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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

March 29, 2015 Palm Sunday

Psalm 118:25-29; Mark 11:1-11


It’s quite a scene, isn’t it? Picture it with me: Jesus, astride a donkey, riding majestically down toward Jerusalem (or, as majestically as one can while seated on a beast of burden, anyway). Can you imagine him waving to the adoring crowds? Can you picture the look on his face? Can you see the children playing along the parade route? Can you hear their shouts of “Hosanna!”? Can you smell the scent of palm branches broken underfoot, hear the scrunching sound as leaves are crushed beneath hooves and paws and feet?

Can you picture the Roman soldiers lurking menacingly in the background? Can you imagine them reporting back to their generals that the rabble-rouser from Galilee was at it again? Can you feel them trembling at the inexplicable power that radiated from this man? Can you hear them scheming about how to entrap him and bring him in?

It’s quite a scene, and there is much that could be said about it. We could talk about the contrast between the procession of Jesus, with colts and peasants, cloaks and palm branches, and the procession of Pontius Pilate and his legions of Roman cavalry, armed to the teeth and mounted on their war horses. We could talk about the messianic implications of the people’s shouts of “Hosanna!” which is Hebrew for “Save us!” We could talk about the revolutionary potential of seeing Jesus as the descendant of the shepherd-king David, the one who would unseat the Roman ruler and restore the divinely-chosen royal lineage to the throne. We could talk about the destination of the procession, the fact that Jesus chose willingly to go unarmed toward those who would do him harm. We could talk about the meaning of Holy Week itself, about why it is of the utmost importance to walk through the dark valley of betrayal and desertion and suffering and death, before emerging into the glorious light of Easter morning.

But there’s something else I want to talk about on this Palm Sunday.

Because before Jesus could proceed with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem… before he could bear God’s good news into the very heart of the Roman Empire… before he could enter the city as the Prince of Peace… before he could face the events that were to come… before he could complete the ministry to which he was called… he needed one thing. He needed a ride, a mount. He needed an animal on which to travel.

Not just any animal, mind you. He specified a colt, a young horse or donkey that had never been ridden. Not a big, strong stallion. Not a battle-tested steed. A young one, untrained and green—the last and the least, not the first and the best, not the kind of mount that a powerful ruler would normally choose.

So he sent two of his disciples to fetch this colt.

Some commentators have described this as an elaborate piece of street theatre, a carefully-orchestrated event prearranged by Jesus, complete with an exchange of passphrases: “Why are you doing this?” “The Lord needs it.” Some have described it as a demonstration of Jesus’ prophetic powers, forecasting where the colt would be found and how the disciples would talk their way into borrowing it. Some have described it as a sneaky piece of donkey-rustling.

Call it what you will, here’s what we know: the disciples went, and they found that young, never-ridden colt, and they untied it, and they led it to Jesus. They unfettered it and brought it to a place where it could serve a purpose holy and high.


It strikes me that this event, which is really a precursor to the main event of today’s story (which is itself a precursor to the main events that we will remember later this week, on Thursday, and Friday and, of course, next Sunday)—it strikes me that this event is actually not just a precursor, but a pretty good representation of the gospel. Because whatever else the gospel story is about, it is surely a story about liberation, about untying us from all the fetters that bind us, about freeing us—not to be selfishly individualistic, completely independent, utterly self-determined, but to be free in the service of our true purpose, the purpose to which God calls us, which is nothing less than the liberation of the world.

And so, today, I wonder: to what are you tied? From what do you need to be untied? What are the things that hold you hostage, that keep you from experiencing the fullness of the life that you are given, the ministry to which you are called?

Are you caught in the fetters of the need to succeed? Are you tied to the pressure to produce, to achieve, to earn another promotion or a bigger raise, to buy a better house or a nicer car, to build a stronger reputation or a fatter bank account?

Are you knotted up in the tangle of self-doubt? Are you caught in the web of shame and guilt, wrapped in strands of not-good-enough and should’ve-done-better?

Are you bound by the tethers of addiction? Are you held captive by the bottle, or the pack, or the pill?

Are you wrapped up in the cords of pain and grief? Are you entwined in sorrow? Are you entangled in fear? Are you ensnared in depression?

To what are you tied? From what do you need to be untied in order to fulfill your true purpose, the abundant life for which you are made?

And if you were unbound from those fetters, what would you do? How would you use your newfound freedom? Whom would you, in turn, unbind? For what would you live? For what would you die?

For here is the truth of Palm Sunday: that the paradoxical power of the gospel will break even the thickest of cords, even the strongest of chains. The tenacious love of God will untangle even the tightest of knots. Jesus is, even now, sending his disciples to untie the ropes and lead you to him. He is, even now, calling you to a purpose holy and high, to be agents of liberation and love for the world.

And so the question is not only to what are you bound, but for what are you unbound? To whom is Jesus sending you? Where will you carry his message? How will you embody his love? For the Lord needs you, too—needs you unbound and unbinding, liberated and loving, embodying the gospel for all who need to know it.

Or, to put it another way, here is a poem written by my friend and colleague, Maren Tirabassi:

First, untie the donkey
the one that’s standing at the gate
waiting to be untied —

from some sorrow
or some guilt,
from somebody else’s judgment —
too young for the ride
or too old,
too much ink on the skin,
parkinsons in the hands,
pregnant in the belly.

First, untie the donkey,
the one that’s standing at the gate
waiting to be untied –

from some abusive relationship
or some really intricate
self-made knots,
because what binds
always pretends to be a blessing.

This is just the donkey God wants
for the ride –
this burro with no documents,
or others not-yet-ridden
because they are —
gender-outside, recovery-thin,

So, first untie the donkey –
this one —
the one who needs a parade,
the one willing to carry
both joy
and the premonition of cross,

the one embracing
a day of song and danger,
fetlock deep in palms,
and a life
that will echo, Hosanna.