Creating Conversation: Donkey for Jesus

This hand-carved donkey sits on Ross Lockhart’s desk, a reminder of our call to lift Jesus high for all to see.

Creating Conversation is a weekly editorial, curated by the Centre for Missional Leadership (CML), which gives opportunity for people to speak about issues they believe are vital for the church in Vancouver.

One of the goals of this weekly article is to spark dialogue – and action. We invite you to join the dialogue here on the Church for Vancouver website.

We also invite you to use the article as a discussion starter with your small group, church staff, friends and your neighbours. Thanks for participating in the conversation!

I recall sitting in Bible study over two decades ago while serving a wonderful congregation in Nova Scotia. It was coming up to Holy Week and we were studying the story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, with people laying their cloaks and palm branches on the ground with shouts of “Hosanna in the highest.”

Members of the Bible study recalled their own experiences of Palm Sunday over the years. I offered a memory of growing up in Winnipeg and the annual Palm Sunday parade with other Sunday School children in my home congregation.

I reflected on how “arming” children with palm branches and setting them loose on parade was a questionable choice each year, as inevitably an occasional “palm branch sword fight” broke out on the chancel steps with Sunday School teachers moving into to make peace before the pastor’s sermon.

The Bible study group reviewed the different characters present in the Palm Sunday story from Luke 19. We noted the courage of the disciples to follow Jesus’ instructions to boldly ‘rent-a-donkey’ in order to make the Palm Sunday procession happen. We noted the joyous shouts of praise from the crowd, fulfilling humanity’s doxological purpose of praising God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Indeed, several Bible study members noted how the people’s praise rooted in the Old Testament was still our common language when breaking bread at The Lord’s Supper:

Hosanna in the highest.

Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.

Hosanna in the highest.

We reflected on times when we felt bold to proclaim God’s praise and when we struggled to do so. That led us to discussion of the Pharisees and their demand that Jesus silence the crowds, knowing full well the implications from Zechariah 9:9 of this messianic leader riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. Someone could get hurt, even killed.

We even discussed the curious image of stones shouting God’s praise if human beings failed to do their part in proclaim glory to God in the highest. Certainly, this notion that creation has something to teach us about God’s goodness is affirmed in the category of ‘general revelation’ in theology and led Reformers like John Calvin to urge us to take a “pious delight in the clear and manifest works of God” in the “beautiful theatre” of creation.

In more recent times scholars of religion such as Paul Bramadat at the University of Victoria have named the default spirituality of the Pacific Northwest as ‘reverential naturalism.’

The other key character

As we reflected on all of these characters in the reading a faithful, yet quiet member of our Bible study group raised his hand to speak. The retired fisherman said, “Pastor, I think we’ve missed the most important character in this story, other than Jesus of course.”

Who’s that?” I asked with curiosity.

“Well,” the man replied, “it seems to me that we too often forget the important role of the donkey in this story.” He paused a moment and then continued, “It seems to me that we can all be like the donkey, whether we can shout hosanna or may have the reluctance of the Pharisees. The donkey’s job, humble and steady, was to lift Jesus above the crowd so that everyone could see our Lord and Saviour.”

The Bible study group received this quiet fisherman’s words with thanks and closed for the day.

The next Sunday I was to preach on the Palm Sunday text and just before worship that same quiet and humble man from our Bible study approached me. I knew that he had long been a woodworker, his skills only increasing in retirement.

He said to me just before the elders met for prayer, “Pastor, I pray that you will lift Jesus’ name high today and teach the rest of us to do the same. I made you a little gift to remind you of our need to lift Jesus high.”

He handed me something wrapped up in tissue as he walked off towards the sanctuary. I stood in the narrow hallway with people buzzing around me getting ready for worship and unwrapped the gift. Inside, I saw a most beautiful hand carved donkey.

A reminder for me, for the congregation, for all of us that during Holy Week that leads to the painful depth of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday and Christ’s resurrection – we are all called to humbly lift Jesus high.

Ross Lockhart is Dean of St. Andrew’s Hall, which oversees the Centre for Missional Leadership.

To this day, two decades later and serving on the other side of the country as Dean of the Presbyterian college at UBC, I still keep that donkey on my desk.

A good and godly reminder that our calling as baptized Christians is doxological – to praise God at all times and, in doing so, to lift Jesus high above the crowds for all to see.

This Easter, across Vancouver, I pray that we do so wherever we join for worship, so that God may be glorified, and all may be drawn to the joy we find in relationship with risen Lord, who reigns on high.

The Rev. Dr. Ross Lockhart is Dean of St. Andrew’s Hall, the Presbyterian Church in Canada college at the University of British Columbia.

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