A sermon given Rev. Dr. Peter A. Luckey on Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017
That image of Jesus riding on a donkey is indelibly imprinted on my brain ever since childhood, and I think I know why. I think it’s the donkey! For other animals we have admiration, respect, awe, reverence. Come we marvel at their beauty, but the donkey elicits love. Those long floppy ears, the shaggy mane, its diminutive size. He’s so cute!
So the text says that Jesus came riding humble on a donkey. But do you know this about donkeys? Number one, donkeys are strong. They can carry 30% of their own weight. They can traverse hundreds of miles and get by with just a little bit of water. They digest 95% of their food. They’re very efficient in terms of their bodies. Not only are they strong, they’re smart. Donkeys can remember a place they’ve been twenty-five years ago. They’ve got an amazing brain and memory. And donkeys are stubborn! You know why? Because they have such a deep sense of their own self-preservation. It’s very hard to get a donkey to do something it doesn’t want to do, especially if the donkey thinks it’s not in his or her own self-interest. Some of you donkey lovers out there know that.
So imagine the scene where Jesus is riding the donkey into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. The crowds are shouting Hosanna. People are throwing their cloaks before him. People are waving their palm branches. And I imagine that Jesus coming on that lowly animal is as if Jesus is saying to everybody, “Look, I am with you. I am here for you. I am one of you. Come to me all who are heavy laden and burdened and I will give you rest. For all have been pushed down and pushed back and beaten up. I am there for you. I am accessible to you. I am here with you.”
You see, that day in Jerusalem tensions were running high. Homeland Security had put out a high alert. There was an air of foreboding in the atmosphere. There was an apocalyptic feeling about that time, on that first Palm Sunday. There was a restless tension between the Jewish people and their Roman occupiers. It’s amazing that the Romans had not completely destroyed Jerusalem by that time. In fact, it would be only less than forty years after Jesus’ death that Jerusalem would be entirely destroyed by the Roman Empire. The temple destroyed, the city set on fire. Tensions were high in the city.
That’s the scene in which Jesus comes riding on a donkey and it was even exacerbated because it was the season of Passover when Jewish pilgrims from all over Judea would be coming to Jerusalem to celebrate the high holy festival of Passover. You remember Passover is a celebration of the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt many years ago, so the whole festival was a spirit of liberation. Don’t you think that the tension must have been running high in the city of Jerusalem during Passover? It might have been that the crowds had seen the Homeland Security detail, that is, the Roman soldiers on their high stallions, gold-plated. What a giant contrast it must have been between those gold-plated stallions and Jesus on a lowly donkey.
Do you remember a couple of years ago we had a donkey here at church? We got him down the south aisle. He got to about where Kathy Bowen is right now. But it only happened because Doug Beene, who knew something about livestock, bless Doug’s heart, pushed him! We tried to whisper in the donkey’s ear: you know wherever you are on life’s journey you are welcome here! But you know, someone afterward said, “You know, Pete, this is not the first time in church we’ve had an ass!” Anyhow, moving on with the sermon!
Why did Jesus arrive on a donkey in Jerusalem? Well number one, you can say it was to fulfill a prophecy. That’s the obvious reason. Matthew was writing the story to a Jewish audience. So he wants to tell this Jewish audience, you know that long awaited hope you had for a Messiah? The one that’s written about in the scriptures and by the prophets? Jesus of Nazareth IS the Messiah, the one you have waited for so long. Look, you can go back into the scriptures and you can find it. So Matthew takes the text from Zechariah 9:9, which is actually the Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint—a little Bible history there for you—and he inserts that into his story and the Old Testament text says that lo, the King will come to you riding on a donkey and a colt, a foal of the donkey. Well, that’s confusing. It seems like Jesus is coming in on two donkeys. So Matthew takes that text literally and he says that they went and got a donkey and a colt. So do you think Jesus came in riding two animals at once? That’s kind of a hard thing to do!
Well here’s the scoop that I want you to begin on. You see, in the Old Testament in poetry and in the songs there’s something called poetic parallelism. That is where you take the same idea and then you say it in a slightly different way from one verse to the next. It’s a poetic literary device. But what did Matthew do? He took it literally. Why would Matthew take it literally? Because he wanted to show without a doubt that this Jesus of Nazareth is the exact fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy. So talk to your friends about that. You can impress them with how Matthew interprets the Old Testament text.
So what’s the story? Is this just a story written to fulfill Old Testament prophecy? Did it really happen this way? We don’t know that it did NOT happen. I happen to believe that it did, but we don’t really know for sure. We can’t prove it.
I think there may be another reason why Jesus came into Jerusalem riding on a donkey and it’s not about prophecy. Maybe it’s about politics. After all, it’s a donkey right? It could have been an elephant! But seriously, it could have been a direct provocation to the nominating powers of Rome at the time, that for Jesus to come in on a donkey contrasts so starkly with the Roman Empire and their magnificent gold-plated stallions was a way to kind of mock the powers of Rom. It was a way to expose Rome for the oppressive power that it is. It provides a contrast to Rome so it could have been a provocation on the part of Jesus. After all, the next day he went into the temple and cleared out the moneychangers. Most likely that’s what got him arrested and killed.
So was it a political act? Was it an act of provocation on the part of Jesus to ride in on a donkey? Well here’s the thing. As often in life, intention is one thing and perception is another. What is innocent to some is deliberately provocative to others. Think about that. But I believe that there’s something else going on here. I think it’s more than prophecy. It’s not really about politics. But there’s something else that we’re supposed to learn from this story of Jesus coming in on the donkey, something that’s begging to be said to us, that God wants us to know about, given the times in which we live. And I think what’s fundamental in this story is the image of Jesus on the donkey is an image of what? It’s an image of humility. It’s an image of gentleness. It’s an image of vulnerability. It’s an image of accessibility. And what’s being revealed to us here is the call of Christ to live a life of vulnerability, a life of vulnerable love. It’s a call to live in Christ a life where we celebrate the power of love over the love of power. And we need that today. We’re living in a time of emotional reactivity. Have you noticed that every day there’s something on the news that we find ourselves reacting to? Maybe it’s on cable or CNN or Face book. But it’s like you can’t catch your breath. There’s something else that we’re responding to, we’re reacting to, we’re in a state in our country of perpetual arousal in terms of what’s happening in our nation. It’s not healthy for us. It’s not healthy for our souls to live in this state all the time. And I believe that many of us are called to be resisters for the domination systems that are around us, but you can’t be a resister without sustaining your soul. And it’s not a sustainable lifestyle unless you can be spiritually nourished at the same time.
What do I mean by “spiritually sustainable?” I mean, I think that we’re in a time when we are called to be more vulnerable. We’re called to be more open. We’re called to reach out an open hand. We’re called to make friends where maybe we haven’t made friends in the past. Some of us were at the Islamic Center Open House yesterday afternoon learning about Islam, learning about our Muslim brothers and sisters in our community, and making new friends.
Sometimes it’s as simple as being at Dillon’s. I have more amazing things happen when I go to the grocery store. I was in the checkout line on Thursday and I was putting in my credit card. I had a chip in it so I said, “I’m putting in the chip now.” And the guy behind me laughed and said, “Do you have a chip on your shoulder?” I don’t know who this guy was but he was funny! So I started to laugh and he said, “Thank you for laughing. You made my day!” He said, “What’s your name?” I said, “My name’s Peter Luckey.” He said, “I don’t know you, but whatever.” Just that engagement with another human being where we can lighten up and we can laugh and dare to be vulnerable with people we don’t know. It is that that we are called to be at this time in our lives. I want to say to you that we as human beings crave connections more than anything else. Being connected one to another. And in order to be connected you’ve got to be vulnerable. You’ve got to be willing and courageous enough to open up. Vulnerability is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength, of courage, the courage to be vulnerable. Now I know there are a lot of naysayers out there who poo-poo vulnerability. Naïve they say, in a world where children are being asphyxiated with sarin gas. Naïve they say when you reach out an empty hand, an open hand, and it gets slapped which hurts. It’s naïve to be vulnerable in our world today. But God reaches out an open hand to us again and again and again and offers us a life of abundance. And how often is it that we are too prideful and we don’t open our hearts and we don’t receive it. Jesus opened his life in a vulnerable way, and look where it got him—hung on a cross.
Yes, the world shouts no, no, no all the time, and yet the story of God is the story of the Resurrection which is the story that says finally a yes to the world’s no, that says yes, in the end the power of love trumps the love of power. I think it’s important to think about Jesus riding in on a donkey, to think about him and the gentle lowly donkey, so accessible, so vulnerable, calling us to be friends with him so we can be friends with each other.
This whole Holy Week is a week of vulnerability. It’s a week where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. On Maundy Thursday you’ll have an opportunity to come into the narthex and have your foot washed. Talk about vulnerability! That takes courage to take off your socks and shoes and have your feet washed!
Speaking of foot washing and vulnerability, there’s a pastor by the name of Gordon Cosby who used to be pastor at The Church of the Good Shepherd. He’s gone now. I went to that church in Washington D.C. back in my twenties. It’s an amazing congregation doing a huge ministry in the inner city of Washington, D.C. The church had started a halfway house for homeless, sick people, and they had built a sculpture in front of the halfway house where it was Jesus kneeling with a basin and towel, washing the disciples’ feet. As they built this sculpture a drunk would come and share his drink with Jesus and someone else dropped a dead Christmas tree into the basin, and Gordon probably had to go out and fish it out to get the water pumping again. But there was a lot of criticism about it. You know what the criticism was about? This is a bad location. It’s way too accessible! It’s got to be moved, relocated someplace where it’s not so susceptible to danger and violence. It’s got to be some place where it’s safe. Gordon Cosby just couldn’t see it. He heard a voice inside himself and the voice said, “I tell you, nay. Please leave me right here, where cross the crowded ways of life. Where I sorely belong. Please leave me here in the swirling messy thick of it all. Please leave me here with my towel and basin, where countless indispensable loved ones daily walk, talk, dream, worry, scheme, stumble, grumble, laugh, boast, sin and cry. Please leave me here where you need me most. Here to immerse myself in the pervasive hurt of humanity.”
That is where Christ is, right in the midst of the pervasive hurt of humanity. There on a lowly donkey, accessible, vulnerable, gentle, inviting us all to be more vulnerable and accessible in our lives and in our selves. You see, the donkey is a perfect image for this Sunday morning. The donkey, as the text says, so gentle and so humble and yet the donkey, so strong, so smart and stubborn for the love of Jesus. May we in our own lives find a way to open our hearts in audacious vulnerability, to be strong enough to be vulnerable and open our lives to Christ. Amen.