Inhabiting the Story

Mark 11:1–11, preached by Chris Bohnhoff on March 24, 2024

Go into Jerusalem, untie a young colt, and bring it back to me, said Jesus to two of his disciples. On the scale of things that Jesus asked of his disciples, it was a fairly innocuous request; much easier than joining him for a walk on water, for example. Also easier, I would imagine, than casting out demons, or feeding 5,000 folks with what would usually feed twelve. But it was vaguely dangerous, and open-ended, and probably surprising.

It goes easily enough. They do find the colt that Jesus said would be waiting for them. They answered the folks who wondered what they were up to just as Jesus said they should—that they were bringing it to the Lord—and they brought the colt to Jesus. Some of the disciples put their cloaks across the colt’s back—maybe it was warm and they didn’t want to carry them, maybe they were looking out for Jesus’ comfort—and Jesus climbs aboard. The entourage resumes their journey into Jerusalem, and all of a sudden, the scene transforms into a royal processional march. The text explains, “many people” spread their cloaks out before Jesus and laid palm branches gathered from the fields in his path. Some went ahead and some followed behind yelling, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” Hosanna: save us, they cried.

It’s like the sight of Jesus, a powerful teacher and healer who had already touched multitudes in his travels, sitting astride a donkey, entering the holy city of Jerusalem had somehow knocked time out of joint. All of a sudden, normal people were drawn out of their everyday stories and into the ancient story of David, Israel’s beloved conquering king, the nation’s powerful symbol of strength, and leadership, and victory over mighty foes. Could Jesus, the crowds ask through their pleas, be the one to take up the Davidic line and lead them out from under the brutality of Roman occupation? They laid their cloaks and branches in front of this rabbi as their ancestors had laid their cloaks and branches before new kings in their coronation ceremonies hundreds of years in Israel’s past. A new world, a new vision, rooted in the stories of their ancestors but unique, had opened in an instant. A new kind of leader was being coronated—one who showed his power through acts of healing, one who cared for Jews and Romans. And this coronation came not after a military conquest or a bloody coup, but as he rode in to confront power head on, in courage and in humility. A new segment of the Jesus story had begun.

I wonder what that moment was like for the disciples who retrieved the colt. I wonder whether they experienced it as a breaking open of something—of time, of history, of what was possible—or whether they recognized in the gathered crowd something they had already felt. Maybe it wasn’t a foreign experience to the disciples because Jesus regularly invited them out of their comfortable expectations and into the kingdom of God: asking them to leave their nets by the sea and follow him. Showing them how to heal the marginalized and feed the hungry. Challenging their either/or thinking and desires to be the greatest in power, not in service.

But I imagine that this crack in time was different, because it came after Jesus had foretold the journey he was destined to take. They didn’t want to believe it, but Jesus was clear that a time of intense suffering and loss was looming. Did they know as they watched their teacher ride through the hosannas that Holy Week had begun?

Talking about a man on a donkey 2,000 years ago can feel distant from our lives today, but we all experience moments that change our lives, that lift us out of the personal story we were comfortably occupying and show us that we’re part of a larger narrative. You know those moments when you’re suddenly aware that what’s happening around you will be mentioned in history books? Like you’re not just living your story, but you’re living our story? I remember 9/11—that day—not knowing what would come after those three airplanes. I remember when Paul and Sheila Wellstone died and watching their memorial service on TV, acutely aware that all of those leaders were mourning mere blocks from where I lived and mourned. I remember the march on the State Capitol on inauguration day 2017, the sense of collective resistance. I remember the start of Covid lockdown just over four years ago, and I remember the day George Floyd was killed just a couple of months later, and I continue to witness how the corner of 38th and Chicago has been transformed into a holy space. My adult life has shown me that history erupts, seemingly out of nowhere, but in truth out of our deeply and inextricably interconnected stories.

We’ve each lived through our own Palm Sundays. We’ve witnessed our own unimaginable fears come to pass. We have cried our own hosannas—save us from pandemic, save us from fascism and Christian nationalism, save us from climate crisis, save us from our own complicity to systemic racism. And we have witnessed to those taking dramatic, dangerous stands, and to those doing their small part to align ourselves with justice. And we haven’t merely witnessed, we’ve shown up to these moments. We’ve gotten our vaccines, we’ve masked, we’ve volunteered, we’ve marched, we’ve voted. We’ve shown up.

Show up. That’s the theme I hear in the Palm Sunday story this year. We celebrate the courage and perfect selflessness of how Jesus showed up to reveal the full extent of empire’s drive to amass power through the dehumanization of the masses. He showed up fully, and when the triumphant hymns are sung, we celebrate Jesus’ triumph of faith in God’s kingdom over the fear that empire tries to smother us with. We celebrate that he could see what was coming and showed up anyway, sure of what he had learned, what he had cultivated during his 40 days in the wilderness.

But let’s also pay attention to the ways that Jesus asked the disciples to show up. He asked them to untie the colt, not to follow him to death; to participate, to witness, to show up in the way that God asked them to show up.

In this turning of seasons, where is God whispering for you to show up? What colt are you being asked to untie? What hosannas sung by your siblings around the world ring in your ears in a way that you can no longer ignore? Is it time to show up to your own health, or your family relationships, or the mission and life of First Church, or the funding of our schools, or to the work of reparations, or to a cease fire in Gaza, or the protection of our democracy? It is all important, and worthy, and holy work. I invite you to write down on the piece of paper you received with your bulletin that place that is pulling your spirit to show up. The place inviting you to get a little uncomfortable for the interconnected stories of love of neighbor and self. And during the offertory, I invite you to bring that paper to the communion table as a way for us to collectively hold the journeys that we each travel.

Friends in Christ, as we travel this Holy Week together, let us witness to our ancestors’ stories, and to how we carry those stories in our own bodies. Let us attend to the hosannas issuing throughout the world and from within. Let us envision a new reality emerging from the old, and let us not be content to simply envision it. Let us inhabit God’s kingdom. It’s all around us. In the name of our spiritual ancestor, Jesus, we pray. Amen.