A Palm Sunday Sermon

Matthew 21:1-11

Save us. Hosanna means save us.

The people clogged the streets shouting this word again and again, “Hosanna. Hosanna.”

The people lined the road to Jerusalem, filled with a mixture of fear and hope, hunger and despair.  “Was this the Messiah?” they asked one another as they craned their necks and peered between heads to glimpse this Jesus they had heard so much about.

As they looked, and hoped, and strained their eyes, they continued to chant: “Save us. Save us.”

These people knew what it was to be desperate.

These people, Jesus’ people, came from all over the Judean province; they knew what it was to endure the foreign Roman regime, heavy taxes and witness Roman troops stationed near their Temple.  They knew what it was to drown in debt and endure high foreclosure rates on the land, concentrating wealth in the hands of a few.[i]  They chanted “save us” because they knew what it was like to long for the glory days, when they had their independence and the leadership of a Messiah – or a divinely appointed ruler descended from David, their first king.  They longed for a Messiah to come and liberate them from the Romans the way that God liberated the Hebrew people from the grips of Pharaoh when they were enslaved.  This Jesus, this Jesus, they hoped would be that Messiah to liberate them, to free them, to reclaim the Promised Land.

Expectation hung heavy in the air.

The people assumed that the Messiah, literally meaning “the anointed one”, would ride into the city with a show of might on a war horse, followed by an army to take back Jerusalem.

The clip-clop of hooves drew near.  Individuals jostled for a better view as they heard the Messiah approaching.  They peered forth and saw ….. a young person … riding a donkey … followed by a rag-tag group of women and men …

“Hosanna?” They wondered, “Can this person really save us?”

“Perhaps,” they continued, “We should just save ourselves.”

They could find their own swords. Their own steeds.
But would that save them?

There is a story of Archbishop Oscar Romero speaking to a priest in a time of war and unrest in the country of El Salvador.  Romero says to the priest, “You’re a priest. You believe in God and the power of love.  You used to pray.”  “I still do,” the priest replies.[ii]

“Then, why are you carrying a gun?” Romero asks.

Do we really trust in the way of God?

When Jesus arrives, the entire city is surprised by the demeanor of the Messiah.

They ask: “Who is this?”

Jesus is a different kind of Savior; Jesus is a different kind of Messiah.

In Jesus’ days, the people hungered for kings, but these days we have presidents.  What would we do, if a crowd lauded Jesus as President as Jesus went parading down the streets of DC in a beat-up, old car followed by the homeless and the curious and the sick?

Would we have responded differently than the people of Jerusalem, asking, “Who is this?”

Would we have been able to hear the message that Jesus was preaching?

In Jesus’ day, waving banners was a political thing.  You waved the banner of Rome to show your allegiance, so today when we say things, “like the banner over me is love” that is a political statement of our allegiance.  Our banner is not of Rome, but of God and it is an allegiance to a different way of living.

What would it be like if we started each day with a pledge of allegiance to Jesus?  To the way of compassion that Jesus shows us? To seeing people as Jesus saw them? To bringing, like Jesus, our wisest and best selves to the table?  To acting in a way that’s forgiving even when we are not feeling warm and fuzzy?  To working toward Shalom for all people and all the earth?

I pledge allegiance … to Jesus … a different kind of Savior.

“Who is this?”

Throughout Jesus’ life, we see that Jesus is One who stops and talks to a Samaritan woman at the well and treats her as equal.  Jesus is One who values the gift of the blind man, who has faith when others did not.  Jesus is One who raises the dead like Lazarus to new life.  Jesus is One who invites the children to come to him.  Jesus is One who tells us to forgive seven times seventy seven times because Jesus knows that that’s how many times it takes to get it right.  Jesus is One who denounces money changers in the temple because Jesus is teaching us to value people over profit.   Jesus is One who speaks out against religious leaders that value rule-following more than justice, mercy and the humanity of the person sitting next to them.

Jesus teaches us another way forward.
It is not the path of wealth or might or coercion.
Nor is it the path of apathy, turning away or fear.

Rather, Jesus shows us the third way: the way of integrity, truth, groundedness, beloved community, Shalom, justice, dignity, creativity and love.

Jesus shows us, in the words of Margaret Farley, “that Christianity is a religion of hope and resistance.  The point of the cross is not finally suffering and death; it is rather that the relationship holds.  There is a love stronger than death.”[iii]

Do we see it?

Do we believe it?

In the Gospel of Matthew, there is a story that depicts well this third way.  In the story, the tax collectors come up to Peter, Jesus’ disciple, and ask if Jesus is going to pay the temple tax.  Peter says yes.  Yet, when Peter goes to Jesus, Jesus asks, from whom do the kings of earth take tribute – from their children or from others.  Peter says, from others.  Jesus replies, then we are freed of responsibility of paying this tax but so that no one takes offense go to the sea and fish and when you catch a fish, open its mouth and you will find a coin; use that money to pay the temple tax.

Jesus is saying to the empire: “You can have your money … I made that fish.”[iv]

Jesus does what people do not expect, jolting us awake to what really matters.

In the book Jesus for President, Shane Claiborne describes how he lives in Kensington, the poorest part of Philadelphia, because he wants to be like Jesus.  One day he and his friend, a young, gentle kid named Kassim, take a walk to the post office.  They pass through a narrow side street and a group of teenagers start following them.  Shane says you could feel the mischief growing as the group grows from two to four to eight.  They start calling Shane and Kassim names and throwing rocks and sticks.  Not knowing what else to do, Shane says to Kassim, let’s go say hi.  They go over and Shane says, “Hi I’m Shane and this is my friend Kassim.  We live around the corner.”  Shane sticks his hand out, a few people shake itand introduce themselves.  Some snicker. Other refuse the handshake.  “Nice to meet you,” Shane says and then continues the journey.  The wind is taken out of the teenagers’ sails for a bit but then they regroup.  They begin running after Shane and Kassim, throwing rocks and sticks, and now two have broomsticks from the garbage.  Shane and Kassim pick up the pace.  Shane says to Kassim, don’t run.  They turn around and one of the teenagers clocks Kassim with the broomstick.  Shane says, “Why would you do that?  We haven’t done anything to hurt you.”  They laugh, and starting hit Shane with the broomstick until it breaks.  At this point, Shane straightens up, looks them in the eye and says forcefully, “You are created in the image of God …. Every single one of you. And you are made for something better than this.  Kassim and I are followers of Jesus and we do not fight but we will love you no matter what you do to us.”  This isn’t the response the teenagers expected.  They look at each other, startled, quiet for the first time.  Then they scurry away.

This is the third way, not of fleeing, not of fighting, but of integrity, groundedness and dignity.

This is what Jesus does continually in the face of his detractors … getting money from a fish, drawing in the dirt when asked a question, telling stories in the face of controversy and, on the cross, looking in the eyes of his crucifiers and seeing their heart.

“Who is this?” people wonder.

This is God, God who comes to restore our heart, our humanity, our communities because, in the words of Shane Claiborne, we were made for something better than this.

This is God who saves us in a way that we do not expect … imaging a way forward where violence sees none.

This is God who comes to us on lowly donkeys and beat-up old cars, jolting us awake to what really matters.

This is God who enters into the human situation not only so that God can see it from our perspective but so that God might get us unstuck from the harm that we keep engaging in.

This Holy Week, as we find ourselves too saying, “We can save ourselves” … as we find ourselves picking up our pitchforks and shouting “Crucify!” … the words of Jesus come back to us:

Come, follow me … for there is another Way forward.

This week, Jesus invites us to ponder:
To whom do you pledge your allegiance?


[i] This description of Jesus’ historical context comes from the sermon of the Rev. Kathryn Matthew (former dean of the Amistad Chapel UCC), which is found here: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_april_9_2017

[ii] This story of Archbishop Romero is recounted in the book Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw.

[iii] As quoted in the sermon of the Rev. Kathryn Matthew (former dean of the Amistad Chapel UCC), which is found here: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_april_9_2017

[iv] This quoted paraphrase of Jesus comes from the book Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw.

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