Friday, March 22, 2013

Palm Sunday

Today, believe it or not, is one of the two feast days of the medieval Church devoted to donkeys. You might already know this because I've preached before about some of the weirder liturgical festivals of the medieval Church.  But the first one is the official Feast of Asses, on or about January 1st, which has for its hero the donkey that the Holy Family escaped to Egypt on.  And as I've mentioned before, the Feast of Asses was the beginning of a whole season of mayhem and merriment in the Church, with donkeys being ridden up the aisle of the church and children dressed up as bishops while the real bishops scowled in the back pews somewhere or other – a season of misrule that lasted right up to the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.  When of course we have to get down to the serious business of Lent.  But the other celebration of all things donkey is today, Palm Sunday, when we notice that this funny, humble little animal has got a cross on its back.  In a real sense it's these two donkeys, silent beasts of burden, that frame Jesus' earthly life.

For some reason, we think of donkeys as funny.  If you call somebody an ass, not only does it mean they are not particularly bright, but they are also comic – maybe tragically comic.  And certainly Jesus looks a bit comic – comic and vulnerable, maybe even tragic – riding into town this morning on a borrowed donkey.  Back in the 1970s when I first got a bit involved in student politics I discovered the importance of street theatre and clowning as effective ways of making a point – engaging people's attention, even giving them a laugh at the same time as slipping in a bit of biting political satire.  As you might have heard me comment before, I think this is what Jesus is doing in his procession into Jerusalem on the first day of his final week, riding into town like a clown on a donkey – the humble, peaceful beast of burden used by peasants – in parody of the military procession happening on the other side of the city as the Roman governor Pilate rides into Jerusalem on a war-horse at the head of a column of infantry.

But when you think about it, the image of Jesus procession into Jerusalem as satire, or political clowning, makes a lot of sense.  Because he consistently used paradox and apparent contradiction to wake people up.  Much of what he said and did during his life seems pretty foolish by regular standards.  He told some crazy stories and said some pretty outlandish things.  Stories like the farmer who deliberately goes out and plants a field of noxious weeds - and he tells us God's kingdom is like that.  Outlandish claims like unless you hear the good news with the credulity of a child then you're going to miss the point, like the claim that the poor are lifted up and the rich miss out, or that if you want to be first in God's eyes then you have to live as the servant of everyone else.  Upside down stuff, foolish stuff, and he acted in ways that anybody could tell you were a recipe for disaster in the real world.  Like allowing a woman with a shady reputation to give him an extravagant foot-rub at a respectable party.  Like hanging around not with righteous folk, not with people who had any influence, but with nobodies and social pariahs, with lepers and prostitutes.  Upside down stuff that comes from loving indiscriminately, from not being strategic, from following your heart when everybody around you is following their head.  And he tells us God's kingdom is like that.  It never was going to end well.

And so on this other Feast of Asses we read a strange story of Jesus on his hobby-horse, sitting on the foal of a donkey with both his feet scraping the ground, riding into Jerusalem like a king while his disciples dance and cheer and roll out the red carpet for him.  Except, I bet it never would have made the next morning's edition of the Jerusalem Post, not the way Luke tells it, anyhow.  Matthew tells it differently, it's in Matthew's gospel that the whole city is buzzing with excitement because Jesus is coming to town, and it's in Matthew's version that we get the Hosannas and the palm branches.  None of that in Luke's version of the story.  Luke, I think, fits better with the notion of a solitary fool on a donkey riding up the nave of a cathedral.

Course, I can't say which gospel account is closer to how it actually happened – both Luke and Matthew are writing their gospels years after the event and both of them have got their reasons for putting a different spin on it – but this year it's Luke's turn to tell the story and I think there's something to be said for following it through the way he tells it, and seeing where it leads us.

No palms.  That tells us something significant.  Because waving palm branches is what you do for a triumphant military leader, that's what the people did do for Judas Maccabeus, the great Jewish resistance fighter a hundred years before Jesus when he led a brilliant campaign and threw the Greeks out of Jerusalem.  A hundred years later, the people could have used another Judas Maccabeus, a warrior Messiah, but they didn't get one in Jesus, that's for sure.  So, no palms.

No crowds either.  In Matthew the whole city is ablaze with excitement.  In Luke, it's just the disciples yelling and prancing about.  Luke says it's a multitude of disciples but, well, there's the inner circle, the 12, and a few others like blind Bartimaeus who finds he can see again and follows Jesus, there are some women like the three Marys, maybe Zacchaeus now that he's given away all his money and probably lost his job as well, and let's say a few dozen more who've realised that in Jesus they've come across something life-changing - but that's about it.  Maybe a multitude like we get at St Michaels on a good Sunday, but not the whole city ablaze with excitement, no crowds and nobody else there at all except the disciples and a few grumpy Pharisees telling them to shut up.

And Jesus is riding a donkey.  Just a little one, according to Luke, and it's not even his.  A borrowed one.  We're really meant, I think, to notice the donkey, Jesus seems to be riding into the city like a conquering warlord or a king except that he hasn't got the right vehicle.  No warhorse, just a hobby-horse.

No cheerleaders, no crowds of expectant locals, just a ragtag bunch of ex-lepers, ex-fishermen and prostitutes and fools.  Course there were a few normal folk – a few academics, one or two Pharisees like timid Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who thought that Jesus had got it just about right, but most of the ones who knew that Jesus' take on the love of God was not just right but mind-blowingly life-changing – most of them were the poor and the marginalised and the sinful men and women Jesus had bumped into along the way.  King of the ragamuffins on a donkey, a humble beast of burden, borrowed for the day.

But Luke adds an extra detail, and it's this.  The disciples are yelling, 'blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord' – that's the standard greeting for a Passover pilgrim except that they call him a king – and then an echo of the song of the heavenly host that greets Jesus' birth - 'peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!' – no crowds shouting hallelujah, just the disciples leaping and shouting, in Luke's version - and in the very next verse the mood changes because Jesus weeps over the city that actually hasn't greeted him at all, that actually hasn't heard a word he's said, and as events over the next few days will prove, has rejected outright his radical message of God's indiscriminate forgiveness and love.  'If only', this is more or less what Jesus says here, 'if only you could have recognised what peace is really about'.

Do you know what the name of the city means?  Jerusalem – the 'salem' bit is a Canaanite word, a variation of shalom, the Hebrew word for peace, and it means a bit more than our English word, it means wholeness and wellness and right relationship. The Hebrew word shalom means living together in harmony, which is why Jewish people use it even today as a greeting.  The point is, here, that Jesus has come to the city of peace with a message of peace, a message of compassionate love that turns the structures of inequality and privilege on their heads, and he says, 'that's what God's like', and the city says back: 'no way – shut up or you'll be in big trouble'. 

You ride into town in a jester's suit, sitting on a hobby-horse and telling folks, turn yourselves upside down and inside out.  Love the silliest and the least, do good to those who hate you, give away whatever it is you think makes you special, it's when you've got nothing at all that you can count yourself lucky because then you're in the right frame of mind to rely on God.  The Feast of the Asses.  No wonder nobody listened, and he ended up less than a week later, nailed to a Roman cross.

But, what about us?  What are we going to do with this fool who looks like a cheap imitation king on a donkey?  Because, make no bones about it, when Jesus rides into town on his hobby-horse there's a challenge for the locals.  Do you get it?  Have you got the point and if you have, are you game enough to actually live like this?  You see - let's not kid ourselves - there's a cost in living and loving as wastefully and indiscriminately as Jesus does.  There's a promise, too, and it's the promise of life that's fuller and more generous and more authentic, the promise of life that's so bursting at the seams it can't be stopped even by death itself – but we're not there yet.  We haven't got to that part of the story yet.  We're still talking about the cost of living and loving authentically.

So, what about us?  Are we game to follow this fool for a single week?  It's going to be a long week, a rollercoaster week - but a week, I promise you, that if you pay attention, is going to change your life.