Mark’s recounting of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem ends on a note of queasy solemnity. The atmosphere is appropriately shadowy and foreboding. Jesus has paraded into town, surrounded by the hoots and hollers of those who welcomed him as the one coming in the name of the Lord. They welcomed him with acclaim, but now have disappeared.

Jesus makes his way into the temple, apparently unnoticed and alone. It feels as if he is like the last fan to leave a concert, standing alone in the bleachers looking at the stage. To me, it seems like that one couple who are always waiting for the parking lot to clear out a bit, or the group of superfans who just want to bask in the sanctity of that holy space for one more minute.

Mark tells us that Jesus looks around, and then heads back to Bethany. The sun is setting, not just on that Sunday, but also on his earthly life. It makes me wonder: who was there to see this story? Was there a custodian sweeping the floors, hanging around to make sure the candles were out and the doors locked? Who told Mark this story?

Whoever he was, I bet his name was Marvin. In my first church, our custodian’s name was Marvin. He was the quintessential church sexton: always clad in coveralls, always carrying a mop, a broom, or a ladder. His key ring opened doors most people did not know existed. He knew that ancient building inside and out. If the Princess of Wales had been hiding inside the church, Marvin would have known where to look.

You always felt a bit safer when Marvin was around. I’d like to think that there was someone like Marvin moving around the temple that afternoon. The crowds were long gone, and the place was nearly empty, but I bet there was a Marvin nearby who was watching this scene unfold.

All four Gospels offer accounts of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. Matthew’s is arguably the most triumphant. Luke positions Jesus’ opponents as watching his every move, while John builds on the frenzy associated with the raising of Lazarus. Interestingly, only John’s Gospel mentions palm branches. The others only refer to “leafy branches.”  But “Leafy Branch Sunday” never captured the church’s imagination, so Palm Sunday it became.

Liturgical purists argue that Sunday is both Palm and Passion Sunday. My sense is that gives people too many reasons to skip coming back to church on Holy Week. I’m not willing to let us off the hook that easily. Instead, I like the way Mark shapes the parade as a bit of bittersweet street theater, a sort of prologue of the coming week.

Jesus is alone. The fans have left him. Even the disciples have headed back to Bethany. The dread of what is to come begins to fill the temple’s nooks. If Shakespeare had been writing this, he’d have Macbeth remind us that tomorrow is creeping into that petty pace. It’s a walking shadow, a tale full of sound and fury.  There’s no one around, except perhaps for someone like Marvin.

We’re told that loneliness is becoming a public health crisis, and it is easy to understand why. Many of us in church work spend hours in empty spaces. Classrooms which once overflowed with bodies sit idle. I bet there’s a chalkboard in one of our Sunday school rooms that still has a memory verse scrawled on it from 1997.  Seriously: down the hall from my office is a shelf with a big punch bowl. No one remembers when it was used last, but it is there. Ready, waiting, and empty.

Meanwhile, however, other parts of the culture are brimming with people. We pay a lot of money to overcome loneliness. Arenas and stadiums are booked with pricy games and concerts.  Tickets for an upcoming St. Louis City soccer game will run you at least $100 each, probably more, if you can still get them. There are still a few seats left for the Cardinal’s home opener on April 4, but the cheapest available are standing room only. Zach Bryan is coming to St. Lous in May, just $238 a person and up. Or maybe your spring break will take you to a Florida theme park. You won’t be lonely, but you will be poorer.

Craving connection, we worship the cult of celebrity cultures in hopes we will feel more connected. But this may be the ultimate irony. Our experiences may be exhilarating, fun, and perhaps even memorable. We work hard to feel less lonely, yet do not commit to the work involved in building and sustaining communities where loneliness can truly be eliminated.

This is what the church can do. This is the mission the Risen Lord will give us. The good news is that this is also something the church knows how to do. We know how to do this because someone, probably Marvin, or maybe Marva, or even Marvae, was watching Jesus in the temple that evening. They passed along the story of what they saw to others, who told that story to another generation, and so on and so on. Because of their willingness to tell that story, we can still see Jesus standing by himself after the fans had left, inhaling the scent of offerings and sacrifices.  The story reminds us he overcame the stench of loneliness.

And here’s the real surprise: committing to that story will not cost your church a dime.

Rev. Dr. Chris Keating
Woodlawn Chapel Presbyterian
St. Louis County Police Chaplain

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