Palm Sunday. One of those bible stories that got made up to make a message. Not so much about donkeys and humble messiahs. More about ‘don’t presume’. Don’t presume that hope comes dressed in the robes and roles of power - military, political, or even religious. Don’t presume that those so adorned in might will make it alright.
Hope might come dressed in parody, with heels almost dragging on the ground, and the crowds with palm branches and cloak spreading might be cheering him on, praying he is ‘the one’. Because ‘the one’s’ before him haven’t delivered. So, why not take a risk on a dragster?
For hope might, could, come from somewhere and someone unexpected. Like an itinerant illiterate Galilean. Like a liberator who loved his enemies. Like a crucified failure-saviour.
So, don’t presume that power is where it’s at, that hope might not wash up as weak. Don’t presume that the cross means all is lost. This is the message of the Jesus community: hope. Then, and still.
William Bausch[i] tells a story of a man coming home from work dejected. It had been a hard week, like the one before, and the one before that. Some work not only taxes the mind and body, some saps the soul. His soul was tired, rung out. He sat down on the window seat in their lounge.
The man’s wife had recently made a new covering for that window seat. A thick corduroy. She had, like with many things, given it her full attention, spending hours, sewing the seams carefully, and embroidering it with small flowers.
The man took out his pipe (which dates this story), tamped, and lit it, breathing in and exhaling the smoke trying to find an elusive peace, lost in the sorrow of his soul. A cinder accidentally fell from the pipe and to his shame burnt a wee hole before he could render it harmless.
Then the man’s wife without words, worry, fuss, or reprove, took out her sewing kit and as he sat there darned the hole, making with the thread a new bright flower.
Bausch says that action opened a crack of light for this man. He saw not only the love and solidarity she was offering him but saw the wee flower as a symbol of hope. Hope that there are beautiful flowers in life, and those who sew them. Hope that there are actions that heal the burns, the scars. Hope that things could be different. And hope, like it often does, came wrapped in someone who believed in him, gifting him belief in himself.
Hope is the power that keeps us believing. It is the light of our best dreams. It says to the darkness of despair, ‘You are only transitory, tomorrow will be different.’ It tells experience, the hurts we’ve received and reciprocated, that it’s not the only truth. It declares that there is truth in aspirations never realised, in love never known, and in forgiveness never felt. Hope bravely waits.
There’s a Jesus story told of a fellow who gets beaten up on a country road. He’s robbed and left for dead. He will probably soon succumb to blood loss, and then nature’s scavengers will move in. Hope is leaking out of him.
Someone comes by. A busy guy. In a hurry. Maybe he’s afraid the robbers are still about and will get him too. Maybe it’s the deadlines. Who knows? Compassion takes time, and he’s on the clock.
Another guy comes by too. Same thing. It’s like a second helicopter passing overhead when you’re lost in the bush; and it keeps going. The feeling is not good.
Then this Samaritan comes by, and stops. To a Jew a Samaritan was something like what we Christians today think of Mormons or Jehovah’s witnesses. They’re foreign. Probably Americans. You don’t trust them. They believe funny things.
Well, the funny thing is that it’s the Samaritan who is the harbinger of hope to the ditched man. She cares for him, tends his wounds, takes him to a hotel and pays for his continuing care.
This is a big story, one that if we followers of Jesus will let it, can shape and re-shape our faith, theology, and praxis.
We can notice, for example, that we (the audience) are the man in the ditch. We need saving. Not the Samaritan. We need the Samaritan. We can notice, for example, that the Samaritan doesn’t try to convert us, or promote her brand of religion. We can notice also, for example, that this story doesn’t have God in it. No one mentions God. God is the actions that bring hope.
And the overarching message, like today’s donkey tale, is ‘don’t presume’. Don’t presume that truth, beliefs, facts are more important than stopping and being kind. Don’t presume that God’s love has borders. That God thinks like we do, and has prejudices that match ours. Don’t presume because you’ve been ditched by life that hope is gone. The unexpected might happen. She might come.
Yet we know that hope can be quite a fickle thing, flowering one day and withering the next. When you are born towards the bottom, beaten down when you try to rise, and blamed for it and everything, then it is hard to blossom. Indeed, most don’t. If there is a bloom the frost of poverty quickly tries to kill it.
Once I lived in a community which had lots of unemployment, violence, malnutrition, and child abuse. If it was bad it was there.
I wasn’t born there. I was born in a world away – about half an hour’s drive - where children didn’t seem to live with fear, and where I never heard violent screams at night. But as a 23-year-old I was invited to live in this other world. It actually was a great privilege.
Three of us lived in a neighbourhood house, running holiday programmes, food co-ops, and the like. We were there to help and to learn. Some our neighbours undertook to educate us, ‘Samaritans’ to our need.
The question of hope, how it’s nourished and tendered, was very real. A change in government policy decreasing financial benefits to those in poverty was akin to aerial spraying with a noxious chemical, knocking back and killing any new shoot. In the scrawl of a parliamentary pen bus money, second-hand clothes, and birthdays could disappear. Only food banks, hire purchase operators, and the pawnbroker thrived. Was hope then even possible in these circumstances?
There is something amazing about the human spirit, how it will look for and hold on to hope in the bleakest of circumstances. A friend calls it ‘physis’ – that something in plants that makes them seek the light. Time and again I saw glimpses of hope in my new neighbourhood, often flowering one day and dying the next. Sometimes they lasted longer.
I remember, for example, when Ruby was given a car. It was a gift from an aunt. When I say ‘car’ I should qualify that. It was what my father would have called ‘a bomb’. It was a warrantless wreck, but it could go. Just.
Ruby had six children and a husband. He left home before light and returned around five. Ruby left home a couple of hours later and returned after midnight. Six days of the week. Ruby cleaned the floors and toilets at a private hospital and walked there and back.
That wreck of a car gave her 45 minutes more sleep each night, and 45 minutes more with her family. It enabled her to go shopping without herding her offspring towards the bus stop and struggling home afterwards with the groceries. Slowly and surely that wreck made a difference in life. Hope grew and for a while Ruby had a bit of a sparkle.
I never heard what eventually happened to that wreck, nor for that matter what happened to Ruby. Recently however I was told that her kids had done quite well.
I remember also, for example Ray, a young man who died in the street. There’s nothing like a knife in the chest to pierce a mother’s heart and to slice open a community. The murderer, Billy, lived a few doors down. For the next year we would walk with the families of these boys through the heartache of a funeral and the gauntlet of a court case.
I have two strong memories. The first happened the following afternoon. Billy’s mum, Sue, came to see Ray’s mum, Shelley. These women had known each other for years. They weren’t best friends but they weren’t enemies either. Sue trepidly knocked on the door and Shelley opened it. They fell, weeping, into each other’s arms. Those tears watered hope. In the months to come though the judicial process would test the power of that forgiveness.
The other strong memory is Billy’s middleclass girlfriend and her Baptist Church. They believed in Billy, surrounding him with a wrap of hope, giving him their Jesus. They visited him in prison and assisted him upon release.
We can skeptically wonder how long the bromance of Jesus and Billy lasted. In that neighbourhood quick-fix-Jesus usually snapped when pressure was applied. What would happen if his girlfriend left, or his anger rose again? Can hope grow and overcome its enfeebled roots? I don’t know. Do any of us know how the little we do now might be of some help in the future?
Not being of the Baptist hue, I would like to acknowledge the courage of that church in nurturing Billy. Whatever their motivation sometimes religions, churches, and community organisations that I have misgivings about are the means of hope. Hope is not limited to my preferences or prejudices. It doesn’t keep to any rules.
In both these stories hope was found. Ruby and Billy found hope, and it came wrapped in the miracle of having someone believe in you. For Ruby it was her aunt. For Billy his girlfriend and her church. Having someone believe in you can make a world of difference. In the story by Bausch, it was the man’s wife who believed in him, absorbed his despair, and offered an embroidered flower. In the Jesus story it was the Samaritan.
It seems to me that hope can be many things. Little things. Big things. Expected and unexpected. It can be sung about, and dreamed for. And for many hope comes in the miracle on having someone believe in you – to wordlessly stitch a solution to a cinder you’ve dropped, to give you an old bomb car, to visit you in prison, to tend your wounds – to give you their belief so you can grow your own.
So, don’t presume. Don’t presume that all hope is lost.
[i] P.347, William J. Bausch “A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers”.