Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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And, Sometimes, You End Up Riding a Donkey: 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.
All week long, I've been trying to imagine what it would have been like to be in Jerusalem during Passover. The first image that comes to my mind is a huge festival, which it was. When I think of the biggest festival I have ever been to, I remember the summers that I lived in Washington, D.C. and went to the July 4th celebration at the Capital. It was the biggest crowd that I had ever been in. The celebrations regularly topped 25,000 people. I always felt like there were people spilling out of every nook and cranny of this part of the city. People climbed on the statue of Einstein and crowded the Vietnam Memorial, looking for the names of loved ones. There were vendors everywhere, selling hot dogs and over-priced red-white-and-blue slurpees or American flag-themed hats and t-shirts. Everything cost too much money but the tourists paid it so that they could take home souvenir that said "I was there. July 4th, 2001."
We all tried to find good spots to sit... some place that was at least a little shaded but where you also had a good view of the giant screens on which the entertainment was broadcast. It was almost always a sticky hot day, but most people didn't mind. The police and service members that were present for crowd-control always looked hot in their dark uniforms. The crowd was typically an interesting mix of locals who knew where the best seats were, people who lived in the suburbs and never came to the city except for big events like this, tourists in shiny new t-shirts, and people who had no homes, but would come to the festivities anyway, sometimes because it was genuinely fun, sometimes because they knew they could count on the festive atmosphere creating a greater sense of generosity among their fellow Americans. They figured they could get a free meal and maybe a clean t-shirt out of the deal.
All 25,000 of us would pack ourselves onto the National Lawn and listen to patriotic songs and speeches, and the National Fireworks extravaganza. Then, we would all try to leave at the same time, leaving piles of trash in our wake for someone else to clean up. In the dark, we would make our way to the closest subway stops. Once we made it to the tracks to wait for a train, we would push and pull and sometimes swear as we squeezed ourselves into each over-stuffed car. People would try not to lose track of their friends and their children. Tempers would flair. Train after train would go by, too full to take on more passengers, and you would wonder just how late it would be before you got home and if the several blocks you had to walk, blocks that were very safe in the daylight, would be as safe on a day when so many of the neighbors had had the day off and maybe got a little too celebratory as the evening wore on.
Sometimes those people that you were smooshed into the train with would get a little handsy on the ride home, or get up in someone's face, threatening them over a perceived slight. Everyone would be hot and tired and want to go home. You see, even among the festivities, there would always be tension. Even within the celebration, there would be conflict. As I walked the streets of this city that I really loved, surrounded by so many people, I realized that just about anything could happen. I think it is this paradox of celebration and tension that makes me think of the July 4th celebrations in DC. I'm pretty sure that the Passover celebrations were a mixture of celebration and tension, too.
They probably would have had vendors everywhere, too. But, instead of people selling nachos and those big cups of fresh squeezed lemonade, they had money changers and people selling animals to be sacrificed. And, rather than American flag hats, maybe they had little Moses dolls that the kids would beg their parents to buy for them. Ok, I made that last thing up. I don't think they would have had Moses dolls. But, still you get the picture. People would be everywhere. The city would pilgrims traveling from all over the Jewish diaspora: People from Alexandria in Egypt, from the great cities of Ethiopia, from Macedonia, maybe even Jews who lived in Rome would have made their way to Jerusalem for the festival. Poor peasants would have spent their very last coins to buy sacrificial birds.
People suffering from leprosy and epilepsy could have been begging in the street. Children would have been running wild. And, the soldiers. I have read that during the festival, Rome would send three times the usual number of soldiers to keep order in the city. And, Roman soldiers were not known to be particularly patient or merciful with the people whom their empire had conquered. They would have kept a close watch on the crowds, searching for even the barest hint of revolution. You never know what will happen with that many people crowded around. Freedom might just rear it's head. The Roman Empire couldn't stand for that.
Times were tense because it is always tense when you are under the thumb of an Empire. The legacy of the Passover celebration would likely have added to the tension. Passover reminded the people of when they had been enslaved and God freed them. Passover reminded them of the horrors of life under the Egyptian pharaoh. Passover reminded the people that their freedom came at a great bloody cost to their oppressors. Passover was a time when the simple faithful and the rabble-rousers alike would gather. And, tensions would flare. Fights could break out and it would almost always be over something greater than a stolen seat on a subway train. The Jewish people remembered their slavery. They knew their subjugation under Roman control. But, they also remembered freedom and would celebrate their delivery from Egypt. Maybe they would pray for delivery from Rome. Maybe they would believe it would need to be just as bloody. So, the Romans were nervous. The Jews were both tense and celebratory. And, in rides Jesus, sitting on a borrowed donkey, without even a proper saddle. See, festivals are strange times.
I know that festivals are often strange and raucous affairs, but this business with the donkey seems a little stranger than typical. At first, Jesus and his disciples probably would have looked like any other pilgrims making their way into the city. Then, Jesus tell two of his disciples to go borrow a colt or young donkey for him to ride. And, then, he tells them exactly where to find it. They realized that they didn't have a saddle, so they throw their coats over the donkey. Now, have you ever tried to ride a horse or donkey without have the thing you are sitting on tied up underneath the animal's belly? I have. I didn't do it for very long. You will slip all over the place if the animal goes at any speed at all. Jesus climbs up there anyway. I picture him slipping and sliding and constantly having to readjust as he rides into town.
And, yet, even as he rides into town on a donkey, an animal that I tend to think is more adorable than dignified, and even as he likely had to work hard not to slide off, even then, people saw him coming and they made a path for him. They even threw their own cloaks onto the road to make the way clear and took time to cut branches out of trees along the way. They saw this peasant teacher on a donkey and, rather than turn to one another, and say, "Who is that weirdo?," they cried out together with great Hosannas. The word Hosanna means something like "You can save us." You don't yell it at any guy who comes riding by on a donkey. You yell it to the King. You cry out with it to God.
If you were standing in the crowd, surrounded by vendors and soldiers and people begging in the streets and children running everywhere, why would this man have caught your attention? What would you have said when you saw him?
Voice 1: I am one of Jesus' disciples. And I have one question. Why did Jesus want a little colt? The Messiah ought to come to the throne on a mighty war horse! Didn't he know how ridiculous he looked on the back of that donkey?
Voice 2: What a great day! I haven't had this much fun in ages! Did you see that rabbi Jesus enter the city? He came in like a crazy little king. Pilate comes charging in on his chariot, leading his army. Jesus trotted in followed by a bunch of peasants. We all grabbed branches and waved them high, shouting and cheering. What a great day!
Voice 3: I waved a branch today, too. And, I laughed. But, even more, I hoped. I hoped that maybe this Jesus means to change things. I'm just like one of those peasants following him. They know how hard life is. Jesus knows, too. So, hoping that just maybe he might be a new messiah, I joined that crowds that shouted:
Crowd (shouting) Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Hosanna! Hosanna!
Voice 4: That Jesus is nothing but trouble! He came into the city today and went straight to the Temple. He started yelling and pushed over the tables where the coins are exchanged and sacrificial doves were sold. He scared people away by saying we had made the temple into a den of robbers! He said it should be a house of prayer for all nations. All nations! Are we just supposed to let anybody in?
Voice 1: That Jesus is trouble! He goes around forgiving sins and healing and teaching that everyone can know God. No one made him a priest. Nobody gave him permission. Who gave him authority to do these things?
Voice 2: That Jesus is real trouble! We tried to catch him saying something wrong. We asked him if it was legal to pay taxes to Rome. Instead of taking the bait, he asked whose image was on the coin. When we took one out and showed him that Caesar's image was on it, he looked at us as if to say that it was clear where our true allegiance lay. Then all he said was to give to Caesar was belonged to Caesar, but to give to God what is God's. He made us look like fools and sell-outs. Jesus is serious trouble!
Jesus is serious trouble. He is always doing something unexpected. He doesn't seem to like the status quo and isn't afraid to challenge people in power. He is inspirational. He is scary. He makes people nervous. Even though people greet him with Hosannas today, in just a few days, these same crowds will call for his death, yelling "Crucify him!" instead of "Save us!" The festival, which started with a triumphal, if strange, entry into the city, will end with his death on a cross. This is a hard story to tell. I can be tempted to talk about the great joy that the people greet Jesus with and then skip to the Resurrection that comes next Sunday. But, the thing is, I know what's going to happen between the triumphal entry and the triumphal resurrection. I know that there is a lot of heartache that happens over the next week. I know that by Thursday, Jesus will be betrayed, and by Friday, Jesus will be dead. By Saturday, his followers will believe that all hope has been lost. Even amid my celebrations, I know that there is great conflict to come. This tension tempers my festivities. It makes me want to wave my palms just a little less fervently.
Even with this tension, I do remember that Sunday will come around, too. I know that Resurrection is just around the corner. But, today, Palm Sunday reminds me that even within the celebration, there's some mourning that needs to happen here, too. If we don't tend to that grief, we miss something important about the Resurrection. I can no longer skip from celebratory parade to celebratory Resurrection. There's something I can learn from the mourning in the middle. I invite you to spend some time in the middle this week, too. It is not easy work, but it is worth our time. And, it is certainly easier to go through it together. I hope to see you on Thursday. The story will continue.
Work Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
Fred Craddock, "If Only We didn't Know," The Collected Sermons of Fred Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 128-132.
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2001).
Karoline Lewis, "No Preaching Required": https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3569
Doyle Burbank Williams, "Telling the Story: An Interactive Holy week Drama and Communion Liturgy," Before the Amen: Creative Resources for Worship, Maren C. Tirabassi and Maria I. Tirabassi, eds. (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2007), pgs 69-77.
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.