Matthew 21:1-11

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to be feeling.” That remark from a young acolyte at a Palm Sunday service years ago captures the sense I imagine many of us have at this moment on Palm Sunday. This is the most dramatic day of the Christian year—complex and riddled with irony. We began with what seemed like a royal procession—palms in the air and dancers leading the way—and we sang a song of triumph for a savior coming to town on of all things a donkey:

All glory, laud, and honor, to thee Redeemer King,
To whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring.

But then, almost without warning, the story turned disastrously dark, and before we knew it we were staring at that young Redeemer King hanging on a cross. What can all this mean?

Writer G.K. Chesterton once captured the strange irony of this day in a poem in which the lowly, despised donkey, the ass in the parade, has its say:

When fishes flew and forest walk’d
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moments 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
Of all four-footed things.

The tatter’d 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 palm before my feet.

This humble beast of burden ends up being the bearer of the Savior of the World.

Preacher William Sloane Coffin once pointed out how many statues in Washington, D.C., portray our leaders on horses, including the majestic statue of George Washington here on the Cathedral grounds. If you’re a tourist in D.C. you might count the noble horses as you travel around town. Of course, one or two of the great statues are different. Thomas Jefferson stands pensively in his memorial, and Abraham Lincoln sits reflectively as if the weight of the world is resting on him. What would our nation’s life have been like, Coffin asks, if its capital had been filled with statues of leaders on lowly donkeys rather than proud horses? Might much of our history have taken a different course?

For three years Jesus had been teaching in the synagogues, fishing villages, and on the hillsides, miles up north in Galilee. There the crowds grew, disciples began to follow, and his reputation spread as a rabbi and healer. Meanwhile concern was rising among the religious and political authorities in Jerusalem, and they began to send delegations to challenge and argue with Jesus. Slowly it became clear to him that he needed to take his vision of God’s love for absolutely everyone to Jerusalem, directly to the heart of his people. His closest friends thought it was a terrible mistake. Why walk right into the view of the nervous Roman occupiers. But go he did, and his supporters anxiously followed.

Crowds from all over Israel were pouring into Jerusalem for Passover, the holiest time for the Jewish people that marked their liberation from slavery in Egypt long ago. That small city of 40,000 would swell to more than a quarter million. It was a time of religious passion and patriotism as the Jewish people yearned for their own liberation. It makes you think of the tension in Tahrir Square in Cairo the past few days and weeks as the oppressor’s troops were anxiously watching the crowds as they became more restive by the hour. Jerusalem was a tinderbox, and the Roman rulers like Pontius Pilate were nervous as cats.

Scholars Marcus Borg and John Crossan say there were actually two processions heading into Jerusalem. One was coming from the west with Pontius Pilate and his horseback cavalry riding into the city from Caesarea to be ready to put down any trouble. This was imperial power in all its glory.

And Jesus and his followers were coming from the east, with the poor peasant crowd cheering wildly. The walk had taken several days, and word spread that Jesus was near. He called for the donkey, and when the crowds saw him on it the situation erupted. For centuries Israel had held on to the promise of the prophet Zechariah: “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” Jesus was acting out their most cherished promise, that their real king, the Messiah, the Son of God, had finally come. Riding that donkey into the city was a direct challenge to Roman authority—a planned political demonstration, according to Borg and Crossan. Cheers and shouts were everywhere.

But here’s the surprise. Jesus was coming not to lead the revolt the Romans feared but to confront the religious and political powers of his time with God’s demanding call for a world of compassion, peace, and hope for everyone. If he was a revolutionary, he was a revolutionary for love. But every move he made and every word he uttered threatened the forces arrayed against him. At one moment he wept as he looked out over Jerusalem, and soon after he stormed into the temple and overturned the moneychanger’s tables in outrage at their profiteering. That was when the leaders knew something had to be done, and in a matter of hours they had arrested, tried, and hung him on a cross.

We Christians believe these events have given us a window directly into the heart of God. And we believe that in this man on a donkey we can see what real love, real life, and real humanity are meant to be.

On this Palm Sunday we are watching Jesus go public. ‘You don’t need to do this,’ his disciples insisted. ‘Stay out of politics, stay away from controversial issues, stay in the safety of Galilee. Stick to singing hymns and saving souls and helping people grow personally closer to God. Keep God domestic, personal, and small enough for us to handle without disturbing our lives.’

Instead, Jesus took his faith, and our faith, into the public square, with all the complexities and dangers that go with public life. The business of the church is not the church but the world, as someone put it. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” To follow Jesus is to go with him into the streets, the halls of government, the offices and factories, and homes to live his love there.

And that means that the love we see hanging on the cross today affects everything in our lives—how we spend our money, how we treat each other, how we keep our promises. And it affects our public life—how we treat the poorest, what we are doing to deal with hunger and disease across the world, how we deal with immigrants who have come to this country seeking a decent life, how we deal with prisoners whom it is easy to forget.

It affects how our government thinks about the budget and deficit issues it faces now. As Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine has said, budgets are moral documents. They express our values, our convictions, and so however our budgets are resolved, they have to be done with God’s compassion for the poorest and most vulnerable at the center.

The man on the donkey was bringing a new politics to Jerusalem that belonged to no political party. It spoke above all of a compassionate God whose love extended to everyone. It saw the world as one world—not as a cluster of competing groups, tribes, nations, and religions, but one people belonging to each other on this small planet because they belonged to God.

And it was to be a politics of humility. One of the most troubling facts about Jesus’ death is that he wasn’t put to death by evil people. He was crucified by solid, upstanding leaders doing what they thought they needed to do to keep the peace. Ultimately, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “evil is done not so much by evil people, but by good people who do not know themselves.” The spirit and the politics of Palm Sunday begin with our capacity to face our selfishness, to admit our flaws, to know that deep down we are all one in our sin and one in God’s love.

I’ve just come across a book called Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. It is written by a Jesuit priest, Greg Boyle, who founded Homeboys Industries, a center in Los Angeles for boys and young men who have left the L.A. gangs to start a new life. Boyle tells the stories of struggling youngsters who have never received love from anyone, and he describes his determination to love them the way Jesus would.

That gets tested one day when a young 12-year-old boy named Betito he has been working with is killed in a housing project. When the killers are tracked down they turn out to be some of the other young men Boyle had worked with before. “I knew them and I loved them he says.” Then he goes on to say, “It was excruciating not to be able to hate them.” “They were sheep without a shepherd… They were no less the real deal than Betito. It’s just that they lacked someone to reveal the truth to them of how beloved they are.”

He says, “I had to ask myself are they any less worthy of compassion than Betito? I will admit the degree of difficulty here is exceedingly high. Kids I love killing kids I love. There is nothing neat in carving space for both in our compassion. There is nothing neat about Jesus hanging on the cross carving space for everyone in God’s compassion—look at every war, look at every squabble and God is saying, ‘Kids I love killing kids I love.’”

Today is the day that Jesus comes to our city and to our country, to our families, to our hearts and lives—to claim us for his kingdom of love, and calls us to follow him. Today the man on the donkey hangs on a cross for us showing us how far God is willing to go to heal our anxious, driven, self-absorbed world. And today God is taking into himself the fear, cruelty, and betrayal of our lives, setting us free to live this love.

Some kind of king this Jesus is, this man on a donkey. Let us stay with him this week and watch him as he gives away everything for love, everything for us.

All glory, laud, and honor, to thee Redeemer King,
To whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring.

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