Monday, April 3, 2023

HOMILY FOR PALM SUNDAY: "Donkeys and Dreamers"

A Meditation on Luke 19
Palm Sunday, April 2, 2023


As he gathers himself for this procession down the Mount of Olives, Jesus seems very particular, very deliberate about the kind of procession he will lead.  Down the hillside and up to Jerusalem.  And he tells two of his friends to go into the village, untie a young donkey, and bring it to him.  He’s aware this might seem scandalous among the villagers themselves.  A rabbi liberating young donkeys for the Passover.  So he offers his curious friends this strange advice:  “Just say this: ‘The Lord needs it.’”  “Just say this,” if they ask. “The Lord needs it.’”  Go ahead.  You have my permission.  Try that line when your partner gives you the evil eye, after you’ve been caught grabbing the last chocolate chip cookie from the cookie jar.  Again.  “Hey, honey, no problem.  The Lord needs it!”

So the day begins that way.  Either Jesus has a wicked sense of humor, or that donkey (young and unridden) is strategically significant to the plan, to the project, to the particular story he wants to tell. 

And let’s go with the latter.  Let’s go with the idea that Jesus is well-acquainted with the Roman practice, the Roman military practice, most years around the Passover Festival, of sending buffed up troops riding muscled war horses into Jerusalem from the western hills.  It’s a thing.  You see, the Passover Festival is inspired by stories of liberation, passed down from generation to generation.  How God freed the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt, how God’s heart pounds with a preferential option for the poor, how God stirred the waters so the Hebrews could pass on through.  

And it is often the case—in the first century at least—that occupied Jerusalem comes suddenly and vibrantly to life during the Festival in the Spring.  Freedom songs vibrate across the city.  Families tell the story at dinner.  Activists imagine throwing off the yoke of Roman oppression and intimidation.  So Pilate sends the legion to town, war horses and stony-faced warriors, a show of force, if you will.  A none-too-subtle threat, to be sure.  “Tell your stories, if you must; but don’t dream too big.”  Over centuries, even millenia, empires are pretty consistent.    


So choosing a young donkey for his procession—with his disciples and friends, arriving from the eastern precincts—Jesus is making a claim.  Jesus is casting a vision.  And he reminds them all—the palm waving disciples, the story-telling Jews of Jerusalem, the Roman armies arriving from the west; he reminds them all that God’s power takes an altogether different form in the world.  As impressive and as fearsome and as technologically sophisticated as Rome’s parade might be, it has nothing to do with God’s intention for the world or the ways of God’s movement and blessing in the world.  

And that’s the point of the donkey.  I think.  That’s the strategy of palms and praise on the Mount of Olives.  I think. God’s power isn’t enforced by war horses and buffed-up, armed-up riders.  God’s peace isn’t enacted by engineers on nuclear subs or vigilantes wielding assault weapons.  God’s future is conceived in prayer and birthed in a procession of wounded healers and suffering servants.  God’s kin-dom is conceived in song and birthed in a parade of dreamers and dancers, lovers and fools.  And that’s the point of the donkey.  And the procession of palms from the eastern hills.  And the cloaks tossed in the road.  The choreography of God’s kin-dom is love and joy and affirmation—not violence, grievance and intimidation.

So Jesus knows that this is a big week coming at him.  Coming at all of them.  Conflicts are in the wind.  Danger’s at hand.  Choices will be made.  And he knows that somehow the point of this week, the crux of the matter, is about power.  How will the God of heaven and earth create community and renew the hearts of the people?  How will friends of God partner across differences, releasing grievances, to imagine peace and establish justice in the world?  The crux of the matter is about power: human and divine.  Is transformation really about rage and distrust and contempt?  Is it really about an AR-15 in every home and an armed guard in every school?  Or is renewal, justice, salvation a different kind of project?

Always a teacher, always a mentor, always a partner in the project of mercy and transformation—Jesus invites us to imagine life together that is buoyant with hope and tender with love and vulnerable to the ways and dreams of God.  He rides a donkey, not a war horse.  Come, all who are brokenhearted and poor in spirit, he says.  Walk with me.  Come, all who are merciful and forgiving, he says.  Walk with me.  Come, all who are willing to suffer for the wellbeing of others, he says.  Walk with me.  He rides a donkey, not a war horse.  His is a procession of friends.  The feeble and the frail.  The foolish and the faithful.  And that’s the point of the donkey.  At least I think so.


Now maybe you’re surprised to be hearing so much about donkeys today—and (believe it or not) I’ve got one more thing to say about them.  But before I do, let’s take just a moment to once again lament the horrific violence in our country and in our streets and in our schools.  Our schools—which should be sacred temples of learning and affirmation and curiosity for our children and their teachers.  We’ve seen it again this week—and our hearts grieve with the families and teachers and students of Nashville this weekend.   Just as they continue to grieve with friends in Uvalde and Buffalo and Newtown and Denver and Las Vegas and Pittsburg and Orlando and on and on and on.  

I share this grief with you, this pain, this deep sense of frustration.  It is beyond maddening: the inaction of our political leaders around what has to be called a public health crisis: the proliferation of weapons in our homes, weapons of mass destruction in our schools and streets.  And the cost, the human cost, the mental health cost to us all.  

It seems clear to me, friends, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ compels us to cry out for an end to this madness.  This particularly American madness.  It seems clear to me that the Gospel insists on relationships strengthened by trust and love, not ruined by fear, by rage, by these weapons that promise to protect us—but inevitably destroy us.  The power to transform the world is the power of mercy and human compassion.  That’s Jesus’ message.  The power to secure our futures is the power of neighborliness and steadfast love.  

So don’t let anyone tell you that the Christian position is an “open carry” position.  And don’t let anyone tell you that the Christian position is an “automatic weapon in every cupboard” position.  And don’t let anyone tell you that the way to keep our schools safe, our families safe, is with armed shooter drills in the hallways and armed guards at the door in the morning.  The Christian position is “lay down your weapon, Peter.”  The Christian position is “beat your guns into farming tools, disciples.”  The Christian position is “study war no more, believers.”  God’s power is not on that war horse.  God’s power is in the wind, and in the heart, and in the community that chooses love and justice.

And if you agree with me on that, I really do hope you’ll join me and many others at Sig Sauer in Newington on Good Friday.  We’ll be there to say no more.  No more engineering these weapons of mass destruction.  No more selling them.   And, by God, friends and neighbors, no more buying them.


My good friend Zoughbi al Zoughbi—who’s a wonderful Palestinian counselor and teacher in the West Bank—he insists that the only way to truly appreciate what’s happening on Palm Sunday, to truly grasp Jesus’ intention, is to remember and to celebrate the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  You’ll remember, of course, that we read that parable here last week. 

But, just in case you missed it:

A lawyer pipes up in a crowd and challenges Jesus to sum up the Torah and what an observant Jew must do to secure a place in eternity.  And Jesus – as he so often does – doesn’t answer that question, but turns instead to a story that probes human motivation and human connection and neighborliness in the here and now.  

In that very familiar parable – we all know it like the back of our hand, right – in that very familiar parable, a traveler on a dangerous road is assaulted by bandits and left for dead by the side of the road.  A priest on the same road, crosses to the other side, frightened by the sight of this fellow, wary of the danger perhaps, and he passes by.  A scholar does very much the same thing; maybe he’s preoccupied with purity codes or just busy, but he passes by too.

And then this other guy, a Samaritan comes along: a Samaritan, so often distrusted and suspected among well-credentialed, upstanding folk in the day.  And this guy stops.  This guy stops by the side of the road, reaches down to minister to the bloodied brother.  And he nurses his wounds, unafraid of touching him, undaunted by the danger at hand.  And he pours valuable oil and wine into the hurt to cleanse it and care for the man.  And…then he places the beaten and half-dead man on a donkey.  On a donkey.  That’s Zoughbi’s reading.  On a donkey.  And so, he gets him to safety.  And so, he gets him to an inn where the battered man can be cared for, where the broken man can convalesce and recover, where that brother in need can be loved back to health and wholeness.

He nurses his wounds.  He cleanses them with oil and wine.  And he lifts the broken brother up upon the donkey.

I’ll never forget reading that parable fifteen years ago, with Zoughbi and his counseling staff, in their Bethlehem office.  This is a staff of Palestinian women and men who are ministering to neighbors traumatized daily by violence, ministering to children frightened at every turn by occupying armies, ministering to women scared to go home to their husbands, ministering to a whole community of anxious and broken-hearted souls.  And Zoughbi told us – reading that parable together, Zoughbi told us: “Jesus is the guy on the donkey.  The only way to understand what Jesus is doing in the world and how Jesus is changing the world is to appreciate that Jesus is the guy on the donkey.”  

You see what Zoughbi was saying?  He was saying that God is not on a throne somewhere, choosing sides, flipping coins, administering a cosmic lottery.  God is among us.  God is in our midst.  God hopes with us.  And God hurts with us.  And God is present and bloodied and suffering when our brother is lying by the side of the road.  When our sister calls after midnight because she can’t bear to be alone.  When our neighbor asks for sanctuary, for support, for protection from xenophobic forces at the border.  God is in your heart and mine.  And God seeks connection, comfort and communion among us.  Jesus, yes.  Jesus is the guy on the donkey.  

Which is to say that we find God in one another as we meet one another in vulnerability and weakness.  Which is to say that we find God together as we build friendships around our pain and our grief, as we tend to our wounds and risk asking for help and tender care.  Which is to say that the power of the Almighty is revealed in us as we love one another, and pray for one another, and weep together, and protest and dream and serve together.  Not as we arm up.  Not as we rage at our differences.  Not as we engineer sophisticated weapons and learn to shoot deadly guns and live behind gates and locks.  We discover the power of God as we walk beside the gentle rabbi on the unridden donkey.  We discover the grace of God as we commit to the ways of the prince of peace facing his fears and ours in Jer  usalem.  

I’ll always be grateful for the way Zoughbi tied the Palm Sunday story to the great parable that day.  The power to bless is nurtured in compassion and mercy.  The power to transform is nurtured in suffering and grace.   Every one of us—every single one of us—has something to add to this story, something to offer to this practice.  You have suffered.  I have suffered.  We have all been the guy on that donkey. 

Let us go, then, up to Jerusalem.  Let us persevere, then, in sisterhood and siblinghood, as brothers and friends.  Let us stand together at Sig Sauer on Friday and say: “No more of these weapons.  For the sake of our children.  For the sake of your children.  For the sake of all children.  No more of these weapons.”  And let us dare to watch—even through our tears—for signs of hope and resurrection.  

For the power of God is the power of Love.  And it will rise again.  

Amen and Ashe.