What Might Have Been?
Rev. Seth Patterson
April 10, 2022, Palm Sunday
Scripture: Luke 19:28–40
Then he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Do you ever try to imagine what you would have done if you happened to have been at various significant historical moments? Do you think about what position you would have taken if you had been there or what actions you may or may not have done? I wonder about this a lot. What would I have done if I were at or near the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965? Would I have marched or watched or attacked? What would I have done if I had been at a rally for women’s Suffrage in the early 20th century? Would I have become an ally or opposed them in favor of the status quo patriarchy? What would I have done if I were at the corner of 38th and Chicago 2 years ago outside of Cup Foods? What would I have done if I were a resident of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago and some guy from the country rode through town on a donkey as if he were a royal figure triumphantly entering the city? Would I have celebrated the parade with palm leaves and shouts of praise? Or would I have considered it a nuisance and yelled to shut it down?
In tandem with wondering what I would have done, I also begin to wonder if I would even have shown up! Would the comforts of my own life prevent me from even being there? Would my other obligations take precedence? Would I find myself uncomfortable with a parade or afraid of a march? Would I not want to take a side or seem to have an agenda? If I heard outside my door a bunch of people praising “God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,” would I leave what I was doing and join them? Would I do what might feel like a risk to join the crowd?
Would I lay down my cloak—which may be a precious commodity for me—for it to be tread upon by a donkey? Would I wave palms? Or would I shout at the procession to stop like the Pharisees? Or would I ignore it in favor of staying put? What would you have done? (Go ahead and think about it. I’ll wait. . . .)
This story, recreated and retold year after year for millennia, can become so familiar that we lose sight of the fact that it was populated by people like us. The nameless, faceless crowd would have been us. We are the crowd. The gift of this story and its annual retelling is that it continually invites us in. This story, like all stories, asks us to place ourselves in it and wonder who we would have been, what we would have done. This story, like all stories, gives us a speculative experience. Would you have shown up? How would you have shown up?
What we do matters. The choices that we make matter. How we show up matters. Those present in the crowd along that parade route made a difference. It would be a very different story to tell annually if it said, “As he rode, the streets we empty, the people busy with their work.” They may not have known the significance in the moment, though. They showed up to support, to honor, to welcome a person who was entering Jerusalem like a king but with none of the earthly power, a person who proclaimed that those whom society scorned and marginalized were seen and valid and loved. As one commentator on the Book of Luke said: “The triumphal entry, staged on a donkey, is a prophetic sign, an acted-out parable.”
How Jesus showed up mattered. The story creators and tellers knew this. This triumphal entry was not accidental. It was planned. It was all commentary on common power practices and the reflection of scripture. The very way that Jesus entered Jerusalem was meant to operate the same way that an emperor or king would be received by a city. There are writings that describe similar entries by the powerful, like Alexander the Great or Antony of Rome. But Jesus is upending the concept of a king by being poor and being surrounded by others who have been cast aside. Instead of a horse, he rides a humble donkey, which not only reframes the kingly narrative but is also connected to the writings of the prophet Zechariah. Phrases from the Psalms are sung out in the parade, again connecting Jesus to his spiritual foundation. How Jesus showed up mattered, and all of these references meant something to those who showed up that day and those who heard the story afterwards.
But it wasn’t just these important connections to the past that made this moment important. It was also what this parade was proclaiming about a hoped-for future. As the same commentator says, “Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was a moment filled with fragile possibility.” This action, rooted in the past, also proclaimed a new and hopeful possibility. This person who was riding a donkey, who did not lead an army or have any wealth, was proclaiming that something else was possible. This person who was surrounded by outcasts and lepers, the sick and the disenfranchised, whose very disciples gave up everything to follow him was illustrating another possibility. Jesus was riding into Jerusalem on the possibility that he could be a new type of king, a king who brought the love of God to all people; a king who represented the least of society and was not beholden to money, power, or ego; a king unlike any king in existence.
That did not happen. Jesus was not a king like Alexander or Antony or Caesar. Jesus instead was tortured and killed by the Roman authorities a short time after this triumphant donkey parade. This fragile possibility did not materialize in the way that the story hoped it would.
Still, the possibility is not gone. This possibility, while not realized in the all-powerful king sort of way, has not disappeared. We may not seek a king in the same way anymore, but the possibility that this king idea represented is still present with us.
Because we can still show up. We can still place ourselves in this story. We are still year after year invited back into this narrative to witness this possibility arrive again and again. We are still in this story. The possibility is not gone: a world in which all are loved no matter what; a world in which our worth is known without the trappings of wealth or position; a world of mutual thriving.
We are still being invited to show up, to leave our comforts and obligations and show up to participate in this possibility. We are invited to bring our whole selves in the full extent of our humanity to wave palm branches and lay our cloaks in the road. We are invited knowing that we are imperfect and yet immeasurably loved. What is important is that we accept this story’s invitation and keep showing up.
The question then is, “How do we show up?” If you happen to be a listener to Plymouth’s podcast In Depth with Beth and Seth,you will recognize that Beth regularly asks this question of our sermons. “How do we do that,” she asks, and a little trumpet plays. Well, Beth, I am going to try and save you the breath of asking this question tomorrow morning.
Like most of the answers to a how like this, there are as many answers as there are people. But there might be some ways that we can begin to answer this how question for ourselves: First, pay attention to the stories you listen to and with whom you identify. In this story do you imagine yourself as one the disciples getting the donkey or shouting out praises? Are you someone who showed up and is waving palms and laying down your cloak? Are you a pharisee trying to shut the thing down? Or did you stay home and aren’t there at all? (If you see yourself as Jesus, let’s have a conversation. . . .) Paying attention to where you may show up—or don’t—in a story may help you understand how you will participate in things in real life. You can do this with any story, play, book, or film.
Another thing to pay attention to is what makes you uncomfortable and what makes you afraid. Sometimes these things may feel similar, but they are different reactions. Would you be uncomfortable getting the donkey for Jesus or afraid of it? Would you be uncomfortable showing up at the parade or scared? Once you get a sense of your comfort levels, begin to find ways to try the things that make you uncomfortable but do not make you afraid. Are you uncomfortable with but not afraid of the idea of showing up at a march like Jesus on a donkey? Then try out something like Plymouth’s Tuesday noon vigils. You can push into your discomfort in a situation that is friendly and a familiar location. If you are uncomfortable with but not afraid of the idea of praising God in a loud voice, then join something like our Chapel Singers or volunteer to be a classroom friend in our Church School. You get the idea. Whatever may make you a little uncomfortable, try it. Discomfort is not the same as pain.
Finally, discuss with your friends, family, or clergy the ways that you might want to show up and don’t yet know how. Or tell them the ways that you do show up and invite others to join you. If showing up at a Plymouth service is meaningful to you, invite others to join you. If you find the contemplative offerings lifegiving, invite someone next Sunday at 10 to join you in the Fireside Room.
No matter what you do or how you do it, what is most important is that you show up, because the fragile possibilities brought forth by this uncommon king are only continued when we each show up. The possibilities brought forth by the king riding a donkey are still possible, but they are now in our hands. We have inherited this God-given possibility, and it is up to us to work to bring it forth, each in our own way and all of us together, each of us loving ourselves and loving the other. Each of us within, among, and beyond ourselves, we must show up. We make the possibility real. May it be continually so.
The New Interpreters Bible, Volume IX