In last week’s Gospel reading, we were introduced to some Greeks who wanted to see Jesus. In my sermon, I suggested that if we want to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death we might examine what he says in the Gospel of John about it – that it is the culmination of his life of service. One way to see Jesus is through the ways we serve, especially when we serve the most poor and vulnerable. At the heart of last week’s message was an invitation to consider that any action in our lives, most especially our deaths, could be an act of service, a gift to God, and offer a way to see Jesus.
As Lent is a period of self-examination, we might ask ourselves – how conscious have we been over the last week of making our lives a gift to God? How have we and have we not seen Jesus?
Throughout the Gospels the disciples are portrayed as missing the full meaning of Jesus’ life and death. Even when Jesus takes them aside to try and explain his teaching and actions, frequently they still fail to fully grasp what he is saying. We are often like them – we may take into our hearts the message of Jesus, but it can be difficult to live it. Shane Claiborne writes, “Many good things have been said far too many times and just need to be lived.”
The young colt (the donkey) in today’s Gospel reading gets it.
The model of faithfulness we are called to emulate today is a donkey. An ass. Let that sink in for a moment. It is not Peter, or James, or John – who each have the privilege and benefit of the extraordinary spiritual experience of seeing Jesus transfigured at the mountain top. Later, at Gethsemane, they all fall asleep while Jesus, who is said to be distressed and agitated, prays. They are hardly models for us. The exemplar of discipleship we are offered today is a young colt, a donkey, an ass.
Clearly the Gospel writer took note of the donkey’s role in Jesus’ passion. (I was taught in seminary that if you want to understand the main point of a Gospel passage, simply notice which word is repeated most often. Today, it is a colt, also known as a young donkey.) But, how often do we pay attention to what the animals around us are trying to tell us? This donkey was no mere accessory to the story of Jesus. Just the opposite, the donkey is recognized as one who helps Jesus accomplish his mission by partnering with him, by literally lifting Jesus up.
Last fall I had one of the most moving experiences ever as a minister when I was called to the side of someone who was dying – someone this community began praying for at that time – Lipton Wile. We are still praying for the family who grieve him. His beloved companion, Alyssa, called the church to see if I might come and offer Lipton Last Rites. When Deb, our parish administrator, told me about this request, her eyes grew wide. Lipton was a pony.
I had never given Last Rites to a pony before. In fact, I have not spent that much time around horses, ponies, or donkeys. My primary experience with the animal kingdom has been with my childhood dog, Buttons, and my cats, Patches, Tanner, Anthony, and the current queen of our household, Chloe. So, I know what it is to love and be loved by an animal. As many of you do, too.
That being said, I was in no way fully prepared for what I experienced with Alyssa and Lipton. When I arrived at the farm in Ipswich, Alyssa greeted me with her two goats, Petunia and Buttercup by her side- they are a story in themselves! We walked into the barn and Alyssa called Lipton over to us. As I looked into his soulful eyes, I immediately felt that I was in the presence of a holy being. I was overwhelmed by the loving connection I felt between Lipton and Alyssa. As she shared stories about this precious animal, who had been her companion for 21 years- since she was just five years old, it was clear that they had developed a bond of love so great that it would endure beyond Lipton’s physical life.
My heart was broken for the depth of loss Alyssa was experiencing.
Animals often are the vehicles for expressing God’s unconditional love to us. They have much to teach us about life and love.
We are not told the name of the young colt in today’s Gospel reading. When someone is unnamed in scripture, it is often a device used by the writer to invite us to identify with that character. Mark’s original audience would have also recognized the significance of the donkey from scripture: In Genesis, a coming king from the line of Judah is associated with a colt. In the Book of Zechariah we hear “Shout, O Daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you…Gentle and riding on a donkey, a colt, a foal of a donkey.” Israelites would also have understood that kings ride into town on horses when they are ready to do battle; but they ride on donkeys when they are coming in peace.
Andy LePeau notes that “Animals which had never been worked before, like the donkey in today’s scripture, were considered holy–necessary for worship and sacrifices (Lev 22:19-25; Num 19:2-3; Deut 21:1-9). (Young colts) were (also) specified to pull one of Israel’s holiest objects, the ark of the covenant, after it had been taken by the Philistines (1 Sam 6:1-9). The Gospel writer elevates the holiness of the donkey and the holiness of the rider.
I can only imagine that when this donkey and Jesus met, it was love at first sight.
What are we to learn from the donkey?
Notice this donkey first needed to be untied before he could step forward and take part in Christ’s mission. To be able to face our own crosses, to be able to face our own deaths and the deaths of those we love, we, too, sometimes need to be untied – set free from limiting thoughts and limited actions. There are so many ways in which we can be tied up – fear, anxiety, regret, shame, guilt, a lack of forgiveness – as well as racism, sexism, ageism and more — all these things can keep us from fully sharing in Jesus’ mission of service and love. What might you need to be untied from today? How are you called to help untie others?
Second, we should understand that donkeys are a lot like us. They are stubborn. When they don’t want to do something, they won’t do it! They won’t move if they don’t want to move; they won’t sit if they don’t want to sit; they won’t stand if they don’t want to stand, and they won’t let you ride them, if they don’t want you to ride them. They can sense the energy of the people around them.
Even when we are free to serve God, we may stubbornly resist doing so. The young colt did not resist being called into service but allowed himself to be used by God. How can we allow ourselves to do the same? Why might we resist serving? How can we overcome feelings of self-satisfaction or complacency? Here’s a hint: the colt went to Jesus with two other disciples.
We are not asked to serve God in isolation, but to join with others in community to help fulfill the mission God has given us. That’s the beauty of church – of this church – we come together to follow the ways we are called to serve – whether through the Care Team, Outreach, our Diversity & Inclusion work, stewardship and fundraising, serving on the Board or staff, Creation Care or in a more full way when we return to the sanctuary our children’s and music ministries. This very worship service is the work of many people. We serve together.
Once untied, the donkey did not resist, but overcame it’s stubborn nature to join with others and be in the service of God. Jerry Shirley notes, “the greatest point is that the donkey’s position of service made Jesus more visible to the crowd. When we humble ourselves, Christ becomes more visible to others.”
Richard Niell Donovan writes, “The Lord asked for something—a mere donkey—that (may seem) altogether too insignificant to be of any use to God’s kingdom. However, that turned out not to be the case. When the disciples took the donkey to Jesus, he used it for his grand entrance into Jerusalem. The lesson for us is that the Lord can take our humble offerings … and use our modest gifts in ways that we can never have anticipated. The issue is not whether we have value, but whether we will answer the call. If we do, we can be assured that God will make something important of us and of our faithful service.”
I started this sermon referencing last week – in particular the Greeks who wanted to see Jesus. This week, it is the donkey who helps others see Christ.
As we begin Holy Week and walk with Jesus to Calvary and beyond, how can the way we live and serve help others to see Jesus, to see the love of God, through us? How can we allow ourselves to be like the donkey, used by God, for God’s purposes?
And if someone should call you an “ass” in the future, you can take it as a compliment! Amen.