Lead Us Through, O Lord—Palm Sunday

Sermon delivered a St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Perkasie, PA

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Mark 11:1-11

Well, good morning! It is unusual to be preaching to human beings in person! A little overwhelming for me, such a familiar thing to be doing, but to be doing after such a long stretch away… I’m sure being here feels familiar yet different. It can be overwhelming to just do something so ordinary after such a long time. I welcome you to experience those feelings, it’s not always just joy, especially after returning after such a traumatic year.

You know, as we’ve been talking about this pandemic, as we’ve been journeying together, I have heard lots of folks say lots of things about this COVID pandemic we are still struggling with. But the most common is either we will get “through” this, or we will get “over” this. Basically the same. But it makes all the difference in the world, especially to us  as followers of Jesus

For those of you who have lost a loved one, a spouse, a child, a parent, at any time: Do you ever “get over it?” Or do you pass through the grief, it becomes a part of you, whether you like it or not: You navigate it like churning waters and you’re in a boat, you tread upon it like a steep trail. It changes you, changes who you are. So too of this pandemic.

We give thanks to God for vaccines, for the chance to worship both online and in-person in a hybrid way, we give thanks to God for signs of improvement. And here we are as a sign of improvement. But we are changed, hopefully for the better.

So together with all the churches across the globe who have read from these texts this morning, together we have said: “O Lord, save us!” Along with the Psalmist we have said: “We pray to you, Lord, prosper our days!” A fitting prayer as some of you return once again to your beloved sanctuary. “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” as well we have shouted as well with the revelers in Mark’s Gospel.

I took a little dive into this word “Hosanna.” Sort of a word you take for granted. It comes to us from the Hebrew, of course, beginning with verse 25 in Psalm 118. I’m not a speaker of Hebrew. But I can muddle through this verse for you anna adonai hō-wō-shi-‘ah na, anna adonai hats-lî-ḥāh na. There’s that “hosanna” in its native habitat: hō-wō-shi‘ah na. Which, in the simplest form, is a shout, a command, a demand: “Please, save us, right now!”

So, in the procession in the Gospel of Mark, the crowd is reciting this Psalm, and doing very familiar actions, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD,” sings the Psalmist, “We bless you from the house of the LORD. The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.” Which is what they did, they cut branches from the field and laid them on the road and waved them in the air. And that is indeed what Jesus does in Mark’s Gospel. “Then [Jesus] entered Jerusalem and went into the temple,” Mark writes.

The next part of verse 25 in Psalm 118 is also interesting. Our English version says “prosper our days.” In other words, give us well-being, whether that’s financial or physical. In the Bible that the earliest Christians would have had, perhaps even the author of Mark, this Hebrew Psalm would have been translated into Greek. And in Greek this Psalm is really interesting. The “hosanna,” the howoshi-anna, is translated into the same word for “save” that is all over the New Testament. Save, salvation, but also to be  made-well.

Which is what Jesus was up to on so many levels in Mark, casting out demons, making the sick well, giving sight to the blind, even giving raising little girls from the dead. But now, as Jesus enters the gates of Jerusalem, he is up to a very different kind of “saving.”. As all the people shout out, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” they are expecting a military king, a powerful savior, lighting bolts and thunderclaps, the end of their problems, armor and swords, a force that would get them “over” their problems with the Romans. But the way Jesus makes us all well, as we journey through Holy Week, is not by getting us over, but by pulling us through.

And the way the Bible of the Earliest Christians renders the latter part of verse 25 of Psalm 118 is so important. In Greek it is a request, a pleading, for God to lead us on the right paths, on paths to well-being. A plea for God to lead us. A plea for God to make us well.

Well, Jesus is certainly leading his followers today, leading them up to the gates of Jerusalem, leading them up to the Temple. But it seems, despite Jesus warnings about his death, they don’t seem to have any idea where Jesus is leading, or what kind of terrain the path to salvation goes through.

We do know. Jesus’ path to salvation is a path that leads us directly into our shadows, not over them. The crowd’s expectations were for ease and triumph, Jesus led them to his humiliation and death. The disciples’ expectations were for power and glory, Jesus led to betraying him and witnessing perverted justice. There is only one path to the Resurrection, and it is really not a path we would willing choose for ourselves, let alone our children and loved ones.

I think a very fair argument here would be: “Jesus walked that path so I don’t have to.” That is true. But if this path to the resurrection only Jesus can walk, what are we to make of all the suffering and humiliation, the betrayal and the grief we experience, everyday!? What do we make of mass shootings? Of pandemics, broken families and pervasive racism? It’s not that God ever has catapulted us over our suffering. God has opened to us a way, we celebrate today, of life that holds our hand through suffering.

Jesus is our King, our Leader, who opens the gates of a new way. Yes, Jesus is the one who walked it first, certainly as the Son of God walked it best, But we, whether we like it or not, must walk the same way. Our losses and mistakes, slips and falls are on the road. Our grief is there too. And we will someday go down the same path to death as well, as our Lord Jesus did. We have to walk knowing this is part of our road, not a detour or pothole. We are led down even into the land of death by Jesus, but the way through, we believe, has been opened.

Not over, around, bypassing, shortcutting or skipping. You’ll notice that our culture has a smorgasbord of ways to go over, to go around death and to shortcut and skip all the little deaths. That is essentially what the source of addiction is, we are a very addicted culture. People don’t start abusing substances because their lives are peachy, I think it suffices to say. And as a culture—not as individuals—but as a culture we are addicted to work and busy-ness, addicted to success, addicted to sports, addicted to gambling, addicted to eating, to sex, to shopping, to guns, whatever, you name it. All as a way to turn away, to get over, all of our loss and how difficult it is to be human.

But not today, no. Today you’ve got your palms, that’ really important. On this most special of Palm Sundays, as we enter the gate of Holy Week, today Jesus has led us through the darkest year in memory, a year of COVID suffering and death and aloneness and separation. There is no avoiding a pandemic. We have to pass through it, just as Jesus walked down into death and through it, into life.

So we shout “Hosanna” and we plead with God to save us, to lead us. Because if this year of pandemic has shown us anything, it is that our own schemes to avoid death, our little plans for happiness and success and stability are all too fragile. A little virus toppled it all for a whole year.

We have something bigger that can guide us. We have something bigger that can lead us through our little deaths and our big deaths, we pray in our Hosannas. Along with the whole Church, with countless others in the baptized body of Christ, we pray, “Lead us through our shadows, and not around them.”

So, lead on, O Lord, we pray. With our festival branches in hand we not only walk, we parade, we process, joyfully into our shadows this week, knowing that our Lord will take our hand and lead us through the gates of well-being that Jesus has opened for us.

It is a path that goes to our crosses, as well as Jesus’ cross, whatever your crosses may be, and through our deaths, just like Jesus, but also into newness of life, just as Jesus did. So, Hosanna in the highest! Lead on, O Lord.