Presiding Bishop’s Palm Sunday sermon in Jerusalem
Marking the annual Palm Sunday celebrations and the start of a week-long visit to the Holy Land, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached March 16 at St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem at the invitation of Bishop Suheil Dawani of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem.
It is a great joy and a privilege to be with you this morning. I thank Bishop Suheil for the invitation to preach today. I bring you greetings from the Episcopal Church, in Taiwan, and Micronesia, and Colombia, and Ecuador, and Venezuela, in the Virgin Islands, in Puerto Rico, in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, in the United States, and from a group of churches in Europe.
My office is in New York City and early Friday morning I went out for a run. A mile or so out, I started seeing police officers, little groups at first, all walking in the same direction. Soon I came upon a gathering of a couple hundred of them, standing on a street corner, stretched out half a block in each direction. I had no idea what was going on. I kept going, and on my way back half an hour later, I discovered the same group, just beginning to disperse. I made my way through them, and suddenly I heard, “bishop!” I don’t get recognized on the street very often, especially in my running clothes, but a young officer ran up, told me his name, said he was the clergy liaison officer for the New York Police Department, and that he wanted an appointment. I told him I’d be happy to see him, and we both went on our way.
When I left the office that afternoon on my way to the airport, the driver told me we were going to have to take a different route. The President was in town. That was the reason for the big gathering of police -- they had been getting their instructions. When George Bush comes to town, the police come out to pave the way, to make sure the streets are free from obstructions and the dissenters are kept at bay. The police line the street to prevent violence -- and our President, whoever he is, seems to generate a lot of violent opposition. It seems to be true of most government leaders -- witness the number of assassination attempts in recent years around the world.
Today we remember the arrival of another head of state. When King Herod came to Jerusalem at Passover, he used to have a similar kind of armed guard. But when King Jesus comes to town, no police or soldiers line the streets; only people ready and eager for a different ruler. Crowds clamor, hoping for a kingdom of justice, praising God, looking for an end to oppression. This is no military leader riding in a tank, or political despot in an armored limousine. Jesus comes openly and undefended, and the crowds respond by lining his path with branches of palm. That palm is called phoenix in Greek, a name that also points to the radical change of death and resurrection. Truly a different ruler is coming, promising radical and abundant change -- the kind of change that prophets have taught us to seek for thousands of years.
What contrast between one who seeks and needs protection, and one who comes undefended! What contrast between the powers of this world, clamoring for an unchanging status quo, and the powers from above that urge change toward that divine vision of salaam and shalom!
For this prince of peace will bring a kingdom that transcends earthly grasping, whether of power, wealth, or geopolitical control. This Lord will claim God as abba, known more intimately than any earthly parent, rather than one to be obeyed out of fear. This mighty counselor will offer divine wisdom, learned in loving God, that we might love and serve our neighbors, rather than exploit them.
In this land called holy, we still wait for that prince of peace. We still seek a Lord who will work a reconciled peace with justice, here and around the globe. No wonder that, as the gospel says, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole town was in turmoil. Who is this prophet? He promises another kind of kingdom, another realm where there will be no longer be any hungry or sick or imprisoned ones, no unemployed, none who are segregated from their neighbors and treated with a different justice because of ethnicity or religion.
The turmoil Jesus stirred up ended in his execution as an enemy of the state. Prophets tend to do that -- stir things up and end up dead. That is part of the invitation Jesus offers each of us, to pick up our cross, to die to self, to proclaim the word of God in human flesh and that divine dream of peace, and to be willing to die to everything else. Stir things up, for this world certainly hasn’t yet reached that divine dream of salaam and shalom. And, yes, recognize that death will be involved. There is no possibility of new life, of resurrection, without death. We will never know a healed world unless the systems that depend on violence or armed guards to maintain them die.
Jesus went unprotected -- without the comfort of a family at home, without armed guards or a place to lay his head, without a big political organization to back him. He went simply, clothed in the spirit, protected by the anti-weapon of a palm branch -- shade rather than sword -- and welcomed by the poorest of peasants.
Out of that weakness and humility death and despair were extinguished. Out of the emptiness of human flesh, the same flesh as the debt-slaves and displaced people around him, God restored hope.
We share the great hope of Jesus the anointed one, because we are made of the same mortal flesh, and we, too, have been anointed to preach peace to the poor and deliverance to the captives. We died with Jesus in the waters of baptism, and we rise with him as well. We have been invited into this journey with him, this blood-red and passionate journey of sacrifice, making holy this yet unhealed world. His road into the eternal city of peace leads past the cross. It includes turmoil and threat, but it is meant to be answered by the methods of peace -- palm branches and donkeys, truth-telling and the unexpected wind of the spirit.
That unexpected wind answers the world’s violence with non-violence, with humor and gospel overturning, by inviting the world’s outcasts into the center of the circle, by the absurdity of a leader of state riding a donkey. Jesus’ peace parade meets the performance violence of suicide bombs by building hospitals and schools for all the children of Abraham. We can become actors of non-violence with the phoenix branches of love. We can work reconciliation with the strangest of people -- those of other faiths, former enemies, and even police officers who seek out clergy. That is the dream of Al Quds and Jerushalayim. That is the dream of God, born in Jesus, dead and buried and raised again, prince of peace.
Hosannah in the highest! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the Lord of heaven and all the earth!
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