Triumph May Be of Several Kinds

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March 29, 2015

Triumph May Be of Several Kinds

Passage: Mark 11:1–10

So they brought the colt to Jesus and put their cloaks over it. And he sat on it.  

—Mark 11:7

Jonathan Dunham studied biochemistry at Denison University in Ohio, graduated with the Class of 2000, and was getting close to his 30th birthday still with no idea what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He was a substitute teacher in Portland, Oregon, but found that unrewarding, and was thinking about going to medical school, but that just seemed like a fast path to the cul-de-sac of American materialism: fastest car, newest laptop, latest iPhone, Chanel #5, etc, etc.

So one day from his home in Portland he just started walking. South. Along the Pacific Crest Trail. And he just kept going, and going, and going. Four years later, he found himself in Venezuela, still two years away from his goal of walking to Patagonia. Yes, Denison Alum Jonathan Dunham wanted to walk from the American Northwest almost to the South Pole. That’s about 7,000 miles and takes six years, at least the way Jonathan is doing it.

In Mexico, about a third of the way to his ultimate destination, Jonathan stayed with a family for several months and milked their cows and did chores around the farm to pay for his bed and board, and when it was time for him to push on south again, the farmer bought Jonathan a donkey for 300 pesos.

The donkey’s name is Judas. Jonathan carries no money and almost no possessions. He depends on dumpster diving and the kindness of strangers for food and clothing and the many, many pairs of shoes he needs to keep walking, so Jonathan travels light, but Jonathan is a philosopher and loves to read Sartre and Hegel and Plantinga, so Judas comes in handy to carry Jonathan’s books.

And also to make friends. In many of the towns Jonathan and Judas walk through, the local newspaper or radio station wants to interview them. The whole expedition is a curiosity to everyone. “Why are you walking 7,000 miles?” they all want to know. “Are you an athlete? Are you a missionary? Are you raising money for cancer or something?” But Jonathan doesn’t know why he is walking 7,000 miles, and if Judas knows, he’s not saying anything.

When Jonathan and Judas walk down the road, they stop traffic. Quite often, a school bus will stop, and 40 children will pile off the bus to say hello to Judas. Judas was especially helpful in Venezuela, where they hate America but love donkeys. Once, the Venezuelan National Guard interrogated Jonathan for eight hours trying to figure out if he was a spy, and then let him go when Judas said he loved Hugo Chavez.[1]

I guess the point of Jonathan Dunham’s story is that if you have a donkey, everyone will think you’re harmless. That’s the point in Venezuela today, and that was the point two thousand years ago when Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, and that was the point three thousand years ago when Jesus’ distant, beloved, and celebrated ancestor King David rode victoriously into the City of David in the same fashion.

And if you think the donkey is but a bit player in Jesus’ mad dash to Calvary, just look at how much attention Mark pays him. Mark’s Gospel, of course, is the leanest, sparest, snappiest of the four brief Jesus biographies in your New Testament; there is never a wasted word in Mark’s pithy little story; Mark’s Palm Sunday story, for example, is a terse telling of exactly 202 words, and someone pointed out that 150 of them are about the donkey; [2] 75% of Mark’s Palm Sunday story is about the transportation arrangements.

Of course, I guess that’s still true today, right? For almost any important journey, most of the energy is spent on getting there and back. You need to be in Seattle for a client meeting. It will take you about 90 minutes to complete your business, and about ten times longer to get there and back–finding an airfare that costs less than a new car in a seat that you can wedge yourself into; Uber to the airport and a taxi to your meeting on the other end; a line through security to get to your gate that’s longer than Lent; three hours of purgatory at the airport waiting out your flight delays; the travel time itself; the least interesting thing about your journey is the reason you took it in the first place. And so it is with Mark and the Palm Sunday story. The transportation arrangements take up most of the telling.

When a king enters a capital city on the back of a homely donkey with monstrous ears instead of a white stallion with flashing mane, it’s a gesture of peace; it is the extended hand of friendship; it is the passing of the peace pipe; it is the signing of the treaty.

Frumpy as he is, a donkey is not a sign of humility, but of fearless, peaceful power. When a king rides victoriously into the capital city via this unfashionable conveyance, it’s as if he’s saying, “I am so powerful I don’t need a white stallion with flashing mane. I don’t need an entourage of warriors and chariots and swords and spears. I am so much in charge I am harmless. I am so powerful I don’t need to hurt you.”

So Jesus borrows the conveyance of kings so strong they’re harmless, astride this homely symbol of peace and power. We call it ‘The Triumphal Entry,’ but that sure is a funny way of talking about it, knowing what we know. His victory was like a shooting star—incandescent but fugitive, here and then gone.

On Sunday, he rides into the Capital City like a King. On Monday, he rampages through the Temple with a rope of knots like a maniac. On Tuesday, he slanders the character of the most powerful people in the city with the most shocking language, as if he wants to die. On Wednesday he starts talking about the end of the world and sounds insane, and on Thursday he is sold into chains by one of his closest friends for 30 pieces of silver, the price of used car, by a Judas far more menacing than Judas the Donkey. Judas Iscariot is an ass, but there the similarity ends.

Jesus’ greatest triumph is merely a prelude to his crushing defeat and unnerving destruction. Jesus of Nazareth really is King of the World, but for a throne, there is nothing but a cross; for a crown, he wears thorns, and for a scepter, just an iron spike. Some Triumphal Entry.

On the other hand, do you know Emily Dickinson’s poem? I’ve printed it in your bulletins.

Triumph — may be of several kinds —
There’s Triumph in the Room
When that Old Imperator — Death —
By Faith — be overcome —

There’s Triumph of the finer Mind
When Truth — affronted long —
Advance unmoved — to Her Supreme —
Her God — Her only Throng —

A Triumph — when Temptation’s Bribe
Be slowly handed back —
One eye upon the Heaven renounced —
And One — upon the Rack —…[3]

What she means to say, I think, is that what looks at first like defeat might be anything but. “Triumph may be of several kinds,” she says. There’s triumph in the room where that old despot Death is defeated by faith.

A friend of mine lost his beloved father a couple of weeks ago. The dying was a long time, and it was hard, and my friend was very close to his father, and he sat by his father’s death bed for many, many days, for many hours at a watch. “Was it hard?” I asked him. “It was the greatest experience of my life,” he told me.

“There’s triumph in the Room when that old Imperator Death by faith be overcome.” Jesus knew he was going to die when he went to Jerusalem, but he went anyway. Triumph may be of several kinds.

Did you see the tears of agony on the face of Arizona point guard TJ McConnell last night after the loss to Wisconsin? TJ is a senior; this was his last chance; for the second year in a row Wisconsin defeated Arizona at the Elite Eight Stage in the NCAA tournament.

TJ and Arizona Coach Sean Miller are very close; they’re both former point guards from Pittsburgh high schools. One time Arizona played Duquesne University, and Coach Miller was so impressed with the Duquesne point guard that he persuaded him to transfer to Arizona; the point guard was TJ McConnell. So TJ and Coach Miller are very close.

After the game, TJ points to Coach Miller and says, “He’s like a father to me; I am just so sorry I couldn’t get us to the Final Four.” It was a crushing defeat, but last night TJ McConnell looked like a winner to me.   What a class act. Triumph may be of several kinds.

Until Abraham Lincoln, every American President traveled with a large entourage. Between George Washington and the American people, for example, there was always a scrim of bodyguards and attendants and coachmen and servants protecting his blindside like Tom Brady’s offensive line.

But Abraham Lincoln called himself The People’s President. “They have a right to speak to me,” he always said, “and to touch me if they want.”

Many evenings he would ride his horse—alone—to the Soldiers’ Home, his vacation home, three miles outside Washington. Have you ever seen an American President alone—anytime, anywhere?

And so only two secret service agents shadowed him during the day, a third during the evening, and a fourth to wait outside his bedroom through the night when he was supposed to be sleeping but, incurable insomniac that he was, could more commonly be found wandering the dark hallways. “The White House has 31 rooms,” said Carl Sandburg, “but President Lincoln was not at home in any one of them.”[4]

In a drawer of his desk in the White House was a fat folder labeled “Assassination.” It held more than 80 explicit death threats; the earliest arrived before his first inauguration four years earlier, while he was traveling by train from Springfield to Washington.

In his first few days in the White House, he received many, many gift baskets of fruit, most of them from places like South Carolina and Alabama; he could never touch the beautiful peaches and apples laced with poison.

“The first one or two threats made me a little uncomfortable,” he said, “but they have long ceased to give me any apprehension.”

He always said, “If I am killed, I die but once, but to live in constant dread is to die over and over again.”[5] Triumph may be of several kinds. Yes? When you do your duty no matter what the cost? When you give your life to break the chains of slavery or of sinfulness? “No one hath greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” What looks at first like defeat might be anything but.

On Monday evening, a few of us gathered here at the church to remember what happened on Palm Sunday exactly 150 years ago, 1865. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia is surrounded by bluecoats and outnumbered six to one. Few of his men are wearing shoes any longer, and none of them have eaten for days. “I suppose I must go see General Grant,” says Robert E. Lee, “and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

But he goes to Appomattox Court House to plead for mercy. Robert E. Lee has nothing to bargain with. He has been a traitor to his country, and his army has been thoroughly thrashed. Across the table sits General U. S. Grant; newspapers in the North say that the initials stand for “Unconditional Surrender Grant.”

So Robert E. Lee has modest expectations. He is bold enough to ask for at least one thing, though. He asks General Grant “Can we keep our horses?” Confederate soldiers, you see, brought their own horses to the war; it was April 9: planting time. General Grant readily complies. He also orders up 75,000 rations for his former enemies who haven’t eaten for days.

Union officers also have a request for the Army of Northern Virginia. “Permission to travel into Confederate ranks, General Lee?” “What for?” asks Robert E. Lee. More than one officer tells the General, “I went to West Point with one of your officers, Sir. We have not spoken for four years.”

Ulysses S. Grant silences every victory celebration. “There will be no gloating, no boasting, no humiliation. These former foes are now once again our brothers.” Triumph may be of several kinds.

The next day in Washington, Americans crowd onto the White House lawn clamoring for a victory speech. They want to hear retribution; they want to hear revenge; they want to begin building gallows. But the President is not interested in revenge; he is only interested in reconstruction, which is just another word for reconciliation, and he needs to get busy.

Instead of a speech, he asks the Army band to strike up a chorus of ‘Dixie.’ “It’s always been one of my favorite tunes,’ he says. Triumph may be of several kinds.

He arrived in the Capital City astride a homely symbol of peace and power. We call it his ‘Triumphal Entry,’ which is a strange way of talking about it, knowing what we know, knowing that his triumph will be effulgent but fugitive, here and then gone. But Triumph may be of several kinds. He came to Jerusalem knowing that the city would kill him, but he came anyway. And because he did, all of us are free at last.


            [1]Jonathan Dunham and Sally Ann Flecker, “Footloose,” Denison Magazine Online, Fall, 2014, Also, Simon Romero, “A Global Journey, Relying on Kindness and a Donkey,” The New York Times, February 23, 2008. I made up the part about Judas’ opinion of Hugo Chavez.

            [2]Thomas G. Long, “Donkey Fetchers,” The Christian Century, April 4, 2006, p. 18.

            [3]From The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960), #455.

            [4]Quoted by Jay Winik in April, 1865: The Month That Saved America (New York: Perennial Harper Collins, 2001), p. 247.

            [5]Martin Dugard and Bill O’Reilly, Killing Lincoln (New York: Henry Holt, 2011) pp.99-100.