4/9/17: Learning About Courage, Matthew 21:1-21
Learning About Courage
Sixth in the series: Learning How to Love
First Lesson: Matthew 21:1-11
Second Lesson: Matthew 21:12-17
Rev. Scott Dickison
On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.
How horses, turned out into the meadow,
leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
clatter away, splashed with sunlight.
But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.
Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.
I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward. (1)
One of my mentors, Peter Gomes, would say there are at least two things living a life of faith demands: courage and imagination.
Last Sunday we considered what it means to participate in God’s “holy imagination.” The story of our faith, we said, is one long story of God inviting us to consider new possibilities, new futures, new alternatives to the present. Inviting us to challenge the inevitability of the present—even, we find, the inevitability of death. It takes great imagination to live in faith, but this morning we turn our attention to that other part, which happens to be the final stop in our Lenten journey, so beautifully imagined by the poet Mary Oliver in the poem I read earlier, which is learning to be brave, or in other words, learning about courage.
We know this final Sunday of Lent as “Palm Sunday,” when we remember and even reenact this almost comical the scene on the streets leading into Jerusalem so long ago, when Jesus, almost lampooning the image of a mighty warrior riding triumphantly into a conquered city, instead rode his lowly donkey. Surrounded not by soldiers with their arms and loud trumpets, but by his peasant followers, come down from the hillside, as they shouted, Hosannah, and Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord!—Jesus once again turning the world on its head, inverting the meaning of power and authority. This is a king of a different sort.
But as Matthew tells it, that day didn't end with the waving of palms. This parade continued through the gates of the city and on to the Temple. Jesus rides up to the outer part of the Temple, where there would have been people buying and selling animals to offer sacrifices for the Passover holiday, and he drives them all out. He turns over the tables of the money changers and those selling the animals and quotes from the prophet Jeremiah, “My house is to be called a house of prayer, but you’re making it a den of robbers!”
And this is not, as we often interpret it, a critique on the commerce happening there and the people selling these goods. Jesus wasn’t making a statement about the system of sacrifice, per se. No, this was simply Jesus practicing what he had been preaching all along, which was to say, You’re priorities are out of whack. Like robbers to their den, you retreat to the temple to feel safe in your religious rituals, your solemn assembles, your self-righteousness, and yet look at all the people on the outside waiting to be invited in.
This story is told in each of the four gospels and yet Matthew is the only one to report that at that moment after Jesus had flipped over the tables, that the blind and those needing care come to Jesus and he heals them, right then and there. In turning over these tables, Jesus again turns the world on its head, reminding us that what we think is so important, in the eyes of God is much less so. That there is a new order of things, with the first being last and the last first. Faith is a mustard seed and the Kingdom can only be received by children. The same children who appear there, singing his praise while the powerful stand indignant. Indignant and plotting; it would be this disruption, this challenge to the inevitability of the present, that would put in motion the call for his death.
Make no mistake, this was not some Easter egg hunt down through the countryside and into the streets of Jerusalem, this was bold action. This was a demonstration, from the parade through town to the scene of the Temple. It would have real consequences. The stakes were literally life and death—and Jesus knew this. This is a part of the Palm Sunday revelry the we can’t forget: that all of this would lead to his death.
And Jesus knew this. Jesus knew the consequences of his actions. He knew where would take him. Jesus knew this—he knew it that day in the streets of Jerusalem and throughout his life. But he did it anyway. He turned the tables over anyway. He healed those people anyway. He started down the mountain riding on that donkey anyway. So much of what Jesus did, not just on that day but in all his days, so much of what he did, he did anyway. He did it knowing the costs. This is courage. Courage is found in the things you do anyway.
It reminds of a scene from To Kill A Mockingbird, when Atticus Finch explains to his son, Jem, why he made him go read to their cranky and at times downright mean old neighbor Mrs. Dubose every day for a month, even though she never seemed to have a kind word for anyone. Atticus knew what his son didn’t, which was that that she was addicted to morphine, and that she knew she ways dying, but had vowed she would leave this world “beholden to nothing and nobody,” which included the drug. She succeeded in facing her addiction before she died, those hours spent with the children no small part of it, and Atticus told his son, I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what. You rarely win but sometimes you do.’
Isn’t courage found in what you’re willing to do anyway?
And just to make sure we get the message, we have the crowds. The actions of Jesus that day and throughout the week are juxtaposed with the actions, or inaction of those around him, and this begins with the crowds that walked with him that day and waived palms and laid their coats not the road and proclaimed that Jesus was the Son of David, come in the name of the Lord—which was true! They got it right. And yet it’s one thing to say the right thing. It’s something else entirely to do what must be done.
It’s one thing to get swept up in the parade when spirits are high. To choose the right side, to have the right bumper sticker on the back of your car, or make the right political contribution, or cast the right vote. It’s on thing to link to the right article of Facebook, or forward the right email. To apply the right hash tag or put up the right filter on your profile. This Sunday is nothing if not a reminder that it’s one thing to waive a palm; it is quite another to take up a cross. Courage is not often found in crowds of people. The crowds that surround Jesus throughout this week remind us of the fickle nature of crowds. The energy of crowds waxes and wanes, it ebbs and flows, it burns brightly and then it dissipates. The challenge is tapping into those deep reserves, that strength that is available to us, to keep going, to keep doing, keeping walking, step by step.
Which brings us back to this donkey. Stay with me here.
We have Jesus on the one hand, the embodiment of courage and resolve and strength to do what’s right no matter the costs—the “author and perfecter of our faith”—the Son of God incarnate, come to show us the way, the truth and the life.
And on the other hand you have the fickle crowds who will join the parade and waive the palms, whose fire burns hot for a moment but in time fades—and not only fades but burns in a different direction. That goes from Hosannah, Son of David! to Crucify him! In a week’s time.
The author and perfecter on the one hand, and the bandwagon on the other.
Might there be another way?
Could it be the lowly animal that carried Jesus into town that day. The donkey who was merely minding his own business when Jesus came into his life, the donkey who was waiting there—who didn’t know he was waiting, exactly, but was in fact waiting, “not especially brave or filled with understanding,”the poet imagines, but who, when the time came, nonetheless let himself be led away. The donkey who was there with Jesus, doing what he could, offering his back to the one who “rode so lightly upon him”. The donkey who walked along, just below the surface of that scene, lifting one dusty hoof after another, “as he had to, forward.”
I don’t mean to be so cute here, but there may be moments when we find ourselves right there with Jesus, taking up our cross, knowing well the costs, finding strength to do what needs to be done anyway—God bless us in those few times when we find that strength. And there will certainly be times when we find ourselves among the crowds whose passion burns bright for a time, but fizzles when the costs get too high, or something else draws our attention. But how many other times might there be, when we find ourselves waiting—perhaps waiting without even knowing we’re waiting—and suddenly find ourselves in the presence of Jesus, asked to do little more than take up a weight—sometimes small and sometimes a little more—and simple lift one dusty hoof as we have to, forward.
We think of courage as only having to do with acts of particular bravery or grace—and there are certain those times when it is that. But we neglect the fullness or the full possibilities of courage if we fail to remember that courage is much more often found in the everyday; in simply finding yourself ready to respond, in small ways. Yes, Christ was courageous when we took to the streets of Jerusalem and made that scene in the Temple and later in the week ahead when he walked Calvary’s hill, but he couldn’t have walked that final mile if he hadn’t walked in a similar up to that point—in small ways, perhaps even ways so small as to not be recorded in Scripture.
Courage is doing what needs to be done. It’s humility, it’s forgiveness. It’s knowing when to say, “I could be wrong,” and when to say, “That’s just not right.” And the truly courageous person doesn’t recognize what they’re doing as courageous. They’re just doing what they have no choice to do—not because they’re forced to, but because they’ve been shaped in such a way, formed in such a way that it’’s simply who they are. And so there’s simply no other way.
Courage is found in the things you do anyway, but also in the things done because there’s no other way.
You may have noticed that I broke with the titles I’ve been giving these sermons each week, saying, “Learning How to Confess” or “Remember” or “See” or “Imagine.” This week I simply put “Learning About Courage.” The thing with courage is that there are no “how to’s.” There are no checklists or step-by-steps. Courage is simply something you witness, something you see when it happens before you, and go and do likewise when the opportunity presents itself—and it’s also true that the more you witness these acts of courage, the more you see these opportunities present themselves.
One thing about being the pastor of a church such as this one is that I get to see all of these dusty steps that so many of you take, just below the surface of things. These different acts of courage that happen not in the waving of palms but just underneath the surface of things. The way you care for each other in times of need. The way you surround each other in times of grief. The way you do things with out being asked to do them. The way you ask for forgiveness and not permission. These small, dusty steps that happen in so many way, in so many lives. And this is something beautiful and important about simply being a part of a congregation, part of a faith community: it’s being around so many people who act courageously, and even, we hope, being put in situations, or given opportunities to be courageous ourselves. How important is it to surround ourselves with courageous people. With kind people, with generous people, with loving people—with people who confess, who remember, who see, who imagine. How important is it to be among these people, finding that we ourselves are, too, being formed into these things.
We’ve talked this Lent about “Learning How to Love,” about walking with Jesus to the cross, but the truth is that we’ve not started from scratch here as church in learning how to love. No, we’ve come with deep reserves of knowledge of these things. Knowledge of saints who have come through, who have left their mark, of saints who remain. We’ve seen these things, we’ve walked this way.
Of course, none of this happens completely without our knowledge. Yes, we find ourselves formed by the people around us, but this must be supplemented, it must be undergirded by those times when we take it upon ourselves to be attentive to these things. To watch, to find ourselves waiting. To see the presence of Jesus in our lives, most often coming through the presence of the people put in our lives—remember it wasn’t Jesus himself who fetched that donkey, Jesus sent someone.
As we walk these final steps toward the cross, what would it mean for us to pay attention? To spend these days paying attention to the people put in our lives, to the gifts they bring, to the virtues show us? What would it mean to walk these final steps intentionally—one dusty hoof after another? Finding ourselves, we hope, brave. Finally knowing what it means to love the one which whom we walk. Finally knowing what it means to love in this way. So that when we find ourselves standing before the tomb on Easter morning, we will know what it took to get there. And we will walk with new eyes, but eyes that remember. That we will walk with new eyes, knowing how we are to live our days from that point.
(1) Mary Oliver, "The Poet Thinks About the Donkey," from Thirst