Sunday, April 9, 2017

Phil Kniss: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Lent 7: We cry out
Matthew 21:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11

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You probably saw my sermon title.
Just out of pure curiosity.
How many of you know where I stole it from?
“Princess Bride” has been providing movie quotes for 30 years now.
30 years! Hard to believe! . . . or should I say, “Inconceivable!”

It’s not often I draw from Hollywood for sermon titles,
but this one could not have been more fitting.
“You keep using that word.
I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Any guesses what word I’m referring to? . . . Hosanna!

We keep using that word!
This morning alone, we’ve used the word 41 times. So far.
So I can say to you, quite literally.
“You keep using that word.
I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The reason we get confused about the meaning of that word,
is that we get confused about the meaning of this event
that we call “the triumphal entry.”

Over the years, over the centuries, indeed over the millennia,
we have thoroughly tamed this story,
made it something much safer and more manageable for us.
And how could we not?
We are so far removed from Jesus’ context,
it’s just hard to grasp what really is going on here.

So we have
Spiritualized it.
Internalized it.
Individualized it.
And it becomes a simple, moralistic story about praising God.

We see this crowd of people praising God, and praising Jesus,
in a boisterous parade of praise all the way into the city.
And then we see later in the week the crowd turns against him,
and their shouts of praise, “Hosanna!”
turn into shouts of condemnation, “Crucify him!”

And we preachers, and Sunday School teachers,
and children’s Bible story book writers,
have many times made this into a lesson
about our commitment to praise God, in good times and bad.

The crowds are fickle and wishy-washy.
When everything looks positive, they praise God.
When things go off the rails, they start cursing God.
So the moral of the story, is to praise God always!

If that’s the meaning of this story for you,
then . . . I’m sorry to say . . .
I do not think it means what you think it means.

If you’ve heard me preach on Palm Sunday before,
and heard me lay out the larger context,
you probably know just about what I’m going to say next.
So let me say it.

This was no mere praise-fest and worship service.
This was a political march.
There is no doubt about that.

Yes, it had religious overtones—
well . . . more than overtones, it had a religious foundation.

But from the perspective of the participants in this parade,
this walk into Jerusalem was a fulfillment
of the political vision of the Hebrew scriptures.
It was the words of their prophets coming to pass,
in their nation, in their time, politically.

If you substitute the first-century Jews
with other oppressed people nowadays—
the average citizen of Syria, or South Sudan,
or Palestinians in Israel,
or people in North Korea, or you name it . . .
then you have a picture of what it was like
to live under King Herod.

Add to that a long-held religious belief
that they were destined by God
to be saved from their oppression by a Messiah.
They would get back their own Jewish king,
regain their political independence and religious freedom.
At some God-ordained moment
a direct descendant of King David, from their glory days,
would enter the scene and overthrow their oppressors,
and save them all from destruction.

Once you understand that context;
once you understand that the Hebrew word “Hosanna”
does not mean “praise the Lord,” but means “Save us!”
then you begin to understand what this means.

Yes, it’s a scene of jubilation and praise,
as Jesus rides in on a donkey!
The crowd is beside themselves with joy.
But it is not generic praise of God, or Jesus.
It is gratitude that Jesus is about to rescue them from Herod.

They shout “Hosanna . . . save us,”
not in tearful desperation, but in unbounded joy.
“Savior! You are here! Now save us!
Save us from King Herod!”

Now we are looking at this story truthfully.
This is the procession of a conquering King,
about to storm the city he was conquering,
and unseat the evil tyrant Herod,
who had a palace just inside the city walls.

The cries of “hosanna” and “save us” came from a deep place—
a place of utter need, that until now seemed hopeless.
But on this day, hope was restored,
because they saw in Jesus the one who would,
against all odds,
fulfill their longing for deliverance.

They truly believed this.
Never mind the fact he was riding a donkey and had no army.
This was the one who turned water to wine,
and a bag lunch into a banquet.
This was the one who cured people born blind,
made the lame walk,
raised the dead.

It wasn’t too great a leap to go from believing those miracles,
to believing Jesus could also walk right into Herod’s palace
and make the Roman army fall to their knees,
without a blood bath,
if that’s what he wanted to do.
And he obviously wanted to do that . . . right?

Of course, Christians today virtually all agree,
the crowds did have a political savior in mind.
But we still don’t quite get the impact of this scene,
because of our privileged political context.

Many Christians will admit that yes, the crowds misunderstood Jesus.
They were misguided into thinking Jesus was a political Messiah.
But we know now—
Jesus came to deliver us spiritually, not politically,
praise the Lord!

Oh, but that’s not what I’m saying.
This was a political march.
And Jesus embraced the political nature of the march.

He just wasn’t embracing the political methods
of the powers in charge,
or the political methods
that many of his own oppressed people had in mind.

In essence, he was saying this:
“I am here to fulfill the political vision of the Torah,
but it is not going to happen in a violent showdown.
The kingdom of God will be established as a kingdom of peace,
a kingdom ruled by a God who extends Godself toward us,
in love, in self-emptying, even in suffering.
God will unseat the Emperor of Rome,
but not in the way you’ve always pictured it.

God is creating a new covenant people,
a new community bound by a new and higher law,
the law of self-giving love.

And the power of this new law
will shame the false powers of this world,
and, in due time, will overcome those powers.
So yes, I accept the role God has called me to fulfill,
to rule over this new kingdom of peace.

I will be your king.
I will come into your city, not to kill,
but to offer up my life.
So here I am, servant of God,
riding on a humble young donkey.
Follow me, as I show you the way to the new kingdom.”

Of course, he did not say that in so many words.
He said it with powerful, symbolic action.
Followed later by words of explanation,
which even his disciples did not understand, yet.

Nevertheless, why did the people turn against Jesus so quickly?
If they really believed Jesus was their deliverer,
couldn’t they cut him some slack?
give him a little time to do the deed?

But no, within a day or two, the same persons
who shouted “Hosanna, hosanna” at the beginning of the week,
were shouting “Crucify, crucify” at the end of the week.

Because Jesus disappointed them . . . completely, and bitterly.
Upon entering the city, he did not storm Herod’s throne,
the seat of everything evil.
He did not even seem interested in the place.

He went directly to the temple, their temple,
and started unleashing his righteous anger not against Herod,
but against his own people,
for setting up a market in the courtyard.
Our Gospel reading today stopped at verse 11.

Here, let me add verses 12 and 13.
“Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”

Now, did Jesus care about the brutality of Herod and Caesar?
Of course he did.
But if he was all about creating a new kind of kingdom,
about forming a people with a higher sort of politics,
he had to start where the real trouble was.

His own people had lost the moral and political vision of Torah,
they were losing their grip on the core of God’s law.

They couldn’t just blame Rome
for preventing them from living full and free.
They were doing it to themselves.
They didn’t know what it meant to love and serve God
with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength,
and to love their neighbor as themselves.

The Roman Empire wouldn’t destroy their faith.
But they were at risk of destroying it themselves.

Their politics—their ways of living together as a people of God—
were all out of whack.
They did not treat each other with justice and compassion.
Their wealthy took advantage of their poor.
Their widows and orphans were not cared for.
Those who had position and power abused it.
Even in the temple, under God’s watchful eye,
money-changers made a profit off the less fortunate.

They were, in fact, lost without a shepherd,
to use Jesus’ own words, a couple chapters later.

So here, at the moment Jesus had almost everyone on his side,
he confronted them with a truth they didn’t want to hear.

I think he knew full well
what this confrontation of his own people could cost him.
It could cost him his overwhelming popularity.
It could cost him the loyalty of even his closest disciples.
It could cost him his life.
And in fact, it did cost him, every one of those things.

Jesus paid dearly,
when he made a move against his own people
and their distorted politics.
But he made that move with strength and purpose.
He was clear about his calling.

It makes me wonder whether we are as clear today,
about our calling and identity.
How much do we reflect the political vision of Jesus,
in times that are also fraught with great risk,
and great opportunity?

Jesus did not put hope in the politics of the Empire,
and its addiction to power and violence.
He put his hope in God’s reign.

It was a political reign,
in the sense that it had to be socially embodied by a people
committed to reflecting the will and way of God
in their life together and their life in the world.
Kingdoms don’t exist in the abstract,
only in the particular,
embodied in a people.

Jesus did not ignore Rome.
But neither did he prioritize it.
If his own people failed to live into their high calling,
then the reign of God had no place,
no social location in which to take root.

Today, we are rightly concerned about many of the things
unfolding in our country and around the world.
The question is whether we are committed
to confront the powers of evil
in a manner consistent with the way
Jesus confronted the powers of evil in his time.

As much as the occupied and oppressed people of Jesus’ world
needed to be saved, and cried out, “Hosanna!”—“Save us!”
so we need salvation today,
individually, and collectively.

It is counter-cultural for us to say “Hosanna!” and mean it.
To say “hosanna” is to admit that we need saving.
It’s pretty un-American to admit our vulnerability,
our need,
our dependence on another to save.

It is one of the banes of the Christian life
to think that, once we’ve made it into God’s good graces,
we no longer need saving.
And it’s one of the banes of the church
to think that, as God’s special, and holy, people,
we don’t need continual salvation and reformation as a church.

We need a Savior!
I need a Savior!
You need a Savior!
Together, we all need a Savior!

We, personally, need to be saved from
the consequence of our own sin,
our missing the mark of God’s intentions for our lives,
our having settled for a diminished life.
And the church needs to be saved from
the consequences of our collective sins of pride and power.

We need to be saved from, and saved for.

We, personally, need to be saved for
the full life of shalom God intended for us from the beginning.
And the church needs to be saved for
God’s good purposes in this world,
saved, collectively, for becoming faithful partners
in God’s mission of reconciliation and redemption.

Hosanna, Lord Jesus Christ, Hosanna!
Save us!

—Phil Kniss, April 9, 2017

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