna! Save Us Now”
Adam H. Fronczek
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
And then he said: “Follow.”
And he moved ahead in silence,
and I followed where he led.
Palm Sunday. Without a doubt, one of the best days of the year to be in church, with great music and beautiful greenery and one of the iconic stories of our faith. It’s also April Fools’ Day, and so far, all the pages of my sermon seem to be here, the microphone is working, and I’m happy to say that John Vest is right here in the chancel where I can see him. Not least of all, it’s a great day to be in church because of the palm processional with the children.
Pastors are notoriously opinionated about the presence of children in worship. Obviously, we want them to be here, to sit side-by-side with their parents, to be nurtured in the faith, to demonstrate visibly for all of us that Christ’s love is meant for everyone. We are sensitive, though, to the ever-present risk that when children are in worship, sometimes it is more for our sake than for theirs. We allow the cuteness of their presence to distract us from the message at hand. Children’s sermons have been maligned by some as much more a moment of entertainment for adults than the best way for children to learn. Infant baptisms run a similar risk: if we are too focused on the cuteness of the child, if we laugh too hard at the child’s babbling or screaming in the arms of the pastor, we might forget the serious commitment that is being made, one that involves faith and risk and a lifelong promise to follow Christ.
Palm Sunday is different, though; it avoids many of these pitfalls, and with good reason. You might say that Palm Sunday is supposed to be cute and fun because to the extent that it is not a serious, royal, military parade, it becomes a reflection of what Jesus intended in the first place. The Bible is full of irony and satire, and this well-known story is one of the greatest examples of Jesus’ sense of humor or, at the very least, his cutting use of satire.
As the story goes, Jesus and his disciples arrive at the Mount of Olives, on the east end of Jerusalem. Long before the arrival of Jesus, this location is freighted with history and significance. King David and the prophet Zechariah are among those who make it famous in the Old Testament. Nearer to the time of Jesus, the Jews of Jerusalem struggled against their Roman occupiers for independence, one uprising following another, and anyone who wanted to initiate a serious resistance movement might be expected to stage it at the Mount of Olives. This is the serious place where the story of Palm Sunday begins.
But when Jesus arrives, he has his own plan; it is clear that the scene that unfolds has been carefully thought out. “Go into the village ahead of you,” he says to two of the disciples, “and you will find there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it to me. If anyone asks what you are doing, say the Lord has need of it” (Mark 11:2–3). The disciples go and the scene plays out precisely as Jesus said it would.
This is how Jesus prepares for his “resistance movement,” for his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and if you don’t find it satirical and a little funny even, look again. From the Mount of Olives, a savior would have been expected to arrive in grand style with as much power as he could muster, but that’s not at all what happens. Jesus doesn’t look the part at all. As John Calvin observed in the sixteenth century, “It’s all a little ridiculous. Jesus is riding not on a royal steed but on a little donkey. It is not even his own but had to be borrowed. He has no saddle, so that the people have to throw their cloaks on the donkey’s back. Those following him must have been a ragtag, miscellaneous group of the poor. It’s hard to imagine anything less like a triumphant royal procession” (William Placher, Mark, p. 156).
And yet, paradoxically, Jesus’ entry has a majesty all of its own. Without any coercion or force, people come. They gather at the gates of the city; they come in from the fields bringing branches to wave in the air, and they take the cloaks off their very own backs and lay them in his path, and as he rides by, they cry out “Hosanna!” which literally means, “Save us, Lord!” This humble man, with no political or social connections, poor and about to be deserted, riding a donkey with his feet dragging near the dust, must have been the most unlikely and unexpected picture of one who would be able to save anyone. And yet they shout “Save us, Lord!” Jesus presents a picture of a savior so different from the violent conqueror they would have expected, and yet they react almost as if, deep inside, they knew they had been longing to see a different kind of savior, one who would truly transform the world.
The whole scene is unsettling not just because of what Jesus does, but because of what it suggests about God. Jesus is supposed to be God’s own Son, God’s representative on earth, and if this is true, then not only is Jesus different than the savior the people had hoped for, but God may not be who we expect God to be. We expect God to be one who is powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing, unchangeable, triumphant and eternal, and yet here is Jesus, riding in this foolish procession into Jerusalem, riding into a place where he will be abandoned and betrayed by his friends, punished and sentenced by the people in Jerusalem who really have the power, and hung up on a cross to die in between two thieves. This is God’s representative on earth. And we are left to struggle with how this can be.
Suppose for a moment we entertain the idea that God is not what we expect when we think about power. Suppose that God’s power, first and foremost, is not characterized by coercive force but by love, and what’s more, it is the kind of love we know to be the purest kind: love that is vulnerable and that might even get hurt. As William Placher once wrote, suppose “God’s power is the power of love, which does not seek to dominate, which does not act arbitrarily . . . , but acts . . . in love which authentically concerns itself for others” (William Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God, p. 19).
That’s what we say, isn’t it, that God is love? And love does not walk through the world as most of us do. We clamor for respect and recognition; we look for ways to consolidate our strength; we keep ourselves from danger in any way we know how. But love is vulnerable. Love takes risks. Love might get hurt, and in Christ’s case, it does. For us “to possess power,” writes theologian Carter Heyward, is “to flex the muscles of our brains, bodies, or ideologies—and to win,” but that’s not what God’s power is like (Carter Heyward, Our Passion for Justice, p. 117).
Of course there is nothing particularly new or bold about suggesting that God is love. The harder learning that comes from this is what it might mean for us. If God sends Jesus to show us what it means to be human, then we are not only learning something about God but about how we might seek our own fullest humanity—not in quests of power and wealth and fame, but in service, solidarity with the despised and rejected, and the willingness to love in a way that involves our own vulnerability and risk (William Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God, p. xiv). And that is not a nebulous theological statement, but a very concrete and troubling statement, because most of the time we are a people who avoid risk and vulnerability at all costs. God’s way of power convicts us because most of the time it is self-preservation and preemptive violence that rule in our lives.
Our culture’s resistance to vulnerability, our reliance on violence and self-preservation, is the backdrop for the developing story around the death of Trayvon Martin. Clearly our prayers go out to the individuals involved, but many seem to have stopped their objections there, and we should be deeply troubled about the underlying issue: the existence of laws that would allow this story to emerge in the first place. The editorial staff of the Christian Century, the journal of which John Buchanan is the publisher, wrote this week that laws like the one in Florida “reflect our culture’s ingrained belief that violence is not a last resort but a way to proactively promote security. We are in danger of becoming inured to preemptive war, to preemptive torture, to the execution of criminals in order to preempt further crime” (“Preemptive self-defense,” Christian Century, 29 March 2012). Behind the particulars of the Trayvon Martin story is a broader and deeply troubling sense in which we enact policy on our own shores and abroad that reflects a preference for violence and an overwhelming fear of vulnerability. We have become convinced that the only way we can be secure is to be more powerful, more violent, and more calculating than the world that surrounds us. Make no mistake about it, Jesus’ world was violent too, but when Jesus rides into Jerusalem, humble and defenseless, on the back of a donkey, he parodies the whole idea of a triumphant, royal parade; he calls into question his culture’s assumption that only violence can make a real difference, and in so doing, he calls into question our own assumptions about what kind of a savior we need.
I don’t expect that we have congregation-wide agreement on this subject; I imagine that some of you disagree with my assessment and that for others I am preaching to the choir. Regardless, none of us can claim that Jesus’ satirical procession does not apply us. This same preference for self-preservation over vulnerability invades our lives every day, sometimes without our even knowing it. We all make decisions that have to do with embracing or denying Christ’s vulnerable love, Christ’s idea that there might be a better way to live than how we’ve been going about it. We make decisions about self-preservation vs. vulnerable love when we choose what neighborhood we’ll live in and where to send our children to school. We make these decisions when we enter boardrooms at work and church committee meetings and plan to get one over on the person across the table—that person who is also a child of God. We make these decisions in our most intimate relationships, when we distance ourselves from our spouses, our partners, and our friends out of our fear of what might happen if we allow our weakness to show.
I am not naïve to the fact that life in this world requires some steps toward self-preservation. Our world is not always safe, and we cannot always make the choice for vulnerable love. And so the most reassuring thing to me about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is that Jesus is offering himself not only as an example to us, but as one who can help us. In this Holy Week before us, we are like his disciples: Jesus knows that just as they could not follow him all the way to the cross, we will be unable to follow him all the way, and so he rides on before us, carrying the burdens of life that we cannot bear. He forgives us for what we cannot do all on our own. When Martin Luther preached about Palm Sunday, he wrote, Jesus “sits not upon a proud steed, an animal of war, nor does he come in great pomp and power, but sitting upon an ass, an animal of peace fit only for burden and labor and a help to man. He indicates by this that he comes not to frighten [us], nor to drive or crush [us], but to help [us] and to carry [our] burden[s]” (Martin Luther, Sermons of Martin Luther, p. 19). Much as we may like, we cannot do it all on our own. It is often when we are most in need of God’s help that we can finally see the value of God’s vulnerable love.
Yale theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff discovered God’s love in a time of his own need. A number of years ago, grieving the death of his son, Eric, Wolterstorff wrote a book about the struggle he faced, trying to understand what God had to do with the death of his son. At one point he describes reflecting on the old belief that no one can behold God’s face and live, and he writes, “I always thought that this meant no one could see God’s splendor and live.” But a friend with whom he was in conversation suggested that perhaps it means, instead, that no one could see God’s sorrow and live. Perhaps it would be unbearable to any of us if we could truly know how very much God is willing and able to carry our burdens. In an unexpected way, there is great beauty in that hope. And so, Wolterstorff reflected, perhaps God’s sorrow is God’s splendor (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, p. 81). Perhaps in acknowledging God’s willingness to show weakness, God’s willingness to walk beside us in our struggles, we can finally embrace the beauty of what it means to say that God is love.
On Palm Sunday, we send our children up the center aisle waving their palms because of our faith and hope that God wants for them a better and fairer and more peaceful world than the one in which Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the world that put him to death on a cross. We send our children up the aisle, because we will one day send them out into the world, and a life well-lived in this world demands faith and comes with risks. We do not know for sure what troubles they will face or what challenges they will need to overcome. We do not know what risks they will take in love or how they will be hurt along the way. We know only that, ages ago, the God that created them came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ as a real protest against the violent world in which we live. As that Christ passes through our world today, we cry with those along the path, Hosanna! Save us now! because we truly do need to be saved.
So, ride on, Lord Jesus, we say.
Ride on in majesty against the unfair and unjust world that we too often face.
Ride on in protest against the violence and hatred,
the fear and anxiety that too often control us.
Ride on against the idea that only the strong survive.
Ride on in recognition of the places where we love and give
and serve generously in your name.
Ride on in the name of giving of ourselves, taking risks as you have done,
carrying the burdens of those whose troubles are deeper than our own.
Ride on for our children.
Ride on because we need you ourselves.
Ride on, Lord Jesus. Ride on in majesty.