If you look at the Christian calendar, today is marked as Palm/Passion Sunday. It used to be the Palm Sunday. But, not too many years ago, some theologians have asked if we need to change it into Palm/Passion Sunday. Why? Well, their concern was like this: mid-week services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are not as well-attended as they used to be. Many Christians are not making it to Holy Week worship. Attendance is down because we are simply too busy. Our workplaces, our schools, the rhythms of our society are not set up to accommodate mid-week worship. So, many contemporary Christians go from the parade of Palm Sunday directly to the party of Easter without journeying down the rocky trail of Holy Week.
Wondering about all of this, scholars have suggested a compromise: Palm/Passion Sunday–a day on which we recognize both the triumphal entry and the events of the Passion. I think one can say that this is a sort of hybrid liturgy.
Here at Darien UMC, however, I don’t think we need a hybrid liturgy, because I know all of you will come to our Mandy Thursday Service. Right? It will be a simple service of brief scripture readings, followed by Taisé songs and silence. And there will be a guided meditation on “foot washing.” And, of course, we will join the Last Supper, the Holy Communion, established by our Lord. I planned this service because several members told me they love silent/contemplative prayer. I hope you can come to this service.
OK…, now. Because I will see you all on Holy Thursday, I will focus on the Palm Sunday today. One key word for Palm Sunday is “Hosanna.” It is not a term that comes up in everyday conversation. If you are like me, the last time you uttered “Hosanna” was, well… a year ago last Palm Sunday. Right? It means “save us now.” Some scholars suggest it means: “We beseech you to deliver us.” (By the way, this is exactly the same words from the Psalm 118). When the crowd shouted, “Hosanna,” it was much more than shouting, for example, “USA! USA!” It was more than an excitement… more than an expectation. It was a plea. It was a confession: “We know you are the Messiah. We know you can deliver us. So, we beseech you to save us.” Do we feel compelled to shout “Save us!” to our God as we prepare for Holy Week? From what do you want to be saved?
What do we really want God to save us from? Do you want to be saved from “hell?” I don’t know what the concept of hell means to you, but
according to our text, for the people lining the streets of Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, the “hell” was very real thing. 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.
By the way, did you watch “The Last Days of Jesus,” on PBS?
When I recorded this 2-hour-long film, I didn’t expect much because around this time of the year, they always show one of these kinds of documentaries. And, so far, I was not satisfied any of them because there are so many misrepresentations and illogical conclusions. When I watched it, I realized that this is better than other films. Unlike other programs like “Gospel of Judas” or “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” which were broadcasted in the past, there are some things we can learn from this film. It is true that it is still problematic, but we can learn about, at least, the geo-political dynamics of Jesus’ time. The behind story of the Gospel stories, if you will. So, when you get a chance, watch it. It will be broadcasting again on March 31st. You can learn the background or the context of the Gospels.
Speaking of religious films, some of us will go and watch “Paul, Apostle of Christ” later today. According to this film’s website, the writer and director, Andrew Hyatt, took great pains to ensure biblical accuracy and the film was screened by scholars to ensure accurate historical and scriptural treatment of the texts. So, please, join us if you can.
In viewing Palm Sunday from this context of Roman occupation, we can begin to see the potential for some real depth on this liturgical celebration. And then, we can also genuinely appeal to God, “Lord, Save us.” Please God take the broken places that will tear us apart and make them whole. We beseech you, “God, Save us.” “Hosanna.”
And, here’s another important question that I want to ponder on this Palm Sunday: “how does God save us?” Before I try to answer to this question, I should say that I believe that the answer is embedded in the mystery of this coming week. In other words, I think that the journey from Maundy Thursday through Good Friday and finally to Easter is the closest thing to an answer that we Christians have.
Of course, the danger in this assertion is that the story we will experience this coming week may not feel like salvation. That is one of the stark outcomes in 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 and washed their feet; then, he went and prayed in a garden. Some Messiah!? It only took a few days for the crowds to switch from the shouts of “Hosanna” to “Crucify him.” By the way, the film, “The Last Days of Jesus,” suggests that it actually took place in several months, rather than in a week. Anyway, the point I want to raise here is this: 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. How does God being with us and save us? I am not completely sure, but I do think that part of being saved involves a God who would stoop to step right into the “hells” of our life with us.
Let me tell you a story. It was on the All Saint’s Sunday at the Vail Gate UMC where I served as a newly ordained pastor for 5 years. During the communion liturgy, we reached the moment when I uncover the cup. The person who set up the communion table always covers the cup with white cloth. I always check everything before the service, but that day, I might be busy talking with people who attended the 1st service. Yes, we had 2 services and this happened during the 2nd service. As soon as I uncovered the cup, I felt like I was frozen to death, because there was no juice in the cup. I was so perplexed that I couldn’t move. What kind of pastor I am who started the communion without the wine? I was so humiliated that I couldn’t speak a word. I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t figure out what to say or do. I couldn’t do anything, except for waiting for mercy. Oh, Lord, have mercy on me!
At that moment, Nick Stuffer, the oldest man who was very wise and always sit in the front pew with his wife Margie, said something wonderful: “Friends, I think all the saints mysteriously came and drank all the wine.” Of course, as soon as he said, all the worshipers laughed about the situation. I don’t know how he found out that there was no juice in the cup, because it was impossible for him to look inside the cup from his pew. That’s mystery. That’s Holy Spirit. That’s grace. It is impossible to describe the power of that moment. I felt… sort of… well… “saved” from “hell.” Yes, That was a salvation—a mini-salvation.
You know this too, don’t you? To be approached by good friends in a time of great need is to experience a solidarity that smacks of the holy. I have got to believe that this is, in part, how God saves us. God doesn’t fax salvation in from a fantastic office in heaven. God comes. God incarnates. 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.
I wonder… Is there any better way to commence 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, Lord! We beseech you to save us!” Hosanna! Amen.