What Needs “Untying” in You?
The Palm Sunday story begins with a very practical matter – obtaining the necessary transportation so that Jesus can properly enter the Golden City. On the Master’s instruction, two of his disciples go to a nearby village, and just as he had said, there they find a colt (or a donkey as the other Gospels describe it), a colt tied securely. They start to untie the animal, when its owners appear on the scene, demanding to know what’s going on. Again, per previous instructions, they respond, “The Lord needs it.” Whether this is a pre-arranged password or whether the colt’s owners are simply convinced by the sincerity and deep faith reflected in the disciples’ response, we’re not told; but they willingly release it, and the disciples bring the colt to Jesus.
Then this small, humble beast of burden carries Jesus on its back as he triumphantly proceeds into Jerusalem. Many biblical scholars believe that this mode of transportation was chosen very intentionally by Jesus to dramatize his entry into the city. He knew that the people were well aware of the prophecy of Zechariah that stated: “Shout for joy, you people of Jerusalem! Look, your king is coming to you! He comes triumphant and victorious, but humble and riding on a donkey – on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”[i] The connection was obvious.
Today, as we try to relive that first Palm Sunday, I’d like for us to focus for a few minutes, not on the festive parade that usually grabs our attention, but on the simple event that precedes the parade, that of the disciples untying the colt. This obscure little incident, a seemingly insignificant part of a much bigger, flashier story, may be a metaphor for our lives. I’d guess that most of us find ourselves tied down by something that limits our freedom, or that prevents us from fully realizing our potential, or that distracts us from the ideals and life goals we believe in and long for. And it’s probably not just one thing, but many things. So, the questions I’d like for us to ask ourselves today are: What needs “untying” in you and me? What is there within us, or a part of our lives, that needs to be released, let go, untied, so that we can join in the triumphal march of life as a full participant? How are you tied down? What is tying you down? Many of us feel tethered to situations now or to things in our past that not only prevent us from experiencing full freedom, but weigh us down like a heavy burden. Yet we may, consciously or unconsciously, long to be free. So here are just a few examples to stimulate our thinking.
First, some of us are tied to our possessions, to our comfortable way of life, to those “things” that we seem to value above almost everything else. The comedian George Carlin referred to it as our “stuff.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with stuff, with creature comforts – Lord knows, I enjoy mine – but when we put such a high priority them that our lives become distorted and we lose sight of what is really important, then it’s time to divest a bit – easier said than done. So first, some of us are tied to our possessions, our stuff.
Second, some of us are tied up in knots by addictions or compulsions – alcohol or drug or cigarette addictions, or compulsive eating, or other self-destructive behaviors – and such behaviors can harm us, not only physically, but also psychologically and spiritually. When we’re tied down by addictions or compulsions, we usually need others, caring individuals who can help untie us. It’s very hard to do it all by ourselves. Thank God for AA and other such organizations, for therapists, counselors, and rehab centers, for loving families and church families, for all who can help us untie these burdens and set us free.
Third, some of us are tied to negative feelings toward others; we experience fractured relationships, leading to estrangement, intolerance, alienation, or separation. For many, self-pride prevents us from freeing ourselves from the chains of jealousy, resentment, or intense dislike. We find it impossible to forgive those who have hurt us, and this severely limits our ability to be loving to all persons, as God calls us to be. So third, some of us are tied to unloving feelings toward others.
Fourth, some of us are tied down and held back from the passing parade of life by the burden of our sins, past sins or those present right now. In the Wisdom of Solomon, in the Apocrypha, is found a powerful description of those of us who are burdened by our sins: “For the whole world was illumined with brilliant light, and went about its work unhindered, while over those people heavy night was spread, an image of the darkness that was destined to receive them; but still heavier than darkness were they to themselves.”[ii] As we say, sometimes we’re our own worst enemy. The 19th century evangelist, Dwight Moody, once commented: “I have more trouble with myself than [with] any other [person] I’ve ever met.”
The prophet Isaiah in our reading today ticks off a list of sins against God and neighbor with which we can readily identify: “Our sins testify against us,” the people cry. “We know our iniquities: transgressing, and denying the Lord, and turning away from following our God …oppression and revolt … [and] lying words … for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter.” And the Apostle Paul struggled with the burden of his sins. In his Letter to the Romans he writes: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”[iii] Sound familiar? Those of us who are tied down by the burden of our sins are not alone – we have lots of company. But knowing that does not make the load we carry any lighter, does it?
Finally, some of us are tied to a profound sense of unworthiness that leads to feelings of resignation, apathy, or depression. We feel we’re not good enough to succeed, not strong enough to bear our responsibilities, not important enough to let anyone have even a small glimpse into our real selves, since our real selves aren’t worth much anyway. We feel we are not acceptable, to others, to God, and certainly not to ourselves. Such hopelessness, and the fear of being unacceptable, drives us and compels us, often without our realizing it, and manifests itself in those things that we do that we don’t want to do, but that we keep on doing in spite of ourselves.[iv]
These are just a few of the ways we are tied down. Maybe you can identify with some of them.
Hopefully they’ll help you discover something within yourself – in your own private, personal being – that you need to untie and let go. Besides our own need to be freed from such burdens,
there is a much more profound and basic reason why we need to untie that which is holding us down. The Lord needs us. Just as Jesus needed that lowly donkey, so the Lord needs us. Each one of us has been created for a purpose. We each have diverse and unique gifts, and they’ve been given to us to use. We are called to be God’s covenant partners in the re-creating and up-building of God’s kingdom. We have work to do, the Lord needs us, and doesn’t want any part of us tied down by those things, attitudes, or behaviors that will prevent us from getting that work done. We are to be the Lord’s hands, feet, and voices, to help bring in the kingdom, and to serve others in Christ’s name.
God’s side in this covenant partnership is total and complete acceptance of us. We may not be worthy in terms of deserving God’s love, and none of us are, but we are not worthless. The good news of God in Jesus Christ is that we have been saved and are loved and accepted, though we are still sinners, though our relationships with God or others may be faulty, though we cling to our possessions, though – whatever. The grace of God in Christ is lavished upon each of us. What we have to do is wake up and accept God’s acceptance. And only when we truly believe that we are accepted, will we be free to become our true selves, to become all that God wants for us to be.
Finally, how are we to respond to God’s call? Let me suggest four possible ways we can respond. The disciples are asked by Jesus to go find the colt, untie it, and bring it to him. And without question, they do what they are told to do. They obey. The first way we can respond is by humble obedience. Not only are the disciples good examples of such obedience, but so is Jesus himself in his relationship with God. As our lesson from Philippians states: Jesus “humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” I pray that none of us will ever be called upon for that kind of ultimate obedience, but we can obey in the little things, and especially when Jesus calls us to untie those things that inhibit us personally. Sure it’s scary to obey, but God gives us the strength to do so, and is with us every step of the way.
Second, we can respond with reckless abandon – like the disciples when they throw their cloaks on the colt for Jesus to sit on, and carpet the road with them as he enters the city; like the crowds shouting “Hosanna!,” waving their palm branches, and singing their joyful songs of praise. We need more spontaneous joy in our lives, letting our enthusiastic emotions come out once in awhile. Such uninhibited behavior can crack us open to be more responsive to God’s love. But a word of warning. The disciples were enthusiastic, but they were misdirected. Swept up by his charisma and by the adulation of the crowds, they completely missed the point of who Jesus was and what he was all about. Even his closest disciples thought that he would be the kind of messiah who would overthrow the Roman rulers, a political messiah in the tradition of the great King David. The crowds in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday are enthusiastic, but their enthusiasm is shallow. How quickly their uproar goes from songs of adoration and praise to shouts of scorn and derision. Sometimes on Palm Sunday we forget that Holy Week follows, and at the end of this week is betrayal, crucifixion, agony, and death. Our enthusiastic response to God’s call should be tempered with thoughtful reflection and prayerful introspection, enthusiastic, but not misdirected or shallow.
Jesus and the disciples finally arrive at the outer gates of Jerusalem, and there he weeps over the city: “If only you had known, on this great day,” he says, “the way that leads to peace.” Our third response is to try to walk in the way that leads to peace, a way that is seldom easy, often is extremely risky, and may bring us into grave personal danger. Thousands of people of faith down through the ages have martyred their lives in the cause of peace, from Stephen and Paul right down to our own time – Martin Luther King Jr., Prime Minister Palme of Sweden, Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, to name just three. More recently, Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani Muslim woman who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban, is devoting her life to being a spokesperson for peace, and is the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate ever. Mahatma Gandhi, is probably the most well-known and admired person of peace in recent generations. Listen to what this Hindu had to say about the peace that Jesus calls us to: “I believe in peace. … the peace that you find embedded in the human breast, which is exposed to the arrows of the whole world, but which is protected from all harm by the power of Almighty God.”
Perhaps we’re afraid to take the risk of humble obedience. Maybe reckless abandon or wild enthusiasm is not our style. Maybe we don’t see ourselves as courageous travelers down that road that leads to peace. Well, there is a fourth response, really a prerequisite to any response, and that is prayer. We can pray for the faith, for the strength, for the courage to respond to God’s call. The great preacher, Phillips Brooks, remarked on prayer, “I do not pray for a lighter load, but for a stronger back.” Let us pray for clear vision and wise listening, and then open our eyes and ears to the reality of God’s presence in the world around us, for indeed, God is still speaking.
What needs untying in you? Only you know, and only you can begin the process. God wants us to untie and let go of our excess baggage, and we will be able to untie these things if we respond in faith – the faith of humble obedience, the faith of spontaneous joy, the faith of daring travel on Jesus’ way of peace, and the faith that knows our own weaknesses and prays for strength. The people of Jerusalem, even Jesus’ disciples, missed the point of his teachings, of his mission, of his call to them. They “did not recognize the time of God’s visitation when it came.” God visits us time and time again in each of our lives, and gives us chance after chance to respond. May we recognize these moments when they’re upon us, seize these moments, respond to the call, and untie all that needs untying. For my friends, the Lord needs us, each of us. Amen. Rev. Kenneth C. Landall
[i] Zechariah 9:9.
[ii] Wisdom of Solomon 17:20-21.
[iii] Romans 7:15, 19.
[iv] Portions of the latter part of this sermon are based upon Peter Meek’s meditation
in Doran’s Ministers’ Manual, 1980, p. 136.