Sermon Archives

Public Space, Sacred Space

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Apr 09

Texts: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Matthew 21:1-11

Many of us were at a Women’s March in January. In Boston, or Washington, or somewhere in the world. Since the November election, we’ve been showing up in public spaces—through letter-writing campaigns, local elections, rallies and protest marches. At Muslim teach-ins, sanctuary coalition meetings, and environmental justice rallies, we’ve been putting our faith into action. Speaking out for love of neighbor, welcoming the stranger, preserving and protecting the earth. It has felt important to show up, stand up, and give witness to what we believe.

Public spaces are messy. How many of us stood at a T station that day, watching full cars pass us by and waiting for a space? Just trying to get into the city. One of you told about taking your children to the Boston Women’s March, with your youngest in a stroller, and what it was like trying to navigate the crush of that crowd!

Protest spaces are messy. We wonder, “Who started this? Is this a movement or just a moment—a passing event?” We ask, “Who is the “we” in this public space? Is this a coalition or a random assembly? Whose interests are represented here? Who is missing? Whose voices count? Whose lives matter?”

We wonder, “What is the cost of speaking out publically, of taking a stand? Is it safe? What is at risk? And who is at risk? Do we have any protections? Should we consult an attorney? What or who will save us?”

This morning we made signs of protest and praise. We gathered on the lawn in front of the church, waving palms and shouting, hosanna, which means “save us” in Hebrew. This morning, we remember a public procession that took place millennia ago, as Jesus made his way into Jerusalem.

Palm Sunday was the moment the disciples went public with their faith. No more pastoral scenes or small towns in Galilee. This was the most public witness imaginable—an outdoor procession into the gates of Jerusalem. This was the big city, the Holy City, with Solomon’s Temple and its priests, King Herod, and the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate. It was a big moment. Jesus must have felt buoyed by the faith of the crowd, carrying him along with loud proclamations of God’s power and glory. Such energy!

But there must have been confusion, too, as people poured into the streets. Jesus’ closest friends and followers walked by his side, and believers, seekers, doubters, and skeptics joined the crowd, along with others who were merely trying to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. What is going on here? What is the purpose of this public procession? Who is this man? Where is he headed? And why?

We read the familiar story from Matthew’s gospel this morning, but the lectionary pairing of Matthew 21 with Psalm 118 evokes fresh insight. This is a joyful song of praise. The poet writes, “Let us give thanks to the Holy One, for God is good. God’s steadfast love endures forever.” (1)

Say it with me, First Church! “God’s steadfast love endures forever!”

“Scholars see in Psalm 118 hints of a liturgical processional ending in the temple.” (2) Can you see it, too? And do you hear the psalm’s resonances with Matthew’s gospel story? Hear again these words we read responsively a moment ago.

This is the gate of the Holy One; the righteous shall enter through it.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God!
Bind the festal procession with branches up to the horns of the altar!
Save us, we beseech you, O God! Hosanna!
You have answered me and have become my salvation.
You are my God, I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.

The psalmist praises God—not for any specific deeds—but because God’s very nature is good. Beauty and creativity, justice, righteousness, and loving-kindness: these are marvelous in our eyes.

Now let’s get back to the procession! The psalm moves from the gates of the city to the horns of the altar—the most sacred space of sanctuary. This is the place where an asylum-seeker might take refuge, grabbing ahold of the corners of the altar, which were fashioned in the shape of horns. The custom of taking refuge in this holiest interior space of the temple is a precursor to our current-day sanctuary movement. And the psalmist takes us through the city gates into this holy space.

Throughout Jewish tradition, gateways are images of transition and portals to the sacred. (3) A recent article in Haaretz explains, “Gates in biblical times weren’t just a doorway into the city. They were where prophets cried out and kings judged, and people met…A gate was not just a passageway through a defensive wall surrounding the city. It was typically a massive and complex structure, consisting of an outer gate and an inner one providing a second line of defense, with a space in between…[And] much life took place within that gate area…That space served as a combination of town hall, ad hoc law court, marketplace and park bench.” (4)

And so, Jesus makes his way through the gates of the city. He walks from the dusty paths of Galilee toward the temple, moving resolutely from public space into sacred space. Mingling his public ministry with his heavenly purpose.

Friends, we live in the city of God, where things are messy. It is a city of Pharisees and Sadducees, Democrats and Republicans, beggars, lepers, bankers and priests, immigrant laborers and learned scholars. A messy pubic space where truth claims vie for prominence; where the loudest voices and most sensational messages are re-tweeted.

Today we walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem. As we enter the liminal space of Holy Week, let us make public the holy purposes of God. Let us shout out and proclaim God’s goodness.

We have come, not to assert our limited personal perspectives, but to declare something far greater—the faithfulness of God.

Say it with me, First Church.
Hosanna!
God is good!
God’s steadfast love endures forever!

1) Feasting on the Word, p.149.
2) Feasting on the Word, p.147.
3) www.prca.org/resources/worship-devotional/meditations/meditations-ii/ite...
4) http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/archaeology/.premium-1.643766