What does any of this have to do with the man on the donkey?
5th-April-2029 Palm Sunday: Today Pete Stevenson gave a thought provoking homily, giving us plenty to consider in this week approaching Easter. If you would like to join us at the Zoom Church services during this current Covid-19 lockdown, then please comment in the comments section & we'll send you a link. You will have to log into Wix, but it's easy and it doesn't innundate you with spam.
This is the start of Holy week when we reflect on the final days of Jesus’ life, his crucifixion on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. All four Gospels devote a lot of their writings between these two events, read any of them and you will see that it appears a lot happened in these few days. It starts with a very deliberate act on the part of Jesus to go to Jerusalem and, where up to now, Jesus often tried to play down his popularity; he now is going to confront those who jeered, denigrated, decried and belittled everything he had done. The most provocative act being the turning over the money changers tables in the temple, an area which should have been reserved for the gentiles. His journey into Jerusalem was a very deliberate act knowing what was going to happen.
In John 11 we read...
...and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”... Then Thomas said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
I like Thomas, he may have been a bit of an Eeyore and nicknamed Doubting Thomas but he was loyal and he most likely only saying what all the others were thinking.
As Jesus approaches the city; why did Jesus enter on a donkey? It’s only about two miles, he usually walked everywhere. A donkey was likely a symbol that he wanted to come in peace; he arrived on a beast of burden, an animal associated with service, suffering, and humility. Not a horse which is easy to see would be quite provocative. Maybe there were practical reasons – to be able to work his way thru the crowds? Some want to make great play over whether it was two donkeys or one and was the provision of the beast (or beasts) a miracle, Whatever, Jesus set his face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem having already warned his disciples that he would die.
As He nears the city, the people cheer and provide a red carpet of palms and coats. And Mathew (only Matthew) quotes Zechariah ’Say to the daughter of Zion, see your king comes to you riding on a donkey...’ Years ago I heard an archaeologist give a lecture that the phrase ‘Daughter of Jerusalem’ referred to the settlements and villages outside of the city walls where the poorer people lived. The poor would have welcomed Jesus messages more warmly than those higher up the ‘food chain’. Blessed are the poor in spirit, healing the sick whether they are rich or poor, making contact with lepers, living simply, relying on the generosity of others. It’s almost certain that the crowd that welcomed Jesus as he rode INTO Jerusalem were quite different from MANY in the crowd shouting for his crucifixion INSIDE Jerusalem a few days later.
Those who lived within the security of the city wall may have had different views. They would have had reasons to keep the status quo. Herod the Great who, in the nativity story, ruthlessly slaughtered the under 2 year olds, was responsible for building the temple and the Wailing Wall which you can still see. There was a great deal of infrastructure, both buildings and traditions that were negotiated with, and tolerated by, the Roman state.
Herod was a successful client king, which meant that as long as he paid tribute to Rome and was on the correct side of any kind of Roman fracas, he protected the political independence and liberty of Jews in Israel. And... he did that very well. (Paul Fredriksen; Prof of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University)
We see this brilliantly portrayed in the song This Jesus Must Die from Jesus Christ Superstar, The high priest and Pharisees meet with Caiaphas to decide what they are going to do about Jesus. With Caiaphas’ deep baritone voice, it’s quite chilling and I think Tim Rice was spot on with the lyrics describing just how much the Pharisees found themselves compromised.
Today, literally today, in normal times, we might have processed around the church waving our palm crosses singing Graham Kendrick’s Make Way Make Way, but in truth, it’s worth asking the question ‘who’s side would I have been on after Jesus entered Jerusalem?’ My immediate response is, ‘with the crowds who laid down their coats and palm branches of course!’ But if I am honest, a bit of me might have wanted to keep some of the status quo. When I am comfortable, I find it quite difficult to identify with those who are uncomfortable. In present emergencies, we may think we have some hardships but spare a thought for a moment, we are in a secure country with many resources, in effect, we are living within the safety of the city walls. If the richest countries in the world are presently struggling, spare a thought for countries which have nothing like the same resources, infrastructure or the ability to borrow billions to see them through. Those in need might be closer to home, I read a piece this week by someone who has been in self isolation for over 20 years because her MS disability makes going out very difficult.
Holy week is always a good time for some reflection. In our present position of being without a priest and even more so now, not even a church building, we are having to reflect on church life. It’s easy for us to say what we like in a church; we can describe what is important to us. But with the present restrictions forcing us to do Zoom Church, we should stop and work out - for ourselves why are these things important? Or, what defines our Christian faith? If our faith is defined as going to church and staying within the law perhaps we have some thinking to do. I’m not pointing the finger because I struggle a bit to say what defines my faith beyond these two things. For those of you who have signed up to 40 Acts of kindness during lent, I don’t know how you are doing, I’m doing terribly.
Saying these things from any sort of pulpit is tricky. I’ve found it’s possible to stir the comfortable into being uncomfortable when the reason they are comfortable is because they are already doing good and right things! Then, there’s the Comfortably Numb to quote Pink Floyd, which is No 8 in the top 10 of funeral songs. Jesus came to stir the comfortably numb! To quote Mary from last week, ‘Don’t die before you die!’
If you’re like me, the hardest part of lighting a candle and taking time to reflect can be getting out of the chair to strike the match, literally or figuratively. I’ve asked Mike to add a couple of internet links to the notices. The first is simply a YouTube song from Jesus Christ Superstar of Caiaphas; entertaining, a bit chilling but thought provoking. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uo81UqO54dg The second is the good old BBC who have a number of radio programmes to choose from through the week. I don’t know what they’ll do but I have no doubt they will be very good. https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2020/easter
I want to end with a short extract from Bishop Mark’s book Bivocational: Returning to the Roots of Ministry. Still available for free on the internet, http://www.bivocational.church/ although I’m sure the Bishop would be delighted if you spent 9.99 Euro on Amazon. He gives this anecdote.
‘I arrived at the convention so late that I had to stand against the wall at the very back of the room. Next to me, as it turned out, was a person I had come greatly to admire for her ministry among the homeless in Boston—Debbie Little Wyman...
I don’t remember what was on the agenda at the moment I came in. What I do remember, however, is that it was a matter of heated debate... the crowded room had fallen into bitter division as the contending perspectives lined up at two microphones to lob verbal grenades at each other...
Debbie leaned over to me and quietly asked a simple question: “What does any of this have to do with the man on the donkey?”...
“What does any of this have to do with the man on the donkey?” It is a strong, clarifying, powerful question. It is a question we must ask ourselves as disciples, as communities of the faithful, and as institutional religious structures. It is a question the leaders of our denominational polities’... (I had to look up the word ‘polity’ - the form, governance, constitution of a organisation) ...’must ask in a moment of change and challenge, even if the answers mean surrendering prestige, precedence, and power for the sake of clearing a path for God’s message’... (an echo of Palm Sunday, clearing a path for God’s message) ...‘to move into the world. If we ask it faithfully, it will become easier—not easy, but easier—to give up things that seem precious but are weighing us down, things that have become old in order to grasp that which is new.’
The good news is, between Palm Sunday and Good Friday Jesus met all sorts, outside the city and inside; inside the temple and outside. He went to where people were. Within holy week the gospel writers chose to put the parable of the great banquet where everyone was invited; the commandment to love God with all your heart and your neighbour as yourself; the immense worth of a small but sacrificial offering; the teaching ‘Let not your hearts be troubled...’; His prayer for his followers.
In the words of the song...Make way make way for Christ the king in splendour arrives. Be prepared for a few tables to be overturned but take heart, Easter changes everything.