Within 24 hours the our country has suffered the tragedy of two mass killings. Last night in Philadelphia, a man angry at the government and freshly out of work called police to his home and then opened fire. And on Friday, in Binghamton, NY, a man walked into an immigration center and sprayed bullets into the building’s occupants, killing thirteen. He was himself an immigrant — tired of being an immigrant in an immigrant unfriendly land, frustrated by barriers of language. What is going on?
We all know the cry — Hosanna! Hosanna! It’s the cry uttered by the people thronging the entry way to Jerusalem. But these are not just any people. By and large they are the people of the countryside. Perhaps they themselves have not yet entered Jerusalem as unaccustomed as they are to the city life. And as unwelcome. You see a good many of those people gathered on the outskirts of town where there because that’s where they’ve been banished too. They are not good enough to be inside where the temple lies in all its clean and holy splendor. They are sick. They are too poor to pay the temple tax. They are outsiders. They are immigrants, they are the unemployed. These were people shamed out of society and turned into expendables.
So, while we, who have re-enacted this scene on Palm Sunday for so many years with a parade of palms, may carry on, shouting Hosanna! with ticker-tape-parade-like enthusiasm for the hero Jesus, those who first cried it did so with a different slant, with a more plaintive nuance. They did so, understanding the Hebrew from which that word is derived. In fact the words are two different Hebrew words joined in the spur of the moment: hosha and na. Hosha means to help and na means please. These outcasts and expendables were shouting or crying, “Help us, please!”
It seems important to me that we understand this about these people, who they are and what they are saying, lest we get caught up in a confusion that we are only able to resolve by choking on the theological bone of the inevitability of Jesus’ execution because the salvation which the all-powerful God had worked out for the world only functions when there is an exchange of life for sin — Jesus’ life for our sin. If we are not careful to identify just who these people are and what they were saying, we easily find ourselves denying them and in the processes denying truth and turning justice into a fools game and forgiveness into a hard rod.
This day, Palm Sunday, is no day to get complacent about our tradition. It is no day to simply wave palms and feel good because our hero, Jesus has arrived to save the day. It IS a call for our own entry into a kind of world that we so easily and so often forget. The world of the unemployed, the world of the working poor, the world of the isolated immigrant. The world of the shamed.
Our entry begins, in the words of Christopher Fry, with the longest stride of soul we ever took. Our entry into Jerusalem is no walk in the park, but rather a long stride of soul into a world of shame which has been, like it or not, part of our own creating. We ask what’s going on? But don’t we already know?
Fry words in “A Sleep of Prisoners,” should shake us from the complacency of our simple question and move us to engagement:
“The enterprise we are engaged in is exploration into God. What are you making for? It takes so many thousand years to wake, but will you wake for pity’s sake!”
You know, in the gospel of Mark, Jesus begins his whole enterprise, his life of service to a calling which ineluctably brought him to this moment of engagement in Jerusalem with one simple word — metanoia. It’s not love, although the concept implies it. It’s not forgiveness or grace, though without forgiveness and grace, metanoia is meaningless. We translated that little word as repent. But it means literally a change of mind. In the setting of the gospel, it means to wake up to the that which has been always there, to that root of love and basic confidence to which we bear witness simply by rising again each day and smiling at our partner or our neighbor in the morning. Metanoia means to realize anew the possibilities that are god-like because they are god given — in our communion of thinking, speaking and acting in God’s way, and not in the way of the fear-filled world, apprehensive about community and nervous of the other. Metanoia should be the church’s word for the church should be this — a home for adventures on the way to stop before entry into the troubles of the world, a place for brothers and sisters of different kinds to be encouraged in their walk with God.
But let us not lose sight that this walk has so often been a walk down the same old path. One poem that you’ll not hear me read willingly is that poem about the path along the beach with two sets of footprints. You know the story — the pilgrim is consternated to discover that at the hardest moments of his life there is only one set. Jesus has apparently deserted him. The poem’s putative insight is that despite his complaining, the single set of footprints through the troubled times are Jesus’ carrying him.
This is not a palm Sunday message.
Several years ago, when AIDS was a relatively new and more frightening disease than it is now, if that’s possible, many churches in their own exploration into God, proclaimed that Jesus Christ has AIDS. Perhaps that seems a bit blasphemous. But here is a church whose God is in the trenches with us. Who is not above change and who cannot be all-powerful but whose power is precisely in the kind of vulnerability that can only be if love is really to be love.
William Slone Coffin, speaking at one point about the church, speaks strong words against it for its refusal to explore this different God and to put aside our dreams of the Messiah come to save us by force of might. He could have been speaking about the requirement of engagement which is the subtext for Palm Sunday.
Too many Christians seek an all-powerful God so that we might be weak when God Himself in Christ became weak that we might be strong. Still others — fundamentalists, for example — longing to be spared the insecurity of uncertainty, engage in what psychiatrists call “premature closure.” They misuse faith as a substitute for thought, when faith, in fact is what makes good thinking possible. Still other church members suffer defeat at the hands of the world. But instead of turning their defeat into the occasion for the victory God always had in mind fo rthem, they try to compensate for their defeat by seizing turf in the church and holding onto it for dear life.
If we could let go of that turf. If we could let go of the old church creed that we’ve always thought about it this way, and we’ve never thought about it that way — and I’m not saying that we are always like that — but if this walk into Jerusalem, this entry, could be an entry into fearlessness before the other, fearlessness before the foreign, fearlessness before the immigrant — then we could really make for a new world, for a paradise where the four streams that flow from it are the streams of hope and love, of mercy and of a humble gracious walk together. Let us walk now, for pity’s sake. Amen.