Monday, 18 April 2011 00:00

"A Leap of Faith", April 17, 2011

“A Leap of Faith”
Matthew 21:1-11
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
Palm Sunday April 17, 2011
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

The Story of the Donkey Owner

I don’t get much credit.  I’m a bit player in this drama.  An afterthought—or a forethought.  The Bible doesn’t even give me a name.  But without me, the drama just wouldn’t have unfolded just right.  I’m anonymous and I’d like to keep it that way.  Whenever something important happens, there are the central characters who get quoted, who get all the credit.  They are important people.  People follow them.  They inspire the best in us. They deserve the kudos.  But they could not do their work without the rest of us.  Those behind the scenes, doing our part to make the machine function.

People think there are only 12 disciples.  A small ragtag bunch of Galileans.  But the truth is that there are disciples everywhere.  We are in every place where Jesus made an impact.  We’re all doing our part.  Waiting for the day that we can take the next step.  When Jesus came here, he gave us a sign—a code word.  Here’s how Matthew tells the story:

“When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 ‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

So when the disciple said, “the lord needs them.”  We knew what it meant.  It was too dangerous to say, “Jesus needs them” or “Jesus is making his triumphal entry.”  They used the word lord Kurios in Greek—almost like Kairos.  It was part of the code, so we couldn’t be detected.  We were sheltered from prying ears.  It didn’t only mean give a colt and ask for nothing in return.  It meant mobilize the people.  It meant it’s about to happen.  It meant pay attention.  It meant send people into the streets.  

So we sent the colt and her mother.  We sent them and we followed them.  We mobilized the secret disciples in Bethpage.  They joined the entourage to Jerusalem.  Do you notice that the Bible doesn’t say that we gave them the colt and left them alone?  The I was next to the colt and donkey the whole time. The colt and donkey were the sign for all to see.  It wasn’t only about the procession.  It was the posture of the King of the Jews entering the holy city like a peasant surrounded by peasants.  He immediately upset the oligarchy, as peasant uprisings are wont to do.


They tried to silence us.  They tried to scare us. They tried to outlaw us. But once the movement starts and it’s God’s movement, then there is no stopping it.  You have awakened the sleeping beast.

“The Lord needs us.”  That’s the message that Jesus gave.  It’s the one I respond to.  To what message do you respond?

The Sermon

“The Lord Needs It” must have been a code word.  Jesus might have said, “Go to the town and talk to Nicodemus and he’ll give you a colt.” The Gospel writers use careful language, perhaps not to implicate a subversive, perhaps to emphasize how strong the support was for him and his movement.  But all they said were the code words: “the lord needs it.”

The Bible is full of code.  The book of Revelation is written almost entirely in code.  And you need a secret decoder ring to understand it.  Lamb means Jesus. Babylon means Rome. Beast mean the Roman emperor.  Dragon means Satan.  Faithful witnesses means the martyrs. “Be of good cheer”, “patient endurance” and “persistent resistance” is the posture of the churches who are encouraged over an over again to decipher to code: “Those who have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

The Romans were poised for a revolt like the one Judas Maccabeus had orchestrated in 167 BCE. They were tempted to ignore Jesus and his entourage because he broke with that mold.  Instead of riding in on the back of a white stallion like a military messiah, he rode the donkey like a servant.  Like he did throughout his ministry, Jesus was messing with everyone’s concept of a Messiah.  And they would have ignored him, too if it had not been for the crowd.  I wonder if he would have gotten such a crowd by riding a stallion.  There was something populist about the donkey.  Its very presence evoked a different kind of leader.

A donkey wasn’t just an animal.  It was a person’s livelihood. A donkey was the equivalent of a car, a truck and a tractor all in one. It was a car because people used it to move around and do their shopping, a truck because it was used to carry load, and a tractor because it was used in cultivating the land. Add to this the fact that the donkey had never been ridden, that means it was brand new and had a very high market value.

Jesus rode an unbroken donkey.  Isn’t that odd? Imagine, unless he was a horse-whisperer, the resistance of the donkey.  I imagine it not being a gentle or quiet ride, especially with all of those people throwing palms, flowers and even clothing in the way.  It sounds like chaos to me. Messing with popular notions of deity, let alone upsetting powers and principalities was and is provocative and havoc-evoking.  And yet, the first chapter of Genesis speaks about creation out of chaos. This was the beginning of a new creation.

The donkey owners took a leap of faith.  They cast their lot with Jesus, and most think they left him alone after Palm Sunday.  But I think they just pulled back.  They watched Jesus turn over the tables of the moneychangers—the very symbol of corruption and complicity of the Temple and the State.  Remember that it was the Passover feast and people were coming from across the countryside to celebrate the feast at the temple in Jerusalem.  The temple was the only safe place for Jews to be.  It was supposedly off limits to the Romans and was a place where people could practice their religion in peace.

But in order to participate fully in the rituals, you needed to change your Roman money into Hebrew money on the steps of the Temple Mount, thereby not tarnishing the sacred mount with unclean things.  The problem was that the exchange rate changed based upon the ethnicity of the peasants.  The moneychangers were corrupt and skimmed off the top, much like the tax collectors across the country.  Jesus turned over the tables and upset the last vestige of complicity and commerce.  To add irony to the intrigue he quoted Jeremiah’s sermon from the very same temple steps—a temple Jeremiah was not allowed into—“My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.”

I think the crowds watched the exchange with moneychangers.   This too was a sign that Jesus had told them to watch for.  They pulled back and watched the leadership implode.  They pulled back, perhaps a bit too far on Good Friday as Jesus was executed as a heretic and an insurrectionist. They watched the curtain of the temple torn in two. Jesus told them to be patient.  It would not all end in death.  There was a new way dawning and they were going to be a part of it.  And they realized that if Jesus was true to his word, then the people would rise up and keep taking leaps of faith day in and day out.

What is a leap of faith?  Is it jumping into the unknown, the abyss of hopefulness, praying that God will not leave you?  According to Wikipedia, it’s “the act of believing in or accepting something intangible or unprovable, or without empirical evidence.”

When I was in high school, we used to do something on retreats called a trust fall.  How many of you have done that?  You keep yourself rigid and fall straight back trusting that your partner would catch you.  It’s a bit of a leap of faith.  At our retreats, we used to do trust falls from five-foot heights with the entire group catching you.  There’s always that split second on the way down where you wonder if you’ll be caught.  We never dropped anyone.  We learned that our community could assist us in our leaps of faith.

When I think of leaps of faith, I can’t help but think of country after country in North Africa.  They are busy ousting leaders without a real clear sense of what or whom will take their place.  It’s putting a lot of faith in their fellow countrymen and women.

How have you taken a leap of faith?

The Bible is full of people taking leaps of faith.

Jesus said sell all you have and giving to the poor and then follow Jesus.

It is leaving your nets on the ground and then following Jesus.

It is loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you.

It is befriending the friendless and standing up for the oppressed and outcast.

Following Jesus is always about taking a leap of faith.

Step out of this boat and walk on the water with me, says Jesus.

Focus on the log protruding from your own eye instead of the speck in your neighbor’s eye.

Christianity is not just a feel-good religion where we get to sup on good food and enjoy pretty bell music.  Christianity is taking leaps of faith day in and day out.  And it is also to take those leaps in community—with friends and family who have your back.

A visiting preacher was really getting the congregation moving. Near the end of his sermon he said, "This church has really got to walk," to which someone in the back yelled, "Let her walk preacher." The preacher then said, "If this church is going to go it's got to get up and run," to which someone again yelled with gusto, "Let her run preacher." Feeling the surge of the church, the preacher then said with even louder gusto, "If this church is going to go it's got to really fly," and once again with ever greater gusto, someone yelled, "Let her fly preacher, let her fly." The preacher then seized the moment and stated with even greater gusto, "If this church is really going to fly it's going to need money." There was silence. Then someone in the back seat cried, "Let her walk preacher, let her walk." (from a sermon by Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, cssp)

We’re not a church like that, of course. Look at the leaps of faith we have taken.

This church was founded as an abolitionist congregation on the frontiers of the prairie.  Over the years the church advocated for the freedom of slaves, the suffrage of women, the civil rights movement, the rights of the LGBT community and for striking workers.  Each of these stands were counter-cultural at the time.  Our ancestors risked our good name and our status in the community, which thrives on conformity and not rocking the boat.  But it was true to our souls as a congregation.  We take leaps of faith in order to set each other free.

In two weeks, we’ll gather here to remember Adele Fadden, who left this earth after 99 years.  The majority of those years were spent among the people of UBC.   The brunch we just shared is a part of her legacy. She was a generous and powerful woman who knew when people needed a friend.  She had a way of welcoming everyone into her home and hearth and heart.  People felt loved and cared for around her.  When people were going through crisis, it was at Adele’s home that they found refuge, a bed, a meal, a peaceful walk amongst the hostas. Many of those she befriended and housed were in crisis.  It was a leap of faith to open her home.  And we are better for it.  That legacy continues in this church, largely because she gently instilled it among us all.  We can see it as we welcome refugees, forge new friendships with our Nicaraguan sister church, knit prayer shawls for unknown people with unknown needs and engage in sacrificial giving of our time, talent and treasure. She took a leap of faith on all of us, and so we try to take a leap of faith in return.  She knew the code.  She knew the answer and she helped teach it to us just as we teach it to those who come after us.

We’re a church full of donkey owners.  We’re a church that is well versed in the code words. When we hear the words, the lord needs us, then we do what needs to be done. We play out our part in the drama.  We don our costumes and it never ends once the food is cleaned up and the palms are removed.

For we look forward to the collective consciousness that is the core of the Jesus movement.  We look at people loving each other.  We look at people caring for one another.  We look at people advocating for just wages and fairness and dignity and peace and compassion and we see other donkey owners taking leaps of faith.  All of a sudden it no longer seems counter-cultural.  It’s part of our fabric, our food, our story.

Sisters and brothers, enter this Holy Week remembering that you know the code words that unlock the story.  Remember those who cry out in the darkness.  Remember those who are willing to take a stand on behalf of the poor and outcast.  Be one of those.  Be a donkey-owner who remembers the real meaning of the story.  And look forward to that day when everyone will sit under their vine and fig tree and none will be afraid.  When the wolf shall lie down with the calf and fatling together and nation shall not raise up sword against nation and neither shall they study war anymore.

We know the code words.  The people, the peasants who own only donkeys are poised for the good news to accompany our palm branches.  We long to weave our fabric into the garment of blessing and hope.  And so when we hear the code word, “the Lord needs it” we know exactly what to do.

That’s our story that’s our song.

Hosanna to the son of David.  Hosanna in the highest.  Blessed are the ones who come in God’s name, take leaps of faith and are woven into the fabric of destiny.