August 9, 2015
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Psalm 42:1-8, Mark 14:32-42
On the Prayer Soaked Ground
Seventy years ago last Thursday, August sixth nineteen forty-five, the U.S. B-29 Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. One way to put it is to say this explosion killed between seventy and eighty thousand people. This number does not include the number of people who died later from injuries or radiation poisoning, the number of people who were ostracized by the fear that radiation poisoning was contagious, the number of people whose relatives were killed, the number of animals and plants and ecosystems wiped out, the number of people generations later, still reeling from this single instant of obliteration…
One way to put is by giving the numbers. Another way to put it is to say this explosion proved we human people have the power to destroy entire worlds. We human people can’t unknow what we know, now we know how to do this.
Three days later, seventy years ago today, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. This time, the death toll is harder to count; reports range from twenty-two thousand to seventy-five thousand people, which is like half the population of Rock Island County. Even if we could get the exact number, as with any war, the effects are still reverberating. How do you measure the scope of the devastation? How do we even know what to count?
Today we remember Sadako Sasaki counted paper cranes. She was two years old when Hiroshima was bombed. She contracted leukemia from the radiation and died when she was twelve. In the months before she died, while she was in the hospital, Sadako began folding paper cranes, and she did not stop.
After she died, her classmates kept on folding paper cranes in her memory. Long strings of brightly colored paper cranes fluttering down… Even today, all around the world, people fold paper cranes to protest the power of war, to pray for peace, to remember this middle school girl and her decision to matter.
Notice this jarring juxtaposition. On the one hand, I’m telling you about apocalyptic destruction from nuclear weapons. See the glowing of bones and the sizzling of skin. A power wielded by political and military leaders who hold the highest levels of authority. On the other hand, I’m telling you about a twelve year old girl who started an art project that is still underway. How do we set these human expressions side by side and make sense of what we see? How is folding a paper crane any match for the power to split the atom or drop a bomb? Sure it’s very sweet, but realistically, how does it make a meaningful difference?
Because you know we can ask that same question about prayer. Sure, it is very sweet. Realistically, against forces of violence or disease, how can a person’s prayer make a difference? Does it even matter to the universe or to God whether you pray, whether I pray?
Friends, I will tell you. I really believe it does.
Today we are continuing our sermon series, In the Garden. All through the summer, we’ve been exploring Bible stories about gardens. See gardens are supposed to be places of safety and comfort, like sanctuaries. The image on that stained glass window comes from a painting made by Heinrich Hoffman in eighteen ninety. It is Jesus praying the garden. You see the tranquility and the warmly-lit Tiffany colors. But what happens is that right into the garden of Gethsemane, right in the middle of his praying, Judas storms in with an armed mob and Jesus gets arrested.
The garden was supposed to be a safe place. Our elementary schools are supposed to be safe. Our churches are supposed to be safe. Our prayers are supposed to be safe, and what happens when they’re not? When praying calls us to go right into the danger, then keep going?
The scripture Luke read for us begins when Jesus goes with Peter, James, and John to Gethsemane. These are the hours before his death, and he knows his dearest friends will desert him. Jesus is grieving. The Bible says he was grieving to death. Now he goes into the garden on ahead of the other three. He throws himself on the ground and pours out his prayer into the earth.
Somehow the writer of the Gospel heard a report of what Jesus prayed or made it up. It is said Jesus prayed like this: “Papa, for you all things are possible. Remove this cup from me, yet not what I want, but what you want.” Then Jesus gets up from the ground, and goes back, and finds his disciples asleep. This happens three times.
Of course, if God answers back, we don’t hear what she says. Maybe God is in the gentle breeze that rustles through the olive trees in the garden. Maybe God is actually the one praying, the source and breath of Jesus’ prayer. Or maybe God is chillingly silent.
If a prayer falls on the ground in a garden and no one is awake to hear it, does it even matter?
This story of Jesus’ prayer exposes a terrible fear. Pray all you want, what if God doesn’t hear? Or worse, what if God doesn’t care? If you have ever prayed and heard back the chilling silence of God, then you know.
One of the great teachers of peacemaking, Walter Wink, offers a word of hope to all of us who question the power of our prayer. I love the imagery he invokes. He puts it like this: “Prayer is rattling God’s cage and waking God up and setting God free, and giving this famished God water and this starved God food and cutting the ropes off God’s hands and the manacles off God’s feet and washing the caked sweat from God’s eyes,… then watching God swell with life… and following God wherever God goes.”
How’s this for the power of prayer? As though God needs to be set free and brought back to life, and followed. As though our prayer could do that!
If only prayer weren’t so terrifying. There’s no way to pray without remembering our own vulnerability, no way to pray without pouring out our truth right there in the chilling silence of God. Then hear the question rise up, “What if I’m alone?” Then keep going. Prayer draws us into our deepest aloneness, then it does not leave us there to die.
There’s no way to pray and stay alone.
I wonder what it is like for those disciples who went with Jesus into the garden. They know Jesus is distressed; he is getting ready to die. Now what can they do? He asked them to go with him, but then he goes on ahead, and they can’t even stay awake.
The first time he comes and wakes them up, I wonder if they remember that night when they were on the boat with Jesus. A storm rose up and shook their boat, and Jesus slept through the whole thing until they went and woke him up. “Don’t you care that we are perishing?!” they asked him. Ah, you have no idea. Jesus called for peace, the storm went quiet, and he asked the disciples, “Why are you so afraid?” (Mark 4:38-40).
Maybe on this night in the garden, the disciples remembered that night on the sea, but in our story, like God, they don’t say anything to Jesus. They don’t know what to say to him. I’m not sure he knows what to say to them either. But nobody leaves. Not yet anyway. It’s how it happens. You go off by yourself to pray to the LORD, then something makes you get up and go back and check on your friends. Prayer might call us right into the human fear that we are alone, then it proves we are not.
Brothers and sisters, I don’t know how you pray in your own life. Whether you pray with music or words. Whether you sit in the quiet and remember you are loved. Whether you pray with your work. What I do know is that when you pray, it makes all of us more aware of our connection with each other. When you pray, it blesses God. Which means there’s no way to pray that doesn’t send the holy impulse into the universe. I know how it sounds to say this, but see: There’s no way to pray that doesn’t create a change in the world.
Our prayers reach hostages and their captors. Our prayers reach people living and dying in solitary confinement. You know somebody somewhere is asking, Does my life even matter? Your prayer is in the chorus whispering yes. You know somebody’s asking, God what if I am alone? By praying, we promise, we are here with you. Every folded paper crane an insistent reminder of God’s promise that violence can turn into peace.
These days, we need that promise. In two thousand eleven, members of Saron UCC in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin folded one thousand paper cranes in honor of the tenth anniversary of Nine Eleven. In two thousand twelve, this church sent the long strings of paper cranes to Pilgrim UCC in Chardon, Ohio after a shooting at Chardon High School.
Pilgrim UCC sent the cranes to Newton Congregational in Sandy Hook after the massacre. Then Newton Congregational sent the cranes to Old South UCC in Boston after the marathon bombing. Last August, Old South sent the cranes to Christ the King UCC near Ferguson, Missouri. Recently the flock of fluttering peace cranes has been sent to Charleston.
One thousand cranes is one way to put it. That number doesn’t include the number of fingerprints from all the people who folded and blessed and handled these cranes in their travel. It doesn’t include the number of prayers for peace poured into the earth. Another way to put it is to say we human people participate in a power greater than the power to destroy. We can be a people who pray, then the world will not be the same, thank God. Amen.
 Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1992. page 303.