July 21, 2019
“The Possible and the Determined”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Text: Mark 14.32-42
They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
Walker Percy wrote a number of lovely novels. Although they told different stories, they each shared a common moment. At some point in the novels of Walker Percy, the main character faces a moment when his world is turned upside down.
In his novel The Second Coming, it’s a brain tumor and a deep family secret. In Lancelot he describes a man who realizes after spending a life time raising their only child, he realizes that his daughter was not his child. In the Moviegoer there is a moment where life is seen as a screen with no depth or truth. These are all undoing and send the main characters spiraling.
This moment of crisis (betrayal, illness, a secret uncovered) sends them reeling into a frantic desire to flee or die.
We understand the title of his book, The Second Coming, when the protagonist’s struggle leads him to choose life again. Life came again to him. This second coming wasn’t easy. He got lost in a cave; he lived for a while as a homeless person, and it was only the company a young woman who is mentally ill and his desire to help her that brought life anew. But life came again.
So often when I read novels, there is a great sense of relief in me that my moments of crisis don’t seem to reach this level. Although I am lost in New Jersey, I am not lost in a cave. And my work with the mentally ill is in a professional setting where boundaries are maintained. Yes, there have been moments in my life where everything changed and became new; there have been hard moments where I stood before the limits of life and made profound choices to trust the goodness of God. But again, no caves involved, no shipwreck, no time spent pushing a cart to my tent home in a canyon. My life has not been the stuff of novels.
Working at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital many years ago, I did encounter people whose lives were the stuff of novels. Terrible experiences, lives ruined, addiction, homelessness. They had everything for a novel but a happy ending. My tragedies, my moments of heartache have found life return, life renewed. Sitting in Trenton Psyche I knew this was the gulf separating me from every patient. Life had yet to find a second coming for them.
Recently I have begun doing some research on a terrible time, the time of Joseph Stalin. A number of books have been purchased; questions are starting to form; pictures are emerging. What I am most interested in is the political purges. How does a country control ideology? And how does this control maintain itself for more than twenty years?
For many years now, when I head down such paths, a good friend of mine will peruse the books in my office and say, “Tell me, I am paying for this. What value will I get from this, from you reading such books?” The one book that infuriated him the most was a study of church architecture in the middle ages that sought to understand the way the design of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was copied throughout Europe. A bit esoteric. My persistent response was, “You never know where wisdom may be found.” This was always met with cursing and eye rolling.
It is too early to tell if the Stalin research will bear good fruit. Far too early. Yet, the question is fascinating: What happens to us when we destroy each other by our beliefs? What happens to us when we leave aside difference and demand conformity? And not just conformity to laws or roles, but beliefs?
Part of this question is in our reading today. Jesus will be put to death for his faith. Part of this question is also in the current climate of our country. It is wrong to say we are drifting toward violence and hatred based upon divergent beliefs. We are not drifting toward this, we are barreling toward it. And the similarities of the purges or with McCarthyism or the debates about abolition before the Civil are troublesome.
There is some comfort knowing we have faced this before. Yet, what we have not faced and is terribly worrisome is social media. Where before our pace and volume of diatribe was dictated by coffee shops, the protest march, and the occasional letter to the editor. Now we have before us a communication tool equal to the change brought by the printing press 500 years ago. Equally powerful as it is dangerous.
Just this week I read something that struck me. It was a Facebook post of a very thoughtful, caring scientist who devotes his life to the education of children and the community and a dear friend. He shared a list of reasons for no longer speaking to conservative family and friends. There were 28 reasons for this disavowal. Although there was a preface that said, I will still love you, it was quite clear that from this moment on I no longer want to talk to you. Bit of a mixed message where love is concerned.
Last week I shared with you the force of offence. How it is easy to take sides when we get offended; how tempting it is to discard people because they are not what we want them to be or believe what we believe. I shared with you how hard it is to hold opposite views together.
The disavowal my friend shared is part of a bigger moment that is coming quickly to us. It is a call to be offended as a kind test. It is a challenge to say, if you are not offended like me, then you are offensive. Remember the force of offence is great. It is hard to resist. The temptation to discard, to hate, to strike back is immense.
In the Garden of Gethsemane such a temptation weighed heavy on Jesus. The temptation of Jesus on the night of his arrest may not be easy to see at first, but we can see it in his anguish. The force of offence upon him (the temptation to hate, to discard, to disavowal) must have been overwhelming for him in the garden.
We know Jesus is struggling. We know the disciples are not helping. We know he accepts what seems to be his fate. Yet, what we may not able to see is the reason for his anguish. Again, we know what is coming, the cross, so his dread is not hard to see. What is difficult to see is the temptation to hate.
Jesus has told his disciples that he would suffer and die and be raised on the third day. He said this with calm and certainty. He even chastised Peter for denying the possibility of this. Yet, what is not certain, what is yet a possibility is if Jesus would face this moment and live his own teachings.
Jesus taught don’t be angry. He taught we should put aside selfish desire and we should not divorce, or discard people. Jesus we should not have false confidence and when struck we should turn the other cheek, resist vengeance. And, then, on top of this impossible list he taught his disciples to love the enemy.
In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus is faced with the daunting challenge of not only certain death, he is also faced with living his own teachings.
He taught his disciples, when you are falsely accused, don’t fear, the Holy Spirit will guide your words. In short order he would have to live that teaching. His prayer in the garden suggests he needs strength to do it. Not just the strength to face violence, but also betrayal. Would he have the strength to be betrayed and not respond with anger or disdain? To be falsely accused but offer no defense? To be hated and reviled and humiliated and yet to love the one who offers such violence?
The core of the teachings of Jesus is that you must give your life away in order to keep it. He had already lived this; shown this in his daily life. He offered his power and his compassion without seeking a return. He gave his life away without demand. He did this to the outcast, the broken, to the dying and the dead. Could he do this also for the Pharisees, for Pilate, for the crowds that shouted and taunted? Could he live his teachings with them as well?
In all of the novels of Walker Percy the main character faces a moment where life is turned upside down, where the everyday is washed away. In the Garden of Gethsemane the everyday of Jesus is being washed away. There will be no more wandering and healing; his freedom and life as he knows it will end. This is the moment where all the possibilities of life meet the moment of determination.
Walker Percy wrote, lucky is the one who does not see all things as a possibility. In other words, you are lucky if you find the clarity of purpose and the strength of determination to live your life in one direction. In the Garden prayer we hear this from Jesus, if it is possible (and then) not my will but yours- determination.
There are times in our life where the world is wide open, and who knows what we will be. Our future is big, all is possible. And we say this to young people: you can be anything you set your mind to, be all you can be, open your heart to the future and explore everything.
I just read a book that suggests that this is terrible advice to give a young person. Better to explain that the sooner you find the right path, the sooner you determine the right direction of your life, the better you will be. Don’t waste time in endless possibility; value the clarity of life found pursuing one direction.
Jesus knew the direction of his life. He lived it. Again and again, the deeds of his day matched the teaching he offered. In Luke he says he knows the way; in John he says, I am the way. Yet, in the moment of crisis, in the moment when everything falls apart, will he keep to it? Will he resist the temptation to be angry; will he desire only the good or fall to the temptation of hatred; will he overcome the desire to discard Judas when he offers the kiss; will he trust humility when faced with the falsity of Pilate; will he turn the other cheek when the Pharisees strike him; will he stay to the path of love when he hands and feet are nailed to the cross?
These are the questions of the possible. All these temptations were possible. In the garden he prayed for determination. He prayed for the strength to stay to the way that leads to the kingdom of God.
Jesus prayed for determination. Is this our prayer today? Are we praying for the determination to overcome the possible?
Is it possible we will fall to the temptation of anger? Quite possible.
Is it possible we will desire shame, desire suffering, and humiliation be put upon those with whom we don’t agree? Quite possible.
Is it possible we will seek to discard people who offend us? How many people do you know longer speak to? Quite a few possibly.
Is it possible our certainties will become arrogance and our arrogance will become a demand upon others? If you are unable to see what I see you are less than a human being.
Is it possible we will strike back when struck, refuse the request for help? Should we even ask if we can consider loving the enemy?
In the garden Jesus sought strength to keep to the path, to live his teachings when faced with life’s reversal. He sought the determination to persist in the truth, in humility, in the trust of forgiveness and compassion. The question we must ask today is this: are we praying for such determination?
It is so easy to take a side, to rail at the one we deem as offensive and wrong; it is so simple to discard the one who is so obviously wrong. In the garden Jesus prayed to keep to the path, to not turn aside; he prayed for the strength to live his own teachings, to love the enemy, to turn the other cheek.
I hope this is not a time of the garden for us. Losing the everyday is a terrible, terrible moment. Whatever time it is though I pray that we learn to find the determination, the strength to live what Jesus taught. Let us lay aside the possibilities of offence and find the path determined to love, to keep, to honor. This path leads to the kingdom of God. Amen.
- Jonah 4:1 - 8
- Mark 14:32 - 42