Wind in Our Sails: Our Presence

Mark 14:37-42

Today we’re going to try to better understand how to fill the sails on the second mast of our five-masted ship, which carries us toward the resurrection we celebrate at Easter.

Last week, we looked at the mast of prayer; this week, we’ll see how the mast of presence helps drive us along.

As far as today’s Scripture is concerned, we’re picking up in Mark where we left off last Sunday. Jesus was praying for the strength to follow Father God’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the midst of that intense process, he went to check on the three disciples he took along, Peter, James and John. Jesus found them asleep—even Simon Peter, the assertive disciple who only recently had pledged to stand by Jesus even unto death.

“Simon, are you asleep?” Jesus asked, his rhetorical question capturing the irony of the moment. “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.”

Two more times Jesus returned to find them similarly asleep, suffering from a drowsiness that seems to me more the work of the devil than the result of any physical exhaustion.

“Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners,” Jesus said. “Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.” Jesus then was arrested and taken down the rocky, thorn-strewn path toward crucifixion.

I have no doubt that Jesus’ followers had many moments they would have handled differently if “do overs” were possible. They would have been by Jesus’ side as he prayed in anguish. They certainly would have stayed with Jesus and spoken up for him at his trial and crucifixion rather than denying knowing him and hiding. Nearly all of those do overs would be tied to their level of presence in both a physical and spiritual sense.

I am sympathetic to their situation. We, of course, are blessed with a full understanding of the story. The disciples were struggling with the collapse of their high expectations as their teacher faced torture and ultimately murder on a cross.

They could not comprehend what Christians now declare, that this death was only temporary. The core of our belief system is this: Jesus rose from the dead, resurrected, remade, inaugurating God’s remaking of all creation, rescuing us from sin.

Even knowing what we know, however, our biggest problem may be the failure of many of our own church members to be fully present. There are many in the American church who call Jesus “Savior,” perhaps even attending church regularly, but who are for all practical purposes asleep in the garden at a critical time.

It’s not a new problem. In the 18th century, Methodism became a British religious movement as a response to the lukewarm, Laodicean behavior of the Anglican church.

In one of John Wesley’s more famous sermons, “Awake Thou That Sleepest,” the founder of Methodism expressed his deep concern for those content with this life, particularly if they were outwardly religious but not particularly engaged with God or with the work God is doing in this world through the resurrection.

“Awake, thou everlasting spirit, out of thy dream of worldly happiness!” Wesley said. “Did not God create thee for himself? Then, thou canst not rest till thou restest in him. Return, thou wanderer!”

In modern times, the problem is similar, but worse, I think. We have more to distract us, more to keep us feeling content until our time in this world is all used up.

We are tired because we do too much that is not really of God’s will. And when it comes to worship (loving God) and active engagement in Christian ministry (loving our neighbors), we treat those activities as just more items on a troublesome to-do list rather than the priorities they are.

In short, we fail to be present. We stop being present spiritually, simply going through the motions, acting like what Wesley called an “Almost Christian.” Once there, we’re not far from reducing or ending our physical presence, withdrawing from church and ministry, and quietly hoping we bought enough fire insurance with our baptism to cover our eternal souls.

If any of this is sounding uncomfortably true, the answer is to engage in a little spiritual warfare. I am convinced that this problem goes beyond simple apathy. We are under attack, and the best weapon Satan has found in the 21st century may be distraction.

Distract them with material wants, and they’ll miss seeing the needs of others. Distract them with entertainment—sports, television, sports on television—and they’ll think they’re much busier than they actually are, lacking time to worship God.

Fire these weapons accurately and often, and one day these Almost Christians wake up to realize their best years are behind them, even if they are surrounded by lots of stuff. All they have left is a longing for Christ and no way to make up lost time.

I sincerely believe Christ’s grace remains available even to those who learn only late in life the value of being present in Christ’s church both spiritually and physically. We are saved by the grace of God, not by our works.

It’s still good to say thanks for eternal life, however, to respond to such a tremendous gift from God with all the loving presence we can muster.

Actively loving God and our neighbors from the day of our baptism until the day our bodies give out is one of the best ways I know to offer such thanks, particularly when you consider it is how God asks us to respond.

Wind in Our Sails: Our Prayers

To move more swiftly as a church, we need to better understand the commitments we made when joining Cassidy UMC. You may recall pledging your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and, if you joined in recent years, your witness.

Think of a five-masted sailing ship. Each mast represents one part of our pledge, and we don’t want to let the sails on any of those masts go slack through inattention. If we do, we miss our opportunity to catch the wind that is always blowing, the Holy Spirit.

This week, I want us to focus on our pledge to pray. Few Christians would openly decline to call prayer important, but I’m also very aware of the large number of Christians who struggle with what prayer really means, how it works, or why it’s important.

Jesus, of course, taught us to pray. The classic example is where he said, “Pray then in this way,” and then taught us what we now call the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus also showed us how to pray while he was in more difficult situations, and I think it would be instructive for us to look at what may have been his lowest moment on earth.

I’m working from Mark 14:32-36; there are similar passages in Matthew and Luke. I say Jesus was at his lowest point here because the full reality of his impending torture and crucifixion had settled on him, but he had yet to find solace and strength from God the Father.

“In effect, Jesus stepped beyond the circle of light cast by God’s presence into pitch blackness in the jungle of evil,” writes biblical scholar and preacher David L. McKenna. “Before this moment, He had theoretically accepted the responsibility for bearing the sins of the whole world. Now, terror tells Him what it really means.”

Jesus’ humanity was on full display; he described himself to his disciples as “deeply grieved, even to death.” With no alternate routes around the cross visible, Jesus threw himself on the ground and began to pray, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

Even in his perfection Jesus did not want to face his terrible suffering to come. He prayed earnestly and in very personal terms to Father God, using the Aramaic word for “Dad,” the same word Jewish children might use in speaking in a familiar way to their fathers.

It was Jesus’ hope that God the Father, who retained full divine knowledge and understanding, perhaps knew a less painful solution hidden from the Son, who also was fully God but limited in knowledge by his temporal flesh.

In the prayer, however, there also was recognition that the cross very likely was the only way for the Father’s will to come to fruition. God’s will ultimately is a positive, wonderful result for all humanity. God wills that we do not suffer for our sins.

Only Jesus in his suffering and death could make fulfillment of God’s will possible, however, and his “not what I want, but what you want” shows us the deepest goal of prayer. Prayer should lead us to put aside our will, our desires, and replace all of that with God’s will in every circumstance.

This is a very Methodist concept. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, wanted people to understand the need for “sanctification,” that process Christians undergo after turning their lives over to Christ. It largely is a process of becoming more Christlike in our thoughts and actions, learning to love others as Christ has loved the world.

When we love in such a way, our will becomes more and more conformed to God’s will.

For those of you who want to pursue sanctification by deepening your prayer lives, I’ll offer just a couple of brief ideas. We can better develop these ideas in other settings, such as Sunday school or in prayer groups.

There are lots of ways to pray, ranging from highly formal to very informal. As we’re a supposedly busy people, I’ll group them broadly according to time commitments.

It is very healthy for any Christian to learn to commit a block of time to prayer each day. If you’re just starting to pray in an organized, committed way, it may be that 15 minutes will seem like a long time to you. Commit at least to that; in that time, find how you best commune with God, remembering that the goal is to understand and follow God’s will. If you want to discuss the “hows” of such prayer further, I’m always happy to have that conversation.

I also find it useful to try to lift up little prayers throughout the day. For example, if you see a person in need of prayer, pray then and there, even if it is with your eyes open, going about your business. Such prayers, I think, keep us constantly seeking the will of God in our everyday lives—we become more conscious of how God is working in the world and remember to seek God’s will in every moment.

Next week, we’ll talk about filling the sails on our second mast, presence.

Wind in Our Sails

I plan to spend the next five Sundays in a seafaring mood, talking about how our church can have the weather gauge in our battle with the devil.

Now, I’m no sailor. And “weather gauge,” used in the context of ships going to war, is an antiquated term, better suited to the wind-driven ships of Admiral Horatio Nelson than the nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers of today. But I like the metaphor all the same.

What little I know of sea battles comes from books, specifically stories in what fans call the “Aubrey-Maturin series.” Through 20 books, author Patrick O’Brian tells an ongoing tale of early 19th-century British captain Jack Aubrey and his close friend, Stephen Maturin, a shipboard surgeon who occasionally disembarks to work as a spy. During the last three years or so, I’ve read 15 of these books. Yes, I instead should have been deepening my understanding of theology or New Testament Greek, but we all have our weaknesses.

What makes these stories fun is simple: These sailing men (and the occasional woman, sometimes smuggled aboard) are going places all over the world. As any dog or small child will attest, it’s just fun to go. And in the early 19th century, if you were going to go somewhere far fast, you needed the wind to fill your sails.

Having the wind working for you also helped when you encountered the enemy in your travels. Having the weather gauge meant that you were windward of the enemy, capable of charging down upon them at the time of your choosing, guns blazing. Such a position didn’t guarantee success, but

Battle of the Nile

most captains preferred to have the weather gauge. In the words of the aforementioned Nelson, “Never mind about maneuvers, go straight at ’em.”

Despite how grounded our church buildings may seem, the church itself moves through an ocean of time, headed for a place so spectacular as to be almost unimaginable. The Enemy hopes to sink us before we arrive, of course.

The Holy Spirit is the wind that keeps us moving and gives us the weather gauge against evil Captain Scratch. When you join the Methodist Church, you promise to do your part to keep our sails rigged using five tools: your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness.

Prepare to weigh anchor.