Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"A Land of Holy Questions" - at Gethsemane: "Are You Asleep? Could You not Watch One Hour?" Mark 14:32-42

And there they sleep. Can we blame them? At some point the human body has to give in. It has already been an intense week for them, as Passover usually tended to be, anyway, with all of its running here and there making preparations, visiting relations. But this particular Passover had taken it up a notch or two. They had followed Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem, finding the donkey for his strange parade. They had stood by at the temple as the conflict surrounding him grew. They had no doubt dealt with the rumors that must have been circulating about the anger Jesus was stirring up among the religious leaders. The conversation in the Upper Room the night before had been particularly heavy, requiring constant thought and attention, and there was the constant worry that someone in their intimate circle would break ranks and deny him or, worse, turn him in. All in all, there was probably not much sleep to be had that week. Lots to be considered, contemplated, but eventually the body and the mind give in.

I know that my body eventually gives in. I tell people that with a house containing an infant and a two-year-old, I have a completely different relationship with sleep than I did just a few years ago. I can get up and respond to a whimper or a cry, mix a bottle with one eye still shut, but eventually some voice inside me says, “Put your pillow over your head and drown it out.” And I’m strangely proud to say that I’ve learned to sleep with one pillow under my head and one pillow over it. It sounds unfair, but I guess I’m just resigned sometimes to letting Melinda can deal with the middle-of-the-night issue alone.

I guess what I’m saying is that I can’t really point a finger at the disciples. The going has gotten tough, but the disciples just aren’t going. Even Jesus’ closest three, Peter, James and John—the same three he had chosen to climb the mountain for the Transfiguration, the three who had been there when he had raised Jairus’ daughter, the three who had been given the special briefing about his upcoming suffering—even they have either had enough or do not realize just how serious things are and have chosen to pull the pillow over their heads. Furthermore, Mark tells us they press the snooze button not once, but three times, as if to underline their utter inability to stay awake. “Are you asleep?!” Jesus asks, in frantic disbelief, “Could you not stay awake—could you not watch—one hour?”

And for what are they watching? In the parable Jesus had told the day before about the necessity for watchfulness, the doorkeeper had been told to watch vigilantly, for he would never know when the master would return. It was a reminder that the end of things was to come soon and that falling asleep, letting the mind drift to other subjects and the hands to idleness was not a wise use of time. The Lord could arrive at any minute and usher his kingdom in fully. Had they so soon forgotten that lesson? Had the whirlwind events from the week been so bewildering that it was still better just to pull the pillow back over the head?

Or might Jesus have told them to watch for the betrayer, who would certainly be followed by the guards come to arrest him? The words of Jesus’ anguished prayer, echoing the psalms of question and lament, certainly seem to suggest that Judas’ deed was on his mind. Maybe Peter and James and John had been brought like a lookout for danger, highlighting how this is a conflict of wills within Jesus’ own soul: might Jesus, at the last minute, be tipped off to Judas’ approach by watchful disciples so that he may flee?

Perhaps he just needed their ministry of presence. So deeply agitated and worried about what was to come, he needed them as friends, as people who could help him bear his torment a little easier just by being there? Disappointed, let down, he asks, “Are you asleep? as if to say, “How could you do this? Was staying awake too difficult a task?

Although I’d always envisioned this dialogue taking place in a serene garden, a place designed for quiet contemplation, in reality we learn it is a place of work, monotonous toiling and turning. Yet, to a large degree, the proximity of a large oil press seems actually to make sense, helps paint and even better picture: the heavy weight of God’s will imposed upon him, the grinding of this cold, hard reality squeezing in on him. One nineteenth-century theologian actually compared the kingdom of God to a giant wheel that Jesus set in rolling motion by his preaching and healing, but that eventually got out of control and crushed Jesus, unable to get out of its way fast enough.

Jesus prays at an oil press for the stone to stop turning, for the cup to pass, for the kingdom to continue rolling without any suffering—and asks you and I to have the common decency to stay awake with him. Jesus requests that we keep him company, that we keep each other company, that we keep the community of the baptized as our primary company.

He bids us to be on the lookout for temptation, to keep our eyes peeled for those things that do harm to God’s people, to be vigilant but vulnerable in the midst of turmoil.

He asks us stay alert for the ways God is calling us to serve, to keep the team or committee meeting on task, to respond to his call at a moment’s notice.

And yet there we sleep. In prayer, our minds drift so easily into daydreaming—at least mine does. In the grind of ministry, we let the pointless details derail and destroy us. We get burned out, stressed out, we tune ourselves out, tired and frustrated to the tasks of faith at hand. We prize the feeling of community, but we stop attending worship, we stop serving. We want our relationships to be whole and sound, but devote little energy at real acts of forgiveness and reconciliation. And the church, as a whole, sleeps through its share of opportunities of being Christ’s willing disciples in mission and outreach. In ways large and small, when it comes to being Christ’s willing disciples in each and every tough situation we look for the opportunity to pull that pillow over our heads time and time again. But can we blame ourselves? Absolutely.

At the oil press we have named Gethsemane, we see the essential tension that embattles the life of every believer: that conflict between the spirit and the flesh, the will that is in bondage to sin and the desire to be better. And, at the oil press we have named Gethsemane, we also see the grace from an incredibly patient God claim once again even our sleepy heads for his kingdom. Even after three instances of falling asleep on the watch, after three times wondering, “Are you asleep?” Jesus still asks us to accompany him. “Get up,” he says, “let us be going.” Once more being beckoned—being called from our slumber, our slackness, our sin we are invited to continue with him—invited to be with the man who has striven hard in the night with his Father, and now takes up the cup of suffering to be crushed hard for us against the cross and usher the kingdom in fully.

“Get up,” he says, “And let us be going.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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