Sunday, March 20, 2016

Donkey Theology: Sermon for Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016

The "little piece on Donkey Theology" I cite is by Koloma Make of Papua New Guinea, who spoke with two elders, Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Morris, in Jamaica. It is found in Let Justice Roll Down: A Worship Resource for Lent, Holy Week and Easter, compiled by Geoffrey Duncan (Norwich, Norfolk: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2003).

After Jesus said this, he continued on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

As Jesus came to Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives, he gave two disciples a task. He said, “Go into the village over there. When you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If someone asks, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say ‘Its master needs it.’” Those who had been sent found it exactly as he said.

As they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They replied, “Its master needs it.” They brought it to Jesus, threw their clothes on the road, and lifted Jesus onto it. As Jesus rode along, they spread their clothes on the road.

As Jesus approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole throng of his disciples began rejoicing. They praised God with a loud voice because of all the mighty things they had seen. They said,
“Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord.
Peace on heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”

Some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!”

He answered, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.”
- Luke 19:28-40, Common English Bible

Last week we were in the Caribbean, in the Cayman Islands. The Caymans are a British Overseas Territory, so when we got off the plane and entered the airport terminal there were portraits of the Queen and Prince Philip, so as Canadians we felt right at home. We have a friend who lives there, so he has a car and is used to driving on the left side of the road, which I am not. He took us around Grand Cayman, down some roads where tourists almost never go, to see where many Caymanians live.

And all over the island there are churches. Each village seems to have a church for our partners the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, and a Church of God Full Gospel Hall, and a Seventh Day Adventist church. And we saw a Wesleyan Holiness Church, and a church that meets in a movie theatre, and a Presbyterian church. I guess that, just like here, that’s where the Presbyterians go who didn’t join the United church. In the National Museum of the Cayman Islands there is a section on religion, and how important the church is in Cayman life. On Sundays everything on the islands closes. No shopping at all. Cruise ships anchor in Georgetown harbour on Sunday and several thousand people get off, ready to shop, but nothing is open.

Well, Grand Cayman last week may be 20 centuries and an ocean removed from our story about Jesus entering Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday, but there are palm trees everywhere, and it’s hot, and I can imagine people eagerly cutting branches from the trees and waving them to greet Jesus. And I can imagine a donkey. In the days before banks and finance companies and resorts came to the Caymans, people lived by fishing and catching turtles and farming. We visited a heritage farm, with an outdoor hut called a caboose for cooking in the heat, and a yard with no grass, just sand, as they have in the West Indies, and fruit trees. And in those days, people used boats, and horses, and donkeys to get around. Now the Caymans have one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean, and most people drive. We were in a Kia, identical to ours except that it had right-hand drive. Our friend said everything is in the same place except you will turn on the windshield wipers when you want to signal a turn, until you get used to driving.

Our story tells us that Jesus asks two of his friends to bring him a colt to ride. The Greek word Luke uses here means a young donkey. I was reading a little piece on Donkey Theology, written by someone who spoke with two elderly men in Jamaica. One of the elders says that a patient man rides a donkey. The first lesson you learn riding a donkey is patience. If a rider is in a rush and wants to reach their destination quickly by forcing the donkey, the animal will hesitate, and move slowly, or halt. Patience is a virtue you learn from not struggling against the donkey.

The other elderly man points out how humbly the donkey carries its load. In the West Indies donkeys were, and still are, used to carry water, sugar cane, and people, and to pull carts, all over long distances. Donkeys and their owners know about weight. This old Jamaican man quotes from the Bible, from Mark 8:34, where Jesus says, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” In the West Indies, a donkey often carries two hampers, placed on either side of its back. It’s like a yoke, a burden to carry. These old men say that the donkey is a symbol of the cross.

Patience. Humility. Carrying the cross. All shown to us by the donkey, and all shown to us by Jesus. The donkey is not what we would think of as the most magnificent of animals. And look at Scripture, the prophecy of Isaiah about a man of sorrows, a suffering servant, a prophecy we see as fulfilled in Jesus:

He possessed no splendid form for us to see, no desirable appearance.
He was despised and avoided by others; a man who suffered, who knew sickness well.
Like someone from whom people hid their faces, he was despised, and we didn’t think about him.
- Isaiah 53:2-3
Riding a donkey teaches patience. The donkey carries its load humbly. And look at what the letter to the Philippians says about Jesus:
When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
- Philippians 2:7-8

Donkey Theology. The old men of the West Indies have a lot of wisdom pointing us to the donkey, an animal who is laughed at yet played and plays an essential role in rural life, a poor beast which with its load becomes a symbol of the cross. The donkey and Jesus are both humble, both teach patience, both are mocked, both carry burdens – the donkey whatever people put on it, Jesus the weight of everything we have done wrong. The donkey, such an object of ridicule, becomes a royal mount for the King of Kings, carrying Jesus down the slope into the city and his destiny: the cross.

That cross is waiting for him on Friday. The shadow of that cross reaches out to him now. We may want to rush right to Easter Sunday, to fast forward to lilies and coloured eggs and an empty grave and resurrection, and zip right by Friday and that cross. But remember the patience the donkey teaches. If you try to hurry a donkey, it will slow down or stop completely. We can’t race past Good Friday. This is one story, from Palm Sunday through Holy Week to the Last Supper Jesus shares with his friends on Thursday, through his arrest and trial and death on the cross on Good Friday, to waiting as his body lies in the grave on Saturday, before we get to Easter morning. One story. So much meaning: pain and joy, sorrow and mystery. Holy Week begins.

The photos are mine: Elmslie Memorial United Church in Georgetown, Grand Cayman, a congregation of the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands; and cruise ships moored off Georgetown harbour, taken from Grand Cayman's Seven Mile Beach.