A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 20, 2016
University Baptist Church
Palm Sunday: a high holy day at UBC. We have eaten our traditional brunch, taken our walk outside and meandered our way up to the sanctuary. We have heard the traditional scripture readings. We have heard the choir sing a non-traditional Sanctus, complete with the sounds of whales. We are so used to Palm Sunday and all that it entails. We look forward to those egg dishes and seeing what the lower level of the church looks like. We like the old hymns and the procession. Can’t we just end it there? Do we really have to deal with the rest of the story? Can’t we just go from Palm Sunday to Easter? It’s so much more positive, so much happier.
But we can’t really enter into Easter without entering the events that followed Palm Sunday. In Matthew, it takes six full chapters to get through the last week of Jesus’ life. Jesus rides into Jerusalem, being hailed as the son of David, meaning the one to re-establish the Hebrew monarchy, and proceeds to turn over the tables of the moneychangers. His first attack is on the religiously sanctioned banking system. He then takes to the temple and upsets nearly everyone. He preaches, tells enigmatic parables, but doesn’t start the revolution the crowds wanted. Where were the swords? Where was the rage at the Romans? What do you mean we have to change? It’s them who have to change. By the end of the week, he has so befuddled the people that they are either angry with him for upsetting their lives, or he has talked so crazy that he gets ignored like any other prophetic-sounding lunatic.
By the end of the week, when the rulers decide to lynch him, and that’s what it was, a lynching, there is hardly anyone who will come to his defense. People were too afraid of the crowd. I think of this as we encounter angry crowds during the campaign season, crowds that feast on the red meat of fear, rage, and racism. Crowds that can’t be bothered with pesky things like facts, let alone wimpy-sounding things like compassion. Jesus was dismissed as just another protestor as the rulers said, “Get him outa here.” And the crowds gleefully responded, “crucify him.”
Why are people so beholden to anger and racism and misogyny and rage? What reptilian parts of our brains light up when we use fear and loathing to garner votes? And why does it make people feel safer when it arguably does exactly the opposite. We are facing tough times, and we need someone to shine a light on it all.
Jesus must have been so upset by it all. How could his people, his own people become so mean and bitter and divisive? What had he done wrong? Couldn’t people embrace the gospel of love and mercy and compassion and hope? Can people hear the voice of God in the midst of this? Or it is all for naught? Maybe the only way for them to hear is for me to take this to its logical conclusion, to show the people what their rage will bring. Maybe the only way to help them live is for me to die.
This was the predicament that Jesus saw. This same crowd that waved palms could just as easily pick up swords. They need to find something more powerful than fear. And that’s our challenge. What is more powerful than fear?
It was with these thoughts swimming around in his brain and itching at his soul that Jesus went to the garden of Gethsemane.
It was a place, we imagine, they had been before. Someplace where they could hide out amongst the olive trees. Someplace they could dine and camp together. A place where they could drown their sorrows. A place they could pray. Do you have a place like that? Is there someplace that you go to reconnect with God? Some holy place where you feel grounded? That’s what Gethsemane was for Jesus.
He went there with his disciples. He knew that even their relationship with him was tenuous. Before dawn he would be fallen asleep on, betrayed, arrested, denied, and beaten before his eventual death. And yet, he went there anyway. I imagine a garden had been a place of respite for him. It was a place teeming with life. That’s a good place to go when you are facing death. It reminds you of the bigger picture. It reminds you of the things you can control and the things you cannot.
As we processed into this sanctuary, we passed the garden near the portico. Did you notice the bulbs shooting up out of the ground? They are waking up from their winter slumber. What parts of us have been dormant for these many months? What beckons to break through the thawing ground? What might we need to nurture and tend this coming season?
It’s interesting to note that Jesus’ first Easter appearance is also in a garden. So there is something about a springtime garden that harkens back to this ancient story. What do you think about in the garden? Who are your companions?
What dreams or terrors do you turn over in your mind, as you turn over soil? What denotes hope in the midst of it all?
Jesus didn’t have a whole lot to hope about in that garden. It was in fact the dark night of his soul. We often find ourselves focusing on the sleepy disciples who fall asleep on Jesus not once, not twice but three times.
But I am more interested in Jesus’ prayer in the garden. He beseeches God, “take this cup away from me for I don’t want to taste its poison.” Then there is a comma and Jesus says, “Not my will, but yours be done.” I love the way Time Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber filled in the gaps between the cryptic Bible verses. Jesus sings: “Feel it burn me, I have changed. I’m not as sure as when I started. Then I was inspired. Now I’m sad and tired. Listen, surely I’ve exceeded expectations, tried for three years, seems like thirty could you ask as much from any other man…But if I die, see the saga through and do the things you ask of me. Let them hate me hit me hurt me nail me to their tree. I want to know I want to know my Lord. I want to see I want to see my Lord. If I die what would be my reward? I want to know why I should die. Would I be more noticed than I ever was before? Would the things I’ve said and done matter anymore? I have to know I have to know, my Lord, I have to see I have to see my Lord, If I die what would be my reward? Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain. Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain. Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die. You’re far too keen on where and when and not so hot on why. God, thy will is hard, but you hold every card…”
I think Jesus did this kind of soul-searching in the garden. Eventually, he came to the realization of his next steps. That’s when he says, “Not my will, but yours be done.” It took some soul-searching. I know as we plan our gardens, we look forward to long warm nights when we can listen to the crickets, contemplate the stars, and wonder about our next steps.
Jesus beseeched his disciples to stay awake with him. Three times he speaks to God, three times God is silent, and three times his disciples are asleep. But God does not need to speak for Jesus to know what he needs to do. God has already spoken, and Jesus knows that he can take the easy way or the hard way. And Jesus takes the hard way because he knows that it will open the eyes of the blind and expose the brutality of the people. It will show that violence always has its end, begetting more violence until we are all swallowed up in it.
Jesus sought to show us a different way. And that’s what we need to do too. The new way of God is a way of peace, of love, of compassion, of mercy—all of which are stronger than fear. But they are only stronger when we use them. They can’t just be thoughts. The thoughts need to turn into action. In this time of fear, what subversive acts of compassion can you do? What audacious act of mercy can you take on? What persistence stance for peace can you take?
It broke Jesus’ heart that the world was so bent on killing its prophets that it could not see a better way. Jesus took to the cross as an act of solidarity with the broken and hurting world. And says that this is how God works. God suffers with the poor and the outcast, the judged, the suspect class. And God says, you are not alone in your suffering. I suffer along with you.
But here’s the kicker. We don’t have to suffer, nor do we have to let our sisters and brothers suffer. We can choose to live lives filled with compassion and love and mercy and justice and peace and hopefulness. It’s the most powerful force. For even though the powers used death and violence, it was not more powerful than God. Maybe we don’t need to wait for God or Jesus to make things better or to shine a light in this bleakness. But maybe, inspired by this great story, we might have the power to shine the light of hope and show that fear and loathing will get us nowhere. Hope and love and mercy and compassion and justice is the message of Jesus—the true Christianity and it’s more powerful than even death itself. And we’ll see more about that on Easter Sunday.
But for now, go to the garden. Remember the suffering of the world. Remember your own suffering. Remember that Jesus suffered too. He suffered the indignity of indifference from his closest friends. And he found the power in the garden to remember that he was not alone. Even though others had fallen asleep on him, there were sounds there: the sounds of the bugs, the sound of the nocturnal animals foraging. You could even hear the plants growing. I remember warm summer evenings in Ohio, sitting by a cornfield. You could actually hear the corn crack and grow.
Go to the garden, my friends—your Gethsemane. Sometime this week, take some time to consider your next momentous step. What will this new spring season bring to you? What big decisions are you itching to make? Even when we feel like we’re alone, God is always there. Even though people fall asleep on you and betray you. God is always there hiding amongst the olive trees, wanting you to make the right decision, not always the easiest, but the right one.
Go to dark Gethsemane, go and feel the tempter’s power;
Your redeemer’s conflict see, watch the anguish of this hour;
Do not hide or turn away: learn from Jesus how to pray.