“What Love Looks Like in Public”

April 9, 2017


Matthew 21:1-11


Easter is next Sunday. And, of course Easter is a moveable feast, celebrated as it is not by a date on the calendar but by the first Sunday after the first full moon falling on or after the vernal equinox. So, Palm Sunday moves as well, and is not always on April 9.

We might note April 9 as a significant date in its own right, however.

On Sunday, April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in a Nazi prison camp after two years of imprisonment for his involvement in the plot to kill Hitler.

As he was led from his cell to the gallows, Bonhoeffer said: “This is the end. For me it is the beginning.” His words were an affirmation of faith in the face of monstrous evil.

April 9 is also the date when, 49 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. was buried, five days after his assassination. Like Bonhoeffer, King was a pastor and a theologian who would not be silent in the face of the evil afoot in his own country.

Now, last Tuesday, April 4, marked the fiftieth anniversary of King’s historic address, “A Time to Break Silence,” at the Riverside Church in New York City—a speech delivered exactly one year before he was shot. In this speech he spoke out against the war in Vietnam, linking his opposition to the civil rights movement.

To recognize this event, Veterans for Peace sponsored a public reading of this speech on the Ped Mall on Tuesday. People out for lunch, people going to the library or doing a little shopping met with challenge and judgment and hope.

In that speech King says: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important that people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” And he sounds as though he was issuing that warning last week, not a half-century ago.

King says: “America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in the revolution of values [from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society]. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.” And he challenges us as much in 2017 as he did in 1967.

King says: “When I speak of love…I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. The Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: ‘Let us love one another: for love is God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwells in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.’” And we are reminded why in these weeks of Lent we have looked at the faith of other people so that we might better understand and live our own Christian commitments, so that we might better love one another.

It was Cornell West who said that “Justice is what love looks like in public, just as tenderness is what love looks like in private.” And people don’t always like what love looks like in public. Newspaper editorials harshly criticized King for this speech. Even civil rights organizations took him to task for his words linking civil rights and anti-war efforts.

Palm Sunday calls us to break the silence, to speak out, to make our love public.

Jesus comes into the capital city, the center of religious and political power. The One whose message is peace, the One who announces God’s love for all people, the One who honors the dignity of God’s image in each human being is heading toward a full-on confrontation with those powers.

And his followers will not be silent.

“The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna.’”

The word means “save us,” which is not how we today generally want to talk about life or even the life of faith.

To shout, “Save us!” suggests that we can’t take care of ourselves, that we can’t use our own ingenuity, or thoughtfulness, or scientific skills, or creativity to solve the problems that beset us. To shout, “Save us!” suggests that we’re not strong enough or rich enough or stoic enough to bear up under whatever weighs us down and not complain. In other words, “Hosanna, Save us!” says, “We can’t do this on our own.”

Unfortunately, talk of salvation has come to mean drawing a line between those who are in and those who are out, those who are “saved” and those who aren’t. It’s not the line that Jesus drew and it’s not the line we chose to draw in this congregation and we reject any attempts to do so.

On theologian asks: “What does it mean to be saved?” and answering his own question says that “In considering the matter some people focus on life after death, but it seems to me salvation is closer to daily life itself.  Salvation means being saved from greed, hatred, and confusion; and being saved for kindness and creativity, wisdom and compassion. If someone asks us if we are saved, we should say: ‘Sometimes.’ In our more loving moments we are saved from hatred, even if only for fifteen seconds…”[i]

Frederick Buechner gives us some concrete ways of imagining this when he says: “If you’re pulled out of water over your head, if someone drags you from a burning building, if you discover that life—your life—has a deeper meaning and greater value than you could ever create yourself, chances are you’ve found a savior.”

Please, bear with me, because, well, we don’t usually talk like this in the United Church of Christ.

And yet, just last week a member of this congregation—someone not known for being especially pious, and, really, that could be just about any of you, couldn’t it?—wrote to me—and I have permission to share these words with you: “There obviously have been times in history when the world has been as ‘out of joint’ as it seems now. However, the technologies of misery and the demented characters to implement them are especially troubling to me presently, to wit: North Korea and Syria. Equally exasperating is the political dysfunction here, [in both the] narrow and broad sense.” This member asks—maybe for all of us: “Have we lost our way? Have we no sense of basic dignity and decency?” The conclusion?: “If we ever needed Jesus Christ to be the Light and lead the way, it is now...”

That is to say, if we ever needed a savior, it is now.

So on Palm Sunday, when we find ourselves among those who are waving branches and shouting “Hosanna,” it feels right because we sense that the water is rising, that the house is on fire, that we need a savior.

The days before us remind us of that reality. We are given an opportunity this week to hear and see once more that God has entered into our world, has transformed our lives, and continues to call  us to make God’s love public as we seek to make justice real in the world. And that is what salvation is about. The word “salvation” speaks of wholeness of life, of health, of well-being in body and spirit. It’s a good, conventionally religious word, but we don’t use it much—and probably won’t use it much, because we’re not really a conventionally religious people.

All of the suffering and sorrow that we encounter in the week ahead can seem just too real, too close to our own lives. We can do without the betrayal and growing shadows of Maundy Thursday; we can do without the crucifixion and death of Friday because we encounter them in our lives and in our world every day.

The shorthand for all of this is sin—the separation from God, from one another, even from the best in ourselves with which we are all too familiar.

Given the reality of sin and suffering in our lives and in our world, we might say that each week is Holy Week. And the events that we remember this week help us to better understand our situation and to better live our lives. They help us to get a more focused picture of this Jesus, the One to whom the people cry, “Hosanna!”

Here’s the thing: We can’t skip over the hard parts in our own lives or in the world. Illness must be walked through in all its pain and uncertainty and treatment and healing day by day. The sorrow of grief is with us when we wake each morning. The anxiety about tomorrow keeps us awake in the night. And we know quite well that we will not suddenly arrive on the pleasant shore of racial harmony, interfaith understanding, or international peace. The perilous journeys to such lands are long and need our best efforts each day.

We are familiar with suffering and sorrow. And at the same time, we know that we are not alone in these days—and in all our days.

We have one another in this this church—and that is our glorious advantage. Ask anyone who has been through a difficult time and they will tell you that they made it through in part because of the other members here—because people whom you are sitting next to, maybe even because of yourself. We bear one another’s burdens. We support one another in our efforts toward a just world.

We also have the sustaining presence of God, the One who in Jesus Christ suffers with us. This is not an unmoved, impassible god, but the One who responds to human pain. God in Christ enters into the very heart of our suffering and the suffering of the world. In Jesus, God takes on human suffering, bearing it fully on the cross. That is our wholeness, our well-being, our salvation.

So we will continue to pray, “Hosanna. Save us.” Save us because we aren’t able to save ourselves. Save us because we all get the problems that we can’t handle. Save us because the temptations, the trials that we face are too much for ourselves alone.

Save us because—and it troubles us to admit this—we are lost and we need light for our path.

We continue to pray, as Jesus teaches us, “Save us in the time of trial and deliver us from evil.” The Greek words have the sense of “snatch us from these jaws.”

Do not spare us from struggle when it is necessary.

Do not spare us from suffering when it must be faced.

But snatch us from the jaws of evil—from the encounter with the enemy who is stronger than all our strength, more clever than our intelligence, more pious than our piety.

Over and over in every age and in our own time we have come up against the power that would chose hate instead of love, death instead of life. In our age evil goes by names like racism, sexism, homophobia, or greed, hunger, homelessness, or as King said, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.

And, yes, there is the mystery that all too often those who will not be silent, those who speak up against evil, those who seek to make love public—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr. are just two examples—are not delivered from, but seem to be delivered unto evil.

“Hosanna! Save us!” We cry to the One who rides into Jerusalem and was himself delivered into the hands of those who would kill him.

Palm Sunday does not give us a quick escape from the evil that surround us. Palm Sunday invites us deeper into the mystery of suffering in the presence of evil. This week we stare that mystery in the face. Every week we stare that mystery in the face.

We shall not be silent. Let us show the love of God publicly by acts that bring justice and peace into our world. Today let us join in the long line of people crying out “Hosanna! Save us!”—people who follow a new leader—a leader born in a manger, a leader who comes lowly on a donkey, a leader dead on a cross, and finally—as we celebrate and proclaim not simply on Easter, but today and every Sunday—and in many different ways each day of the week—a leader, a savior, raised from death by the glorious power of God.