It’s fixin’ to be a week – a sermon

Sermon begins at 28:30

 


On Thursday, Mother Becca, Deacon Kellie, and I joined many of our sisters and brothers in ordained ministry at All Saint’s for the annual service commonly called the Chrism Mass, in which we renew our ordination vows and receive the specially blessed oil used at baptisms.  Kellie has a real job, so she had to drive herself back and forth from Leitchfield, but Becca and I rode together and enjoyed a couple of hours to touch base on life and our collective ministry here at Christ Episcopal Church.  One of the topics of our conversation was how the lives of associates and rectors are similar and different.  There are certain freedoms that are unique to each position, and there are certain limitations that come with each title as well.  That conversation got me thinking about how my life has changed in the two-plus years that I’ve been your rector.

One thing that quickly came to mind is how often I’ve uttered the phrase, “It’s been a week,” since leaving Alabama.  Sometimes, on only mildly crazy weeks, I’ll say it on Thursday.  Sometimes, like the week before Holy Week, it is quite possible to hear me say, “It’s been a week” at our Monday afternoon staff meeting. It’s a feeling I think we can all understand.  Whether you are a first-grade student, a tenth-grade teacher, lawyer, nurse, mechanic, priest, or full-time volunteer, some weeks just feel full – as if you’ll never stop running from one thing to the next.  Sometimes, the only way to describe what you’ve experienced is “It’s been a week.”

It’s been a week since we began the liturgy for The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday fifteen minutes ago.  As we started this service, we recreated liturgically the experience of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Sunday afternoon.  Over on the west side of the city, Pilate entered riding a war horse, surrounded by chariots and heavily armed soldiers, hearing shouts of “Hail Caesar, the son of god, the king of kings, and the source of peace”  Meanwhile, Jesus entered through the eastern gate, riding a donkey as a rag-tag group of disciples pulled palm branches out of the trees, laid their cloaks on the ground, and cried out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  In that story, we heard clues that this is going to be a week; especially when Luke mentions that some Pharisees had come to see what all the commotion was about.  When the Pharisees realized that Jesus’ disciples were putting him on par with Caesar, and calling him the Son of God, they got really, really nervous.  “Tell them to hush,” they begged of Jesus.  “If these were silent, even the stones would cry out,” Jesus replied.  As they say in Lower Alabama, “It’s fixin’ to be a week.”

During the course of the next five days, Jesus went to the Temple and turned over the tables of the money changers.  He called out the injustice of the Temple system that was built on the backs of the faithful poor.  He answered repeated attempts to challenge his authority.  He taught lessons and told parables that directly contradicted with what the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes were trying to accomplish.  He lifted up the lowly widow and her two copper coins, while calling into question the large gifts given by those for whom it was less than a drop in the bucket.  As each day unfolded, the tension between Jesus and the powers-that-be grew, until finally, they conspired with Judas, one of the twelve, to betray him.  With all kinds of false accusations, they attempted to convince Pilate that Jesus needed to be killed, and when the crowd just wouldn’t relent, they finally succeeded in having Jesus put to death on a cross as a disgraced revolutionary.

It’s been a week.  Or, rather, we know it is about to be a week.  A full week.  A difficult week.  A Holy Week.  Every day this week, you will have the opportunity to walk the way of the cross with Jesus and one another.  It begins at noon, Monday through Thursday, where we will hear from different preachers in different contexts of how the pressure-filled relationship between Jesus and the powers-that-be bubbled and boiled, until it finally came to a head.  On Thursday evening, we will hear Jesus once again offer us the new mandate of the Kingdom of God, that we love one another.  Through the washing of feet, an act of profoundly humble service, we will re-enact the symbol of the self-sacrificial love that Jesus offered to his disciples, while we also remember the institution of the Lord’s Supper as the central act of our devotion.  Overnight, members of the congregation will keep watch, like Peter at the charcoal fire, as we wait for Friday, when we will remember the deepest act of love anyone can offer – the laying down of one’s life for a friend.

As the lessons for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday show us, it’ll be a week – a long and challenging week, and yet, it is a week that we ought not skip through just to get to the joy of Easter.  There is no Easter without Good Friday.  There is no Resurrection without the challenges of Holy Week.  And so, we pray that in walking the way of the sorrow, we might find it to be the way of life; that through walking with Jesus toward the cross, we might also share in the resurrection life.  It’ll be a week, dear friends, but I can’t wait to walk it with you.  Amen.

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Choosing to Walk the Way of the Cross

Our website is mad at us, so today’s sermon can’t be heard on the Christ Church website, but you can read it here.


There is a bumper sticker on my car that pokes fun at those 26.2 marathon stickers.  It reads “0.0, I don’t run.”  That sticker used to be true.  It is still true that I don’t like running, but because of some behind-the-scenes-finagling by my wife, I now run for thirty minutes a few days a week with my friend Tony Smith.  Running is a choice that I have to make.  Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, when my alarm goes off at 5am, I have to choose to get out of bed.  Having an accountability partner helps me make that choice.  I don’t want to let Tony down.  I don’t want him to have to run in the cold all by himself.  So, I choose to get out of bed, get bundled up, and go.  On any given day, it would be so much easier just to stay in bed, but in the long term, choosing to run is the better choice.

Running is good for my physical health, and so, by choosing to engage in the practice of jogging, I am making strides toward a better me.  The same is true for the life of faith as well.  We have to choose to engage in the practices of Christian formation.  We choose to get up on Sunday and come to church.  We choose to open a two-thousand-year-old book and try to understand it.  We choose to take time to pray.  We choose to take part in works of service for the betterment of our neighbor.  The motivation, more often than not, doesn’t come from within, but depends on accountability partners with whom we commit to take part in these practices that will help us grow in our relationship with God.  At any given moment, it might seem easier to skip saying grace or to sleep in on Sunday morning or to not bother with the Bible, but in the long run, choosing an active faith is the better choice.

As we heard in both the Gospel at the Liturgy of the Palms and in the Passion Gospel, during the final week of Jesus’ life, he had several opportunities to choose a different, seemingly easier path.  As the week began, the crowd was whipped up into a frenzy.  With shouts of “hosanna,” they threw down palm branches as a symbol of their honor and respect for Jesus and they proclaimed their hope that he might be the long-awaited King who would come to overthrow their Roman oppressors and restore the throne of David.  In that moment, Jesus had a choice to make.  It would have been easy to pull together a rag-tag army that, alongside his ability to perform miracles and raise the dead, could have easily marched into the heart of the city and thrown Pilate and his soldiers out on their tails.  With one, short sermon, he could have stirred the crowd into an emotional whirlwind and sent an angry mob to ransack the court of the Pharisees, stripping them of their religious power and authority.  At that moment, it might have seemed like using the might of his arm was the easier option, but in the long run, Jesus chose the better course.  It wasn’t that Jesus wasn’t tempted.  Mark tells us that he entered the Temple and took a good long look at all his options, but thankfully, he chose to return to Bethany and retire for the evening.

Our second Gospel lesson for today opens a few days of intense debate with the religious powers-that-be later.  As the final days of Holy Week unfold before our eyes, we see Jesus making almost constant choices to walk toward the cross, toward his death, toward our redemption.  Still basking in the royal parade from a few days earlier, Jesus had a choice to make in the house of Simon the leper.  Kings were anointed at their coronation.  As the crowd grumbled about the woman’s wasteful gift, Jesus could have affirmed his kingship and unleashed the revolution, but instead, he chose to see it as a precursor of his death that would usher in the good news of God’s salvation.

Again and again, Jesus made the choice to walk toward the cross.  On the night before he died, Jesus and his disciples made their way to a garden called Gethsemane.  There, he prayed that he might be able to choose a different path.  “Abba, Father, take this cup from me; yet, not what is my will, but yours.”  As Judas and a crowd of thugs approached and the crowds begin to scatter, Jesus didn’t shy away from what was coming.  Despite his prayer moments earlier, he chose to walk toward the mob and offer himself for arrest.   When the Council couldn’t find two stories that match, Jesus could have chosen to continue to remain silent, but in the end, it was his own confession of “I am,” that sealed his fate.  As Pilate peppered him with questions, Jesus could have chosen any number of ways to get out of the situation he was in, but he chose to remain silent, much to Pilate’s amazement.  Even on the cross, Jesus had a choice.  As the crowds mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.  Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe,” Jesus could have come down from the cross and walked away unscathed, but instead he chose to stay there, to suffer, and to die.  There were dozens of opportunities for him to choose an easier path, but again and again, Jesus chose to walk the way of the cross.

As Holy Week begins for us, we too have to choose.  We can leave this place, having heard the Passion Gospel, comfortable that we’ve experienced all we need to in preparation for Easter.  We could, very easily, sit comfortably amidst another busy week and not engage in the work of spiritual disciple and formation.  But that is not what we prayed for today.  Instead, our prayer for this Palm Sunday is that God might grant us grace to walk the way of the cross with Jesus.  Ultimately, it is a choice that each of us will have to make.  Each day, about noon, we will have to decide if we want to give up our lunch hour to hear the story of Jesus’ walk toward the cross.  On Thursday, each of us will have to decide if we want to engage in the uncomfortable practice of foot washing, our annual reminder that Jesus’ commandment to love one another requires us to get up and do something.  Several of you will make the choice to lose a few hours of sleep, keeping watch in the chapel and giving thanks for the choice that Jesus made on our behalf.  This is a week all about making choices for an active, engaged faith.  It may seem like the easier option is to just stay home, but in the long run, as we choose to walk the way of the cross together, we will be blessed to find it none other than the way of life and of peace.  Amen.

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ

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Seriously, don’t see this movie

Have you ever wondered why we call the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, torture, crucifixion, and death his “passion”?  You haven’t?  Oh, well then, you can probably skip today’s post.  I know I have, and since it has been a while since we’ve had a patented Steve-Pankey-Speaks-From-Ignorance-Etymological-Study, let’s dive in.

Passion comes from the Latin word pati which means “to suffer.”  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the transition to mean “strong emotion or desire” didn’t occur until the late 14th century, but it seems to be the definition of preference some 700 years later.  While it seems clear that originally, the title of Passion was used because of the suffering Jesus endured during those 18 or so hours, I’m intrigued by the double meaning the newer understanding of passion gives us.

The way Mark tells the story, it doesn’t seem as though Jesus has a whole lot of agency in the crucifixion.  Other gospel writers spin the story differently, but in Mark, we hear Jesus praying to Abba that the cup from which he is to drink might be removed from his lips.  There is no sparring with Pilate over who is in control of the situation, like we hear in John.  And at the end, as Jesus cries out, it isn’t a word of completion, “It is finished,” but a cry of dereliction, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” that emanates forth.  It would seem for Mark that the passion of our Lord is only about the suffering.

And yet, there are glimpses of Jesus’ deepest desires.  As the unnamed woman anoints him for his death, Jesus praises her for “doing what she can” before his death.  As Judas approaches with a cohort of Roman soldiers, it is Jesus who walks towards them, offering himself freely.  When the Council can’t find two stories that match, it is Jesus’ own confession of I am, “ego emi,” that seals his fate.  Through it all, it seems clear that Jesus could have stopped it from happening, but he chose to see it to the end, so that the world, through him, might be saved.

“The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve,” is the key verse to understanding Mark’s Gospel.  It is also key to understanding Mark’s version of the Passion.  In everything that happened that week, Jesus is serving the larger goal of inaugurating the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.  That was his passion, his strongest desire, and that passion led him to the Passion, his suffering for the salvation of the world.

Save us, we pray!

The those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

In the Episcopal Church, we use lots of unfamiliar words.  With some education, this is done well when we strike the balance between embracing the mystery of holiness, while helping newcomers find their way through the narthex and into the nave for Holy Eucharist.  During Lent, we forego the use of word alleluia, but our liturgy, especially on The Sunday of the Passion *colon* Palm Sunday is rife with the word with which it is often confused:

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I am often asked why we can’t say alleluia during Lent, but hosanna is ok.  Its context within the Liturgy of the Palms is a helpful teaching tool.  As Jesus rides into Jerusalem, it would be easy to see this scene as nothing but a joyful victory parade, but upon further review, we realize that this is actually the humble entrance of one who has come to offer himself as a sacrifice for the whole world.

Jesus didn’t come into Jerusalem riding on a white stallion or in the back of a jewel encrusted chariot.  Rather, he arrived in town atop an unbroken colt.  This animal was not a symbol of power and control, but a humble beast of burden, only borrowed by our Lord as a means of transportation.  The imagery must have been clear to the crowd, for even as they laid down palm branches along the path as a symbol of honor and respect, they cried out not “Alleluia” or “Praise to God.”  The cry of the crowd, as they watched their long-awaited hope ride into town was instead, “Hosanna” or “Save us, we pray.  Sure, maybe they thought salvation would look like a military victory over their Roman occupiers.  Perhaps they hoped that this Passover Feast would be a second opportunity for release from bondage and oppression.  But they didn’t assume that, and give praise to God.  Instead, they simply asked for God’s help and salvation.

We who will remember the events of that day would do well to know the word we will sing in the refrain of “All glory, laud, and honor.”  From this side of Easter, it would be easy to let our sweet hosannas be a cry of victory, but it doesn’t take too long to see that the world is still very much in need of God’s saving love.  Save us, we pray.  Save us from our idolatry.  Save us from our greed.  Save us from our scarcity mindset.  Save us from our selfishness, our oppression of others, and our bondage to sin.  Save us, we pray.  Hosanna!

I love/hate Palm Sunday

Technical difficulties means this sermon did not get recorded, but you can read it below.


I have a love/hate relationship with The Sunday of the Passion – colon – Palm Sunday.  The love part of that relationship is relatively new.  There were years, many in fact, when I absolutely abhorred Palm Sunday: so much so, that I convinced my Rector in Foley that we should change things up.  For a few years, we didn’t read the Passion narrative at all on Palm Sunday.  For several more, we read it only after the service was over and we had processed back outside where everything started.  As it is written in the Prayer Book, the service felt too disjointed, bipolar almost, and I couldn’t bring myself to like it.  On top of that, it seemed like it gave people an out.  As if the church was willing to say, “We know that you won’t be here for the rest of Holy Week so here’s the Passion narrative so that at least you can hear it before you show back up on Easter.”  As I went digging for historical data to support my personal liturgical opinions, I came to realize that this was not actually what was happening on The Sunday of the Passion – colon – Palm Sunday.  What I found is that the reading of the Passion on the Sunday before Easter has been a part of our Common Prayer since the first Prayer Book in 1549.  I was forced, at last, to come to terms with the discomfort that comes with the whiplash of hearing shouts of “hosanna” one minute and “crucify him” the next.  This day, like the week it begins, is all about the extremes.

That first Palm Sunday, scholars will tell us[1], had its own whiplash effect.  On one side of Jerusalem, there was the parade that Matthew recounts in his Gospel.  Jesus came from the East, down the Mount of Olives, riding on the back of a lowly donkey.  The crowd that lined the streets was made up of the poor and the powerless.  They threw down at Jesus’ feet whatever they could find: some laid their cloaks on the ground, while others cut branches from nearby trees.  The palm fronds would have reminded the crowd of the Festival of the Tabernacles, which like the Passover, was a reminder of God saving them from Egypt and sustaining them in the Wilderness on their way to the Land of Promise.  They shouted out “hosanna” which means something like, “God save us!”  They associated Jesus with salvation, and they welcomed him as their king.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Pilate was entering the city riding on the back of a powerful warhorse.  Surrounded by chariots and armies of men, the crowds on the western edge of town praised Caesar as a king and a god, and celebrated the Pax Romana, the peace that came as the result of the mighty power of Rome.  These competing parades and the whiplash they created among the faithful in Jerusalem would mark the beginning of the end for Jesus.  Pilate left his beachside villa this week every year.  He came to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover to make sure nobody got any ideas about recreating the Exodus.  No Messiah figure was going to raise up an army.  No revolution was coming on Pilate’s watch.  And yet, there was already an uprising brewing.  It wouldn’t look like an army and power and might, but one does not parade into Jerusalem during Passover week without raising the ire of the powers-that-be.  So it was that throughout the week, Jesus found himself more and more at odds with the religio-political system such that, by Thursday evening, in the Garden of Gethsemane, it all came to a head.

What I’ve learned over the past few years is this.  Just as you can’t have the resurrection on Easter without the cross on Good Friday, you can’t fully experience the Passion narrative without the rest of Holy Week. We need the story of the Palm Sunday parade.  We need to hear the turning of the tables.  We need to feel the heat being turned up as day after day, Jesus returned to the Temple and challenged, head on, the brokenness of the system.  If Jesus just stumbles his way to the cross, we miss part of what the Passion is all about.  God had sent his Son to call the world back into right relationship, beginning with the Jews.  Through his Son, God invited the humanity he created to give up their idols of power, money, and prestige, and worship God alone.  Through his Son, God invites us to care for our neighbor.  Through his Son, God showed his judgment upon a world that had forgotten his commandments.  The poor were getting poorer as the rich got richer upon their backs, and like the prophets before him, Jesus came to show in his life that God desired something different.

And the like the prophets before him, Jesus died as a result.  The powers-that-be don’t take too kindly to the sort of in-your-face challenges that Jesus brought them during this most holy week.  The parade, the tirade, the teaching, and the growing crowd meant that Jesus had to go, and death on the cross was the best way to make sure something like this never happened again.  Throughout the course of this week, I hope you will take the time to hear the stories, to feel the tension, and to give thanks for the faithfulness of Jesus who, despite knowing what was to come, was willing to continue to take a stand for the will of God: to side with the powerless and the poor; to challenge the authority of Rome; to confront the teaching of the Temple; and to ultimately say, “Father, your will be done.”  This is a week of extremes: of highs and lows; of joys and sorrows, but it only works if we are willing to accept it all.  Walk in the way of his suffering and live in the tension his judgment, so that you can properly prepare to share the joy of his resurrection.  Amen.

[1] See, for example, Borg and Crossan, The Last Week p. 2ff.

We are They – a sermon

My Palm Sunday sermon is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


They are powerful and influential people.  They maintain that power and influence even though nobody really knows who they are.  They say it is going to rain, and so we throw an umbrella in the car.  They say that eggs are bad for us, so we quit eating them.  Two years later, they say that eggs are good for us, and so we start buying them again.  More recently, they’ve had the most exciting news yet, they now say that a glass of red wine is as good for our hearts as an hour at the gym.  They aren’t always right, and yet, whoever they might be, when they speak, people listen.

Jesus knew this reality all too well, for they had accused him of all sorts of things.  They said he was a blasphemer, placing himself on par with the Lord God.  They claimed that he was leading an insurrection against Rome.  They told Pilate that he alleged to be the King of the Jews.  When Pilate couldn’t find any reason to execute him, they fought back.  They cried out for Jesus to be crucified while Barabbas, a murder, was set free.  They dragged him through the streets of Jerusalem.  They cheered as he was nailed to a cross.  They derided him as he hung there and died.  Yet in the midst of all of that, even as he was suffering through extreme pain and suffocating agony, Jesus still had compassion on them.  “Father forgive them,” Jesus said surveying the angry mob that was gathered around him, “For they know not what they do.”

They are powerful and influential people, and as the story of Jesus’ crucifixion played out, they wielded every bit of power and influence they could, but Jesus had mercy upon them.  As this Holy Week unfolds before us, it would be easy to condemn them for what they did.  The Gospel stories were written in a time when the struggle between the Jewish community and the fledgling church were bitter and raw, and because of that they are full of anti-Semitic rhetoric meant to make sure that we know what they did. The hard truth is that from time to time, all of us are a part of them.  We are they, even though we really don’t want to be.

They dehumanized Jesus by turning him into a laughing stock.  They blindfolded him, beat him, and laughed as they asked, “Prophesy! Who struck you?”  They cloaked him in a purple robe and crowned him with a crown of thorns, mocking him and shouting “Hail, King of the Jews!”  They stripped him naked and hanged him high on a cross for all the world to see.  The ridiculed him, asking where his Father was to save him; scoffing at how he had saved many others, but he couldn’t manage to save himself.

As much as we’d like to believe we wouldn’t have taken part in that sort of dehumanizing behavior, we continue to do so in ways that are both intentional and unintentional.  Every time we look with disdain upon the mother using a WIC check to buy milk for her children, we are they.  Every time we clutch our purse a little tighter when a black man walks by, we are they.  Every time we feel that twinge of anxiety when an Arab looking couple gets on our airplane, we are they.  Every time we share a politically incendiary, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, or anti-Muslim thought on Facebook, by email, or even over drinks with friends, we are they.  Every time we fail to see Christ in the other, we are they.  Yet even as we engage in these dehumanizing activities, Jesus looks at the angry mob around him and has compassion on us saying, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

They are powerful and influential people, but the love of God is stronger still.  The compassion of Jesus from the cross is more powerful and more influential than any angry mob, any dehumanizing behavior, and group of they or we.  As we walk the Way of the Cross this week, I pray that you might take the time to meditate on two truths.  First, because we are they who mock, ridicule, and dehumanize the Son of God, we are in desperate need of a savior.  And second, through his compassionate word of forgiveness from the cross, Jesus is precisely that savior that we so desperately need.  By taking the time to contemplate these realities, the Way of the Cross can become for each of us the way of life and peace.  We are they: powerful and full of influence; but the compassion of God is stronger, the forgiveness of God is stronger, the love of God is stronger than the worst parts of us.  Amen.

A Season of Hosannah

With the 1979 Book of Common Prayer came a restoration of a few original language words.  A quick perusal of the 1928 Book, shows that, in comparison, the 1979 version is mildly obsessed with the word “alleluia” (which means “praise God”).  Take, for example, the Invitatory in Morning Prayer:

1928 Book of Common Prayer
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Praise ye the Lord.
The Lord’s Name be praised.

1979 Book of Common Prayer
Lord open our lips.
And our mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.  Amen.

Except in  Lent, add Alleluia.

When the word “alleluia” didn’t appear with regularity in our Common Prayer, there wasn’t much need to expressly eliminate it in the penitential season of Lent.  These days, however, it appears with regularity in the Daily Office and in the only Fraction Anthem prescribed in Rite II.  As such, congregations have begun to make more and more display of the elimination of the word “alleluia” during Lent.  In my on parish, our Shrove Tuesday event includes decorating alleluia confetti which get “buried” under the altar until the three-fold proclamation of Christ’s resurrection on Easter morning.  Alleluia, indeed.

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All of that to mention that Palm Sunday often begs the question, “Why can we say ‘hosanna’ in Lent?”  This question always warms my heart because it means that people are paying attention to the liturgy, and noticing how it is different week to week and season by season.  It is a good and fair question, since the prevailing understanding of “hosanna” has it being somewhat analogous to “alleluia,”a word of praise.  While it is used in a similar fashion to alleluia, hosanna’s root meaning gives it a different connotation: one that is perfectly suited for Lent, and one that makes it a word we might want to hold onto through November 8th.

Hosanna’s etymology is from two Hebrew words that mean “save us, we pray!”  This phrase is found in Psalm 118, a portion of which is assigned for the Liturgy of the Palms, and is associated with the Festival of the Booths, a harvest festival during which the stalks of 4 grains are waved and God’s praise is sung in thanksgiving for a bountiful crop.  The festival itself shows this deep double meaning of praise and need.  It is only by God’s provision of rain, sun, and seasonable weather that the harvest can be plenteous, and so praise is given when once again, God has heard our prayer of hosanna, “save us, we pray!”

As the season of Lent draws to a close, another contentious election season is in full swing.  I plan to keep “hosanna,” a word of hope, promise, and praise, on my lips and close to my heart in the coming months as a reminder of the joy that comes in accepting God’s promise to save the world through his Son.