Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Practice of Donkey Riding - Sermon for Palm Sunday

The practice of donkey-riding ~ what kind of a practice is that?  As I’ve been pondering this story, the story of Palm Sunday, for the past couple of weeks, it occurred to me that donkey-riding has a lot to tell us about our faith.

Especially on this Sunday, and not solely because it’s Palm Sunday.  A number of churches celebrate this day as both Palm and Passion Sunday.  There’s a concern in the wider church that, with so many people skipping the services of Holy Week, many are going straight from Palm Sunday to Easter, without a moment’s pause for the cross.  While we all know that the cross precedes Easter, and that you can’t fully celebrate the joy of resurrection without first entering the depth of crucifixion suffering, we do tend to give lip service to the cross.

We do pay attention to the cross here.  Our Maundy Thursday service will remind us, through communion and drama, of the events of the last night of Jesus’ earthly, human life.  Our Easter Vigil service will take us through the story of salvation, from creation to resurrection, and we will certainly, on that evening, be alert to the suffering Jesus endured for us.  And so, bearing that in mind, and hoping that you all will take advantage of both of those services, today we focus on Palm Sunday.

And on the practice of donkey riding.

It seems to me that there are three things we might learn from donkey-riding.  Three “H” words.  Help. Humility.  Hope.

Let’s start with Help.
Jesus asks for help.  Luke tells us that Jesus, preparing to enter Jerusalem, says to his disciples, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 

He asks for help.

Now, obviously, Jesus doesn’t NEED help.  Jesus can do whatever he wants, as the devil pointed out to him those years ago in the desert, when he told Jesus that he could turn stones into bread.  Jesus can commandeer a Roman chariot for transportation if he wants.  Or he can acquire his own donkey.  But he asks his disciples to do it for him.

This is how God always chooses to work.  God always invites human participation into God’s project.  From the very beginning –

God created men and women and invited them to care for the planet and its creatures –

God wanted to preserve a small band of people after the flood, and asked Noah to build an ark –

God wanted to liberate the Jewish people from slavery and chose Moses as their leader –

God wanted God’s people to recognize their wrongdoing, and then wanted to reassure them that their exile in Babylon would not be a permanent one, and God chose prophets to call them back to faithful lives –

God wanted to join us in our human lives and chose to do so as a helpless infant --

God chose human parents – ordinary human parents to care for Jesus –

Jesus chose disciples to accompany him and learn his work –

Always, God invites us into the great project of salvation, the great project of moving people forward into the love always intended for us, the great project of restoring all creation –

Is it surprising that Jesus would ask his disciples to procure a donkey?  From Jesus’ standpoint, seeking the help of humanity, seeking our participation in his work, is part of the practice of donkey-riding.

But why a donkey at all?  That particular selection leads us to the second H of donkey-riding – humility.

A donkey is not exactly a regal animal.  I don’t have anything against donkeys, but they are not elegant white stallions.  And I gather that appearance is not the only challenge they present.  As I began to consider this topic of donkey riding last week, another pastor* wrote that, “[S]ix weeks ago I was in Haiti, and part of the journey to our sister church/school involved a two- hour hike or donkey ride along a narrow trail on a mountainside and ridge. We hiked part way and then were met along the way with people from the church bringing down donkeys for us to ride; although I was not thrilled with that prospect, I certainly wasn't going to turn down their tremendous hospitality.

What I discovered was that it really required me to let go of being in control; that donkey went up and down along the path it chose, even when I thought other routes looked safer. It sometimes slipped and scrambled a bit, and in the midst of holding my breath I had to remember that I probably would've been falling way down if I were on my own two feet. I wondered what a donkey would do if there was an earthquake while on a trail that basically runs along a huge earthquake fault...and then let go of that worry. And when I could just sit back and trust in the donkey and the moment, I saw the most glorious scenery and the loving, joyous faces of those who had come to get us and I discovered the thrill of something totally new.”

So donkeys – they travel like donkeys.  They choose their own paths.  They do it their own way. And yet – if we can leave it to them, trust them to get us to our destination – there’s something to be said for the view.  The view of loving, joyous faces.  A view that might be ours only from the back of a donkey.

If you’ve watched the news at all over the past couple of weeks, then you know that the new Pope Francis has been teaching us all something about humility.  In the clothing and robes he chooses, in his inclination to make his own phone calls, and in his stops along his routes to get out and talk with people and bless people – and animals!  In his public statements, his speeches and his sermons, in which he emphasizes the need for the church to re-align itself with the poor.

What about us?  I know that a lot of us do things that might be described as practicing humility.  We serve one another.  We serve the homeless through ACCESS.  We serve children all over the world through our mission  projects.  We don’t – not many of us, anyway – ride literal donkeys, but we ride donkeys in other ways.  And we follow a king who rides a donkey.  We follow a king who epitomizes humility.

Let’s not take that for granted this week.  It’s so obvious that we tend to forget – but Jesus could have been living in a marble palace and ordering servants to arrange for his transportation.  Instead he lives on the road and asks his disciples to commandeer – a donkey.  When people seek out his teaching, he consistently tells them to focus on one thing: Humility.  A literal poverty of life – in terms of money and food and possessions and home.  And a poverty of spirit –a relinquishment of all grand human ideas and priorities in order to make room for the ideas and priorities of God.  Humility in thought, word, and deed.

There’s a reason the new Pope chose the name Francis – the name of a saint who turned his back on his family’s successful business in silk fabric and turned toward a life with the most humble of the poor and sick.  There’s a reason Jesus chose a donkey – the rough animal utilized to bear the burdens of others rather than a proud and prancing warrior horse.  Humility before God – that’s something we learn from the practice of donkey-riding.

And what does all of this have to do with Hope – the third H word?  Help, Humility, Hope.

We know what hope means to the disciples and the crowds, right?  Jesus is the one, we believe.  Jesus is the one who will lead us to glory – to political and military glory, that is.  Jesus is the one who’s been proclaiming that the kingdom of God is among us, and surely that will lead to an earthly kingdom for the our people, to the end of Roman oppression, to a time of peace, prosperity, and freedom.  Surely he is going to exchange that donkey and those shabby clothes for a more suitable steed and for royal robes – any minute, right?  And for the moment, there is much to hope for even in Jesus as he appears – because he has been healing so many who have sick and broken and hurt by this life, and he has been teaching us that we, the poor and the downtrodden, the ignored, the persecuted, the enslaved – we are the blessed and beloved.  Surely that means, in the end, release from Rome?  Surely that means the end of political subjugation? 

But what does hope mean to Jesus?  Contrary to what we might like to think, Jesus is not much interested in what we Presbyterians call “form of government.”  Jesus is not carrying a weapon or hoisting a flag or beating a drum – Jesus is not carrying anything at all.  Jesus brings only himself, riding on a donkey, headed for a cross.  Jesus knows that, as much fun as the noise and the music and the palm branches are for the crowd, they are not what hope looks and sounds like.  Not the hope he brings.  Not yet. 

The hope he brings looks like nothing the world has ever seen. 

The hope he brings looks like people, all people, being gathered together to participate in the great project of God for healing and restoration.  Not just some people, or some types of people, but all people – all invited to go and find him a donkey.  All invited to participate in the healing he brings to the world.

The hope he brings looks like humility.  Not like pomp and circumstance, not like regal thrones and trumpet music, but like a man traveling on the recalcitrant beast of burden of the poor.

The hope he brings looks very much like not-hope. 

It looks like the brokenness of human endeavor – a temple courtyard filled with money-changers. 

It looks like the loneliness of time and space filled only by the silence of God – a man praying in a garden, late at night. 

It looks like the failure of human government – a mock trial and a mob vote and a governor who washes his hands of the whole thing. 

It looks like utter degradation and humiliation – beatings and lashings and death on a cross.

How can any of those things look like hope?  How can they possibly constitute the steps to new life?  How can they look like anything other than what they appear to be – brokenness, loneliness, failure, humiliation?

They look like hope because at the center of them is the man who embodies hope, who is hope, who brings hope to all.  They look like hope because at the center of all the chaos, of all the wrong-headedness, of all the apparent willingness to settle for something much much less than God’s kingdom, is someone who looks like much much less: a man who has called for a donkey and humbly rides it through a crowd.

I don’t have a handout for you this week, because this week’s spiritual practice is a simple one:  Look for signs of hope.  Look in unexpected places and unexpected events and unexpected people.  If someone asks you to do something you had no plans to do, ask yourself, “Is Jesus inviting me to find him a donkey?”  If you see someone whose appearance and behavior are completely unremarkable, ask yourself, “Is Jesus among us?”  And if life looks as if it is going straight downhill, ask yourself, “Is hope hiding here?”

This is what the practice of donkey-riding is all about: Hope in the unexpected.

Look for hope.  Look for God in all things.  Awake to the real hope -- the genuine hope of new life – to which the waving palm branches direct us.  Amen.

*Betsy Hooper-Rosebrook


  1. Dari Victoria RowenMarch 23, 2013 at 3:17 PM

    This is really thought-provoking. Thanks

  2. I like the three words. They are so Jesus and so they are us, too.

    Thank you, Robin.

  3. Wow, Robin. Just wow. I am delighted to see my comments placed in such a truthful, insightful, hopeful (yes, real hope) context. May those who are in the congregation tomorrow hear what the Spirit is saying through you!

    1. Betsy, thank you so much. I wanted to do more with the "sit back and enjoy the view" but it didn't work for this one -- I'm going to remember it for next year, though.

  4. Excellent...just excellent.