The Donkey & Palm Crosses

The Church’s year approaches its climax as we remember Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  He rides a donkey and palm branches are waved and strewn at his feet.

Our liturgy says:

“Behold your King comes to you,
O Zion!
meek and lowly,
sitting on a donkey!”

Why Jesus should ride in on a donkey is a subject for debate.  Some scholars think he was satirising a Roman procession, making a political and anti-Roman gesture.  Jesus was certainly executed as a political agitator, so there may be some truth in this.

However, we would be mistaken if we saw Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as a symbol of Jesus humility.  Riding into a city on a donkey was not a sign of humility, but a sign of Kingship.  On his procession to take the throne of his late father, David, Solomon processed into Jerusalem on a donkey – the crowd certainly seem to understand this symbolism, as they hail Jesus as ‘the Son of David’.

Either way, Jesus is defiant as he walks toward his fate:  The crowd, along with the disciples are delirious.  The disciples were euphoric – they thought this was their time of triumph was at hand…  They were marching with confidence into the stronghold of their enemies.  Surely they came to pull down the authorities that condemned them and their leader.  Surely their Messiah would oust the Romans.  Surely the Kingdom of God was at hand, and this was the pivotal moment.

The Kingdom of God was at hand.  This was the moment that Jesus ministry had been building up to, but it was not how the disciples imagined as they cried ‘Hosanna’ on the first Palm Sunday.  If they really knew what it was all about they would not desert Jesus on Good Friday, leaving the women to quietly keep the faith.

Today you have been given Palm Crosses.  Palm Crosses are a lovely symbol and reminder if this event.  But by folding the palm leaves into this designs we miss why the people would have waved them.  If you shake a palm branch the leaves strike together and make a loud noise – the first century equivalent of a football rattle.  The palms were for a joyful, noisy, exuberant celebration.

For us the symbolism is deeper.  In just under a year people will bring their palm crosses back to church and they will be burned: turned into ash for use at the 2017 Ash Wednesday service, where I will mark your forehead with ash and say the ancient words, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ…”

The palm is a symbol of exuberant life and a symbol of death.  And in between it is a cross.  A symbol of Jesus, who walks with us in life and in death.

Your Palm Cross reminds you not only of Palm Sunday, but of Jesus enduring presence and love through life.

But if we return to the first Palm Sunday, Jesus words and actions had set people free, he had broken down barriers that divided people, he accepted the outcast and proclaimed a new world order where the last and the least were the most important and valued.

But along the way he has upset too many if those with a vested interest in the status quo, and as we walk together along the rest of Holy Week, a tragedy is about to unfold…

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Palm Sunday

This Palm Sunday morning I want to reflect on a story of a controversial figure – everyone in the nation had heard of him, he was loved by some and hated by others.  He seemed to always speak his mind , and every word was analysed – and hailed as wit and wisdom by his followers, while being heavily criticised by his detractors.  This man has had enthusiastic supporters cheering him on, and jeering crowds baying for punishment.

The man’s initials are JC.

I am, of course, talking about Jeremy Clarkson.

Clarkson has always been a controversial figure, hated by environmentalists and people with… …a brain; and loved by car fanatics and right-wingers.

If you have spent this week in a cave (who knows, maybe you have been living in a cave for Lent) you may have missed Clarkson being sacked for punching Oisin Tymon, the producer of the BBC show Top Gear.

There have been campaigns and opinion polls and petitions to reinstate Clarkson.

The idea of “Celebrity” is an interesting concept.  The debate was more about people’s love or hate of Clarkson than it was to do with the rights or wrongs of the incident.

The idea of “Celebrity” stops people being people in their own rights, but gives them a deeper symbolism and meaning for those who either love or hate them.  Clarkson is either a bold spokesperson for the beleaguered motorist, standing up to the politically correct consensus… Or he’s an arrogant, vaguely sexist, vaguely racist, vaguely homophobic relic who’s denial of climate change makes him a dangerous idiot.  More likely than that he is a TV presenter you either warm to or want to punch in his smug face…

Palm Sunday is a day where the concept of “Celebrity” or its first century equivalent takes centre stage (which it is in celebrity’s nature to do!).

Jesus has been a wandering preacher for three years.  With mixed success:  Crowds have flocked to hear him.  But he was rejected in his own community, and the authorities hated him.

Then on the first Palm Sunday Jesus Parades into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Our liturgy says:

“Behold your King comes to you,
O Zion!
meek and lowly,
sitting on a donkey!”

However, we would be mistaken if we saw Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as a symbol of Jesus humility.  Riding into a city on a donkey was not a sign of humility, but a sign of Kingship.  A King at war would ride into a city on a horse, but a King coming in peace would ride a donkey.  The crowd certainly understood the symbolism, and hailed Jesus as ‘the Son of David’.

Jesus is defiant as he walks toward his fate.  The crowd, along with the disciples are delirious.  The disciples were euphoric – they thought this was their time of triumph was at hand…  They were marching with confidence into the stronghold of their enemies.  Surly they came to pull down the authorities that condemned them and their leader.  Surely their Messiah would oust the Romans.  Surely the Kingdom of God was at hand, and this was the pivotal moment.

The Kingdom of God was at hand.  This was the moment that Jesus ministry had been building up to, but it was not how the disciples imagined as they cried ‘Hosanna’ on the first Palm Sunday.  If they really knew what it was all about they would not desert Jesus on Good Friday, leaving the women to quietly keep the faith.

They came to Jesus for many reasons.  A famous person, doing something unusual in public always gathers a crowd, and Jesus was famous.  He was famous because of the healings that had been reported, and many people would have gathered to see a miracle – to see some magic worked.  Others heard of his criticisms for the religious authorities, and many would have liked that, and come to see the pompous be deflated by this bolshey satirist, whose jibes about logs in eyes of the authorities, and ‘whitewashed tombs’ were the toast of every disreputable inn in Palestine.  Others would have heard the rumours that Jesus was the Messiah, and gathered to see if he really could do away with the Romans.  Perhaps I’m biased, having been brought up in Northern Ireland, but I imagine that it was those desiring political independence, who wanted the Romans to go home, that made up the bulk of the crowd.

And here we part from any simiularity with th host of a motoring show.  Jesus was not an ‘entertainer.’

Jesus words and actions set beople free, he broke down barries that divided people, he accepted the ourcast and proclaimed a new world order where the last and the least were the most important and valued.

But along the way he has upset too many if those with a vested interest in the status quo and a tragedy is about to unfold…

Poetry for Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday in Poetry

ImageMatthew 21.1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying 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. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “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.”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.
A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.
The 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!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”
The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

 

Lent is drawing to a close, the story of the Life of Christ which we act out as we walk the Church’s year, is reaching its climax.  Jesus preaching has upset too many people, his opponents are up in arms.  It is the religious leaders who are thirsting for Jesus blood, Jerusalem is the seat of their authority.  And on Palm Sunday Jesus enters their domain.

Jesus does not creep into Jerusalem, he parades in…  Palm Sunday is a day of triumph – Jesus rides into Jerusalem and is acclaimed by the crowd.

For the last few Palm Sundays I have read a poem by GK Chesterton, because it makes me smile & it makes me think.

So this year I went looking for an alternative poem, and found so many that today’s sermon may end up resembling an episode of Radio 4’s Poetry Please:

I want to begin with a short poem entitled ‘Palm Sunday’ by Henry Vaughan, the Welsh metaphysical poet.  He gives the crowds of Palm Sunday a heavenly significance:

Hark! how the children shrill and high
Hosanna cry,
Their joys provoke the distant sky,
Where thrones and seraphims reply,
And their own angels shine and sing
In a bright ring:
Such young, sweet mirth
Makes heaven and earth
Join in a joyful symphony.

Vaughan’s poem is beautiful, and the image of earth and heaven in unison is touching, but I think the power of Palm Sunday is much more earthy and earthly than that.  Jesus rides in on a donkey.  I’m sorry I cannot help myself returning to G.K. Chesterton and his poem, simply called ‘The Donkey:’

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools!  For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

Chesterton sees the humble and the despised lifted up to divine use.  And certainly this is the very core of the gospel, that the uglyness and messiness of our lives can be redeemed by God’s love.  However, we would be mistaken if we saw Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as a symbol of Jesus humility.  Riding into a city on a donkey was not a sign of humility, but a sign of Kingship.  A King at war would ride into a city on a horse, but a King coming in peace would ride a donkey.  The crowd certainly understood the symbolism, and hailed Jesus as ‘the Son of David’.

Jesus is defiant as he walks toward his fate.  The crowd, along with the disciples are delirious.  The disciples were euphoric – they thought this was their time of triumph was at hand…  They were marching with confidence into the stronghold of their enemies.  Surly they came to pull down the authorities that condemned them and their leader.  Surely their Messiah would oust the Romans.  Surely the Kingdom of God was at hand, and this was the pivotal moment.

The Kingdom of God was at hand.  This was the moment that Jesus ministry had been building up to, but it was not how the disciples imagined as they cried ‘Hosanna’ on the first Palm Sunday.  If they really knew what it was all about they would not desert Jesus on Good Friday, leaving the women followers to quietly keep the faith.

They came to Jesus for many reasons.  A famous person, doing something unusual in public always gathers a crowd, and Jesus was famous.  He was famous because of the healings that had been reported, and many people would have gathered to see a miracle – to see some magic worked.  Others heard of his criticisms for the religious authorities, and many would have liked that, and come to see the pompous be deflated by this bolshey satirist, whose jibes about logs in eyes of the authorities, and ‘whitewashed tombs’ were the toast of every disreputable inn in Palestine.  Others would have heard the rumours that Jesus was the Messiah, and gathered to see if he really could do away with the Romans.  Perhaps I’m biased, having been brought up in Northern Ireland, but I imagine that it was those desiring political independence, who wanted the Romans to go home, that made up the bulk of the crowd.

Yet in Palm Sunday are traces of Good Friday.  Jesus’ defiance would make him powerful enemies, and the crowds that chant “Hosanna” are soon chanting “crucify him.”

My next poem is  by Marie J. Post, a 20th Century poet and hymn writer who suggest parallels between Palm Sunday and Good Friday in her poem, entitled simply “Palm Sunday:”

Astride the colt and claimed as King
that Sunday morning in the spring,
he passed a thornbush flowering red
that one would plait to crown his head.

He passed a vineyard where the wine
was grown for men of royal line
and where the dregs were also brewed
into a gall for Calvary’s rood.

A purple robe was cast his way,
then caught and kept until that day
when, with its use, a trial would be
profaned into a mockery.

His entourage was forced to wait
to let a timber through the gate,
a shaft that all there might have known
would be an altar and a throne.

The joyful hosannas of today will soon be drowned out by the crowd baying ‘crucify him!”  We can only really understand Palm Sunday in the context of the week that follows.

It is Jesus’ courage here, and in the turning over of the money changers tables in the Temple that make his opponents take action, but it it in his courage that we see meaning of Jesus’ ministry writ-large.  His opposition to the misuse of power and his insistence that God’s love is for everybody, not just the social or religious elite.

By coincidence the poems I have chosen are in chronological order of being written, so finally contemporary Canadian poet Carol Penner reflects in her poem “Coming to the City Nearest You” that the events of Palm Sunday and Holy Week are not simply historical events; they are present realities.

Jesus comes to Jerusalem, the city nearest you.
Jesus comes to the gate, to the synagogue,
to houses prepared for wedding parties,
to the pools where people wait to be healed,
to the temple where lambs are sold,
to gardens, beautiful in the moonlight.
He comes to the governor’s palace.

Jesus comes to Jerusalem, the city nearest you,
to new subdivisions and trailer parks,
to penthouses and basement apartments,
to the factory, the hospital and the Cineplex,
to the big box outlet centre and to churches,
with the same old same old message,
unchanged from the beginning of time.

Jesus comes to Jerusalem, the city nearest you
with his Good News and…
Hope erupts! Joy springs forth!
The very stones cry out,
“Hosanna in the highest,
blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
The crowds jostle and push,
they can’t get close enough!
People running alongside flinging down their coats before him!
Jesus, the parade marshal, waving, smiling.
The paparazzi elbow for room,
looking for that perfect picture for the headline,
“The Man Who Would Be King”.

Jesus comes to Jerusalem, the city nearest you
and gets the red carpet treatment.
Children waving real palm branches from the florist,
silk palm branches from Wal-mart,
palms made from green construction paper.
Hosannas ringing in churches, chapels, cathedrals,
in monasteries, basilicas and tent-meetings.
King Jesus, honoured in a thousand hymns
in Canada, Cameroon, Calcutta and Canberra.
We LOVE this great big powerful capital K King Jesus
coming in glory and splendour and majesty
and awe and power and might.

Jesus comes to Jerusalem, the city nearest you.
Kingly, he takes a towel and washes feet.
With majesty, he serves bread and wine.
With honour, he prays all night.
With power, he puts on chains.
Jesus, King of all creation, appears in state
in the eyes of the prisoner, the AIDS orphan, the crack addict,
asking for one cup of cold water,
one coat shared with someone who has none,
one heart, yours,
and a second mile.
Jesus comes to Jerusalem, the city nearest you.
Can you see him?