It is Palm Sunday. It is Passion Sunday. A day of two stories. One is a story of glory and conquest, of military aspirations and political ambitions. It is the story we tell ourselves over and over, throughout our lives, throughout our history. A story about our own ability to overcome and to save ourselves. A story of self-justification. The other is the story of the cross. It is the story that God tells about us, and for us, and through us. It is the truest story, a story about human ambitions and aspirations of self-satisfaction.
We start the morning with shouts of “hosanna!” and waving of palms, and we reenact the procession, Jesus arriving at last in Jerusalem, surrounded by adoring crowds. For those in the story, this is the moment when Jesus becomes their king. They will follow him into the city and stand behind him as he stands up to the Empire. He is the hoped-for Messiah who will reestablish Israel as its own nation. Even as they march up the west side of the mountain and through the city gates from the Mount of Olives, a contingent of Roman soldiers marches up from the sea and through the eastern gates, under the command of Pilate, a show of Roman power and might. For the people in the crowd, it is time for God to show power and might as well, and this prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee is finally here to do it. This is their vision, their ideal, their hoped-for community; this is the story they tell themselves – a powerful Israel, a strong nation, standing in its rightful place among the nations of the world.
During this season of Lent, a small group of us have been reading daily devotions from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who died under the Nazi regime just as the Allied armies were arriving. Last week, we read excerpts from his book Life Together, a book written for the small community of resistors that formed the underground seminary of the Confessing Church. And one quote in particular caught my attention: “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community, even thought their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”
Those who love their dream of a community more than the community itself. This is not just about Christian community. This is about every community. This is every story we write for ourselves – our dream of what it should be like. Whatever it is. Our marriage, our weekend, our church, our nation, our Messiah. We write stories for ourselves about what they should be, a dream of what they truly are – ideals of perfection that cannot be achieved, visions of what a real family, church, nation looks like. This is what got the Israelites into trouble with kings in the first place, way back before God anointed Saul and then David to be King. The people went to God and said, “We want a king! all the other nations have kings, and we want to be like them! That’s what a real nation looks like!” And God said, “you have a king. I AM, God, your king.” And the people said, “yeah, yeah, yeah, we know all that, but we want a real king, because that’s what a real nation has.” And so God gave them a king, with all the troubles that go with it – wars and scandals and taxes and everything else.
Our nation has created all kinds of stories for ourselves, stories about a “Shining City on a Hill” and “Manifest Destiny” and the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Stories that we have used as self-justification, as excuses for slavery, for land-grabs, for oppression, even as we have convinced ourselves that our motives were ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial. It’s what nations do.
You can think, I’m sure, of the stories you have written for yourself. Stories about what a “real” church looks like, for instance – how big, how many programs, how many children, or Sunday school classes, or worship services. Or stories about a “real” family – Sunday dinners, and children with manners, and obedient, snuggly toddlers who sit still while you read them a story. Or a “real” marriage – where conflict is handled appropriately and no one goes to bed angry. But these are ideals and dreams and visions, like the story that the palm-waving crowds were telling themselves. Because the truth is that there is no “Shining City on a Hill,” and “Manifest Destiny” is another way of saying that we think we are more important than the Natives of this land; and every church is unique; and every toddler wiggles; and every couple goes to bed angry at some point.
But there is another story today. It is a story that shows what is true. It is the story of the cross. There is nothing ideal or dreamy about it. It is a stark and unpleasant reality. It is what happens when we love our dream, our vision, our ideal of community, more than we love the community itself. It is what happens when we want to justify ourselves, setting ourselves over against others, seeking scapegoats, someone to take the blame for all that is “wrong” with our reality, all the ways our reality does not measure up to our ideal. This is not a story that we would tell about ourselves, because it is uncomfortable and harsh, this story about how, when faced with a choice between the ideal and the reality, people chose to crucify the God who had come into the world to be among them and to love them and to walk with them, even in the midst of their imperfect, messy reality.
The other side of the story, though, is the story as God tells it. Because this is God’s story. It is the story of God coming into the world to be among God’s beloved children, to love us, to walk with us, to know us in all of our imperfect, messy reality. It is a story that God so desperately wanted to be a part of that God was willing to die, on a cross, to take human form, to humble God’s self, and to become obedient to love, to the point of death. And this story changes every other story. Because while our stories are the ones we tell in order to justify ourselves, this is the story that God tells, the story of God’s justification of us. Of God’s love and forgiveness of us. This is the story that turns the Hosannas of Palm Sunday from human purposes to God’s purpose – from shouts of human glory and conquest to a song that we sing each week as we gather at the Table and remember the night on which he was betrayed, remember his body broken and his blood poured out, so that we can sing hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, and remember, not our own dreams of ideal community, but God’s sacrificial love, that blesses and justifies the world, not as we wish it were, but the world as it is. So that we do not have to constantly rewrite new stories of our ideals, of our visions, or our dreams. Instead, we are drawn into God’s story and God’s vision for community, a community that includes everyone, not just the ones that fit our ideals; a community that is justified, not one that justifies itself; a community that is loved as it is, and drawn ever forward into God’s story, into God’s promised and preferred future.