Sunday sermon from Palm Sunday, March 24, 2013
Text: Luke 19:28-40
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa
I'd like to ask you, in response to this Palm Sunday text, the story of Jesus's entrance into the city of Jerusalem, to find yourself in the story. The scene is chaotic: the crowd presses close to a narrow path towards the city gates, Pharisees shout over the noise of the Hosannas, disciples follow him close beside. I'd like you to wonder where you are this morning as you watch the savior ride in on a donkey.
The Presbyterian Book of Worship tries to answer that question for us; it makes a suggestion for Palm Sunday that "if possible, the congregation gathers at a designated place outside the usual worship space, so that all may enter the church in procession." Now this is a very Palm Sunday sort of thing to do. Palm Sunday is, among other things, the day in the life of the church when everybody gets to have a procession, even those of us in denominations that tend to avoid that sort of ... choreography. And I have nothing against processions as a general rule, and we had a very lovely one this morning. But this particular suggestion - that we all should have gathered outside and processed in together - makes a number of ambitious assumptions. It assumes that we who tend to avoid choreography would manage to rise to the occasion and not just trip over ourselves walking down the aisle. It assumes that late March in Virginia would feel a bit more like late March in Virginia a bit less like mid-February in Ohio, or maybe it assumes that we would have more of a narthex, more of a gathering spot outside the sanctuary than we actually have, lest instead we find ourselves blockading the traffic on Second Street waiting for the bell to call us inside. That's a handful of ambitious assumptions, and my high school geometry teacher was very clear on what happens when you "assume," and if you don't know what it is I'm sure there's somebody here who can explain it to you after the service.
But to me the biggest assumption in that piece of stage direction is this: if we're all in the procession, then nobody has to be in the crowd, the crowd that welcomes him into the city with song and ceremony and yet will turn, and forget, and by Friday morning will be calling for his crucifixion. So who would want to admit to being in the crowd? Who wouldn't rather be in the procession? If you were in the procession, that was for the real disciples. The ones who had been there, man. The ones who had broken bread with him and drunk wine together with him and suffered with him at the hands of an unforgiving world, the ones who had left everything to follow him. Have we really done all of that? Or do we assume too much? But we're not yet out of options. Many of us, particularly those of us who count ourselves as religious leaders, are occasionally stuck playing the role of Pharisee; it might do us well to find ourselves uncomfortable in this story and still hope for the Gospel.
But then off to the side, there at the back, at something of a remove from the whole scene, are my favorite characters in this whole parade, characters we have yet to mention and yet characters I think we really understand more than any of the others: a couple of farmers who have just had their donkey stolen.
You heard me. The heart of this story, what Luke spends his precious detail on, is the forcible acquisition - the theft - of a donkey. Jesus tells some of his disciples to go on to the next village where they will find an unridden donkey, and to take it and bring it back, and if anyone asks them why they are shoplifting a donkey, they should simply say that the Lord needs it. And all of this happens just exactly as Jesus predicts: the disciples go on ahead and find just such a donkey - though how you tell an unridden donkey by sight I have no idea - and proceed to untie it and lead it away, and then the text says that the donkey's owners approach them and ask them what they are doing.
Which would seem a very polite rephrasing of what they perhaps actually said. After all, this is no small thing: a new donkey could represent untold economic opportunity and stability; it would be no small investment and no small loss. But the disciples inform the donkey's owners that the Lord needs it, and that's the last we ever hear of them. You might want to assume that sometime later in the day one of the disciples brings their donkey back. You might want to assume that that the owners of the donkey were offered fair market value in compensation for their loss. But we don't know any of that. For all we know, these guys are in the crowd later in the week, looking up at Jesus on trial and thinking "hey, that's the guy who stole our donkey!" And knowing what we do, how could we not sympathize?
Now, it is true that the donkey's original owners are victims of a bit of wordplay. The word for "Lord" here has a kind of double-meaning: on one hand, of course, it has the theological force that we invoke in our own Sunday liturgy; on the other, it has the same sense as it does in your favorite Jane Austen novel, or, let's face it, Downton Abbey, referring to whatever local landowner happened to be at the top of the feudal pyramid. The double-meaning that we have in English is right there in the Greek, so that when the disciples invoke the power of the Lord they seem to be invoking a kind of economic privilege, a right of ownership based on political power and legal authority. It should be a bit surprising that a Gospel so consistently passionate about the rights of the poor and socially outcast should all of a sudden start wielding political and economic power just to seize real property from working farmers. But if you take the other meaning of it, with the capital-L Lord and his capital-P Purposes, it gets even easier to sympathize, and even easier to understand, because the Lord needs things from us all the time.
God needs things from us all the time. And I'm not just talking about money, though I am also talking about money. God needs things from us all the time. God needs our attention, but how many hours do we spend in worship and how many more in distraction? God needs us to do justice and love kindness, to love one another, but how many hours do we spend in service to our community and to the world and how many more serving only ourselves? God needs our time and our talent and, yes, our money, but how much do we really give? How easy it is to say only "That donkey is mine! I have some right to it. I have some need." It is not easy being in relationship with such a needy God. Certainly not when our needs seem so overwhelming. The world seems such a fragile place, Lord; what about our need for safety and stability? The past haunts us; our relationships suffer; what about our need for fellowship and joy and forgiveness? The future seems so uncertain, Lord; what about our need for hope?
But the scandal of this text is that there's no theft at all. Actually the word that we translate as "owner" here is also again the same word for Lord; yes, it shows up everywhere in this text, and at some point the translators just didn't want to repeat themselves. But what it means is that the donkey's owners have exactly the same authority over the donkey that Jesus does over the entire story. They are its lords; but He is The Lord, and if they are the owners of this donkey; then he is the owner of all things. Or as the Psalmist would say, "The Earth is the Lord's, and everything that it is in it!" This Jesus who processes into Jerusalem is one and the same with the God who created Heaven and Earth and holds dominion over all things. And in fact the story reminds us at every turn of his Lordship: the crowds remove their cloaks to make for him a soft path; he tells the Pharisees that if the people were quiet the stones themselves would shout out to him; not to mention that he predicts exactly how and where his disciples will find the donkey itself. Jesus's authority over Heaven and Earth is writ large over every inch of this scene, and surely he cannot steal a donkey that belonged to him the whole time.
The donkey was never theirs. And so for us: our time, our energy, our attention, our money, our talent and devotion, none of it has ever been ours to keep. This is the Gospel for Palm Sunday: that the earth is the Lord's, and everything that is in it - and not just the things we don't need, and not just the extra time we have at the end of the day, and not just the spare change left in our pockets - but that everything we are and everything we have belongs to God. This Gospel is an affront to our selfishness, but also a comfort to our fears, because it means too that our needs are never finally our own. That our worries and disbeliefs, that our exhaustion and weariness, that the fragility of the world and the shadows of the past and the spectre of the future are themselves never really ours, but rather safe in the hands of the one who has authority over all things. This story is a reminder that the power of God gives comfort and discomfort in the same breath, and that the two cannot be separated: for good and bad, in strength and weakness, on Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, everything we are and everything we do, belongs to God.
The scene outside Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is something akin to chaos. It would be a winding, narrow road up from the valley to the city gates, lined with crowds of people streaming out of the city, men, women, and children alike, breaking into the old songs and remembering the old heroes and wondering with vast hopefulness about this new King of the Jews. Pharisees, terrified and astonished to see such fervor, shout to make themselves heard over the din of the multitudes. And disciples follow behind him, exhausted from the long journey, unsure of what awaits them in the Passover celebration about to begin, unsure of what Jerusalem has in store.
And this Sunday, as we gather around this table, the Lord's table, we stand on the brink of this Holy Week. You may be standing with the crowd, excited and eager and alive with hopefulness. You may be standing with the Pharisees, terrified and astonished and heavy-set with disbelief. You may even walk in the procession, weary from the long work of following where Jesus has called you and unsure about what awaits you in the week ahead. But no matter who are you this morning, you are the Lord's, and no matter what burdens you carry, they are the Lord's burdens, and even everything yet to come in this long week ahead is under the dominion of the one who has created heaven and earth. So no matter who you are this morning, you are, in some small part, the donkey, owned and needed and called by the Lord of Heaven and Earth, no matter what else you assume.