March 28, 2010
St. James’s Episcopal Church
After I graduated college and before I started Yale Divinity School, I spent a year working in a psychiatric hospital in Arlington. Some of you have heard me mention this time in my life before. It was a very formative year. The floor I worked on was the only one in the hospital dedicated just to adolescents. Teenagers from 13 to 18 each of whom was experiencing some kind of emotional crisis stayed in the hospital from six weeks to six months. Our job was to help them regain their footing in reality so they could reclaim their lives.
When I first started this job, I paid close attention to the doctors who visited their patients twice a day. At the time I was considering pursuing a doctorate or a medical degree either before or after seminary. I was prepared to idolize these psychologists and psychiatrists who had dedicated their professional lives to helping deeply troubled teens. What I learned working 10 hours a day on that unit was that while the doctors were dedicated professionals, the real heroes in these kids lives were the nurses who looked after them day in and day out.
They were amazing. Mostly women, they exhibited a tenacious love and care for their patients that was incredible to witness. You see, most of the hospital nurses you and I encounter have very physical jobs to do. They have wounds to care for, medications to dispense, tests to give, I.V.’s to change, vital signs to monitor. But in this hospital, the wounds were not physical they were emotional and how to treat these young people was far from obvious. There were no bandages to change and relatively few medications to dispense. Rather, these nurses spent their hours doing whatever they could to reach these young people, trying to cut through the fear and confusion of their illness in order to anchor them to reality, in order to heal them.
They were tenacious. They never gave up. No matter how disturbed, how lost, how hostile a patient might be, these nurses were always reaching out, always moving toward their charges, always trying to break through. If a kid ever took a swing at them they would wrap their arms around the patient and hold on until he/she settled down. If the kids screamed and cursed at them they would calm them down and then sit beside them in silence until they were ready to talk. If a young person withdrew these nurses would seek him or her out with a smile and a gentle word. Sometimes I would see a nurse sitting for hours beside a patient quietly listening as the teen cried or talked. Always moving forward rather than away, always reaching out, always trying to connect, always lifting up health and hope, these nurses were great healers.
When I think about Jesus today, his ministry, his journey to Jerusalem, his triumphant entry into the city and his tragic death, I am reminded of the same kind of persistence, the same kind of forward movement that I saw exemplified in that hospital. If you think about it, you could say that Jesus’ entire ministry was one of always moving toward humanity and never away, always reaching out, always trying to connect, always lifting up health and hope, in the midst of a broken and hurting world. Every time he taught, every time he healed someone, every time he condemned injustice and corruption, every time he proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God, Jesus was moving towards us, and trying to move us towards God. In essence, his ministry was all about loving us back toward God, back to our truest selves, and for the most part our rejection of that love.
What makes today so powerful for me is that Jesus just keeps moving forward in spite of the threat to his life, in spite of the fact that he knew his arrival in Jerusalem would bring about the end of his ministry. All of the Gospels are the same on this point – all of the Gospels are structured in such a way that Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is the climax of his ministry and the beginning of the end. Let’s be clear. The crowds who hailed him today wanted a great King. They wanted a warrior, a general; they wanted a man who was bold enough and violent enough to lead the revolt that would finally take back Israel from her Roman occupiers. When Jesus rode into town on that donkey and not on the white stallion of the conquering hero, it wasn’t what they expected or what they wanted. Yes he was coming to do battle, he was coming to stand up against abusive power and political domination, but he was going to do it by giving his own life rather than by taking lives. He was going to do it by confronting his enemies not with the sword, but with love and the power of God’s truth. He would keep moving forward, keep reaching out until the power structures either had to embrace him or kill him.
As you listen to the Passion this morning, I want you to remember that Jesus is still moving forward, still coming in our direction, still riding toward us to embrace us and heal us. Today’s gospel isn’t just an ancient story but a modern reality. Just as those very special nurses wanted to reach through the sickness and pain of their young patients to offer them health, wholeness, and a better life; so Jesus rides and walks forward toward each of us, seeking to embrace us and wondering whether we will return that embrace or put him to death yet again.
Our faith proclaims that Jesus is always riding, walking, proclaiming his way into your life, my life, into all human life. He is trying to push through the psychosis of our culture of greed and exploitation where the few sometimes get rich at the expense of the many. He is trying to push through our own anger and cynicism to show us that there is another way to live, to let us know how deeply we are loved, and to convince us that love is worth any price – even death. He keeps coming never giving up on us; never giving up on what our culture, our world could be if we truly embraced the Kingdom of God. As you listen to this ancient story of Jesus’ betrayal, suffering, and death, see it for what it is – the Divine’s gift of love. And know, in spite of how the story ends, that he still keeps coming.