Palm Sunday Homily from the Rev. Joe Hensley, Mar 29, 2015
Hosannah! Hosannah in the highest! Today, Palm Sunday, we hear these words with new ears. We sing or say them every week when we celebrate the Eucharist together. Today we remember that the crowds who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem shouted those words from Psalm 118 as he rode on the donkey colt. They shouted Hosannah as they covered the road with leafy branches. That word, “hosanna,” literally means “please save.” Today, as we begin our Holy Week pilgrimage, we put into our hearts this same same word: “Hosannah! Save us, please.”
The origins of the Hosannahs and the leafy branches of willow or palm come from the Jewish festival of Sukkot, the festival of booths, which is a fall, harvest-time celebration. Bible scholars have long puzzled over why the crowds who are making their way to Jerusalem with Jesus for the springtime Passover festival would invoke the words and signs of Sukkot. One possibility is that the hosanna prayers were offered while praying for rain, for literal salvation from drought. “Please save,” becomes a plea for life-giving water. By reenacting the Sukkot liturgy as Jesus enters Jerusalem, perhaps the crowds are emphasizing their hope that he is a “rain maker.” These are a people who have long-suffered under the yoke of oppression by their own leaders as well as the Roman Empire. Hosannah becomes a political and spiritual cry: “Here comes the one who will rain down justice upon the heads of our oppressors.”
Jesus does not deliver the rain like the crowds expect. He does not ride into town on a war horse but upon a humble donkey. He does not occupy the temple but instead hides on the outskirts of town. He does not announce victory but instead teaches in parables. By the time Jesus is arrested, perhaps the crowds have become impatient. Maybe this teacher is not the savior they had hoped for. Their hopeful “hosannas” give way to frustrated cries of “crucify him!”
Holy Week is our journey from “hosanna” to “crucify him.” The pilgrimage will take us from the hope for salvation to the realization that the one who offers it to us has been slain. This raises some questions for us. Have we been among those who have denied knowing Jesus, like Peter? He we been among those who have stood by helpless or silent while other suffered, while the light of the world was cloaked in darkness? Have we been among those who played a role in the unfair suffering of others? The answer is ‘yes.’ We know our guilt. The purpose of this Holy Week pageant, though, is not to feel guilty. The reason why we dwell on this tragic story and come back to church this week night after night is not to wallow in our sin and shame. We take these steps together so that we can come face to face with the brokenness of the world, the brokenness of our own souls, and realize that we have a companion in Jesus. Jesus walks with us and will not turn away from our worst. Jesus accepts our hopes and our failures, our hosannas and our cries for blood. He accepts them and he redeems them. He is the true rain maker, the one who waters our dry and cracked souls with mercy and forgiveness. In Gethsemane garden, at Calvary’s cross, even from the stony tomb, he rains down grace in the face of violence. He rains down right in a world of wrong. He rains down love in the midst of hate. This Holy Week we are invited to walk with Jesus on the road of suffering and surrender so that we might better know the gifts he showers upon us. Hosannah, Jesus, Hosannah. Save us, please. Save us and help us, we humbly pray. Amen.