Presiding Bishop's Palm Sunday Sermon
5 April 2009
All Saints, Moline, IL
Episcopal Diocese of Quincy
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
The Episcopal Church
I had a challenging trip here on Friday. I went to the airport in New York in plenty of time, and when I went to the counter to check my bag, the agent told me my flight was delayed more than an hour. I knew I only had an hour to connect in Detroit. There weren’t any other flights from Detroit to Peoria Friday night, or any other routing that would get me there. Finally, she said, you can stand by on an earlier flight from here to Detroit – they’re all delayed, too. Well, I did, and I got on, and got to Detroit in plenty of time to make my connection. Which was also delayed and delayed, and at one point we weren’t sure it would ever leave because we needed another crew member and the others were running out of time to keep working.
But the fascinating part of the trip had to do with some other passengers. I was sitting on the plane in New York and the woman next to me said after an elderly passenger crept by on the arm of a younger man, “that’s Celeste Holm.” She had come aboard late, in a wheelchair. She and the man, who I believe is her husband, turned up at the gate in Detroit, too, and waited and waited. She sat in the wheelchair and the man kept pestering the agent, wanting to know how long it would be before we boarded. The gate agent didn’t have any idea, and she tried to gently put him off, but he was very persistent. I tried to explain to him something about the rules that prevent flight crews from working too long. Eventually we did all board the little plane to Peoria, and eventually the other crew member turned up, and we took off about 3 hours late.
But I was struck by the image of a peaceful old woman in her wheelchair, a 91 year old beauty who waited patiently for whatever was going to happen. She wasn’t worked up in the least – all the anxiety resided in her companion.
Jesus came to the outskirts of Jerusalem and sent his friends off to get the first-century equivalent of a wheelchair, so that he could ride into the city. He doesn’t turn up and demand a limousine or a tank or a warhorse. He says, “go get me a colt.” I can’t imagine it except to see him sitting on that pile of coats his buddies have heaped on the little animal, with his feet dragging in the dust. No foot pedals or even stirrups on that tiny beast.
And the country folk from the fields outside the gates of Jerusalem welcome him with a parade, a ticker tape parade like Ms. Holm might have had 50 or 60 years ago, or a reception like the glitterati get when they put their handprints in the concrete outside Grumman’s Chinese Theater in LA. But his welcome parade doesn’t bring out the high society folks – just the poor ones. By the time he gets into the city, all the big doings of the day are over. He wanders into the Temple, looks around, and leaves again for Bethany. The powers that be have wrapped up their work for the day and gone home already. The little Jesus parade on the edge of the city is a celebration of nobodies.
But that’s the kind of leader he is, turning ordinary expectations upside down. And before the week is out, the authorities will have noticed his uppity conceits and killed him for his trouble. Even the poor folk outside the city have turned against him by then. They wanted a rescuer, a military deliverer, and he will not be that for them. He says, if you want to join my parade, you have to come to Calvary with me. You have to do this hard work, this life and death part, this life-changing piece. You have to ride in a wheelchair, too.
Jesus’ work is to join those who use wheelchairs, to cultivate a changed heart and a change of direction, rather than struggling to be the one in charge. Think for a moment about the different perspective and experience of someone who spends life in a wheelchair. I noticed it yesterday at the gathering of the synod. Several people needed to sit to have a conversation, even if they weren’t using a wheelchair. The options if you want to talk are either to loom over that person, or squat down so that you can have a face to face conversation. If you’re lucky, you find a chair. The other person never gets to have face to face conversations unless the walking person sits down, but probably also gets to look children in the eye more than most adults do. What was it Jesus said about being like a child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven? Maybe even riding on a little colt with his feet dragging in the dust.
Jesus chose the wheelchair, and he let the soldiers burden him with a cross on the road to Calvary, and after his night in the garden, he went willingly to that cross. Jesus came among us patiently, willing to wait and suffer like the poor do, like all who know they aren’t in control of their lives. He came among us as we are, even when we don’t recognize our incapacity and disability. Those who think they’re in charge, in control, able to muscle themselves and others around – well, just wait, it won’t be like that forever. Jesus is waiting for our awareness of our inability, and then he’ll ride with us – to Calvary, to the grave, and to Easter.
That awareness of not being in control is what is leading to new life here. You waited, more or less patiently, until you heard Jesus say, get up and move. The perspective you gained from keeping your heads down, and sitting in a chair until the time was right, can be a gospel perspective to carry with you. What did you learn from looking at the world from that position, lower down? It just might give you some solidarity with those who live in that lower position all the time – not just people who literally ride in wheelchairs, but those who are quite literally at the mercy of others. You have learned something about the gift of going in company, and something about the presence of God in the dark nights of the garden. You have learned something from choosing to ride a colt – and you’ve discovered the glories that come from pulling together to spread cloaks and set up chairs and put out signs. Several of you have told me how much more alive you feel in this place – only it isn’t just the place, it’s the community, following Jesus, riding something different than you used to.
How will you go into Jerusalem this week? What altitude or perspective will you choose as you look for Jesus? The glory and the beauty, and truth and life are sometimes found by looking a little lower.