SERMON FOR PALM SUNDAY 2.4.23
The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola lay out a process of four weeks in which one contemplates the saving work of God, from creation itself through to the incarnation of Jesus into our world as a tiny and helpless baby, mapping his growth and development as a human being and his ministry, death and resurrection. Each of these weeks, which is not so much a block of seven days as a stage in the process, has an identity and integrity of its own. The first week covers creation and the fall. The second covers God’s choice to live in our world and to inhabit our human condition so as to save it from within and shows us how this choice is embodied in the person and work of Jesus. The third and fourth weeks are like two sides of one coin, which can’t be separated. There is, of course, a huge difference between the Jesus who hangs, bruised, naked and vulnerable on the Cross and the Jesus who rises in unimaginable power and glory from the dead. But in Luke’s gospel, Jesus himself tells his sorrowing disciples that his death and resurrection are part of each other. Their inability to see that is precisely what blinds them to his presence as he walks along with them to Emmaus. ‘Was it not necessary’, he says, ‘for the Christ to suffer and so enter into his glory?’
Here Jesus touches on the issue with which most of us struggle all our lives. It’s the stumbling block, the rock on which the faith of so many people founders. If God is truly all-loving and all-wise, then why is there suffering in the world? Why do bad things happen to good people and why, as the Psalm asks, do the wicked prosper? I can’t promise you an easy answer to that question. If I had one, I’d be the most famous theologian in the history of the world, and I regret to say that I’m not… But the gospels preached in Passiontide offer us a deep insight into such questions if only we will open our minds and hearts to it. The question is not how we can avoid suffering. Death, and the suffering that goes with it, appears to be part and parcel of the human condition. Nor is the question how we can avoid sin and its consequences. That, too, appears to be part of what it means to be truly free and to exercise that freedom. The question is faith in Jesus Christ can help us to live our human life to the full, even in the midst of suffering, pain and death, and how we can learn best how to imitate and follow our crucified and risen Saviour.
I have to confess that what clinched my travelling from Cambridge to celebrate Palm Sunday with you was the promise of a live donkey. I’m a sucker for anything on four legs, especially if it comes covered in fur. As soon as I knew that a donkey was involved, I was booking my tickets to London. I love it that the life of Jesus is book ended, as it were, by donkeys. The most familiar image of the Holy Family shows Mary sitting on a donkey, holding her new-born baby, while Joseph leads his little migrant family to refuge in Egypt. I wonder if Mary remembered this as she stood in the crowd, watching her son riding into Jerusalem as they proclaimed him King and Messiah?
I fully applaud your choice to have a live donkey at this service. Had I been a child in your church this would have sold me on Passiontide services for ever more. But there’s nothing sentimental or childish in the presence of a donkey in the Palm Sunday story. On the contrary, there’s something deeply poignant about it. In the time of Jesus it was the custom at harvest time for a farmer to ride around the fields he had sown earlier in the year and to give God thanks for the abundance of his harvest, waving a palm branch over it in triumphant thanksgiving and praise, singing songs and psalms of joy for God’s bounty. We know, from Luke’s gospel, that when Jesus looked out over Jerusalem, the holy city, and the place of his final preaching, he wept with disappointment and frustration. He came to his own people and his own did not receive him. What must his feelings have been as he watched the crowds lay down their garments in front of him, waving palm branches and singing their hosannas, knowing that soon they would be baying for his blood and crying out for his crucifixion?
The Jesus depicted in many illustrated Bibles and in our stained glass windows often appears to be a rather bloodless and bland human being, a man of permanent restraint, always master of himself and muted with regard to his reactions. But this is not the actual Jesus of Scripture. That Jesus is passionate, as prone to the storms of human feeling as you or I. He reproaches his disciples for their little faith when they doubt him, even after they have seen miracle upon miracle, and have been given power to perform miracles themselves. In Matthew chapter 17, when a man brings his demon-possessed son to Jesus for healing, because his disciples have been unable to help, Jesus doesn’t mince his words, exclaiming, ‘’Faithless and perverse generation! How much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?’ We can hear his frustration at their lack of confidence both in him and in themselves. That lack of confidence in themselves is implicitly a lack of confidence in God’s power, shining through their human weakness. Again and again in the Scriptures Jesus chooses as his companions and as the instruments of that saving power neither the learned nor the powerful, neither the rich, the famous nor those of high status. He chooses working people, children, outsiders and those on the social and moral margins. He chooses, as it were, donkeys in human form, and when any of these shows so much as a glimmer of faith in him, great things happen. Repeatedly, when he works miracles, he says not, ‘My power has saved you’, but ‘Your faith has saved you’. Of course we know that it is his power, but it appears that there’s a close link between divine power and our ability to believe that it can work within us, fragile and hopeless though we may appear to ourselves. Jesus appears to have very poor taste in friends, as witnessed by my being here in your church today. Yet history has shown repeatedly that, whatever limitations we may have, his glory can shine in us if we open ourselves to receive his grace. That grace rarely shields us from suffering, but it gives us strength to know God’s unshakeable presence in our suffering, come what may.
So that, finally, is the real challenge of Holy Week. Will we truly accept that his power, working in us, is sufficient for our needs? Will we accept his choice of us as his disciples, or will we shelter behind the safety curtain of our lack of confidence in that choice? Will we remain stuck in our fruitless fantasies of being a prize racehorse, or will we be content to be the donkey he has chosen to fulfil his purposes? This seems to be the question behind the wonderful poem by the American poet Mary Oliver, entitled The Poet Thinks About The Donkey
On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.
How horses, turned out into the meadow,
leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
clatter away, splashed with sunlight.
But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.
Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.
I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.
As Jesus invites us to be his companions this week and with him resolutely to turn our face towards Jerusalem, what graces do we need to help us to feel brave? What is it that drains us of courage, as disciples of Jesus? Where do we see ourselves needing to be strengthened in faith, hope and love? All the Gospels make clear that Jesus’ male disciples fled at the first real sign of danger, while his female disciples remained with him to the end. I’ve often wondered why that was. I could make sexist claims on behalf of my own gender, but I’m not going to. Perhaps the men were more likely to be arrested and killed – they basically had more to lose. There are some advantages to being largely invisible in society. Perhaps, given the high proportion of women in the ancient world who died giving birth, women were used to the idea of dying for those they loved. But John’s Gospel offers us a clue. It never directly names the Beloved Disciple other than calling him ‘the disciple Jesus loved’, but he is also clearly the disciple who loved Jesus. He loves him enough to risk putting his life in danger by following him into the house of the High Priest. Elsewhere in the same Gospel Mary of Bethany lays herself open to hostile judgement and criticism when she pours extravagantly expensive oil over Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. It’s a gesture repeated in Luke’s gospel by a woman of ill repute who kisses the feet of Jesus in welcome while his Pharisee host fails to show the traditional courtesies to his guest. Jesus remarks, ‘I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.’
It’s no small thing to love someone through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, until death. Years ago, when I was a novice, the novice mistress told us, ‘Don’t think you’ve come here to the convent for a life of sacrifice. If it’s sacrifice you want, get married and have children’. At the time I was outraged by these words, but as I watched my parents ageing and my siblings getting married and bringing up children, I understood what she meant. Any intimate relationship requires courage and the skills of love and forgiveness. It’s not necessarily the courage of grandiose gestures, but the everyday courage to put one foot in front of the other and go forward, like the donkey in the poem. Jesus doesn’t ask us to be heroes, he asks us to be faithful and loving in the little things of life and this is what true discipleship is based on. The mediaeval mystic Julian of Norwich put her finger on it when she said,
‘He wills that we know that he takes heed not only of noble things and great, but also of little and small, low and simple […] for he wills that we know that the least thing shall not be forgotten’.
This Holy Week let’s pray to have the confidence to believe that this is true, that the least thing that we pray and think and say and do for God will not be forgotten. Folklore says that the donkey was rewarded for its faithful service by receiving the mark of the Cross on its back. We were sealed with the sign of the Cross at our baptism. It’s the sign of God’s protection over our lives, whatever darkness and suffering we may be going through. It’s the sign over every true disciple who believes that God’s power is strong even in our weakness and so we go forward in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.