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Last Lecture?

Eleven years ago Palm Sunday fell on April 1st – April Fools’day. We were in the early stages of forming a new church and spent each Sunday visiting different worshipping communities. That morning we visited a congregation on the North side of Chicago. Arriving 20 minutes before the start of worship, big rainbow letters assure us as we walk toward the imposing stone tower that ALL ARE WELCOME. Climbing the stairs we move quickly to escape the chilly lake breeze, reach for the doors - and find them locked. Confused we shrug our shoulders and turn to leave. A greeter rushes from the side alley and redirects us “Today is Palm Sunday!” He says joyfully, we smile politely, nod and stare at him anticipating that he’ll fill in the blanks because there is something we are obviously missing that he think we already know.

After a very long 20 seconds or so, he says, “You’re new!? Every Palm Sunday we begin in the side-yard and everybody waves palms and we create a parade like they did for Jesus.”

“Cool!” Well, more like cold. It is barely 40, breezy and damp. We stand. We wait - shuffle to keep warm. When the bells chime and announce the top of the hour, the locked doors burst open and the pastors, choir, acolytes, and other leaders file out. Ushers run ahead and first prod us to get out of the way and then to fall in line as they sing and march on by.

The choir and clergy round the corner. Ushers wave us frantically try to herd us while nervous glances pass among those of us who are obviously and quite literally - outsiders.

Strollers, walkers and chairs are lifted by the willing, ready hands of unnamed and unknown strangers. “Be careful, take your time,” someone assures them to reduce their stress and remove their embarrassment as the parade fragments into several segments punctuated by long gaps each marking a point and place where someone struggled to overcome some human hurdle or obvious obstacle.

The leaders wave palms in the air and sing “We’re marching in the light of God;” completely oblivious to the obstacles and challenges their little procession has created. Some of the people return to the sanctuary early, others cut across the playground to get ahead of the slow pokes. A few choir members break rank and fall back to carry the music to all the people. And I step back for a moment and marvel as this “parade like they did for Jesus” becomes a metaphorical embodiment of the humanity’s and Christianity’s struggle to maintain momentum overcome the fragmentation, separation, obstacles and challenges we put in the way.

“Hosanna! Hosanna!” They cry out, “Hosanna, – Save us,” people from all places, perspectives, persuasions and walks of life line the streets, cheer on the procession, hope and pray that he is the one others say… They are widows, impoverished slaves, forgotten children, silenced masses, field workers, street walkers, the dying, the grieving, bent over women, tax collectors, a leper or two, rich, poor, impoverished and powerful all who feel left behind, fragmented and outside the great procession and parade of life.

For a long time I struggled to make sense of it all. What’s the point of the Palm Sunday grand procession and triumphant celebration at the start of this week that inevitably leads to the garden tears and betrayal? I have struggled with a movement which has tried for 2,000 years to march in the light of God and yet too often resembles that little, fragmented Chicago processional? And I have on my own journey and throughout my ministry struggled to reconcile the unconditional love, unbounded grace and never ending movement that invites us to return in open and full union, reunion and communion with the barriers of blame, shame, restrictions, requirements, rules and regulations often imposed by one group upon another in the name of God in Christ which lack the loving kindness, compassion, justice, humility or love which God commands and Jesus Christ reframes?

And then a year or so after this April Fool’s Parade, I happened to see Oprah’s interview of Dr. Randy Pausch. Diagnosed with inoperable cancer he delivered what he called his last lecture – his life’s wisdom distilled into a brief inspirational presentation entitled “Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” Although Dr. Pausch never mentioned Jesus, or Easter or anything “Christian” as I listened to his words I wondered “what if everything done and said and experienced in the last week of Jesus’ earthly life was his last lecture?”

From riding into Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna to the prayers and betrayal in the garden, look across the various accounts from the gospels and this entire last week of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry is his last lecture. He compares the Kingdom of heaven to a great lost sheep, lost coin and a great feast; he breaks open the bread as he does his life, forgiveness those who plot against him, command us to remain awake and fully alive… and over and over again commands us to love God, selves, neighbors, and one another no matter how strange or estranged.

Like the high school students who gathered in D.C. and on Main Street and in cities throughout the country yesterday, they are there, people with hope in their hearts and desperation in their souls. They are not crisis actors or the willing puppets persuaded to parade by one side or another. They are there and choose to follow Jesus because their lives and livelihoods depend on it. It isn’t convenient, nor expedient, it is the organic response of finally waking up to God’s irrational love and facing down the attitudes, assumptions, rhetoric, rules, dogma, fear and violence that diminish, denigrate, demean, fragment and divide.

The entourage approaches. People cry out, “Hosannah, Hosannah, Save us!” Taken out of context, remembered in fragments, dramatized, ritualized and domesticized for our own comfort and convenience; this bigger story is too easily missed. The entire week is a dramatic embodiment of the ancient prophetic promises as he uses his presence and his power to reconnect people over and over and over again to the great procession of God’s grace and love.

It is why Jesus quotes from the book of Isaiah, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” Why? You see, the covenantal commitment to dedicate our best to God had – over time – been reduced to empty rituals, systems of rules and simple transactions that limited access to those who could afford it.

He isn‘t acting out – he is acting up, turning the tables for good, reclaiming this story, God’s house and calling to risk our best and deepest selves to wake up! Listen! Remember and do likewise!

I am convinced that unintentionally what was revealed that chilly early Spring morning is the eternal essence of what this Fools Parade is all about - to use our presence and work together in the name of LOVE to list, sustain all who are weary, and face down the intentional and unintentional ways that keep us fragmented individually and as people; the assumptions and attitudes that hold us and others back from listening for and sharing God’s word of Love; and the institutions and “traditions” that keep us marching to our own music oblivious to the fragmentation, obstacles and unloving burdens we impose on others.

The revolutionary movement Jesus initiates begins in LOVE, progresses through Love, liberates with LOVE and culminates in love when we choose - in the words of Isaiah – to wake up, listen, sustain the weary and not turn back from the way of LOVE. It is love that has the power to overwhelm fear, end the downward cycles of violence and offer hope to people and world that is lost in senseless cycles of fragmentation and self-destruction. And it is a path which leads into the uncomfortable and vulnerable places as we humbly and lovingly concede the assumptions, presumptions, behaviors and attitudes that need to end and go away if this parade of loves is really going to lead us to be the voice of hope and arms of love God is calling you and me and us to be.

It means praying fiercely in the garden of tears, resisting the temptation to confuse force with power and needing to let go and let die fear-filled ways and comfortable traditions that have outlived their usefulness and lost their meaning if they create barriers and instill fear, shame and blame upon others.

And for me that is what Jesus is up to over the course of that one last, fateful week of his earthly ministry.

Researcher and author Brené Brown in her book “The Gift of Imperfection” explains “Revolution might sound a little dramatic, but in this world, choosing authenticity and worthiness is an absolute act of resistance. Choosing to live and love with our whole hearts is an act of defiance. You’re going to have to confuse,… and terrify lots of people – including yourself. One minute you’ll pray that the transformations stops, and the next minute you’ll pray that it never ends. You’ll also wonder how you can feel so brave and so afraid at the same time. At least that’s how I feel most of the time… brave, afraid, and very, very alive.”

And that is the promise and possibility. Everything is Sacred, everyone belongs, and we are called to live this revolution, which emanates from LOVE, progresses through LOVE to return all in and to and for LOVE once more.


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