A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Palm Sunday • March 20, 2016
Copyright 2016 • All Rights Reserved
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever, amen.
We are drawing near the end of the Lord’s Prayer and the beginning of Holy Week, a time we remember the story of the final days of Jesus’ earthly presence, the days when he was first acclaimed, then reviled, then arrested, tortured, and crucified, executed as a criminal. Sometimes church tradition divides, like the Hudson flowing around an island. One stream of worship tradition celebrates today as Passion Sunday, reading and reflecting on this whole store of Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem. Another, and the one we follow today, focuses on his entry to Jerusalem, riding on a donkey.
Going Up to Jerusalem
So let us imagine that scene for a moment. The dusty trails have converged into a winding road, the road is filled with pilgrims going up to Jerusalem. The city shines before them quite literally: Herod Antipas rebuilt the temple with a golden dome that so brightly reflected the sun, it was said to be hard to look directly at it. The city is surrounded by imposing walls with towers at the gates and streams of people crowd together on their way to the city. Among them, Jesus’ followers are simply one group among many.
While the gospel accounts united in telling us Jesus comes in a kind of procession, there are various accounts. Matthew and Mark speak of branches being cut and laid down along with garments, which is the the reason we decorate with palms; Luke doesn’t mention these at all. I was brought up with a picture of Jesus parading, like the soldiers and bands on Memorial Day, with crowds standing aside and perhaps that’s how you imagine this scene. More likely, his followers are simply part of a larger crowd, noisy, happy, like spring breakers on the way to a holiday.
Jesus is not the only leader on his way to Jerusalem. Potius Pilate is also making a processional at the same time. Perhaps he comes in a sedan chair, carried by slaves; perhaps he rides a war horse, we’re not sure. Certainly he is followed by ranks and ranks of Roman legionnaires, their swords sheathed for now but a visible reminder that Rome’s rule, like all empires, is founded on violence.
Surely in the crowd there are other rabbis, like Jesus, and their followers as well and of course, more than leaders, military or religious there are simple people, people like you and I, going to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, going to a festival, going to a party. Have you been to Lark Street festival, have you been to Fourth of July in a busy place, perhaps the streets of Lake George on a prime summer afternoon? Then you know what this crowd is like, it’s like all crowds. Yet within the crowd, something unique is about to happen. The glory of the Lord is about to shine and no one has any idea.
The Story of the Donkey
Did you listen to the part about the donkey? It’s an odd little parenthesis in the story. We’re marching to the Jerusalem, you know, I know, we’re on the way and it’s frustrating to stop for this little detail. “Go get me a donkey,” Jesus tells his disciples, explaining where to go, and just to say this one simple phrase if asked: “The Lord has need of it.” So they go, they get asked, they say what they were told and they come back with the donkey.
That must have been quite a little trip: have you ever tried to lead an unbroken donkey? I wonder how many times they got kicked, cursed, had to stop and quiet the animal. Yet they do as they’re told: the Lord has need of it. Now Luke is anxious to connect this story to a prophecy from Zechariah that says,
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Yet in the story is an amazing challenge for us as well. Imagine being asked for something with this simple explanation: “The Lord has need of it”. Suppose it is something you value, something you planned to use, hoped to have for some time. Now the request comes: now you have to decide. The Lord has need of it. What would you give?
We don’t think much of donkeys but the donkey is a symbol: throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, riding a donkey is a symbol of royal entrance. One writer, in fact, suggests that if Jesus had indeed come as Luke portrays, he would immediately have been arrested. Surely the people present understand the symbolism: it is the reason he is acclaimed, it is the reason he is cheered, it is the reason for the acclamation. For Jesus comes as a king to announce his kingdom, as he has from his beginning. Just like his beginning, according to Luke, it starts in the stable, with the owner of the donkey, giving it up, handing it over because, “The Lord has need of it.”
Now they bring the donkey to Jesus; someone no doubt is worried. What will happen when he mounts it? Will he get thrown? Somehow the one who stilled the seas quiets the donkey and suddenly, like a king, he’s riding at their head. Suddenly for a moment they can see: the kingdom is literally coming in the person of the king. The glory of the Lord is in that moment, when someone simply gives what they have because the Lord has need of it.
Thine Is the Glory
We’ve been following the Lord’s prayer line by line for weeks now, all through Lent. Today we reach the last line: “Thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever and ever.” The first question we might ask about this line of the prayer is why we say it at all. If you look, you’ll quickly find that neither Matthew nor Luke who give us versions of the Lord’s Prayer have this line. Our Bibles are translations of translations, documents handed down over generations, and the gospels come in two different flavors. One flavor had the line but the one from which the King James Bible and all subsequent English Bibles did not. Yet, we know from other documents that the early church added this line to the prayer early in its life. “Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.”
What does it mean to speak of the glory of the Lord? What does it mean to take seriously God’s power and acknowledge God’s reign? It begins from the first thing God told us to do in the garden, at our creation: to appreciate. The poet Mary Oliver says somewhere”Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Palm 29 says,
The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; The LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. 9The voice of the LORD makes the deer to calve And strips the forests bare; And in His temple everything says, “Glory!” 10The LORD sat as King at the flood; Yes, the LORD sits as King forever.…[Psalm 29:8-10]
It is a poor life that has no moment which is not touched by some appreciation for larger forces, something bigger, something we know is spiritual even if we don’t have the words to say what we have felt. The truth is, there are no words: there is only the experience, the act itself, the moment in which the glory of the Lord shines in your life. Theologians write whole books and preachers craft sermons but the true glory of God is glimpsed in the moment when God chooses, God acts, God comes to play.
God’s Glory Shines
This was such a moment and it’s the reason the story is told and retold and acted out and remembered all these years later. And the donkey? He’s not a parenthesis, he’s not an incidental detail. For the glory of the Lord comes enabled by some nameless person who owned a donkey and when told, “The Lord has need of it”, gladly gave.
We are together here the Body of Christ: we are the concrete expression of his life in this community, this place, this world. Our challenge isn’t to fill up these pews, it isn’t to make our budget balance, it isn’t to make the wheels go round in our organization. Our challenge is to help people see the glory of the Lord, feel the power of God’s love, see what it looks like when God reigns.
So when we pray, surely it’s right for us to ask this, say this, hope this: “Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.” How will we open the door to this prayer? Just like this story. For each of has talents, each of us has gifts. When we hear, as we each shall, “The Lord has need of it,” and we share those talents and gifts, then indeed, the prayer is fulfilled. Then indeed the reign of God is acclaimed. The need the power of God is obvious. Then indeed, the glory of the Lord shines forth. Then indeed, as the hymn says, “Thine is the glory, risen, conquering Lord.”