Seth Patterson April 5, 2020, Palm Sunday
Scripture: Luke 19: 28–36
Good morning everyone. How are you? Have you begun to notice that answering this simple and rote question has become complicated . . . that it now requires additional explanation and context? How are you? I have found that when I answer this question, it is the description of a positive in the midst of a negative: I and my family are doing just fine. We are healthy and still enjoying being home together. But we see the pain and fear and illness and loss and burdens on other people. We need to acknowledge the moment of goodness in the swirl of community unrest. For many of us, to answer this question is to sit in the tension between the okay-ness of me right now and the not-okay-ness of us all right now.
This tension is like Palm Sunday. The Sunday before Easter is a day in Lent when we have a celebration. We remember a time in which people gathered together in excitement and joy. Jesus has entered Jerusalem, and we remember the parade honoring his arrival. But we also know the next steps of the story. We know about the upcoming capital punishment at the hands of the Empire. We know about the pain, fear, loss and burdens that are coming soon. We also know about the subsequent renewal, resurrection and uprising. We come together to celebrate in the midst of loss and death. Much like answering the question “How are you?,” Palm Sunday sits in the tension between the acknowledgement of the goodness of now and the overall sadness of the larger story.
Our Palm Sunday story today is from Luke, which says nothing about palms. The mention of palms comes from the version of this story found in Matthew which says: “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.” Here in Luke it just talks about people spreading their cloaks on the road. Still, it is the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem knowing that his capital punishment is forthcoming.
Jesus then went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The One we follow needs it.’”
Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They replied, “The One we follow needs it.”
They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.
For as long as I can remember I have been curious about the untold stories that are situated within the stories we tell. What I mean by this is that if the story that we are receiving is the hub of a wheel, I am also very curious about the spokes. These are the characters who make appearances in another person’s story. For example, if I am watching an action film that has a car chase and inevitably there are accidents at intersections as the main characters zoom by, I am curious about the people in those cars. Where were they beforehand and where were they going when they encountered the plot of this other story? What did they tell their families when they got home afterwards? Were they hurt? What happened to them the next time that they got into a car or went near that same intersection? Were there residual psychological, emotional or spiritual consequences to being a part of this? In whatever narrative we are experiencing, this unnamed, unknown character’s story is a minor connection and tangential. But I have always been curious about that unknown and tangential story.
That same curiosity is piqued here in this Palm Sunday narrative. This is definitely Jesus’s story. In Luke, we have been following the focused narrative on him for nineteen-and-a-half chapters so far. Now the speed of the story increases slightly, and we are being drawn into the end. But what I become curious about is not necessarily Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem, but this tiny bit of dialogue between some disciples and the unnamed, unknown owners of the colt.
Imagine yourself sitting in or near your home and you have a colt, likely a juvenile donkey. All of a sudden a few people show up and begin to untie your livestock. You go out and ask, “Why are you untying the colt?” and they tell you that they one that they are following—Jesus or God—needs it. And then they walk away and your part in this other narrative ends, and you are still left in your own life but now without your colt.
I have so many questions! Who were these people? Did they know the disciples? Did they know or were they aware of Jesus and his teachings? Did they follow their colt and participate in the parade? Did they ever get their colt back? Were they angry or confused or proud at their unplanned involvement? Did they suffer economic loss at the loss of their colt? What did they sacrifice so that Jesus could enter Jerusalem fulfilling the prophecy from Zechariah that “your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”?
As curious as I am and as fun as it is to ask these questions, we will never know the answers. We will never know more than what is provided here. And what is narrated here is still enough to find some meaning from. No matter who these people were, no matter their full backstory and feelings and motivations, they gave a gift to the story of Jesus. Without these people and their colt, this story we are still telling two millennia later would be very different. These people gave an important gift. They asked a single question—Why are you untying our colt?—and then gave it to them. No more questions asked. Their part in this story has concluded. They gave a gift freely not knowing exactly what would happen next.
What a beautiful and difficult thing to do. So often our gifts have tiny strings attached. We want to make sure that the gift is used correctly. We want to make sure that it is maximized. We want to make sure that we are acknowledged for our sacrifices. And that is all well and good and human. What happens, though, when we give freely and without attaching to our gifts our own expectations?
I was on a walk with my family recently and someone had set out boxes of sidewalk chalk for people to take home and decorate their own sidewalks. These were freely given for the benefit of other people and the stories of their own homes. They didn’t dictate what should be done or drawn with the chalk. They didn’t dictate who could take it or how many. They just said to take some chalk.
How can we continue to be gift givers like this? When have you given a gift that became powerful and necessary in someone else’s story? When have you received a gift that allowed you to fulfill something important and necessary in your life? Each of us is the protagonist in the story of our lives, with all of our relationships and communities playing smaller roles in our story. That also means that we each are some sort of secondary character in the stories of so many other people. We may even be unnamed characters who give essential gifts unknowingly. By our kindness, by our patience, by our generosity, we may be giving gifts to the people around us in ways that we will never quite appreciate.
So, in this final week of Lent, in this Holy Week before Good Friday and Easter, let us each think about the ways that other people have given gifts, large and small, for the betterment and fulfillment of our own stories. What if we took this Holy Week as an opportunity to acknowledge these gifts and their givers? As we continue to learn how to be in relationship with others from a distance, what if you used this acknowledgement as an opportunity to reconnect and express gratitude?
Similarly, think about the ways in which you may have given a gift to someone not exactly knowing the result. When have you been the unnamed tangential character with an important gift in someone else’s story? How can you continue to be that gift-giver?
A year or so ago here at Plymouth I was called to the front desk, and there was a young man in some distress. I asked him how I could support him. He didn’t want to talk, but he just wanted to sit somewhere. So I unlocked the Chapel for him. When I came back to check in a while later, he was gone. A week later I received a card from him describing the incredible gift I had given. He was unsafe and needed the opportunity to sit alone in a safe space and figure out what to do next. He told me that he was able to make some big and difficult decisions in that Chapel. All I did was unlock a door. My gift was merely the turn of a key.
What doors can you open for others? What chalk can you provide to your neighborhood? When someone is untying your colt, how will you respond?
May these questions live gracefully in your hearts with gratitude, hope and meaning.