Saturday, March 31, 2012

Palm/Passion Sunday

So it's April Fools Day.  I remember as a boy this day we observed this day with the utmost seriousness.  During the morning it was verbal trickery, spinning a yarn in the hope someone would fall for it and make themselves look ridiculous.  Afternoons were for practical jokes and physical humour like pinning a note to someone's back or sticky taping down the telephone handset.  Teachers of course were the butt of most of our jokes - though I do remember one year when our science teacher got his own back by making us do an experiment that went stinkily wrong.  The best ever in my experience was just after I started work in the Public Service – a very serious environment for a serious young man – when a memo came around from the Deputy Commissioner informing us that the Department was planning to improve its service to the public by being open 24 hours a day.  Would we please nominate our preferred two days of the week to work the graveyard shift …?

All in all a wonderful day of the year for us to remember the holy fool who thumbs his nose at the Temple authorities and the might of the Roman Empire by borrowing a donkey and riding into Jerusalem in a parody of the imperial procession taking place at the exact same time on the other side of the city.  Ironically, the clown's name was Yehoshua – which means, 'he saves'- or 'God saves'.  As he rides into town the crowd – maybe it was a put-up job, maybe it was spontaneous – shout 'hoshiana!'- 'save us!', or 'God help us!'. And a few days later, because this holy fool doesn't seem to be able to do anything much to help at all, they shout 'hang him!'.

To backtrack a bit.  Yes, there were two processions that day, and the important one wasn't Jesus' cheeky bit of street theatre.  It was the beginning of Passover Week in the most dangerous and volatile city of the occupied territories, and the Roman occupation forces were not in the business of taking chances.  The population of the city would be doubled or trebled overnight, with Jewish pilgrims from all over the known world converging on the holy city for the feast of Passover – and not just any Passover but a Great Passover – the one year in seven when the Passover meal would be eaten on the eve of the Sabbath.  Overnight the city would turn into a melting pot of religious and nationalistic fervour and the Temple authorities – the Jewish elite who operated the Temple system as a sort of franchise for the Roman governor – would need all the help they could get to keep a lid on the inevitable trouble.  Remember, this was the city that 30 years later was actually burned to the ground, the Temple destroyed, the population dispersed and over 2,000 young men crucified as the Romans put down a revolt sparked by another would-be messiah with brutal efficiency.  Pontius Pilate – who normally lived in the way more comfortable seaside city of Caesarea Maritimae to the north, made it his personal business to attend the festivities and take up positions with his troops in the Antonia Fortress overlooking the Temple's Court of the Gentiles.  So that afternoon, the Sunday before the Passover, Pilate rode into Jerusalem on his warhorse from the north, surrounded by his troops carrying the eagle standard, for the express purpose of cowing local and foreign Jews alike and reminding them that – well, they might have their holy festival but in the end, there was no god but Tiberius Caesar Augustus.

Except on the other side of town, riding in from the south-east on a borrowed donkey with a few bewildered looking followers waving palm fronds, and shopkeepers and children running alongside shouting, 'God help us!'- Jesus begs to differ.  Talk about an April Fools Day joke.  No wonder he ends up on a Roman cross, the form of execution reserved for insurrectionists.  But that still lies in the future, that is the business of the holy and horrifying week ahead.  Today I want to talk about Jesus the nobody.  Jesus the inveterate borrower, the holy fool.

Somebody pointed out to me the other day how much of the important objects in Jesus life were borrowed.  'Didn't he own anything?', my friend wondered.  My mind immediately went, as I'm sure yours would have also, to the old wedding jingle – '

Something old, something new
Something borrowed, something blue
And a silver sixpence in her shoe.

The sixpence is clear enough, certainly.  No bride wants to marry into penury, it's important to have a little something to fall back on and if your new husband doesn't know what's hidden in your shoe, so much the better.  But as for the rest – good for brides, good for disciples also.  It sound a bit like Jesus' description in St Matthew's Gospel of the ideal scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven who he says ' is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old'. [1]  The old and the new connect us to the faithfulness of the past and the optimism and hope of the future.  The blue – apparently brides in England before the 19th century often wore blue to remind them of Mary, the ideal mother who embodies love and fidelity.  The borrowed of course connects us to other people and reminds us that we are called to God in a community of mutual care, never as isolated individuals. 

The Gospel insists the donkey was borrowed, and we even get a glimpse of the slightly cloak and dagger arrangements that Jesus seems to have made along the way.  He gives his disciples a password to use if they are challenged by the donkey's owner.  This street theatre has been set up in advance.  Jesus knows the city is going to be buzzing with a festival atmosphere, with entertainment and outlandish-looking foreigners and hawkers selling food.  The atmosphere is pungent with expectation and camel dung.  And Jesus chooses to enter the city provocatively and publically – sitting on a borrowed donkey.

The point is obvious.  God alone is the rightful ruler of God's people, not Caesar.  Not America.  Not the Queen of England or the Prime Minister of Australia and not even Twiggy Forest or Gina Reinhart.  And the people catch the mood, they get the point as they see the rabbi – famous and perhaps a little infamous in his own right – lurching and hee-hawing into town, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!' – 'God help us!'

The donkey wasn't the only thing that Jesus borrowed, of course. He was a lifelong borrower - born in a borrowed place and laid in a borrowed manger.  As he travelled, he had no place of his own to spend the night.   He rode into the city on a borrowed donkey.  He ate his final meal in a borrowed room.  He was crucified on a borrowed cross, wearing a borrowed crown that the April Fools Day jokers stuck on his head.  And when he died, somebody placed his body in a borrowed tomb. 

He wasn't an owner, but a borrower.  His life was lived in radical dependence not only on God, but on others.  Tellingly, he commands his disciples to travel just as light – 'When you go out to proclaim the good news, take no money, no knapsack, no extra tunic, no extra shoes, not even a walking stick'. [2] Take only a word of peace, borrow the bed given to you, and proclaim that God's kingdom has come very close.   At its core, the Good News of God doesn't need many props. What it does need is the kind of people who believe it simply as they can.

The early church reflected on the one who they came to understand revealed God's true character.  Our Lord was a borrower.  He didn't grasp or grab what belonged to him, but shared what was given to him freely. As St Paul writes, apparently quoting the words of an ancient hymn, 'He didn't count equality with God as something to be grasped.' [3] He didn't hold onto heavenly glory or throw his weight around. He never forced himself on anybody. Instead, he offered and accepted hospitality.  He emptied himself.  He gave himself completely away for the benefit of others.

It's easy to see how this wandering rabbi who accepts the hospitality of friends and strangers, who eats with holy people and prostitutes, who laughs and weeps and tells stories and heals – and who rides a borrowed donkey into town to the half-serious acclamation of an over-excited crowd – it's easy to see how Jesus is challenging the might of Rome and the power of the Temple authorities.  Harder, perhaps, for us to admit how much he challenges us, in our culture so bent on consumption and looking out for number one.

Who are the blessed ones? Jesus says they are the people who don't have very much: the poor in spirit, those who mourn the loss of a loved one, those who are meek, those who are hungry for food and thirsty for righteousness. These are the blessed ones, says Jesus. Blessed are those who keep a light grip on all that they have, for they know that everything in life depends on the generosity of God. They are the people who have everything.

As he rides into town, acting out the world's first and best April Fools Day joke, Jesus returns everything he has ever borrowed, empties himself for what is to come.  Dare we follow, this week, and see how it all turns out?


[1] Mtt 13.52

[2] Lk 9.3

[3] Phil 2.6