Prayer in a Dark Garden - Mark 14:32-42, Holy Week There comes a desperate time for those of us who pray when, thrown upon the ground, we share his gut-wrenched cry: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible: remove this cup from me!” Perhaps it’s not our death or fear of coming pain (not yet at least) we taste and long to tip away. Yet something in our cup has bitterness like his: perhaps a cruel loss, abandoned or betrayed, a grief that strikes like nails, or circling piercing thoughts that bind like crown of thorns, or blows that bruise our souls, make mock of who we are, a weight that bears us down, too weak to stumble on towards the dreaded hill. At such a time of prayer, it seems the garden grows but we are frosted bare; it seems our sacred space is stripped, no comfort there; it seems that friends will sleep and on the day be gone; it seems that in the crowd we are the most alone; it seems that any kiss might threaten to betray. Is spirit willing then, though flesh may still be weak? Can we find truth to say the climax of his prayer? “Not what I want, O God, but what you want will be.” Acceptance such as that may not be in our scope. We bargain and accuse. “How can a loving God expect us to face pain and death in such a way?”: our anger makes refrain. But if we could accept, and hope that what we face brings something that transforms, would we find grace to drink the cup of suffering down held hand in hand with him, and find the blood we shed becomes reviving wine, and see our brokenness becomes his body shared, and both walk from the tomb to greet the coming dawn?
While I was studying toward ordination about 15 years ago, I wrote this poem, based on Mark 14:3-9. I was very moved by Mark’s account of the woman who anointed Jesus’ head, and Jesus’ support of her despite criticism. I came from an Anglican Diocese which still does not ordain women priests, so was seeking ordination in the Diocese of Adelaide, and I was inspired by the courage it would have taken this woman to take this priestly and prophetic action in a culture that did not empower women for religious leadership. Seeing in the lectionary that one of the Passion gospels for this Sunday started with the anointing, I remembered writing this poem and how much it meant to me at the time.
Fear and silence suggest a gesture to be traced in the space beyond. There at the table where I had no place, I shall break open, pour out and give, share with him all that I have; there at the table honour his body as though at an altar; there at the shared meal, foretell his absence, prepare him for the grave. At the crack of dawn and doom, at the once sealed mouth of the tomb, priest and prophet, I stand between two worlds, crossing the line, profligate with what I bring, turning upside down the rites of honour, anointing a king in a leper’s house, accepting a suffering messiah, God’s son in one about to die. My silence would leave him unacknowledged: this fear offers me no choice but to act on what I know. Here I proclaim, for his sake, my love without words, my grief without song. Fear and silence will not stay my hand or keep him from hearing me into gospel memory. Though I speak no name and have no voice, it is Jesus who calls me beyond myself, beyond my accustomed place. Lift up the vessel about to be broken; arise! arise and walk!
The Child’s Gift to Jesus (Palm Sunday, Mark 11:1-11) “Look at the man on the donkey, Mum! Why does he seem so sad? People are shouting and waving palms, trying to make him glad.” “Darkness looms over the way ahead though he’s the king foretold, humble upon a donkey’s back: crowds dream of power and gold.” “See how the Roman centurion glares angrily at the crowd. What would he do to this humble king? Is such a king allowed?” “Lonely and hard is his path, I fear: he dares to question power. That’s why his eyes are so dark with pain: he knows the crowds will sour.” “Mum, can I run up and comfort him, show him he’s not alone, give him this bird that I made of wood, offer this egg-shaped stone?” “Go then, my son, with your kindly heart: give what you have to give. He tried to give the world all he is, showed us the way to live.” “Mum, when I gave him the bird he cried: ‘You bring the Spirit, son.’ Holding the egg-shaped stone he said: ‘Death and new life are one!’ Tears filled his eyes but his whole face smiled, bright as the sun unveiled. ‘Child, you have given me back good news when it might seem I failed.’”
Jesus Lifted Up Draws Us to Himself Lent 5, John 12:20-33
The crowd had thought his glory would be power. He chose to ride a donkey as foretold, but though they shouted: “Blessings on the King!” he knew their expectations soon would sour. But when some Greeks were drawn to seek him out, he saw it as a sign his hour had come, and though he spoke of glory, he described how buried seed would have to die to sprout. Through Spirit-led disciples, word would flow beyond the bounds of culture and of race, but still his soul was troubled. Could he pray to God to save him? He decided: “No!”. He must be lifted up so we are drawn through death to life and new creation’s dawn. So as we face this Easter, do we fear the many threats of death that plague our world, while expectations of the ones who lead are dashed, and tawdry glories disappear? Where all are subject to pandemic’s blight, and all must own the threat of climate change, we might regard all living things as kin, and so lift up fresh wisdom into sight. Believing that through death new life can rise, we might accept the troubling of our souls and face the harsh necessities of loss, encouraged by the hope of some surprise that bursts beyond the bounds of what we know, as seeds long lost in dust with floods can grow.
God seemed more vocal in my younger days – more tangible, embodied and defined. A sense of presence came in clearer ways – it seemed that words were given, underlined. The vision in my mind I knew as gift, the words so wryly apt I felt God formed, or gave the book that readied me to shift my sights, my soul, to claim a world transformed. Now though I still await the given word, I trace it lightly on the page, not clear what meaning quirks in what I thought I heard. It swirls like steam drawn up to disappear; yet insubstantial clouds can catch the light, and draw the eyes that find the sun too bright.
Lent 4; Numbers 21:4-9; John 3: 14-21
Does God send snakes to kill complaints, or do creation’s laws enact symbolic harm on corporate spite? To foul our nest will make us ill, polluted air will steal our breath, and poison tongue lets venom bite. Yet with that fate comes remedy, for one man prays and then obeys. Perhaps he questions what he heard: A snake of bronze on which to gaze? Is that an idol? God forbid! Yet Moses does what seems absurd. Perhaps God’s boundless thought delights in paradoxes that confound the limits of our human sight. Then someone tries a curious cure: vaccines are made from viruses – transforming illness sets us right. Though our addictions try to turn awareness from great loss or death, the cross of Christ confronts our eyes. Can Son of the Immortal One share mortal fate? Yet through the tomb, Love gives the world new life’s surprise.
Lent 3, John 2:13-22, Luke 12:32
If he came to our churches on Sunday to be awkwardly greeted as stranger would he fashion a whip for our cleansing, would we cringe from his anger as danger? Would he drive out conservative? liberal? or upend those who balance on fences? What offence might he take, at what practice? Would he shake up our pews or our senses? Would he tear up my poems and sermons, say, “You fiddle while so much is burning!”? Would he throw out projectors or prayer books, call for change or a zealous returning? No, I hope he would gather us round him, knowing how we are raw and confounded, how we’re shaken and cast down by failure, how we fear that our death knell is sounded. He will say, “Little flock, don’t be fearful, for the kingdom will keep coming nearer, and your efforts and gifts won’t be wasted: what you lose is renewed and made clearer. For the pattern of Easter is central: out of death comes abundance of living; that’s the secret of all new creating. Nothing’s lost from our loving and giving. See my body in people not buildings! Know I’m with you in doubts and believing! Stir up zeal for compassion and justice! Learn to listen and wait for receiving! So my brothers and sisters, keep hoping! Seek the way and the truth, open-hearted, and be ready for future unfolding! I am in you: we cannot be parted!”
1. Climbing up there's no time to complain we are sore but too breathless to speak. Surely God can be near on the plain! Tell us, why then seek God on a peak! As for Jesus, he smiles and moves past, and we scramble to keep him in range. Then the view spreads before us at last: all the world far beyond us and strange. Refrain: Let us stay, Lord, in the brightness! Keep us here, Lord, on the height! We would build, Lord, on this rightness! Love and prophecy name this sight. 2. Now see, something has changed in the light; in our weariness, vision has stirred: there’s a brightness too strange for our sight, and half-heard, there’s a resonant word. As for Jesus, he smiles and he glows, speaking wisdom with those of the past, and half-waking, we sense what he knows: that God’s glory is here, first and last. (Refrain) 3. There’s the vision of Moses in cloud on the mountain receiving the law, and Elijah where silence was loud – prophet’s burden to name what he saw. As for Jesus, he smiles through his tears as the voice says: “My Son, I’m well pleased!” though we fall to the ground with our fears, now our doubts and confusion are eased. (Refrain) 4. Then we want to stay there, where it’s clear that tradition and vision give hope. God says: “Listen to him!” and we hear – but it’s gone beyond us and we mope. As for Jesus, he turns and descends to the clamour of people in need; and he faces the cross where it ends – and begins again. Now we must lead. (Refrain)
(for Lent 2, Mark 8:31-38 written 27 August 2020)
“Get behind me Satan!” he said to one he valued as rock to build a church on: worth noting just how quickly key insights get distorted by our survival instinct and lustful need for power to do away with suffering and concentrate on winning. “Oh! Get behind me Satan!” he said to something in him: a desperate human longing to say pain must not happen, to ask that God forbid it. He fears that he might stumble upon the block of safety: be tempted to act godlike instead of truly godly, escape the mortal price tag of death outside the city. Cry: “Get behind me Satan!” Alone upon the mountains and in the midnight garden he prayed for dispensation: “Please let this cup pass from me! Let’s do without communion with blood and broken body. Impervious and immortal, I’ll lead a better empire without the need for dying.” “No, get behind me Satan!” To be secure and powerful are common human failings, a self-defeating cycle with endless streams of victims. It’s human to be praying: “Dear God, don’t let this happen to us or those we treasure. We can’t succumb to covid, or mental loss in ageing, or be displaced and homeless, and as for facing dying, we hope we barely notice between a sleep and waking.” But get behind me Satan, for loving and creating are forged through death and rising, and God would rather suffer, and share in being mortal, than be untouched and distant, unmoved, beyond our crying. Take up your cross and follow from tomb to resurrection. Accepting loss means finding what seems to be a failure can bring God’s kingdom nearer. Barbara Messner 27 August 2020