Givers, Giving and Gifts
Have you noticed an increase in the number of references to gifts lately? Of course, retailers think t[...]
Grace and be to you through God the Father, our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
When I was growing up, my family went to church a lot. Sundays, for sure; Wednesdays in Lent; Thursday evening and Friday noon in Holy Week.
The church of my childhood had three memorable stained glass windows. The Risen Christ, surrounded by lilies, stood above the altar with open, welcoming hands. The window on the right side of the nave pictured Jesus standing outside the empty tomb, while one of the faithful women reaches out in surprise to greet him and an angel kneels in reverence on that day of new birth.
The window to the left was lighted by a spotlight from outside, so that during evening services the light shone on the face of Jesus, kneeling in prayer in the garden in Gethsemane, as an angel stands bearing a cup, and in the background three disciples sleep beneath a tree.
I never thought much about that model of discipleship until this pandemic. For years when asked what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, I have answered with words like these – to trust God as the source of one’s life, to care for neighbors as Jesus taught us to care for the little and the least, to follow Jesus in the narrow way, leaning on the promises of one’s baptism into life in Christ as we live out our God-given vocations.
But this year is different. Have you noticed? All the old routines and familiarity of Holy Week have been stripped away. And while most of us are as busy as ever, what we are busy with comes at us in brand-new ways. Whether worship this week is pre-recorded, live-streamed on YouTube or mentored through handouts sent to people at home, now we are all shut-in and homebound, using every strategy to stay apart and to stay well. And if you are like me, I wake to memories of other years, of the fancy and often exhausting ways in which we once gathered as communities of faith at this time in the Christian year. God willing, the way we will gather in person for Holy Week next year.
After the Passover meal had been eaten in a borrowed home, St. Matthew tells us that Jesus and the disciples sang the final Hallel hymn and were then on their way to the Mount of Olives, to the east of Jerusalem. As I have been singing alone at home during worship by Zoom and nightly hymn-sings, I’ve wondered about Jesus and the eleven and whether they could carry a tune. Were they as gifted as Cantus and some of you or as heartfelt and exposed as some like me? A small detail for which there is no answer in scripture.
Along the way that evening Jesus speaks truth about what lies ahead in the coming hours and days. It is not just the next 24 hours that will test the disciples, just as we are being tested by a once-in-our-lifetime closing down of business as usual in the wake of an insidious and deadly virus. But this is not like an earthquake or a hurricane where the destruction is immediately visible and we can shift our efforts to clean-up and rebuilding. We are in a time which will certainly come to a close but no one can tell us how long exactly that will take.
Peter swears he will hold fast. The others join him in that pledge. All four Evangelists reveal how wrong they all were. Through the centuries, people of faith have had their lukewarm moments and almost universally, the once fervent follower of Christ has desired to bail out of the hard stuff – the long, patient wait; the material sacrifice; the resistance to other, seemingly more attractive promises; faith itself. And now, as we all know, we are really in the midst of the hard stuff.
In Gethsemane – by St. Matthew’s account – it is Jesus who experiences heartbreak and weariness of soul. “I am deeply grieved, even to death,” he tells his closest friends, “remain here and stay awake with me.” (Matthew 26:38). Does it help to know that our Lord found this time of personal trial as difficult as the challenges that now press us toward the edge?
Jesus’ favorite playlist was drawn from the Psalms and the testimony there is that we humans are oft times hard pressed in the face of human suffering and injustice. “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? (Psalm 42:5) Jesus could be anxious, too, as we are prone to bouts of anxiety ourselves these days.
What Jesus asks of his closest companions – his true friends – is that they wait with him as he turns to God his Father in prayer. And such an anguished prayer it is. There is nothing glib in Jesus’ speech as he looks ahead to the coming hours. He is as raw, as vulnerable as all those for whom he will die. And then while he prays his heart turns and, as Jesus once taught his own disciples to pray, he himself prays – “not what I want but what you want.” (Matthew 26:39) Thy will be done.
Friends, if our prayer life was not yet mature and well honed, this pandemic is certainly teaching us to be more fervent in our prayers; honest in our petitions; and eager to cling to prayer as one of the power we can to wrap our arms around those we love and to bring us through this time of testing.
St. Matthew tells us that while Jesus prayed in anguish the disciples – well, they were fast asleep. Not once but three times Jesus returns to find Peter and James and John asleep. They had promised … I will not deny you … I will never desert you … I will follow you wherever you go … and yet when their wakeful presence might have comforted our Lord, they slept.
Even the most resolute among us may find ourselves standing with quaking knees and churning stomachs these days. There is a lot to worry about. The health and wellbeing of those we love. The financial toll on the congregations we serve or the institutions where we work. The long-term commitment of the people we depend upon to sustain the mission of the church. Will we endure amid the changes, the stresses, the challenges all around us for weeks and weeks yet to come? Let’s admit -- this is not what any of us bargained for when we became a deacon, a pastor, a bishop.
Yet, in this Gospel text we are reminded that our biggest commitments – our deepest loyalties – always, always depend on God’s grace and mercy and not on us. The profound mystery of this Passion Week is that God uses even the evil actions of Jesus’ enemies and the faithlessness of most of the disciples to accomplish what God long ago set out to do to reconcile the world – the whole cosmos – to God’s own self.
When he had finished his prayers, Jesus came and woke the disciples. Once more he called them again to follow him. Rise. Get up! “See, the hour is at hand.” (Matthew 26:45)
Siblings in Christ, even now the Risen and Living Christ, is calling us. Not to have all the answers but to trust that God’s grace, which is at work in us for the sake of Jesus Christ, will make our hearts brave again and our arms strong once more to be signs of the healing and hope which comes from our God to this hard-pressed world. And to find joy afresh in the vocations to which we have been called. Thanks be to God. AMEN.
by Bishop Patricia Lull