Homily: Donkey Fetchers

Today we celebrate Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Our celebration isn’t much. We distribute a few fronds of palm. Then we listen to the Passion of Jesus.. The Passion story is so powerful that it can stand alone. I don’t intend to preach about it or after it today. It best is reflected on in the silence of our minds. We will focus on it more seriously in the celebrations of Holy Week – Holy Thursday and Good Friday. We can’t let the events of Palm Sunday, however, slip by without comment and reflection.

Two weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be part of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Pittsburgh.  Three hours long, through blocks and blocks of downtown Pittsburgh. Everyone, in their green tee shirts and exotic hats and green wigs waving and chanting. The celebration was joyous and intense. Now that was a parade!

This rag-tag procession of peasants and their uncredentialed leader didn’t elicit such acclamation solely as a parade. Much more grandiose and impressive (and frightening) parades were a regular occurrence as the occupying Roman forces arrived to keep “peace” in Jerusalem during Jewish festivals. In fact, Jesus procession certainly mocked those extravaganzas as he rode astrode a donkey, like the grand Roman Commander upon his great white war horse. But,, in fact, as soon as it was over and they reached the temple, Jesus, the hero, the one whom they saw as coming to save them from their oppression, quietly left town.

It was undoubtedly a good thing for them all that Jesus just briefly entered the temple and then left town; had the marching and the acclamations continued very long, they would have felt the fury and the fear of the authorities. After all, the way to get along, then as now, was to go along, not to challenge anyone higher up on the organizational chart. Street demonstrations could lead to brutal slaughter.

Our Palm Sunday observances are so inwardly focused, speaking only to those who come into our church building. Where are our rag-tag processions in the streets? Where are our cries of acclamation, attracting the poor and the downtrodden and the suffering, to proclaim to them that salvation is here? And – most importantly – where are our not-so rag-tag processions, our cries of protest and outrage over the brutal slaughter around the globe? What are we doing to uncover and bring about the coming kingdom, present but not yet realized?  What changes might occur if many hundreds of thousands of us dared risk arrest protesting the injustices, greed and corruption of government and industry, instead of the mere handful who presently do so?  Rev. Elizabeth Morris Downey

That would certainly be soul-stirring and impressive. But honestly. When we look at today’s Gospel story of Palm Sunday events, what we see is, that over half of the passage is taken up with mundane details about  a seemingly minor matter of transportation, it would seem – where to find it, what kind of colt to seek, what to do, what to say.

Though we don’t really know what these disciples were thinking, I am fairly confident that they had imagined for themselves a grander and nobler role on this day than being on donkey detail. Mark doesn’t name these disciples. But maybe they were James and John, who only hours before this had proposed to Jesus “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But in fact, all of the disciples had been jockeying for advantage, angling for glory, arguing about who was to be greatest, so it is deliciously ironic that on this very public and glorious day of Jesus triumph, a day when he will be welcomed into Jerusalem with joyous Hosannas, they find themselves engaged in a most unromantic form of ministry, mucking around in a stable, looking suspiciously like horse thieves, and trying to wrestle an untamed and no doubt balky animal toward the olive groves. For this they had left their fishing nets?

Why does Mark allow this donkey-seeking detail, this trivial matter of advance planning, to dominate this major event that marks the beginning of this most holy week? In John’s account, he makes Jesus’ acquiring the donkey something that he does on his own, a dramatic gesture, a beautiful symbol of his humility in the face of triumphalist misunderstanding. But in Mark, finding the donkey is more like a delegated chore – somewhat akin to a task assigned to a parish committee — the worship committee planning the Palm Sunday service, for example — one of those thousands of routine and inglorious details of church work that are necessary but not the real action.

When I was ordained, candidates for the priesthood are asked, “Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors and work for the reconciliation of the world? . . . Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love?” These are bracing words, and the

wind ruffles through your hair when you hear them. Such language implies that ministry is a brave white-water romp over the cultural rapids toward global transformation in the name of Christ. Never once is it mentioned that serving people with energy, imagination and love often boils down to stuff like ordering bulletin covers, changing light bulbs in the restrooms, visiting people in nursing homes who aren’t quite sure who you are, getting the brakes relined on the church van, making a breathless early Sunday morning run to a neighboring parish because someone forgot to order enough palm branches.

Mark may begin his Gospel with the exhilarating trumpet call to “prepare the way of the Lord”, but he makes it clear, by his description of the disciples? activity in the rest of his Gospel, that the way to do so is not by becoming a  Knight, mounting a white horse, and gallantly riding off to defend Christendom, but rather by performing humble and routine tasks. The disciples in Mark get a boat ready for Jesus, find out how much food is on hand for the multitude, secure the room and prepare the table for the Last Supper and, of course, chase down a donkey that the Lord needs to enter Jerusalem and, as two of Jesus? disciples found out, finding a suitable donkey at the last minute.

Whatever you and I may have heard when Jesus called us and said ‘Follow Me’, it had led us into a ministry of handling the gritty details of everyday life. The preparation of the Lord’s way is in the ordinary manner in which we make arrangements for Jesus ministry. We are called to prepare the way of Jesus’ ministry; and it is His ministry, not ours, that ultimately counts. We are but donkey fetchers. But because we are, “preparing the way of the Lord”, the routine, often exhausting, seemingly mundane donkey-fetching details of our service are gathered into the great arc of Jesus’ redemptive work in the world.

The grand work of proclaiming the gospel and exercising authority in His name is often a matter of speaking a quiet word in a committee meeting, spending time with someone who is incoherent and coming apart at the seams at work, feeding someone their meal in a hospital and mistyping a few desperate, halting words on a computer screen when getting ready for Sunday’s sermon. In Mark’s world, “preparing the way of the Lord”, usually looks like standing hip=deep in the muck of some stable, trying to corral a donkey for Jesus.  Thomas G. Long   The Christian Century




  1. Cathy Raffaele

    Sat 31st Mar 2012 at 10:11 pm

    I was struck by the words: “We are called to prepare the way of Jesus’ ministry; and it is His ministry, not ours, that ultimately counts. We are but donkey fetchers. …because we are, “preparing the way of the Lord”…

    Imagine what an army of “donkey fetchers” can accomplish.

    • Warren Metzler

      Thu 12th Apr 2012 at 7:02 am

      It is a fine distinction, but a very important one. Thank you , Cathy for your insight.

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