Ocean Springs, Mississippi

Palm Sunday: Generals on Donkeys

Sermon on Matthew 27:11-54

Today we experience yet again—as if we needed any reminder—how quickly things can go from celebration to tragedy. How often violence can seem like an awfully easy solution to our problems. How convenient it can be to eliminate an opponent rather than engage them.

Jesus enters Jerusalem to a hero’s welcome. Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna! They shout. So here comes this one who claims to be the Messiah! The one who’s going to finally take care of those awful Romans. The one who’s going to usher in a reign of glory the likes of which we haven’t seen since King David. The one who’s going to save us all. So what’s not to celebrate?

But Jesus’ choice of transport is rather telling. Riding in on a donkey… It’s to fulfill some prophecy, yeah sure. But what kind of king rides in on a donkey?

A famous preacher named William Sloan Coffin gave us this thought in a Palm Sunday sermon from 1980…he writes: “Picture a capital city with statues of men riding donkeys! How different the history of that country would be. And how different our own history might have been had Ben Franklin’s advice been heeded and the turkey been designated our national bird.”

I think back to a childhood trip to Gettysburg. And I remember being really enthralled with all the monuments of these generals of both sides sitting heroically on their bronze horses. But now I wonder: Would those bloody days have even happened if Pickett and Lee and Meade and Reynold have been clomping around on an ass?

I think it’s a really moot point though, because it would never happen like that. Not it Jesus’ time, not in Civil War times, not in our time either. We like power and all the trappings that come with it. And you know, our world likes violence and vengeance and dominance and all the perks that it brings. In so many ways, it’s the easy way out. That’s just the way it works.

So it’s no surprise that the crowd would have turned on Jesus. He embraced this shocking humility. And he began to take jabs the system. He turned over those tables. And he proclaimed this vision of God’s kingdom that was not the same one proclaimed by Rome or the elite of Jerusalem, or even the people themselves.

The whole farce—the palms and the dancing and singing and the hosannas turns accusations and trial and murder—is just one more sign that we are trapped in this never-ending cycle.

And all of this leads us to the cross. To torture and death. And Jesus just goes with it. He lets it happen. God himself being led to the slaughter. “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.”

Because the thing is, if we’re caught up in this cycle and we’re ever going to have a prayer to get out, someone’s got to throw a wrench in the gears. To throw off the entire system.

And that’s exactly what he does. The whole thing, from the moment he gets on that donkey to when he dies on the cross—the whole thing is rebellious, its subversive, it challenges everything we think we know about the world. And in this world, in this time, when we seem caught up in the same trap—when bombs and gas and missiles are all too familiar to us—when spiritual and emotional violence is second nature to us–that’s a reminder that we sorely need.

Next Sunday, the importance of all of that Jesus has done becomes a whole lot clearer. Next Sunday.

But for now, I think it’s good enough to know that the wheels have come off. And that’s a scary thing. And that’s a hopeful thing. Because God loves us far too much to leave us this way. Because God came riding into this world on a donkey and hung on that cross, all to unmask the powers as empty and hollow.

And knowing that, we can greet the king with branches of defiant hope and resolve, shouting Hosanna, and knowing that though things may be dark, all is not lost.