Tuesday, October 5, 2021

HOMILY: "Together in Gethsemane"

Matthew 26:36-46 (New Revised Standard Version)

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”  He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated.  Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.”  
And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “Abba, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”  Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter: “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?  Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My God, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”  Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy.  So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words.  Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?  See, the hour is at hand, and the Human One is betrayed into the hands of sinners.  Get up, let us be going.  See, my betrayer is at hand.”


Gethsemane.  In Aramaic: “Gat shemanim.”  Which means “the place where the olives are pressed.”  The place where the olives are pressed.  Remember this tonight when you shake that olive oil into a hot pan.  The place where the olives are pressed.  Gethsemane’s the place you go when the old answers don’t speak to your pressing questions.  Gethsemane’s the place you go when your heart can’t hold the hurt any longer.  Gethsemane’s the place you go when grace doesn’t really make sense anymore.  But you can’t stop hoping.  

So Jesus takes his friends to Gethsemane, because he knows what they do to prophets of love, and he knows his hours are numbered, and he feels the weakness and frailty of his own spirit.  The pressure of his calling.  Jesus takes his friends to Gethsemane, because he needs their care and companionship in his darkest night.  The inevitability of his suffering.  “Stay awake with me,” he says.  And isn’t this his most human moment?  “Stay awake with me,” he says to his friends.     

And then he throws himself on the ground, on the earth he loves with a cosmic and eternal love; and he says: “Abba, if it’s possible, let this cup pass from me.”  Let me find some other way.

Now you’ll recall that this moment in Gethsemane follows the simple supper—the Passover seder—Jesus has shared with them in the upper room.  “Take,” he says, offering the bread with love in his eyes.  “Take my body.  Be my body.  Embrace my practice.”  And then, blessing the cup, savoring the cup, “Drink deeply from the cup of mercy.  Drink deeply from my cup of mercy.”  Jesus is giving them all that he has, all that he has ever been, and all the love and power in his heart.  And this is the Way of Liberation.  The Good News of the Passover Event.  The Promise of New Life.

But it comes with an enormous cost.  And Jesus knows this too.  So after they sing a hymn, he takes his friends to Gethsemane.  The place where the olives are pressed.  You know where Gethsemane is.  I know where Gethsemane is.  Jesus takes them there.


What I’m thinking this morning—and see if this makes sense to you—is that there’s a dynamic relationship, an important relationship, between that communion in the Upper Room and this community in Gethsemane.  What Jesus is creating in the Upper Room is a community of friends and siblings committed to watchfulness and wakefulness, in the gardens where we suffer and struggle for a better world.  What Jesus is enacting at the table is a sisterhood of solidarity, a brotherhood of tenderness—a circle of seekers who recognize that we are created for mutual ministry, we are called to keep watch for one another.  

So he asks his friends to stay awake, in Gethsemane—so that he can wrestle with his conscience and with his God.  He asks us (at this table, and in that garden) to keep watch, to stay awake—so that we too can grieve the world’s pain and suffering, so that we too can face our fears bravely and tenderly.  The beloved community keeps watch in Gethsemane—and we learn to lean on one another, and we learn to cultivate hope and resilience together, and we learn to bless the broken and wounded world with our tears and our prayers.  “Take,” Jesus says to you, to us.  “This is my body.  This is who I am, and who you can be.  Together.”

And in these ways the olives are pressed, and oils are released, and in our suffering we discover something like the gritty, gutsy grace we’ve needed all along.  And this is the power Jesus promises to his friends; it’s the power Jesus releases in us.  Not the manipulative power of privilege.  Not the coercive power of force.  But the power of compassion.  The power of empathy.  The power of love.  Revealed at the table.  And tested in Gethsemane.


A good friend called this week.  To ask about my journey with grief over the summer.  As many of you know, my mother died late last Spring; and the heaviness of that loss has hounded me since then.  A deep and disorienting sadness that surprises me sometimes as it takes up residence not only in my feelings and memories—but in my flesh, my muscle, my bones.  Grief will do that.  A physical aching, a spiritual pummeling, even.  I think you know what I mean.

And I was describing this to my friend and reflecting on a familiar pattern of withdrawal—how I resist every impulse to pick up the phone and call, to ask for some time or maybe just a prayer.  And he laughed—he’s a good friend and he knows me well—he laughed and he said: “David, you’re a wonderful minister, I know that’s true.   But spiritually, you have a ways to go.  As a Christian, you miss the biggest piece.”  

And again, not everyone can say these kinds of things to me.  But this friend, he can.  He says all of these things with such love and grace.  And so he said it again.  “As a Christian, you miss the biggest piece.  Because you’re just plain lousy at asking for help.”

To live by the light of God’s love is to know our need, to accept and even (so my friend says) to revel in our vulnerability and brokenness.  To live in grace is to know what it is to ask for help.  And not just once.  But over and over and over again.  

Isn’t it stunning that in this reading, in Gethsemane that night, Jesus the Messiah, the Beloved One, asks his friends to keep watch with him, to stay awake for him.  He’s in touch with his pain.  The sadness has settled in his bones.  He fears for his future.  And Jesus the Messiah, the Beloved One, asks his friends to stay close, to bear some of the sadness, to honor his vulnerability and fear. 

It’s a holy moment for this little circle, this little church, this beloved community in the garden.  And it reminds you and me of our calling, and God’s promise, in a world of bewildering griefs and unseen anxieties.  We are made to bear one another’s pain.  We are given to one another in communities of shared sadness and mutual care.

On the phone that day, my friend reminded me of all this.  That those who serve must learn to receive the service of others.  That those who pray for others must learn to ask for prayer and compassion.  That those who speak of grace and mercy must somehow, some way, learn to rely on these things.  To know what grace and mercy mean for a broken heart.  I listened closely to my friend, took some deep, deep breaths.  And told him that I would try to understand.  And he said: “Don’t just try.  Do it.  Call me.  Next time you need me.  Call me.”


So maybe—maybe this is why Peter and James and John have to fall asleep on Jesus, not just once or twice, but three times in Gethsemane.  If they’re to set out as disciples in the world beyond his death, if they’re to set the example as teachers and pastors in that world—they’ll have to know (in their bones) what grace and mercy mean to a broken heart.  If they’re to serve as examples of lovingkindness and ambassadors of forgiveness in a world shaken by grievance and rage—they’ll have to call on the lovingkindness of God in their own experience, and they’ll have to grasp the power of forgiveness in their own souls.  

They fall asleep.  When Jesus needs them most.  When he’s asked for companionship and courage.  Maybe because they’re exhausted by the world’s madness.  Maybe because they’ve seen too much suffering, too much cruelty—and they can’t take it anymore.  Maybe they just can’t bear to look.  But the story says Jesus returns to them, and that he loves them, and that he forgives them, and that he continues to need and treasure them.  And in this deep and resounding grace, they find the courage and truth they need to live by faith and serve with love.  Even, to suffer with love.  And indeed, they become the Body of Christ.

Friends, if there’s power in the sacrament we share at this table, if there’s meaning and grace in the meal we’ll eat together in the garden a little later—it’s the kind of power that makes us tender around our suffering, and it’s the kind of power that makes us available to one another in seasons of joy and sorrow.  To eat at God’s table is to be recreated and renamed by that power.  To drink from that cup is to be renewed by that promise, and enlisted in that project.  

I like to say that communion’s not a transactional event—as if you come broken or needy, you eat and you drink, and you leave whole and fixed.  As if that’s necessary or the point.  This meal is not a transaction at all.  That’s way too small.

It is, however, an invitation to human transformation.  It is a promise of renewal and empowerment.  At this table, in this simple feast, we choose to show up for one another, and for Jesus.  At this table, in wafers and crackers, grapes and juice, we choose to take his practice, his way, his heart as our own.  It is not, and it will never be easy.  It is not easy to keep watch with friends as they suffer.  It is not easy to stay awake with allies and activists determined to bless and heal the world.  But in Gethsemane, in the place where the olives are pressed, we discover the Christ whose light shines in the darkness.  In Gethsemane, we discover the Friend whose love persists in our frailty and despair.  In Gethsemane, we discover the Hope that does not yield to the world’s cruelty and hate.  The Hope that is our inheritance and our future.

Amen and Ashe.