Ann Andree co-journey’s with folks on the street at The Gateway, a 108 bed men’s shelter and community drop-in in Toronto, Canada. (https://www.thegateway.ca) On a really good day, Ann gets to play a part in some of her homeless friends journey beyond homelessness as supervisor of counselling services. She is a member of the Wine Before Breakfast community that Brian Walsh pastors at the University of Toronto. This sermon was written for that community.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, Oh Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.
My dear brothers and sisters, in reading this passage, we have just entered into a sacred space and joined Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is my prayer that we are able to journey deeper together into the dark groves of Gethsemane. It is my prayer that we come to understand together, the abandonment Christ experienced in the garden alone.
There are few people in our broken world who are better able to connect with Christ in his moment of complete abandonment that our friends experiencing homelessness on the streets. Few people know better then these folks what it is like to die, desolately abandoned by everyone who has ever been important to you. For those of you who don’t know, Dion, Jake and I have the privilege of walking alongside these folks experiencing homelessness at the Gateway-- a 108 bed shelter, which too often is considered home to men who have been cut off from every other segment of society, many of whom have long since been abandoned by friends and family. It breaks my heart when yet another person has no emergency contact to give me, no one who would know if they were dead or alive. It breaks my heart when yet another person is dying in a cold, white-washed hospital room with nobody to sit by their bedside, just to be and to face death alongside of them. It breaks my heart, when, for the third time in three months, we have held a funeral for yet another person on the streets because, somehow, shelter staff have become the closest to family that these individuals have had. Folks on the streets, they get loneliness and abandonment profoundly. They know what it is like to die alone. They truly get the lonely journey Christ was on to the cross.
Two weeks ago, a man who I hadn’t seen for two years walked into my office. We’ll call him Joe. He walked in, shoulder slumped, eyes to the ground, feeling trapped by the circumstances that surround him. Not unlike Christ, he is in the court system, trapped by conditions placed on him by a judge who doesn’t even know him. A talented tradesman, he has a criminal record and cannot find meaningful work. His family? He has a son--somewhere--but his wife has long since left him, taking their son with her. Joe refuses to call a dingy, dark room in a crack house his new home--which is virtually the only thing he can afford on social assistance. Joe sees living on the streets in a sleeping bag the best option out of a limited few available to him. When Joe walked into my office, he stated in an uncharacteristically flat affect that if he could not find even a glimmer of hope out of his situation, then he would create a suicide plan. I said to him that I would be devastated if that was his ultimate decision. He said he needed to do what he needed to do. In other words, if death was what brought hope to him, that was the path he would take.
My dear community, the passion story, like the streets, is not a romantic drama unfolding. It is dark, dangerous and desolate.
Moving from the streets of Toronto to the passion story in Jerusalem, we find that Jesus has just finished the last supper with his disciples, warning them—and perhaps even reminding himself-- that they would all desert him. And all of them denied His words. Peter--always the rash Rock, boisterously brave after all that wine from the Last Supper says he’ll stick by Christ. Together, they walked to the Garden of Gethsemane, and the dark groves enveloped them. Christ, as God, knew he was journeying into the heart of darkness, the chilling climax. But now, Christ, as human, was experiencing the cold reality of the journey. And the journey was terrifying. Mark says, “And sorrow overtook him and his was filled with grief”. Take a moment to let these words drag you into this unfolding terror: Deep, dark tumultuous suffering. Anguish. Genuine horror.
That Christ began in the Garden of Gethsemane on his final part of the journey to the cross it is significant. Humans were once expelled from the Garden of Eden, sentenced to live in the mess we made, and now, the one human who had proven himself worthy of living in the Garden of Eden enters into the darkness of the Garden of Gethsemane. But instead of finding full communion in the Garden, Christ finds betrayal and abandonment. It all fell apart in the original garden. And now, our hope for redemption was beginning in this garden.
That said, despite our hope for redemption, darkness still covered the Garden of Gethsemane. At this point in the journey to the cross, there was no sigh of relief for the dawning of our redemption yet. In the Garden of Gethsemane, we humans were not out of the woods of our broken world yet-- because alongside Christ’s mission of redemption was temptation: could Christ drink the cup? Do you remember, when, at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, he had been tempted in the desert three times, and three times he had chosen to trust his father and remain obedient? As Brian pointed out to me, in Mark, unlike any of the other gospels’ renditions of the temptation passage, the phrase, “And then Satan left him” is conspicuously absent in that first chapter, suggesting that throughout his whole ministry, Christ had been struggling with temptation-- precariously, carefully journeying towards the cross without falling. One wrong move and humanity’s hope for getting out of this mess we’re in would be shattered into trillions of unfixable pieces. And here, in the garden, began Christ’s final temptation: Would he be able to drink this cup?
Precisely because the temptation to give up the cup was so utterly terrifying, because the journey ahead was so dark and desolate, Christ had no other option but to go before his abba, father, placing his trust in Him. He prayed. Communion with his father was the only way that he would not fall into temptation and give up on the redemption plan. It’s a Catch-22/a paradox, however, because the temptation to have the cup taken from him arises precisely from a place of utter trust in his Father-- and knowing that there will come a point on this journey when the Father will leave him. William Lane, in his commentary says, “The dreadful sorrow and anxiety, then, out of which the prayer for the passing of the cup springs, is not an expression of fear before a dark destiny, nor a shrinking from the prospect of physical suffering and death. It is rather the horror of the one who lives wholly for the Father at the prospect of the alienation from God which is entailed in the judgment upon sin which Jesus assumes.”
The answer to the question “Would Jesus be able to drink this cup?” is yes. Not unlike Joe, Jesus knew that hope could only come through his death. For Joe, however, his hope was in death in and of itself to stop the pain of his broken world. For Christ, his hope was not death, but to go beyond death, so that people like Joe could cling to the hope of life being better than the brokenness we see. And there was no other option, no other way except to drink the cup. It’s another Catch-22/paradox: Christ must die forsaken in order that we might live in hope.
The journey towards hope, towards redemption, is a journey dependent upon prayer. Christ modeled that for his disciples and for us in his darkest hours. Christ, even in his darkest hour yet, yearns for his disciples to have the same relationship with the Father in the midst of suffering and trial. He knows that they too will be facing temptations: temptations to abandon, betray and deny within hours. And Christ knows that the only way that they will be able to stay awake in the midst of such temptation is to pray. But we know how the story goes: instead of prayer, Peter, James and John fall asleep on him. Not once-- but three times, Christ asks them to stay awake with him. Were they not able to see how distressed Jesus was? Staying awake to pray was a simple task, compared to the politics, the beatings, the humiliations which hadn’t even begun yet. The first time Jesus finds Peter, James and John asleep, his response is critical: “Simon, do you sleep? Did you not have the strength to stay awake one hour? Stay awake and pray that you might not enter into temptation; the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.” Notice that Jesus reverts back to Peter’s old, pre-disciple name, Simon. Peter, The Rock, who, that same evening, had rashly and courageously vowed to stand by Jesus, no matter what, is being harshly stripped of the name given to him when he became a disciple. Here, Jesus was reminding his disciples that the only way to face the trials ahead was to pray, to place trust in God.
Not only was he reminding his disciples to pray, he was also asking that they stay awake with him. He has said earlier over supper in no uncertain terms that he was heading towards death and betrayal. And they were falling asleep. It is certainly a very despairing situation to be in to know that the very folks you are planning to save are falling asleep on you when you quite obviously look distressed. But it got worse. From the passive, sleepy abandonment of Peter, James and John to the active, deliberate betrayal of Judas. Judas kisses Christ. A political arena unfolds. And things got even worse: the disciples, unprepared for that which Christ had prepared them for, abandoned Christ. He was alone. Completely abandoned. And it is with this shame of abandonment of Christ that the church enters into Maundy Thursday next week.
Let’s return to the story of Joe. A week after Joe had informed me that he might choose suicide as his route, he walked into my office, and, although he was not boisterous, he stood with resolve and told me that he had decided to move forward rather than choose suicide. When I asked what had prompted that decision, he simply said, “You said you would be devastated.” Joe needed someone who would be willing to walk with him on his dark and difficult journey. That’s human. Christ, as human and as God, wanted his disciples—his friends-- to walk alongside him too.
My dear brothers and sisters, Maundy Thursday is approaching. Traditionally, Maundy Thursday is a time when the church stays awake to pray in order to make up for what the disciples lacked when they fell asleep. We have a second chance to return to Christ in the dark Garden of Gethsemane to make up for the disciples’ abandonment. While we cannot go back to the Garden of Gethsemane, there are those in our midst who have been abandoned, like Joe, and we must begin in prayer—just as Christ began in prayer-- if we are to move towards walking alongside of them on their journey.
May we enter into Maundy Thursday in prayer, rather than in the shame of our abandonment of Christ. May we enter into Maundy Thursday in prayer just as Christ taught us through his actions in the garden and when he told the disciples to pray. May we--in trust, prayer and submission to the father’s perfect will--walk alongside those in our midst who have been abandoned like Christ was abandoned. Insofar as we stay awake to pray on Maundy Thursday, let us not lose sight of the fact that Christ says, “Whatever you do the least of these, you do unto me” and remember that we are called to be moved from prayer into action in Remembrance of Christ.
The journey, although sacred, is dark. May we have the courage that Simon Peter lacked to drink from the cup that offers hope and to eat the bread that sustains us in our journey.