Beth A. Faeth March 25, 2018
Scripture Mark 11:1–11
Hosanna! Hosanna. Hosanna. It’s a fun word to say, a delightful word to sing. It is a word of praise, an exclamation of joy . . . a word we haul out to shout and sing on days like today—Palm Sunday. We might hear a hosanna or two next Sunday, as well, coupled with a hallelujah. And still, as we wave our palm branches today and reenact the pomp of the circumstance that led Jesus into Jerusalem, we may want to pause to consider the meaning of the word that reminds us of jubilation. Hosanna. Scholars’ best guess is that hosanna is a contraction of two Hebrew terms: yaw-shah, meaning “to save or deliver,” and naw, meaning “to beseech or pray.” So we might translate the shouts of the crowd as: “We beseech you to deliver us.” Or in a simpler way: “Save us, we pray!” As Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a humble colt, the people cheered. They tossed branches from the nearby trees to the ground, and they called out, “Hosanna.” They looked upon this prophet—rumored to be the Messiah—and they cried out to him, “Save us. Save us.” Perhaps the meaning of Palm Sunday hangs on those two words—on that simple but oh-so-complicated plea. Save us. Save us from what?
As progressive Christians, salvation is not something we spend a lot of time talking about. I appreciate at Plymouth we focus on our faith directing us to create goodness and practice justice in the present so as to transform the world now, not so as to protect our post-death eternity. Many of you have had experience in churches in which words like atonement, sin, redemption were weekly topics. Over the years, I have had many conversations with folks seeking a different understanding of these theological terms, searching for a respite from the fear-mongering so very present in other Christian denominations. It is interesting to me, then, that throughout all of my ministry—always practicing a progressive theology—that when talking to my Confirmation classes about Jesus—understanding him as human and divine, walking through his ministry, talking about his willingness to challenge status quo, discussing his healings and miracles and then coming to the events that led to his arrest and his death—when I have asked: Why did Jesus die? I always have received this answer, maybe not from all the students, but from many: Jesus died to save us from our sin.
What? This is not something I ever taught, nor did I preach . . . but that rote answer seems so prevalent in our society. People say it without understanding what it means. And even when I would anticipate this answer, I never got used to it. And, of course, then we would delve into dissecting that answer, trying to figure out if it is in the least bit relevant to a contemporary belief system.
Trying to reframe the concept of salvation with the young people in my midst, I have leaned heavily on an example from a colleague who found himself having similar conversations with the youth in his church. He decided on a different approach, a different question. If God sent Jesus to save us, what is Jesus to save us from? He posed this question to his seventh-grade class: “Let me put it this way, if God was on the ball, what would God save you from?” Suddenly, he reports, the conversation became very interesting:
One of the youth raised her hand and said, “Death.” Another fellow offered that God could really help him out by saving him from an upcoming math test. Then one of the seventh graders said, “Pressure.” And another youth said, “My parents’ expectations.” Then another, shy individual, almost in a whisper, said, “Fear. I want God to save me from my fears.”
When I consider the honesty from these youth, I wonder if we, too, can dip down into our souls and reveal our need for salvation. When we wave our palms and boldly cry out, “Hosanna,” do we dare imagine what we really want God to save us from? Save me from anger. Save me from cancer. Save me from depression. Save me from addiction. Save me from debt. Save me from the strife in my family. Save me from boredom. Save me from the endless cycle of violence. Save me from humiliation. Save me from staring at the ceiling at three a.m. wondering why I exist. Save me from bitterness. Save me from arrogance. Save me from loneliness. Save me from my prejudice, save me from my self-interest. Save me from perseverating on the myriad of problems in the world. Save me, God, save me from my fears.
If we embrace Palm Sunday in this way, we can begin to see the potential for some real depth in this celebration, for embedded in our quaint pageantry is an appeal to God that originates in the most vulnerable places inside of us, and it bubbles, almost beyond our control, to the surface. “Hosanna.” “Save us.” Please God, take the broken places that will tear us apart and make them whole. We beseech you, God, jump into the water and drag our almost-drowned selves to shore. “Save us.” “Hosanna.”
Yesterday I joined a large contingent from Plymouth to March for Our Lives from Harriet Island to the State Capitol. It’s a youth-led movement, orchestrated by the courageous survivors of the horrific Valentine’s Day school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Over 800 marches were held all over the world demonstrating to our elected officials that gun reform is necessary. As I walked with tens of thousands of others over the Wabasha Street bridge to the Capitol lawn yesterday, I thought with pride about the strength of our young people—our leaders of the future but especially of the present—who are speaking truth to power and demanding salvation. We didn’t shout “Hosanna!” but we did cry out with hope, with anger, with insistence, pleading for change, demanding to be saved. Allies lined the streets holding signs offering gratitude and thanksgiving for the tenacity of our youth and young adults. And then we walked up the steps to the Capitol lawn under the Peace Officers Memorial, I looked directly upon a statue that read, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” Indeed. Yesterday, millions of children of God all over the world were peaceably demonstrating to be saved from gun violence, from active shooter drills, from attending their friends’ funerals. Pleading to those who can make real change happen to save them from their fear: Save us, we pray. Hosanna.
Palm Sunday is redeemed from any triviality when we enter fully into the story, beyond the parade, when instead the march becomes ours, and when we acknowledge our dire need. It becomes personal. And then what? It is one thing to ask the question . . . to expose our wounds, to become vulnerable. Will God save us? Does God respond to our cries? Does God do anything? With all the pain and agony in the world, with all the tragedy and violence . . . why would God look upon my privileged life and save me? These are crucial inquiries for those of us who cling to the Christian faith. The people who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem with shouts of “Hosanna” were also pleading for change. We do not cry out to be saved if we want things to remain the same. 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; he washed their feet, he ventured out to pray in a garden. He identified his betrayers and then placed himself in the position to be arrested. Some Savior. It only took a few days for the crowds to switch from crying “Hosanna” to the shouts of “Crucify him.” So, one of the risks of Holy Week is to take a peek at Jesus’ actions and think, it doesn’t seem like much is being saved at all.
So what does it look like to be saved by God? In experiencing the fullness of Palm Sunday and the week to come, one of the strands that I have always clung to for comprehension and for comfort is the notion that this story is about God being with us. That, in the thick of life, in the midst of all joy and sorrow and fear and boldness, there is, when we look for it, an element of the holy. We may see it in the fellowship Jesus shared at table with his disciples, in the intimate conversation between Jesus and the Divine in the garden, in the call for nonviolence upon his arrest, in the devotion of the women who tended his bleeding body and wept at the foot of his death cross. The shock and awe of discovering an empty tomb. Something far greater than human capacity is at work in us, around us, for us. The indescribable force that will not let us extinguish hope. The resolve we feel to put one foot in front of the other even when we have wrung ourselves out in tears. The empowerment that holds us up when everything in us would rather collapse. Our ability to call out the good in the world in the midst of apparent evil. Surrendering to the knowledge that without a divine presence in our life, all would be meaningless. Part of being saved involves a God who would stoop to step right into the messiest parts of life with us. Self-described sarcastic Lutheran pastor and writer Nadia Bolz-Weber says: “The Christian faith, while wildly misrepresented in so much of American culture, is really about death and resurrection. It’s about how God continually reaches in to the graves we dig for ourselves and pulls us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small.”
When we can name these moments, which are usually quite personal in nature, we identify a part of the Easter promise. We can know salvation.
Almost 20 years ago I was lying in a hospital bed, broken and battered in body and spirit, enduring a childbirth that went horribly wrong, a birth that my precious, full-term daughter did not survive, a delivery and subsequent surgery that rendered me weak, in pain, physically and emotionally shattered, clinging to an all-consuming despair, knowing that I was forever damaged, forever grieving. I was desperate to be saved. My family gathered around me, doing their best to love me back to life as they grieved, too. It was hard to be alone but I couldn’t face anyone else, so a sign was placed on my hospital door inviting visitors to not enter but instead talk to the nurse. On the third day the nurse tentatively came in to say that my friend and colleague, the Catholic priest in town, wanted to see me. Something made me say yes. I believe now it was divine intervention. Jerry came in, pulled a chair up to my bedside, took my hand and said, “I just needed to be with you.” And that was it. He didn’t try to explain away what happened or justify theologically my loss. He didn’t fill the space with meaningless platitudes. He sat with me and held my hand. And for the first time in days I felt safe. The silence wasn’t awkward, it was holy. It took a long time before I trusted God’s presence in my life again, but in that moment, I knew grace. And through Jerry’s tender presence, I began to tell my story. And Jerry, tears streaming down his face, held my hand through it all and listened. That was the beginning of my salvation, my treacherous return from the dead, one of many Easter stories in my life. I was saved.
You know this, too, don’t you? To be delivered in a time of need by someone you may—or may not—expect. To be suddenly aware of God’s grace—whether standing on a mountaintop or in your own living room. This is how God saves us. God comes. God incarnates. God steps out of the grandeur of a palm parade 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 may have trouble believing it, until of course, we do.
Palm Sunday is an invitation. When the parade ends, the shouts of hosannas still ring in the air. Save us, we pray! Save us, we pray! 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 . . . please, save us”?