This is the second year in a row that we have not been able to gather together for Palm Sunday. Usually we would read the long Passion narrative, the account in one of the gospels of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Instead we have concentrated today on the waving of palms and singing of hosannas. If you don’t follow any of the story over the next few days, you will jump from this to Easter morning. It will be a strange, filleted story – without its guts and innards.
On Thursday we will mark Maundy Thursday, the inauguration of Communion at the Last Supper, the washing of feet – without being able to wash any feet this year – and end with watching with Jesus in the garden for a short time online. You can of course ‘watch longer’ at home if you wish to sit quietly after the streaming ends.
On Friday, Good Friday, we would usually host those from other churches in the city as they come for hot cross buns in the church after the walk of witness. That is unable to happen this year, so we will join with the cathedral online for the hours of reflection from 12noon – the hours of the cross. Here, in a year of pain and suffering, we will be able to place at Christ’s feet all that we are and all that we have, all that we have been through and the suffering of the world. We can place it there for his healing and redeeming love to work its saving grace for us all.
Without the depth of this story, Easter Sunday will feel hollow. Without it the juxtaposition of crowds singing in adulation turning to call for his death will be lost on us. Oh, how fickle the crowd seems to be – and if we are looking for a parallel, look at how the media can turn on a penny from praise to vitriol in a short step. That said, the shouts may well have been part of a festival remembering liberation from slavery in Egypt and the irony picked up by later reflecting back.
But pilgrims walked, as did Jesus in the rest of the gospels. It’s only here that a donkey is mentioned – so a visual aid for today is Carrots, my donkey puppet. This is not the sign of humility it is usually taken to be. A military king would ride on a horse for battle, but at other times, this is the 4×4 of choice. So it has kingly allusions. Jesus is making a point, or the gospel writers are in placing this triumphal entry at this point in their story. The shouts of Hosanna, which means ‘Save now’, is a shout for liberation from Roman occupation, but the gospel writers use this to announce the cross and resurrection.
We have a king, riding on a donkey, declining the military focus and aspirations, looking more to enter Jerusalem to save through his death and resurrection. So the donkey, while it may not be the humble beast, is a peaceful one. Where are the moments in our lives where the model of the donkey would ‘save’ much more effectively and fruitfully than the warrior’s horse?
When conflicts, big struggles come it’s easy to reach for the biggest weapons we can find – be they words or wooden. Christ on a donkey challenges us with peaceful saving, even if it requires great self-sacrifice in the process.
We’ve seen examples of this recently. Peaceful protests which have turned violent; policing, usually measured and restrained, has not always responded well. For those of us who are not completely pacifist, believing there are moments when force, even lethal force, is needed, Jesus on a donkey at the minimum calls for restraint and for such force always to be a last resort, to be proportionate, not the first response we reach for.
At its more challenging, it questions whether such force should ever be used. It may be my own fears that make that hard to swallow. You could argue, though, that death was defeated by a force stronger than it, the force of life and love, which redeem rather than destroy.
When wanting to respond to migrants coming to our shores, we can reach for a policy to create a ‘hostile environment’ or look more deeply into the complexities. Louise Hulland, from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, one of our Lent speaker’s this year, identifies in her book “Stolen Lives” how creating a ‘hostile environment‘ makes it much harder to help vulnerable, exploited and traumatised people; how they find their problems increase and continue, are even exacerbated.
Jesus on the donkey is a challenge to the realpolitik of our times, and actually all times. It is not easy to digest or trust. But when we show restraint, seek the words of peace – not appeasement, but true peace – we heal and build. Jesus didn’t hold back, though. This humble donkey ride is followed by cleansing the temple and he seems to go headlong into the conflict.
But it is not an armed struggle. He tells Peter to put his sword away in the garden. That was the moment they could have fought, but he doesn’t. He is armed only with unconditional, redeeming love. And our last Lent speaker, Steven Pettican from Garden House, spoke about that transforming lives and bringing hope. That’s the king we worship, on a donkey. On this unusual Palm Sunday, we can ask when and where we need more donkey and less war horse.
Sermon for Palm Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 28th March 2021