Let’s talk about the donkey. I know Jesus is the big star of Palm Sunday (and every Sunday!) but supporting characters deserve their due. (After all, it was Gilligan’s Island, not Ginger’s Island.) I think this should be called Donkey Sunday rather than Palm Sunday. Here is my case.
Tuesday morning I put all four Gospel versions of Palm side by side in Evernote. It’s a bit like reading interviews at a crime scene, because they all four have different details. John has Jesus on a donkey, Mark and Luke have him on a young colt, and Matthew has Jesus on both a donkey and the colt of a donkey, apparently riding like a Hungarian circus performer. And what about the palms? John says people came waving palms, Matthew says leafy branches from trees, Luke and Mark also add in that people threw their cloaks road, (with no mention of what they wore underneath.) I can see why liturgists, trying to create meaningful Sunday morning experiences, went with John and the palms. You can imagine the liturgical implications of throwing clothes in the street, and by now we would have changed it to Thrift Store Sunday. So sticking to our theme that this should be Donkey Sunday, Observation Number One is that palms are not the essential symbol of this event. Luke has absolutely no greenery, and in each case palms are what the people want, but not what Jesus asks.
This brings me to Observation Number Two. In Mark’s Gospel, half the story is about the details of securing a donkey (or colt) for Jesus to ride. At first glance, who cares? Why do we need six entire verses about going to get the donkey? If this were supposed to be Palm Sunday, Jesus would have said, “Go to the next village and climb the third palm tree on the left and cut its branches, and tell the owner Jesus has need of them. And if he complains, go to Zachariah the florist and just make an order. And make sure you get the Eco-palms, not the long, skinny ones.” Its not about the palms, its donkey procurement that counts.
Whenever I struggle to understand something in the Bible, I always look to the context. So what precedes this story? In reading Mark 10, here’s a vignette which grabbed my attention. James and John come to Jesus and ask him, on the verge on entering Jerusalem, can they be at his right hand and left hand when he comes into his Kingdom. “We have been your most important advisors so far in the campaign Jesus, so we should be appointed Chief of Staff and Secretary of State.” Jesus says, “You don’t what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I will drink?” Jesus isn’t about to grant this request, and when the rest of the disciples get wind of what James and John asked, they are all angry. When Jesus needs them most, everyone is more worried about who will be the next church council president.
So Jesus gives a quick admonishment,
“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.
Mark has given us a peak into the internal politics of Jesus and his not so merry band of men, and now it is time to make his grand entrance into Jerusalem. He dispatches two disciples to go get a donkey. Now this is a “short straw” job that you give to the interns. If you were Jesus, to whom would you give that job? I know my answer! “James and John, my left and right hand men. Go get me a donkey.” So I’m imagining them arguing their way to the next town, “We left our nets and families behind. ‘I’ll make you fishers of men,’ he said, be all you can be. And now we are horse thieves.”
I moved a lot of animals in my day, and it is one of the most dangerous and inglorious jobs on the farm. You can get kicked, bitten, head-butted, knocked into the mud, or just look really silly. I often had to move 500-pound pigs, and you could not make them move where they did not want to go. You had to work with them.
When I was 12 years old, my grandparents gave me a pig, a pregnant sow actually, and they said to me, “Todd, here is how you are going to college. When she gives birth, you keep the females and start a little herd and in six years, you will have nice nest egg to start yourself.” And I was calculating how much I could make, I loved math problems. And I also learned about hard work and responsibility. My first litter was born right before Christmas on a cold night, and my Dad and I were out there in the pen with the sow, helping keep the piglets warm. We swaddled them up in blankets and rubbed their little bodies, and they looked like the baby Jesus to me. It was one of the few heart-warming moments I had raising pigs. It was mostly getting up early before school and soon I got well acquainted with a pitchfork.
One of my most valuable lessons was the discovery I did not want to work on a farm the rest of my life. But more important, to get to where you want to go, you have to do a lot of inglorious work. But it is holy work all the same, and should be treated as the work of God. No Sunday morning would exist without hours of music rehearsals, and someone staying up late to make banana bread for coffee hour, greeters coming early to smile, welcome and pass out bulletins; and people willing to teach Sunday School, and organize collecting school supplies for Haiti and meals for the cot shelter and Ernie running the vacuum and scrubbing floors and Vanessa putting together the bulletin, and Sarah gets supplies for the art projects, and someone else is a Deacon, or Trustee or Moderator, or helps with the Stewardship Campaign, or a hundred other things. I shudder to think of all the donkey work that goes into making a community. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus always pays attention to all the little details of who makes the meal, who is going to find the upper room for Passover, the logistics of ministry. It is all preparing the way for God to work. So donkeys of the world, this is your day. Its your parade! The palms are for you too, you who bear Jesus on your back, with bulletins in one hand and banana bread in the other!
So Palm Sunday is a big parade, and I love parades. I love the Pride March, and the feeling you get coming around the corner at Old South Street onto Main Street and people 10 deep cheering, with the Expandable Brass Band playing and to see two full blocks of Open and Affirming UCC congregations. It’s a great parade. But the real joy is based on all the hard work, decades of work holding dialog, studying scriptures, proposing legislation, candlelight vigils, daring to do weddings when they were not yet legal, filing Supreme Court briefs, all of it donkey work. The parade is a thrill because we know how much work it took to get there. And we need the parade because the work is still unfinished. Yes Indiana, I’m talking to you. Governor Mike Pence and the legislature thinks it is a good idea to allow businesses to not serve GLBTQ people for religious reasons, as if discrimination equals freedom. In other words, many members of this congregation could be driving through Indiana, with their children even, and not be able to buy gas, or lunch, or go to the mall or rent a room, because the owner disagrees with gay marriage. So we will shake the dust off our feet and make sure we have lunch and buy gas in Ohio, and we will drive past your little state and get our room in Illinois. On Memorial Day, you are going to find out how many gay people and gay allies are Indy 500 fans, when they don’t show up. Does Indiana really think there aren’t lesbians who like fast cars?
We might get overlooked because our parade is full of donkeys instead of Formula One racing cars. But the slow and sure footed donkey, with its strong back and iron will, and capacity to bear burdens, moved the ancient world where it needed to go. A burrow brought Mary safely to Bethlehem so Jesus is born right off the donkey, into the manger where the same animal eats, so it is fitting to enter Jerusalem this way. So when you feel you stuck rounding up the donkeys, maybe you are right where Jesus wants you to be, and your real challenge is not the burdens you bear, but knowing it is holy work which makes God’s presence real in the world.