Sermon for March 24th, 2013
1When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ 4This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5 ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ 11The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.
Surely Jesus is Joking...Right?!?
Holy week is an emotional roller coaster. It usually goes something like this: Triumph on Palm Sunday (when Jesus marches into Jerusalem and is greeted by enthusiastic crowds). Solemnity and nostalgia on Maundy Thursday (as Jesus shares his last Supper with his closest friends). Anger and rage on Good Friday (as the crowds turn against Jesus), followed by sadness and grief (as he is executed on a cross). Fear and uncertainty on Holy Saturday (as the disciples hide and ponder their shattered purpose). Then finally, joy and again triumph on Easter Sunday (as Jesus returns, having conquered death and hell). But there's one emotion missing from the story: What about...humor?
It's subtle, but I think it's there in today's scripture reading. Earlier, I read it to you from the NRSV--the New Revised Standard Version--but let me tell you the story again: This time I'll be using the NIV translation. That's the "New International Version." It's "Neal's Improvised Version." I've been told it's quite different from the original text, and has a tendency to exaggerate or stretch the limits of the story. To which I invariably reply, "Everything I say is 100% true. If you don't believe me, check it out for yourself and see." And that, incidentally, is how you get people to actually read the bible.
Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Beth-phage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent his two best stealth-ninja disciples into town, saying to them "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her." The disciples said, "Wow...Jesus is using those supernatural psychic powers again. He knows everything." Jesus said, "Hey guys, we're in 1st century Jerusalem. If we were in 21st century Texas, and I told you to go out to the parking lot, and immediately you will find an SUV with a pick-up truck next to it, would you still be impressed with my psychic powers? The stealth-ninja disciples, whose training did not include rigorous mental exercises, said "Oh." Then Jesus said, "untie the donkey and the colt, and bring them to me. And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, The Lord has need of them...and then run...really fast." Then Jesus winked at them. And they said, "Oh."
So the stealth-ninja disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them. They brought the donkey and the colt, and threw their clothes on the animals, leaving the disciples...well...a bit chilly. So Jesus rode into town on a very well-dressed but lowly donkey, and a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others (who were not so much into public nudity) modestly cut down branches from the trees, and spread them on the road.
Then the crowds cried out, saying: "Hey, here comes our savior -- the Son of King David! Save us, mighty King, Save Us! Move over, let me see! No, you get out of the way! Look, I can almost see him! Here he comes...This is so Awesome! Hey, what's that he's riding? Battle Stallion? War Horse? Ummm, let me see. Looks like...oh. What?? Ummm...he's riding a donkey. No seriously, what's he riding? Thoroughbred? No, I'm pretty sure that's a...yep--it's a donkey. Eee-awww.
And when Jesus had come into Jerusalem, all the city was greatly moved, saying..."ummm, who's *that*?" So the multitudes said, "This is Jesus, that prophet from Oklahoma. Nothing good ever came out of there, now, did it?"
The is the word of the Pastor (Thanks be to God he didn't translate the whole Bible).
So, yeah, I might be stretching a little. But I really do think Jesus is going for funny here, or at the very least, a little bit mischievous. And that's a huge contrast with the city he's entering. Jerusalem at Passover was a very tense place--the Jews are occupied by an oppressive Roman Empire, and Passover is actually a celebration of Jewish victory over Empires (Remember the original passover celebrated Moses and the Israelites' defeat of the Egyptian empire). Palm branches, contrary to popular belief, are not symbols of peace, here. They're symbols of Israel. Think Eagles, Stars and Stripes, or Liberty Bells -- People are waving the unofficial Jewish Flag, prepared to rally behind anyone bold enough to take on the Roman Empire. They're spoiling for a fight, and the Romans know this. And into this situation walks Jesus, tense expectations on every side. Holt onto that image for just a minute; we'll come back to it.
There's a 1970's Paul Newman film called Slapshot -- It's about a hockey team, and in one scene during a game, a fight breaks out on the ice (big surprise, right?). One of the players, instead of joining in the brawl, starts stripping his clothes off, doing a little dance on the ice. The crowd, and the other players start laughing and the fight ends. Tense situation diffused by humor. See where I'm going?
Jesus rides in to a tense situation in Jerusalem, and the question on everyone's mind is, "Are you the king we've been waiting for?" There are basically two responses Jesus could have made: He could say "yes," and now he's the leader of a rebellion against the Roman Empire...which would proceed to squash him and the Jews as they had done many times before. Or, he could say "No, I'm not the king you've been waiting for", in which case the eager, desperate crowd would squash him as an impostor and a fraud.
It's a trap, like all the other times Jesus is confronted by the powers of this world, and the beliefs and expectations of desperate people. What does he do? Same as always...he takes the third way, the one that turns everything upside down. He says to the crowd, "Yeah I'm your king -- how do you like my royal donkey?" Jew or Roman, I would have laughed, I think, and maybe said, "Yeah, that Jesus guy...he's something else."
Of course, five days later he gets squashed by the desperate crowd AND by the Roman Empire. And we really don't like that part, do we? We, Americans, who cannot stand to lose. Thank God for Easter and the resurrection, or else how could we possibly worship a Jesus who surrenders his life without a fight? That's so un-American.
You see, I think the crowd on that first Palm Sunday might have actually understood the joke. Maybe we're the ones who don't get it. We're still looking for a power messiah. We still celebrate Palm Sunday as a "triumphant entry" and we sing songs about Hosanna, All Glory Laud and Honor, here in the richest, most powerful country on earth...and how can WE possibly claim to understand a King who comes riding into town on a borrowed donkey? How can WE, who pride ourselves on being the "first and formemost" of everything, possibly understand a savior who tells us that "the last will be first and the first will be last?"
Surely Jesus is Joking again...right?
Every Sunday we repeat, in the Apostle's Creed, that Jesus "ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty." Growing up, I always thought, "I sure hope God never has to use his right hand, what with Jesus sitting on it and all." But seriously, to sit at the right side of the King was an honor reserved for the most powerful person in the King's court--usually the prince or the prime minister. We would expect Jesus to occupy that place of honor, that place of power.
If you ask most Christians today who Jesus is, you'll probably get this simple answer: He's the Son of God. And he was--Peter called him that, and he claimed the title for himself once or twice in the Bible. It's a good title: Son of God. Impressive. Powerful. But it wasn't his favorite title. Over and over, throughout the gospels, Jesus refers to himself by another title--his favorite--Son of Man. Son of mankind. Human. Weak. Vulnerable. Just like you and me. Or maybe just like a servant.
So...who sits on the left-hand side of the King? In a medieval court, at least, that would be the least powerful person in the room: the court Jester...the Joker...the King's fool. I wonder if Jesus, sitting at the right hand of God, ever switches sides? I've said that the court jester is the least powerful person in the room, but there are some definite advantages to being "last." If they're laughing at you, then you're not a threat, and if you're not a threat, you can get away with saying and doing things that powerful people can't. When the British Navy decimated the ships of King Philip the Sixth (the French King), his jester was the one chosen to give him the bad news. He put it this way: "Sire, those English sailors don't even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French do."
If Jesus plays the fool on Palm Sunday, he wouldn't be the first in the Bible, or the last. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah walked around naked for three years to make a point that Israel was about to be stripped naked, too. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul says that "the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God." Speaking to the rich and powerful Corinthians, he says that "We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honour, but we in disrepute." Apparently, Paul knew a thing or two about being the court Jester.
In the famous plays of William Shakespeare, the actor who plays the fool is often the smartest character in the court, the source of true wisdom, the only one who is able to see the truth in a situation, and put it eloquently, and comically, into words. Of course, Shakespeare's fools, when they speak too much truth, are often whipped and beaten. Historical fools and court jesters who went too far were sometimes executed. And this brings us back to Jesus, and Palm Sunday. As I mentioned before, just five days after his Palm Sunday foolishness, Jesus is denounced by the crowd, whipped, beaten, and executed by the Roman government. And no matter how hard we laugh on Palm Sunday, the next part of the roller coaster ride makes us pretty uncomfortable.
I think all of this is why we much prefer to celebrate Easter -- it's the victorious Jesus, who "conquers" death and storms the gates of hell. He's strong, he's powerful. To borrow a phrase from Charlie Sheen, Easter Jesus is #winning! Easter Jesus is almost downright American, happy ending and all.
But the Jesus of Palm Sunday is harder for us to like than the Jesus of Easter--he's not a "winner." He's a comedian, a jester who subtly mocks us, and challenges our assumptions about what's really important in our lives: You don't need to come riding into town on expensive wheels. A donkey will do. A borrowed one at that. If you're worried about appearance, remember Jesus' donkey was probably better dressed than he was. If you want the crowds to call out your name and adore you, remember how long that lasts. Instead maybe spend time with your twelve closest friends--they're much more likely to stick around after your time in the spotlight is done. If you want to be strong, if you want to be rich, if you want to be powerful, then at least be willing to listen to the wisdom of the fool, the one who said that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The fool who told us to feed the hungry, take in the stranger, and take care of the poor. The fool who said "whatever you do to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done unto me." I don't think he was joking about that.
Most of the things Jesus teaches aren't easy to do. Or even hear. But he does it with a smile...riding on a donkey. And if you can take a joke, if you can laugh at yourself just a little, maybe Palm Sunday isn't just for the crowds of Jerusalem. Maybe it's for us...for the rich and the poor, the powerful, and the weak alike. May we simple fools open our eyes, open our hearts, and open our homes. And as we welcome Jesus into town this Palm Sunday, may we welcome those he loved most as well.