Tuesday, April 03, 2007

let this cup pass from me (palm sunday)

I had the good fortune to hear Elie Wiesel speak this week in Charlotte. Elie Wiesel is a survivor of the Holocaust, who went on to write a memoir, Night, that became one of the most significant books of the last century. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and continues to speak against indifference to human suffering bearing witness to the ordeal of his people, and its implications for all of us, and most recently for the people of Darfur.

I re-read Night in preparation of hearing him---it is a brief book. Night is the story of his family’s journey into the concentration camps at Auschwitz and then Buchenwald. He was separated from his mother and sister, whom he would never see again, and there he witnessed the death of his father, and, in some ways, the death of his faith. That is an open question.

The deaths of six million Jews are the wider landscape in which this intensely personal story is told. As I read his account, and of his journey deeper and deeper into the hell on earth that was the holocaust, I thought of one of his own ancestors. I thought of Jesus, at the mount of Olives, speaking to his own disciples: Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.

As I read Night, and listened to Elie Wiesel, I also reflected on where we are, in our journey with Jesus, at the beginning of this, the holiest of weeks. Jesus has shared the Passover feast with his friends. He had given them a commandment, to love one another, and he had listened to them argue about who would be the greatest. He had left the meal, and had gone out to the Mount of Olives, they followed him, he warned them about what would lie ahead for all of them, and then, Luke tells us, he withdrew from them.

The scholars see this withdrawal as Jesus’ intention to be alone in his suffering, and we understand that. There is an impulse, when suffering comes, when crisis comes, to withdraw. Maybe it is to gather one’s internal strength. Maybe it is to arrive at some clarity about what is happening. Maybe it is to receive some guidance about what is to come. Jesus withdraws, but only a short distance, a “stone’s throw away”, Luke says, and so they see him, and perhaps they hear him, the intensity of the words piercing the silence of the night.

Jesus withdraws. Then he kneels. The details in each of the gospels are interesting: Matthew tells us that Jesus falls on his face, Mark comments that Jesus falls to the earth. Luke simply reports that he kneels. It is a gesture of dependence, of reverence. There Jesus prays.

Prayer is a central theme in the gospel of Luke. Jesus prays at his baptism, before sending out the disciples, before the confession of Peter, while he is transfigures; he teaches the disciples about prayer, he insists that the Temple is to be a “house of prayer”, as he dies he is praying, and after the resurrection he is recognized on the road to Emmaus in the moment that he prays.

On this evening Jesus prays: Father, if it is your will, let this cup pass from me”. The cup was the cup of bitterness, the cup of his suffering. To those who wanted to be great in his movement, Jesus had asked them, “Are you able to drink from the cup that I drink, or be baptized with my baptism?”

The cup of suffering was his to drink, he had lifted this cup in the meal, the cup of salvation, he had called upon the name of the Lord, and then he had remarked, this is my blood poured out for you, this is my life given for you.

The cup of suffering was his fate, his destiny. And yet, in a moment of intense honesty with his Father, he could ask, he had to ask, “Father, if it is your will, let this cup pass from me”. Mark’s Gospel also overhears Jesus saying, “God, with you all things are possible”.

He is trying to make sense of the moment. Jesus was, the earliest creeds confessed, fully human. We try to make sense of the moment, whether you are Elizabeth Edwards or Tony Snow, and cancer has returned, or your son, a bright young student and mascot for the college basketball team, has died as the result of an automobile collision, or you are a single parent and you are homeless in Charlotte, or you have come home from the war and you are awaiting medical care in a VA hospital, or you are a couple who will travel several hours in a couple of weeks to seek medical help for your child in our clinic in Haiti. You are trying to make sense of the moment.

Jesus withdraws, he kneels, he speaks. If it is your will, let this cup pass from me. Jesus knew the story of Abraham, who was called to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham, who was faithful, and in just the moment when the sacrifice was to be required, another sacrifice came forth, and Isaac, his beloved son, was spared.

Could it happen again? Let this cup pass from me! Jesus speaks, but there is only silence. And in the silence, another thought emerges, one that Jesus will voice later, quoting Psalm 22: Where is God? Where is God?

This is question that runs throughout Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night. Where is God, this God who seemed so real to those who loved the law, who observed the festivals, who sang and danced, where is God? There is a moving scene in the story. Hangings were a common occurrence in the concentration camps, and yet one remained etched in Wiesel’s memory. One of the guards had a reputation for kindness toward his prisoners. Over seven hundred were under his command, and none were ever attacked or insulted by him.

It is discovered that this guard, actually a young boy had been helping the prisoners, and as the truth is traced back to him, he is taken and placed on the gallows. Because of his youth and his slight physical size his death is a slow and agonizing one, he is being tortured, and yet the young boy remains silent. Those in the concentration camps were often forced to witness hangings but this one seemed especially cruel. Where is our merciful God, where is he?”, someone behind Wiesel asks. Because the boy is so light he remains longer, lingering between life and death. For God’s sake”, someone else asks, “where is God?”

And then Wiesel writes----“from within me I heard a voice answer: Where is He? This is where—hanging here from the gallows…”. (64-65).

We ask these question in the darkness of night. Where is God? Is God real? Is God fair? Does God care about us? Will God intervene? The crisis of faith for many Christians comes when the faith and certainty of childhood is interrupted by the darkness of night, when no light is present to illumine, to guide. This is the dark night of the soul, when God seems absent.

There was a time when God seemed present, real, powerful. And yet there comes a time when we wonder. God, if you are real, if you are there, do something!

If you are willing, let this cup pass from me.

Yet, not my will but yours be done.

This is as basic as prayer gets. Within the honesty there is an offering of himself, the living sacrifice acceptable to God, there is a fundamental trust in the relationship. There is the statement of faith---all things are possible for you, spoken in prayer. There is an honest appeal---let this cup pass from me. There is a dedication of life---not what I want, but what you want.

And in response, there is an answer. God always answers our prayers. Yes, the answers are not always the ones we are seeking, but there is an answer. Luke tells us that the angels appear to him and give him strength (Luke 22. 43). I had never paid much attention to this one verse, and that is of course a part of our problem. I am not talking about angels with wings. I am speaking of those messengers who come, in a variety of forms, to bring some word, some touch, some guidance, some comfort from God. Elie Wiesel can be understood as a messenger who comes in the darkest hour of our most violent century, to speak a word of moral courage. But the angels, the messengers do not have to be prominent voices or well-known leaders. They can also come in the form of the stranger, the person who enters into our lives for a time, who gives us strength and hope.

Anne Lamott is one of our more honest interpreters of the Christian faith, and she speaks in a transparent way about the sufferings that have been a part of her journey, sufferings having to do with addiction and destructive relationships and self-doubt. As she has made her way through the darkness, she speaks of the necessity of developing “night vision”.

In one of the essays she recalls the advice of a spiritual director: in times of darkness, you need to develop night vision. If you look straight ahead in the dark, directly at things, you often see only looming shapes, and you’re likely to get blindsided. So you need to look at things out of the corners of your eyes---shapes, positions, objects in relief and in relationship to one another. You may still not see perfectly, but it will be enough to see by, and in time it will help you to know what is true”.

The angels appear to Jesus and give him strength. God does not provide the answer that Jesus is seeking, but God provides. On the Mount of Olives, Jesus is developing “night vision”. He withdraws, he kneels, he prays honestly, he listens, and there is strength.

There is here a model of our own praying and living. We all need our own places of withdrawal. We all need our own postures of reverence and dependence----the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services help us here. We all need to be honest before God. We all need to listen. We all need the strength that comes from unlikely sources.

And in times of darkness we all need to develop night vision, for there we pose the difficult questions, the ones that must be asked, there our faith is tested and tried, there we meet the God who is real.

Let this cup pass from me”. Jesus had to say it. This is really a sermon that needs no illustration, no story, for I would imagine that we have all held the cup in our hands, the cup of bitterness, the cup of suffering, and we have all made this appeal to Anyone who would listen. Let this cup pass from me”.

And then we have surely known, even amidst the complexity, after a long, dark night or the accumulation of many long, dark nights, that God is present, that God is faithful, that God will bring us safely through. And we have been put in touch with some strength that has come, at the most unlikely and yet the most appropriate moment.

Some of us have lived through the night. Some of us are living through the night. Although we do not see it perfectly, out of the corner of our eyes we sense something and we trust that beyond the night, there is the good news that morning has broken, and the tomb has been rolled away.

Let us stay awake. Let us listen and learn from Jesus in these days, let us cling to the Easter hope, and let us watch for the rising of the sun.

Sources: Elie Wiesel, Night. Anne Lamott, Grace (Eventually).


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