“Hosanna” Colchester Federated Church, April 14, 2019, Palm Sunday (Luke 19:28-40)

Palm Sunday is a day of sharp contrasts.  A triumphal entry into a crowded city on a borrowed donkey.  Multitudes praising God joyfully with their “Hosannas” while some Pharisees in the crowd ask Jesus for silence.  Jesus riding into Jerusalem while if we look hard enough we can see the shadow of a cross outside of town.  Yes, Palm Sunday is a complicated way to begin this Holiest Week of our Christian tradition.

In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus is presented as a rejected prophet.  Jesus taught that compassion was the central quality of God and the most important moral quality of a life centered in God.[1]  Jesus taught: be compassionate as God is compassionate.  There was a holiness world view at that time and Jews argued among themselves about purity laws.  Jesus was right in the midst of these arguments, questioning who was “pure” and “impure” in the first place—even sharing meals with those deemed “impure” by others.  This compassion got Jesus into trouble because he was smashing categories that gave meaning in the midst of Roman occupation and oppression.

After telling some of the grumbling Pharisees that even if the crowds were silent the stones themselves would shout out—Jesus weeps over Jerusalem.  Then cleanses the Temple itself—the holiest place in all of Israel.  Driving out those who had made God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers.  If we listen to what’s underneath the “Hosannas” this morning we can hear the tension.  Jesus questioned the Temple sacrificial system and what it takes for a person to be righteous.  New Testament scholar Marcus Borg explains that, “The effect of the purity system was to create a world with sharp social boundaries: between pure and impure, righteous and sinner, whole and not whole, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile.”[2]  Jesus waded into these religious and political questions, questions that defined the times.  And he called for compassion and for peace.

Imagine an excited crowd shouting, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven, and glory to the highest heaven!”[3]  Some looked on with hardened hearts—asking Jesus to silence this racket.  To give the Pharisees some credit there was fear present here.  Perhaps they thought that this moment was too political and the Roman Empire in all its might would retaliate.  After all, the Romans were in Jerusalem in full force during Passover and there was no disturbing the peace of Rome.  The crowds are shouting, “Blessed is the king.  Hosanna!”  One can only imagine how this might sound to Roman ears.  With Caesar being their powerful Emperor.  And “Hosanna” roughly translates as “save us” after all.  Calling Jesus the king.  Asking him to save us.

Make no mistake this Palm Sunday parade was a political move on Jesus’ part.  Jesus was defying the expectations people had of him as the Messiah who had come to save them and he was calling for peace.  Remember, one of the expectations that people had of the Messiah was that he would be the ancient version of a superhero, a supernatural figure who would come to secure the victory of the Jewish nation over its oppressors.  Others thought that the Messiah would be a powerful spokesperson from God, almost like Moses but greater.  Some thought the Messiah would be a priestly leader who could provide authoritative interpretation of God’s law.  Finally, there was the belief that the Messiah would be a David-like king—a political leader who would once again establish Israel as a sovereign state.  But no one thought the Messiah would suffer and die on a Roman cross.[4]

So we can see Palm Sunday as a planned political demonstration.  According to the Prophet Zechariah—the king will come in, riding on a donkey and will command peace to the nations.  This is exactly what Jesus does.  Jesus is alluding to the Messiah as the Suffering Servant, and not the David-like king.  This was a peaceful protest.

The truth is that religion and politics often have an uneasy relationship.  Some people will tell their Pastors to never get political in sermons.  As if that’s an easy request to make since Jesus got political all the time.  Jesus talked about issues that mattered.  His Palm Sunday peace parade is the perfect example of Jesus making a political statement by riding into Jerusalem right in front of the Romans and the Jewish leadership who weren’t appreciative of his central message of kingdom of God values.

The relationship between religion and politics remains complex.  In 2007, Barack Obama spoke at our United Church of Christ General Synod before he was even a Presidential Candidate, let alone President.  He had been an active member of the United Church of Christ for more than 20 years at Trinity UCC in Chicago, and was asked to speak on the intersection of his faith with his vocation as a politician.  He wasn’t the only speaker and was invited specifically because he was a UCC member at that time.  The IRS notified the UCC several months later that they were initiating a church tax inquiry because “reasonable belief exists that the United Church of Christ has engaged in political activities that could jeopardize its tax-exempt status.”[5]  It was a royal mess for a while.  But eventually the charges were dropped.  Interesting that candidates speak often in Evangelical churches and they don’t seem to get into any hot water for this.  (But that’s not any of my business!)  Though this scare of having a member of one’s own denomination who happens to be a politician speak at your own national gathering and receive threats from part of the government lingers.

Given our current political climate, a memo gets circulated every so often reminding UCC churches and clergy that we are allowed to take positions on public policy issues.  We’re allowed to take positions on public policy issues that may even be addressed by candidates in an election cycle.  But we are not allowed to make statements in favor of or opposing any candidate.  Issues—cool, candidates—nope, is how I’ve always internalized “the rules.”

Though it’s always struck me as odd because in many Call Agreements that ministers agree to in serving congregations there is a clause that states you as the Pastor have Freedom of the Pulpit.  It’s a way of saying that if you, the congregation, accept the pastoral leadership of this person you have called to be your Pastor you also accept their freedom of expression in the pulpit as it pertains to matters of faith according to the insight gained from scripture, the movement of the Holy Spirit, the traditions of your denomination, and the context in which we are living our lives.  It’s a standard statement, but it’s important for ministers.

We have freedom in our pulpits to preach about matters of the Christian faith.  We have freedom in our pulpits to preach about the context in which we live our lives (basically what’s happening in the world around us.)  Our current political climate can be depressing and even scary.  And it’s sometimes difficult to tiptoe around that up here in this pulpit.  Because religion and politics do intersect and it gets complicated to go there.  Even if we do have Freedom of the Pulpit and the government does allow ministers to speak about the issues in church on Sunday mornings.

But my friends, we’re fooling ourselves if we think that this tricky dance between religion and politics is new.  We’re fooling ourselves if we think that those in political power don’t sometimes put religion into a box over here when it comes to our society.  This isn’t me saying that’s good or bad necessarily, but it is the reality.  Yet the Church cannot remain silent when the inherent dignity and worth of people who are created in the very image and likeness of God is called into question.  There are times when we have to speak up or we risk sacrificing our souls on the altar of being polite and not offending anybody.  When we have to remember that the people calling out to Jesus at that Palm Sunday Parade were shouting, “Hosanna.”  Which means “save us.”  Save us from these forces in the world that mean to drive us apart.  Save us for new life.

We must never forget that we’re in good company when we speak up.  Because Jesus’ Palm Sunday actions were political.  His actions were about 1st Century public policy issues and engaging in civil disobedience against those in power in the Temple who were working with the Romans to oppress the people.  Jesus rides into town on a lowly donkey, palm branches wave in the air.  Shouts of “Hosanna” erupt from the crowd.  The role of Messiah is rewritten, and the king of kings advocates for peace.

Jesus taught: be compassionate as God is compassionate.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  The first shall be last and the last shall be first.  Your faith has saved you.  The kingdom of God is among you.  Do not be afraid.

Jesus taught some controversial, uncomfortable lessons—he paid the price for taking moral stands.  And the punishment was harsher than losing one’s tax exempt status.  The ruling political forces killed an innocent man, sacrificing the blameless to protect their own status and power.  There are so many aspects of Jesus to admire—but it’s his guts that get me every Holy Week.  The guts it took to ride into Jerusalem and tell anyone with ears to hear that God desires compassion.  At a time when people were calling for violence Jesus said, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!”[6]

May we have the eyes to see the legacy that Jesus left us on the last week of his life. May we have the guts to truly walk with him to the Upper Room and the Garden and the Trials and the Cross and the Tomb.  And no matter what, do not be afraid.  Amen.

[1] Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, 46.
[2] Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, 52.
[3] Luke 19:38, NRSV.
[4] Dr. Benjamin Valentine, Systematic Theology II, Andover Newton Theological School, Spring 2008.
[5] Ben Guess, “Obama’s General Synod speech prompts IRS to investigate UCC’s tax-exempt status,” February 25, 2008, http://www.ucc.org/obama-speech-in-2007-prompts-1
[6] Luke 19:42.