March 25, 2018 (Palm Sunday) — Rev. Paula Norbert
In our reading today, we remember the last night that Jesus spent with his disciples, when he invites three of them to accompany him to the Garden at Gethsemane while he spends some time in prayer. He anticipates what he will soon be facing and he asks his close friends to be with him in these desperate moments while he speaks to God. Sadly, we know that they fall asleep during a time when he most needs them to keep vigil with him. Three times, he returns to find them sleeping and he seems heartsick that they cannot stay awake long enough to be with him during this very difficult night. Let us pray, Gracious God, be with us this day as we remember the night Jesus spent with his friends and help us to be mindful that you are always with us, even in the darkest nights. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
I have an old friend named Dennis whose journey has not been an easy one. I met him several years after college through a mutual friend. Dennis had grown up and attended Boston University where he was a fairly carefree guy, a bit of a partier, a swimmer and a very funny person when he was with his close friends. After college, he felt drawn to pursue a faith based service program in the country of Belize in Central America. One day, he and one of his friends brought a group of children to go swimming at a nearby beach. At one point, Dennis decided to dive into the cool waves and in an instant, his life was forever changed. In that dive, he broke his neck and became paralyzed from the neck down. His work friend ran to get help and they took an old door and placed Dennis on it as a sort of body splint, knowing there was damage to his spinal cord.
I did not meet him until a few years after this accident, but I invited him to come speak to my students one day in a college course I was teaching called The Spiritual Journey, and Dennis shared some of the details of this story. He told these college age juniors and seniors about his early and dreadful reactions to his terrible accident. When a priest friend arrived on the scene, he kept asking him, “Why did this happen to me? Did I do something wrong in my life and this is my punishment?” But this wise man told him, “The human body is very fragile, and if you break your neck, this is what happens.” It is not God’s will that you suffer. God suffers with you.” Well, this turned out to be immensely helpful to Dennis in the extended period of rehab that Dennis ultimately went through. As a young 23 year old healthy young man, the thought that his body was fragile seemed unthinkable until this accident. It’s amazing what we take for granted, isn’t it?
Dennis eventually was able to move into independent housing with a roommate and caretakers would come in to help him with so many of his needs. He worked with people with spinal cord injuries and pursued graduate studies with the help of friends and personal assistants. He shared an important story with my students about a night when his roommate was away overnight. The care attendant had prepared him for bed and gotten him all set and ready to sleep and then he left. Sometime in the middle of the night, Dennis’s body experienced involuntary muscle spasms and he was propelled out of his bed. He spent that night stuck halfway between his bed and the floor jammed to the wall and, as you may imagine, it was a very long night for him. He wondered if he would die that night, and… over the time since his accident, there had been plenty of times when he wondered if he really wanted to go on living. But what became abundantly clear as the hours dragged by and he spoke to God in the silence of that room was that he did want to live and that he really believed that God had an important purpose for his life.
That night, Dennis had moments when he did feel utterly alone and he was in a place of despair….and he may have said something like, “My soul is sorrowful unto death…” but in that quiet, he reached out to God for some glimmer of hope.
I am sure we all have experienced at some point in our lives that sense of feeling utterly alone when despair and hopelessness may wash over us. And often, in the dark of night, we have a heightened awareness of the ways in which our friends or family have not been there for us in the ways we may have needed…Certainly for Jesus, that night in the garden was just such a night…a night when he hoped that his closest friends, the ones who had journeyed with him during his years of public ministry, that those men would stay awake with him during a time when he felt great despair and sorrow overwhelm him. He even told his friends, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here and keep awake.” But they were unable to be there for him in his hour of great need. In his time of prayer, he asks God to ‘remove this cup from me’ as he anticipates his betrayal. And then he says, not what I want but what you want… It is in this time of prayer, in the darkness of that night and in the darkness of his own heart, he does realize that he is not utterly alone, that, in fact, God is with him and will continue to be with him as the hours of betrayal and suffering unfold. I would imagine that this understanding, this certainty that in fact he was not completely alone, must have given him the strength to endure the tremendous physical and emotional, and yes, spiritual suffering that he would experience in the hours ahead.
Sometimes, those very darkest hours of the night when we do feel utterly alone may bring us a depth of clarity that we would not come to otherwise. For my friend Dennis, it was the absolute realization that he wanted to continue living and that with the help of God, he still had important things to do with his life. Jesus himself says, not my will, but thy will be done. When we feel at our most vulnerable, we may come to appreciate our utter dependence on God, and the absolute certainty that God is with us, even when we feel that no one else is.
One of the vivid memories I shared with Dennis was of a friend and I accompanying him to a Good Friday Service at a church in Boston one year. The church was only dimly lit and people were invited to come forward to venerate the large, wooden cross which had been placed in front of the altar. Dennis made his way in his wheel chair, which he moved through a mouth piece on his own, and he positioned himself in front of that cross and he sat there and prayed.
When we feel at our lowest point in life, and sadly, we may find ourselves there more than once in the course of a lifetime, Jesus reminds us to be still and wait on God…and just listen, for we are not utterly alone. Our God is a faithful God and our God suffers with us, of that I am certain.