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Palm Sunday. Jesus says to his disciples: "I want you to go into town and borrow me a donkey. If anyone catches you, tell them I need it." Right.
Brings to mind Gunner Bob Reinhart, one of the boys in Senior High Sunday School. He happened to notice the keys dangling from the ignition of Mr. Bothwell's new Olds Rocket 88. It was Palm Sunday afternoon, and Gunner decided to take the car for a Holy Week spin. Mr. Bothwell noticed his car taking off from the front of his house and ran down his driveway after it, slippers on his feet and Sunday funnies still in hand. "Why are you taking my car?" he cried. Gunner, apparently remembering the lesson of the morning, yelled back, "I need it."(2)
As you know, both capitalist and communist have at sometime claimed Jesus, but he was neither one of those. Jesus was a "borrowist"...he borrowed everything. He borrowed boats from which to teach or by which to cross a lake. He borrowed houses in which to eat, teach and care for people. (Some of them did not fare very well either - one lost its roof so a paralytic could be lowered in to be healed.) He borrowed sons, brothers, husbands to be disciples. He borrowed the Upper Room in which he ate his last supper with his borrowed friends. Borrowed was the manger in which he was laid after birth, borrowed his tomb after the crucifixion.
We think of Jesus as a giver, not a taker. He was a giver of health, love, truth, even the ultimate, his own life. Yet Jesus, throughout his entire career, borrowed things. I wonder why.
Actually I do not wonder. This was not just Jesus' lifestyle as an itinerant rabbi. There is a lesson here. Jesus was teaching us that all we have is borrowed from God. He ignored all strictures against lending and borrowing, because none of us really has any POSSESSIONS...things we have been loaned perhaps, things with which we have been entrusted, things over which we are called to exercise responsible stewardship... but no POSSESSIONS. Bigger barns, Swiss bank accounts, even gaining the whole world - those are not OURS. Life itself is ours on loan, borrowed, so how can we claim anything we have as our own?
The pilot of a jumbo jet with a full passenger load was coming in for a landing when he discovered that the wheels would not let down. He radioed the control tower and was told to circle the airport, dump his fuel and then come in for a belly landing. Meanwhile, the ground crew would grease the runway with foam and have ambulances, fire engines and emergency vehicles along the landing strip. The pilot conveyed this information to the passengers over the intercom. The plane made the approach. It was a white knuckle landing. As the plane squealed along the runway, metal against concrete, the screams of those inside the plane drowned out the sound of the screech outside. Miraculously nobody was injured. As the passengers left the plane, a priest said to the stewardess at the door, "Remember, the rest of your life is extra." She, being a Christian, quickly responded, "It's all extra, sir, from the very beginning."(3)
We find that difficult. We are taught that "You get what you pay for...There is no free lunch." Even in Sunday School we pick up on a subtle "Accounting Theory" of faith - you get what you have coming to you. Indeed, Gunner Reinhart did get it when he returned Mr. Bothwell's car on that Palm Sunday afternoon. One does not "borrow" donkeys - or Oldsmobiles - and get away with it. Does one?
But this tit for tat, quid pro quo, balance sheet, Accounting Theory of faith does not square with the Jesus of borrowed donkeys...etc. Jesus says to us things like, "Give to him who begs from you and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you."(4) And "If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But...lend, expecting nothing in return..."(5) The theological word for all this is GRACE.
As youngsters we learned that GRACE is the unmerited favor of God. But there is more to it - even you and I can and should be sources of grace. In the context of all this borrowing, we might say Grace is what is loaned, knowing there never will be any repayment, knowing there never CAN be any repayment, and knowing that it does not matter.
No doubt, you remember Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, in which Jean Valjean served nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving children. On his release he is unable to find work because he is an ex-convict, but a Christian bishop takes Valjean into his home and feeds him. However, the ex-convict gives in to desperation and steals the bishop's silver plates. He is arrested and brought back to the bishop's house. The compassionate cleric claimed to have GIVEN Valjean the silver. "And Jean," he said, "you forgot to take your candlesticks." Grace.
Sometime back TIME magazine(6) ran a cover story called, "The Church Search," and examined the return to religion of the Baby Boomers who wandered away in their youth. The article said, "Increasing numbers of baby boomers who left the fold years ago are turning religious again, but many are traveling from church to church or faith to faith, sampling creeds, shopping for a custom-made God." Too bad. They do not need a better one than the God of grace whom Jesus came to help us know. Perhaps the Boomers would not search so much if you and I did a better job of showing that grace.
What do we do with grace once we have received it? The late David Steele was the pastor of Christ in Terra Linda Presbyterian Church in San Rafael, California and a columnist for The Presbyterian Outlook. Something he wrote sometime back bears sharing.(7)
It was the Friday of a holiday weekend. Pastor Steele had left the house at 6 am, driven two hours to a distant golf course to meet old, seldom seen golf buddies. The day was perfect; the course in wonderful shape; fellowship marvelous. His game? Lousy! So now he is driving home trying to focus on the positives - the weather, the course, the friends - and to forget his awful score. Easier said than done.
Suddenly, all heaven breaks loose under his car. Strange knocking noises, steam, the temperature gauge in the red. Trouble. The next intersection has two big gas stations, but they are both the kind that feature mini-marts instead of mechanics. Help! Fortunately a small garage is in the next block. So, at 1:30 in the afternoon, he coasts into Bridge Automotive in Oakley, California.
A two mechanic garage. The owner looks up as Dave stops and says, "Broke your water pump." Inspection proves he is right. So here is David Steele at the beginning of the holiday weekend, fifty miles from home with a broken water pump. Who cares about golf scores? Jim, the owner of the garage, looks at the car, shakes his head and points to the vehicles parked nearby. "Wish I could help you, but I have these folks on my neck and we are taking off for the mountains tomorrow at 1 o'clock. I cannot touch your car until next Wednesday. But we will help you find a mechanic."
The "we" turns out to be Jim's wife, Kathy, who runs the office. She begins phoning up a storm. At last she shouts, "Joe on the other end of town can work on it today. He is a good mechanic."
Now to get the car to Joe's. She calls Triple-A, but they won't pay for the tow because the car is already at a garage. A few more calls confirms the bad news - it will cost $40 to get the car to Joe.
Now what? Call the tow truck. But Kathy is incensed. It is not right to pay that extra money. She gets out her book and starts figuring the job, calling the parts place to make sure they have a water pump on hand. She hands an estimate. If Dave leaves the car overnight, Jim will fix it in the morning. Pick it up Saturday at noon.
"But your husband said he can't do it."
"He will help you out," Kathy says confidently. "Besides I am half owner of this business," she adds with a little wink. And sure enough, after a brief confab, it is agreed.
Whew! But now what? How does Dave get home? His luck holds out. Right next door is a stop for the Bay Area Rapid Transit Express Bus that will get him to the Concord Station. He can ride the subway to El Cerrito. It will be easy to get someone to get him home from there.
Kathy checks with the store by the bus stop. A bus is due soon. She leaves Dave with a big smile. He is so grateful. Here he is, a stranger in a big jam. Kathy and Jim have knocked themselves out to help.
At the bus stop there is a fellow in his forties with a back pack. He and Dave get into conversation. He is a former wino who has kicked the habit and now is on his way to Seattle where an inheritance awaits him. As they talk he lights up his last cigarette and checks his change for the bus. It is obvious he needs more to get to San Francisco, his evening destination. Before you know it, Dave has whipped out his wallet and peeled off a pretty fair-sized bill which he gives enthusiastically.
Dave Steele says that is uncharacteristic of him. "I am usually one who resists panhandlers and seldom shells out anything more than change. Yet, here I am acting like Lord Bountiful." Hmmm.
As the preacher and the traveler exchange stories, Dave becomes aware that he is in this generous mood because HE has been helped. Now, here is someone HE can assist. He wants to do it. Grace cannot be paid back, but it is meant to be passed on.
David writes, "As I am thinking about this the bus appears in the distance. My companion looks at me and says, "Fellow, I don't know your name, and it really doesn't matter. But I want you to know that some day that bill will be in my wallet and I will run into someone who needs it. I'll pass it on." Good for him.
At the end of his story David Steele asks, "What does one do with grace?" And then he answers, "Recycle it, of course." Let someone else have it..."Give to him who begs from you and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you...lend, expecting nothing in return..." Grace. Go borrow me a donkey...O Suzanna...
1. Pastors Professional Research Service, March/April 1993
2. John Robert McFarland, "A Borrower and a Lender Be," The Christian Century, 3/21-28/90, pp. 295-296
3. Pastors Professional Research Service, 7-9/89
4. Matthew 5:42
5. Luke 6:34-35A
6. 4/5/93, p. 45
7. David Steele, "Amazing Grace," The Presbyterian Outlook, 10/28/91, p. 14