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This homily is #3 in our Lenten sermon series, Essentials of Prayer.
The 1993 movie Shadowlands gave us a glimpse into the incredible love story between the Oxford and Cambridge scholar C. S. Lewis and his wife, the American poet and writer Joy Davidman. They marry first as friends and colleagues in a civil ceremony to open the possibility of British citizenship for Davidman and her two sons from a previous marriage. Later, they would marry for love in a hospital room where Davidman had just been diagnosed with inoperable metastatic carcinoma.
Already a well-regarded Christian apologist and theologian, Lewis’ writing in the aftermath of Davidman’s diagnosis and eventual death opens to us an otherwise secret garden that flourishes with wild and uncontrollable tendrils of thorns and briars twining amongst every verdant bloom. Lewis’ writing is raw, blunt, and deeply hopeful.
His second wedding to her — the religious one, the “for love” one — was not well-received by many of his colleagues, because of her earlier divorce and her recent conversion to Christianity from Judaism. Which meant that, in the darkest days of his wife’s illness, Lewis was isolated from the companionship of many of his longstanding friends and the intimate company of his beloved wife who lay suffering excruciating pain.
In a scene from the movie when Lewis is leaving the university chapel, a colleague asks whether he really believes that all that praying will save his wife. Lewis responds: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”
The disciples were beginning to get excited about this new rabbi, Jesus. He was healing people. He was a great public speaker, drawing large crowds which by extension made them kind of special since they were his disciples. This might work, they had to be thinking. He might be “the one” who could rally the people, stand down Rome, and renew religious fervor throughout the land.
How shocking it must’ve been when, in that close conversation, not for everyone but just for his friends, he explained that his future would not put him on a throne, but on a cross. And, that if they wanted to continue to think of themselves as his disciples, they needed to be willing to face a similarly re-directed future and to move in that new direction, even though every part of them would wish for it to be otherwise.
St. Mark’s gospel subordinates the “Son of Man coming in great power and glory” to the “Son of Man who came to suffer and die.” Israel had longed for a hero that personified final triumph over oppression, especially around the year 70 of the Common Era, when Mark’s gospel was likely written.
This is a hard passage to hear now. Imagine how it hit the listeners back then, in the immediate aftermath of their failed rebellion against Rome’s oppression which was crushed by the Emperor Vespasian. The historian Josephus wrote that Jerusalem was literally “crowded with crosses;” there were so many executions by crucifixion of those who were considered political enemies of Rome.
Of course, we know how it all turns out. But, they didn’t. And, in truth, isn’t it still “turning out” in our day? And so in this way we come to our central question: What does prayer look like in the face of overwhelming agony, when the only words that we can summon are: “I cannot bear this. Please, God. Help.”
Even though intellectually you know that you won’t always hurt as much as you hurt right now, right now feels as though it will break you apart into a million jagged pieces. When you could kill the next person who assures you that “God never gives us more than we can bear.” And, just for the record, that passage from 1 Corinthians is about temptation and what it promises is that God will always provide a way for us to escape it so that we can bear it.
But, nowhere are we promised an escape every time from adversity. There is, in fact, a point at which adversity can break us if we remain fixed in our immediate frame of mind, if we are unable to adapt. Although anecdotal evidence would suggest that some people are born with a capacity to tolerate unbelievable stress, everyone has a breaking point. And, everyone can strengthen resilience.
We do it through the practice of praying in all circumstances, especially in the most distressing circumstances. We can humble our egos to seek God’s help to engage whatever the adversity is, and shoulder it, carry it, and move with it, not just hold it in place. These are not prayers that expect anything but more bad news to come next. These are prayers for presence in the worst moments of our lives.
And what is at stake is hope, that in our crushing sorrow we will turn away from God’s presence in that dark dark place, that we will be so despondent, we will wish that we had never been saved.
In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray, the prayer we use at every service, what we translate as “Lead us not into temptation” is, in the Hebrew: “va – al -tiv-iehnu – le dei massah”; literally, don’t cause us to go toward “the hands of massah” — a place reference to the story of the Jews leaving Egypt and being stranded in the wilderness at a place called Massah, when they rebelled against Moses and against God, saying “it would have been better if you’d never rescued us.”
This sort of moment is what we pray to be spared. Dear God, if all around us is failing, do not let us fail in our love for you, O God, no matter the adversity, even knowing we have little if any control over the outcome.
That’s some hard praying friends. Even Jesus prayed in the garden on the night before he was handed over to the authorities for another way to do this, that the cup would pass him. There is nothing wrong with that prayer. It is the most honest communication we can make.
Being God’s beloved does not privilege us in the circumstances of life. Your particular cross to engage, to pick up and keep moving with, may be an illness, a situation, a relationship, or even a mess you made that cannot be repaired. There may be no way for the cup to pass from you. You may feel that God isn’t even there. Jesus did, at Golgotha when he cried out to God “Why have you forsaken me?”
We have to talk about these times in life, because I don’t know of a single family in this parish that has not experienced tragedy at some point in their lives. What I do know is that a good many people felt that, in the face of their tragedy, they no longer knew how to pray and assumed it didn’t matter for them to just pour out their unbridled agony to God, or worse still, that they felt sacrilegious railing against God. Believe me when I tell you, this sacred space has heard it all.
But, perhaps they had forgotten or never knew that prayer is the practice that transforms us into persons able to carry our crosses in this life, whatever they may be. Prayer is not a magic spell that removes the cross. But it is a practice that helps us accept Jesus’ invitation to bring our burdens to him and find some rest for our souls, and, in his presence, strength to keep going.
Some say that a tragedy will either bring a couple closer or break them apart. In my experience, these are not “either/or” options, but both happen over the course of time as weathering difficult circumstances and finding completely new ways to talk to God in prayer remake us into someone who may seem the same on the outside, but inside is altogether a new creation.
Although many of the psalms are credited to David, one that I find particularly helpful to pray when I am in a dark place was written by two temple assistants, the sons of Korah. Psalm 46, a portion of which we now use in our Morning Prayer service, was possibly composed during the time that the Assyrian army had invaded Israel and surrounded Jerusalem, besieging it for months, cutting off water and food. As one way to begin this practice of prayer in desperate times, I offer it to you today in the form of a personal prayer, and encourage you to also use the psalter as a template for your own prayers.
Let us pray:
“Oh God, you are my refuge and strength, ever present with me, even in the midst of my worst trouble. And I am in trouble now, Lord. Help me, Oh God, to not be afraid, even when it feels like the earth beneath me will give way and the mountains may fall into the heart of the sea, even though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging…I know you are with me God, and will not let me fall away from your presence. Help me to still my useless busyness, and feel your strength, your wisdom, your love, and to know that you are the strong wall that surrounds me on all sides in the face of what feels overwhelming. Oh, Lord, hear my prayer.”
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
Second Sunday in Lent
February 28, 2021