First Congregational Church
March 29, 2015
“The Master Needs Your Donkey"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Before things get really rolling here, I need to mention that between bulletin printing and sermon writing, the scripture passage changed. The passage for this morning is on page 1531, Matthew 21:1-11.
The devout cowboy lost his favorite Bible while he was mending fences out on the range. Three weeks later, a donkey walked up to him carrying the Bible in its mouth. The cowboy couldn't believe his eyes. He took the precious book out of the donkey's mouth, raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, "It's a miracle!" "Not really," said the donkey. "Your name is written inside the cover." (It took me a whole day to realize that the miracle was the talking donkey!)
A man in a movie theater notices what looks like a donkey sitting next to him. "Are you a donkey?" asked the man, surprised. "Yes." "What are you doing at the movies?" The donkey replied, "Well, I liked the book.”
Matthew 21:1-11 Good News Translation
As Jesus and his disciples approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage at the Mount of Olives. There Jesus sent two of the disciples on ahead 2 with these instructions: “Go to the village there ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied up with her colt beside her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 And if anyone says anything, tell him, ‘The Master needs them’; and then he will let them go at once.”
4 This happened in order to make come true what the prophet had said: 5 “Tell the city of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you! He is humble and rides on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
6 So the disciples went and did what Jesus had told them to do: 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, threw their cloaks over them, and Jesus got on. 8 A large crowd of people spread their cloaks on the road while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds walking in front of Jesus and those walking behind began to shout, “Praise to David's Son! God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord! Praise be to God!” 10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was thrown into an uproar. “Who is he?” the people asked. 11 “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee,” the crowds answered.
Thank you, Betty. I often find really good notes or ideas on a holiday just after the holiday is over - sort of like clearance sales, I guess. So last year, when Palm Sunday was over, sure enough, I came across a resource that I stashed away for possible use this year. And earlier last week, I came across another bit that was worthy of stashing. So when I started looking at all the pieces I’d collected, along with the hymns and anthem, I realized that there were a couple of things that seemed to beg for our attention.
The first observation was the frequent mention of children, especially in the music of this day. Other than the passage where Jesus says “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” this Palm Sunday scenario is about the only time children are so visible in the Bible. The times are a-changin’, and children in this country are a little more respected than they were even ten years ago. But back in Jesus’ day, children were at the very bottom of any social ladder. They were as unlikely to have a staring role at any event - as a donkey.
I don’t know about anyone else, but if you think about someone coming up to you - out of the blue - taking your donkey and her colt and then saying “The Master needs them,” I don’t know that I would be so generous. Even a horse like Mr. Ed may garner a little more seriousness. But Jesus asked for a donkey? Really? Well that’s just ass-inine! History is full of famous horses that led charges and even inspired humans. Donkeys just don’t seem to have the prestige or panache that a Savior would use.
In the last major observation of the morning’s elements, I noticed that the bits that I stashed away were basically four prayers. I don’t recall ever having that happen before and it struck me that perhaps using prayers as part of the message was as unlikely as children having such a big part of a gospel account or Jesus using a donkey to make a point. So the first one comes from Steve Garnaas-Holmes, over there at unfoldinglight.net.
Here comes Palm Sunday.
We will wave our palm branches for Jesus,
our King, our Savior, riding on a....
really, a donkey?
Yes, in the tradition of the ancient prophets,
Jesus mocks our love of domination.
The ruler of the word comes riding a tricycle.
It's not just a gesture. He means this.
He will mock our pompous judgments,
mock our unblinking trust in violence,
catch us taking ourselves so seriously.
He will not fall for our adulation.
He makes foolish our wisdom, overturns
power and sovereignty. Look how he turns
the world upside down and confused
and afraid we hang on, waving palms.
This is how he will be our king.
He will give away his last meal.
He will be humiliated, be wrong and and weak,
for our sake he will be what we hate the most.
Because he can.
Because he is greater than all that.
Because none of that matters.
He will show us how little it matters.
Ride a donkey through our pride.
Wash our fickle, kicking feet.
Die of our own embarrassment.
And count to three.
From Amy Loving at worship closet.com: Lord, like the great crowds that met you in Jerusalem, we wave palm branches and shout your praises. We delight that you come to us proclaiming peace, but we confess that we still speak of war. Forgive our fickle hearts, Lord. Teach us to bless your name by more closely following your way. Hosanna, Lord! Save us from our sins - save us from ourselves. We pray in your holy name.
Nancy Townley of ministrymatters.com wrote this one: Through the shouts and branches, the Savior rides again into our hearts, our Jerusalems, the places that we have fortified, sometimes against even God’s truth and love. Patient God, be with us today as we witness again the entry of Jesus into the holy city. Remind us that our "holy cities", our souls, need to welcome Jesus, truly in celebration and in commitment to his witness to us. We can so easily get caught up in the noise and forget the Savior. We can get so focused on the celebration and colors that we look past the solitary figure on the small donkey. We stand at the gates this day to welcome Jesus. May our welcome of Jesus also be reflected in our welcome of others who come into our midst. Free us from judgment and prejudice, that we may be open to hearing your word through the ministry of Jesus and the disciples. As we have spoken the names of ones who are near and dear to us who need your healing love, O God, help us also to remember that we need a good measure of your grace and mercy. Bring us through this parade into the comfort of your love.
And lastly, the piece from which this whole thing started:“The Master Needs Your Donkey: A Prayer of Confession for Palm Sunday” by Nathan Decker.
Lord, we are too nervous to ask for help from one another.
The Master needs your donkey, but we're afraid to ask.
Lord, we are afraid to give you what you ask.
Help us realize that what we have is just a gift from you.
Lord we are too proud to lay our cares before you.
Help us to lay our cloaks on the colt, on the road, on your way.
Lord, we have been quiet in our praise,
our shouts of Hosanna sound like mice whispering.
Put palms in our hands; help us in grace to stand.
Lord, we have looked from the pinnacle of the temple,
craving, protecting, and manipulating power.
We have told you time and time again,
make the crowds pipe down!
Break our hearts of stone; let us see your steadfast love,
and bring forth your Kingdom in this place.
Lord, forgive us for what we have not asked;
forgive us for what we have asked that was not needed,
for what we have kept that was needed,
and for what we have given that was unjust.
So what is the most unlikely part of your life that you can bring to the parade? What seemingly insignificant, socially oxymoronic, continually cropping-up theme can you lay down with the palms and cloaks on the road into Jerusalem to assist Christ in bringing about the inconceivable?
So put yourself there, in the crowd, near the front edge, and now step forward to lay down that cloak you’ve brought. When you leave today, don’t go back and pick it up, because here is the good news. Christ came riding a donkey of peace and reconciliation, not a charging war horse of judgment. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.
Let us pray. Loving God, we have come this day to worship you while thinking about that first Palm Sunday so long ago. We stand on the brink of this Holy Week, eager to get to Easter. As we go through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, remind us to pray, to put our head down and weather the storm of darkness that will lead to light, because in this journey, we are not alone. Remind us of your presence in real and meaningful ways in the coming days. For the courage needed - by Jesus and our own selves - all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
March 1, 2015
Second Sunday in Lent
“Metamorphosis: Taking Off the Old Self”
Catherine St. Onge, preaching
When I came across the idea for this Lenten series on Christian Character, I had another idea that it might be a nice time to hear about how other people deal with this idea of spiritual maturation. Somewhere in that same timeframe, I was getting to know a bit more about our “preacher” today, her call and journey to this point. Catherine St. Onge is nearing the end of her teaching career with Senior English and French at Benzie Central High School, and is exploring where God will have her go after the last snow day is made up.
Adding to all this mix is my own experience of entering ministry, being supported by a good many friends, but not really having much opportunity to get my feet wet in the places that most counted. Even within our own national association, I struggled to get a sense of belonging. So this morning, we can stand in Catherine’s balcony, to cheer her on - along with the the opportunity to hear what God has to say to all of us.
Colossians 3:1-14 (especially 9-10)
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your[a] life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.[b] 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
March 1, 2015
Frankfort Congregational Church
When first taking on writing this sermon, Dinah gave me any number of websites to help in my research. In the course of reading these articles, the sentence that jumped out at me was how the speaker should include accounts of people who have struggles with anger, pride, gossip, bitterness, or addictions and replaced these things with Christian virtue. The words that especially stood out for me were anger and bitterness.
I guess I don’t mind talking about my own experiences in this address because for the most part, I’ll use myself as the horrible example. I have wanted to go into the ministry since I was in high school, but as a Catholic and a woman, I had almost no options. I realize now that my anger at the Catholic Church’s refusal to ordain women slowly evolved into bitterness that I was denied the opportunity to respond to God’s call for no other reason than my gender. For decades, I was spiritually dead. I never prayed from my heart. I repeated by rote prayers I learned as a child while at the same time occupying my mind with topics of more interest to me. On an emotional level, I didn’t even believe in God’s existence. Figuratively, most of my branches bore no fruit.
The one branch that still lived was my love for my family, so that was the one that God pruned. He made a painful cut in it, and that was my mother’s illness. When fruit farmers prune trees, they cut away dead branches so that more sunlight will reach the live ones, and they cut back living branches so that they will grow back stronger. The branches that receive the most sunlight produce the largest, sweetest fruit. Over time, God cut away the dead branches in me so that his light would more easily shine on my heart, and his painful cut would make my love for Mom and humanity in general grow back stronger than it had ever been.
At first, though, watching helplessly as Mom suffered increased my anger and bitterness. I remember thinking, this is how God treats his faithful servants, by placing them in daily pain? You know what, Mom? I think you can take you God and you can keep him because I’m not interested. I never said that to her, though, because I didn’t want to add a broken heart to her suffering.
In 1993, four years before Mom died, I had the opportunity to spend most of my summer vacation in France. Mom asked me to bring her back some holy water from Lourdes, which is a Catholic religious shrine. Catholics believe that in 1858, Christ’s mother Mary appeared on 18 occasions to a peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous. During one of the apparitions, Saint Bernadette, as she came to be known, uncovered an existing stream, and since then, contact with this water has been credited with around 70 unexplained cures, miracles, if you like.
I wanted to go to Lourdes about as much as I wanted to sever a limb. After I had been in Paris for several weeks, I knew it was time to get this chore over with. For a brief time, I actually considered buying a bottle of mineral water, opening it, pouring a little out, and telling my mother I’d gotten it from Lourdes. “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self…” Saint Paul tells us in today’s reading, but I hadn’t gotten to that point yet.
I grudgingly bought a train ticket and traveled south, almost to the Spanish border. As it turned out, no trip in my life was ever more meant to be. Everything I tried to do fell into place. On the train, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find a hotel room, but I walked across the street from the train station, entered the first hotel I saw, and secured a room in 15 minutes. I worried I would have a hard time getting to the grotto, where the apparitions occurred, but I looked out my hotel room window and saw a large sign that said, “Bus—Direction Grotte.” “Bus—Direction Grotto.” At the end of the bus route, I easily found the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, under which the grotto is located. It would have been kind of hard to miss, actually!
As I approached the grotto, I know now that that was the moment God began cutting away the fruitless branches from around my heart. My anger and rage and filthy language, born from years of frustration at being forbidden to respond fully to God’s call and grief about Mom’s condition, began melting away. Surrounding the virtually silent grotto were probably 500 people, 100 of them in wheelchairs or prone on gurneys. Most of them seemed sicker than my mother, but they came to Lourdes with humility and gentleness and patience in their suffering. Their attitude stunned me, and I felt ashamed of my own resentment toward God for my mother’s illness. God filled my heart for compassion for them. I wanted so much to show them some act of kindness. I wish I could say I prayed for them, but I didn’t. I was incapable of prayer at that time.
Each sick person had an accompanying caregiver, so I focused on doing an act of kindness for my mother by collecting water from the spring. I went to the nearby bath house and bathed in it, too. I must have drank gallons of the water during my three-day stay.
At one point, I went up into the basilica and stood in awe of the church walls. They were almost completely covered with plaques left by Lourdes visitors. The plaques were printed with words of praise to God and thanksgiving for cures received. At that moment, it was as if I could hear the voices of these people. They were loud and exuberant and joyful. Something akin to a shock went through my body, and I remember thinking, this stuff is real. God is real. I had never actually believed that before. I had believed intellectually, but not from my heart. All trace of doubt was gone. I sat in a pew and bawled my eyes out. For me, it was perfect bliss.
Did the water produce this effect in me? No, God did. He took away my old self, and I have literally never been the same. My spirituality has grown and deepened to the point where I can no longer be timid and hide behind Catholicism and say to myself, “It’s probably just as well the church won’t ordain women. Would you really have the guts to be a priest anyway?” God has given me the courage to put my old life of restrictions behind me and to pursue a new life of freedom to love and serve God’s people than I ever did before. He has given me the courage to respond in any way he calls me. My gratitude to God in this is boundless.
Let us pray. Sweet Lord Jesus, sometimes you lead us down paths we don’t want to travel. We don’t understand your purpose at the time, and our human pride interferes with our being responsive to your call. Help us to make doing your will the focus of every day we have on earth. Strengthen us with your love so that we will not hesitate in following wherever you lead us. Strengthen our sometimes weary hearts and lukewarm faith so that we will gladly embrace your vision for us. Help us to know that our every journey has a plan and you are its loving author, however painful it may be at the time. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
Thank you so much, Dinah, for loaning me your pulpit for the week-end so that I could “test my wings,” as Mom would have said. Thanks to all of you as well for your warm welcome and your kind attention. God bless you.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.