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Our Book of Common Prayer calls this day by two names: The Sunday of the Passion and Palm Sunday. We begin with a Gospel reading about Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. We begin with Gospel where the crowds shout Hosannah! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. We begin with palm branches. Then we make a sudden shift from a crowd shouting Hosannah to a crowd crying “crucify him!” We shift from blessings to curses. We shift from Jesus’ triumph to his trial and execution. From leafy palm branches to the hard wood of the cross. From Palm Sunday to Passion Sunday. God, help us.
God help us. The word, “hosanna” which the crowds shout, literally means “help, please!” or “save, we beseech you.” Or “deliver, please.” It is a prayer in itself and is part of Psalm 118 which is often read on this day, but that is not how the crowds use it. Although it had been in use for hundreds of years, the word ‘hosanna,’ by Jesus’ time, had become a common place word of praise, more like “hooray” than “help.” It’s a cheer. Go, Jesus! And yet the crowds desperately need the help which the word hosanna means. For just a few days later crowds will chant “crucify him.” Just a few days later, the blessings will turn to curses. Hosannah! Help, please, O God, because we know that we, your human family, can turn against you and against each other so quickly.
Writer Anne Lamott has a wonderful book on prayer titled, “Help. Thanks. Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” Help. Thanks. Wow. In many ways, Holy Week takes us through all three of these prayers. Today, on this Palm and Passion Sunday, we pray for help. Help us and deliver us as we feel the tension between blessing and cursing, as we brace ourselves for our rejection of the one sent to show us God’s love. On Maundy Thursday we will say, “thanks” as Jesus gives thanks at the last supper, as he washes the feet of his disciples, even the ones who will betray and deny and desert him. On Good Friday we will be astounded and awestruck as we witness Jesus’ offering of himself on the cross. We will say “wow” as we witness the power of love: the power of love to overcome human cruelty and pain. The power of love to meet humiliation with heart. The power of love that is willing to die so that we might truly live. Wow.
For today, I invite us to move from a mindless ‘hosannah’ from a banal ‘yay Jesus’ to a more profound and heartfelt, “help, save us please.” How have we praised Jesus with our lips but not followed him in our lives? Deliver us, please! How do we as individuals and as a community, continue to reject the way of love and despise goodness and kindness? Help us, we beseech thee! When have we offered blessing in one breath and a curse in the next. O God make speed to save us. O Lord make haste to help us. These are the words that we prayer at noon, in the evening and at the end of the day in our daily round of prayer services. We pray them throughout the day because we know how we can turn toward and then away from God’s love hour by hour. When I made retreat in the monastery, the monks prayed it this way, “O God, come to my assistance!” Come to our assistance on this Palm Sunday as we see you, O Christ, entering the holy city to face your death. Come to our assistance on this Sunday of the Passion as we see you suffer at the hands of your human family. Come to our assistance as we feel the tension between blessing and cursing. Come to our assistance as we know our own needs for healing and wholeness. Help, please deliver us save us in this time of Christ’s unjust trial. Save us from ourselves, save us from the cruel evils of which humanity is so capable. By your grace assist us as we cry for your help. By your grace assist us as we thank you for all your loving kindness and your mercy. By your grace assist us as we prepare to say wow, as we prepare to be astounded and awestruck at your power to put down the forces of death with the power of love. Help us, now, O God, we pray. Hosanna. Hosanna. Hosanna.