The Stubborn Donkey and the Asses

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“[T]hey brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.” – Matthew 21:7

In advance of today’s annual Palm Sunday parade through downtown Excelsior, Trinity Episcopal‘s e-newsletter issued the sad, tongue-in-cheek announcement:

Between services the Trinity community will come together in a joyful parade, with music, laughter, and bubbles! Unfortunately, the donkey that was going to lead us is being a bit stubborn so he will not be with us.

Jesus on two donkey’s – Jean de Limbourg (c. 1385-1416)

Perhaps today’s cancellation serves as a reminder that the donkey is stubborn by nature, and that, if you manage to tame one, there will always be another nearby waiting to take its place.

Some churches today celebrate only Palm Sunday – “the Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. It’s all about palm-waving and “Hosannas!” shouted and sung to the victorious King of kings and Lord of lords.

Other churches honor the paradox of palms and fists, stubborness and spears, appearance and reality: the king who refused to be King who rode an ass (or two) into the city that wanted something more than the mortal it could raise on a cross.

Today there will be no donkey on the streets of Excelsior. The donkey is just being stubborn. Or perhaps it refuses to participate in this year’s re-enactment when palms and hosannas take her rider to the cross again in a world where asses still rule.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Passion/Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017.

 

A Palm Sunday Conundrum

This Sunday is Palm Sunday when Christians celebrate “The Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem, which was anything but triumphant. The New Testament Gospels describe it differently, which has absorbed the concentrated attention of more than one scholar or preacher trying to reconcile their differences. Steve Shoemaker, in his inimitable way, engages the debate about whether Jesus rode on just one donkey or two.

Perpectives

Matthew alone tells of the two,
the mare & colt, who carried him
into Jerusalem that day.

Since then many have mocked that view
as based more on an ancient hymn
than what an eye-witness would say.

But whether one sees one or two
depends upon the point of view:
and all saw Jesus, by the way…

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, April 8, 2014

Palm fronds and Ashes

Tomorrow morning Ida will be laid to rest. When her family cleaned out her hospice care room, already Spartan in its simplicity, they found stashes of old palm fronds she had saved from Palm Sunday along the way of her 99 years. They were the last things to go, found under her mattress, under her bed, and anywhere else she could think to keep them close. The Palm fronds and mass cards were among her most precious belongings.

In the Christian tradition the Palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned and saved for the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” We are children of dust, and to dust we shall return.

Preparing to lead the Ash Wednesday Service several years ago, I could not find the ashes. The following piece, aired on Minnesota Public Radio, serves as a twinkle in the eye tribute to Ida, whose faith was enviably simple and strong. She never got into the collection of stuff; the few things she retained bore witness to her quiet faith.

Ashes

“They’re missing! Where are the ashes?!”

It’s fifteen minutes before the Service. “Where are the ashes!”

Every year I put the ashes for the Ash Wednesday Service in the credenza in my office. I never gave it a second thought that we had moved the credenza out of my office last fall. I rush downstairs to look for it. No credenza anywhere. Then I remember. We sold it at the Annual Fall Festival! Somebody has our ashes!

What to do with no ashes? Burn some newspapers? Smoke a cigar and use the ashes? No time.

I grab a pitcher and pour water into the baptism font.

I begin the Ash Wednesday Service with the story of the missing ashes. Smiles break out everywhere. Maybe even signs of relief. “Instead of the imposition of ashes this year, we will go to the font for the waters of baptism, the waters of the renewal of life.”

We have some fun justifying the change in the Service, focusing on part of the Gospel text for the day – the words of Jesus himself. “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen my others…. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret…” (Mt. 6:16-18).

People come to the font, one-by-one, for the Imposition of Water. I dip my hand into the font. “Pat, (making the sign of the cross on her forehead), “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. You are a child of God. Live in this peace.”

After the Service is over, one of the worshipers asks whether anyone has done the same for me. She reaches her hand into the font. “Gordon, dust to dust ashes to ashes. You are a child of God….”

I’ll never forget it. Neither will they.

Somewhere in this world someone has a credenza with a sack full of ashes. Whoever you are, feel free to keep them. They’re all yours.

————

Agatina (Ida) Misiti Terranova was born in Queens, NY, the second child of first generation immigrants. She spoke only Italian until the school truant officers paid a visit to inform Ida and Millie’s parents that all children in America had to go to school. Her father wanted them to stay home to help their mother. Girls didn’t need to go to school! Ida and Millie learned English, went to work in the garment district of NYC, married two brothers, Al (Ida) and Mike (Millie) Terranova, and raised their families on the best Italian cooking and a love that was as demonstrably joyful as their egg plant parmesan sandwiches were mouth-wateringly delicious.

Millie, Al, and Mike preceded Ida in death. May they all rest in peace.

Was Jesus guilty?

by Gordon C. Stewart (copyright)

Was Jesus of Nazareth guilty as charged?

The charge against Jesus of Nazareth was that he “refused to pay tribute to Caesar” and that “he stirred up the people.” One translation called him a “seditionist” or, in a congressman’s language, a subversive, an enemy of the state. The late lay theologian and lawyer William Stringfellow argued that Jesus was a revolutionary. Not a rhetorical revolutionary, but one whose very existence threatened his world in a revolutionary way.

Years of pouring over the Gospel texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls for clues as to the nature of the time of Jesus of Nazareth have not quite brought me to the stark nakedness of Bishop James Pike, but I’m close.

The Bishop was in Washington, D.C. for a meeting of some sort. His friend Anthony Towne went to his hotel room to take him to breakfast. When Anthony knocked on the door, the Bishop shouted out, “Come on in, Tony, the door’s open.” He opened the door to find the Bishop sitting in an arm chair, Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts scattered around the floor surrounding the chair, sitting there in the altogether. The Bishop was so entranced with the Scrolls and the Scriptures that he had forgotten to dress; he was unaware of his nakedness. Bishop Pike later died alone in the Judean wilderness searching for the historical Jesus.

I’m not as obsessed with the question as James Pike was, but I am nonetheless intrigued, fascinated, confused, and excited by Jesus of Nazareth and the New Testament witness to him precisely because of the new information that invites us to ask again who Jesus was.

Christians often see the cross as something that God intended for Jesus as the Son of God, as if God sent his son into the world that we might kill him and that Jesus was surely innocent of the charges brought before Pilate. Rarely do we consider the possibility that Jesus was guilty as charged. Likewise, what we in the church call Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday is often observed in a way that paints Jesus as the non-political spiritual man whose kingdom is not of this world, contrary to the people on the street who mistakenly hailed him as the warrior king whose aim was to throw Rome out of Palestine.

Palm Sunday provides a window into the question of whether Jesus was guilty as charged. Go beneath all theological assumptions to step onto the road with the people who waved the branches and ask what they were doing there and why Jesus did what he did. But before we look at the parade into Jerusalem we remember that the death we observe on “Good Friday” was a political execution, the Roman equivalent of the electric chair, the firing squad, and the gas chamber. The charges against him at the trial are clearly political. “We found this man inciting our people to revolt, opposing payment of the tribute to Caesar, and claiming to be Christ, a King” (Luke 23:2, Jerusalem Bible). Jesus was executed as a revolutionary against the Roman Empire.

Behind the New Testament texts lie the familiar strains of the older texts from Zachariah and II Maccabees.

The background of Palm Sunday in the Book of Zachariah

One of the first things to notice about the Palm Sunday episode, the “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, is that the demonstration is not spontaneous. “The master has need of it” – the words the disciples have been instructed to speak to a man in town who owns a donkey – is code language, arranged in advance. Furthermore, Christ rides on the donkey, not a horse. Traditionally this has been taken to mean that he refuses the title of king and prefers to come instead in humility, riding on a donkey. But look more closely at the setting for the donkey passage in the literature of Zachariah and you will find an oracle against a foreign occupier. It is in the context of his oracle against oppression that Jesus chooses to ride on a donkey (or two donkeys!). Here’s the Zachariah passage:

“Near my house I will take my stand like a watchman on guard against prowlers; the tyrant shall pass their way no more, because I have now taken notice of its distress. Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem! See now, your king comes to you; he is victorious, he is triumphant, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will banish chariots from Ephraim and horses from Jerusalem; the bow of war will be banished. he will proclaim peace for the nations. His empire shall stretch from sea to sea, from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you, because of the blood of your covenant, I sending back your prisoners from the pit (in which there is no water?” – Zachariah 9:8-11, Jerusalem Bible.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is rooted in the hope of Zachariah. Riding the colt identifies Jesus with the long-held hopes of Jesus’ people for an end to their bondage – economic, political, financial, cultural, spiritual, imperial bondage. The Zachariah text occurs in a section of curses against oppressors. To cherry pick humility from the text while ignoring the context and symbolism of the donkey fails to do justice to the sweeping hope of an altogether new and totally revolutionary transformation.

The background of Palm Sunday in Second Maccabees

The people lining the streets are waving branches hailing Jesus as the Messiah, the liberator of the nation from foreign occupation. The palm was a symbol of Jewish resistance. At an earlier time in the Second Century BCE Simon Maccabaeus was hailed with palm branches after a successful Jewish warfare that had regained the nation’s freedom and reclaimed the integrity of the Temple. Here’s the text:

“Maccabaeus and his companions, under the LORD’s guidance, restored the Temple and the city, and pulled down the altars erected by the foreigners in the market place, as well as the sacred enclosures. They purified the sanctuary and built another altar; then striking fire from flints and using this fire, they offered the first sacrifice for two years, burning incense, lighting the lamps and setting out the loaves. When they had done this they threw themselves flat on the ground and implored the LORD never again to let them fall into such adversity, but if they should ever sin, to correct them with moderation and not to deliver them over to blasphemous and barbarous nations. This day of the purification of the Temple fell on the very day on which the Temple had been profaned by the foreigners, the twenty-fifth of the same month, Chislev. They kept eight festal days with rejoining, in the manner of the Feast of Tabernacles, remembering how, not long before at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles, they had been living in the mountains and caverns like wild beasts. Then, carrying branches, leafy boughs and palms, they offered hymns to him who had brought the cleansing of his own Holy Place to a happy outcome. They also decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole Jewish nation should celebrate the same every year.” (II Maccabees 10:1-8)

In times such as this I join Bishop Pike in asking who he was and find myself quite naked and often alone in the search. But one thing I think I know. Bill Stringfellow nailed it. Jesus was a revolutionary of the most profound sort. His very existence – his being – was enough to bring charges from a world that refused to be disturbed by him. “See now, your king comes to you; he is victorious, he is triumphant, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will banish chariots from Ephraim and horses from Jerusalem; the bow of war will be banished. he will proclaim peace for the nations. His empire shall stretch from sea to sea….”

Will we shrink Jesus of Nazareth to our own small size and purposes, or will we line the streets with festal branches for the humble man on the colt whose kingdom of justice, peace, and love is always being crucified but can never be extinguished?

NOTE

This sermon was preached March 19, 1978 in McGaw Chapel at The College of Wooster, Wooster, OH.

The Donkey’s Questions

Matthew’s Gospel has two asses (donkeys), not one, in its Palm Sunday narrative. “They brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon.” Steve Shoemaker’s versed ponders the scene from the standpoint of the colt.

Verse – The Donkey’s Questions on Palm Sunday,
according to St. Matthew

He searched for just the right stick…
but then he never hit me? Why
go to all that trouble? Pick
the answer: 1. that he would try
directing the singing? 2.
to lean on when the day was through?

Why does he ride on my mom
while I’m just trotting alongside?
What does “Halleluja” mean?
Who’ll pick up clothes after the ride?
Now he shifts and rides on me–
he breaks the stick and makes a “T.”
His face looks like he’s had a loss…
Is he thinking of that cross?

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL,

Sermon: The Man of Silence

A sermon for Palm Sunday/ Passion Sunday at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN, reflecting on the passion of Jesus in light of the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.