Monday, March 30, 2015

Wave the donkey of peace

My sermon for this week was based on Mark 11:1-11.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

There is a story that is told about a British army officer in the First World War who transmitted a message to headquarters that said, "Send reinforcements, we are going to advance".  As the story goes, by the time the message reached headquarters, it had passed through several hands, and it read, "Send three and fourpence, we are going to a dance".

Almost certainly apocryphal, this story nonetheless illustrates a well-known problem with communication: sometimes people just don't end up getting the message as it was meant to be transmitted.

Almost comedically at times, this seems to have been the problem with the Disciples and most of Jesus' followers, and the symbols presented in the Biblical account of the first Palm Sunday is a perfect example of this.

Judaism had been predicting and waiting for the Messiah for generations.  But the Messiah they were expecting was to be a great warrior-king who would lead an armed uprising which would cast off once and for all the forces that oppressed the People of God.

Then along comes Jesus with his "Love God and love your neighbour", "forgive others", "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" and "pray for your enemies"...not exactly the words of a fighter.

Throughout Lent, we have been reflecting on readings that demonstrate that Jesus' followers largely adhered to the beliefs of their forefathers, and they were occasionally dismayed at the philosophy Jesus was espousing, or at the very least they simply did not catch on.

Witness Palm Sunday: as Jesus enters Jerusalem riding a donkey, he is welcomed by crowds waving palm fronds and laying their cloaks in the street for him to walk over.  There are two clashing metaphors at work here.  First, palm fronds were a symbol of royalty, and they were used to welcome kings who were returning home from a successful military campaign.  This makes it fairly clear that the crowds believed and hoped that Jesus was going to be that great warrior-king who was going to go mustang on the Romans and liberate the Holy Land.

But the second metaphor is the fact that Jesus came riding a donkey and not a horse.  If you have ever met a donkey, you realize that they are not animals of war, and not even really a great beast of burden or form of transport.  Due to this reality, envoys from kings chose their steeds deliberately: if an envoy was coming to announce war on a city, he would come riding a horse.  It he was coming to ask for peace, he would come riding a donkey.

So in brief, the people are waving the palms of war, Jesus is waving the donkey of peace.

Conflict, much?

So why do we wave palm fronds on Palm Sunday?  Well, it's not practical for us to wave donkeys, but the donkey should be the symbol we have in our hearts as we enter Holy Week.

I think we need to be careful not to make the same mistake the people did as we enter into Holy Week,  Jesus preached peace, love, compassion, justice, equality, forgiveness...all of those virtues I mentioned in several of my Lenten sermons that separate us from beasts.

But time and time again, Jesus and the philosophy he expounded is appropriated, distorted, perverted and warped to serve the needs of the wielder.  The same is true of just about every religion and political philosophy.

As we approach Easter, we need to be reminded that the judgment, mockery and violence of the Crucifixion is not the end of the story, and it is not even the most important message that we should be drawing from the cycle of Holy Week.

The message we ought to draw is the message of the Resurrection.  The message is that despite our human failings, despite the human impulses that drive us toward greed, selfishness and cowardice, the principles that Jesus embodied, the principles that God embodies cannot be destroyed.

As we approach the Resurrection, I hope we all have the courage to stick to the morals, values and ethics Jesus espoused, and to not use him for our own agendas.

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