Of course the disciples were asleep. It was half the night. I’d probably be asleep too. But that’s not what the storyteller wants to convey. He wants to convey that Jesus went to the garden to pray three times and the disciples fell asleep three times. Once for each denial. We are supposed to come away from reading this scripture and say, “we’re better than the disciples. We’d never fall asleep. We would never take the name of God in vain. We would never squander our calling. We would be better than those lazy, uncommitted disciples. And we do come away from reading the scripture a bit smug against the disciples. They get a real bad rap in the scriptures—a writers device to lift up the holiness of the focus of the story. And of course, we are reading it, not so we can emulate Jesus so much, but so that we can be different than those stinkin’ disciples.
I am going to see a show this afternoon called “Kingdom Undone” at the Southern Theater. My brother directs the music for this passion play. The play tries to get into the mind of Judas and paints him as a man with good intentions who wanted to help Jesus live into his calling as a revolutionary—and then everything went wrong. I understand that one of the most powerful scenes is when Jesus dissolves into this despair in the Garden of Gethsemane—right before meeting Judas and the Roman guards.
But the piece of this story that intrigues me this year is not the tried and true, Jesus is the good guy, Judas is the bad guy and the disciples are the dopey, doubty and sleepy. What intrigues me this year is the fact that Jesus goes into the garden by himself three times to argue, bargain and rail against God. And we never hear God’s voice. We never even hear Jesus tell us what God said. We just see Jesus in the dark night of his soul railing in the darkness. And we hear nothing from God.
And the reason this is sticking with me today is because I know we have all been there. Some more than others. We have enjoyed great music and thrills and seen it as a sign of God’s grace. We have been filled with enthusiasm as we experience those aha moments of clarity and success. We are quick to tell about them. But we are not so comfortable talking about those dark nights of the soul. Those times when we have gone in search of God and come up lacking or confused, or worse, empty. Paul Tillich said that doubt is the beginning of faith. Maybe this is where Jesus’ faith began, in that Garden, or in the desert, when he was tempted, or tortured or doubting. Where was God when he needed God most?
When Jesus said, “Stay with me.” He was not only talking to the disciples. He was also talking to God. God, stay with me. God give me an answer. God, take this cup away from me. Don’t make me do this.
Last night, I was at a dinner and celebration for the Soulforce Equality ride. Eighteen young people are on a two-month bus tour around the US to raise awareness about the dignity of the LGBT community. They are speaking to student and faculty at Christian Colleges and universities and challenging them to change their exclusionary policies.
Some of the riders spoke about how they had been in church their whole lives and when they realized that they did not fit the traditional heterosexual mold, they were ostracized, abused and shunned. They were sent to reparative therapy to try to make them straight. During this process, many attempted suicide. And they lost their connection to God. For the only God they knew was the God who spoke through their churches. This God didn’t want them unless they changed, conformed, contorted themselves and broke their souls. So many of them left the church. It’s a sadly common story.
When they were at North Central University in Minneapolis on Wednesday, they were not allowed on the campus. A few students ventured across the street to Elliot park to speak with them. But mostly the equality riders were ignored. David Coleman, our former seminary intern, told me that school photographers were taking pictures of each student who showed up to talk with the equality riders. Doing with the photos, God knows what. The University president even preached against the equality riders on Friday. Who was like the disciples? Who was Judas, who was Jesus? Where was God?
We know the end of the story. After the anguish of Jesus, the denial, betrayal and falling asleep of the disciples, the crucifixion of Jesus and the laying him in the tomb, the people reimagine themselves. They reawaken to the possibilities of life together. They form the church, in part to be the community for each other that the disciples weren’t able to create for Jesus. It’s all well and good. It’s the answer to that longing word, “Stay with me”. It’s our response to Jesus’ plea to all of us from that Gethsemane Garden.
But to say all of this is to let God off the hook. In this last week of Lent, we confront a God who is too often silent when we need God the most. God gives us silence when what we need is direction. We get silence when what we need is a gentle nudge in the right direction or a lightning bolt. Heck, we would even settle for the hem of a garment if it would just make us whole or faithful, or hopeful or confident once again.
Jesus seems to be channeling Elijah who fled into a cave by himself seeking God. There was a storm, but God was not in the storm. There was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. There was a fire, but God wasn’t in the fire. God was in the silence after the storm.
Sometimes God speaks to us, not as a voice in the silence, but as a new awareness. Maybe we come to the silence and we’re able to pay attention a bit more. Maybe we come to our prayers and our lashing out to God and we get that burden off our chest, and we can then free up that energy to do something constructive. The Psalms seem to fill this function. They are unashamedly railing at God, wondering why God is doing this or that, demanding an audience and a response from God.
Maybe Jesus needed to vent and weep and wail and insult and lash out at God. Maybe that’s why he wanted to be alone. He didn’t want the disciples to hear how much of a mess he was. Maybe when he got so plum tuckered out, he finally came to the realization that it was not about him, but it was about something bigger. With this new awareness, how did he fit into God’s plan for all of us? “I don’t like it, but I’ll trust you God. This is the way it will be. I’ll give you two more chances to change your mind.”
On May 24th, 1980 El Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while saying mass. It was a crucifixion. He said that if he was killed then he would rise in the people of El Salvador. Specifically, he said, “If God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my death be for the freedom of my people. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” As he lay dying, his last words were, “May God have mercy on the assassins.”
Last night, I heard the riders speak about how they encountered God for the first time on the equality ride. It was a different God than they had been taught about. It was a God of love, not judgment. A God of wonderful creativity, not one that only followed strict patterns. It was a God of liberation and not oppression. It was a God of setting people free and not a God of making more prisoners. This God was the one who said, “walk together children, don’t you get weary.”
Maybe God speaks in the void of anguish. And maybe our job is to listen to the voice of God and separate it from the voice of violence and oppression. I think that’s what the Gospel is about. That’s what Jesus was saying when he finally said, “Your will be done”. That’s what we are called to do. And here’s the rub. Sometimes we can’t know God, really know God, until we have encountered that dark night of the soul, until we have called out into the void. Until we have listened with the heart of the seeker. And have been surprised by what echoes off the walls of the cave of our despair. When one hoodie-wearing, Skittle-loving person is gunned down, the people rise up and say, “No more.” And they find in their anguish and pent-up rage, the companions for the next phase of their lives. Is God part of that resurrection of caring and resistance? I think so.
Jesus sat in the garden, knowing that his hour was upon him. He gave in to his emotions. And it made him able to face the next steps with clarity. Now as spring arrives a month early, we go off to our gardens. What will we hear in them? What will we cry out? What will we create? How will we go on? That’s the question of every disciple. And it’s what the church of liberation can help us figure out. Amen.