Sermon: Pilgrimage: From Garden to Garden
Text: Matthew 26:36-46
Speaker: Joel Miller
If you ever visit Jerusalem, one of the places you may see is the Church of All Nations. It’s one of many structures built on a site of religious significance. In this case, the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s right there at the bottom of the Mount of Olives, right outside the walls of the old city, beside those 1000 year old olive trees, believed to be the location where Jesus prayed with his disciples the night he was arrested.
And if you were to enter that church you may notice a sign - as I have the couple times I’ve been there. It reads: “Please no explanations inside the church.”
It’s a well-meaning sign that I think is more profound than intended. What I’m almost certain it’s supposed to mean is that this is a sacred site, and when you’re inside this building, please be reverent, or at least be respectful of others and don’t talk loud. Especially, ahem, you tour guides or seminary grads who know or think you know a lot about this place and wish to explain it to those in your group. For all those who fit this description, please do your explaining, your commentary, your knowledge sharing, outside the church, on the lovely grounds of the garden perhaps, or elsewhere.
All this, concisely summarized in that one sign: “Please no explanations inside the church.”
What I love about this sign is its potential secondary meaning, the plea it could be making to those who spend a lot of time in churches. Especially to those who do a lot of talking inside churches. In short – churches aren’t places that thrive on the act of explanation. We all need some information for context, but please, allow church to be a place of experience. A place of poetic imagination. A place where we direct our attention beyond ourselves, through our minds but beyond our minds, toward God, the Jesus story, and this common miracle of life in which we share.
But that’s a lot to put on a sign.
And so, please accept this disclaimer that any explanations or information-strictly-speaking within this sermon, and any sermon, is intended for the purpose of ultimately getting us beyond head knowledge.
So here we are at Palm Sunday, the final Sunday of Lent. When Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem to the shouts of Hosanna we’re near the end of his life. But we’re not near the end of the Gospels which tell the story. Our four Gospels dedicate over 1/4 of their volume to the final week of Jesus life – not including resurrection stories. That means of the 89 total combined chapters in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, 24 of them happen between today and Saturday. This gets me every year.
Anabaptism focuses on the life and teachings of Jesus, but it’s hard to deny that each of the gospel writers want us to pay special attention to the drama that unfolds in this very short window of time. As if each component has something necessary to say about the human drama in which we participate every day: the fervor of crowds, for good and for ill; the cleansing of the temple and the failure of our grandest institutions to safeguard the poor; the meal table as a place of hospitality; Judas as the confidante who betrays his mentor and himself; Peter and the tragic gap between intentions and actions; the Mount of Olives where nonviolence is handcuffed by the armed police; the collusion of religion and politics to scapegoat the innocent Other; Pilate’s calculated commitment to law and order; Jesus on the cross crying My God Why have you forsaken me and the irresolvable theology of suffering as God crying out to God in the absence of God; the vigil of the women as the pilot light that keeps burning when all the other lights have gone out.
We’ll retell much of this during our Good Friday evening service but even that leaves parts out. There’s something about the density of these few days, the thickness of the arc, that calls for our attention. Something we’re part of whether we recognize it or not so we might as well recognize it.
------------ VT 306 I Want Jesus to Walk With Me, v. 1 ------------------
We started this Lenten pilgrimage, Week 1, in the Garden of Eden and one of the refrains that’s been rolling around in my head throughout this season comes from TS Elliot - a few lines within a larger poem:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. -- from “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets
There’s no going back to the Garden of Eden but a garden does play a prominent role in Jesus’ final days. The Garden of Gethsemane serves as the final refuge before Jesus’ arrest. It’s the last time he’ll be with his male disciples, the last time he’ll make a request of them. Like those final days that call for our attention, the Garden of Gethsemane is a story about attention. That’s the request Jesus makes. To stay awake with him. To be present with him. After the long pilgrimage out of the Garden of Eden, we’re back in a garden, alongside Jesus.
This is where Jesus and his companions go after eating that final meal of bread and wine. From behind the doors of that upstairs guestroom-turned-dining-room, to the out-of-doors sanctuary among the olive trees.
Each of the gospels give us different bits of information that paint a picture of Gethsemane. John’s is the only gospel to refer to it as a garden. John and Luke both note this as spot Jesus and his friends went frequently. “As was his custom” Luke says. They walk until they “reached the place,” also Luke. How many times had they been there before? Did they each have a favorite root or rock for sitting? What words from past teachings hung in the air? What shared silences already filled that grove?
They have arrived back at a place where they once started.
Only Mark and Matthew refer to it as Gethsemane, giving nearly identical accounts, both significantly longer than Luke and John’s summaries: The separating out of Peter, James, and John to go further in with Jesus while the others sat and waited. Jesus confiding with this smaller intimate group that he is deeply grieved, even to death. His plea to “remain here, and stay awake with me” as he goes alone to pray. His returning three times to find them sleeping, even as his awareness intensifies.
All the gospels remember this as the place where Judas meets them, swords and clubs close behind, the one who knew “the place” where they would be, selling his insider knowledge to those ready to snuff out this Galilean outside agitator. Judas who will soon undergo his own inner torment.
The Passover festival was already a volatile time. Each year the city would swell with pilgrims to celebrate their people’s liberation from a different empire. But there’s nothing like a few very public crucifixions to remind the people who’s in charge now.
This was not a surprise to Jesus. He does not ask any of his friends to help prevent his violent death. He asks them to stay awake. He asks them to keep watch and pray. He asks them to remain there with him. To be present in his grieving.
------------ VT 306 I Want Jesus to Walk With Me, v. 2 ------------------
One of the many poems by the beloved Mary Oliver is called Gethsemane. It goes like this:
The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe the wind wound itself
into a silver tree, and didn't move, maybe
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
lay still and waited, wild awake.
We can wonder if this is why Jesus wanted to get out of the house that evening. Did he need to be in a place where he knew he would have witnesses, despite human failing? What difference does it make that those gnarly olive trees were witnesses to his grief? And would the story have turned out differently had the disciples stayed awake?
Or maybe a better question is Why did Jesus ask his friends to be present with him even if it wouldn’t have turned out differently? What’s so powerful about presence and attentiveness that changes everything, even if nothing, noticeable, changes?
I won’t pretend to know how it works, but I think we all intuitively know something about this. We know when someone is or isn’t present to us, how that makes all the difference; and we know there are times when we must be with someone, simply to be with them, even if it won’t change the outcome of whatever they’re facing.
Like those women who keep vigil after Jesus’ death and show up at the tomb early Sunday morning. There’s something about Presence, about showing up and sticking around, there’s something about being-with, even wordless being-with or perhaps especially wordless being-with, there’s something about it that shifts the experience away from despair, toward solidarity, even resurrection.
The grief and suffering of Jesus is one of the ways we can experience his solidarity with us. We may be asleep at the wheel, but Jesus keeps vigil with us. In my trials, Lord walk with me. Sometimes the Christ is as silent as an old olive tree. A wordless witness. Sometimes Christ is as animated as a congregation of faces looking back at you when you share your journey.
Jesus, the Christ, invites us into Presence. Being present with others, being present with ourselves, being open to the Presence of the Divine. And the beautiful thing about Presence is that it doesn’t need any explanations. In fact, it comes with a sign that reads “Please, no explanations.” Please, just stay with me. Abide with me. Walk with me.
------------ VT 306 I Want Jesus to Walk With Me, vv. 1-3 ------------------