Look for the helpers. That was the advice Fred Rogers – aka “Mr. Rogers” – recalled from his mother when he was growing up. Whenever catastrophe or disaster would strike, she would always try to divert her son’s attention to the helpers. It’s good advice not only for children, but also for adults, too. Because, as Fred Rogers has said, “If you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”
Even so, these times of crisis dig at the perennial question: Why do bad things happen? I suspect it’s part of our human nature to want to have a reason…so that we can understand it and control it and make it all better. But what happens when we can’t?
What happens when the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t just about COVID-19 anymore? What happens when suddenly a life-threatening illness keeps us isolated, separated, and cut off from the physical presence of our loved ones – especially for those who already live alone? What happens when it means people are being furloughed or losing their jobs completely, or when small businesses have to close their doors and even wonder if – not when – they’ll be able to re-open? What happens when we wonder how we’re going to pay the bills or afford groceries? What happens when it means we can’t even gather at the bedside of a loved one who is dying or have to put off their funeral until this is all over?
In the midst of so much chaos and confusion and uncertainty, where do we turn for hope? Look for the helpers…
I see at least two helpers in our gospel texts today. One of them we’ve already encountered in the passage we just read: It’s that bizarre set of instructions Jesus gives his disciples to go into the village, seemingly steal someone’s donkey and colt, and if asked what they’re doing, reply, “The Lord needs them.” End of conversation.
Can you imagine finding someone in your driveway, hotwiring your car, and getting ready to drive away? The would-be thief telling you only, “The Lord needs it”? Well, okay then, carry on!
Maybe that’s not an exact parallel to our times, but it has struck me how people seem to be much more willing to step up and help in the midst of our present crisis. Many of you have offered to run errands or buy and deliver groceries for your fellow Unity members who can’t easily get out. Others have started calling people or writing cards to check in on one another. Those of you adept at sewing have even begun making face masks for Froedtert and Children’s Hospitals. When I look at the helpers in our midst, I see hope.
I think that might explain the bizarre encounter with the donkey and the colt. As one commentator writes, “Jesus relied on the community to provide for the things that he would need.” Jesus knew that the movement that he was building was bigger than just the people in his close personal circle, and he knew there were others, in the midst of their ordinary lives, who would help in their own way. Jesus was building a community network of support, exactly at the time he knew would need it the most.
Fast forward to the passion gospel we’ll hear at the end of this service, and it happens again: When asked where he wants to eat the Passover, Jesus tells his disciples to go into the city to “a certain man” and tell him that “the Teacher” will keep the Passover at his house. It seems like Jesus knows more than he’s letting on. What “certain man”? Was “the Teacher” some kind of codeword he would recognize? Was there an underground network of helpers in Jerusalem?
The whole city was “in turmoil” after Jesus’s entry. Nothing about this was normal. And there, in the midst of chaos and confusion, are the helpers.
We’re learning to adjust to our new normal…finding new and creative ways to help and reach out to our neighbors. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine rests in the heart of New York City – one of the epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic, with now over 56,000 cases in the city alone and nearly 12,000 hospitalized. Earlier this week, I read that the Cathedral is in talks with the city to determine how they can help alleviate pressure on the city’s healthcare system, including the possibility of housing patients within their sanctuary. Look for the helpers…
And then there are the unwitting helpers, those who seemingly have no choice but to help. In our passion gospel, Simon of Cyrene is “compelled” – forced – by the Roman soldiers to carry Jesus’s cross. Simon didn’t get a say in the matter. But I can’t imagine even the momentary help he provided, literally lifting the burden of the cross, was any less appreciated by Jesus.
I can’t help but think of the unwitting helpers in our midst: grocery store and carry-out restaurant workers, gas station attendants, mail carriers, first responders, medical professionals – the people who keep our world running, who we would otherwise take for granted. We are actively building an improvised community network of support as we go, and no one is indispensable.
This Palm Sunday feels quite a bit different, doesn’t it? Our echoes of “Hosanna! Save us!” have a different, more poignant, ring to them this year. Hosanna, save us! From where does our help come? From the humble prophet Jesus from Nazareth, riding on a donkey. From the cross, and the God who is with us in our suffering.
Today we cry out Hosanna for our country, Hosanna for our world, Hosanna for the most vulnerable, and Hosanna for those who can’t cry out for themselves. We cry out Hosanna because we know this isn’t the end of the story. For soon, those Hosannas will give way to Hallelujahs.
In the meantime, friends, look around…look for the helpers. They’re everywhere.