Hosannas and Grief

I’m not exaggerating in the sermon below when I say that Palm Sunday is one of my favorite services of the year. When we were filming this service for our YouTube channel, it hit me full force during “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” It’s been weird the first three weeks to film church instead of gathering together–preaching to an empty room is never fun, you feel constricted by the audio/visual requirements, and it’s hard to keep up your energy level when there’s no feedback from people. All three weeks, I’ve been very sad at the end of filming.

But while we were singing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. (Luckily, I was off camera and not wearing mascara.) I was imagining everything we were missing. Everyone, from babies just able to grasp a palm to folks who have been part of this procession ninety times already, together, singing this hymn. Andy running as dignified as possible to get ahead of us to the organ. The candles blowing out in the wind and Bob Burns frantically relighting them as we step inside. The acolyte narrowly missing the door frame with the cross. The people of God, gathered together in praise and acclamation.

It was just too much, and the tears started to come. I’ve called what I was feeling sadness, but really, it’s grief. I read an excellent article in the Harvard Business Review that addresses just this topic: HERE. It talks about how, through all of these changes, we are all grieving. We are grieving the things we’ve lost, the things we won’t get to do. Personally, I’m grieving connection, Holy Week, how I imagined the birth of my child happening, among other things. I’m sure you’re grieving, too.

Something I’ve noticed in the past couple weeks, from myself and from others, is a guilt around our grief. I feel guilty because I know that there are people much worse off than I am. People who have this disease, or who have lost loved ones to it. People who can’t self-isolate and must put themselves and their families in danger. People who have lost their jobs and don’t know what to do. What right do I have to grief in the face of such bigger problems?

And, while it is good to acknowledge the ways we remain blessed, to be thankful and grateful for what we have, it is okay to grieve. Grief and loss are not a competition. Just because it’s not as big a thing as what someone else is dealing with doesn’t mean you can’t grieve. We have to first acknowledge our feelings of loss and sadness to be able to process them and work through them. Whatever you are feeling right now is okay. This is all new, and none of us is an expert in how to deal with it.

This is possibly the longest introduction to a sermon I’ve ever written, and not even on the topic of the sermon. So I’ll get back to it. Holy Week runs the whole gamut of human emotion: expectation, hope, betrayal, disappointment, grief, hopelessness, and finally exultant celebration. Let yourself feel this week, for God is feeling it with us.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I love Palm Sunday. It’s one of my absolute favorite services of the year, honestly right up there with Easter. I love the pomp and circumstance, the parade of palms, the festive music. I loved to turn my palm into a little cross, and then do the same to my parents’ palms and any extra palms that the ushers would let me have. As a pastor, Palm Sunday is like getting to have a little Easter, just a mini one, without all of the added pressure that Easter Sunday brings.

But as much as I’ve always loved Palm Sunday, it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I learned what “Hosanna” means. I always thought it was a joyous acclamation, just one step below the Alleluia that we save for Easter. I thought the crowds in Jerusalem were cheering Jesus on, celebrating his triumphal entry.

That’s not it at all. In Hebrew, “Hosanna” means something less celebratory and more desperate. More demanding. Something altogether more appropriate to this year’s Palm Sunday. It means, “Save us now!”

Holy Week feels so very different this year. I come to Holy Week, like many of you I’m sure, scared and unsure and anxious. I’m anxious about what the future will be bringing. I’m scared of all the stones sealing up all the graves that I don’t think are going to be rolled away. I’m yearning for a million different resurrections: small and large, personal and worldwide. As I stand here with my palm and read once again of Jesus coming into the city, my cry is not one of celebration or adulation. It’s a desperate, demanding plea: Save us now!

It’s the cry the people of Jerusalem offered so long ago. They were hungry for a savior. They had been under oppressive Roman rule for too long, and needed someone, anyone, to free them. They thought that maybe, just maybe, Jesus would be that person. The person to overthrow Rome, to liberate them.

Jesus didn’t come for that, though. At least not how the people wanted. He came into his kingship riding on a borrowed donkey. His reign would have nothing to recommend it but love, humility, and sacrifice. So often, and especially now, I think I know exactly what kind of savior I need—what kind of God I need. The savior of the quick fix, the miraculous intervention, the tangible and obvious presence. But then we hear this story once again and are reminded: that savior is not Jesus.

If Palm Sunday is about anything, it’s about disappointed expectations. It’s a story of what happens when the God we hope for and expect doesn’t show up, and another God—less efficient, less aggressive—shows up instead. It’s a story of what happens when our cries of “save us now” are met with silence, and our palm branches wither. We walk away, we close our hearts, we betray the image of God in ourselves and in each other. Our hosannas give way to hatred, and we lash out to kill.

Palm Sunday is a day that’s full of paradox. Hosannas lead to shouts of crucify. Hope turns to despair. Potential turns to devastation. God rides in on a donkey. We have a suffering king. We will call the day of his death: Good Friday.

But amidst the paradox, we find our hope: we are held and embraced by a God who is much too complicated for shallow, one-dimensional truths — even our own, most cherished, one-dimensional truths. We are held by a God who sticks with us even when we cry out in anger and hate. A God who accepts our worship even when it is self-centered, ungenerous, and selfish. A God who knows all the reasons our hearts cry, “Save now!” and who carries those broken, strangled cries to the cross for us and with us.

And yet, and yet I am afraid of what lies ahead. I am afraid of how many deaths lie waiting around the corner. I am afraid of how many sorrows and farewells and jagged endings we will have to face before resurrection comes home to stay. I can’t imagine most of it, and sometimes I can’t bear any of it. But Jesus can.

If there is anything in the Christian story that is true, then this must surely be true as well: Jesus will never leave us alone. There is no death we will die, small or large, literal or figurative, that Jesus will not hold in his crucified arms.

Welcome to Holy Week. Here we are, and here is our God. Here are our hosannas, broken and unbroken, hopeful and hungry. Blessed is the One who comes to die so that we will live. Amen.

One thought on “Hosannas and Grief

  1. This was one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard–on Palm Sunday or anytime! Your description of why Jesus came was so clear, and I especially like to think of Jesus’ ministry being characterized by love, humility and sacrifice–attributes that I try to espouse but so often fall short. It was also so heartening to hear again that Jesus is with us in all our trials, no matter how large or small. I never thought of Palm Sunday before as a time of disappointed expectations, to it was good to have that perspective. I almost liked your introduction as much as your sermon. We are definitely all grieving, albeit in different ways and for different reasons. And I pray every day for safety and good health for you, Tim and the baby.


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