READINGS Matthew 21:1-10
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethpage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with it; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, "The Lord needs them and will send them back immediately." This took place to fulfill the what had been spoken through the prophet, saying.
"Tell this to Zion,
Your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey."
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of Jesus and that followed were shouting,
Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?" The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Gaililee."
from Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living Peter Gomes
"You may be aware that this Sunday has two titles, those of Palm Sunday and the Sunday of the Passion. Today also has two moods. There is that festival frenzy of the palms, the marvelous chaos which we organize every year. We try to capture the mood of that triumphal entry with donkeys and asses and yelling Jews and screaming disciples of which the gospel speaks. The only one who seemed to have any peace or calm É about the whole thing is not Jesus but the donkey. The donkey is the only one who knows where he is going."
("Beyond Tragedy, p. 69)
We have arrived at Palm Sunday and therefore into the riches of the Easter and Passover season the time of year that reminds us of the intimate sibling relationship between the two world faiths Judaism and Christianity. We are brought back today to the ancient story of the revolutionary Jewish prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, and all the drama surrounding the end of his ministry and his life -- or what seemed like an ending but eventually emerged as the beginning of a major world faith. But that particular dramatic reversal is the message of Easter and we are not there yet. I will leave the joy of proclaiming the Easter message to the Reverend Jan Knost who will return to this pulpit next Sunday.
When I originally noted that Palm Sunday would also serve as the occasion of Election Sunday for your 29th minister, I was filled with a sense of preacherly excitement. A great opportunity, I thought a holy day resonant with lessons about speaking truth to power and the high cost of living with integrity, the story of an energized, inspired people crowding into the holy city,
cheering their chosen spiritual leader all the way along the road,
bursting through the city gates in triumph
and then . . .
degenerating into a mess of confusion and anguish
as their minister is arrested, tortured and then crucified!
My preacherly excitement quickly became preacherly anxiety. I called Sue Robinson and inquired as to whether there was any flexibility at all in the candidating schedule.
But this is how religious life works. It does not exist to serve us so much as we exist to serve it, in all its ambiguity. Religious life crooks its finger at us, beckons us to sit down and hear the stories even when they are ugly or troubling or violent, and bids us, each generation, to search for new meaning therein. Because I believe in the long-held Unitarian ideal of human moral progress, it is my hope that each generation will indeed find new wisdom and application in these old, old tales.
As I said to the children earlier, it is not so necessary to ask of the Bible stories "is it true?" but rather "how does the story affect me?" And this is my manner of engaging with the Bible, which I was not taught to do as a Unitarian child, being given the impression that both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures were too irrational and too old as to be of any use to us today, sophisticated and intellectually agile as we were. I think we are wiser than that now, realizing that our souls need myth, story and song just as surely as our minds crave knowledge and learning.
Palm Sunday gives us both. Historically, this is the story of a messianic leader marching on Jerusalem with his people in order to face the foreign occupying authorities and make a stand. Jesus, who had a tremendous sense of both personal and community drama, definitely had a sense of destiny about his fate at the hands of the Roman authorities. He knew what was coming. Therefore, Palm Sunday is both an exciting and a very sad moment. Jesus's followers were thrilled by his entry into the city. They had a very different sense of the impending victory than did their messiah. What they believed was that the hour of triumph was upon them in a way that would deliver them from their status as a terribly oppressed, occupied people. The kind of triumph Jesus had in mind, however, was diametrically opposed to that of his disciples. He was going to have a triumph of non-violent resistance. They were hoping for a triumph of military power and displays of godly might. What we understand now, of course, is that that was not on Jesus's agenda.
There is a poignancy here. A tragedy of differing expectations. "Hosanna!" they cried. They waved palms. And he rode by, loving them and maybe waving, maybe even smiling. But knowing the political climate and knowing how much trouble he was in, I imagine Jesus's smile had to be pretty strained. He was aware of their expectations that he emerge a conquering savior and he was aware of his own call to be true to his integrity as a non-violent witness to God's justice. But what did Jesus do immediately after arriving in Jerusalem? Curse a fig tree in very strong language. Go into the temple and slam around the moneychangers and throw tables around like a rock star trashing a hotel room. Those who depict Jesus as a tender shepherd clearly aren't paying too much attention to this part of the gospel! I have to think that even our confident Jesus was suffering the effects of stress and fear and being caught in the heartbreaking chasm between his follower's expectations and his own sense of "doing the right thing."
It's about as human a situation as you can get. A community gathered together, seeming on to be of one mind and purpose yet each holding his or her own private understanding of what is really going on. Each with his or her own needs and desires, some undoubtedly standing apart and cynical, some standing right up front holding hands and shining with promise and joy, and at least one painfully aware that there is yet more suffering around the corner.
Communities haven't changed at all in those two thousand years. Each one of us watches the parade of current events going by, and despite deep bonds with the community we harbor our own unique interpretation of the meaning of the event. We cannot help but do so, for we are ultimately created separate beings. And so it was on Palm Sunday: one enormous mob of separate beings gathered to participate in the unfolding of an unforgettable political and religious story.
But there is that one character who captures my attention lately, and as I marvel at the cacophony of humanity in the Palm Sunday story, I am drawn again and again to that little being at the center of it all: the donkey. Why does he engage me so? Perhaps because of his steadiness of purpose, his simplicity, and for the fact that, as Peter Gomes wrote, "the donkey is the only one who knows [for sure] where he is going."
The donkey appears in the Palm Sunday narrative courtesy of the Old Testament Zechariah, who wrote "Shout in triumph, daughters of Jerusalem! See your monarch is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey." (Zech 9:9)
Five hundred years later, as Jesus was making his pitch to be considered this special monarch in his people's hearts, he made every effort to fulfill what the old prophets and their messianic vision. What Jesus himself didn't do, his PR guys (also known as Mark, Matthew, Luke, John and earlier, Paul) took care of. So again, it is not so much for us to ask "is this story true?" as "how does it affect us?" or "where does it beckon us?" (It is worth noting that the donkey does not appear in the gospel of Mark or Luke just in Matthew's version of the story. Mark and Luke just have Jesus riding in on a colt).
But I appreciate Matthew's donkey detail for several reasons. First of all, the donkey is silent and sure where there is so much noise and rumpus. And that makes him a valuable symbol from the religious perspective, for wherever there is commotion, we often find that our souls will be nurtured by silence and simplicity. Second, the donkey is working and in that work, he seems to me to possess tremendous integrity. In contrast to the more regal colt, the donkey is humble. While we can so easily get caught up in the public hoopla of community spirit or religious life, that little donkey stands as a symbol of what lies at the center of it all: work and purpose and the promise of steady progress, getting from point A to point B on the journey.
So perhaps we could say today that while the crowds and Jesus in the Palm Sunday story represent the emotional and spiritual life of the Church, the donkey represents the necessary center of service and work. I have been very conscious of this as I spent this week with you all: as we have talked at length about the intangibles of theology, beliefs and shared dreams and vision, all of that was only able to occur within a context of work: committees meeting to assign real tasks, people showing up to set up tables and chairs, bringing platters of food, phoning and scheduling, gathering information from the UUA, preparing chicken and pasta and guacamole dip in the kitchen, arranging flowers, setting up microphones, lugging around bottles of soda and of wine, scrubbing and cleaning and putting things back when it was all over for the night. Work! Ham -and -beans -supper work!
And this is who we are, Church: typing, phone calling, fixing, cleaning, teaching, planting, cooking, visiting, serving on committees, reporting, checking-in, e-mailing, rehearsing choral pieces, mopping up spills, hanging up coats, folding- up -chairs -people. Furthermore, we are people who know that the donkey matters in the story not just because the donkey is the one focused on his work, but because the donkey is the one who bears godliness on his back.
It is not just that the donkey is able to, in the midst of so much human tumult, put one hoof in front of the next and proceed with calm assurance of his purpose. It is also who the donkey is carrying in this particular story: the beloved Child of God, as our tradition teaches us we are all beloved Children of God -- the Enlightened Being, as we are all capable of becoming enlightened beings. The One who loved the world and lived fully in a healing, dignity-enhancing, life-giving ministry as we are all called to do. This is who and what the donkey carries. And in doing our donkey-work in the church and for our community, we also know that we bear godly purpose on our backs with every act of service we carry out for the beloved community.
Remember Balaam's donkey, who was able to see an angel when his supposedly superior two-legged master could see nothing but his own denial and avoidance of his higher purpose. Remember Bottom the Weaver of Shakespeare's mystical play "A Midsummer Night's Dream," who was transported to the realm of the divine after the mischievous sprite Puck transformed him into an ass, and who then spent an enchanted time as the lover of the Fairy Goddess Titania. We laugh at Bottom, as he is one of Shakespeare's greatest and most lovable of buffoons, but there is also the poignancy of Bottom's expulsion from fairy land, after his fuzzy ears and donkey's bray are gone and he is left alone, limited once again to the company of mortals, cast away from the godly place he knew only in his donkey- being.
Saint Francis of Assisi understood the honesty of acknowledging our donkey nature, referring to his own body as "Brother Ass" -- an affectionate nickname for the physical aspect of his being which did not always manage to operate as sublimely as his spiritual nature. However, we know that Francis held a deep and abiding love for all animals, winged and four-legged, and because of this we know that his use of the nickname was not intended to denigrate either himself or the creature whom he adopted as a symbol for his own flesh.
So there we are in the story of Palm Sunday, as we are present in all the ancient stories. We are the cheering, expectant crowds,
we are the determined, courageous and resigned Holy One,
we are the cynics and the merely curious bystanders
and the hopeful disciples and
we are the rocks and trees and the dust of the road the things of Earth which will never perish.
And we are the donkey, sweet and sure, hoofing it to Jerusalem in our steady way, grounded in purpose and unwavering in determination, mindful that we carry the Divine with every step we take. This is our ministry. It is a ministry of bustle and of silence, of angel and of donkey, of a mutual carrying on our backs and in our harts those godly things that require our effort to be made manifest in the world. And so may we bring them forth, and may we meet the journey in faith, hope and love.