Hear the Hosannas
Palm Sunday (April 5, 2020)
This is officially the weirdest Palm Sunday of my life. Palm Sunday has long been one of my favorite Christian holidays because it’s one of the few times that we Presbyterians move. There’s fanfare to it. We hold these palm fronds in the air, wave them, and shout or sing “Hosanna!” It’s a parade after all.
But no parade this year. No procession. We don’t get to play the part of the exultant crowd this year, at least not together. Maybe that’s why I’m thinking more about the crowd this year because I miss being a part of a crowd. I miss congregating. I miss the flurry of activity on Sunday mornings and the festivity of today.
This year I’m wondering what drew the crowds to Jesus. His disciples were among them, but what about the others? Why did they clump together on Jerusalem’s streets? Why did they snap branches from trees and fling down their coats on the road for a donkey and a colt to trample on? Had they heard rumors about this mysterious, troublemaker rabbi from the boondocks? Had word spread about his healings? Or that he’d been going around proclaiming “the kingdom of God is near.” (subtext: that the Roman overlords were about to get the boot)?
There was probably a different story behind each hosanna. “Hosanna! Save us!” “Hosanna, help us!” That’s what the word means, by the way. Centuries of rehearsing these events and the word has turned into a churchy way off saying “Hooray!” but on the lips of that first crowd, it was a cry for deliverance.
It was a cry for rescue. “Rescue us from the Romans! Rescue us from starvation! Rescue us from disease! Rescue us from death!” You can almost feel the desperation. Those hosannas carried a lot of expectations about the kind of messiah Jesus should be. What reclaiming the throne of David looked like depended on who cried what hosanna.
But when it comes right down to it, Jesus doesn’t cut it. He doesn’t pass the test for what God’s anointed ruler should look like or how one should govern. He doesn’t rule through violence or might or magic, or even more ordinary and reasonable qualities like predictability or efficiency. No, he even mocks those in this jester-like march through Jerusalem’s gates. The kingdom he’s been proclaiming and enacting takes a different shape. It’s upside down. Doesn’t fit the mold. The standards are all off — forgive offenses, pray for enemies, cancel debts, wage peace kind of stuff — and the folks at the center of this rule are the wrong sorts of people: the nobodies and the weak, the broke and the derelicts.
No, this messiah rules through self-giving love. And that’s mockable by the world’s standards, as the Roman soldiers show us later with the crown they place on his head.
“Hosanna! Save us! Hosanna! Help us!” We too cry out for salvation. And time and again we expect the same old ways to do the trick. We trust in politicians. We trust in money. We trust tired, broken systems to save us. And we look around, and those systems fail. Miserably.
I don’t believe God causes things like this global pandemic and it’s attendant chaos and suffering to make a point. God is bigger than that! But I do believe that the God who brings something out of nothing and life out of death can redeem even the worst of situations for good purposes.
So it is in this time when we feel utterly powerless that God again redefines our very notions of power. The same one who rides into town on a humble donkey to the cheers of the poor and downtrodden — the powerless — and to the scorn of the powerful reminds us always that real power, lasting power, saving power is ultimately found when we love one another. When people turn to one another in compassion and not in conflict; in generosity and not in greed.
When our sense of connection to one another and to creation itself is strongest, that’s when God’s salvation is clearest. One amazing thing about this pandemic is how people are working around the barriers of physical distancing to care for one another. There are so many of those stories out there! You see, there is something about having a brush with our own vulnerability, with our own mortality, that attunes us to others’ cries. When those cries are heard and answered in community, that’s God’s power.
Jesus, who in just a few verses turns the tables over in the temple and provokes the wrath of both church and state, flips over our ideas of power, what it looks like, and who has it. Resurrection is on the other side of this devastation, but only if we hear the hosannas and learn lessons from them. We need to truly hear the hosannas of the crowd, the hosannas coming from our fellow human beings — the hosannas of scarcity and deprivation, loneliness and injustice — and the hosannas coming from our own souls. Maybe, once this storm has passed, we will see at last how empty all the other pretenders to power ultimately are. Maybe we will rekindle a sense of where and in whom our true power lies.
“Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”