“A Table Prepared in the Devil’s Den”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
June 30, 2019
So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.
When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”
In your senior year in seminary at Princeton you are afforded the opportunity to preach at Miller Chapel. Our daughter Zoe asked me if I took this opportunity, I said, “no.” Her raised eyes told me to explain.
“There are two types of Princeton students. Those who attend chapel each day and those who gather for coffee. I was the latter.”
I never planned on being a preacher. During my seminary education I took a total of two classes on preaching. At the end of the second class, when I had completed my last sermon for the seminary, the guru of preaching, “Dr. Smooth,” Tom Long let the awkward critique of my peers die down before he spoke. With a broad smile and southern, silky voice he said, “well, Fred.” I pause here because he took a good long time saying my name.
“Well, Fred . . . I’ll tell you what my friend. It will take a long time for a congregation to figure you out. But, when they do, they will never let you go.”
Years later I asked a very good friend who is of southern origin to interpret these words. My friend, Glen, laughed. He is a prominent Southern Baptist preacher. Glen said, “well, Fred. He did give you a compliment. This is true. And a good one. But, he gave it in a southern way. It was just as much a dig as it was blessing.” Then Glen paused and said, “If you can, you should stay north. You are too blunt for the south. You see these folks will love you and smile as they dismember you. You need to stay north.”
Our daughter’s question about preaching was a prelude to an invitation. She was preaching a sermon in the illustrious Miller chapel as part of her senior year at the seminary. With eye contact from my wife, I offered an explanation. “I didn’t preach because I was a nut. Way too serious. I am excited you are preaching.” Looking to my wife I saw the head nod which told me I had properly navigated the situation.
I thought I was prepared for her preaching. But it turns out that the seminary has changed a bit in 25 years. In “my day” the senior chose some hymns and preached earnestly and with gusto. Zoe had a jazz quartet, liturgical dance that was not the stuff of nightmare, dramatic readings, and it ended with everyone dancing the hora.
What was really cool was that the only part where Zoe was front and center was the sermon. She choregraphed and scripted the rest; it looked like a team effort. I was awed. This was art and prophecy, poetry and lyric, and happiness. Speaking on behalf of all old people: this was a lovely vision of the future of the church.
Yet, what I really wasn’t ready for was the focus of her sermon. She told the story of my eldest grandson and his unwillingness to dance in the kitchen. She told a story woven into my life, a story of joy, but it was new to me.
The core of the story is Dmitri coming into the kitchen when I am cooking. When I cook there is good music, good wine, and bad dancing.
When people venture into the cauldron of all-clad and butter, Nina Simone and the Grateful Dead, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, they need to be ready to get a bit jiggy. This is part of the process. Groove makes great gravy.
Everyone seemed to believe this except Dmitri. He would come in and get embarrassed by the dancing. He fled with the call to join the groove. “No, grandpa. I don’t want to dance.”
Zoe related all this and then she introduced a layer of her own, a great layer. In the midst of a summer rain, she asked him to dance with her. And this is what he needed. He danced in the rain with abandon with her. This was the moment when he could be free. This was his leap of faith, his moment of courage.
Soon and very soon I found Dmitri dancing in the kitchen. I thought it was his time. The angels of rhythm had come and he heard them. But this was not it exactly. It was his aunt Zoe and the rain.
Now to be fair I don’t dance much outside of the kitchen. This girth getting jiggy is not for the faint of heart.
What is more, it took me much longer than five years to find the groove. Like most uptight Presbyterians frozen by being chosen it took a while to learn to dance with hips instead of shoulders. It took me a lot more time than little Dmitri. But he had an aunt and the rain.
We have about a dozen stories left in Mark. Last week was one of the most profound, perhaps the most important story. This week doesn’t seem to carry that freight. There are no great declarations or moments of angst like Jesus praying in the garden. This is the one time in the whole passion story where the disciples don’t look bad. There is no betrayal in this story and thus it is unique. Jesus tells the twelve to do something and they do it. Not bad.
But this story is considered a throw away. Go and find someone carrying a jar of water, follow him, and find the place. Tell them, the lord needs this; make the preparations. And they did it. Like the borrowed donkey of Palm Sunday, our lesson from Mark today is a bit magical. It feels like a Jedi mind trick. This is the room you are looking for, the one the lord needs. Okay.
One of the great benefits of preaching the gospel through is you find power in the stories cast aside. Truly, in a movie, this scene would have been cut. After Judas betrayed Jesus the next scene would have been the upper room. There would have been no need to show the strange direction to follow a man with a jug of water; there would have been no need to go into the exchange about the Lord needing it. That would have been covered by the donkey in the prior scene. Things like this just happen around Jesus.
So why include it? Why not simply say, Jesus directed his disciples to prepare a place to eat? Why not just say, after the anointing they all gathered for a meal? Our reading today, the story of the room being prepared, is not necessary for the plot line. The story could have moved forward without it. It’s not necessary for the story; it is necessary, though, for joy and the way are saved from our ourselves. We must be helped to it; a way is made for us.
Preaching on the Sunday before the Fourth of July is difficult given how complex our history has become. Patriotism that doesn’t weigh slavery, genocide, and colonialism is not worthy of a pulpit, a podium, but not a pulpit.
Early in ministry, I stumbled upon a great aid that allowed for the question of this day to be asked without blind or caustic answers. The aid was Gettysburg. Gettysburg helped me find the way to understand sacrifice that makes way for freedom.
I always avoided studying the Civil War. It is so powerful I feared being drawn in too deeply. I would become one of those people who could recount which regiment was where on Little Round Top.
Abraham Lincoln led through me the maze of generals and battles. It was his Gettysburg Address. When I read it over and over again, I realized it was the power of the Fourth of July. Yes, the Declaration of Independence was signed on the fourth of July in 1776; but as so many scholars will claim, the independence was not realized until the fourth of July in 1863 the day after Gettysburg.
Lincoln’s words about the battle of Gettysburg and the monument to all who had fallen, the intent to heal even as the war raged, this was a moment of prophetic revelation to me. I could see in his brief remarks the whole span of our experiment. He was making a way for the nation to be born anew, born of blood, not water. He recognized the way sacrifice could prepare a way for freedom.
Each Fourth of July you will hear a sermon about this. Not the same sermon, but a similar theme. Each sermon’s common theme is that we have a gift, a grace beyond measure, that has been prepared for us; a room has been prepared for us.
I saw the depth of this preparation when I stood at the Devil’s Den in the battlefields of Gettysburg. The Devil’s Den is a series of massive rocks at the base of a hill that leads to Little Round Top. From the Devil’s Den soldier after soldier stepped out and walked into fire, walking up a hill toward other soldiers behind a rocky top.
I can remember being overwhelmed when I stood there. I looked up the hill over the few hundred yards that separated the Devil’s Den and Little Round Top. Looking up I could hear the command to advance. And I was overwhelmed. I just stood there looking up the rise and wept. I couldn’t fathom the courage; I couldn’t imagine the sacrifice. Looking up that hill, at the rise, the open field, the hail of bullets, I wept.
This was a moment of sacrifice preparing a place for me and for you. Lincoln’s words helped me understand the rebirth of the nation.
It was a nation torn and divided, terribly wrong and terribly right. They were a lost cause and the hope of freedom. All of them. This has been prepared for me. A sacrifice has been made for me. Will I value it? Do I have the courage to accept it?
Once a year I venture to Gettysburg either physically or spiritually. It is a great pilgrimage. I am renewed. When politics are steeped in dishonor; when cowardice parades as power, I am ready and renewed to press on. I press on because I believe in the experiment of democracy. It’s not the Kingdom of God, but it is a good thing born of sacrifice and blood. For each of us a place of freedom has been prepared; the place was born in Gettysburg. I do this every year; I consider the sacrifice that prepares a place for us.
The question of preparation is the power of our passage today. Jesus prepares a way for us. Jesus lays down the path of freedom for us. Will we get it? Will we value it? Do we have the courage to accept it? Hard to say.
While I venture to Gettysburg once a year, I venture to this question each week with Jesus. And if truth be told, when I venture the kitchen this is a part of it. I am looking to prepare a place of joy. Only instead of men carrying water or a terrible battlefield I find music, the smell of garlic warming in olive oil; I taste the good zinfandel and make sure I’ve changed my shirt from the office.
My kitchen is not the Devil’s Den. There is no sacrifice here except for chickens and cows and pigs and the occasional red snapper. But what I took from Zoe’s sermon was that it is a place to become prepared for freedom. It’s nowhere near the power of Gettysburg. It’s just is a dinner table. My fresh raviolis are really good, but they are not the rebirth of a nation bitterly divided.
And yet the one who sought to reconcile the world, he prepared a table. Yes, the apostle Paul will tell you again and again that it is the cross that saves us from the wrath of God’s judgment. And I believe that. But I also believe it is the table that will redeem our judgment of each other. The cross gets us right with God; the table gets us right with each other.
Finding freedom and trusting it should be easy but they are usually quite difficult. A freedom has been prepared for us: will we find it; will we enjoy it?
Dmitri reminded me it’s hard to trust freedom, to dance; it is embarrassing and awkward to enjoy the freedom offered to you. And so there is food, and wine, and good music. A table has been prepared. This is the path. This may be enough. Jesus had a meal prepared for them and Mark says, they left singing a hymn. This was a good moment.
What I love about Zoe’s sermon is that even though all may be prepared, it still may not be enough. After all the food and conversation of a good life, you might still struggle to be free. If that is the case, you may need a crazy aunt and the rain to find the groove. You still may not be ready even though so much of your life is done. But that is okay. I’ll keep coming back week after week. And my persistence is nothing compared to the power of the Holy Spirit. You may yet learn to dance. Amen.
- 2 Samuel 6:12 - 16
- Mark 14:12 - 21