Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sunday Sermon

March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday

One of the most familiar pictures on American TV screens is that of the president of the United States walking across the South Lawn of the White House to board Marine One, his white-topped VH-3D helicopter, for the quick trip out to Andrews Air Force Base to rendezvous with Air Force One, “the flying White House”, as some call it. It all looks so impressive, from the Marine guard’s salute to the famous light-blue plane taxiing down the runway.

It’s what we don’t see that’s even more impressive, however. Getting the president from place to place is a bit like planning the Normandy invasion: It involves hundreds of man-hours, millions of dollars and tons of hardware, making your last plane trip look like a cakewalk by comparison.

Let’s say the president is coming to your town for a speech. Even before the president takes off, Secret Service agents and local law enforcement at each destination have already been hard at work for days or, sometimes, weeks or months, interviewing and screening people who will be close to the president. They analyze primary and alternate routes through the city and sweep the site of the meeting or rally for any security problems. If the destination is a foreign country, coordination with the host nation requires even more planning and rehearsal to ensure the president’s safety.

On board Air Force One, the president and his entourage travel with all possible security precautions in place. The VC-25A, which shares the airframe of a commercial Boeing 747 but little else, takes off with a quarter million pounds of thrust generated by eight engines, which enable the plane to get airborne quickly when security concerns require it. The plane has a maximum speed of 630 knots — just 130 knots short of the speed of sound — and can travel 6,800 miles without refueling (which can be done in the air when needed). Air Force One also contains multiple electronic and material countermeasures to ward off an aerial attack but doesn’t have parachutes or escape pods such as those imagined in the 1997 Harrison Ford movie; they say that the jet’s huge slipstream would render those kinds of safety measures useless.

In the cabin, however, everything is appointed with comfort and workability in mind. Check out some of the amenities:

~ The president’s cabin suite is located near the nose of the plane and has couches that fold out into beds, complete with blankets monogrammed with the presidential seal.

~ The president need not turn off his cell phone before takeoff because he doesn’t need one in the first place. The plane has 80 phones on board and 238 miles of communications cable, along with Internet and satellite links.

~There are workspaces and conference rooms with leather chairs, plus a cabin just for the press corps.

~ In case of emergency, a medical room on board is stocked with a pharmacy, an X-ray machine and an operating table — and is staffed with a full-time surgeon.

~ No chintzy airline food here, either. Air Force One has two galleys staffed by five chefs who can serve up to 100 meals per seating (the normal number of people on the plane is between 70 and 80).

~ When each passenger comes on board, the wait staff notes his or her coffee preference and prepares and delivers coffee whenever requested.

~ President George H.W. Bush had a treadmill installed on the plane so he could keep up his workout routine.

And you thought that upgrade you got to first class was nice. Sounds like the Waldorf Astoria in air!

There are actually two identical VC-25s that can serve as Air Force One (an aircraft is called Air Force One only if the president is actually on board). Both planes are often flown to destinations so there’s always a backup. Accompanying them are at least two massive Air Force C-5 cargo planes that contain the armored presidential limousines (a primary and a decoy) and accompanying support vehicles for a motorcade, including a fully stocked ambulance. Sometimes, the presidential helicopter, Marine One, and other auxiliary aircraft are also ferried to a long-distance location on one of the cargo planes. The cargo planes land well in advance of Air Force One to begin assembling and staging all the necessary vehicles to be ready the second the president steps off the plane.

When Air Force One rolls to a stop on the tarmac at the local airport or airbase, there is no mistaking the famous blue paint scheme, presidential seal and the distinctive “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” lettering on the fuselage. Although the planes have changed, the look is nearly the same as it was when Jacqueline Kennedy had the scheme painted on the original Air Force One, a Boeing 707-320B, in the early 1960s. For five decades, the image of an American president emerging from that famous plane has been a fixture in world events.

After the president gets into one of the armored limousines, the motorcade moves quickly on a designated route accompanied by Secret Service and local law-enforcement vehicles and helicopters. Often the route is changed at the last minute to thwart potential ambushers. Arriving at the venue, the president’s personal Secret Service detail sets up a perimeter before the president emerges and, perhaps, waves to the crowd. He is then quickly whisked through an alternate entrance and into a secure holding area before the speech. All this is planned down to the second. The speech is the easy part.

Okay. I could now describe the preparations for the Pope’s travel, but I think you get the general idea for my little dissertation today.

If it takes all that for the president of the United States, or the Pope or some other dignitary just to go make a speech, what did it look like for the King of Kings, God’s chosen ruler of the whole world, to make his grand entrance at the beginning of the most important week the world has ever known? Luke and the other gospel writers give us a window into the travel arrangements that were needed when Jesus came into Jerusalem and into an environment that was anything but secure.

First, there’s the reason for the trip in the first place. Presidents usually go where they’re invited to make a speech or attend a meeting. Jesus received no invitation to come to Jerusalem. No summit meeting was scheduled with the temple officials, who had no doubt heard about Jesus’ teaching and healing. No town-hall meeting was set up with the Pharisees and Sadducees on the pressing issues of Torah and purity practice that Jesus had controversially circumvented or modified. No one had put together a press conference about his most recent activity in Jericho, where he healed a blind beggar and ate with a known tax collector (Luke 18:35–19:10). No congressional arguments over the latest health bill. Like Air Force One flying the President into a foreign country unannounced for Thanksgiving to have dinner with the troops, Jesus shows up quite unexpectedly.

But Jesus knew all along that he would need to make the trip. Jesus tells his disciples, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.” He goes on to predict his death and resurrection for the third time, but even his own cabinet of disciples do not understand the plan.

Then there was his mode of transport. In the first-century Roman world, emperors always made their arrival in a city with a great deal of pomp and circumstance. Elite troops carried Roman standards — the equivalent of big, bold letters on a plane. The emperor himself entered the city riding on a warhorse, the ancient forerunner of a jet, or in a chariot, which acted like an ancient armored limo.

Jesus, however, eschews the decorations and instead has a donkey commissioned as his royal mode of transport. And it isn’t even a full-grown donkey; it’s a “colt” (Matthew 21:2 adds the donkey detail) — four spindly legs vs. the powerful hooves of a horse or a quarter million pounds of thrust in a VC-25. Jesus does have the disciples act a little like a first-century messianic Secret Service when they go to pick up this diminutive donkey, giving a kind of secret code word: “The Lord needs it”.

Jesus had specified that the donkey was to be a young colt that had not been ridden. This suggests the sacred aspect of his journey to Jerusalem. Only animals that had never been used as beasts of burden could be considered suitable for sacred purposes (Numbers 19:2; 1 Samuel 6:7). The unridden animal’s willingness to bear Jesus also says something about his power. Jesus is not only a king — he is a divine king. This is not a political occasion, but a sacred one.

A young donkey with a large passenger struggling down the steep road that leads from the Mount of Olives to the eastern gate of Jerusalem may seem a little ridiculous to us, compared to white-topped helicopters and jumbo jets. But to the people gathering around to watch Jesus’ arrival, the mode of transport was perhaps even more symbolic than Air Force One is to us. By riding into Jerusalem on a humble donkey, Jesus was making a very specific political statement and messianic claim, echoing the prophet’s imagery in Zechariah 9:9. Instead of a display of power and might with armed security and fighter escorts, this King comes in “humble and riding on a donkey.”

And what about the crowd? The crowd accompanying Jesus was as humble as his conveyance — a ragtag collection of disciples and hangers-on spreading their cloaks in the road, which was the ancient equivalent of rolling out a red carpet. This wasn’t an ordinary king, promoting his own glory and flaunting his symbols of power, but a fisher king, a king for fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, demoniacs and cripples. Many of these people probably wouldn’t have passed a Secret Service screening if they had to, but they nonetheless lined the road for the approaching donkey-cade, shouting a messianic campaign slogan, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”.

The religious elite certainly understood what Jesus was doing by arriving in the city this way, unannounced and unauthorized. Rather than joining the cheering supporters, they stage a protest. Eventually they will realize that this would-be king’s security detail was pretty weak, and they would make sure that Jesus left the city on their terms, wanting him to stagger, not swagger, carrying a symbol of defeat and death.

Of course, we know that a week later, Jesus will make another unannounced arrival for which no one was prepared, making an empty tomb the focal point of all human history. Presidents and their planes will come and go, but, because of Easter, there is only one eternal King for whom the world waits in anticipation.

Palm Sunday is a great time to assess our preparation for the King’s arrival, not only in our individual hearts but also in eschatological (or end time) terms. Speculating on the mode of transport for Jesus’ return, be it surfing on a cloud or riding a celestial steed à la the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation, is an exercise that some Christians have made into a booming theological business. I like to refer to it as counting the number of Angels that could sit on the head of a pin. We have to remember, though, that the King arrived the first time humbly, being born in a manger, and then began his inauguration week by riding into a city on a laughable little donkey.

If our King comes to us so gently and humbly, how might we prepare for his return by following his example? Would we be prepared? There are lots of examples we might lift up here, such as people who have chosen sacrifice over security or welcome for the poor over the pursuit of wealth. If Jesus were to arrive this Sunday, how would you welcome him? With what stories would you regale him? With what songs and shouts would you praise him? What would you be proud to show him (or ashamed to show him)? Would you recognize him for who he is or, like the religious leaders, would you mistake him for someone else because his humility doesn’t fit the model of a leader? How would you roll out the red carpet for the King? We know the King is coming soon, so why not stage a rehearsal?

May Holy Week be a Blessed time for you all!

God Love You +

+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens

Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church

San Diego, Ca.