Sermon for Palm Sunday
Tour years ago Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, the first African-American to hold that office. Two phrases drove that campaign: “Yes we can!” and “the audacity of hope,” and among other things these phrases spoke to the paradigm-shifting prospect of electing a black man to the highest office in that country. From our perspective north of the border we knew this was a historic moment, though I’m not sure that many of us were fully aware of just how historic—how paradigm shifting and hope-filled—it really was. To give some perspective, in his 1963 inauguration address, George Wallace, the newly elected Governor of the State of Alabama, said the following:
In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.
“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Governor Wallace was anything but shy about walking his talk, and six months after his inauguration, he stood in front of the doors of a University of Alabama auditorium and attempted to physically block the entry of the school’s first two black students. And just in case you’re thinking that Wallace must have been nothing more than a fringe character, three times he took a serious run at being the Democrat candidate for president, and in 1968 he even ran as the presidential candidate for the American Independent Party, garnering over 13% of the popular vote.
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Less than fifty years after an influential politician could publically say something so jarring as “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” Obama is elected President. You see how audacious was that hope? And in all the fanfare that followed that election it seemed as if many believed a whole new day had dawned; the enthusiasm was almost messianic… except that Obama had around him a few black preachers prepared to ground things in a bit of gospel reality.
Who could possibly live up to those expectations? It wasn’t long before the new president came under fierce criticism, not only from his political opponents but also from many who had dared to hope that he was going to change, fix, and transform everything. Never mind the more reactionary views—those who had tried to suggest that he was a closeted Muslim… ‘Obama/Osama’ and that sort of nonsense. The reality is that the president whose inauguration was surrounded by that almost messianic fervor may well find himself defeated in the 2012 election.
Now I want to be clear that I believe that Christian hope is indeed audacious. When asked what Christians should be doing locally to live out the gospel, the theologian Jurgen Moltmann answered simply “Revitalize the audacity of hope.” And yet Christian hope has about it a kind of eyes-wide-open realism, for Christian hope is cross-shaped.
Hope without that kind of grounding so easily gets enmeshed in our aspirations, be they individual or political. We have decided what we think is going on, and so we will invest our energies, our dreams, our hopes and aspirations in this thing. And when this thing doesn’t deliver in the way in which we thought it would? That can become very dangerous.
How is it, do you suppose, that as Jesus makes his entry into the city of Jerusalem he is greeted with such fanfare, and then just a week or so later many of those who had greeted him with such enthusiasm were calling for his death? How is it that his closest friends and followers could wave branches and sing their “hosannas,” and then desert him on the night of his arrest? The song that they sing is part of the clue:
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
“Hosanna” in Hebrew meaning literally “please save” or even “save now;” this is what they think is going on. And so the line “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” really indicates the degree to which they hoped, dreamed, believed, that a new political reality was about to commence. Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of David, the promised heir to that throne. The Empire as represented by the Caesar, Pontius Pilate, and the puppet-king Herod was about to be overturned. Hosanna!
And you know that the disciples were committed to this agenda, in spite of the number of times Jesus pushes it back. Recall, for instance, when James and John come to Jesus with a request: “And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’” (Mark 10:37) They’re looking for positions of prominence, positions of authority, in his kingdom. And this is right after he’d spoken of his approaching death… they don’t have a clue.
The days Jesus spends in Jerusalem start out with what looks to be a bit of revolutionary flair, as he heads into the temple and chases out the money-changers and merchants. But from there he doesn’t do anything but offer teaching and debate the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. He actually stirs up their hostility, which would seem a tactically problematic move for someone about to launch a revolution. And he doesn’t muster an army, organize a campaign, or in any way look or act like an heir to his militarily and politically brilliant ancestor, King David. It just doesn’t take that much to turn people against him. Their hopes had no real foundation, and so they sour very easily. “We must have looked pretty stupid singing our hosannas and waving our palm branches for him… crucify him.”
The disciples do hold fast for a while, but again they’re still imagining that they are part of a liberation movement. Mark tells us that at the moment of Jesus’ arrest “one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear,” and you have to ask what this disciple (John tells us it was Peter) was doing carrying a sword. And after that one rash attempt at sword-play, “all of the disciples deserted him and fled.” They just can’t sustain hope when faced by armed guards.
And then there is Judas, in so many ways the most troubling figure of all. Three years on the road with Jesus, and in the end he’ll sell him out for silver. Simple greed? Maybe. John says that the Satan enters Judas, but I’d want to suggest that by that point he’s not acting as a man possessed but rather as one who has already slid into a place of being willing to betray his teacher for the sake of his own gain. If there is something satanic at work, Judas is fully in collusion with it. But why? Maybe because he had invested himself so deeply in what he believed Jesus was doing, and when it became clear that this was not the kind of movement that a proper Son of David would launch, he cut his losses and looked for a way to get at least some compensation for what he now considered to have been three wasted years. We have the capacity to do terrible things to each other when our hopes and dreams turn out to have been wrong.
On that night of his arrest, while sharing the Passover meal with his followers, Jesus did an extraordinary thing. He took the ritual meal—a meal built around a story, and rich in symbolism—and he re-narrated it for them. He took the Passover bread, and spoke of it as being his body; and he lifted the Passover cup and called it his blood. Apparently they participated in it all—it was remembered and repeated, and will be again tonight—but they didn’t have the faintest idea as to what he was talking about.
It is only on the other side of the cross that they began to understand how it is that he could be “made known to them in the breaking of bread,” and that so much of what he had been trying to teach them about his kingship, his reign, and his work was packed into the meal. It is only when their hope became cross-shaped that they could let go of their old ways of imagining, and begin anew.
It is by way of the cross that the most unlikely of things can be brought to new life. Though still remembered primarily as a racist and segregationist, George Wallace did renounce his segregationist views. In the last twenty years of his life, Wallace spoke any number of times at black churches and meetings, and as an article in the Washington Post phrased it, he “sought almost poignantly to bury his past with Christian atonement, saying he didn’t want to meet his maker with his sins unforgiven.”
But that kind of re-imagining can only happen on the other side of the cross. And the only way to get to the other side is by going to the cross, into death, and toward a much deeper hope. That’s our path this week.