Gethsemane & the Gita

Gethsemane & the Gita

By Kat Liu

Delivered at the First UU Church of Second Life

On April 1st, 2010

Reading:

From the book of Matthew, chapter 26, verses 36-46:

Then Jesus went with [his disciples] to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to [them], ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you will not have to be tested… Again he went away for the second time and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed …

Sermon:

Gethsemane and the Gita

There is a reason why I wanted to lead the service this particular week, this Thursday before Easter, Maundy Thursday. According to the story in the bible, it was on Thursday that Jesus and his disciples held what is called “The Last Supper” – when they broke bread and drank wine together for the last time. After which, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed, was apprehended, beaten and interrogated overnight, and then crucified the following day, known as Good Friday.

So the story goes.

Now, I know that it is not without risk that I preach about the Passion Story at a UU service. In fact, I would not be surprised if one or two of you have already logged off, if not physically then at least mentally. But for those of you who are still listening, please hear me out.

Of the many positive traits that Unitarian Universalists are known for, one is our tolerance for diversity, openness, willingness to learn. But that same tolerance does not always extend to Christianity. Often, one can talk about stories from Buddhism and Hinduism and many other faith traditions in a UU setting much more easily than one can about stories from the bible. If I stood up here and told you how Isis painstakingly collected the parts of Osiris after his brother Set had betrayed him and cut him into pieces, and resurrected him, few would protest “But you can’t prove that Osiris even lived!” Instead, we might talk about what the story could mean, what different events symbolize, and maybe even how we might relate to it today.

In contrast, a good number of UUs might be ok with talking about Jesus just so long as it’s only the parables and the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus as human teacher. But if I start talking telling the story about Jesus dying on the cross as part of God’s plan, my guess is that even if you are too polite to say it, a significant number will be thinking “That isn’t true.”

And I’m not asserting that it is true. What I am suggesting is that there may still be something that we can learn from the story. Often times liberals will dismiss the bible as “myth" and what we’re saying is that it didn’t really happen that way in history. But myth has a deeper meaning than just not being historical. Saying that Columbus sailed in 1972 is not historically accurate, but that doesn’t qualify it as a myth. Myths carry truths bigger than just history.

So what I would like to do tonight is suggest that we take the claim – “That story is a myth” – seriously. Meaning that we set aside the question of whether it “really happened” and look to see whether it seems “true” in some other way.

And at the same time, I’d like to juxtapose another story – one from the Hindu tradition. One that I’ll probably have no trouble convincing you to approach as myth, but with which you might not be as familiar – that of Arjuna the archer.

Jesus and Arjuna. Two men on the brink of something momentous, undergoing existential crisis, talking with their God – or, if you prefer, mulling things over with their higher self. ;)

Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane pleading with his Father on the eve of what he knows will be his death, and Arjuna, the great warrior, talking with Lord Krishna, on the eve of an epic battle where he will have to kill family and friends. Whether you believe that either of these are accountings of Divine Will or just made up stories is not the point. The more interesting question is what these stories might mean for us today.

Let me start with Jesus. And many of you may be familiar with his story, as accounted in the Gospels.

Here he is. He’s been touring the country for about three years now and has developed quite a following. A group of people travel with him everywhere he goes. Just a few days ago (Palm Sunday), he entered the city of Jerusalem to adoring crowds, proclaiming him king. But he knows that he’s about to lose everything.

It doesn’t matter how he knows this. Whether it’s because he’s God, or overheard Judas talking to the Sadducees, or has a keen sense of intuition, or maybe the author just writes the story that way. The point is that Jesus knows that something very hard is coming up that he doesn’t want to do. “Father,” he says, “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” In other words “I don’t want to do this. Please don’t make me.”

He is now alone. Judas has betrayed him. Even his most loyal disciple, Peter, can’t stay awake with him in his time of need. In the version of this story according to Luke, it even says that he’s so stressed that he sweats blood! He is in anguish. He is scared. He so does not want to go through with what is facing him that he is pleading.

But…

He still says “not what I want but what you want” and “your will be done.”

Some people will hear this and focus on the interpretation that God wanted a blood sacrifice. But what captivates my attention is him saying, I don’t want to do this (whatever “this” is), but *if* I have to, I will. If the circumstances demand it.

To me, this is the true power of the Passion Story. If you see Jesus as an omnipotent God who knows he’s going to be resurrected, then what’s the big deal? Instead, Jesus in the Garden is much more like a human being under extraordinary circumstances who says “I don’t want to go through with this, but I will if I have to... If the circumstances demand it.”

Unitarian Universalists adore Martin Luther King Jr., and rightfully so. What we sometimes forget is that he was a Christian minister. I don’t know how many of you have been to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA. It’s the home congregation of Dr. King, where his father had preached, and where he preached after his father retired. It is at Ebenezer Baptist Church that King first taught the doctrine of non-violence.

The congregation has since moved to a larger, modern building across the street but the original building is now part of a National Historical Site. And if you visit it, what you will see on the back wall of the sanctuary, above the pulpit, so that every person can see it, is a stained glass window of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Just think of what that image and that story must have meant for Dr. King. Jesus on his knees praying, “God, please don’t make me go through with this. I’m scared. I don’t want to do it. But I will if I have to.”

Think what King might have felt as he sat in jail in Birmingham. Or the night before Selma. At any given time, he could have stayed in Atlanta, where the situation was better. Heck, he could have had the pulpit of a Unitarian church in DC (my home congregation, All Souls) and been quite comfortable. It was offered to him. Instead, he chose to lead a movement that could and did get him killed. Because he knew he had to. The situation demanded it.

But surely there were times when he was scared and tempted to pack it up and go home.
King learned non-violence from Gandhi but it was the thought of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane that pulled him through.

And what can the story mean for us?

Heroes aren’t necessarily the brawny guy who knows no fear and is just itching to fight for his country. In fact, in most cases, not. Heroes and prophets are every day people who, when the circumstances call on them, say yes. It’s usually not easy. It often ain’t pretty. But you don’t need to die, most of the time. All it takes is to say yes when the situation demands it. For us it might be something as simple being willing to be late for a meeting in order to help someone out in need. Being wiling to extend oneself when there is no reward and it might even be an inconvenience.

The decision that faced Arjuna was similar in striking ways. But since Arjuna’s story is less familiar to most of us in the West, a little background is in order. The Baghavad Gita is part of the Mahabharata, an epic story in Hinduism. In a nutshell, it involves two related families – the Pandavas and their cousins the Kauravas.

Leading up to the part that is known as the Baghavad Gita, the Kauravas have treated the Pandavas HORRIBLY. Cheated them, abused them, abused their common wife Draupadi (the five brothers share one wife but that’s a whole other story)…forced them into exile, took their land, refused to give it back, insulted their Lord God, Krishna….they were just plain mean and rotten … to the point where the two parties are on the brink of war - the five Pandava brothers and their allies on one side, and the 100 Kaurava brothers and their allies on the other.

But remember, the Pandavas and the Kauravas are first cousins. So each side has close relatives and friends and mentors on the other side. On the eve of battle, which is where the Gita starts, Arjuna, one of the Pandava princes and their greatest warrior, surveys the troops on both sides lined up for war. He sees his relatives, friends, and mentors on the other side and realizes that he either has to kill them or be killed by them. And his heart fails him.

Seems reasonable, no?

He says “O Govinda, of what avail to us are a kingdom, happiness or even life itself when all those for whom we may desire them are now arrayed on this battlefield? O Madhusudana, when teachers, fathers, sons, grandfathers, maternal uncles, fathers-in-law, grandsons, brothers-in-law and other relatives are ready to give up their lives and properties and are standing before me, why should I wish to kill them, even though they might otherwise kill me? O maintainer of all living entities, I am not prepared to fight with them even in exchange for the three worlds, let alone this earth. What pleasure will we derive from killing the sons of Dhritarashtra?"

Arjuna, like Jesus, doesn’t want to go through with what he believes/knows that he has to do. Arjun was the son of the great god Indra, and a master archer. While not immortal, he had no fear of dying or harm to himself. Rather he was afraid of having to live with the consequences of his actions. Afraid of hurting people in the course of pursuing justice. But through the counsel of Krishna, Arjun finally resigns himself to his destiny. What Krishna told him in a nutshell was that the situation demanded it.

Here I must make a personal aside: I am not in any way advocating for war. When I read the Gita I am still troubled by the choices facing Arjun. And many people have interpreted the war to be metaphorical, thereby side-stepping the troubling image of God/Krishna demanding and arguing in favor of slaughtering kinsmen. And they may be right. During the course of arguing in favor of war, Krishna schools Arjuna on the Dharma. It’s clear that Arjun is meant to represent “every man,” represent the best of us, and we are meant to learn from Krishna’s teachings. And how many of us are faced with really having to slaughter our cousins and other loved ones? So it’s not unreasonable to see the great, bloody war as just a metaphor.

But I also think to dismiss the war lightly is to miss a large part of the point. This was an extremely difficult choice for Arjun, with negative consequences either way. If it were easy, it would not have been much of a story, nor be very relevant spiritually. While we may never have to kill our 100 cousins, perhaps there are other times when we’ve been faced with the choice to do something that hurts a loved one or do nothing and let injustice continue. How many times have we failed to do what is right for fear of upsetting people? I’ll speak for myself. I know I have.

The discussion between Krishna and Arjun is one of the greatest existentialist treatises of all time. At issue is the balance between the wisdom to be gained from pursuing knowledge (retreating, gathering information, reflecting, meditating) and the results to be gained from actually acting. Krishna lifts both up as ideals to be pursued but ultimately favors action.

The reason why, I think, is because at times our heads can talk us out of doing what is right. Especially when the circumstances are complex. My brain can rationalize my way out of doing just about anything, and it almost always seems perfectly reasonable at the time. How much more easy can it be to not act when the consequences are hard like those facing Arjun?

I remember the first time I heard the story of Martha and Waitstill Sharp – only the second and third Americans to be honored for helping Jews and others in Nazi-occupied territories during WWII, at great risk to themselves. The Sharps were Unitarians and their work led to the start of the Unitarian Service Committee, which became the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, still working against human rights abuses today.

Waitstill and Martha left their two small children behind to go risk their lives.

When I heard that I was deeply torn. On the one hand, what they did was amazing. They saved dozens, perhaps hundreds of lives. On the other hand, they could easily have been killed and left their children as orphans. It would have been perfectly reasonable for them to have said, “No I cannot go. My children need me.” Who would have blamed either one of them for staying home?

Yet they said “yes.” And even after they made it safely back to the States, they went a second time, because the situation demanded it. And what a huge difference they made.

Now, I don’t know if you will ever have to make the choices that faced Jesus or Arjun -
to be betrayed, tortured and killed (rather than running away) or to kill your loved ones, friends, etc, in the name of justice. I most fervently hope that you never face anything like either. As I fervently hope you never have to make the choices that faced Dr. King or the Sharps. But we still do make smaller choices in our daily living, on whether to act or not, when facing something that we would rather not do. How do we say “yes” in those situations?

And it may be that Jesus and/or Arjuna can serve as inspiration.

May it be so.
Amen. Ashay. Blessed be. and Namaste.

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