The Donkey Detail

Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Palm Sunday, March 28, 2021.

My dearest Rachel:

I’m seated on a rock outcrop overlooking the city of Jerusalem. The sun is setting. This week has been so exhausting. I feel completely numb. The excitement is over. What I have to share with you is so sad, so strange, and so perplexing. I’m still trying to sort it out. Just a few days ago, I was the happiest that I have ever been.

I know that you never understood why I was fascinated with Jesus and why James and I left our father Zebedee’s boat and our family fishing business to follow this itinerant rabbi through the hillsides of Galilee and most recently to Jerusalem. We had a good life – a boat, two fine young sons, a family business. We paid our taxes, worked hard and had some time for ourselves on the sabbath to walk or visit the marketplace and see friends.

But something was missing. I felt incomplete. I sensed that there was more to life, and when Jesus came through our village preaching, his words struck me. He told strange stories and shared a message that I felt like I had been waiting my entire life to hear. He taught me things that I wanted to put into action. I wanted to learn more. So, James and I decided to follow him.

I know that Sarah and you felt a lot of resentment when we left our father’s side to follow Jesus. His message was so radical, and I know that you didn’t understand what made us leave. But he was more than magnetic and charismatic. When we were with him, we felt like we could hear God speak and see the world as God sees it, a world marked by love, touched by mercy and filled with generosity and blessings.

Wherever he went, crowds always gathered. They had never heard a man speak like this, nor had we. There were qualities about him that I cannot began to express in words – his kindness, truthfulness, patience, generosity and self-control. Jesus spoke with incredible authority, and he miraculously healed people before my own eyes. I’ve never seen another person like him.

After many of us had followed him for a while, he entrusted us with so much responsibility. He sent us out in pairs to share his message, to cast out demons, and to heal those who were sick or troubled. We felt like we were doing something vital. When we returned, each of us recounted all that had taken place. We felt like we were going to conquer and change the world with Jesus at our side.

Last week, we traveled with him from Jericho to Jerusalem. As we approached a little village near the Mount of Olives, Jesus asked James and me to find a donkey. He told us that he wanted a donkey, not a warhorse. He explained that when a king prepares for war, he rides a warhorse, but when he comes in peace, he rides a donkey. Jesus wanted an unbroken donkey – a colt – that no one had ever ridden.

After all we had seen and done when he sent us out in twos to preach, heal and cast our demons, James and I had greater plans in mind for what we could do than serving on the donkey detail. Just hours before, we were demanding to sit at his right and left hand when he entered his glory. Looking back on it, I’m ashamed for seeking power, but all of his followers were angling for access to Jesus and arguing about who was the greatest.

Perhaps that’s why Jesus assigned us this meaningless ministry of mucking about in a stable, looking suspiciously like horse thieves and trying to find an unbroken donkey and drag the stubborn animal through the olive groves to our rabbi. James and I and all of Jesus’ followers imagined ourselves doing great things for him, but most of the time we ended up performing humble, little tasks – like fetching donkeys, preparing the boat for Jesus to travel in, providing food for the crowds who came to hear him preach, and securing a room for him to host a last supper. But looking back, these little things seem somehow significant.

Had it not been for James and me on the donkey detail, Jesus could not have ridden into Jerusalem on a colt. Whatever great tasks that we had envisioned for ourselves when Jesus said, “Follow me,” he negated and made us focus on the little details of everyday life, like selecting a donkey that signaled humility and let everyone know that he came in peace.

His entrance to Jerusalem was spectacular. It was the biggest parade that I have ever seen. Crowds poured out to greet us. Before we knew it, people were lining the road to see this incredible rabbi – hundreds, no thousands. Folks scattered palms beneath his feet, shouting, “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.” They lined the road to Jerusalem, sometimes two, three or four persons deep. We were beside ourselves.

But little did we know that he was a marked man. Even as we walked beside him, and the crowds shouted as Jesus passed by, people with resentment and hatred in their hearts plotted to arrest and destroy him. Had he been prudent, he would have entered the city in secret or at night. But he defied the authorities and entered in broad daylight in the most public way possible. Someone said that he was fulfilling the words of the prophet, Zechariah:

Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zech. 9:9)


And there he was, riding on a donkey, just as the prophet said, the donkey that James and I had found. People in the crowd were convinced that this rabbi from Galilee was the long-awaited Messiah. They saw him as a king, who would raise an army, vanquish the Roman soldiers occupying Jerusalem and restore David’s kingdom and Israel’s borders. There was tension in the air. It was so exciting. We were shouting, “Hosanna.” I shouted until my voice gave out. We almost expected lightning bolts to rain down on us.

To the sophisticated citizens of Jerusalem, we Galileans from the northern hill country must have looked like hillbillies or country bumpkins. We were an odd lot. Some of us were fisherman. At least one belonged to a revolutionary group called the Zealots, who were dedicated to the violent overthrow of Roman rule. Another named, Matthew, was a tax collector, who collaborated with the Romans. Jesus miraculously united all of us.

He had healed lots of folks, gathered the lost, and assisted the broken. He spoke about a kingdom of love where everyone was invited and no one was turned away. And for a moment, we began to get a glimpse of what that kingdom looked like with love, peace and justice breaking in. The people in the crowd were searching for more meaning, more security, more peace and joy. Jesus seemed so responsive and ready to meet our needs.

From a distance, as we descended from the Mount of Olives into the Kidron Valley and made our way up to the capital, we must have looked like a mob of insurrectionists. But we came in peace. Jesus assured everyone of that as he rode on the backside of the donkey that we found. None of us suspected that this parade was actually a funeral procession in disguise. But we should have known. On three previous occasions, Jesus had told us that he would die in Jerusalem. He chose to die. He knew what he was facing, and I’m still trying to understand it.

It seems that Jesus was not the kind of king that the crowds wanted. They wanted a king on their terms – a king who would run the Romans out of town, vanquish their enemies and place them in power like the real Messiah was supposed to do. But he was not that kind of king. Jesus said something about giving his life as a ransom for our sins, which we didn’t understand.

When we finally entered the city, Jesus went to the temple. We followed him. He looked around and then left. That was it. But I’m told that his enemies had hatched a plot to do away with him as soon as the parade ended. Four days later, he was betrayed by one of our group and arrested as a rebel. The next day, they tried, convicted and executed him by crucifixion. They turned on him. Some, who had shouted, “hosanna” with me on Sunday, were in the crowd on Friday screaming, “Crucify him. Crucify him.” By then, all of his followers had deserted him. They turned on the best man who ever lived.

A life as powerful and true as the one that I have witnessed, cannot be stopped by crucifixion. I think that there’s more to come. But for now, I’m coming home, except I’m a changed man. Being with Jesus has changed me in ways that I cannot express. There are people in our own village that need me to care for them, and your mother is getting older, as is my father. They need us. Our marriage needs more time. I’ve been so focused on my work and you on the children. Watching a king die has changed me. Somehow, I think that this story is not yet over.

I have learned that God gives us little tasks in life, like fetching donkeys. When we faithfully carry them out, its make a crucial difference. All of us have a role to play in God’s great parade, extending grace, telling the truth and sharing love. In God’s economy, there’s no role too small to play. Trust me as one who served on the donkey detail. Rachel, I’m coming home.