Sunday, March 24, 2024

Palm Sunday

“The Sacrament of Baptism”
– Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Philippians 2:5-11/NRSVUE)
Gospel Reading (Mark 11:1-11/NRSVUE)

When I made the leap from middle school to high school, I was looking for an extracurricular activity in which to participate (it looks good on those college applications, you know), so I settled on marching band, which was a curious choice because I didn’t actually play an instrument.

But I always wanted to play an instrument, I thought I could learn how to play an instrument, and I thought that this would provide me with the opportunity and the motivation to do so. And all of my friends (most of whom who did play instruments) had signed up for marching band, so I figured I would too. Besides, it’s good to feel like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself.

Over that summer, I set about learning to play the euphonium, which, for those of you who don’t know, is basically a trombone with valves (like a trumpet) instead of a slide. But I definitely didn’t have the chops to secure a spot in one of the best marching bands in the Mid-Atlantic states (which ours happened to be). So they had to find something for me to do during that first year, and let’s just say what they found for me to do wasn’t terribly glamourous.

Our drum major that year was only about five feet tall, which made her difficult for the musicians to see. To mitigate this situation, someone came up with idea of building a giant wooden box for her to stand on; problem solved — well, sort of. You see, they also needed a way of getting this contraption where it needed to be when it it needed to be there, which was where yours truly came in.

They attached sets of handles on each side of the box and conscripted another aspiring musician to be my coworker. Our job was bascially to carry this thing on and off the field. Oh, but that’s not all; during performances we had to kneel on one knee — one of us on each side of the box, in full band uniform, facing the stands, looking like some kind of security detail assigned to ensure the safety and well-being of our drum major.

I guess what I’m saying is that I spent my freshman year as a volunteer roadie for a high school marching band. Now, this would have been kind of a cool gig had it been for Springsteen or Led Zeppelin, but for a high school marching band? Dressed in an itchy wool uniform with a tall matching hat that made me look like a giant blue Q-Tip? Not so much. Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly the job I’d signed up for. But somebody had to do it.

I wonder if those two unnamed disicples were feeling much the same way on that very first Palm Sunday.

As our story gets underway, Jesus and the twelve are nearing Jerusalem when they decide to stop near the Mount of Olives (from which one could see Jerusalem and the Temple in the distance). This is where Jesus will begin his “triumphal” entry into the capital city, but it doesn’t exactly end up being a parade fit for a king (well, a worldy king anyway). It is, however, all exactly as Jesus intends for it to be. And because Jesus doesn’t ever really do anything without thinking about it, neither the place from which he starts his journey nor the mode of transportation he chooses to take to his destination are matters of happenstance.

The Mount of Olives is mentioned by name two times in the Hebrew Scriptures. The first is in the second book of Samuel when King David flees there during the revolt led by his son, Absalom — an insurrection that is quickly put down, leading to David’s restoration to the throne.

The second is in Zechariah where the prophet foretells the destruction of Jerusalem that is to come, followed by God’s return atop the Mount of Olives. The point is that this is a place where humiliation and defeat has historically been followed by triumph — forshadowing what’s in store for Jesus in the days to come.

And the ride Jesus opts for is definitely worth considering too. A typical king — the kind of Messiah the people are expecting and hoping for — would probably arrive seated upon a stallion, clad in armor, with an army in tow. Jesus, however, arrives upon a colt, covered in humble cloaks, with a small band of followers comprised of fishermen and tax collectors.

In the Gospels of Matthew and John, this colt is described a “donkey” or a “donkey colt,” which sounds even less fit for a king than a “colt” does. In John’s Gospel, Jesus finds this animal on his own, while in the others Jesus sends out two disciples to fetch it. How did this all actually go down? I don’t know, I wasn’t there. But Mark’s way of putting this all together is really interesting; and it tells us a lot not only about Jesus and his priorities, but also about ourselves and ours.

Just a half chapter earlier, Jesus tells the disciples — for the third time, in fact — that he is headed to Jerusalem to be killed in a most undignified way by the powers-that-be, and that three days later he will rise again. And how do these disciples respond to this ominous revelation? They really don’t.

Instead, James and John approach Jesus with a semmingly unrelated request, which goes something like this: “Ok Jesus, we need you to do us a favor. When we finally enter Jerusalem, we want to ride into the city by your side (because we’re obviously your favorites), one of us on your right, the other on the left (we don’t care which one of us is which), so the people will understand that we’re kind of a big deal — not as big of deal as you are, mind you, but a big deal nonetheless.”

Jesus tells them, “You do not know what you are asking,” because, well, they don’t. Next we learn that the other ten disciples are none too happy about the blatant attempt at one-ups-manship on the part of James and John (probably because they wish they’d thought of it first). Then Jesus gets the twelve together to give them all a talking-to. Among other things, he tells them this: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…” In other words, Jesus expects his disciples to act the way he acts, to do what he does.

And so, in light of all this, just imagine how the subsequent conversation between Jesus and the two disciples at the beginning of today’s reading might have gone. 

“James and John, thanks for coming by. I need you to do something for me.” I’m making an assumption here that these two disciples are, in fact, James and John because the text doesn’t ever say who they are. But it would be kind of fitting in light of their earlier behavior, wouldn’t it?

“Of course!”

“Well, as you know, we’re about to head into Jerusalem, so I need your help getting things together for the processional.”

“I know! Let’s get matching saddles and armor for our matching stallions, and matching outfits for us too. We’ll look so dignified and imposing riding in side by side by side as we discussed earlier.”

“That’s not exactly what I had in mind.”


“Yeah, I actually just need you two to go get me a donkey.”

“A what?”

“You heard me.”

“A donkey? That’s not appropriate transportation for a king, for the Messiah! And what are we going to ride?”

“Well, maybe it’s not appropriate for the kind of Messiah you’re envisioning, but it’ll be fine for me. Oh, and you can just walk.”

It’s hard to appreciate how absurd this all is from our twenty first-century vantage point, but a king riding into town on a donkey back then would be kind of like a ruler today telling his entourage to exit the royal motorcade and walk alongside him as he rode along on a tricycle.

And interestingly enough, these two disciples somehow manage to get past all of that and do what they need to do. They go into the village and borrow someone’s donkey just like Jesus asked them to do, and they accompany Jesus on his way into Jerusalem (presumably on foot) as he rode upon that donkey just like he’s asked them to do because that’s the kind of stuff that disciples do. Maybe they’re finally starting to get it — Jesus isn’t the kind of Messiah they were counting on, and so being one of his followers isn’t quite what they thought it would be.

But the crowds? Well, maybe they’re starting to get it too — and not in a good way. You see, they’re expecting the same kind of Messiah that the disciples were — a mighty and vanquishing king who would ride into Jersulalem with his army and liberate them by beating the powers-that-be at their own game — hence their desperate cries of “Hosanna!” which means “Save us!” Imagine what they must have been thinking when Jesus rode into town on the back of a donkey colt that day. He was clearly not going to provide them with the deliverance they wanted and hoped for, and so is it really that big of surprise that they’d do to him what they’re going to do to him in less than a week’s time?

But those disciples are on the verge of making a much different choice. Sure, they’re going to hem and haw; yeah, they’re going to mess it up as least as often as they get it right; of course, they’re going to weigh what’s good for themselves against what’s good for all. Eventually, they’re going to do what they’ve been called by Jesus to do — called by God to do — even when it’s difficult, even when it’s tedious, even when it’s not glamorous, even when it’s risky.

Let’s just say discipleship wasn’t exactly the job they’d signed up for, but somebody had to do it. The question is will we?