It was Palm Sunday, some years ago and John Buchanan, longtime editor of The Christian Century and pastor of Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, was gathered outside at the start of the service for one of his favorite traditions of the year: the processional of palms led by the hopeful voices and pace of the children of the church. They raised their palms, filed into place, and practiced their lines. “Hosanna,” they said as he walked among them. “Hosanna in the highest.” Then Rev. Buchanan arrived at one little boy who was shouting out with exuberance and belief: “O, Hosanna… O don’t you cry for me, cause I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee.” (1)
“Hosanna!” Well, do any of us really know what we’re saying? Literally, the word means, “save us.” So whether the crowds in Jerusalem, the pastel-clad children centuries later, or all of us today with palms in our grasp, when we shout “Hosanna,” we are asking to be saved.
I don’t know about you, but that’s a word that can be tricky for me – “saved.”
It was probably a decade ago that a friend and I decided to catch a showing of a summer blockbuster, settling in to the fairly crowded theater with snacks all set, stretched out in the comfortable chairs, just before the previews. Then a young guy seated a few seats down, about our age and seeming to be normal enough, slid down into the seat next to us. “Excuse me, fellas,” he said, “Don’t mean to bother you, but I was wondering, are y’all Christians? And if not, do you wanna get saved?”
I mean, come on! I’m just trying to watch a movie with a friend on a Friday night, which is what I was planning to explain once I finished chewing my popcorn, but then the previews started and I was in fact “saved” – spared from an awkward interaction with this moviegoing evangelist as he slid back to his seat with the promise to pray for us.
It’s happened to me at least a few times in my adult life – maybe to you, too. A zealous, passionate adherent of the faith will stop you, like once when I was walking on the beach in the middle of one church’s evangelism beach blitz, the sand littered with pamphlets describing the way to be saved. Or in the subway tunnels in New York or most any urban area, where there’s no shortage of crusaders wanting to tell you what your final stop will be. Or once in an airport – “Do you wanna get saved?” the person next to me asked, reminding me to always have headphones on me. I explained I was a minister and a seminary graduate, and then after a pause, “So, do you wanna get saved?”
“Get saved.” The construction just feels clumsy to me. Not sophisticated and polished like so often we aspire to be. Of course we believe in salvation. We proclaim it, and teach it to our children, and embody it in baptism, and seek to live it out in the world. We can read as well as any other Christian what Jesus says to Nicodemus: “…whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
Still the word itself seems to have been interpreted and claimed by a certain segment of Christianity: those who understand salvation entirely as an eternal, heavenly reality, with no bearing on the here and now. Those with slick hair and still smoother methods that coercively scare the hell out of people. Or at least try to scare the people out of hell.
At least one of those two things happened to me after my freshman year of high school, as I ended up at a youth camp that was out to make sure everyone “got saved.” The message came from a slicked back, shiny, towering middle-aged man, whose face would grow more and more red behind his mustache as he preached, shouting statements like, “If you’re 99.9% sure that you’re saved then you’re 100% lost!”
Well, none of us wanted to be 100 percent lost! So we started to talk amongst ourselves in the bunks, at meals, and throughout the camp:
“Hey, are you going to get saved this week?”
“Well shoot, I thought I already was. I prayed with my parents. I was baptized as a child. But I guess I’m not… not like he’s talking about, anyway.”
By the final night of camp, most of us had heard enough to decide that we probably weren’t saved – not like he was talking about – and we raced down the aisles chasing that one hundred percent, foolproof certainty, while the camp organizers counted heads, to report how many kids “got saved.”
So you can understand that I’d be about ready to swear off the word altogether. I’d exchange it for some other word that captures the work of Christ: transformed, or redeemed, or renewed. Something other than “saved.” And then here it comes in today’s reading. “Hosanna” they cried. “Save us. Save us now.”
Upon further consideration, the word does seem to show up throughout the gospels – “saved.”
There was a woman with a hemorrhage who came up in the crowd and said as she pressed forward, “If I but touch the hem of his garment, I will be… ‘made well’” is the translation in most of our Bibles. But that’s not what she said. She said, “I will be saved!” from the Greek word “sozo.”
Because this is not merely a woman with a physical hemorrhage that needs to be cured. She’s isolated from her family. She’s on the outskirts of her community. She has no place to worship. Ostracized, marginalized, out among the cast of nobodies. Until she is saved. She wasn’t just made well. That woman was saved.
There was a man who lived among the tombs of Gerasa – a man possessed by demons, shackled, and kept under guard so he wouldn’t be a threat to anyone else. And then Jesus crosses into his territory and into his life, and he cried out for the demons to leave this man. And the people who saw it talked about how this demon possessed man had been… “healed” our translations say. But that’s not the word. The word is “saved.”
He was on the margins of it all, chained up and living amidst tombs, until Jesus proclaims his release and lets him return to his home. Was he healed? Or was he saved?
There was a blind beggar near Jericho – Bartimeus was his name – and he was sitting where he always sat, just before the events described in our passage today, as the parade came by going up to Jerusalem. The story contrasts this throng of disciples, happy and shouting, and preparing to wave their palms, breezing by this man whose eyes are fastened together as he depends on the pity of others.
“Jesus, have mercy on me,” he says.
He was hushed as usual, “Quiet, old man. No one wants to hear from a blind beggar.”
But then Jesus said, “What do you want?” And the man said, “Let me see.”
To which Jesus replies, “Your faith has… ‘made you well.’” Except that’s not what he said.
Here is a man in rags, castoff, and collecting dust on the roadside and in a few moments he is in the parade marching up to Jerusalem with shouts of “Hosanna.”
“Your faith has made you well”? It seems to me like that man was saved.
There was a tax collector – a rich man, Zaccheus. He climbed a tree and Jesus said, “Come down. I’m coming to lunch.” Everybody complained at Jesus talking to a sinner at whom they wanted to sneer. We don’t know what was said at the table, but when the meal was over the man emerged to say, “I’m giving half of all I have to the poor. And if I’ve ever defrauded anyone I will restore it 400 percent.” You know what Jesus says. “Salvation has come to this house.” Or in other words, “This man has been saved.”
Freed from his greed, loosed from the pursuit of his money, no longer marching door to door trying to collect and accumulate his life, but discovering instead the great truth of the gospels that life is found in giving it away. That man was saved.
Transformed, renewed, redeemed. Cured, made well, healed. I guess we can call it whatever seems most comfortable. But sometimes Jesus really does save.
The author David Dickerson describes a time when he was 28 yrs old – the outcast of his family because he had distanced himself from their fundamentalist conservative faith. He returned home for a visit to find his father newly energized in his own faith. And as they sat at lunch one day, his father described how he felt God was calling him to be a missionary, which Dickerson just began to deconstruct. “Oh, I’m sure those poor people around the world need one more Christian missionary, Dad,” he said.
His father sat quietly, and finally said, “David, I love you. I respect you. And I know not everyone thinks like me. But I want you to know that before I became a Christian, I was miserable. I wanted my life to end. I wanted to get a divorce from your mom. And I can’t really explain it, and I know it doesn’t make much sense, but here’s what I know: I followed Jesus and God saved me.”
Dickerson realized that he could think back on his childhood and remember the time when his dad changed. And as he sat there with all of cynicism at organized religion, and all of his still firm critiques of fundamentalism, he recognized he couldn’t argue his father’s experience of faith, and the fact that in some way inexplicable to him, he had been saved. (2)
“Save us,” the disciples cry when the waves threaten to capsize their boat just before Jesus stills the storm. Because when your life is on the line, you don’t want to be healed, transformed, or renewed. You want to be saved.
Upon further consideration, it might just be one of the most important words in the New Testament. It might just form the substance of Jesus’ life and ministry. It was there at the start of his public work, as he announced his purpose to “Bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus came to save. In fact, we see it at the very beginning as the angel announces to Joseph “Mary will bear a son; and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save the people”
And so he rides into Jerusalem to do that, to a throng of people that say they want it, “Save us, Jesus. Save us now.” They shout it along with a man once blind who got swept up in the parade, a man who had been possessed but found his life restored, a woman who had found her issue of blood no longer an obstacle to belonging, a former tax collector turned benefactor, and rest of the cast of followers who had been saved. “Save us, too!” the people shout.
For they have burdens and worries. They are suffering amidst the uncertainty of imperial rule, living amidst the control of the Roman Empire, whose dominance, war and conflict defined their lives. They are in the Capital of it all, where as John Dominic Crossan once said, “religion and imperial violence had become serenely complicit.” (3)
And they welcome Jesus because there is a sense that with him comes salvation. Save us, Jesus. Save us now.
They say that’s what they want. And we say the same today, amidst war and rumors of war, evidence of oppression around us, and sometimes a growing gulf between the somebodies and nobodies. It’s almost as if we need to be saved, not only from hell, but from an earth that can be hellish. Save us now.
But are we prepared for what this salvation will call forth in us? Were they in Jerusalem that day?
As the week unfolds, we will come to learn that Jesus’ efforts to save us are not instantaneous. They don’t free us from burden, but impose on us and call us to change. They ask us to set down more than our cloaks and our palms, but all that we wrap around ourselves in protection and all that we use as a shelter, a refuge, a barrier. They call us to give up our own way – our very lives – to take up the way of Jesus.
So while Pilate enters through the gates at the other end of the city on a conquering war horse amid great circumstance, Jesus enters in a humble processional on a donkey with a performance of a different kind of power, that wouldn’t save the world in an instant, but instead through the way of vulnerability and love.
And from the road with Palms, Jesus moves to the Temple – where the robbers return with their spoils to hideout – and he begins turning over the tables, reorienting the systems that had held to that moment, and drawing the attention of the powers that be.
And later, gathering with his disciples he models power through service, and finding your life by giving it away, kneeling and washing their feet and sharing his last word and charge: love one another in this way I have modeled for you.
From the supper to the garden, crying out in anguish and even self-doubt. From the garden to the conflict, the guards, the trial, the mockery. Then another parade that leads to his death, the stone, the silence.
All of this, too, is part salvation.
With their pastels and palms, they say they want to be saved, but all throughout the week, they begin to peel off and say otherwise: Judas and his plans, the disciples and their sleeping, Peter and his denial and self-preservation, Thomas and his doubts about what happens next, and that crowd with their shouts of Hosanna are replaced by voices ringing out “Crucify.” They wanted to be saved. Until they learned what it asked of them.
As they watch him on the cross, some of them cry out, “Save yourself!”
But that’s not why he came. That’s not why he came to this earth. It’s not why he came to Jerusalem. It’s not why he processes into the center of lives now. He came not for self-preservation, but for the commitment and call to another way – a way much more than a quick spiritual formula, but a way of love that really can save the world. It was announced at the start of his life, and is now brought to the city and to each of us. Will we receive it? Will we give our lives to it?
What about if the welcome parade of children and palms turns out to be a counter-movement to the way things are?
If the one we follow starts turning over tables, rearranging our settled patterns, and calling us toward something more?
If he looks us in the eyes and calls us to love as I have loved you? If he leaves the garden at the hands of a dangerous mob? If it puts us in a place of vulnerability outside his trial? If it calls us to come close to suffering and death?
“Hosanna” we shout, palms in clutch. But in this week to come, Jesus will ask us a question in one way or another. You know it. You’ve heard it before. Maybe you can hear it right now: Do you want to be saved?
- A favorite story of John Buchanan, told in several sermons and articles.
- From This American Life episode 432, “Know When to Fold ‘Em.”
- God and Empire, p. 131.