“What Love Looks Like in Public”
April 9, 2017
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
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
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
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
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
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]
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
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
“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.