Beginning with the Letter M
“Whoever belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” —John 18:37
Just as summer is coming to an end, our sermon series on the Gospel of John, too, is in its concluding weeks. We hope that these last two sermons will bear a mark of summer: today’s sermon takes place in a garden, and Jo Forrest’s sermon next week takes place at the beach.
When you picture a garden, what do you imagine? What is a garden, in your mind’s eye?
- Is it your own backyard? The pulsing sound of cicadas and the blink of lightening bugs? Is it a peaceful evening outside after dinner, when the street noise is barely audible and airplanes buzz past unnoticed?
- Do you think of long afternoons spent meandering through the Botanic Garden, the Lurie Garden, the Lincoln Park Conservatory? Drinking in the manicured hedgerows and every kind of rose under the sun? The flourishing fountains and blossoms unbound?
- When you think of a garden, do you think of a place you’ve been to once, with friends, a hundred years ago it seems? Or a place you go to often, a place nearby where people might expect you to be, any evening in late summer? A place where you are known?
Where you belong? Where you can just be?
Today’s story takes place in a garden, just after dinner. The disciples are there with full bellies and full hearts because Jesus has just said goodbye. It is, as we call it, his last supper.
He knows he’s about to die, and he’s been telling his disciples this all along—but whether they’ve understood him is another question. And so, after supper, Jesus goes to a garden, just beyond the walls of Jerusalem proper, to wait.
You’ll be familiar with this scene. And maybe after years of hearing this story, you’ll wonder why Jesus doesn’t pray, “Abba, take this cup from me,” or you’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t chide his disciples for falling asleep while he’s praying.
Nope. This is a completely different gospel, the Gospel of John, where Jesus is courageous and in control. Let us listen for God in the midst of this reading from the Gospel of John.
After he said these things, Jesus went out with his disciples and crossed over to the other side of the Kidron Valley. He and his disciples entered a garden there. Judas, his betrayer, also knew the place because Jesus often gathered there with his disciples. Judas brought a company of soldiers and some guards from the chief priests and Pharisees. They came there carrying lanterns, torches, and weapons. Jesus knew everything that was to happen to him, so he went out and asked, “Who are you looking for?” They answered, “Jesus the Nazarene.” He said to them, “I Am.” (Judas, his betrayer, was standing with them.) When he said, “I Am,” they shrank back and fell to the ground. He asked them again, “Who are you looking for?” They said, “Jesus the Nazarene.” Jesus answered, “I told you, ‘I Am.’ If you are looking for me, then let these people go.” This was so that the word he had spoken might be fulfilled: “I didn’t lose anyone of those whom you gave me.” Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) Jesus told Peter, “Put your sword away! Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given me?” Then the company of soldiers, the commander, and the guards from the Jewish leaders took Jesus into custody. They bound him and led him first to Annas. He was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. (Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jewish leaders that it was better for one person to die for the people.)
Please pray with me: Holy Spirit, guide us. Holy Spirit, lead us. Holy Spirit, hover over us. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be holy and acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
School is beginning: tomorrow for some, last week for others, a week from now for the lucky few. As our preschool teachers have emerged from the far reaches of summer, they returned to the church in full force this week, putting rooms together, adding the names of their new students to cubbies and desks, bonding again with their teaching team, and reviewing again the plan for the year.
Did you know that our preschoolers learn the letter M first? In the first weeks of September, they won’t begin at the beginning with A, but instead they will begin at a different kind of beginning with the letter M. I was as surprised as some of you, but then even more delighted when I understood why. The letter M is, admittedly, a pretty great letter, yes? Mighty and metrical, like matching mountains standing side by side. You can’t have the classic Children’s book, “If you give a moose a muffin” without the letter M. You can’t have mom without the letter M. But that’s not why the preschool starts with M. No, it’s much more grounded than that.
In these first few weeks of school—when putting the cap back on the marker is a daunting task, let alone knowing how to find the bathroom, and being away from the sweet rhythms of home is even more shocking, our preschoolers need something to hold onto—something familiar, something close. And so, they start with the letter M, and the word “Me.” They begin, not at some self-centered, egocentric, self-absorbed, self-seeking, self-involved “Me,” but with the familiar, mundane, recognizable, unceremonious, ordinary, everyday “Me.” Only then, once they have shared the most basic of what they know about themselves with the class, can they begin to move outward toward knowing what family is, what friend is, what neighbor is, what the world is. There is so much that is new and unfamiliar with preschool: new friends, unfamiliar classrooms, new teachers, unfamiliar expectations. Starting with the letter M and the word “Me” can turn what looks like chaos—the unfamiliar, unexplored depths of the classroom—into an ordered rhythm, something familiar and beloved.
We, too, begin with the letter M, so to speak. We begin with what is familiar. Worship begins with the doxology, the familiar rhythm of “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” Football games begin with “Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light.” The day begins with coffee. The morning begins with sunrise, the evening ends with sunset. We seek an ordinary rhythm to our lives, something familiar and beloved, so that we can turn toward the more difficult less ordered chaos of life: the unforeseen accident, the unanticipated medical bill, the unpredicted diagnosis, the sudden move, the abrupt change, the unannounced earth shattering argument. Life bears the mark of chaos, so we begin with the Letter M, we begin with the familiar.
Today’s gospel lesson has a dose of the familiar, too: it isn’t hard to imagine Jesus and his disciples taking an after-dinner walk. It isn’t too hard to imagine Jesus and his disciples walking around in a garden. It isn’t too hard to imagine Jesus and his disciples having a regular hang out, a favorite spot, a meeting place, a refuge, a home away from home, a place where all the disciples—Judas included—might know to gather after dinner. And, at this point in the story, if you’ve been reading along in the Gospel of John, you’ve heard Jesus say over and over again that his death was approaching, it was expected, anticipated, looming on the horizon. So, even this arrest in the garden should not be a surprise. The whole story—the whole gospel—points in this direction, and so we—the readers of this story—have been prepared to see it unfold.
Don’t get me wrong: the surprises of this story have been delightful too.
- I was surprised to learn that the cohort of Roman soldiers who come to arrest Jesus in the gospel of John could be upwards of 600 men—quite the use of force.
- I was stunned that Jesus could then topple that cohort with just two words—I am. Those two words—I am—point back to the ancient beloved story of Moses at the burning bush, where God declares “I am who I am” and thus, Jesus is saying to those who have come to arrest him—“I am” just as God is.
- And I was shocked by the way this story’s rhythm takes us all the way to the end of the story—or so we think—where Judas hands Jesus over to the Jewish Authorities, and then the Jewish Authorities hand Jesus over to Pilate and the Roman Authorities, and then Pilate hands Jesus over to the Soldiers, and finally Jesus hands his spirit over to God. This arrest takes us all the way to Good Friday’s scandalous, cruel, terrifying, frantic, and frightening end.
- And finally, I was surprised by the lyric symmetry of this important story: that in the Gospel of John, Jesus was arrested in a garden, crucified in a garden, buried in a garden, witnessed anew in a garden.
You see, when I think of a garden, or at least lately, when I think of a garden, I’ve been thinking of a particular garden. It’s not actually a garden I’ve been to. It’s a garden that belongs to a family I met a while back, a family that has been on my mind as of late. I met them—we’ll call them John and Karen and their son Brian—on a mission trip. My church was staying at the same mission house as their church, and our projects overlapped. John and Karen and Brian had gone on mission trips to this same mission house for many years, and this particular year, the year I met them, would be their last, at least for a while.
John and Brian wanted to take one more trip, and they thought it might be important for all of them. Karen had been diagnosed with a form of early onset Alzheimer’s and was still yet in those high functioning days. She could travel. She could be with family. She could be with the church family that she loved. And so they went.
Through them, I learned a new kind of love—love expressed by Karen, sweeping and sweeping and sweeping at the construction site—her smiling, friendly, freckled face gracing our mission. Love expressed by John and Brian caring for Karen as she navigated the familiar yet increasingly unfamiliar landscape of a place she’d been to a dozen times. Love expressed by the women of the church who tended to Karen at night in the women’s bunkhouse. Meeting John and Karen and their son Brian was meeting love embodied.
When I think of a garden, I think of John and Karen and their son Brian, because when they went home after that mission trip, to face the long journey of Alzheimer’s, they went home to their garden—a garden shop that John and Karen had tended together. Customers of their garden shop became like family to John and Karen. They cared deeply for the community that was built there. And so, the days went by when Karen could be with John at the garden shop, because it was familiar, because it was mundane, recognizable, unceremonious, and ordinary. Because it wrapped Karen up in routine. Within the chaos of a disease that erases even the most familiar, the garden shop could, for a while yet, be a place of home.
When Jesus was in the garden, he turned courageously to those who had come to arrest him. He knew they were coming, mind you. But he turned courageously nonetheless, for the sake of the least, the lost, the little, the belittled. He turned courageously, not just for himself, or just for the sake of some cosmic sense of justice, but for the sake of those with whom he had walked: The Samaritan woman and the woman caught in adultery, the tax collector and the sinner. He He walked out in courage to face those who had come out to arrest him. He walked out in courage.
One author says that faith approximates courage, courage that the trembling margin between chaos and order, where both God and the world are made known.[i]
- John and Karen and their son Brian have faith: a faith that approximates courage. Courage in the face of the unordered chaos of Alzheimer’s, that undoes and erases even what is most familiar, and fresh in that uncertainty, found refuge in the garden shop, that could, for however long, be a place of home.
- Our preschoolers have faith: a faith that approximates courage. Courage in the face of the unordered chaos of all things new: classmates and teachers, learning and community. And fresh in that uncertainty, will find refuge in the letter M, and the word “Me” and the comforts of beginning with what is most naturally, innocently familiar.
- Our world has faith: a faith that approximates courage. Courage in the face of the unordered chaos of all things: Louisiana found courage in the face of the floods, Italy found courage in the face of the Earthquake, Syria finds courage daily in its unending Civil War perpetuated by forces beyond their small state.
What is it for you? Does your faith approximate courage, even now, even today? Have you unearthed a tangible courage in the face of the unordered chaos of this life? Life bears the mark of chaos, so we begin with the Letter M, we begin with the familiar. And in doing so, we receive, again, the gift of faith, in the form of courage approximated. May it be so.
Let us pray: God, in faith—with courage approximated—we give our lives into the unordered chaos, bravely facing what unfolds before us. Hold us as we lift our prayers before you. Amen.
[i] Catherine Keller and Laurel C. Schneider, Polydoxy: Theology of Multiplicity and Relation, 2011 p. 159