Palm Sunday at Trinity Cathedral in Omaha, Nebraska

March 28, 2010

Bishop Burnett and I gathered with the House of Bishops last week in Texas. We spent most of last Sunday in sabbath rest. One of the recreational offerings was horseback riding. A number of bishops did go for a trail ride – a very sedate ride, with gentle and slow-walking horses and not much excitement. Even so, the next day I heard a couple of bishops talking about how sore they were. That kind of unaccustomed exercise stretches muscles that aren’t used much, but the pain and discomfort is a sign of greater life – it’s the result of new or renewed joy.

When Jesus finally makes his way into Jerusalem for the last time, he’s not taking unaccustomed exercise, he’s doing what he’s been preparing for his whole life. He’s going to challenge the empire of Caesar and his minions. He’s going to insist that God’s kingdom is the greater, and that God’s reign is one of peace and abundant justice for all, not just a few powerful human beings who want to exploit and subject others for their own ends.

There’s all sorts of symbolism and political freight wrapped up in this parade into Jerusalem, because a lot of Jews expected to be rescued by a powerful military king. When his disciples bring back a mount, Jesus is offered an unridden and untamed horse. The other gospels say he rides a donkey, but Luke says it’s an unbroken colt. The expectation was for the kind of king who would come riding in at the head of an army. This king is supposed to ride a war stallion, a great and powerful beast intended to dominate and frighten. In other gospel accounts Jesus rides a donkey – a sign of humility, and maybe an echo of the same animal that the pregnant Mary rode, and at the end of his life, he leaves on the same animal that helped to bring him into this world.

But this unridden horse says something else. An unridden and unbroken horse usually bucks its rider off pretty quickly. It’s unlikely to walk sedately down the street, especially a road covered with jackets and coats and capes that have been thrown in its way – they’re aren’t any palm branches in this gospel either, only cloaks. It’s much more likely that this horse is going to shy away, buck off its rider, and run off into the crowd. Does riding this horse say something about Jesus’ internal struggle? He knows something about what’s waiting there in the city, even if he’s unsure of the details, but he’s not going to run back to the barn.

Horses are remarkably sensitive to the emotional state of their riders. A fearful rider can’t get her horse over a challenging jump, and an extremely nervous cowpoke isn’t going to get his pony to stand still while he tries to rope and tie a calf. Remember how the Horse Whisperer befriended and gentled intractable mounts? Luke paints us a picture of something like that with Jesus and this horse, something like what happened with Jesus in the boat out on a storm-tossed sea. This isn’t about violent control – Jesus doesn’t beat this horse into submission. This isn’t a war horse, chained down and held in so it’s safe enough to ride through the streets.

This is about Jesus exercising all his muscles – physical, emotional, and spiritual muscles – in the ride of his life. He’s exercising those muscles in relaxing and giving up anxiety, by remembering that there is nothing to fear. This truly is the king of peace, the kind of peace that is willing to walk into the jaws of death for the sake of abundant life.

Today that king of peace rides in Haiti, and in the conflict in Sudan. That king rides through the streets of Mexico, and the DR, and Omaha – into courtrooms and classrooms and living rooms where people struggle to find a life of peace. We go there too, when we’re willing to confront the fear and violence of broken human communities. Where will you follow Jesus into the face of fear? Where will you exercise your spiritual muscle by giving up anxiety and entering into the peace that passes understanding?

Peace isn’t about total relaxation – it is about giving up fear and doing the hard work of confronting evil. That’s what Jesus means when he says that if his followers are silenced, even the stones will cry out. God intends peace, and all creation will conspire with the word of God that speaks peace.

Where will we find the king of peace this year?

I suspect that the king of peace will turn up in Haiti, living in a tent with the displaced. We can probably find him living and working with pregnant teens in south Omaha, and with immigrants here struggling to learn enough English to understand their rights under our labor laws. He sits and waits with the people who die too young because they haven’t had adequate health care. Do you hear the king of peace coming when people cry out and insist on justice, in order that God’s glory may be evident? Following Jesus on the road may take us to Calvary and the cross, but we will find joy and peace and more abundant life on that road – and only on that blessed road.

That’s what the crowds are saying along Jesus’ way: “peace in heaven and glory to God.” ‘May your path be blessed, and may the peace of heaven come on earth, may God’s kingdom come quickly.’ We know another version in the cowpoke’s blessing, “happy trails.” A blessed road to all who pass. Our road is made happy or blessed by the companionship of one who rides into Jerusalem and on to Calvary.
Our invitation at the gates of Jerusalem is to join in making the trail a blessing for all. It means courageous response to evil and injustice, using all the muscles we’ve been given – including the ones that don’t get exercised very often. Will you cry out for peace? Will you speak up for just treatment of all God’s children? Will you minister to the suffering of brothers and sisters in Nebraska and around the world? That way lies the kingdom of God.

Happy trails, even if they lead through the valley of the shadow of death. Fear not. Jesus rides with us. Will you ride with him?