“Save Us?”

Audio File

In today’s Gospel story, the people cry out to Jesus: “Hosanna!” which means “Save us!”

And I wonder…What did that crowd imagine Jesus saving them from? Did Jesus think he was their savior, and if so, what did that mean to him? What is salvation for us?  Why do we need it?  Or not need it?

Well, here’s one version of salvation that is lodged in our popular imagination  …

Superman’s job is to save people, and he does it with the calm confidence of a superhero. “Easy there, I’ve got you,” he says to Lois Lane as he catches her mid-fall.  A great cheer goes up from the crowd when, still holding Lois with one arm, he stops the hurtling helicopter with the other arm and firmly returns it to its landing pad.

Salvation, in the superman narrative, is rescue.  It happens because someone with powers beyond that of an ordinary human steps into our affairs and makes things right.

Is Jesus like superman, swooping down from heaven to earth to save us?  If you type ”salvation” into Wickipedia you will find that’s what the world as a whole believes about our Christian theology.  The “salvation plan” goes something like this: Jesus suffers on the cross in our place, to take away our sins.  He bears the punishment that was meant for us and makes us right with God again. His sacrifice makes possible our entrance to heaven after death.

But why would God require the cross as a punishment for sin?  What kind of a God — as Aaron asked last week—would use such depraved violence as a tool for our redemption?Doesn’t it make more sense to view the cross as a necessary consequence of Jesus’ boundary-breaking way of life and his prophetic ministry that called for radical change to the status quo?

The cross is not God’s plan or a sign of God’s wrath.  It is a tragedy that shows us the terrible wounds inflicted by our sin and alienation from God.  Jesus freely chooses the cross in order to break the power of this sin once and for all, and release its hold on us and our world.  Jesus doesn’t want us to believe in him in order to get into heaven.  He wants us to follow him so that we might live on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus is nothing like Superman, at least if you take seriously our Palm Sunday story. Believe it or not, it’s all about the donkey.  The donkey is the key to seeing what kind of Savior Jesus is.  Oddly, seven of the eleven verses in Mark’s Palm Sunday narrative are about the donkey. In those verses, Jesus tells the disciples where to find the donkey, how to retrieve it, and what they should say to its owners. For Mark, that’s an astonishing amount of detail. This is the Gospel writer who is so sparing with words that he omits any birth narrative for Jesus. So clearly, the donkey is important.  Very important. Perhaps Mark had in mind the words of the prophet Zechariah:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 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….”  (Zech 9:9)

A poem by GK Chesterton muses over the perspective of the Palm Sunday donkey:

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked/ And figs grew upon thorn,/Some moment when the moon was blood/ Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry/ And ears like errant wings,/The devil’s walking parody/On all four-footed things./The tattered outlaw of the earth,/Of ancient crooked will;

Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,/ I keep my secret still./ Fools! For I also had my hour;/ One far fierce hour and sweet;/There was a shout about my ears,/And palms before my feet.

This poem captures the absurdity of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.  The symbolism is all wrong. Kings saddle swift war horses.They gallop high above the concerns of their subjects. They are encased in protective armor and flanked by sword-bearing soldiers. But instead the crowd hails like royalty one who rode a donkey: an awkward, stubborn, even despised beast of burden. And Jesus had to borrow that donkey. He was a poor and simple person,  just like the peasants who greeted him. He had no armor, no super-human powers, no cape or flashy tights. He rode a donkey because it allowed him to get down close to the dust, the mess and the pain of ordinary life. Astride his humble donkey, he traveled toward the cross eye to eye with the people he had come to save.

Maybe when Jesus saves us, it looks and feels a bit like the children’s story Something Beautiful  by Dennis Wyeth. Aaron has the book and you can join him at the art table if you would like to see the pictures.

The story is narrated by a young girl who lives in a tough neighborhood.

“When I look through my window, I see a brick wall. There is trash in the courtyard and a broken bottle that looks like fallen stars. There is writing in the walls of my building. On the front door, someone put the word “Die” Where I walk I pass a lady whose home is a big cardboard carton. She sleeps on the sidewalk, wrapped in plastic. I run past a dark alley, where Mommy told me I must never stop. Behind a fence, there is a garden without any flowers.

Mommy said that everyone should have something beautiful in their life. Where is my something beautiful? The teacher taught me the word in school. I wrote it in my book.   B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L.  Beautiful! I think it means: something that when you have it, your heart is happy.”

In the next several pages, the little girl takes a tour of her neighborhood and discovers many ordinary, beautiful things:a fish sandwich at Miss Delphine’s Diner; her friends’ jump rope, beads, and new shoes; Mr. Lee’s fruit stand; Marc’s basketball moves, and the sounds of Georgina dancing;a  smooth stone that old Mr. Sims has carried in his pocket all these years; baby Carl’s laugh.

“I go back home” she concludes, “and sit down on my stoop. I look at the trash in my courtyard.  I see the word Die on my door. I go upstairs and get a broom and a sponge and some water. I pick up the trash.  I sweep up the glass. I scrub the door very hard.  When Die disappears, I feel powerful. Someday I’ll plant flowers in my courtyard.  I’ll invite all my friends to see. I will give a real home and a real bed to the lady who sleeps in a cardboard carton.  She will sing and I will hear her song.

Mommy comes home from work.  She gives me a great big hug. “Do you have something beautiful?” I ask her. “Of course,” she says.  “I have you.”

One by one, the little girl’s friends, neighbors and family bear witness to something beautiful, something sacred, in everyday lives that are also full of pain. In the process of these encounters, the girl moves from isolation into community. She discovers her own power and the power of her companions for change, resistance, and creativity. The salvation Jesus brings is like this. It is not a rescue. It is the gift of divine solidarity as we live toward a new day together. It is the humble, yet healing assurance that we are not alone. It is not something that is done to us or for us. It is a capacity for wholeness that God tends within us. Salvation happens when we respond to hateful, death-dealing words and actions not with retribution, but with a broom and a rag and a bucket and a yearning for a different way to be and belong. Salvation happens when we can imagine the flowers that may someday spring up and the rising voice of a woman who is not yet able to sing.

We’ll take some quiet minutes at the cross now. Please, do get up, if you are able to, and come. Come and read the words of response and the prayers for healing. Come and add some scraps of paper. Let us journey, in solidarity, with Jesus, with one another, with our world, through this holy week, this week of the cross, and the grave, and the empty tomb.  May it be for us a path of salvation.  Amen.