Our scripture passage for today is Mark 14:32-42, on p 52 of the New Testament in the pew Bibles for those who want to follow along. This passage is one we don’t hear often outside of Holy Week, but it has lessons for us year-round.
They went to a place called Gethsemane; and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.
It’s a weird choice of scripture for our series on sanctuary. I’ve been preaching all the happy stuff— worshiping God in this sanctuary, and us as God’s portable sanctuaries on earth. But today I want to preach about the sanctuary of community, of being sanctuary for one another; and I’m starting by sharing a story of the opposite.
From what we are told of Jesus’ life in the Gospels, this story tells of the most difficult hour of Jesus’ life up to this point. A more difficult time will come—the next day, in fact, when he is crucified. And that’s why this hour is so difficult— because Jesus appears to know what’s coming. He knows that he has been betrayed. He knows they will be coming to get him. He knows, apparently, that he will die a painful death. This is Jesus at his most vulnerable, his most human. And all he asks is for his closest friends to sit with him, to stay nearby, to pray on his behalf. But they fall asleep. They do not provide the companionship that he desperately needs. It was a failure of community.
This week a story came to my Inbox of another failure. The blog post is called “The Casserole Rules” and it was written by Jill English about when her husband left her—not in death, but in divorce. She writes:
“When my husband of 27 years suddenly and unexpectedly left, it was weeks before my pastors noticed I was missing from Sunday morning services. And even weeks more before someone called to check in. I can’t blame them. I didn’t reach out. I was busy. I was inhaling and exhaling, managing shame, scrounging for hope, paying bills, and depositing what little emotional reserves I had to care for my devastated daughters, reeling family members, and befuddled friends. I was too busy facing the disappointment of opening my eyes in the morning, realizing that God hadn’t granted my nightly plea to take me in my sleep because I didn’t know how to live this way.
There were so many things I didn’t know about how to go through an unexpected divorce. There is no YouTube video, no manual, no to-do list for how to do it well. Yet, the one thing I did learn is that you won’t get a casserole from church when you’re in the middle of burying a marriage. I realized this after the fact.
A year after my husband left and before the divorce was final, my dear church friend lost her husband to a sudden heart attack. . . . The church stepped up big for Sue. She had meals for months while she figured out how to manage the house and budget by herself. She had lawn boys, free electricians, and pro bono mechanics when her cars broke down. She received hundreds of cards from church friends—we watched them overflow her mailbox. Women came to clean her house. Strangers did her laundry. And not one person asked what she could have done differently to avoid Joe’s death or suggested that things would get better because some new man would snatch her up in a second.
I am so glad. I love her and am grateful for each person who stepped in to meet her in her grief and need. One time, she gave me an extra casserole because her freezer was full. It was really tasty and I ate it for days after we wryly talked together about the differences in our experiences of the death of a marriage. We both acknowledged the casserole rules. The church didn’t give divorce casseroles.
The very next summer, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I learned that you do get casseroles for breast cancer. Elders visit, people pray, your name gets mentioned from the pulpit. People call, email, and send cards. They rake your leaves. I was grateful, although a bit bewildered. During those six months of diagnosis, surgery, and radiation treatments, I never once prayed for God to take me during the night, I never cried myself to sleep over breast cancer, never imagined what I did wrong to be so unworthy. There was no shame. Each morning, I was happy to open my eyes. Sometimes, I even longed for the phone and doorbell to stop ringing. I got free yard work for weeks. And, I got lots and lots of casseroles.
To be clear, this isn’t about a church, it’s about the Church. My church tried in the best way they knew how. I don’t blame them for any inconsistencies. I had never noticed them before either. We can’t know our blind spots by seeing them; we must feel them. It’s complicated, isn’t it? As people of faith, we are very good at meeting people in times of death and illness. There are no judgments around these things, and we do not need discernment about who was in the wrong. We don’t have to wonder about whether one’s grief is deserving of a casserole.
The rules about other human conditions are not so clear. Casseroles for the death of a marriage? For a mental breakdown? For rehab? . . . Or maybe the rules are just misunderstood. Maybe, loving our neighbor is a rule that means need is need, and grief is grief, and a casserole is the love of God made real for all who suffer—no matter the cause.”
Sometimes offering sanctuary means bringing a casserole. Or, according to Carrie Newcomer, it can mean bringing sprigs of rosemary. Singer and songwriter Carrie Newcomer held a concert for us here last year, and it was a wonderful evening. One of the highlights for me was her singing the song Sanctuary. I’m going to try to sing it for you now because it fits so perfectly.
Will you be my refuge, my haven in the storm?
Will you keep the embers warm when my fire’s all but gone?
Will you remember, bring me sprigs of rosemary?
Be my sanctuary ‘til I can carry on, carry on, carry on.
This one knocked me to the ground; this one dropped me to my knees.
I should’ve seen it coming, but it surprised me.
In a state of true believers, on streets called us and them,
it’s gonna take some time ‘til the world feels safe again.
You can rest here in Brown Chapel or with a circle of friends,
A quiet grove of trees, or between two bookends.
As the church, it is our job to care for one another—to bring food and flowers and all that good stuff. But you know that; and you know that’s the easy part. With a casserole you can drop and run. The harder part is the sitting beside. The harder part is the walking with. The harder part is the staying awake when the pain goes on so long. Notice that Jesus didn’t ask the disciples to fix anything. He didn’t ask them to protect him or intervene for him or solve his problems or even know what to say. Just sit. Just pray. Just stay awake and bear witness to my pain.
But there is, of course, a flip side. Jesus told them how he was feeling. I am deeply grieved, is how the NRSV translates it. Another translation is: I am so overcome by sorrow that I might die from it. Some of you know that feeling. Jesus told them how he felt, and then he told them what he needed: Stay with me, and stay awake.
How many of us do the same when we’re in pain? When we’re going through a difficult time, how many of us tell people how we feel and what we need? I don’t mean telling everything to everybody. Everybody hasn’t earned the right to know your pain. But some have, or would if you gave them the chance.
Last year I told you the story of koala—how, in our family, the word “koala” came to mean “I need a hug.” Many of you have adopted the habit. It’s a rare Sunday when somebody doesn’t greet me on the way out the door after church by saying “koala” and receiving a hug in return. It’s an easy way to ask for what you need. Maybe we need a code word that means “I’m going through a terrible time and I’m overwhelmed and I need some help to keep my head above water.” I think that code word should be “casserole.” Maybe you hate casseroles. Maybe you don’t like your food to touch. But maybe saying “casserole” is easier than saying “I need help.” I have heard that the two hardest words to say are “I’m sorry.” I don’t know if that’s true, but three of the hardest may be “I need help.”
So today I am challenging us: to ask for help and be honest about our needs, and to stay awake for one another. This is how we find sanctuary. This is how we become sanctuary—by providing shelter.
Now it’s your turn to sing this lovely song by Carrie Newcomer. We will start with the chorus all together, then the choir will sing the short verses in-between.
May we sing—and be—sanctuary.