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The Gospel readings for this Lent season have come from Luke and Luke in particular is interested in Jesus’s journey. Already in Luke 9:51 we read, As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. Starting from the Galilee Jesus walked somewhere between 50 and 100 miles to reach Jerusalem. Along the way Jesus has told stories and performed signs. Some have listened and followed, some ignored him and others rejected him. Reaching the Mount of Olives and our passage for this morning Jesus is now only a couple of miles outside of Jerusalem. I titled this sermon Peace Rides a Donkey because for the life of me I could not shake the image of Jesus entering the city on a donkey. And for some reason my perspective was always seeing him from behind as he was riding away. As I looked at Jesus all I saw was the uneven and awkward shifting of the donkey’s hind legs causing Jesus’s body to bob up and down slightly with him having to catch his balance the odd time. Needless to say it was not a graceful image.
For the sake of historical accuracy I went to YouTube. YouTube is a website where people can upload their personal video clip. I typed “donkey riding” into the search engine and sure enough there were several video clips of people riding donkeys. The ride did appear to be somewhat smoother than I imagined but even today as I image it was 2000 years ago none of the clips carried any sense of grace or dignity. I am not sure I care too much for this image. I prefer the image next to my desk. It is a reprint of one of the oldest icons in which Jesus is referred to as Pantocrator which in Greek means Ruler of All. In this image Jesus is not yet given a crown and scepter as he is in latter depictions of Christ as King. In this image Jesus is patient and stoic, groomed and cleaned, waiting for you to be drawn into his presence. He invites you to sit at his feet and receive his blessing. I just need to look over my shoulder and there he is with New Testament in one arm and his other hand forming the theological equivalent of his
gang affiliation. Icons can be help remind us of the abiding presence of Christ. However, icons can also lure us into a notion of Jesus that is fixed and permanent. This is not this morning’s image. This morning Jesus has been on the move and if I look over my shoulder there is a good chance he will not be there. Perhaps if I look for him all I can catch now is the back end of his . . . donkey. Where is the welcoming crowd in this image? It greets him outside of Jerusalem. The image of Jesus riding on a donkey is not lost on them. It is a kingly gesture at least, thought perhaps not “regal” in a traditional sense. It conjures up in their minds the coronation of Solomon who was also set upon a mule a paraded through town. And perhaps more familiarly it evokes the imagery of Zechariah who prophesied saying,
9 Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. But what did they understand this to mean? What sort of army what sort of force would establish this sort of peace? Surely they, like Jesus, had also read the next chapter in Zechariah which says that, 3 The LORD Almighty will care for his flock, the house of Judah, and make them like a proud horse in battle. 4 From Judah will come the cornerstone, from him the tent peg, from him the battle bow, from him every ruler.
5 Together they will be like mighty men trampling the muddy streets in battle. Because the LORD is with them, they will fight and overthrow the horsemen. Indeed we find out later that when the crowd comes to arrest Jesus one of Jesus’s followers strikes out with his sword, with the sword Jesus allowed him to carry. The only peace they had known came by the edge of a sword. Solomon whose name comes from the Hebrew word for peace established his kingdom from the bloodshed of his father David. What else could they expect? Using force to create peace is both ancient and modern approach to life. What we see around is disorder and we are called to bring order to it. This was what the sheriff did in the wild west. Clint Eastwood would stride into town and eventually confront the bad guys who are taking advantage of the good townspeople. His justice was shift being able to gun down four men before they were even able to reach for their holster.
This is not much different than the ancient creation stories that would have circulated in alongside the Genesis account in the Ancient Near East. In these stories the gods are already in conflict with each other even before humans are created. In the creation story called Enuma Elish words like “terror,” “confusion” and “evil” are peppered throughout the opening lines. The creation of the world is actually the result of the violent conflict between two gods named Marduk and Tiamat. It says that they, strove in single combat, locked in battle. And then when Tiamat opened her mouth Marduk drove in the Evil Wind . . . As the terrible winds filled her belly, ... He released the arrow,[and] it tore her belly, It cut through her insides, splitting the heart. Having thus subdued her, he extinguished her life. He cast down her carcass to stand upon it. (IV, 93-104) Then Marduk stomped on the legs of Tiamat, With his unsparing mace he crushed her skull. When the arteries of her blood he had severed, On seeing this, the gods were joyful and jubilant, They brought gifts of homage to him. 3
Then the lord paused to view her dead body, [and thought] That he might divide the form and do artful works. [and so he] He split her like a shellfish into two parts: [and with] Half of her he set up a covering for heaven.
[with the other half still beneath his feet as the earth]
This is a much different creation account than we are used to. Here the very substance of the world is the result of violent conflict. It is the result of the strongest person imposing order onto a scene of violence.
While the account itself may be foreign to our ears the thinking is not. Many modern anthropologists and sociologists also believe that societies and cultures are based on conflict. The thinking is that the initial relationship between humans is one of conflict. Societies and cultures develop as we attempt to bring order to this conflict through laws and customs. Given our history and nature as humans is it so strange to think that Jesus was coming to bring law and order to Jerusalem? Justice, that is what the prophets said the anointed one would be bring, isn’t it? Someone was needed, a sheriff or a god with great strength to overcome the evil forces in the world. And so the crowds on Palm Sunday cheer him on, hailing the coming king. And Jesus receives their praise and rejects the religious leaders who tell Jesus to keep them quiet. At this point in his journey Jesus has no problem being viewed as king or messiah. However, Jesus does not make camp there and draw up strategies before entering Jesus, on his donkey, keeps on riding. As the people begin to express their hopes and plans for Jesus they look around for him and all they see is the back-end of Jesus traveling on with a slight bob up and down and a slow sway back and forth. And as he approaches Jerusalem Jesus begins to weep saying, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace.” If only you knew this day what would bring you peace. Do you know this day what will bring you peace?
Perhaps this Sunday morning you do know peace. Your spouse has been supportive, caring and understanding; your work or interests have been rewarding; your friends have been encouraging. Wonderful. Thank God. Offer a sacrifice of praise this morning and give thanks during the week. As Christ journeys in our midst he has settled in your town and is seated at your table. Jesus has blessed your children and brought healing to your home. This is God’s good pleasure. When it comes to peace I am sure there are also many of you who feel like you are left staring at the back end of a donkey instead of experiencing the grace of Jesus offering his blessing to your home. Instead of entering into peace we are embroiled in conflict. I am sure some of you have to be the sheriff in the wild west that is your family or your work. Law and order has to be brought to your warring tribes of children. Or like the ancient creation stories we set about trying to slay the gods of insecurity, of anxiety, of confusion, of addiction in an attempt to create the heavens above and the firm ground below. Or like sociologists remind us we are creating elaborate customs or agreements in which we try to keep the chaos under the surface. We try to keep our homes spotless our children well behaved our jobs respectable our conversations civil all in the hopes that stability and security will follow. And this day do you know what will bring you peace? The answer of course is annoyingly simple. It is Jesus riding on a donkey. It is Jesus entering our town and our lives. We welcome him with shouts of Hosanna! which is basically a cry of “Save Us!” Thank God someone has come to help us. And Jesus honours this. He knows the conflict of the world and he has come to conquer it. However, his time on earth has also shown him how it is that we would overcome the conflict. We point out the bad people or things and tell him to lock them up. We point out the good things that we want and ask him to give them to us. We tend to make our saviours out to be magicians or mercenaries. We look for someone who will look out for our immediate self-interest. And so after Jesus arrives in our town, receives our welcome, even sits at our table he also gets up and before we know it we are left looking at the back end of a donkey as Jesus leaves town. Jesus will not remain still as the icon
hanging over my shoulder in my office. He does not settle for the parameters we give him. Jesus remains on the move welcoming those who will join him.
Knowing what will bring us peace is knowing first of all that peace is brought. We can maintain order for a time with our effort but we cannot manufacture peace. Peace is not making right by might. Peace is something we enter into or something that enters us. Peace is a gift. It is the Kingdom of God in and among us and as such peace comes as an invitation. The peace entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is a type of acted parable that flows from what Jesus was teaching along the way. Knowing peace means remembering and allowing the parables to shape our lives. Remember what Jesus taught as he came to our towns. Remember when Jesus called a man to follow him and reminded him that, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Remember how Jesus said that the Kingdom is revealed to little children, to those who trust that where their parents take them they will be provided for. Remember that the gift of eternal life was bound up in the life of our neigbour. Remember the one who trusted in his wealth and had it all taken away in one night. Remember how the Kingdom grows from things that seem to be as small as mustard seed things so small that you can barely see them if you are not paying attention. Remember that the feast in the Kingdom will be like a huge party in the middle of week where we have to set aside our daily responsibilities in order to attend. And the stories go on.
Jesus hoped that by the time he reached Jerusalem it would start to sink in that his work didn’t match with the plans that we come up with. As humans we build our world around us and determine what is important and what has to get done. It is a world based on our abilities and desires. Jesus hoped we would see that we needed to leave that world and change citizenship as it were. Not necessarily that we would physically pick up and leave town but that we might campaign and vote for another party. Peace could not be made with the materials that world offered.
Our world essentially offers one model of peace, it is the peace achieved either through victory or ironically through victimhood. In either scenario the peace we seek is simply the ability to be insulated and protected from any unwanted contact. As the victor we try to overwhelm the source of conflict and impose order on it as the United States continues to attempt in Iraq. In relationships we use our status or authority or manipulation to impose our way in times of conflict. And strangely enough we also often use the role of victimhood to attempt to overcome conflict. To be classified as a victim can absolve us of facing any criticism. In relationships if we can convince the other person that they did wrong then we may debilitate their influence on us.
Now I want to be clear that this has nothing to do with someone who is the victim of abuse. In these instances the victim should be protected from the abuser. What I am referring to is how we use the role of victim to keep ourselves from meaningful, constructive relationships. Ultimately we all need to open up to someone in a meaningful way.
In both positions change or growth becomes difficult because differing voices are no longer heard, they have been effectively silenced. Chris Heubner writes that “the culture of victimhood simply reproduces the same logic of power as that of victory, namely a competition for security and control. Put differently, the hero and victim are both expressions of a desire to escape difficulty.” In both of these scenarios peace cannot be established because peace requires right relationships and these positions choke out the possibility of meaningful relationships.
Again this has nothing to do with individual instances of victimization. I am only referring to those habitual expressions that use victimhood as a position to deny constructive interaction.
When we receive Christ like the crowds did on Palm Sunday we often assume both positions. Out of a position of being victimized we, like the people, call on Jesus to enter as our victor and overcome our enemies dramatically and decisively. Then we often become offended when Jesus does not put people in their place. And then we are even more offended when Jesus implies that perhaps we may have some things to work on.
The reality of Christ’s peace enters when we discard our attempts to preserve our lives, our attempts to impose order through the position of either victor or victim. The peace of Christ assumes that it is in fact our very lives that become the medium for peace. We do not create peace we receive, become, and then offer peace.
The extreme example we are given is this that of the martyr. I am not using the term martyr as it is commonly used today when we say that someone is making themselves a martyr. That is the definition of victim that I used earlier. Indeed Huebner writes that “one cannot designate oneself a martyr.” Also I am not assuming that a martyr is necessarily someone who dies for their faith. Rather, and I think this important, the martyr is someone who gives their life for their faith. The martyr does not enter into conflict in order to play by its rules. A martyr can do this because her identity is not defined by or dependent on the instability of the conflicting beliefs, practices or relationships that surround her. A martyr does not use the practices or materials of conflict to overcome conflict. This is the call to be in the world but not of the world.
Being of the world means allowing Christ to remain as an icon to grace our wall. Christ the icon remains still and static passively accepting the role that we give to him allowing us to use our own means to accomplish our tasks. Being in the world but not of it means being on the watch for a Jesus who comes on his donkey receives our welcome and continues to move on. It is in his passing through that we are confronted with the question of understanding what will bring us peace.
Here again we are reminded of a parable that Jesus tried to prepare us with. This is the story of the king who gave his servants some money and then went away. When the king came back he only scolded the servant who did nothing with his money except try to protect it. The money given to the servants represents their lives. We cannot keep our lives and so we only have the choice of either trying to protect our lives or of investing, of giving our lives. Ironically enough this is the parable that Luke leads into Jesus’s entry on a donkey. We know what it is to give our lives to our work or our family but to give our lives for Christ is to participate in something earlier, something deeper than the violence of world. It is to return, at least in part, to the peace of creation. But first we must follow Jesus this Easter. Follow him and his donkey as he moves through us this Palm Sunday. Follow him to the Last Supper where gives us the image and command of service to one another. Follow him into the Garden of Gethsemane where he too wrestles with his own human understanding and his divine calling. Follow, perhaps only at distance, to the hill of skulls on Good Friday where Jesus confronts the ultimate violence of death. Watch for him on Easter Saturday as he prepares his return. Celebrate him Easter Sunday and invite the peace of God in our midst.
Lord have mercy Amen