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Hands Up in the Back Row
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
May 14, 2017
A Reading from the Gospels
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
For a year in seminary, I worked at this little church outside of Trenton — we had thirty on a good Sunday — with its own unique approach to the Prayers of the People. When you came to church on Sunday morning, in the back of the sanctuary, on a little pedestal, was a spiral notebook and a pen, and it was turned to a page that said “Prayer Concerns” alongside the date. And if you had a prayer concern, you would just write it on the notepad and then take your seat. Then, during the service, during the offertory, one of the ushers would tear off that week’s sheet of prayer concerns and bring it up to the pastor and she — or, when it was my job, I — would then get to lead our prayers together with the expectation that we would mention each of the names written on the piece of paper. And of course many of those names became very familiar, they were the laments written week after week and month after month: Megan, who was still in the ICU. Bruce, who was still under hospice care. Steven, who was getting deployed one more time. The weekly prayers for peace in a world of violence, for truth in a world of corruption, for hope in a world of despair. After a while, week after week, we knew all the names, and we knew all the causes, and we knew all the stories, and I could have taken attendance at worship just based on the prayer concerns written in that spiral notebook. Those laments were who we were.
Except there was one character in the pews. It was a church full of characters, and one of them was this woman who brought her own sensibility to the list of prayer concerns, and her sensibility was that she was curiously obsessed with British royalty. And I don’t mean that she cared deeply about Will & Kate & Harry, though presumably she did. To be specific, she had a passion for the deep reaches of old landed titles that surprised me on a weekly basis. And you knew she was in church, even if you hadn’t noticed her in the pews, because it would show up in the spiral notebook of prayer concerns, and so I spent my internship cultivating a very specific skill which is how to artfully pray for the broken ankle recently suffered by the third subsidiary Earl of North Sunderbridge, who I just made up, but it sounds totally credible. Every week, it would be a different character — sub-Dukes of lower Sussex and arch-Regents of the house of Chesterton — honestly I had no idea that anything like these offices still existed, or that the royal class extended out in so many directions, and I certainly had no idea where you go to keep track of their broken ankles, but it was important to her, which meant it was important to us, so I did my best to write beautiful spontaneous prayers about the third subsidiary Earl of North Sunderbridge.
Or at least I tried. I have to confess to you that there is a challenge, which is that praying for the third subsidiary earl of North Sunderbridge kind of breaks the mood. It felt funny. It felt frivolous. Maybe it shouldn’t. I’m not proud of any of this. But it did. But we knew what our prayers were. We knew what our laments were. We knew who we were when we prayed for Megan and Bruce and Steven. We knew who we were when we prayed in the face of violence and corruption and despair. We knew all the words. We knew all the rhythms. We knew all the cadences. We knew what that language sounded like because we knew what prayers were supposed to sound like because they sounded beautiful and poignant and sad. Because they ran like a checklist through the ills of the world. Because they ran like a roster through the names we mourned and the names we grieved. Those prayers were our regular accounting of the powers of sin and death; that piece of paper was our regular enumeration of the charges we would file against evil itself in any court that would hear our case. It was grievous. It was mournful. It was the regular work of work lament. It was the worshipful work of being sad together. Never mind the joy this woman took in tracking the ups and downs of sub-Dukes and lower Regents half a world away; we knew what our prayers were, we knew they were our weekly reckoning with the brokenness of creation. And to be honest it was hard to work joy into the conversation.
Nobody wants to break the mood. Even in this moment from John’s Gospel. I’m sure many of the phrases will sound familiar, but it’s easy to forget the scene, here as John takes his time with the night of the Last Supper, with Jesus giving his parting instructions to his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. Within hours he will be arrested in the garden, barking at the disciples who lift arms to intervene. Not long afterwards he will be scorned by the Jewish authorities, interrogated by Pilate, and then rejected by the Jerusalem crowd. You know how this story goes, it goes from the table to the garden to the trial to the cross and there’s nothing funny about it, and there’s nothing frivolous about it. Jesus is talking with his friends for the last time, and the grief is already hanging in the air. His death casts as a predictive shadow across this entire conversation and across this entire enterprise; his friends don’t want to say good-bye, nobody wants to say good-bye, but here we are, here in this solemn sacred time, here we are with these disciples making their charge against the evil of the world that will take their friend from their midst. Here we are, and Jesus tells them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
“Do not let our hearts be troubled.” Really? Do you know where we are, Jesus? Do you know what this is? Do you know why we’re here? I know you do — you’ve been telling us for days, you’ve been telling us for chapters now that it would be Jerusalem and betrayal and prosecution and death so here we are because you told us to come along and here we are because you said take this bread and this cup and so here we are because we love you and we want one last night with you but we reserve the right to trouble our hearts. I mean, come on. Get serious. This is serious. This whole thing should be serious. This is a serious enterprise. This is a troubling enterprise. And we will trouble our hearts if we want to. And we will trouble our hearts because we need to. And we will trouble our hearts because we have to. Because look where we are. Look what this is. Look why we’re here. Look at us reckoning right with the brokenness of creation. Look at us enumerating the charges. Look at us making our checklist through the ills of the world. It’s a troubling thing. It’s a troubling moment. It’s a troubling world. Look at us, with our troubling hearts, having the only sane response in the room.
But of course Jesus still knows a few things. He knows what this trouble really is. It’s not just grief alone, or sadness alone, which would be healthy enough. Jesus knows that this trouble is something else, it’s something like anxiety, it’s something like cowardice, it’s something like fear. Elsewhere in John’s Gospel this same verb shows up to describe the waters in the public bath that gets disturbed, stirred up, troubled again, like the butterflies in your stomach that stay asleep and compliant until the moment of crisis comes and then here they are, all aflutter, all disturbed, and now we’re paralyzed, now we’re anxious, now we’re terrified. But of course Jesus needs disciples who can confront the days to come without anxiety or paralysis or terror. Jerusalem is exploding. The flash point is at hand, and the ministry to which he sends them will be dangerous and difficult work. New Testament Scholar Gail O’Day writes of this verse that “Jesus does not speak to the disciples’ personal sadness at his death, but instead exhorts them to stand firm in the face of his departure, when the events may look to them as if evil and death are having their way.” Do not let your hearts be troubled. The world will give you all you can handle.
But you will abide in joy. In joy. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Troubled hearts won’t help anything. I need you to have joy. The kind of joy that keeps you steadfast. The kind of joy that keeps you resolute. The kind of joy that stands in the face of evil and death with courage. What if joy is the very cornerstone of who we are called to be? After all, you know the prayer list as well as I do. Megan is still in the ICU. Bruce is still under hospice. Steven is still deployed. You know the prayer list as well as I do: this violent world still needs peace; this corrupt world still needs truth. We could spend all day and all night making our exhaustive account of the signs of evil and death. We could number them like the stars. We could catalog them like some great taxonomy. We could inspect them like some microscopic anatomy. We could measure what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the crack that runs through all creation. But without joy. Without also joy. Without some cultivation of joy, without some insistence on joy, without some discipleship of joy, without some circulation of joy, without some respiration of joy, without some joy that winds its persistent way in and through us like the waters of the grace of God. Without joy, we won’t have anything left for the fight.
At my last church in Virginia, we didn’t bother with the spiral notebook. When it came time for the Prayers of the People, the custom at Amherst Presbyterian Church was simply that we would open up to the floor to give anybody who needed it a chance to share their own prayer requests — “What joys and concerns do you have to share with the congregation and with God,” I would say, every week, never entirely knowing what would come next. Well, I knew some of it. Some of it was steadfast and predictable, like taking attendance: Megan is still in the ICU, we hear. It’s been months, we’ve been praying for her for months, but that doesn’t mean we need to stop now. And Bruce, well, it’s hospice, and we all know how this ends, and there wasn’t much new this week, I mean, I visited a few times, but it’s all still the same, it’s unchanged, the clock’s ticking, and still we need your prayers. And Steven. Well, we don’t even know where he is. He can’t tell us, it’s the way these deployments go. Maybe we get to hear from him at Easter. We just stay in the dark. We don’t have anything to tell you. There’s no news. Just prayers. And we would all nod our heads, yes, that’s how it is. And we would all shake our heads, no, that’s not how it should be. And I could see the room sag. I could feel us resign ourselves to the days to come, and it was all too comfortable. These prayers were who we were, gathered there with our troubled hearts.
But the next thing would take courage. After all, nobody wants to break the mood. Nobody wants to step on these well-earned laments. Nobody wants to steal the oxygen away from these real moments of grief and catharsis. But at the same time. Sometimes. Some weeks, somebody in the back row would raise a hand, and I’d call on them, and they’d stand up and they’d say, “Well, I have a joy.” And for a second, we’d all kind of gasp, all the oxygen would disappear, like “Didn’t you read the room? I know I asked for “joys and concerns” but I didn’t really mean it, this is the time when we run our accounting of the powers of sin and death. That’s what we do. That’s who we are.” But sometimes moods need to be broken. And so then we’d hear the Gospel. I’m so thankful, they’d say from the back row. My daughter was home from college for a few days and it was so good to spend time with her. OR: Our parents have moved into a smaller place together and I’m so glad they have some support. OR: I woke up this morning, and the knee doesn’t hurt quite like it did last week, and I’m thankful. I’m thankful. I’m glad. I’m joyful. It was the Gospel: that even against the uncountable sins of the world, here are the things that keep us going. Here are the things that keep us living. Here are the things that give us joy.
They were little things, of course. Arthritis not so bad today. Flowers in my garden taking to the springtime air. Chance moments with friends and family. On the aggregate, if you counted it all up, the things we were thankful for were so much smaller than the things we were lamenting, but it hardly mattered. This wasn’t about math. It was about breath. And a soon as the hands in the back row went up, and as soon as somebody raised their voice up, and as soon as we heard “I have a joy,” then, we could all breathe again. Then, it was like we could all <———> breathe again. It went out like ripples over the water. It went out like color spilling back into the morning. It was infectious. It was like the whole church, row by row, pew by pew, broken heart by broken heart, it was like the whole church had come back from the dead. So here’s the Gospel: it’s hard out there. We’re gonna need joy. It’s broken out there. We’re gonna need joy. The mood is grim, but sometimes the mood needs to be broken, so we’re gonna need joy, like we need breath itself. You’re gonna have to want it. You’re gonna have to seek it. You’re gonna have to seek the joy of small moments. You’re gonna have to seek the joy of tender things. You’re gonna have to seek the joy that seeks God even in troubling times. But I promise you. When you find it. When you feel it. When you have the conviction of it. When you can raise your hand from the back row and stand up in the midst of the congregation and speak into that solemn sacred time “I have a joy” — “I have a joy!” — “I have a joy!!!” — I promise you we will all come back to life.