Monday, April 14, 2014

Unleashing the donkeys of peace

To download a podcast of my sermon for Palm Sunday, click here.

Palm/Passion Sunday is a bit of a mixed observance for Christians.  Ostensibly, it is actually supposed to be a celebration of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11).

Jesus is welcomed with palm fronds, an ancient tradition used to welcome conquering kings back to their own kingdom. Palms were symbols of royalty, longevity and strength.

Jesus comes riding on a donkey, and animal synonymous with humility and peace.  If a king was making war on a place, he would ride a horse.  If his intentions were peaceful, he would ride a donkey.

So that is tension number one: the people welcome him as a conqueror as evinced by the palm fronds, while he chooses an emblem of peace.  The people obviously had expectations of him he was not intending to fulfill.

But even if we did not read the entire Passion Narrative (Matthew 26:14-27:66) on Palm Sunday (which of course races us across some 5 days in the life of Jesus), we all know how the story ends.  We know his entry into Jerusalem led to his betrayal, capture, torture and execution.  Of course, we also know it leads to his resurrection, but the Passion Narrative ends with his death.

So to an extent, we have to pretend we don't know about the Resurrection in order to experience the tragedy of the crucifixion, and we similarly have to ignore the Passion in order to feel the celebration of Palm Sunday.

The crowds were overjoyed to see Jesus.  We are told they lined the roads, laying palm fronds and even their own clothing on the road for Jesus and his donkey to tread upon, just as they would have to welcome a great king or a victorious army returning home.

They also shouted a word: "hosanna".  In our modern context, I think when most Christians say that word, we think we are saying pretty much the same thing as "hallelujah", basically an expression of deep religious joy.  But this is not what the people thronging the road to Jerusalem would have meant by that word.

Translated directly, "hosanna" means "save now".  It is a cry for salvation, a cry for rescue.  It is not so much an expression of joy as it is an expression of hope.  Hope that the person to whom they are crying it to will be able to liberate them.

It is more or less obvious why the people lining the road to Jerusalem would have been crying that word.  They were living under the heel of the Roman occupation.  Salvation for them meant the defeat and expulsion of the Romans from their homeland.  That's looking at it from a crowd perspective.

You and I were not part of that crowd, though.  You and are not living under the rule of Rome.  The Roman Empire hasn't even existed for centuries, so you and I could not easily relate to the joy and hope for salvation that the crowd felt.

But on a personal level, we have probably all felt oppression.  We have all felt oppressed by fear, anger, despair, depression, sadness, grief, addiction, compulsion, etc, etc.  We have all had things we need to be "rescued" from.

I hear some elements of Christianity claim that they have "been saved", and I not quite sure what they mean by that.  I personally don't feel that "being saved" is a once-and-for-all thing, as though coming to faith with immunized us from the vicissitudes of life.  A life of faith certainly doesn't do that.

However I do think a life of faith gives us hope, and gives us a community to support us when we cannot find hope for ourselves.

I hope that as we come to the culmination of our Lenten journey, we find that which have been hoping for most over this season.

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