“The Paradox of Palms and Passion”

April 5, 2020


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
April 5, 2020
Palm Sunday

“The Paradox of Palms and Passion”
excerpts from Mark 14 & 15

Many of you have probably heard about the Chinese ophthalmology, Li Wenliang, who worked as a physician and warned his colleagues in December 2019 about a possible outbreak of an illness that later became known as COVID-19. A few days later, police investigated the case and interrogated Li, giving him a warning notice and censuring him for “making false comments on the Internet”. He was made to sign a letter of admonition promising not to do it again. The police warned him that if he failed to learn from the admonition and continued to violate the law he would be prosecuted.

After the admonition, Li returned to work in the hospital and contracted the virus. He became a whistleblower when his warnings were later shared publicly. It was too late for Li, who by then had contracted the virus from an infected patient (who had been originally treated for glaucoma) and died from the disease only 5 weeks later, at age 33. A subsequent Chinese official inquiry exonerated him and the Communist Party of China formally offered a “solemn apology” to his family and revoked its admonishment of him. The ironies in this story are too numerous to name. If only his words had been taken seriously earlier, how many lives could have been saved around the globe? Wikipedia.org

On this Palm Sunday, I mention Li Wenliang as a modern example of the paradox of a story we tell every year at this time. It is the story of the power of powerlessness; the paradox of salvific suffering; the crucified Christ. In this story, the people who waved palms on one day cry “crucify him!” only a few days later. The Jesus who has been a miracle worker, a healer, a teacher, the Son of God now is shown as suddenly powerless. He remains silent before his accusers. He is betrayed by friends and is apparently helpless before his enemies. The text ends with the death of this man and the haunting paradoxical words, “He saved others; he cannot save himself”. The New Interpreter’s Commentary on Mark

Choral reading of excerpts of Mark 14 & 15.

In Gethsemane, the Disciples fall asleep, not once but three times. Jesus does not work a miracle to keep them awake or turn them into good friends who will stay by his side. Immediately, Judas comes to betray him and a slave’s ear is cut off. Jesus does not heal him. He does not resist betrayal or arrest. He does not stop perform a miracle or get the disciples to stand with him. He meekly allows himself to be arrested. During the trial, there is no rebuttal or testimony from Jesus. He offers little defense. He is mocked, beaten, humiliated, stripped, and killed. Total depravity.

During coronavirus, many of us have been hunkering down for several weeks now. The novelty of the idea of staying home to read books and watch movies and walk our pets has worn off and boredom has set in – especially for the extroverts among us. Trips have been cancelled. Anticipated gatherings are postponed. Reunions and friend luncheons are on hold. Even funerals aren’t happening – so grief itself doesn’t get to have its day. ZOOM meetings and family conversations help, but it just isn’t the same. We are grateful the Midwest is not in the throws of the virus like some other states, but we are wondering how long this social isolation will last and if life will ever get back to what “normal” used to be. The paradox is, of course, that the longer we stay isolated, the better chance we will have of returning to social normalcy and health.

I had the privilege recently of speaking to a person who has been called into ministry as a 2nd career. It is a rewarding – even exhilarating – experience to visit with people who have a call to ministry. This person grew up (like me) in a conservative, fundamentalist Christian church. He has been shedding those beliefs through a very painful process of deconstructing and figuring out what he does and does not believe any more. Many members of our church have been through that process whether or not you ever thought about going into ministry. This man’s faith has changed rapidly and the process has cost him a great deal, including rejection of friends and family; self-doubt; and an upheaval of everything he thought was foundational and true. As we visited at a deep interpersonal level, I realized we were talking about a grief process for him – and that this soul wrenching process was preparing him for ministry itself… that it was equipping him to stand by the bedsides of people as they died… that it was giving him the compassion to listen to the hearts of those who had their own God doubts… that it was preparing him to stand in between family members in turmoil and church members in conflict. His faith quakes – as shattering and debilitating as they have been in his struggle – will be instrumental in his future ministry. This is a paradox. From powerlessness comes strength to serve.

While we are all feeling powerless in our homes, we are building strength. We are learning new and creative ways to build community. We are learning how to be the church without the building. We are seeking new ways to reach out to one another without physical presence. We are teaching ourselves innovative ways to learn.
• Teachers who excelled at classroom instruction are finding ways to parade through streets and reach their students at home. They are learning where their students live.
• Parents who criticized teachers are now teaching at home and are gaining new insights into what teachers have known all along.
• Couples are learning new ways to relate to one another in the solitude of their homes. They are finding innovative ways to communicate. They are going back to playing games, cards, taking walks with the dogs, sitting on the porch, working together in the kitchen.
• We have all learned to return to the great 20th century invention of the phone. We are calling one another more instead of texting (which I also appreciate). Our voices are now important instruments of communication. Our faces over the computer are also important. We have realized the significance of checking in with the elders who are shut in to nursing facilities and isolated in their homes.
For every day we are in social isolation, we are a stronger people.

This is the paradox of palms and passion. The waving of palms on one day creates the possibility that we will crucify the next. And the powerlessness of death offers another chance at re-creation.

For now, we live in the paradox. It is not pleasant to live in paradox or powerlessness. Waving palms and praying in uncertainty or standing along the parade to the passion is gut wrenching. Social isolation is, well, tiring and isolating. So, we wait in the paradox. We sit in the powerlessness and we learn new ways to make community and strengthen ourselves and our relationships without being together.

This is the paradox of palms and passion. There is power in powerlessness. There is salvation in suffering. The crucifixion creates a Christ.