Hosanna and Heartache – A Sermon for Palm Sunday


Reading: Matthew 21:1-11

It was Palm Sunday, but because of a sore throat, 5-year-old Sammy stayed home from church with a babysitter.  When the family returned home, they were carrying several palm fronds.  Sammy inquired as to what they were for. ‘People held them over Jesus’ head as he walked by,’ his father responded.’Wouldn’t you just know it?’ Sammy complained, ‘the one Sunday I don’t go, and he shows up.’

Jesus’ whole life leads up to this week. It would be a week like no other in our world’s history. The Jesus movement has been gaining steam. Miracles, profound teaching, and transformed lives have marked the journey so far. But these stories are only preamble to what is about to happen. The bulk of the gospel narratives deal with the events of the coming days.

For a moment, on this Palm Sunday, Jesus is welcomed, accepted, even celebrated. We join with the crowds, eagerly anticipating Jesus to change the status quo. We long for easy victories, for positive change to our circumstances, for everything to be made right. But, if we are honest, we only desire change if it is on our terms. We want it our way. And we have little patience or understanding for anyone or anything that gets in our way, or for that which we do not understand.

What does Holy Week mean for you? What do you long for this week?

This year, after three years of pandemic, we might more easily relate to the crowds in the Passion story: they were a people oppressed, who longed for restoration, to be made whole again, but whose needs may have prevented them from seeing God’s presence in their midst.

We might relate to the disciples – we’ve seen and learned so much from Jesus, we’ve grown to love him, but cannot accept that his mission would result in him suffering and dying. The trauma of this week would overwhelm them, and at times, bring out the worst in them. We might relate to Jesus, feeling as if the weight of the world is on our shoulders, walking the path of suffering, a victim of unjust criticism, unsure of how much more we can endure.

Or we might want to sit with the tensions this week as they tend to reflect our own experiences of grief. I was struck by the reflections of preacher Karoline Lewis this week who writes about how today, Palm/ Passion Sunday is a day that holds hosanna and heartache closely together in a way that is not always comfortable, or even achievable. I’d like to share the bulk of her reflections with you. She writes,

“Hosanna and heartache exist alongside each other, often fused together in such a way that our first response is to find a way out. And I wonder if we exist most days trying to keep hosanna and heartache as far away from each other as possible. Attempting to compartmentalize our joys and sorrows, or least keeping them appropriately separated.

Today is going to be a happy day. The next, a sad one. We plan our emotions like we schedule our meetings for the week, even mapping out an agenda for a constructive and successful discussion or reflection, with action steps to follow. We might know how unattainable this is, even ridiculous, but try to do it anyway. After all, it’s how the world tends to operate—in binaries that deny complexities; in dualisms that pretend overlappings do not exist. Or, it’s how we think we should be—the either/or expectations we try to meet instead of living inside our both/and realities.

Megan Devine writes about this two-option tendency when it comes to grief:

We’ve got this idea that there are only two options in grief: you’re either going to be stuck in your pain, doomed to spend the rest of your life rocking in a corner in your basement wearing sack cloth, or you’re going to triumph over grief, be transformed and come back even better than you were before. Two options. On-off. Broken or healed. There’s this whole middle ground between those two extremes (as there is for everything else in life), but we don’t know how to talk about it. We don’t know how to talk about grief if we step outside that pervasive cultural model of entirely healed or irrevocably broken. We don’t know how to talk about living inside grief. Living alongside grief … What would that middle ground look like for you?1

When this writing gets posted, it will be six months since my father’s passing… I realized that I wish desperately for either/or days. They are easier—to devote a day to finding the fun in life and doing things that give me joy and then the next day, lie on the couch under my weighted blanket watching TV shows I have already seen about twenty-seven times (I’ve read that re-watching shows, thankfully, is normal in grief).

To deal with both happiness and sorrow at the same time? Well, seems impossible, and even like betrayal. Like my moments of contentment are somehow being disloyal to the devastation that was my dad’s death. Like my stretches of sorrow are somehow pathetic and it’s time to get over it. The middle ground on which most of life stands is often shaky with its confusion and conflictions, its uncertainties and indeterminacies.

I much prefer, and likely often unconsciously choose, one or the other—either hosanna or heartache. Maybe it’s because my heart can’t accept the truth that the grief, albeit lessening, will never go away. Maybe it’s because my soul’s rejoicing seems so far away.

Devine’s words helped me see both the challenge of Palm/Passion Sunday and its preaching promise. In the space of an hour, we get to hold together that middle ground, where hosanna and heartache come together. A sixty-minute chance, roughly, to talk about and listen for how the middle ground of life gets encapsulated in our Christian faith. A Sunday morning experience where triumph and anguish, blessedness and cursedness are intertwined, as they should be, as they have to be…

The Palm Sunday road leads to arrest, trial, crucifixion, a stone-cold tomb and the glory of the resurrection. However, hosanna and heartache are not either/or itineraries or linear destinations. The tomb will indeed be empty, but its darkness and despair hang on—because the Christian middle ground is the promise of new life, yet with the cross remaining.”

This week, may we discover that the path to lasting, cosmic victory is marked by signposts of human weakness and pain. May we see that Jesus’ sacrificial love exposes religious bigotry, hypocrisy, heart-breaking betrayal, violent scapegoating, shame, grief. But this love is also what we most deeply desire. What we long for above all us. What satisfies like nothing and no one else. For it is God’s love that wrenches good out of evil, and life out of death, and may allow us to hold both hosanna and heartache, for that is the human experience.