Well, they’re off. The Tour de France kicked off in Yorkshire. Noon yesterday, and they were away, with a send-off from the younger royals. The Grand Depart set off from Leeds for a tour around the Yorkshire Dales, 198 cyclists from 22 teams. I have to say, Yorkshire has risen to the challenge. People are turning out in their thousands to see the cyclists zoom by. I know the vicar of Windy Nook was there yesterday with her family. York Minster is sporting a yellow jersey banner at the top of the tower. Friends of mine have been involved in organising a big Festival at Holy Trinity Church Skipton, on the cycle route, though the commentator called it “the Anglican church of St Trinity”. They also had a big yellow jersey handing on the tower – their logo is a sheep riding a bicycle. There is bunting everywhere, a lot of good humour and a great atmosphere all through Yorkshire.
And that’s a cycle race. Admittedly the most famous cycle race in the world.
The prophet poet Zechariah is imagining a great procession through the streets. Not on bicycles, but on a donkey. He is dreaming of a king riding into town, into Jerusalem, the holy city. And this king will create peace, because he will keep all the enemies away, all the predatory nations with designs upon the city of God. The king will set prisoners free; he will bring hope; he will restore the good times and bring peace and prosperity.
It’s the reading we have for Palm Sunday because it talks about the king riding on a donkey. This is the reading that Jesus had in mind when he came into Jerusalem that day. And we have it today because the king on the donkey is humble and Jesus is talking about being gentle and humble in heart.
Jesus sounds pretty fed up. Basically he is saying: whatever I do, it’s wrong. You know that saying that you can’t do right for doing wrong? John the Baptist was ascetic in his ways, living, eating, dressing very simply and sparsely. People didn’t like it. It made them uncomfortable. Jesus went to parties. He talked to everyone, whether they were respectable or not. People didn’t like it. It made them uncomfortable. People will always put up barriers. They will always find a reason why she shouldn’t follow Jesus, why they shouldn’t get involved.
People often want a reason for not believing. They want reasons for not going to church. I know a woman who feels that the church should have done more for her mother, that the old vicar’s wife should have gone on visiting her mum now that she was in a Nursing Home and very frail, and she hates the church for letting her mum down, as she sees it. My own view is that the woman is being unrealistic about what is possible. The vicar’s wife had to let go of the things she did in the parish when her husband was given a job in the diocese. But the woman feels justified because her complaint makes her feel that the church is not good enough for her so she can ignore it.
In the end, it’s not about how good the church is, not about what the church will do for you. You come to church because Jesus created it as the means to be his body in the world, and we need to be together to worship God and encourage and support each other. In the church, we nurture each other in the faith.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus does give us a reason for coming to him and sticking with him. He invites us to come to him with all our burdens, whatever they are. People are carrying such a heavy load, often without help: burdens of pain, of distress and anxiety, of loneliness and lack of love and affection, of violence and abuse, of not being able to get a proper job, of not having quite enough to get by, feelings of worthlessness, guilt and shame. The list goes on and on. You can’t always see another person’s burden, and very often, they are blind to yours. But Jesus knows all our worries, all our concerns. And he comes beside us along the road to give us comfort. He may take the load from us, or he helps us to carry the load.
Jesus our king comes to us. He comes to the heavenly city, to the church, to rule our hearts and minds and souls. Our king is humble. He doesn’t bully us or manipulate us. He comes to us in humility. He knows about the burdens we carry. He was rejected himself. People deliberately misunderstood him, to give themselves an excuse for not getting involved.
And as for us, his church, Jesus invites us to be like him, to be people who are gentle and humble, who listen to others, who are willing to get alongside folk and help carry their burdens. He will be there for us, and then he invites us to help him be there for others.
The great occasions of life are a joy. I love the way Yorkshire has got behind the Tour de Yorkshire. From the clips I saw on the television, they were having a great time and making a party of it. It will give them a real boost in spirits. They were there as the bikes came through and they enjoyed it.
On the journey of faith, there are great occasions too: Christmas and Easter and Pentecost. And the occasions that mark out our own journies, like baptism and confirmation. And the moments when we found that God was closer to us than we ever realised. They often come out of the blue, when we least expect it, and they are very precious when they happen.
At the end of the day, the one who gets the yellow jersey on the journey of faith is not the one who is the first to get to the end of the stage, but the one who perseveres in following Jesus, in gentleness and humility, in care and love.