Sunday, April 5, 2020

Cries of Hosanna and Palm Branches Grasped White-Knuckled

This originally was written for the Presbytery of Philadelphia (here) and adapted as a sermon preached at Carmel Presbyterian available here

Save us.  Help us. Rescue and deliver us. Hosanna. These are more than empty words. They are situated. As Jesus paraded upon a donkey through the cloak-covered streets of Jerusalem and beneath branches of palms gripped white-knuckled by a desperate people, they were living in the midst of Roman occupation. They were likely anxious and afraid, angry and uncertain, tired and yet mustering up whatever hope they could find. This Palm Sunday, the ancient words have their own push and pull that needs no published commentary or seminary training to nuance. We all feel it. The cries of those who prepared that Messianic parade meet us with a layer of empathy that serves us better than any introduction we could borrow from one of those preaching books on our shelf or pastor blogs on the internet. Their shouts remind us the salvation of the biblical story is not only about some eternal hope, but also a plea for God to act with immediacy- “on earth as it is in heaven.” These desperate petitions of ages past can even be paraphrased for our own strange time and place. You likely have spoken them as your own prayers lately, laced with trust and grief, faith and doubt, surrender and anger, too. 

Save us from the shelter-in-place that has made it so kids in contexts of poverty no longer have access to daily nutrition and others forced to stay in homes of violence, addiction, and abuse. 

Save us from financial insecurity, unemployment, and the fear that when this ends we will not have a job waiting for us.  

Save us from having to teach our children math or science or the viola at the same time we attempt to maintain an eight-hour workday. 

Save us from the over-indulgence in digital gatherings and the fear of missing out on community if we do not participate in that ZOOM call.

Save us from this virus that is resulting in far too many deaths and the negligence of the powers that be, who prioritize economic systems, graphs, and data over real human lives. 

Save us from the racism that has falsely pinned this pandemic on a particular people. 

Save us from exhausting our hospitals and under-resourcing medical professionals. 

Save us from what we have done to the earth and the temptation to return to old habits when this passes. 

Save us from prioritizing the things of worship over and above the simplicity of being together in the midst of real human suffering and isolation. 

Save us from thinking Easter can only happen when the sanctuary is full of lilies, the pulpit adorned with white paraments, and the pews full of people in their finest clothes. 

Save us. Rescue us. Deliver us. This has become my daily meditation. There are days where the Lenten journey feels all-too real and the silence of God is quite loud. You likely know exactly what I mean. Those first century parade goers did too. Then there are days it feels as though God hears my prayer. This shows up through the colorful meditations of my children, worship services hosted on-line, and pastoral care extended to shut-ins digitally. God’s presence is revealed through communion officiated virtually, youth groups gathered over ZOOM, and congregations organized to make masks for doctors and nurses. We see the Spirit at work in denominational agencies committed to offer financial assistance and debt relief, creation momentarily relieved from pollution from heavy traffic patterns, and ministries within our bounds determined to ensure their neighbors battling food insecurity continue to receive daily bread. The list goes on, reminding us that this is not the end and salvation continues to ride in through unconventional methods.

A section of a poem by Guatemalan poet, Julia Esquivel, has been a part of my email signature for a while and proven especially pertinent in these days. She wrote this lyric, entitled “Hope,” while exiled from her war-torn homeland in the early 1980’s. 
In the most obscure and sordid place, in the most hostile and harshest,in the most corruptand nauseating places,there You do your work.
So this Sunday, we grasp our palms tightly and white-knuckled in solidarity with all those past and present who have longed for liberation from all kinds of nauseating and hostile realities. We wave the branches, likely digitally, knowing others around the globe are doing just the same and have for generations. These palms become our human connection in the midst of the physical distance. These palms are our symbols of hope in the midst of despair as we hold in contradiction the promise of resurrection that only comes after the darkness of crucifixion. The palms subvert the suffering, even if just for a moment, as we celebrate our help is coming- has come- upon the back of an unconventional pack animal. 

The question for us is: Will we entrust God with our lives as we move into the uncertainty of both Holy Week and every week of this new reality? Still more, will we participate in God’s deliverance as we embrace unconventional measures to parade love, empathy, community, compassion, and care for neighbor- even by way of the wisdom to stay put and remain physically distant? These are not questions I pose to you alone. These are questions I ask and prayers I lift daily, this week with a palm branch white knuckled, too. 

Save us. Rescue us. Deliver Us. May we allow these cries of the masses then and now to linger a little longer this Holy Week as we look for salvation to come once more. 

Audio of Sermon preached at Carmel Presbyterian available here.

#LilyLectio Divina for Palm Sunday