Rev. Richard Hogue Jr.
St. Paul’s, San Diego
Today is the first Palm Sunday in three years that we’ve been able to fully engage with this liturgy. The highs and lows of it all feel more tangible again, for me at least. There is a great divergence between these extremes. Where at one moment we are shouting sweet hosannas and putting palms before the feet of Jesus’ to soften the way for his supposedly triumphal march into Jerusalem as he sits astride a colt; we then end at the tomb, with disgrace, humility, vulnerability, and ultimately death. I tend to think of Palm Sunday as an experience, as something one lives. It is less a concept than it is a living moment. It makes me ponder my own “Palm Sunday experiences” in life.
The memory that comes to me strongest when I meditate on Palm Sunday is that of the blessed memory of my uncle Jim. Uncle Jim was the coolest uncle. I love all my family, regardless of who they are or what they do, but Uncle Jim was special. He was a paratrooper in the Army during Vietnam, but he never went to theater because he was so good as a paratrooper that he trained others to do it. As a young child learning this, it impressed upon how calm Uncle Jim must have been under pressure, something to be admired no matter one’s age.
Later he would go on to work for Lucent Technologies, which was an early corporate pioneer in establishing the infrastructure of the internet that we all use so often now. Uncle Jim would travel to China and across East Asia helping to ensure ongoing global connection for a budding technology, which by itself was fascinating. But that’s not all, he also played the electric guitar, and what is cooler to most teenagers than someone who can really jam! He’d play out of his garage with his bandmates, and sometimes neighbors would stop by to listen. This made Jim a small focal point of the community, showing his community mindset and leadership. If I could have grown up to be like any of my relatives, I wanted to be most like him.
The only bad time I ever remember with Jim was when I stayed over at his house once, and I snuck into his office and snapped all his cigarettes. I thought I was being helpful as a child, helping him avoid what I was told was his nasty habit. That morning we had the least fun conversation we ever had, but even after that, he was cool, calm, and loving.
I was lucky to only be a few hours drive from him in college, and I’d go to see him and other family members occasionally on weekends. My sophomore year, though, Jim got a very rare and extremely vicious cancer, unrelated to his smoking. I’d go to visit him still, he’d only live for a matter of months rather than years. The last time I saw him, I struggled. The last time I entered his home, I came to him, on a medical bed in his living room, and I could not bear to look too long at the vibrant man I had known. His appearance was ghastly to me, emaciated so as to be more a skeleton than a human. I could not be there with him long, not unlike the disciples and their deep unease, or outright unwillingness to be there for the horrible moments. Darker still, for me, I saw a peek at my own future since we shared so much that we loved. I didn’t spend more than two minutes with him that day. I sat down next to him, told him I loved him, thanked him for all the wonderful memories, and then I said, “I’m sorry.” I left after that, tearing up from love, shame, anger, frustration, fear, and hurt all at once. I ended up not being able to make his funeral, which still bothers me to this day.
But, God is never done with anything, and God wasn’t done with my feelings from that moment. Through much of my younger adulthood, I let those feelings hurt me. It was something that stuck with me, and I didn’t untangle it for a very long time. The disciples, I feel, were much the same way. They felt set aside, helpless, unable to do anything, as their beloved friend and rabbi became less than nothing before their very eyes, riddled with lies about him, riddled with disfiguring wounds that none of us could bear. But God wasn’t done then either…
The next Palm Sunday moment for me happened years later, while I was doing hospital chaplaincy in Arcadia here in California. There was a patient who requested a visit from a chaplain, and in that role, I had access to patient files to see their ailments, so I knew what she was dealing with before I entered her room. The first time I visited, we had a long, wonderful conversation, but I knew something was still on the table that we hadn’t picked up: why she was there. I went to my supervisor at the time, Rabbi Rochelle, who I still love dearly, and I spoke to Rabbi Rochelle about the conversation. I expressed that I didn’t get the patient where she wanted to be. It dawned on me as we spoke, that I could be in that place with her because I knew what it was like with my own uncle, to not want to address what is happening in the room. That was not unlike the disciples either, particularly Peter, not wanting to really acknowledge what’s going on. Rabbi Rochelle encouraged me to enter that space with this patient, not to make the conversation about me or throw those memories onto her, but to exist in that space with her.
So, I did, and we had another long a good conversation. There came a point where the patient paused, and breathed in as long and deep a breath as she could, and she said almost in a whisper, “I think I have lung cancer again.” We both broke down in tears, it was a moment of profound grief, but also joy and relief because she was able to name the very thing that was holding her in a place of fear and anxiety. As much as this did nothing to change the physical condition, you could tell from her tears that she was happy to simply be seen, that someone else could be with her in that moment, that she could be reached to in that place to heal spiritually, acknowledging her physical troubles, helping her emotionally and mentally.
That is what Palm Sunday is like to me, to be in that room with her, to look at the vulnerable and hard places in our lives. There is so much uncertainty, there is fear, we don’t know what will happen tomorrow, with pandemics, wars, and other global cataclysms. We are in a Palm Sunday moment in world history. And that is ok. Not that it’s good that we have these things happening, but it is ok that we feel loss, or empty, because we don’t know what to do about it all. It is ok that we feel anxious, it is ok to be frustrated, it is ok to be bargaining with God in our prayers, or to scream at the skies. Wherever any of us are in times of grief and loss, God is there with us, because Jesus lived this life. Jesus also didn’t want to go through what he did, “Father, pass this cup from me,” in other words: Please God, don’t have me go through this, but if it is your will, then let your will be done. Holy week and Palm Sunday are all about the unknowns, all about facing the things we don’t want to, acknowledging the things that are hard and painful, but trusting that God will hold it in divine hands, ready to work new things with whatever is to happen.
God wasn’t done with my anger and sadness, and God’s not done with any of us, not even the dead. May our Holy Week be revealing and may our woundedness be a source of God’s healing love. Amen.