Welcome + Worship + Witness

God’s new frame of reference

06 July 2014
18.30 Priory Sung Eucharist
The Third Sunday after Trinity
Revd Simon Cowling
Zechariah 9. 9-12; Matthew 11. 16-19 & 25-30

A few years ago there was a fashion in certain sections of the British press for referring to the royal families of Europe as ‘bicycling monarchies’. It wasn’t really meant as a compliment; rather it was a way of contrasting the continental monarchies’ understated way of going about the business of constitutional rule,  with the far more splendid – and therefore by definition more superior – pomp and circumstance of the British way of doing things: state carriages decorated in gold leaf trump bicycles every time. Well given the palpable excitement of the events surrounding Le Grand Départ this weekend, not to mention the huge increase generally in the number of cyclists in Wharfedale we have experienced over the past few months, it might be that those continental monarchies are on to something. Perhaps even now the instruction is going out from Buckingham Palace to the junior royals: ‘on yer bike’. Or perhaps not. Nevertheless, a bicycling monarchy is no longer something our press can afford to sneer at, given the huge amount of interest Le Grand Départ has generated.

A king in the ancient world would have been expected to have an appropriate form of transport –chariots are mentioned in the Old Testament, as are horses: Solomon is said to have had forty thousand of them. A donkey would probably not have been on the recommended list of transport for a king wanting to make an impression (it would have been the equivalent of a bicycle); yet in our first reading, dating from around five hundred years before Christ, the prophet writes of a triumphant king entering Jerusalem ‘humble, and riding on a donkey’. It’s an extraordinary and graphic image, which is followed closely by a description of how this king will abandon all the accoutrements of war in favour of a reign of peace, and the release of prisoners. Ironically, it should be noted, this reign of peace has only been made possible by the defeat of the enemies of the people of Jerusalem, described in the verses preceding this evening’s reading. But that defeat has at least allowed the possibility of a different kind of rule, one based on peace and justice, on the wholeness that lies at the heart of the Jewish understanding of the word shalom. In this new dispensation, a donkey becomes almost a statement of intent: things will be different, including the king’s mode of transport.

Of course, we know that things remained much the same for the Jewish people, despite the temporary respite they enjoyed for a few years around the time of Zechariah. They continued to be at the mercy of the great powers of their day, and the longed-for reign of peace never materialised. But the image of a humble king riding on a donkey entered the bloodstream of the Jewish people. Some five hundred years later this particular prophecy of Zechariah was used by the followers of Jesus as a key to understanding him as the long-awaited Messiah, God’s chosen one who would usher in for the people of Jerusalem, and for the whole world, God’s kingly reign of peace and justice, God’s shalom. Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey on that first Palm Sunday has become a defining image for Jesus’ followers: in this we see the meekness and the majesty of the servant king.

But this understanding only came to maturity for Jesus’s followers as a result of the events which followed that triumphant entry. Arrest, trial, crucifixion, death – and despair. And then the resurrection, which shattered a previously ingrained frame of reference and freed Jesus’s followers to proclaim that the kingly reign of God’s chosen one, the anointed servant king, had begun. Not everyone shared this understanding at the time. There were some – many – who remained deep within the comfort zone of their existing frame of reference. Perhaps the same people whom Jesus is addressing in our Gospel reading: those who did not respond to John the Baptizer’s teaching, because it was too austere and uncomfortable; nor to Jesus’ own teaching, because it came from one who not only enjoyed his food and drink but did so in the disreputable company of tax collectors and sinners. People who were unable to grasp the paradox of a God who offered a yoke that was light; the paradox of a king who gave his subjects, unlike other monarchs in the ancient world, rest and relief from their burdens; the paradox of wisdom that is to be found in infants.

Two thousand years later this new frame of reference, so eagerly embraced and inhabited by Jesus’s first disciples, seems itself to have become ingrained for many Christians in the west. We have normalised the contradictions of a servant king riding on a donkey, of a king whose victory is achieved through weakness, suffering, and death. We pay lip service to the inversion of priorities taught by Jesus – the first last and the last first; but at the same time we elevate the elites and the celebrities who dominate our news, and ignore those whose difficulties we too quickly characterise as self-inflicted. We seem to have forgotten, or at least bracketed out the fact, that God’s new frame of reference, this new way of looking at the world, God’s reign of justice and peace, was inaugurated through the failure of one whose birth was in a stable and who died a criminal’s death.

Not long after I took up my last post, at Sheffield Cathedral, I was invited to have lunch with some of the homeless and rootless people who used the resources of the Cathedral’s outreach project on a daily basis. I enjoyed the lunch, and was humbled to hear some of the stories that had brought people into such difficult circumstances. When I got back to my office I discovered my wallet was missing. I remembered having used it to make my voluntary contribution to the lunch, and realised that I must have left it on my tray. I went back, but the wallet was nowhere to be seen. There hadn’t been much money in it, but cancelling my cards was not what I had planned to do with my afternoon and I felt pretty angry. I was even angrier that the one thing that had been irreplaceable in the wallet was a photograph of my wife I had carried with me for years. A little later two things happened. Firstly, I thought about some of the conversations I’d had that lunchtime, and reflected that I was lucky to have cards to cancel in the first place – cards that gave me access to the bank account and instant credit that are routinely denied to the homeless. Secondly I reflected that, although I had lost a photograph, I would be going home to my wife that evening – in contrast with many of the people I had spoken to at lunchtime, whose lives were empty of anyone who loved, or who had ever loved, them. The stolen wallet had become a means of calling me back to God’s frame of reference, of helping me to remember the needs of those, like the homeless, who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and a means of realising that it is among such as these that we are most likely to experience God’s presence and God’s power.

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