The Long Game by Pastor Leah Rosso

Mark 11:1-11; Ephesians 2:1-10

Being the mother of three kids, I listen to a lot of stories— a lot of stories. And one thing I can tell you, is that young kids don’t often know what parts of the story to spend time on. My youngest, if she thinks I’m not paying attention, will get my attention and begin the story again from the beginning for as many times as it takes so that if I’m cooking dinner or washing dishes and I don’t look directly at her, I may get to hear the details of what picture she was painting long before she tells me that she spilled the rinse water for her brushes and we need to clean it up! Storytelling is an art— there is a reason a storyteller tells the story a certain way and spends more time on some details than others.

All of us do this when we’re relaying some story in our lives, some detail that we want to share with a friend or a family member. We set the story up in a certain way so that they can hear what we’re trying to tell them. The Gospel writers are no different. So this morning when we get to the story that has become the Palm Sunday story, you might think there’d be more hoopla about it; more details; maybe even some candid stories from the parade goers. But there is none of that. Just the simple facts. Jesus rode into town; the people put down their robes on the rode as he came by, and some people waved palm branches to signify his royalty and shouted “Hosanna! Hosanna!” Which means, “save us.” And then they get to the Temple and because it’s so late in the day, they go home.

3 verses. The writer of Mark spends three verses telling us about this amazing parade. And why so little? Perhaps because it was less of a parade— with floats and candy and joyous celebration— and more like a march. Parades come out of a sense of wanting to celebrate; Marches happen because people want to see change.

Yesterday as we gathered at City Hall for the March For Our Lives, a young woman was standing holding palm branches instead of a sign. She told me she thought it was a very fitting way to start Holy Week.

It reminded me of another march I was in several years ago now, when our Bishop at the time, Bishop Sally Dick, was part of organizing a march at the capitol in St. Paul. She was concerned about the growing number of children in poverty who, from no fault of their own, were going hungry at night and had no place to sleep. So Bishop Sally called on us, United Methodists, to show up at the Capitol and have a hymn sing. Several speakers were lined up to share their stories of experiencing poverty and then we were going to sing. Well that morning I got to the Capitol and it was raining on all of us who had gathered. Parking was scarce, as it usually is around the Capitol, but no one was outside. A few people shared their stories and the state statistics about children in poverty, and then we all turned around, on the Capitol steps, like a choir that hadn’t ever practiced together, and we sang. Except there was no one to hear us. Our songs were carried off by the wind, and I was struck by the standing metaphor that we were becoming— because there was no one to hear the plight of the children.

When I think of Jesus’ march to Jerusalem— riding on a colt down the hill to the Temple— I wonder who was there to hear the cries of the people. I wonder if anyone was paying attention to this group of people who were daring to proclaim Jesus Lord instead of Caesar— risking their lives, really, to show their loyalty to someone else besides the Roman Emperor— and having their songs float into the wind.

Three verses. Three verses of high expectations as people long for Jesus to be the Messiah they are looking for— the one who will overthrow Rome and change their lives forever. But did you notice what the Gospel writer did spend time on? At the beginning of the story, the writer of Mark does what my daughter often does— he gets into great detail about something that seems completely insignificant— the getting of the colt. I mean, really. Seven verses to tell us that they borrowed a colt? Seven verses of Jesus telling the disciples how to get the colt, where to find the colt, what to do when they find the colt.... This is where the writer spends his time? Seven verses on how to procure a colt when you need one?

Yes. Seven verses to make sure we know that Jesus borrowed a colt. Seven verses to set up the fact that this march is not a military parade. There are no soldiers, only people with palms; there are no uniforms, only people willing to take off their outer robe and put it on the ground as a symbol of servant hood; there is no militant king riding in on his grandest horse to show his might, only a guy named Jesus who owns nothing— has to borrow the small animal he is riding. Yes, this is definitely a march— an act of faith; an act of defiance; an act of hope that God has not forgotten God’s people.

You see this is how Jesus always chooses to do things. He takes the long game. He’s not interested in acquiring wealth to show power— not even when it comes to the donkey he’ll ride on. He’s not interested in playing the games of our world like retribution and revenge— even when he knows that he will end up suffering and dying. Jesus is choosing the long game— the way of love and forgiveness— because that’s the only way we will all be saved.

As the week goes on, we will see that the Romans are worried about losing a few good soldiers in this week of Passover when the crowds are swelling in Jerusalem. They are worried that the Judeans, in their celebration of being freed from Egypt, may decide to plan a rebellion that will cause them a headache. So their focus is on this particular week— is on the immediate problem in front of them— keeping the peace by killing anyone who steps out of line. We will also see the Pharisees this week and how worried they are with what Jesus is doing to their religious community— how he is upsetting people and changing how they think about God. They’re worried about themselves, the little power they perceive they have, and how Jesus is corrupting a generation of people. So they too will choose to kill the One who is bringing them truth, because they are afraid of what they’ll lose. And, of course, this week we’ll see Jesus’ followers who are concerned about how they can keep what they have going with Jesus, and finally get to the part where he helps them get freed from Rome. Their concern is for the years ahead and who will be the greatest in Jesus’ Kingdom. But Jesus keeps his eyes on the long game. He keeps preparing his disciples for when he will be gone; he intentionally teaches them how to teach others what discipleship means. He sends them out two by two so they can practice how to do this without him. He plays his pieces strategically so it will last generations— placing love at the center of his life; repeating forgiveness over and over again; and knowing that even though he will suffer greatly, the whole world will be that much closer to experiencing the heart of God.

So if you’re going to remember something about Jesus, don’t focus on the crowds or the palms or even on what they shouted. Remember instead that Jesus was born in a borrowed stable and laid in a borrowed manger. As he traveled, he had no place of his own to spend the night. He rode into the city on a borrowed donkey, ate his final meal in a borrowed room, and was crucified on a borrowed cross, wearing a borrowed crown that soldiers stuck upon his head. And when he died, somebody placed his body in a borrowed tomb.*

But what Jesus owned, was love. What Jesus gave, was forgiveness. What Jesus became, was a healing balm for the world because he showed us a way out of revenge and retribution, a way out of our own violence, and a way in to life.

Sources Consulted: The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu

  • Rev. William Carter’s sermon “The Best Things are Borrowed” at day1.org