Between Now and Easter

March 29, 2015


Zechariah 9:9-12

Mark 11:1-11


“Those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna.’”

On that day long ago, all were shouting a word that 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 tough enough or stoic enough to bear up under whatever weighs us down and not complain. In other words, it says, “We can’t do this on our own.”

Of course, such talk also suggests drawing a line between those who are in and those who are out, those who have made it and those who haven’t, those who are “saved” and those who aren’t. It’s not a 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.”

Let’s listen, then, a little longer to that cry of “Hosanna!” It might still speak to us. It might still speak for us.

The longer we listen to scripture, the more closely we look at scripture, the more it defines and sharpens what we hear. The picture we see comes into clearer focus.

This morning we began by singing with the Psalmist, acclaiming the sovereign ruler who comes in “full might and power.” This is the One who will bring victory.

Then we heard the prophet Zechariah telling the people to rejoice and shout in triumph because this victorious king who comes arrives not in a military procession but humbly on a donkey, the animal of peace.

And finally Mark’s gospel gives us the picture of Jesus creating a living parable of all these centuries-long hopes, arriving in Jerusalem no in the full might and power of military victory, but on a donkey, as the One who brings God’s peace and mercy.

It isn’t that the Psalmist and the prophet foresaw what Jesus would one day do.

It was more that the followers of Jesus were saying that if we listen carefully and look closely, we will hear and see something of the way in which God works in the world, even today. If we are among those who are saved sometimes, if we at times hope to find ourselves saved from greed, hatred, and confusion and being saved for kindness and creativity, wisdom and compassion, this story of palm branches and “Hosannas” might be the place to start. With eye and ears and hearts open we begin to get better picture of who this Jesus is whom we seek to follow.

But it is important for us to listen to the whole story.

There’s a classic Seinfeld episode in which George’s latest girlfriend is somewhat evasive. She tells him a few things about herself and then skips over the details, saying, “Yada, yada, yada.”

That’s what this week between now and Easter is often like for many people:

Jesus comes into Jerusalem with the crowds waving palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” 

Yada, yada, yada.

And the tomb is empty! Christ is risen! Sound the trumpets!

We want to skip over the hard parts: the conflict, the betrayal, the torture, the crucifixion, the death, the burial, the fear and grief.

We want to “yada yada” Holy Week, maybe even imagining with The Life of Brian those on crosses whistling and singing “Always look on the bright side of life.”

Maybe it’s just that all of the suffering and sorrow that we encounter in the week ahead is just too real, too close to our own lives.

We see the devastation and folly of war and still the architects of failed policies call for more bombing. The Antarctic ice sheets are melting and yet, in Florida state officials are banned from using the phrase “climate change.” Income disparity grows and we struggle to deal with hunger and homelessness even as budgets are proposed that ignore the problems. Those who speak loudest about the sanctity of marriage and the family are quick to tear families apart for the sake of border security and outdated and unrealistic immigration policies. And in our own lives we know brokenness, illness, grief, uncertainty…

I could go on, but I don’t need to, do I? We all know it. We know it all.

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 we don’t really want to enter into the suffering of the days between now and Easter. 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 every day.

But maybe the events of Holy Week, the events that we are so ready to skip over, illuminate our own lives, helping us to understand our situation better and to better live our lives. Maybe they help us to get a better focused picture of this Jesus, the One to whom the people cry, “Hosanna!”

Here’s the thing: However we go through the days between now and Easter, whatever we do—or don’t do—to mark Holy Week, 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 needing our best efforts each day.

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.

And, please, bear with me, because as I suggested earlier, we don’t usually talk like this in the United Church of Christ.

You see, it’s not that we need to enter into Holy Week and try one more time to work ourselves up into thinking about the suffering of Jesus and imagining how he might have felt. Instead, we are given an invitation, an opportunity in these days to hear and see once more that God has entered into our world, bringing a change to our lives. 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.

Throughout this season of Lent we have heard about the covenant faithfulness of God: the rainbow and the commitment after the Flood to preserve fragile human life on this fragile planet; the blessing of Abraham and Sarah and through them bringing blessing—more life—to all people and nations; the Way of life written in stone on Sinai; and the Jeremiah’s promise of a new covenant written upon the hearts of the people instead of in stone. All of these were ways of shaping and reshaping, defining and redefining the Creator’s relationship with those creatures lovingly made in the image of God—human beings like you and me. This has always been a relationship of love and mercy and forgiveness; of God being with humankind in sorrow and loss and suffering; of God being with each one of us in sorrow and loss and suffering. So what we see in Jesus, while something new, is what we might have expected all along as we listened to the stories of God’s covenant love for all people and indeed for all creation.

We live in the time between now and Easter—familiar with suffering and sorrow. And at the same time, we know that we are not alone in these days.

We have one another in this this church—and that is a 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—people whom you are sitting next to, maybe even you yourself. We bear one another’s burdens, and in doing so, Paul says, we fulfill the law of Christ. As Paul suggests in that passage from Romans that has been on the bulletin cover during Lent, we contribute to the needs of the saints in many different ways.

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 does not skip over our suffering, but enters into the very heart of it. The story of Moses and the Exodus begins with God coming to the people because God saw their suffering. James Carroll recently wrote that “the age-old intuition that God is close to the hurt and the lost is given a particular expression in the story of Jesus.”[ii] In Jesus God takes on human suffering, bearing it fully on the cross. That is our wholeness, our well-being, our salvation.

In life and in death, we belong to God. In these days between now and Easter we have the chance to see and hear this good news with renewed clarity so that all our days might be lived in joy and gladness.

[ii] James Carroll, Christ Actually, pg. 260.