Message for April 5, 2020
Texts: Mark 14:32-52 and Ephesians 6:11-17
As I sat down to begin writing this sermon, it was Wednesday, and the Internet was down at my house. I had been acting up over the past few days, coming on for a few minutes or a few hours, and then going down again. Albert was been trying his patience, doing battle over the phone with folks at AT&T, and communicating via text with a Frogsong neighbor who had been fiddling around in an effort to boost Internet speeds for others in our community. According to AT&T, there’s some matter about a former business account at this address that the computer seems determined not to close and “forget;” the system also keeps “remembering” a phone number of Albert’s that no longer is his. Albert went through this same rigamarole a year ago when he was trying to get an AT&T landline for emergencies; that process took about three weeks. This time, they told us a technician can come on Monday. I was trying to stay calm as I thought about my dependence on this thing called the Internet: how it’s been such a blessing to keep me connected to all of you over the past three weeks, how wonderful it was to be able to post a worship experience and sermon to YouTube, the thrill and challenge of the learning curve with Zoom and sound recording equipment and video editing software. And then, on Wednesday, I was stymied. The temptation I felt that morning, as I was forced to postpone a Bible study and prayer meeting, and sat at the computer with a Bible at my side, was about not giving in to despair.
Two insights from A.J. Levine on this Gethsemane story rumbled around in my heart:
· “… the importance of prayer, even when we know the answer will be no.” and
· “Any time we are in relationship, we are always risking something.”
How many prayers are being prayed right now for which the answer will be no? I imagine there are thousands, millions, billions of them in the midst of this COVID-19 crisis.
· For the speedy development of a vaccine;
· To protect the first responders, doctors, nurses, the aged, the homeless, and other vulnerable people;
· To save my job or my business;
· To keep my loved ones safe;
· That those infected will only have a mild case and will quickly recover;
· That government leaders will find a way to provide the resources that everyone needs;
· That children will not lose education, play time, and important life milestones;
· That things will return to “normal…”
It is likely that the “answer” to many of these prayers will be “no.” But does that mean we should not pray them? Jesus demonstrates for us, in Gethsemane, that prayer is the most powerful tool we have, even when the answer is no – that a prayer that will have a “no” answer is not a prayer prayed in vain.
There is nothing that we cannot lay open before God. Our doubts, our fears, our failures, our vulnerability – all of it is precious to God. All prayers – of gratitude, confession, deepest longing – all make up the building blocks of a relationship with One who will never let us go, no matter how abandoned we may feel at times.
Jesus, who had the most intimate of all relationships with his Father, who, you might think, wouldn’t need it because their hearts were one, prayed. He prayed when he was weary from the work of ministry, when he knew the height of success, when he suffered from pain and when he suffered from temptation. He taught his disciples to pray, saying “Our Father,” and “give us our daily bread,” and “forgive us our trespasses,” and “lead us not into temptation,” and “deliver us from evil.” He taught them to pray using the word “our” instead of “my,” because all prayer is corporate prayer. When we pray, our voices are added to the grand chorus of believers of all times and all places – and in this, too, we may be reminded that we are not alone, that we share in a common human experience, that we are all precious creatures of a Creator who loves and cares for us, and who gave us to one another.
“Any time we are in relationship, we are always risking something.” We risk being needy. We risk disappointing. We risk hurting and being hurt. Love comes at the cost of vulnerability, and yet Love is what powers the universe. And it was for love that Jesus became the Word made flesh, walked among us, took on our human experience of difficulty and the challenge of communication and the backlash of the powerful, took on suffering and pain, so that he might more fully understand, so that we might be more fully understood, and so that we might bravely take on the risk of understanding and being in relationship with others.
A.J. Levine points out that even God takes a risk at Gethsemane. Jesus prays, “take this cup from me,” and it is in God’s power to do so, just as Jesus tells those arresting him that he could call on angelic rescuers, but he does not. His followers could have defended him with swords and violence, but he tells them not to. In these courageous choices, God also suffers the pain of loss. Levine suggests that this is the meaning of the temple curtain being torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death on Good Friday – that it is a sign of divine mourning, like the rending of one’s clothing, which is the sign of mourning in Jewish culture. Even God suffers when the answer must be “no.”
So we must not lose heart. We must continue to pray our prayers of lament. We must continue to be real with God, and with one another. As we journey through this Holy Week, re-entering the story, we are permitted, and even encouraged, to enter into our own vulnerability, letting it all out before God, knowing that we are not alone, but that our cries are mixed with the cries of others in bondage and in pain and in loneliness, and entrusting ourselves, and the answers – both the “yesses” and the “noes” – to God.