Sermons

Courage in the Small Things; A Message for Palm Sunday; Rev Dee Ledger, March 28,2021

Today, on Palm Sunday, the official start of Holy Week, we have an opportunity to speak of courage.  We have an opportunity to view Jesus and ourselves through the lens of courage: the courage that it takes to show up, to protest or to fight for a cause, the courage to give one’s testimony, the courage to make room for another person’s experience, and the courage see an issue through until the end—even when the end might be discouraging or messy.  Harper Lee once wrote that “real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” 

The poet, Maya Angelou, saw courage as a foundational virtue.  She once said, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”

We think of courage as bravery, but the word connotes so much more.  Merriam-Webster defines ‘courage’ as the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”  Did you know that the root of the word ‘courage’ is actually ‘heart’?  Stamina is part of courage—not simply in moments of flashy, heroic deeds, but in quieter moments that can deeply reveal one’s heart and quality of spirit.  Brene Brown explains, Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. “But in my opinion,” Brown  writes, “this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences — good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as “ordinary courage.”[1]

It was ordinary courage that led Jesus’ movement.  Ordinary courage that placed Jesus at the center of protest, a protest against rampant imperialism and pain, a protest that gave ordinary people extraordinary vision and extraordinary fortitude to challenge the imperial cult and its ruthless dominion.  The imperial cult promulgated the lie that Caesar was the son of god, and that Caesar’s family members were divinely sanctioned authorities of the Roman State and therefore beyond challenge by the oppressed and huddled masses.  It was ordinary courage that led Jesus to ride a humble donkey in a staged act of political theater on one side of Jerusalem, while the annual, farcical pilgrimage of Pontius Pilate commenced on the other side of the city.

We know that the Roman governor was in the city for Passover to remind those swirling masses of people that whatever freedom they were celebrating from their ancient texts—Moses, Pharoah, the slaves, and all of that—Roman power was still in charge and could still squash your life with a wave of the imperial hand.

In their book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Last Days in Jerusalem, Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan describe not one, but two processions happening on different sides of the city —two processions with a world of difference and a world of hurt between them.  Imagine you are a subject of Roman law and order.  Imagine the scene as Borg and Crossan describe it: “A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.  Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums.  The swirling of dust.  The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.”[2]

And on the other side?  On the other side, a people’s rabbi entered the city riding a donkey while his rag-tag followers pulled branches of trees, palms, and cloaks to show both their enthusiasm as well as their mocking contempt of Roman power, privilege, and farce in claiming Divine rule.

Of course, we know that the festivities do not end well for Jesus and his crowd.  Holy Week is about those events that led a radical rabbi to die on a Roman cross.  Yet, the necessary courage to see this thing through was already present before the cross rose in the distance.  Ordinary courage was there in the followers who found themselves inspired by the hope that Roman rule would not and could not outlast God.  It was present in the mocking humor of those Jesus followers, who like the court jester, could show with their parade just how ridiculous and aggrandizing the Roman procession really was.   Pomp and circumstance were just a nice bit of propaganda and the control of public optics.  It was a fierce demand for respect and obedience.  A demand contrary to love.

Our commitment to God rests on small,  authentic, and courageous acts:  the act of fetching a humble beast of burden, a donkey, because someone said, “The Lord needs it and will return it very soon.”  I have fetched a lot of things, but I know that it takes courage to approach complete strangers in an unfamiliar town and say, “Would you let me borrow your car, your horse, your boat, or a few dollars because there is something about to happen here that is of God, and our future survival together needs your help and courage too.”   

The gospel of Mark tells us that two unnamed disciples subsequently fetch a colt, which is actually a donkey’s foal, and while we don’t learn the names of the disciples or the donkey, we learn of their courage in trusting a vision greater than themselves and what it means to bear the Savior into a world that promotes public displays of power, might, and violence.  What had prepared those disciples for that moment when their ‘yes’ would be more courageous than their ‘no’?  On whose bended knee did those disciples sit, to hear story after story that would strengthen their resolve to help rather than hinder the work of God in their midst?

Friends, who taught you courage?  Who or what gave your courage the chance to grow and become part of your identity and part of how you are in the world?  How might you en-courage yourself and others on this journey?

We exercise courage in small things before we arrive at the big things.

This week, a legislator showed courage by persistently knocking on a closed door that should rightly have been open to her and to those for whom state voting  rights, access, and regressive restrictions would clash with a stroke of another powerful governor’s pen.  Like the famed woman in Jesus’s parable who persistently knocks on the callous judge’s door demanding justice, an elected black woman legislator and colleague knocked on a door that had been purposely closed to the very constituents who demanded to be seen and heard.  Now she is paying for her knock with a felony charge while others who have slain public trust go free. But like the stones on Jesus’ path that day, the challenge does not go unnoticed by the masses.  For every closed door, there will be a knock, until access is the rule and not the exception, until voter expression overwhelms voter suppression, and until the governors of this land cease their farcical parades.

Jesus gives people courage to continue to knock on doors that have been repeatedly closed on them and to them.  Jesus gives them—and us– courage to stage political protests and to peacefully stand against the diminishment and disenfranchisement of others.   The Jesus who entered Jerusalem and turned a world upside down.

What does our own courage have to do with our hearts, our commitment, and how we ‘speak our mind by telling our heart’?

Debi Thomas writes, “so why did Jesus die?  He died because he unflinchingly fulfilled the will of God.  He died because he exposed the ungracious sham at the heart of all human kingdoms, holding up a mirror that shocked his contemporaries at the deepest levels of their imaginations.  Even when he knew that his vocation would cost him his life, he set his face “like flint” towards Jerusalem.  Even when he knew who’d get the last laugh at Calvary, he mounted a donkey and took Rome for a ride.”[3]

We, who may be listening today, may think that we have little courage in this Jesus movement, such as it is.  We may think that we have little voice or power to right the wrongs of the world or to undo the effects of evil.  But we would be mistaken.  Because collectively, we ride with Jesus as he teaches us courage on bended knee.  We ride with Jesus, not into the sunset of some imaginary kingdom beyond this world, but into those places and times that have relied on deception and propaganda to further a farce that some idol or other rules this world.  We ride with Jesus because he teaches truth; he is truth, and his truth makes us free from dominion of all kinds, including our own shackles.

Happy Palm Sunday, siblings in Christ.

Let the parade and your courage commence.

Amen.

 

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/737201-courage-is-a-heart-word-the-root-of-the-word

[2] See https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1708-parade-or-protest for a summary of Borg and Crossan’s compelling argument.

[3] Debi Thomas, “Parade or Protest,” March 18, 2018. https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1708-parade-or-protest