November 27, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Zechariah 9:9-14, Matthew 21:1-9
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Seeing the World from a Donkey’s Back
(first in the series “Animals of the Nativity”)
Here’s the thing about one candle burning. If you walk past it briskly, the breeze could blow it out. If you accidentally knock it over, it could ignite everything in its path. One lit candle is undeniably vulnerable. It is also undeniably on fire.
Years ago, I met with Rev. Ruth Patterson, a Presbyterian pastor in a town just outside of Belfast. She is the director of an organization called Restoration Ministries which promotes healing and dialogue for Catholics and Protestants affected by the fighting in Northern Ireland. One of the central practices at Restoration Ministries is noon prayer. At noon, every day, whoever happens to be in the house is invited to gather in the kitchen. Every day this small group lights a candle. Every day they pray for peace.
When the world is raging with violence on the news, or in a nearby city, or down the street, there is something exquisitely powerful about the commitment to show up, and light a candle and say a prayer. It is beautiful.
And yet. When Rev. Patterson told me about this, I felt a certain sinking inside. Already in the time I had spent in Northern Ireland, I had seen seen police tanks roll through the center of a town. I talked with people whose family members were killed by paramilitary violence. Not far from where we were staying, there was a helicopter permanently perched in the sky looking for bombs on the railroad tracks. Now here is a group working for peace and a major part of their strategy is lighting a candle and saying a prayer. And I know exactly how that sounds.
If the contest is between the power of the military and the power of a prayed-over candle, it is easy to understand why peacemaking can feel like the inferior choice. If one side has the glittering glory of war, the rippling flags and the booming weapons, and the other side has, well, counseling and conversation, it seems pretty obvious which side will win.
But what if this is not the real contest? What if this conflict of power is not between two groups of people: those who support a robust military verses those who abhor violence…
I have studied peacemaking for twenty years, and what I’m learning is that the real conflict is not between two groups of people —all the military on one side, all the pacifists on the other side. The real conflict about war is something much more nuanced and complex, and it’s something all of us harbor in our souls.
I’m learning this from veterans who are fiercely proud to be part of an incredible unit but also perplexed and guilt-stricken by how war has changed them. I see this conflict in people who love veterans who carry deep grief and bright pride; we owe our veterans so much and we can’t figure out how to pay them enough. I see this conflict in people who have given their lives to nonviolence and then struggle with patriotism; how can we love our country and hate our fighting?
These are the kinds of conflicts we carry in our conscience. Wherever you come down on matters of war and peace, I’m pretty sure, it’s complicated. We’re all conflicted in one way or another. Guilt wraps around gratitude. Grief wraps around hope.
Into this very conflict, the LORD our God makes an entrance. Our first scripture comes from the prophet Zechariah, from an oracle that speaks to a community longing for relief. In these days after the exile, after the rebuilding of the temple, surely God’s vision of justice will arrive. In this song, you can tell exactly what the people are expecting from God, but their fantasy of God is conflicted —like one of those mythological creatures who has the head of one animal and the body of another. I think you’ll find this particular conflict is one that resonates with us.
On the one hand: Rejoice! Our God arrives as a king, triumphant and victorious.
On the other hand: Um, God is riding into town on a donkey. Not in a chariot; not on a horse. On a donkey.
On the one hand: the LORD will make the kingdom of Judah into a bow and the kingdom of Ephraim into an arrow. God will shoot an arrow like lightening and sound the trumpets. His dominion shall be from sea to sea. Okay.
On the other hand: God shall command peace to the nations and liberation to the prisoners. The people are longing for a military ruler to come and win on their behalf. God will fight for them and the prize will be a blood-soaked peace?… See it’s complicated.
In the scripture from Matthew, we hear the story from Palm Sunday. In their book, The Last Week, scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan paint a picture of the Palm Sunday story that is both imaginative and plausible. In these days before the Passover Festival, there might have been a show of force by the Roman government. Now coming into Jerusalem from one side is Pontius Pilate riding a war horse flanked by soldiers. I imagine the soldiers decked out in armor; the horses are decorated with silver plates. The trumpets are in tune.
At the same time, on the other side of the city, there’s another parade starting up. The juxtaposition is almost hilarious. Imagine a Prius driving in a Monster Truck rally… At this parade there are no trumpets or armor, just Jesus the king, riding into a town on a stolen donkey while the people throw coats and branches on the ground and call out “Hosanna! Save us.”
In both scriptures, God comes right into the conflict of war and peace —whether it’s occurring geopolitically, or in dueling episodes of street theatre, or in our own conscience. God comes into this conflict, and she does not resolve it. Instead, God teaches us who to watch: It’s the ones who have the most to lose. It’s as though God is saying to us, “I see how you are conflicted. Now do you see who is vulnerable?” Do we see who is vulnerable…
Today we are beginning a new series called Animals of the Nativity. According to folk legend, Mary rode a donkey into Bethlehem when she and Joseph were looking for a place to stay, the same night when she gave birth to Jesus. Even though the Bible doesn’t mention a donkey, Christian tradition has found something significant in the idea of Jesus riding on a donkey to his birth and Jesus riding on a donkey to the events leading up to the cross.
I have never ridden on a donkey before. Maybe you have? According to some internet research, here are a few things I learned: For one thing, donkeys can be stubborn, especially in dealing with change. Using force to direct a donkey is not effective. Instead, in order to coax the donkey to move, you have to earn their trust. This means, the disciples may have convinced the donkey’s owners that it is okay for them to steal the donkey, because the Lord needs it. But in order to ride, Jesus is the one who had to convince the donkey to trust him.
Donkeys are usually not in a hurry; they require unflinching patience. They don’t exactly have a thrill-seeking temperament. And did you know, donkeys are deep thinkers. These days there are a number of programs in the United States that train miniature donkeys to be therapy animals for people with disabilities and those living in nursing homes. We’re beginning to understand that we have so much to learn from them.
I invite you to imagine what you would see riding into town on the back of a donkey. You’d probably see actual people along the path. You would be at the right height to make eye contact with them. You would be going at a pace where you could actually talk to them. You could reach over and touch them, if you wanted. This is not the same as riding into town on the back of a war horse. Not the same as flying in on Air Force One or Marine One. It’s a pretty safe bet: If you are riding on the back of a donkey, the people you see are in need.
We might see soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan who are dealing with PTSD then see the rescue dogs turned into therapy dogs who are teaching these veterans how to trust. See the people who are too old to walk, the little children who are too young to walk, all the people whose injuries make walking possible. See our brothers dealing with mental illness and our sisters dealing with poverty. See the ones charged, convicted and locked up, because you can’t see them and not see Jesus. Look at them, look at us, and see we have not lost our power.
These days if you are feeling conflicted about matters of war and peace, if you are feeling uneasy about the decisions of world leaders, know that we have not lost our power. We can see the people who are vulnerable —and not just their vulnerability —we see the people.
The people hail Jesus as king: “Hosanna! God save us!” You know the donkey can hear what they’re saying, and Jesus can see into their eyes, and the world is not the same.
The people remember the old songs of the prophets. They pray for the LORD to come as the mighty warrior who will end all wars. Instead God gives them a baby to hold in their arms, and the world is not the same.
Somewhere, a small group of people decide to gather around a candle to pray for peace because they know the world does not stay the same. As Rev. Patterson puts it, “One small flame is all it takes to let the darkness know it cannot win.”
I’m telling you their prayer for peace is undeniably vulnerable. It is undeniably on fire. Thank God. Amen.
 Patterson, Ruth. A Farther Shore. Veritas: Dublin, 2001. pages 80-81.