Sunday, August 2, 2015

Jesus in the Garden - A Sermon From the Heart

photo by Gethsemane 44 / flickr

I want to do something a little different this morning. I want to tell you about this picture. We’ve all seen it. Years ago it was printed on Sunday School leaflets for our children. You could find the picture in Bibles. Back before air conditioning—this picture was printed on the back of our funeral home fans. 

The original was painted by Johann Hans Hoffman, A German painter about the turn of the twentieth century. In time, it would become the most copied painting in the world. The original hangs in the foyer of the Riverside Church in New York City. It was entitled “Christ in Gethsemane”—but I call it “Jesus in the Garden.” That’s how I know it. 

Let me tell you why I want to talk about this painting. This particular painting hung for as long as I can remember in the little brick church where I grew up in Columbus, Georgia. 

I lived two blocks from the church. We lived in a four-room house in the middle of a cotton-mill village.There were four stack poles in my life during those growing up years. The little mill house we called home. The mill across the street where my parents worked for years and years. Then up the street if you turned left at the corner you would find my grade school. Bibb City School. And across the street was my church. Red-brick with tall white columns. I thought it was the most beautiful church I had ever seen.

Every Sunday the church bell would ring at five minutes to ten. And I would make my way up First Avenue, past the mill, walk two blocks past the grade school, cross the street, climb the steps and walk through the tall white columns and enter the sanctuary. I slipped into the same pew Sunday after Sunday. Half-way back I sat down on the left side. The little Hammond organ would be playing—Miss O’Kelley played it as slow as she could. Settling down I would look up, up above the centered pulpit and the choir into the face of Jesus.

The face I saw was this very picture you see today. As I looked up year after year Jesus knelt in the garden. His hands were folded before him on the rock in prayer. If you look very close in the distance you can make out the dim figures of the sleeping disciples. Further back, in the darkness you can almost see the city of Jerusalem. The only light in the painting shines from above. The light illuminates the face of Jesus. It was the face that haunted that little boy, sitting there so well well-scrubbed in his starched white shirt, as he gazed up at the picture.

There were Sundays after church when I remember making my way up through the choir loft and standing close to this picture. I can even remember reaching up and touching the velvet it was painted on. I marveled at its beauty and its power. I remember being drawn to that picture again and again. 

photo by mukerjichinmoy / flickr
We all know the story. John 18 begins the passion narrative by saying: “When Jesus had spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples across the Kidron Valley , where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered.”(vs. 1)

Judas led the soldiers to arrest Jesus. Simon Peter, in anger and defiance, pulled out a sword and lopped off the ear of one of the soldiers. Jesus strongly rebuked him. In that setting, Jesus asked Simon: “Put your sword into it sheath; shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?” (vs.11) Only here does the writer John used the word, cup. Mark employed the word several times as he spoke of Christ’s suffering. But this cup represented many things: Jesus’ pain, his agony of knowing he would face the terrible cross, staring his own death in the face. There, in the darkness, as the disciples slept, Jesus asked his Father: “…If you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22.42)

I wonder why this painting has had so much power and why people all over the world have been drawn to it year after year. Is it the cup? Is it the suffering of the Lord Jesus? Is it all the pain he would have to endure? Perhaps it really was Jesus facing his own death. Who knows? 

Perhaps so many have been moved by this picture because Jesus here identifies with us all. Here he was as human as we are
photo by Ron Zack / flickr
human. Here he agonized as we agonize. Here he railed out his questions to the Father—as we rail out. This terrible cup. Old age, children we cannot reach, the dreaded ALS or Alzheimers. The unfairness of the world. Hunger. Poverty. Injustice. ISIS. Or all the disappointments that we have struggled with year after year. Alcohol or drugs or just another shooting and yet another shooting and yet another shooting. Perhaps all over the world people looked up at the picture and remembered: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”

This picture is linked in so many ways to my own journey. On a special anniversary of my home church several years ago I was invited to preach. They had sent out 1000 invitations and nearly 400 had showed up. As I prepared for that occasion, I remembered that painting that hung over the pulpit all my growing-up years. I had not thought of that picture in twenty years or more. But sitting there in my study, it all came back—Jesus in the Garden. 

As we gathered that sunshiny Sunday morning, we shook hands, hugged one another, looked at one another’s children and remembered. And I stood to preach I looked out on a sea of faces and memory after memory washed over me. I knew so many of the folk gathered there. Salt of the earth people. Many had worked most of their lives in the mill. Years before 12 hours a day—sometimes seven days a week during the war—for very little money. Lint heads, people outside the village whispered. But that was so unfair. Those folk with fingers missing, bent over from years and years of just work and work and work and off only one week around July 4th. Many had never been outside the South. Some did not even have cars.

photo by RNRobert / flickr
I spoke from my heart that day. I told them that once upon a time there had come one who knelt in a garden prayed for the likes of us. That took his cup—and our cups, too—and he drank it all for us. And I told them that morning that if He could endure and find something redemptive in His journey—then maybe we could find something of meaning in our lives too.

That morning, my old neighbors from down the street were there to see if I could preach. My mother had told me they both were dying of cancer. On the front row was the oldest member of the church with her husband and daughter. On the second row was my mother sitting there beaming as if the President of the United States of America was speaking. Beside her was my brother bored out of his skull. Half way back was the sweetest woman I think I have ever known. A widow blinded by diabetes.

In the balcony was a woman who had come all the way from Florida for that occasion. She had been through a terrible divorce years before. Back then you just didn’t do that. And I remembered the whispers and innuendos and gossip. Divorcee! Yet that did not stop her from leading our Youth group—year after year and hauling us all over the place. Two rows from the back was my old bald-headed buddy—who twisted my arm one year and I forged his parents’ signature on his report card so he could play ball. Did not get arrested—but I did get caught. There was a little old lady there on my far left. I remembered her telling me once she started working in the mill when she was twelve years old. She had finally retired—but she had never learned to read or write. On another side was my neighbor who had lived beside us. I played with her only son. My mother had told me that five years before her boy had dropped dead of a heart attack. And there she sat alone blinking back the tears.

And I talked that Sunday about their painting and how it reminded me and I hope them, too of the good and the bad and the hard times and the funny days and even in those moments when we think we can’t stand it. Jesus was still there—praying in the Garden. Praying for the likes of us.

Months ago I heard that my home church was closing. Closing—my church. The last few years they had gone through hard times.
photo by Doran / flickr
First the mill sold all the houses and many people moved away or had died. And then the mill closed and more left. And some of those houses fell into disrepair. Some were abandoned. And most of the members had fled.

But the sad day came when they held their last service. And people came from everywhere to remember all the wondrous things that had happened in that red-brick church. Weddings and funerals and prayers said and Santa Claus, in person, walking down the aisle every Christmas and dinner on the grounds and Revivals and baptisms and occasionally running off some preacher. Year after year the church doors opened every Sunday and somebody said welcome and somebody gave out bulletins and prayed and sang and listened to the long sermons and Miss O’Kelley faithful as she played the little organ just as slow as she could. Week after week, year after year for 89 years they came after a long hard week in the mill to get something they could find nowhere else. And they did. But the church closed—someone came and took the pulpit away and someone else the Pulpit Chairs. The Hammond organ and Piano were sold.  The beautiful mahogany pews went to another church.

The Picture was still there. And nobody seemed to want it. It was too big and they did not know what to do with it. So one of the members asked my sister-in-law did she think I would like to have the picture of Jesus in the Garden. And here it is. I had no place in my house. Besides it needed to be shared with a lot of people.

photo by Bryan Sherwood / flickr
And so I talked to Rusty and the Properties Committee agreed to take this picture and hang it. We looked at several places—and finally it was decided that we would put it outside the Prayer Room. What could be more fitting.

As people will come with their own needs and the needs of others. Praying for family members. Friends. Maybe world conditions. Hopefully many would pause and look at this painting. Jesus in the Garden. For you see—he took the cup and drank it to the bitter dregs and whispered: Your will—not mine.

And maybe someone might just stop and know deep in their hearts that this is as true a word as the Gospel has—Jesus prays in the Garden for the likes of us. The Gospels say that after that he stood to face all he would face. He was alone—all of his disciples had fled. But he held his head high—knowing deep in his heart that the old promise he had given out like loaves and fishes, again and again: “I will be with you…I will be with you…I will be with you” was true for him as well.

“Take this cup from me,” he prayed. How fitting on this Communion Sunday to remember what he found there in the Garden and what we can find here. Jesus really does pray for us—one and all. And it doesn’t matter who we are or what we have done or not done—Jesus loves us all and welcomes us to this Table. That covers a whole of territory--more than we'd like to admit. Everybody.No exceptions. Everybody. Let us come, brothers and sisters, remembering his old promise—“I will be with you…” is with us too. Bringing our cups--full and running over.

(This sermon is dedicated to Porter Memorial Baptist Church, Columbus, Georgia which served their community for eighty-nine years until it closed its doors in 2013. I preached this sermon at the First Baptist Church, Clemson SC - and presented the picture of Jesus which I write about in this sermon on August 2, 2015.)

--Roger Lovette /

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