Holy One, across these miles, we ask that you might draw us together. Touch my mouth and all of our hearts that the words of about to be spoken and the words about to be heard might, somehow, be your word. Amen.
This morning is Palm Sunday. And in normal times, we would be meeting with First Christian and Salem in the Gathering Space, waving palm branches purchased from a sustainable farm in Guatemala and singing and marching toward our respective congregational spaces. We would be heading toward the North Sanctuary this year which is still likely decorated with solemn purple. Instead, we are sheltering in place, gathered together across the miracle of Zoom and wondering what in the heck Palm Sunday has to say to millions of us quarantined, sickened or suffering in prison or detention, not knowing when we’ll become ill.
As I grappled with this question this past week, I kept coming back to two things: our biblical text and Darla Baker.
Let me start with Darla. One of my favorite things about former Lyndalian, Darla Baker, is her clarity that Palm Sunday ought be Palm Sunday and not Palm/Passion Sunday. Over many years, whenever the subject came up, Darla would say, “we get one Sunday.. one day a year… in which we celebrate that the vulnerable, the tenderness of love, the oppressed, the marginalized… actually win. Can we not gloss over that? Can we not just pause and celebrate the parade, the creativity, the brilliance of those crowds of folx whom the powerful deemed expendable?” So that’s the first thing. Hold on to that for a moment.
The second thing is our scripture. In the text Jeanine read for us, it’s the start of Passover week and everyone is arriving into Jerusalem—the faithful pilgrims but also the insurrectionists and rabble rousers. And Rome is nervous… this could be a threat to their power. It hadn’t been that long ago since they had put down a bloody uprising. The prospect of large gatherings of people scares them. And so they do what Imperial powers do, they stage a parade, a show of force. In through Jerusalem’s Western gate march legions of Roman soldiers and their leader, Pontius Pilate. It would have been quite a display of “imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold… the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums, the swirling of dust, the eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”
Pilate’s procession was meant to communicate very clearly. And its message would have been both about the power of the Empire but also its theology. “The emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God.”
On the exact opposite side of the city, through the Eastern gate comes a very different image. In place of war horses, there is a humble donkey. Absent armor and gold, leather and boots, comes Jesus and his palm-waving followers. Every bit of it is planned, staged and comes off beautifully.
Where Pilate seeks to communicate the power and violence of the Roman Empire, Jesus’ is a procession of peasants seeking to proclaim the kin-dom of God. And unlike the sounds of Empire—clanking metal, creaking leather—the sounds of Jesus’ procession of those marginalized by Empire are those of swishing palm branches (a symbol of their rural, poor roots) and the crying of Hosanna, Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God! Blessed is the coming kin-dom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!
It is important to know that the word “hosanna” literally means, “O, save” or “save, I pray.” “Hosanna” is a cry of pain, a cry of hope and a cry of power. Hosanna means enough!
Gandhi once referred to Jesus as “the most active resister known to history—this is nonviolence par excellence.” And his procession into Jerusalem is a beautiful example of Jesus’ brilliance and wisdom because he knows what he is communicating and to whom.
“From start to finish, Jesus uses symbolism from the prophet Zechariah. According to Zechariah, a king would be coming to Jerusalem (Zion) ‘humble, and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ (9:9). The rest of the Zechariah passage details what kind of king he will be: ‘He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations’ (9:10). This king, riding on a donkey, will banish war from the land—no more chariots, war-horses, or bows. He will be a king of peace.
“Jesus’s procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city. Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’s procession embodied an alternative vision, the [kin-dom] of God. This contrast—between the [kin-dom] of God and the kingdom of Caesar—is central not only to the gospel of Matthew, but to the story of Jesus and early Christianity.”
It was October 1988 and nearly 30,000 people had died from AIDS. For some communities, an entire generation of gay men were infected and dying-by-the-day. There was no treatment, there was no cure. Diagnosis was a near-certain death-sentence filled with stigma, pain and suffering. In response, the CDC, the FDA, local and federal governments had done next to nothing. And, a lot that they had done was to demonize and blame HIV+ people for the unfathomable fear, pain and suffering they were experiencing. Whenever any LGBTQ people gathered, the police dispatched to do crowd-control would don surgical gloves and, often, riot gear, to avoid touching people.
On this particular day, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power staged a demonstration at the FDA offices in Rockville, MD. As one protestor remembers, “When police readied themselves to haul away protestors blockading the FDA building they donned rubber surgical gloves, to protect against the imaginary danger of becoming infected by touching someone infected with HIV. In response, demonstrators scolded them for their distressing fashion faux pas: ‘Your gloves don’t match your shoes! Your gloves don’t match your shoes!’”
It was a queer Hosanna, but an announcement of pain, hope and power, nonetheless. And it was, in the moment, the kind of victory that Darla would appreciate. In that moment, those protestors claimed power and humor and they embodied the kin-dom of God.
As COVID-19 has become a global pandemic and so many of us are sheltering in place, the impacts are being felt in a myriad of ways: we’re stir crazy, we’re lonely, we’re anxious. We are also seeing Empire’s violence and oppression on the rise with far too many racist assaults on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, with poor people being refused hospital care before it’s too late and with those with underlying conditions—many caused from structural oppression—being the most vulnerable to the virus.
But in the midst of this reality, we are also seeing acts of resistance and love that evidence God’s kin-dom amongst us.
One neighborhood in Minneapolis was asked by parents of young children to put teddy bears in their windows so that children could take walks and look for all the bears even if they couldn’t interact directly with their neighbors. One woman decided to participate and she knew just what bear she had to use. When her twin brother was dying of AIDS in the late 1980’s he suffered greatly. One thing that seemed to soothe his pain was his bear. As she said in her post on facebook: “from one pandemic to another, I hope this bear brings some comfort.”
Hosanna, save us… Hosanna, we claim love in this time.
The father and son had been estranged for years. There had been too much pain, too much hurt that couldn’t seem to be healed. And then the phone rang just a few nights ago. The father, a construction worker, was deeply worried about his son, a nurse. The father had some N-95 masks from his job and wondered if he could send them to his son to help keep him safe.
Hosanna, we claim forgiveness and healing.
The elders had been active in their communities, the families, their religious congregations but now they were on lock-down, sequestered to their rooms. For the first few days they were growing more and more depressed. But then one woman saw the story of quilters around the country organizing to make masks and she sent word around the facility and got her daughter to get the materials. Now, the nursing home is like a factory they’re making so many of them.
Hosanna, we choose life, we choose community.
I have to admit that my tendency is to lean toward Palm/Passion Sunday. But we will get there soon enough. Today, I think Darla is completely right. Amidst far too much Empire, amidst too much fear and anxiety made worse by oppression, let us claim the reality that Love Wins. Connection binds us even across Zoom screens. Teddy Bears and home-made masks become sacraments—outward signs of the presence of God in our midst. The Kin-dom of God is alive and real, here and now.
On this Palm Sunday, on this celebration of that ancient triumph of love, let ours be embodied Hosannas, let ours be sacraments of praise. Amen.
 John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem, (Harper Collins: New York) p. 2-5
 Ibid, p. 3
 Ibid, p.4
 Steve Masover Acting up, fighting back: AIDS activism in the ’80s and ’90s https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2012/3/26/1077914/-Acting-up-fighting-back-AIDS-activism-in-the-80s-and-90s