In the Garden of Gethsemane, what Jesus asked of his disciples was to stay awake.

Stay awake. Stay with me.

But that proved to be too hard. They couldn’t do it. Peter, James, and John kept falling asleep. They couldn’t stay awake, because what that meant was to witness the agony of their dear teacher, their precious Messiah.
If they had stayed awake they would have witnessed Jesus at his most vulnerable, completely naked before God,
Offering to his Creator all his fear, his heartbreak, his honest desire to be spared the suffering and rejection and abandonment that he knew was coming. If the disciples had stayed awake they would have witnessed Jesus’ surrender to the fact that he will indeed have to suffer under the terrible forces of human evil.
But, such is grace that even if Peter, James, and John could not stay awake and witness Jesus’s suffering, even if they found it too unbearable and were not up to the test, even if they did more than just fall asleep but in the end they ran away and abandoned Jesus,
Such is grace that salvation is still available to them,
As it is available to us.

There is a mystery at work here, a great mystery …

The mystery of the passion and resurrection of Christ, the mystery of the cross and the empty tomb, the mystery at the heart of the Christian faith is that the distance between ourselves and our Holy Creator, that distance that can feel so severe at times,
That distance disappears
Because God, in all of God’s majesty and mystery and transcendence,
God chooses to enter into the human condition,
To take on embodiment
And to enjoy the beauties and delights of existence – turning water into wine for wedding parties –
But also to suffer the worst agonies that humans can inflict on each other.

God is with us, at our peaks and at our valleys,
God is with us, even when we feel forsaken.

God’s love knows what it is like to be powerless before evil.
God knows and witnesses the parts of human life that we may not bear to witness ourselves.
God loves us even when we refuse to love God, even when we refuse to love one another, or even to love ourselves. God’s love conquers evil.
That’s the faith that brings us through the cross and the empty grave.

God’s love conquers evil…

When we put our faith in this testimony,
When we put our trust in this mystery that there is salvation through Christ,
Then we can become liberated from the forces of sin,
We can become free and open to the tremendous power of this Love Supreme coursing through and beyond this created universe,
In all its beauty and wonder,
And in all its agony.

When we put our faith in this Love Supreme, we can have the courage to stay awake, the courage to witness, and the courage to obey and to act at the insistence of this love.

In a town in Guerrero Mexico there was a pastor named Noemi.
Gangs had gained traction in her town.
And Pastor Noemi felt the call to minister to young people and to make opportunities for them to be involved in things that where good and upbuilding and that kept them away from the influence of the gangs.
Pastor Noemi did good work. Her ministry was successful … so successful that the gangs saw that she was cutting into their recruitment. So, they started to threaten her and to threaten the young people she worked with. And the threats got so bad and her appeals to law enforcement were so fruitless that she, after a lot of soul searching, decided she had to leave.

Pastor Noemi fled north, out of the reach of the gang’s network. That meant she had to cross the boarder into the United States, seeking freedom, seeking asylum. U.S. immigration authorities detained her. Her asylum case was not taken seriously.
She ended up stuck in the Northwest Detention Center over in Tacoma.
She couldn’t afford a lawyer, and as the weeks and months dragged on it looked her case didn’t have any hope.

Now, as you may know, these immigrant detention centers are not regulated like prisons in the U.S. And often times the conditions in there are worse than in prison. Just recently the Supreme Court ruled that it’s okay to detain folks indefinitely even if they haven’t been charged with a crime, as long as they’re not citizens. You can’t do that for citizens, we have the right of “habeas corpus,” but apparently that’s not a human right that applies to any human being in our country.
Now, let me remind us that in the Roman world the cross was a punishment for non-Roman-citizens. The cross was too terrible to use on citizens.* Jesus suffered as a non-citizen.

Back to Pastor Noemi. After almost a year in this indefinite detention, she decided she’d rather die doing what she loved than rot away locked up in limbo.

So, she surrendered to deportation.

I haven’t yet been able to find out what happened to her after that – this is back in 2015. We know what we know of her story because of the work of Andrea Berg, who lived in Walla Walla for a while. And there’s a group of pastors in the Tacoma area who are allowed in to talk and pray with folks who are detained at that facility.

We can only imagine how Pastor Noemi prayed, in her holding cell. We can only imagine how her prayers echoed the prayers of her Savior in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Please take this cup from me. But not my will, but Yours.”

We know that through Christ God witnessed the good pastor. God was with her. God gave her the strength to do the works of the Love Supreme in the face of indifference and abject evil. She did the works of Love, despite the cost.

Here is a hero of our faith. Pastor Noemi is an unsung hero of our faith.

Now, there are those who will harden their hearts to her story and countless others like her. But for those of us who wish to be disciples of Jesus, it is up to us to stay awake.

Stay awake. Jesus said to his disciples, “Stay awake.”

He also said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” This doesn’t need to mean that we seek out suffering for its own sake or that we become obsessed with tragedy. This doesn’t need to mean that we go run off and make martyrs of ourselves, or that we feel guilty if we don’t.
But taking up our cross does mean that we look clearly the suffering that is already happening. We bear witness to the tragedy that’s unfolding. We look directly at he ways that evil is at work, not far away, but close to home.

We don’t run away from it. But we stay awake to it and witness and bear that cross and do the work then this calls us to as people whose faith is in the Resurrection,
As people whose hearts find their home in the full scope and power of
God’s Love Supreme, which knows no boundary or border.

In all things, through all things,
May we stay awake
And allow our hearts to respond to God’s Love Supreme.

Thanks be to God.

First Reading – John 3:16-21
For God so loved the world, that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but have life through the ages. For God did not send God’s Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be safe through him. One who believes in him escapes condemnation, while the person who does not believe in him is already condemned, because they have not believed in the only Son of God. The ground of their condemnation is this, that though the light has come into the world, people preferred the shadow to the light, because their actions were wicked. For the person who lives and evil life hates the light, and will not come to it, fearing that their actions will be exposed. But the person who lives by the truth comes into the light, so it can be clearly seen that God is in all they do.

Second Reading – Matthew 26:36-45
Then Jesus goes with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he says to the disciples, “Sit down here while I go over there and pray.”
And taking Peter and the two sons of Zebedee (James and John), he began to feel dejected and full of anguish. He says to them, “I’m so sad I could die. Stay here with me and be alert.”
And he went a little farther, lay face-down, and prayed, “Father, if it’s possible, take this cup away from me. Yet it’s not what I want, but what you want.”
And he returns to the disciples and finds them sleeping. He says to Peter, “Couldn’t you stay awake with me for one hour? Be alert and pray that you won’t be put to the test. Though the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.”
Again, for a second time he went away and prayed, “Father, if it is not possible for me to avoid this (cup) without drinking it, your will must prevail.”
And once again he came and found them sleeping, since their eyes had grown heavy. Leaving them again, he went away and prayed, repeating the same words for a third time.
Then he comes to the disciples and says to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking a rest? Look, the time is at hand. The son of humanity is being betrayed into the hands of wicked people.”

(Delivered March 11, 2018, at First Congregational church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)

*The Romans did use the cross to execute citizens found guilty of the worst treason and terrorism.