— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ Palm Sunday ~~~
Like the Christmas story and the blending of all the differences between the gospel narratives into one story with shepherds, a guiding star and wisemen, trips to Egypt, and so on when all of those characters and events do not appear in any one gospel, so, too, does the Easter story get fashioned into a common narrative that obfuscates the distinctions put forward by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. For reasons that are not altogether clear, each of the gospel narratives about Palm Sunday are slightly different – or maybe even significantly different. That we call this day “Palm Sunday” is interesting because only one of the gospels – the gospel of John – has palm branches being laid on the path that Jesus rode. In a way it would make more sense to call this day “Cloak Sunday” because the cloaks appear in three of the four gospels. In Matthew and Mark there are “leafy branches” that are spread along the path but no palms. In Matthew there is a donkey and a colt. In Mark, Luke, and John there is just the colt that has never been ridden. The point is – and I can see your eyes glazing over even through the camara – but the point is there are differences and the differences may point to significant issues – at least in the minds of the authors – and the differences give preachers a little something different to work with when this Sunday comes around.
What I have done for this year is override the Lectionary assignment of the Matthew story of Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem in order to use the story as Mark recounts it. There is something unique to Mark’s telling that I want to highlight in the sermon because I think it meets us where we are in the midst of this time in our common life dealing with social distancing and empty churches. This distinctive part of Mark’s story will be the subject of the second part of this sermon.
Listen now for the gospel in Mark 11:1-11…
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples
and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it.
Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
This sermon will have two points.
The points might not seem to go together, but I think they do.
The points made in this sermon are connected
like openness of mind is connected to learning.
The points of this sermon are connected
like spirit is connected to body.
The points of this sermon are connected
like prayer is connected to service.
Point number one: when you think about the disciples in this story you have to assume that being on “colt securing detail” was not the most glamorous job for those two disciples who were dispatched to set the thing up. Remember, Jesus sends two disciples ahead and tells them untie an colt and bring it to him. This was menial at best. Wouldn’t it have been a little more grand to have been on Jesus’ right and on his left as he waded into the cheering crowd? Wouldn’t it have been more glorious to walk in front of Jesus and shout out to the crowds – “Make way for the One who comes in the name of the Lord!” Yet, these two unnamed disciples were sent away to bring back a colt. They were, to use a phrase Tom Long used in a sermon on this this story, “donkey fetchers” (Christian Century, 4/4/06, p. 18).
Tom Long wrote in his sermon (and he, too, has blended stories because in Mark there was no donkey, only a colt; but Dr. Long’s point is the point and it works well with a donkey or a colt):
Though no one knows what these two disciples were thinking, I am fairly confident that they had imagined for themselves a grander and nobler role on this day than being on donkey detail. Mark does not name these disciples, but maybe they were James and John, who only hours before had proposed to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But it hardly matters which two they were. All the disciples had been jockeying for advantage, angling for glory, arguing about who was the greatest. So it is deliciously ironic that on this very public and glorious day of Jesus’ ministry, a day when he will be welcomed into Jerusalem with joyous hosannas, they find themselves engaged in a most unromantic form of ministry, mucking around a stable, looking suspiciously like horse thieves, and trying to wrestle an untamed and no doubt balky animal toward the olive groves (p. 18).
Lots of what we do to try to be faithful followers of Jesus, to be upright and good members of our families, to be contributing members of our community and our country is without romance. Lots of what we do to lead lives for which we will proud in the end is ordinary self-giving and sacrifice that will garner for us no public accolades. Lots of what we do to keep the church open and to keep the Worship, Christian Education, Nurture, and Outreach of the congregation vibrant is donkey fetching.
Mark was right, I think, to devote so many verses to the securing of the colt. He tells us something about Jesus by doing so, but he also tells us a lot about what it means to follow Jesus on the way to the cross, about what it means to be the church.
So…Point number one – we are called to donkey fetching, to quiet and unheralded kindnesses, to ordinary services. We are called to trips to the grocery store for our aging neighbor who should not be placed at risk of illness, to increased attention to the food pantry of our church, to careful financial giving to church, local business, community centers. We are called to giving in secret that no one will know you have done except our God in heaven. We are called to the continued care of partners in life who, through illness or declining mental capabilities have made a transition from partners to receivers of our care-giving. We are called to be servants trusting that our service brings us close to the heart of God.
Point number two – in Mark, Jesus goes into Jerusalem and into the Temple alone – at night or at least at dusk. The “Hosannas” and the “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” and the “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” all of it takes place on the way to Jerusalem, not in the city. Jesus goes into the city as a lonely pilgrim and he makes his way to what must have been a nearly empty Temple. He looks around the Temple and then goes back to Bethany to be with the twelve.
This telling of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem resonates with Mark’s overall narrative. No one understood Jesus in Mark. Even the disciples did not understand who Jesus was and what he had to do. Jesus had to enter into his passion with an aching loneliness. Jesus’ loneliness flowed from his awareness that his mission was not to be the restorer of the kingdom of David as a political and military force in the world, that his calling was not to be raised up to an earthly throne of gold and power, that his coming in the name of the Lord was to lead to rejection, ridicule, death. Jesus had to walk the path alone because no one quite understood what God was doing through the one who rode to the gates of Jerusalem on a borrowed colt.
So, Jesus entered the Temple, the place of prayer for all the nations, at night and alone. I can imagine that for a brief shining moment it was a blessing for Jesus to be there. The Temple, for all its faults that Jesus would expose the next day, was nonetheless the physical expression of the hopes and dreams and faith of a people who had endured slavery and been led to freedom by the hand of God. The Temple was the place where people, Jesus’ people, found solace and divine company on the journey toward righteousness. The Temple was a place where all God’s children could come to offer up their silent and spoken prayers and be re-awakened to the truth of their place in the world as children of God. When Jesus enters the Temple alone, I imagine that he was bathed in the beauty of the prayer-drenched walls.
There is a beautiful passage in Marilynne Robinson’s book Gilead about entering a church and sensing the holiness of the place. Gilead is a novel in the form of a letter from a 70-something year old Congregational minister to his seven year old son. The minister is John Ames and he is dying; so, he wants to record something of his life and his thoughts for his son. In this particular passage John Ames is recounting having read a book recommended to him by his wife. The book unsettles him; so, he goes over to the old church where he is the pastor. Ames writes:
I went up to the church to watch the dawn come, because that peace does restore me better than sleep can do. It is as though there were a hoard of quiet in that room, as if any silence ever entered that room stayed in it. I remember once as a child, John Ames writes, dreaming that my mother came into my bedroom and sat down in a chair in the corner and folded her hands in her lap and stayed there, very calm and still. It made me feel wonderfully safe, wonderfully happy. When I woke up, there she was, sitting in that chair. She smiled at me and said, “I was just enjoying the quiet.” I have that same feeling in the church, that I am dreaming what is true (pages 132-133).
I like to think Jesus found peace on his lonely journey to the cross by being in the Temple alone. I like to think that he enjoyed “the hoard of quiet” in the room and that he somehow felt the company of God. I like to think that Jesus – in that moment – knew that what he dreamed was true – that God would reconcile all the world through the submission of One who rode to the gate of the city on a colt fetched for him by disciples who had not yet come to understand God’s dream.