The Hosanna Resistance (A Sermon for Palm Sunday)

(Audio on SoundCloud.)

There is nothing I can say to you today that will match the power of what we saw yesterday. I am not Emma Gonzalez or Edna Chavez or Naomi Wadler. I’m not Chloe Young or Waed Alhayek, two of the young women who led the Dallas March for Our Lives. I don’t have their courage. I don’t have their character. But most of all I don’t have their experience. I haven’t walked the road they have walked. I can’t tell their stories. Thank God they can! And they are! But there is a thread that runs through the movement we are seeing today and the journey of Jesus that we have been following. Then, as now, it is the resistance.

I’m sure that the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School did not expect to be doing any of this. They probably expected to finish high school, go to college, start careers, maybe get married, maybe have kids. The trajectory of their lives changed in an instant.

In contrast, Jesus knew very well how his life would turn out. He spent his whole life preparing for this moment. Though he came from humble beginnings, he learned enough to be called Rabbouni, Teacher. He spent three years in Galilee cultivating a following. Then he set out for Jerusalem to confront the powers and principalities of this world.

Whether thrust into this role of resistance or planning your life around it, how you handle it will depend on how you have prepared. What we do outside of times of crisis forms us for the challenges we will face. Jesus spent time in prayer and advised his disciples to do the same. He tells us that is how he casts out demons and heals people. It is also how he will face the cross with such resolve.

The kids of Parkland have been praised for their poise and erudition. That didn’t just happen. It is a fitting honor to their school’s namesake – a suffragette, environmental activist, and journalist – that Douglas High School has a strong debate program. Students are taught to think, to articulate and defend a position. In fact, the entire district has committed to this program, with some students starting debate as early as elementary school. The reason they sound so prepared is because they are. They are prepared for debate, but they were not prepared to be mocked and vilified.

Remember, the people who were with Jesus on that day were the poor, the mocked and vilified. The poor are not just those who are down on their luck. No, they are all the people who have been systematically excluded from participating in the benefits of society. This has been done to them. They have been impoverished. They have been disabled. They have been enslaved. These are “the least” that Jesus talks about. We tend to think of that in the same categories as given in Scripture: the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the homeless, the captives. We think that we can simply attack those things – feed people, house people, etc. – and we are living the Gospel. We should try to solve those problems, but the poor will be with us always because we will keep finding new people to exclude, to mock and vilify. It seems like every day someone else wins the lottery – people of color, queer people, immigrants and refugees. I just never thought it would be our own children.

When Jesus arrives in Bethany outside of Jerusalem, he knows exactly what is in store for him. He has told his disciples three times in the Gospel of Mark that he will suffer and die. If you know that is your end, then why not go big? Perhaps it is that knowledge, that clarity about how this ends, that inspires him to arrive in Jerusalem with a grand gesture. That gesture is a middle finger to Rome.

To understand this, we need to set the scene. This is the beginning of Passover, so the population of Jerusalem swells with people, primarily the poor, from all over Israel. Remember that Passover is the celebration of Israel’s liberation from bondage to another empire in another time. Now, once again, Israel is occupied, this time by Rome. You can see how this might be a concern to the Romans and their Jewish collaborators.

Bethany is on the backside of a hill, the Mount of Olives, which sits directly opposite the Temple Mount. Jesus rides this donkey down the Mount of Olives, across the valley, up to the Golden Gate, and into the temple complex. As he is doing this, Pontius Pilate is entering the city across town at another gate with thousands of Roman soldiers as a show of force. It’s a parade – a military parade – so that the people of Israel don’t get any funny ideas about liberation. When our president says he wants a parade, this is what he has in mind. Jesus’ procession into the city looks ridiculous by comparison: a poor man riding a donkey with a retinue of peasants cheering him on. Jesus is mocking Pontius Pilate and the power of Rome while claiming and communicating to the impoverished people of Israel that he is the true king. We know that they are getting the message because of their responses.

They know their Scriptures. Jesus rides a donkey because the prophet Zechariah said he would. This isn’t magic; it’s not a prediction. Jesus knows the Scriptures, too, and is leveraging that symbolic language to communicate what this performance is about. Zechariah did not think any human leader could save Israel and so imagines that God will enter Jerusalem “humble and riding on a donkey.” God’s power is shown in humility and powerlessness. The people respond by referencing the secret coronation of Jehu by the prophet Elisha – a divinely ordained coup d’etat against King Jehoram. They spread their cloaks on the ground in front of him as the people did for Jehu. For those who know their Bible, Jesus is making an explicit threat against the Empire and the people are supporting him in it.

But it’s not just the Roman Empire that Jesus resists; it is the kind of empire it is, the way it gains and maintains its power. Rome’s policy of Pax Romana required peace first, then justice. That is, when Rome occupied a nation, they secured it with violence then gave roads and aqueducts and baths and all the great achievements for which Rome is known. You can have the good life once you stop resisting and, often, that resistance ended when all the resisters were dead. Jesus is making an opposite claim: first justice, then peace. Make sure people are fed and housed and healthy and you will have peace. So Jesus’ movement of resistance against Rome and its Jewish collaborators was explicitly against a violent system of oppression. It is not just non-violent; it is anti-violence at its core.

Last week we talked about Bartimaeus, the blind beggar who cried out for Jesus, cried out to have his sight restored. When Jesus enters Jerusalem on the back of that donkey, all the people cried out, “Hosanna!” This has somehow come to mean praise and exaltation, but it literally means, “Save us! We beg you!” The people are crying out to be rescued, just as Bartimaeus did. Just like Brooke Harrison did.

Brooke Harrison is a 14-year-old, first-year student at Douglas High School. When the shooting started, she scrambled to the only cover she could find, behind the teacher’s desk. She was told that there wasn’t enough room, so she sat in front of the desk instead. There she found a fellow student with three gunshot wounds. What she didn’t know was that her best friend, Alaina Petty, lay dead on the other side of the desk. As the killer returned to their door to fire a few more shots, she said, “We all hid away and prayed that we weren’t next or that someone would come soon and save us.” Hosanna! We failed those kids that day. We’ve been failing kids for a long, long time. So now they continue to cry out, “Hosanna! Save us! We beg you!”

In asking to be saved, they are asking for more than just the end of school shootings. Reasonable people can disagree about how to make schools safe. Theoretically, we could “harden” schools. We could put in metal detectors, have buildings without windows, and have a militarized staff. That is the NRA’s recommendation and it would probably work. It would probably make schools safe. But schools also have to be schools. That is, they have to be a place that is conducive to learning and development. If we harden our schools do we also harden our children’s hearts?

During Lent, we have talk about an inward journey. The reason we must make that journey is because life is full of challenges – betrayals and disappointments – and we build up a defensive layer to protect ourselves. After a while, we identify so much with those defenses that we no longer know that the light of God shines within. If we teach our children that defenses are all we have, if we surround them physically with the notion that the world is threatening and dangerous, if we encase them in a physical manifestation of fear, how can that light shine? What kind of people do they develop into? Who do they become if all they know is violent resistance against a world that aims to destroy them?

They seem to know this. They are not asking us to arm teachers. They are asking us to have sensible gun laws that don’t allowed distressed teenagers to buy guns, such as higher age limits and universal background checks. They are asking us to ban products that make those guns more deadly, such as bump stocks and extended magazines. They are asking us to make it less easy for someone to kill them. They also need adequately funded schools. The debate program that has allowed them to move into swift action costs money. It’s exactly the kind of thing that gets cut from most schools when budgets are cut. I saw over and over yesterday signs that said “Books not bullets.” That’s what they are crying out for. Hosanna! Our kids don’t just want to be free from the threat of gun violence; they want to have the freedom to learn and grow, the freedom of possibility for their lives, the freedom of hope. We have failed them in this, too.

The disciples thought that Jesus was going to take power. Maybe he was going to lead a revolt. Maybe he was going to snap his fingers and God’s judgment would rain down on the Empire. One way or another, they thought he was going to win. They didn’t want to do away with the domination system; they wanted to run it. But Jesus didn’t want to change the leadership; he wanted to eliminate leadership. Rather than violently seizing power, whether through divine or human means, he used all the nonviolent means at his disposal to save his people. He started with realpolitik, feeding the people, making sure their basic need were met, putting them in a position to participate in their own liberation. Then he staged a series of provocations that we now call Holy Week. And he knew he would die for it.

Fortunately for us, we have another nonviolent means to bring about change – we can vote. I must disagree with my Quaker, Mennonite, and Anabaptist brothers and sisters and my anarchist friends, and even some colleagues in ministry who think that investing our hopes in any human system is a betrayal of our faith in God. People who stay home on election day cede the definition of justice to everyone else. It is a sin of omission. It is violence against those who cry out to be saved. Hosanna! Save us, please! If we abandon them to those who will exploit, oppress, and destroy, then we are co-conspirators. Four million new voters are coming online before November, kids who are about turn eighteen. Maybe they can do what we have failed to do. They will participate in their own liberation.

But I fear they will have more lessons to learn. After the heartbreak of losing their friends, after the vicious attacks on their character and motivations, their hosannas dismissed as cries for attention from spoiled children – after all that, they might not succeed. Others have tried and failed. I’ll admit I had lost hope. If nothing changed after Sandy Hook, then what could move us to action. Besides, we can’t forget where this journey ends. There will be moments that feel triumphal and moments that feel like death has gripped us all over again.

I watched Emma Gonzalez’ speech at the march in Washington yesterday. If you haven’t seen it, you should. She bravely stands in the tension between grave loss and resolute action. Her speech lasted six minutes and twenty seconds, the same amount of time as the shooting that left seventeen dead and fifteen injured. She spoke for about two minutes, most of it listing the names of her friends who had died and the things they would never do. Then she stood in silence and wept for four minutes. Perhaps that was her hosanna. Or perhaps she and her peers are the Anointed Ones, coming to save us all. Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed be the ones who come in the name of peace.

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