Where I grew up in Florida we had palm trees everywhere. They were all around our yard, and all through the neighborhood. In fact, there are twelve different common species of palms in Florida, and you can do different things with each one. Some we used to climb. Others would have big leaves that hung down that you could swing around on. And others had sharp leaves that would leave you bleeding.
My dad waged a constant war against the palm trees, a war that, as you can imagine, was a losing one. He kept his yard very tidy, but the palm trees were always resistant to that. He’d trim them, and they’d grow back bigger and stronger. And one of my memories is of stacks of palm fronds piled up on the curb waiting for the trash trucks. It seemed like there was always an abundance of palms.
So, every spring when we order a box of palm leaves, I always feel a bit resentful. Because had my dad known that churches needed so many leaves, I think he probably would have started his own mail order business for Palm Sunday. If I ever retire to Florida, that’s my retirement plan, by the way.
But growing up not really in the church, I had no idea what Palm Sunday was. I thought it was just something that people in Florida celebrated, like an orange festival or something. Palms were so ordinary to us, that the fact a whole church holiday was centered around them seemed bizarre.
The reality is that Palm Sunday is, at first glance, a strange tradition. Once a year you come through the doors of the church and the usher hands you not just a bulletin, but a palm frond. If you didn’t know about it in advance, you’d probably think it was pretty odd.
But we do this on Palm Sunday because we are remembering how Jesus finally made it to the big city: Jerusalem. He rode into the city on a donkey, and the crowds were waiting for him. They had heard about him. They loved him. They threw their coats on the ground. And they took the branches of the most common tree around them, the palm tree, and they spend them out on the road to make a path for him.
All these centuries later we Christians gather in churches and collect these palms and wave them. And we reenact a great parade that took place long ago.
Along on Palm Sunday we even have a sort of special cheer. We shout this odd word, “Hosanna”. It’s the same word that the crowds shouted to Jesus as he entered the city. Hosanna has come to be understood as a sort of joyful cheer, like maybe you’d hear at a sports event or political rally. A sort of “hurray” or “huzzah”.
So, Palm Sunday is almost like this fun little tradition, a little bit of levity at the end of the heavy season of Lent with things to wave and words to shout.
But, this word we shout, hosanna, wasn’t just one of celebration. It meant something more to the people who lined Jesus route. Hosanna comes from the Psalms, something the people of Jerusalem would have known well, and it doesn’t mean “yay” or “isn’t this great”. It means, literally, “save us”.
Those people who lined the route to the city and welcomed Jesus in, they were calling out to him, shouting, “Jesus, save us…we need help.”
There was plenty to need saving from for the people who lined the route. They lived under an oppressive Roman empire, one in which their safety and rights were constantly under threat. For some who shouted “hosanna”, they believed that maybe Jesus had come to end all of that. It’s one reason why the Roman officials were so scared of him. They thought Jesus would bring political upheaval.
And for others, Jesus represented another kind of hope. They had something going on in their own lives and they thought maybe Jesus would help them. They were sick, or destitute, or maybe just hopeless. And so they too yelled their “hosannas”…save us.
That’s what happened in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago. But, what would happen if Jesus came down Front Street in Exeter, New Hampshire today? What would we be doing if he rode up the center of town on a donkey and stopped there at the bandstand? What would we shout?
The reality is that if Jesus came to town today, he probably wouldn’t be riding a donkey. I’m not sure what he would drive, but maybe a plain old Honda or Toyota, as common and unexciting today as a donkey would have been back then.
And you and I would probably not be waving palms either. They’re not exactly native to our region. Maybe we’d be out there with pine boughs, or the branches of trees that haven’t quite bloomed yet. We would use whatever was handy. Some years we’d probably be waving snow shovels about now.
It would look a lot different from Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. But what wouldn’t be different is this: we’d still have reason to shout “save us”.
The reality is that probably all of us have something from which we want saving. Maybe we are sick. Maybe we are feeling hopeless. Maybe we are wandering and feeling alone. Maybe we are uncertain. Maybe we are worried for our community, or our country. Whatever it is, we know we can’t fix it alone.
Hosanna is the word in which both humility and hope collide. It is simultaneously a confession that we can not fix it ourselves, and that we believe that God can. Hosanna is one of the best statements of faith that we can make.
It’s also a statement that flips everything on its head. And that’s because when we call out to Jesus to save us, we might not expect the way he will do it.
When Jesus came to Jerusalem, the people prepared the road for him. They laid out palms and their own clothing so that he could walk into town. They were trying to prepare a procession for a conquering king who would save them from the hard lives they knew. They were probably expecting a regal king riding in on a sturdy horse with his entourage.
Instead, they got this guy on a donkey.
Today it would be a little like waiting for a liberating army to arrive in a tank and instead seeing one guy roll up the street in a jeep. It wouldn’t exactly be confidence-inspiring.
And yet, Jesus did hear the calls of the crowd to save them. And he did. The next week in Jerusalem would turn everything on its head. That’s what we will be celebrating next Sunday when we gather back here for Easter.
But none of it went down the way that the people lining that street expected. And none of it happened immediately. Even when they found the empty tomb on Easter morning, the work was not done. In fact, even 2,000 years later, you and I are still responding to the calls that Jesus heard that day. You and I are still working as Christ’s disciples to change this world.
And that’s really what the life of faith is like in some ways. It’s acknowledging the cries of a broken world, and it’s responding to them as Christ’s own disciples.
And the thing is, that’s dangerous. That’s a threat to all that would oppress others and hold them down. That’s why when the people on the street cried out “hosanna” that day, the Pharisees and the religious officials told Jesus to make them stop. But he refused. He told them, “even if they were silent, the stones themselves would cry out”.
That’s true. Even if we don’t shout our “hosannas”, the world already knows what is not right. Even if we don’t cry out in humility or hope, others will. Those same cries for justice, for liberation, for life that were raised from that crowd 2,000 years ago are being echoed today, all around us. The hope comes in the fact that they have not gone silent and underground. They are still being shouted today.
I think we are living in a time when the stones themselves are crying out. What has been silenced for so long is finally being named. From the “me too” movement to hard discussions on race to a frank admission that civility is lacking in our national discourse at the highest levels, we are not keeping silent anymore. We are telling the truth about what is wrong, and we are looking for a better way. And, for those of us who are Christians, this is the same as saying “hosanna”…God save us. Help us to do better.
And the first part of doing better, the first part of getting better, is telling the truth about how things really are.
I was reminded of this last week. Last Sunday we had a great celebration of the church’s 381st birthday. But in our deacons meeting this past week, we talked a little about something that had been missing, and that was acknowledgment of the Native Americans who were here in this community before European settlers, like our church founders, ever came.
And as I was writing the sermon for that day, I was aware that I was leaving our part of the story, but I didn’t know enough about it to tell it well, and, honestly, I didn’t know how to tell it. But that was a mistake. Because part of asking God to save us means being willing to tell the truth about the ways that we too have fallen down on the job, and we too have been unjust at times.
On Easter, we celebrate the fact that God saves us, even still. But on Palm Sunday, we tell the truth. We tell God that sometimes we have missed the mark. And we tell God that we need help, because we know that we cannot save ourselves. We need God’s grace and love.
And so, hosanna, God. Save us. Save us from the mistakes we have made. Save us from the injustices of the world. But save us, God…save us for the work that you still have for us to do. Save us, that we may be the positive change that our world needs. Save us, that we may be your people, and that you may be our God.