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Got your greenery on hand?? Now’s the time!!
Hosanna!! Hosanna!! Hosanna!!
This is what we typically mark at the beginning of our Palm Sunday service – the choir and the kids marching in with palm fronds, lifting up this scene in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. By the time this story takes place, Jerusalem had been the center of sacred geography for the Jewish people for a millennium. It is a city built on a hill with a large wall surrounding it and you could enter through one of two gates, the large, main, ceremonial gates and the back gates, more like a service entrance.
Now imagine that a long time ago, right before Passover started, sometime in the early spring, these gates bore witness to two different parades. Through the main gates comes the flagrant show of Roman military might on horseback, with chariots and spears and swords, a display of imperial theology that claims the emperor as not only the head of Rome, but also the “Son of God,” the “Savior of the World,” titles that were commonly attributed to Caesar…titles we use for someone else. The armies of Rome are coming to Jerusalem during the highest of high holy days, Passover, a day that commemorates liberation to the Jews, to remind them that Rome is still in charge, so don’t try anything.
Through the back gates of the city comes Jesus, riding a donkey, accompanied by poor people and outcasts, in a parade full of symbolism. They don’t have painted banners and silken flags like the crowds at the main gates, so they grabbed whatever they had available – they swung their cloaks and waved fronds torn from the palm trees all around them. Maybe they began to sing, to chant even, this psalm we know as number 118, which reads, in part,
That phrase, “please save us,” is better known by a single word – Hosanna! When they sing Hosanna, they are crying out, “save us!” For this isn’t just a celebration for them, this parade announces the impending transformation of their world! John, and the other gospel writers, all have Jesus acting out a scene that pulls imagery directly from scripture – using the words of Zechariah and Micah to embody an alternative set of values, direct from the language of the prophets, where the Kingdom of Rome, power through domination, peace through military might, protection of the rich and powerful, and justice through retribution is set against the Kin-dom of God, where power is only power when given away, people over profits, peace through justice, and justice through reconciliation. The challenge offered to the readers then is the same one offered to us now – which parade will you follow?
In a briefing just a few days ago, Dr. Deborah Birx, the Coronavirus Response Coordinator, said that the next few weeks are going to be difficult. She warned that Americans must continue to stay home, keep apart, wash their hands and take the other steps that public health officials have urged. And then she said something that struck me like a sharp cry of “Hosanna” and the slap of a palm across my arm. She said, “It’scommunities that will do this. There is no magic bullet. There’s no magic vaccine or therapy. It’s just our behaviors.”
It is clear, especially right now, what values have shaped our society. Healthcare comes at a price, and if you can pay it, you can have a COVID-19 test. Affordable housing, good jobs and functional public education are limited, but we’ve got plenty of shopping malls and $250 million dollar parks. If billions are owed in student loans or housing bubble debt, we can’t afford to forgive those debts, but if you’re “too big to fail” then the dollars magically appear. Fault lines of the economic and healthcare systems in which we live are being exposed even more starkly, and the tremors will be felt in many ways for a long time. The values that have long developed and maintained our economy hold up the reward of the few by the work of the many, profit over people. Which parade are we following?
Some have said that an increase in unemployment will tempt people to stay on unemployment because it pays better than their job. And the question that comes to my mind is, why do your jobs pay less than unemployment? If we truly held biblical values, we ought to be pushing a living wage. People who are working 40 hours a week, or more, should be able to live on that work, especially in an economy with more billionaires than any in the world. That’s not an assertion of our politics, it’s an assertion of our faith! Why is there no discussion – from government officials who love to tout their Christian faith at election time – about the VERY Biblical practice of Jubilee, mentioned over 20 times in scripture, where all of the debts are released as a sign of economic liberation? Which parade are we following?
This is not about a magic bullet, a savior coming down from the clouds to change everything. This is about our behaviors. The Kin-dom of God, Jesus said at every opportunity, is not promised, it isn’t coming, it’s not on the horizon. It is already here. It is in your midst, if you have the eyes for it, he would teach his disciples. And it’s a matter of our values, our hearts, our behaviors.
We may all be puzzled at the lack of toilet paper on the shelves and wonder why anyone would want to stockpile that, to hoard more than they can use. Yet we live in a system in which people do that with another kind of paper – money – all the time. They hoard more than they could possibly spend in a lifetime of reckless spending, and we call that success. We call that “winning.” It’s not, this parade reminds us. The parade Jesus leads teaches the Kin-dom of God, where the sick are healed, the prisoners are released, the oppressed are set free, and where everyone has enough. Which parade are we following?
This is a very strange time we’re living in. It is changing many, many things, and has the chance to dramatically impact how we think about the systems we’ve created, for the illusion that we are somehow independent, that we can just take care of only ourselves, that what I do only impacts me – those values are being exposed. We are all interconnected, and the more we accept that the more it compels us to reshape our systems, to think about our economies, our justice, our directives to war and violence and division.
Like those at the side of the road during Jesus’ procession, we may want to just shout “save us!” and look to the skies for the heroic savior. But he has already come, my friends, and he has told us what to do. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, which starts with loving ourselves and then continues by recognizing that everyone is our neighbor and we should want for them what we want for ourselves – in other words, the right to have enough for their needs – not the needs I imagine for them, but their needs.
This is the beginning of our Holy Week journey and what we’ll see as we travel this road to freedom again is that it is costly. It means sacrifice and maybe even some danger. Power resists liberation, and those who benefit from that system resist it’s change. Sometimes we who can see the injustice and still benefit from that system resist it, too, because it means giving up privilege we might have, or dealing with change.
And change, as we all know FAR too well right now, is hard.
Yet the road is here, in front of us, a road that asks us to consider our values, especially in a time of crisis, and to reach for the Kin-dom, that is right here among us…if we will have the wisdom, and the courage, to see it. Which parade will we follow, Palm Sunday asks us? And Jesus, even 2000 years later is still asking – who wants to travel the road with me?
May God’s Peace be with us all. Amen.