I am standing in front of the White House in Washington DC. It’s a warmer-than-average day, and there are 113 other souls, mostly clergy, standing with me. The throngs of ordinary tourists and sightseers have been pushed back to a wide perimeter around us by the Federal police whose job it is to secure the White House area. Squad cars are everywhere. Paddy wagons pull up. A bus arrives. And, all along, an authoritative voice of the Powers that Be speaks through a bullhorn, giving us verbal warning after verbal warning…
We are about to be arrested. It’s all suddenly very real.
We are not there by accident. We have traveled there on this day just a few years ago now, for the express purpose of standing up for immigrants, and to urge President Obama to take Executive Action on immigration. We *intend* to be arrested. President Obama had been promising to take Executive Action for months but had not yet acted. And so, this President who many of us deeply admired, became the target of this non-violent action. Four of us — Owen, Jason, Jeff, and myself- have come from Dallas. As I mentioned, many others had joined in from all around the nation.
We had been asked the same question repeatedly by the planners, our friends and families, church members…. “Are you sure you want to do this?” We’d been prayed over by our congregations, fretted over by our friends, flown to DC from all across the land. And so, we are standing there, 113 of us, waiting to see what would happen next.
It’s all suddenly very real.
Of all the moments in those two days in Washington DC, this is the precise moment I recall most vividly. The rest —visits with members of Congress…fellowship and meals with our hosts and friends….training on non-violent action…what to say..what not to say…what to carry…what not to carry— all of that sort of fades in my memory. But the one, very sharp and extraordinarily sobering moment that is burned into my brain is this moment…when the police pulled back the perimeter around us…when the gawking tourists…the hungry media…the worried friends and supporters…are now behind a barricade, some forty of fifty feet in any direction. We are, in a real sense, alone in the crowd. It’s just the 113 of us now, standing there silently…..ready for whatever comes next.
The moment when it’s all suddenly very real.
I think that’s the kind of moment Maundy Thursday was for Jesus. This not to say that we were Jesus, or to at all suggest that a minor arrest in Washington DC is equivalent to crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. But it seems to me that Maundy Thursday is the moment in the story when it’s all suddenly very real. It is that very distinct moment….when, suddenly, Jesus looks around, and nobody else is standing there with him….there are no crowds. There are no supporters. It’s just him and the Powers That Be.
It’s like that old joke from the movies, where all the volunteers are asked to take one step forward. Except that everybody takes one step BACK…and suddenly there’s just the one guy, sheepishly looking around to either side, realizing he’s standing there by himself. Jesus is that guy, and Maundy Thursday is that night.
Jesus surely knows what is likely to come. My own theology and image of Jesus tell me that he was not foreordained to die. He was not sent to earth to die. But, eventually, if you keep doing the things you know are likely to get you in trouble with the Romans, you will get in trouble with the Romans. It’s not preordained. It’s cause and effect.
By the time Thursday rolls around, Jesus knows they are looking for him. Jesus knows that if they find him, his future is dark. The crowds take their step back… So, he eats a meal with his friends, and he tells them to remember him. But they seem confused and disinterested. The Disciples take their step back… He goes to pray fervently in the garden, and some of them even fall asleep. Even *those* beloved disciples take a step back… One by one, everybody is falling away, the perimeter is widening, and the arrest is all but certain. Of all the Thursday night moments, I think Jesus’ prayer in the Garden is perhaps one of the most powerful and poignant prayers in all of the scripture….
“Take this cup away from me…”
(Let’s do this another way…if there is another way…)
“But not my will but yours be done….”
(Whatever will be, I will accept it…)
Beyond prayers of thanks, it seems to me that this prayer is the key to all our prayers. Pray for what you want. Hope for you what you want. Work for what you want. But also pray to be able to accept whatever it is that life gives you too.
My own theology is that Jesus did not have to die, for any cosmic, theological reason. But that Jesus wasn’t going to compromise his message of hope, love, peace and joy either. Jesus was going to continue to love the least and the lost. Jesus healed, taught, loved, and saved people from the very beginning of his earthly ministry. And, Jesus was going to turn over the tables, when that was needed. And each of those decisions had led him to this moment. Cause and effect.
The moment when it all became real.
Here at Northaven, we talk a lot about living “at the corner of faith and justice.” To live that kind of life, to open your heart to the pain and suffering of others, to seek to find ways to love the least and the lost, can lead to moments in life when we feel like we are standing alone. We never are, of course. But it can feel that way. Standing up for justice can leave you feeling that way. Or, maybe it’s more personal. Somebody is sick in your family. Or you are. Somebody you love has lost a job. Or you did. Some turn the journey of life has ended into what seems like a dead end, and you look around and the find your traveling companions are gone.
Moments when it all becomes real.
The irony of modern life is that we spend a lot of our time try to AVOID these very moments. We try to avoid sickness, death, pain, suffering. We avoid giving ourselves away in sacrificial love. We plan for retirement. We stock up our resources. We try to ensure that we won’t be a burden to others. We hide our problems, our flaws, our imperfections. But what if these moments –these moments of standing alone, these moments when life gets “real”— are simply the first steps in truly living a real life? What if they are the moments when falsehood falls away? What if they are the moments when we are MOST alive? What if they are a part of becoming who we are?
That was certainly how I felt, in that moment it all got real, at the White House. I was anxious. I was wondering what would happen next. But I never felt more ALIVE, either.
Also, I’ve been reading back in my journals over the past few years. I’m reading back in ten-year spurts. So, for example, right now, I am reading about April…1987….1997…2007. It’s like reading the tree rings of my own life. And a what I find, through remembering my own life, through my journals, is that the times of strife, struggle, doubt, and uncertainty were some of the times when purpose, calling, and hopes were also at their highest too.
When life gets real, we live deeper, fuller, and with more connection to our own stories, and to the presence of God. My guess is, although they missed the point, this is a part of why Jesus wanted the Disciples to “Remember Me.”
Whatever you are going through, whatever suffering, confusion, pain you carry, know that Jesus is the Messiah who also came to the time when he felt like he was alone…when all his friends stepped back….when things got very real. Don’t be afraid to journey with him. Because although everyone else may turn away, Jesus still stands with you, even in the times when life gets far too real.
Pray the prayer he prayed. Pray: “Here’s what I want, God…here’s what I need. But, whatever comes, I will accept it.”
And then, as we already know was true for Jesus, trust that your story does not end on this night. Maundy Thursday is just the first night in a powerful story.
The night everything gets very real.