Sermon for Palm Sunday, B, March 29, 2015, on Mark 11:1-11; 15-19

Mark 11:1-11; 15-19

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.  If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’”  They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?”  They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.  Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.  Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves;  and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.   He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?
But you have made it a den of robbers.”
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.  And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.  

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I  heard a man telling a story about a dangerous underwater scuba dive he made.  He almost died. It was a tragic story; his dive partner did die.  He told about being down so deep that he became disoriented in utter blackness.  His oxygen regulator broke from the pressure.  He passed out several times; he lost his guide rope for several minutes.  There was a lot of tension in the story. But he was telling the story, so even in the moments in which he was most at risk of losing his life, we knew that he made it.  For him, it was a survival story.

Palm Sunday’s Two Sides

In many ways I think the Palm Sunday story is like that: it has two sides, a dark side and a happy outcome.  It is like men telling stories of combat in which they experienced terrible things, but survived and can speak of it afterwards, remembering the outcome.  It is like women telling stories of difficult labor delivery, but who see the new baby and the wonder of life; it transforms the memory of the pain. Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 10.30.31 AM

Was the day of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem a happy one?  Certainly there was a lot of joy and anticipation along the parade route.  People were quoting Psalm 118, as we did in our reading, singing to God:

    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
    Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
    Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

But we know two things that radically change that picture.  One is that these happy people were nowhere to be found when Jesus was arrested, tortured and killed.

And two, Jesus’ death was not the end. In fact Jesus lives and reigns as our King!  So we can be happy and sincere as we say, today,  “Hosanna!” which is a prayer to God that simply means “Save us!”  God does save us!

We can be thankful at the outcome, even though we know that what is coming is a dark story.  It is first full of betrayal, abandonment, pain and death, before it starts to get good.  Yes, we celebrate the outcome, but that happens on Easter.  Let’s not rush the story.

The Entry and the Day After TogetherScreen Shot 2015-03-28 at 10.24.06 AM

How much of the story should we tell at once?  This time I have included in the reading the events that took place at the temple the following day.  This was all planned.  When Jesus rode that donkey into town, he knew what he was going to do.  The whole thing was choreographed, from the colt on the parade route to the coins on the floor.  Jesus was being intentionally provocative.   And, predictably, people were provoked – even to the point of being provoked to murder.

Of course what got people especially upset was money.  Money can get people upset faster than just about anything, besides infidelity.  Certainly faster than religion.

Jesus intentionally and dramatically provoked a confrontation with a whole economic system, which, in his day, was run by the religious establishment which supported and profited from it.  And, ironically, all of it was happening at Passover, the very festival which was supposed to commemorate liberation from Egyptian oppression and slavery.

So, getting back to the story, Jesus and his crew planned this dramatic entry into the city at the Passover festival, and people got excited.  Jesus was conducting a parody of the entry of a victorious king.  People got into it.  They did what people could do for victory marches, in the days before helium balloons and confetti: they used what was at hand; they used leafy branches and their own cloaks.

And they used their voices:  “Hosanna”  “God save us!

Save us?  From, For What?Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 11.40.15 AM

Save us from what?  Save us for what?  This is where the story starts getting dark.  The darkness comes from the quest to be saved from the wrong things, and saved for the wrong things.

This is where we come into the story.  We too, need God to save us.  But it is crucial that we get right what we want God to save us from and save us for.

Hell?  No.

First, let us get this out of the way: nobody at the parade that day was asking Jesus to save them from being sent to hell.  They meant “God save us” in the exact way that people in the past meant it when addressing a king: they meant “save us from our enemies.”

Clearly most of them wanted exactly what their ancestors wanted on the night of the first Passover: to be saved from oppression.  Back then, the oppressor was Pharaoh’s Egyptian empire; currently they wanted liberation from Caesar’s Roman Empire.

So, they were not asking to be saved from hell, but what did mean when they said   “Hosanna, God save us”?  How did they imagine God would do that?

That is why they added the line, not found in Psalm 118,

“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” 

They wanted King David’s old kingdom back, with Jesus as the new king, in an Israel free from Roman occupation and oppression.  If that meant starting a violent revolt, many were thinking, so be it.

Most people shouting Hosanna wanted Jesus to literally be the next king of the Jews, and when Pilate thought that was what Jesus himself wanted to be, he did what Rome did to their perceived political threats, by the thousands: he crucified him.  Remember the sign Pilate put on the cross: King of the Jews.

Jesus’ AgendaScreen Shot 2015-03-28 at 10.44.20 AM

That is where the people were tragically mistaken.  They did need God to save them.   But Jesus never had the agenda of saving them from Rome.  And Jesus never wanted to save them for a renewed state of Israel.

This is where this story gets personal.  We too need salvation.  Not from hell, but real salvation starting here and now.  We need to be saved from things that are oppressing us and saved for a liberated future, and yes, it is going to include confronting our relationship with our money, along with a lot of other issues.

Let me make a modest proposal: it is simply that we allow Jesus himself to be the one who gets to say what we need saving from, and what we need saving for.  Let us allow the one we look to for salvation and deliverance to name the the problem and the solution.

If we do, what do we hear him say?

Deliver us from evil…Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth…”

The problem is deeper than Rome, it is the problem of evil itself.  That is what we need to be “delivered” or saved from.  And the solution is the kingdom of God, where God’s will is done on earth.  That is what we need to be saved for.

Jesus’ Action

And that is exactly why Jesus did what he did after the parody of the kingly triumphal entry.  He went to the heart of the place where evil was being manifested and literally turned the tables over.

Jesus was an economic threat to ones who had so completely lost any sense of the common good that they were willing to exploit people, all the way down to the widow’s last mite.  They were complicit in the oppressive Roman occupation as well.  It was “everyone for themselves.”

In those very dark days, the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer; the gap between the two was growing exponentially.  They were bad times for most people, except for the few who manipulated the system to their own benefit.

Evil is always selfish, and apathetic of the consequences.  Evil is what we need to be delivered from.

Saved for the Kingdom

The solution is the vision of the kingdom of God in which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  That  is what we need to be saved for.  A vision of the common good that is based on the life of faith in God as Father.  It is a vision of one common human family, loved by God, reconciled to God, and in harmony with each other.  This is the liberation we long for.

So what is God’s will that we pray will be done on earth?  There is no mystery here: God will is that we

“do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God,” (Micah 6:8)

as the prophet says.  It is to express love for God and love for our neighbor, which, according to Jesus, sums up the entire law.  Not love in sentimental or psychological ways but practical ways.  As James would later summarize it,

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1)

The world stains us with evil; the evil of cynical selfishness and moral apathy.  The evil that wants to keep every penny in our own personal pockets, regardless of the consequences.  This evil is rampant in our time, all around us.

Anti-Common GoodScreen Shot 2015-03-28 at 12.18.50 PM

For example, the state of Alabama has the 49th lowest property taxes in the nation.  But the threat of an increase, amounting to less than the price of one restaurant lunch a month, makes people get all red-faced and indignant.  And that reaction,   despite the huge overcrowding of our schools. Selfishness combined with apathy about the common good.  Hosanna!   God save us.

But that is only the latest in a whole series of anti-common good sentiments we keep hearing.  It is as if the vision of the future some people want is an entirely dystopian world like the Hunger Games shows.

And this is happening in the Bible belt where there are nearly as many churches as McDonald’s.  It is amazing to me to hear people trot out the bible in debates about who can marry whom, and then completely ignore the overwhelmingly clear consistent biblical call to champion the cause of the widow, the orphan and the immigrant stranger, in other words, to work for the common good.

A Higher CallingScreen Shot 2015-03-28 at 12.27.11 PM

No, we have a much higher calling.  We do lift up our voices saying, “Hosanna, God save us.

Save us from the evils of cynical selfishness and moral apathy.  Save us for the kingdom.

Save us for a living faith, a love of God our Heavenly Father that is real and deep and has profound effects on our entire lives.

Save us to love our neighbors as ourselves, even the poor ones, even the ones who need extra help, the disabled,  the mentally ill, the elderly, the unemployed, the underemployed, the school children.

Save us to be a community that looks like the Kingdom where God’s will is done on earth.

That is the cry we make to the king who rides into our lives on a humble donkey, the king who broke bread with sinners, the king who shared bread with the hungry, and the king who died without violent resistance on Good Friday.

This congregation is living into that kingdom vision of the common good.  We are happy to be a supporter of the Christian Service Center, the Children’s Home, and to tutor the children of our community.

We go on turtle hatch watches, and some of us are actively involved in being advocates for our environment.

We sponsor children in Africa.  We respond to disasters through Presbyterians for Disaster Assistance and bring hope to urban areas through the Self Development of People projects.

When we shout Hosanna, we mean it, and God is at work, pushing back against the darkness, the evil so rampant in our times, saving us for the kingdom of Shalom, inspiring us to seek the welfare of the city God has put us in, as Jeremiah told the exiles.

So, on Palm Sunday 2015 though we are pressed down by the zeitgeist of selfishness and apathy around us, we do not loose hope.

We expect this to be a double-sided story:  of betrayal and abandonment, of suffering and death.  But we also know that this is going to turn out to be a story of new life, of resurrection, and salvation.

To that we say, Hosanna!  God save us!  Amen.



2 thoughts on “Hosanna, God Save Us

  1. You stated: “It is amazing to me to hear people trot out the bible in debates about who can marry whom, and then completely ignore the overwhelmingly clear consistent biblical call to champion the cause of the widow, the orphan and the immigrant stranger, in other words, to work for the common good.” What is your reaction to a seeker of God;s Kingdom that trots our a Gospel story about divorce as it relates to God’s desires for humankind, and in a Genesis story, to debate whom should marry,however I do not totally ignore God’s call to work for the common good. As I look at the actions your congregation takes I see the list has many similarities in my response to God> So, does my understanding of the clear call for seeking justice and mercy account for no value in God’s KIngdom because I make a claim from Scripture that is restrictive? Does looking out for common good require me to work politically toward increased funding for educational opportunities, but cannot make a moral evaluation over certain behavior from the plain sense of Scripture? Jeremiah challenged those in exile to seek the well-being of their captors for the well being of the city determined the exile’s well being.

    Now it is amazing to me for a proof text approach to be used to support a position and no other Scripture informs that person’s faith and life. But how do you characterize someone like me, who asserts to follow Jesus and works to eliminate evil and encourage building the common good, but finds a profoundly opposing view on same-gender marriage?

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