Tuesday, April 28, 2009

emmylou harris at merlefest

We arrived in the afternoon, at about 2:45. It was hot, especially for the mountains of North Carolina. Tift Merritt was completing her set, and it was my own loss, and poor sense of timing, that i missed most of it. The crowd was attentive and appreciative, and one does sense that there is in her future an evening performance on the main stage. One of the strengths of Merlefest is the passing of the baton to the next generation (I have witnessed this with Nickel Creek and the Duhks), and such a venue would be good both for her and the festival.

Moving into the evening, the focus was really on three acts: Doc Watson and friends, Emmylou Harris and Sam Bush. Doc Watson performed with a band that included his grandson Richard on guitar and Sam Bush on the fiddle. Doc seemed to be in good spirits, and I continue to be amazed that he is able to perform at the age of 86 (please forgive the "agism")! He ran through a number of standards ("I Still Miss Someone", "Columbus Stockade Blues", "Deep River Blues") and one of the additional highlights was a medley that included "Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On", and "Tutti Frutti". His set concluded with the traditional song in memory of Merle. It was written by a friend of Doc's, and is sung by another friend (I cannot recall either name); it is one of those Merlefest rituals that means more to me in some years than in others. This year it seemed to have an added meaning, in that I listened more closely to the anticipation of Doc have Merle to "pick around with once again". As Doc left the stage he said goodbye to the crowd with an additional "see you next year, God willing". For those steeped in the biblical tradition, it was a genuine expression of popular piety.

Sam Bush came later in the evening, and as always he stretched the Merlefest crowd in a direction that is healthy for the tradition. He embodies improvisational bluegrass at its best, and his energy level, late on a Saturday evening, was breathtaking, particularly given that he had already played on most every stage that day. It is no exaggeration to say that Sam Bush is integral to what Merlefest is all about. His enthusiasm for the festival is clearly returned by an adoring crowd that senses they are in the presence of a master.

Emmylou Harris took the stage in between Doc Watson and Sam Bush. She was introduced as a "matriarch of Americana music"; one sensed that she did not fully appreciate this designation, but she is something of a living legend, a mentor and an artist who has transcended the generations. She began with "Return of The Grievious Angel", and then moved into "One of These Days", "If I Could Only Win Your Love", "Red Dirt Girl" and "Orphan Girl". She then covered "Poncho and Lefty", "Going Back To Harlan", "Get Up John" (with Sam Bush on the fiddle), an acapella version of "Bright Morning Stars" (from Angel Band, one of my very favorite cds), "Your Long Journey" (written by the Watsons, and with an appalachian/scottish highland feel), and "Love and Happiness" (from her collaboration with Mark Knopler). She also offered "Bang The Drum Slowly", a moving song in memory of her father, and the encore was "Leaving Louisiana in The Broad Daylight" (again, with Sam Bush accompanying).

It was a remarkable set, and it fully captured the breadth of Emmylou's career, from the simplicity of Pieces of The Sky to the complexity of Wrecking Ball, from her interpretation of the works of others (with homage to George Jones and Merle Haggard) to a confidence in her own writing. Her voice was strong and clear, even if its range stays closer to the middle, which I sense as a strength.

I realize that I have now seen Emmylou Harris in concert four times over the past thirty years, and she continues to perform with an integrity and a clarity that is compelling. She represents "roots" or "americana" music (whatever that is!) in holding together the old and the new, the acoustic and the electric, the traditional and the progressive. On a Saturday evening in the cool mountains of western North Carolina, I had the sense that I was in the presence of our a "matriarch", in that so much of what is good about our music has passed through her life into ours, and there is a sense that there is more to come.

(this blog also appeared at No Depression)

Friday, April 24, 2009

the sacrament of creation

On Easter Sunday we announce the good news of the resurrection. On the second Sunday of Easter we reflect on the implications of this central event for our lives going forward. In this way we are not so different from the first disciples.The epistle lesson for today, from I John, echoes the better-known Gospel ("what we have seen with our eyes...and touched with our hands"). Just as the earliest Christian communities needed to relate the truth of the gospel to their own lived experience, so do we in our own time. "We declare to you what we have seen and heard," John writes on behalf of his community, about the Easter experience.

Easter is a day, but it is also an experience, it is a moment in time, but it has implications that change us, and not only us, but all of life.

After the resurrection, the disciples gather together, they try to make sense of what has happened, they get on with their lives. But in a sense everything has changed. If anyone is in Christ, the Apostle Paul wrote, there is a new creation, the old has passed away, all things have been made new. We move from resurrection to new creation. Easter is not limited to the renewal of an individual life. Easter is the renewal of the creation. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.

In the overlapping of calendars Easter Sunday precedes and falls very near to the festival of God’s creation, which coincides with Earth Day. And there is a vital connection. Someone has noted that Christianity is the most materialistic of the world’s great religions. Christianity was really defined, in the first two generations, in contrast to gnosticism, a worldview that was sharply different.
Gnosticism held to the conviction that spiritualilty was good, and materialism was bad. Gnosticism, which was later identified as a heresy, separated the spirit and the body, the soul and the earth, and wisdom about spiritual things was given only to a few, as a kind of secret knowledge. Thus the word “gnosis”.

Christianity is something altogether different. We were created from the dust of the earth, or the mud of the ground. God created everything that existed and called it good. The Psalmist could look at skies and proclaim that the “heavens are declaring the glory of God”.

Jesus was the divine word made flesh. He stood in the waters of the Jordan River and was baptized. He spent time in the wilderness, where his priorities were tested, hiked to the top of Mount Tabor to listen for God’s voice. He used the substance of the earth---water, wine, bread---to point to the things of God, to show their essential connection. The animals that surrounded him---the birds of the air, for whom God provided, or the foxes who had dens to live in----were reminders of how we as humans are sustained daily.

In speaking of what it meant to give our lives fully to God, he said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7. 38). He related his own spiritual thirst, at the point of his greatest need, to his desire for God. People who lived in the desert understood. After the resurrection he was present to the disciples as a physical body: he asked them to touch his wounds, he ate meals with them.

Jesus looked at the natural world to understand who God is and who we are in relation to God and to each other. He modeled this for us, he taught us in this way. Consider the lilies of the field, he said, and then he would contrast them to Solomon, the great king, in all of his splendor. Which is more glorious? And, of course, the disciples would have to say, the creation.

The creation is God’s gift for our renewal. The creation is God’s very gift of life itself. I asked a few friends in our congregation to think about faith in relation to the environment, in preparation for today. One who is a leader in the conservation of water talked about our waste of this most precious and basic resource, and the demands in the near future on the water that we take for granted. Someone else talked about initiatives that have been supported by our church, to dig wells in Africa, some in partnership with the YMCA and others in partnership with a native African student minister. I think of the pump in front of our medical clinic in Haiti, and the water system developed just this year for the Haiti School of Mercy.

If we are thirsty, we walk out of the sanctuary to the nearest fountain. It is cold and plentiful. We are refreshed and renewed. And we are also very fortunate. We are blessed.

2.4 billion people in our world are not so fortunate. They do not have access to clean water.
God created the world for his own enjoyment, he created us to protect and to shepherd all of the other resources. One of the central images in scripture is the harvest, and Israel’s life was organized around harvest festivals. The wine and the bread symbolized God’s provision for his people through difficult, wilderness times. A land flowing with milk and honey was the promise to those who were faithful.

And so the renewal of the earth happens as we receive the gifts of the earth, our food, and as we give thanks for that. A part of giving thanks is our remembrance of those who lack what we have been given.

How does this happen, in practical ways? Members of our church have put together several thousand meals for the hungry through Stop Hunger Now. Those who lack shelter during the winter share a meal with us on Wednesday evenings. Meals are taking to the homeless, to the homebound, and sometimes placed in backpacks for elementary school students who would otherwise go to bed hungry and wake up hungry over the long weekend. We are trying to figure out how to provide a meal a week for students at the Haiti School of Mercy—that’s 190 students. Maybe we will start with the Friday meal.

It is a hungry planet. At its most basic level, God’s provision is water and bread. For Christians, we connect this with the sacraments---baptism, God’s gift of water, and holy communion, God’s gift of bread. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

When we bless the water with a prayer of thanksgiving, we remember how God has used water to save and sustain his people. When we bless the Holy Communion, we remember how God created the world, and then us in his image, and how Jesus blessed this meal, and encouraged us to eat it, and likened the bread to his body.

One of the words for Holy Communion, the one that comes from the literal New Testament greek, is eucharist, which means thanksgiving. Those who have died and risen with Christ see the world in a new way. We see all of life as a gift, perhaps all of life as a sacrament.

We receive it with thanksgiving, we offer it to God with thanksgiving, we share it with thanksgiving. After Easter, and because he is risen, we live in the new creation.

In the new creation, spirituality is not something that happens only when our eyes are closed in prayer. One of our members, a student who attends college in the mountains, sent me a note with three photographs attached, and talked about the powerful experience of standing under the waterfall with the water rushing right down in front of her. Another friend talked about walking along the ocean and the immensity of it and his humility in the face of the creation.

When we are in the presence of God, we are aware of his power and our humility, and for many of us this happens in the creation. Many of us had some of our most powerful spiritual experiences as young people at camps, as scouts, on retreats. This is also related to the beauty of creation, I think of the flowers last Sunday that really were stunning, the beauty of the cross that stands in our atrium today, the work that is done by those who care for the gardens of our church. I think about the last 2 or 3 days in Charlotte! What a gift!

In the new creation, we begin to see that mission is not something we do for other people. Mission is sharing the creation that God gives to all of us, and this includes water, wine, bread, the word, all of the gifts of God. In our congregation this happens in a variety of ways: a woman is an environmental educator, a man spends a lot of time with rural farmers, a nurse serves in Haiti, a develop leaves a substantial part of a several thousand acre project undeveloped, to be enjoyed by future generations, and a restaurant manager supplies gift certificates to those in need of a good meal. In all of these ways we share the gifts of God’s creation.

In the new creation, we understand stewardship in a new way. We sometimes think of stewardship in relation to money, and money is important. We might think of stewardship in relation to the church’s need for money in order to support God’s mission. Your money makes all of the ministries of this church possible, and I think you for your generosity. This is a part of stewardship, but only a part.

Stewardship is about how we use all of the gifts that have been placed in our hands. This has macro implications----climate change---and micro implications, and I want to focus there. I want to focus on our habits. As the usher said in the rural church that I served many years ago, “I am going to stop preaching and go to meddling.” How does all of this relate to our faith, at the level of our behavior? I received this note from a member of our church.

“I have begun to understand what many have understood for centuries – the interdependence of all life and that we throw that interdependence out of balance when we consume huge amounts of resources without regard to the damage we do. I think I had a road-to-Damascus moment when I began to see what was happening as we, the consumers, went about our normal existence in our throw-away, consumer-driven economy.”

How does all of this relate to our faith, at the level of our behavior? This question leads me to other questions.

What if the Christians of the world made the decision to provide safe drinking water for every person on this planet?

What if the members of Providence United Methodist Church decided not to drink bottled water, and to give that money, a dollar or two here and there, toward wells in the Gambia or Haiti?

What if the Christians of the world decided to share their bread with the hungry, beginning locally?

What if the members of Providence United Methodist Church decided to eat a meal each week that conformed to the average meal eaten on our planet---rice, beans and tap water, and what if we set aside that money to feed the hungry in our midst?

What if we did all of this because bread and water really are signs of God’s grace and real presence among us?

What if we came to believe that grace should never be wasted, but received with grateful hearts? What if we became more conscious about what we purchase and what we throw away?
What if we began to live more simply, so that we could be more generous?
What if we began to be more present to the beauty in this world as a testimony to God’s glory?
What if we paid attention to the footprints we leave not only on mountain trails, but on the planet?
What if we began to think not in the short-term, but in the long-term, about the air that our grandchildren will breathe and the water that our great-grandchildren will drink?
What if we began to believe that our renewal is connected to the renewal of the earth, that our salvation cannot be separated from the salvation of the earth?
What if we began to live in the new creation?
What if we began to believe that all of life is a sacrament?

Friday, April 17, 2009

easter for disoriented people (psalm 30)

It is the middle of the night, you’re sleeping, and something wakes you up. A family pet makes a sound, or the phone rings, it’s a wrong number, someone trying to reach someone else, or it’s the wind moving the branches of trees around you. It is disorienting, and you find it difficult to fall asleep again.

I’m glad that it is Easter. I love the season of Lent, it appeals to the disciplined part of my nature, but given everything that has happened over the past few months, it seems like the whole world has been observing Lent. We’ve all been profoundly affected by the global economic crisis--- the ranks of the hungry and homeless are swelling, we have been cutting back in a variety of ways, retirement accounts have lost value, friends have lost jobs ---we live in disorienting times. I’m ready for Easter. I need this, and surely we all need this!

When we open the Bible, we discover that it is filled with disoriented people: Abraham called to go into a far country, Israel in slavery to Pharaoh, wandering in the wilderness for a generation, then seeing their empire/kingdom disintegrate before their very eyes, then they are sent into exile.

We see the disciples and the religious leaders who don’t quite know what to do with Jesus; the disciples don’t get it, the religious leaders get it but they don’t like it. We see Jesus who wonders if he has been abandoned by God, who knows that he has been betrayed by his friends, who is then crucified by his enemies. On Friday evening we gathered here in the darkness, to remember and perform and re-tell this story. The Bible records this long journey of suffering, and one of the images for this experience is night. The night can be chaotic, uncertain and dangerous. “I cried to you for help”, we read twice in Psalm 30. When we are disoriented we find ourselves laying awake at night. Maybe we are worried? Confused? Cistracted? Angry?

What keeps you awake at night? Knowing that there are people in our community without shelter? Knowing that there are children in our world who are being sold into slavery? Knowing there are people with gifts and abilities and initiative in our community, but with no meaningful work? Knowing there are people who do not know that God loves them?

Or, perhaps, it’s more personal: the loss of someone close; or the death of a dream; disappointment with yourself, or with God; guilt over the sins you have committed together with our whole sinful society; trying to figure out your place in the grand scheme of things, or wondering if there is a grand scheme of things?

What keeps you awake at night? Sometimes there is much that is wrong in our world, in our lives, we sense this and it bothers us. At other times, we are oblivious to it. Sometimes we are not even aware of this need, we are anesthetized to the pain and the guilt by entertainment or medication or diversion. A prominent political leader was asked what he thought about torture, and he responded, “ I sleep like a baby”. Sometimes we are “sleepwalking through life”, having grown accustomed to the status quo.

When we become comfortable, how does God get our attention? Throughout history God has spoken through dreams and visions, this is one of the ways God enters into our unconscious life. Otherwise, we might not “get it”. The Bible can be understood as an extended unified narrative in which God seeks to get our attention through his mighty acts: a beautiful and glorious creation; an act of political liberation; a set of laws; the voices of prophets, reminding us to worship God, to keep the laws, to remember the poor; and lastly, and most dramatically of all, he sends his own son---a perfect human being, the completely sacrificial life, the redemptive and yet grotesque death on a cross.

One of my favorite authors is Flannery O’Connor, a native of Milledgeville, Georgia, which is in the very center of my home state. In her lifetime she was overshadowed by other Southern authors such as Truman Capote and Carson McCullers, who were much more popular, but in the last twenty-five years their works have faded, while she has risen in stature, to be compared alongside figures like Faulkner and Hemingway. A devout Catholic, she died of Lupus at the age of only thirty-nine.

O’Connor’s short stories are filled with memorable characters, misfits and freaks: a hitchhiker kills the bickering multigenerational family who gives him a ride; a woman marries off her mentally challenged daughter to a one-armed tramp; a hypocritical Bible salesman meets a woman who has been crippled by a hunting accident, seduces her and steals her wooden leg; a mentally disturbed Wellesley student throws her copy of a Human Development textbook at the more proper middle aged woman who has been staring at her and calling her white trash. I could go on.

Flannery O’Connor was once asked why she chose to express herself in this way? She replied, “writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse and for the unacceptable…To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures…”

EASTER is just such a story. There is nothing measured, gradual, or predictable about it. It is not like a flower breaking through the ground, winter becoming spring. It is an earthquake, a massive stone rolling away, an unsettling conversation with an angel (a messenger? a gardener? someone I know?) It is the veil of the temple being ripped into. It is the risen Lord appearing to Saul, who has persecuted him, Peter, who betrayed him, Mary, who grieved the loss of him. It is disorienting, it is enough to wake us up! It is the riveting and true story that is at the center of life for all who have faith. As Karl Barth, the great theologian has written:

“In Jesus, God himself came into the world, which he had created and against all odds still loved…It happened through this man on the cross that God cancelled out and swept away all our human wickedness, our pride, our anxiety, our greed and our false pretences, whereby we had continually offended him and made life difficult, if not impossible, for ourselves and for others. He crossed out what had made our life fundamentally terrifying, dark and distressing…He did away with it. It is no longer part of us, it is behind us. In Jesus God made the day break after the long night and spring come after the long winter.”

The women come to the tomb while it was still dark, they can’t sleep. Mary is standing outside. “Why are you weeping?”, she is asked. Her response is practical: “if you have taken the body away, tell me where it is!” Why is she weeping? Why would we be weeping? We weep because we grieve a loss: Loss of hope in a secure future that we had imagined? Loss of hope because our sin seems to have permanently enslaved us? Into the loss, into the darkness, into the grief and guilt, there is an intervention. In the Psalm, God intervenes. “You have drawn me up”, Psalm 30. 1; “You have healed me”, Psalm 30. 2; “You have brought up my soul from Sheol..you have restored me to life”, Psalm 30. 3.

And so the intervention prompts a second question. We move from “What keeps you up at night?,” to “What brings you joy?” The Psalm gives us a vivid picture of this transformation: You have turned our mourning into dancing. I will confess here that I am a terrible dancer, and my wife---and we have been married for many years---knows this. It was so when we met. I could square dance a little, but she would quickly say, “that’s not dancing!” She was a girl from the Carolinas, I was from Georgia. In Georgia they have never heard of shagging, and God did not give me the natural abilities to learn how to do it.

If mourning is about death, dancing is about life (we dance at weddings, in hopes of yet another generation to come). You have turned our mourning into dancing. In reading this psalm and planning for this day, the image that kept coming to mind was our Winter Wonderland dance, and everyone, and included in that number the Joy Class, out there dancing in Charter Hall.

A member of our church had come to me with the idea for that evening: “Could we have a dance?” “Yes,” I said. “Do you really think it would be ok?” “Yes, it will be ok.” “It will be a real dance, are you sure? “It will be great.”Where did we get the idea that dancing was not appropriate in church? You have turned our mourning into dancing. A friend reminded me of a wonderful insight of G. K. Chesterton: “The essential difference between the medieval and modern worlds is that “the medievals envisioned life as a great dance, whereas we envision it as a mad race.”

You have taken off my sackcloth, and clothed me with joy.

Joy. And so, if I asked you the question, “what keeps you up at night?”, it is also fair enough to ask a second question: “what brings you joy?” What brings me joy? Our daughters’ celebrating a national championship in basketball. Sharing a chili dinner with the homeless. Listening to that viola last Sunday. The anticipation of a few days in the mountains this spring and summer, and seeing the Braves, once or twice. Cooking out on a grill with friends. The sheer joy of watching the Joy Class dance on that winter evening. I could go on…

Mostly, what brings me joy is the promise of the Easter Gospel, which is the word after the last word on the cross, the word spoken from the throne in the Revelation to John, the promise that “God will wipe away every tear, that death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the one who is seated on the throne says, “Behold, I make all things new (21. 4-5).

This brings me joy. Flannery O’ Connor was right. I am sometimes hard of hearing, and at other times I am almost blind. I need the choir to shout it all out for me! And I need an unmistakable sign: a rainbow, maybe, or an empty tomb and a risen Lord! In disorienting times, we need ears to hear and eyes to see. What brings you joy? We think we have heard the last word. Like Saul, we think our rebellion against God is the last word, but there is the Risen Christ: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Like Peter, we think our betrayal is the last word, but there is the Risen Christ: “Peter, do you love me?” Like Mary, we think our grief is the last word, but there is the risen Christ, speaking her name: “Mary.”

We think we have heard the last word: weeping may linger for a night. But there is a word after that: Joy comes in the morning. Brothers and sisters, believe the Good News. It is no longer the middle of the night, thank God.

The Lord is risen. The Lord is risen indeed!

Morning has broken!

*Thanks to Ben Witherington and Ralph Wood who read this sermon prior to my preaching, and to Bishop Grant Hagiya for his devotional on Psalm 30 at the Ministry Study Commission in March.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

easter and beyond

Easter was an incredible day for our congregation and community. It began with a sunrise service adjacent to the intersection of two main roads in our city, Providence and Sharon. On Shrove Tuesday a group of men and women had planted a giant cross there, and draped it in purpose. This morning, it was draped in white. About 125 folks gathered in the cold to worship the risen Lord; Greg Cagle, a very gifted musician led us musically, and later in the service Dave Sanderson, another PUMC member and a passenger on the US Air Flight that landed in the Hudson, spoke. I asked those gathered to reflect on two questions: "what keeps you awake at night?", and "what brings you joy?". These questions had been used in a devotional led by Bishop Grant Hagiya at the Ministry Study meeting in the winter. He connected them to Psalm 30. 5 ("Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning"), and I connected this exercise with Easter.

We then moved inside for the two sanctuary services (all combined, our attendance for the morning was 1,600...amazing). Each service began with a reading of John 20. 1-18, and then moved into Charles Wesley's Christ The Lord Is Risen Today. The worship was amazing, and each service concluded with Handel's Hallelujah Chorus. I preached from Psalm 30, going more deeply into the two above questions. I will post that sermon in a day or two. Each year I pass this sermon by two or three friends a day or two prior to Easter. It is such an important day, and it is the primary worship experience for a number of people in a given year; I am blessed to have the opportunity to speak on behalf of the gospel to them, and I am genuinely glad that they are present!

As participants left, they were given a card with five simple suggestions related to Bishop Schnase's Five Practices. This will help our congregation to see Easter as a beginning in the process of discipleship, over the next 50 days.

After the services had taken place, my wife and I had a quiet lunch at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants. I did not check e-mail or surf the internet for a couple of days. We drove into the mountains and spent the next 48 hours. A change of scenery was good! We rested, and I read a little, especially Wendell Berry's "The Body and The Earth" and Peter Leithart's Solomon Among The Postmoderns.

Now I am back into things, happy to be serving at Providence and to be living through the great 50 days!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

he descended into hell (holy saturday)

O Lord,
you have searched me
and known me.
You know when I sit down
and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there.
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,"
even the darkness is not dark to you,
the night as as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

Psalm 139. 1-3, 7-12 (nrsv)

Friday, April 10, 2009

it is finished, but it is never finished (john 19)

In Holy Week we encounter Jesus, on the cross, and on each of the Sundays in Lent we have been paying attention to his last words. He asks God to forgive those who are torturing him. He welcomes a thief into paradise with him. He mourns with his family and friends. He wonders, out loud, where God actually is in all of this: has he been abandoned? He is thirsty. And now, his final word: It is finished.

We know we are nearing the end. It is finished. There is a sense, in this word, that all has been completed. There is a sense that the assignment has been fulfilled. The phrase, literally, is one Greek word, and in the ancient world its usual context was what someone would write across a bill that had been satisfied, meaning, “paid in full”.

In Mark’s gospel we are told that Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last (15. 37). Perhaps these words expressed his loud cry: It is finished.

Among the seven traditional last words of Jesus from the cross---and the chancel choir will sing these words, as they are also read on Good Friday evening---three are from John’s Gospel---“behold your mother, behold your son; I thirst; and it is finished. Each is an expression of confidence, of completion, each is attached with the reminder that this was to fulfill the scripture.

Jesus had accomplished what he had been placed on this earth to do: his life, his teachings, his healing, his compassion, the friendship with disciples, the Passover meal, the betrayal, and then the arrest, and now the crucifixion, which is about to be completed. This is not a word of resignation. It is a strong affirmation of faith and hope: It is finished.

Jesus had prayed, in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me?” When the disciples wanted to be in positions of leadership and honor, he had asked them, “Are you able to drink from the cup that I drink?” And now, he has drank completely from the cup of suffering, it is all gone, it is finished.

Jesus had anticipated this moment. Earlier in the gospel of John, he had said, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”. And then, “when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to me”(12).

Now the grain of wheat has fallen into the earth. Now the son of man is lifted up, on a cross. It is finished. This is the objective reality of the Christian faith. It is the aspect that does not depend on your feelings or mine, on your virtue or mine, on your opinions or mine. It is finished.

We have a few of those experiences in everyday life, where we know something is finished. I remember in divinity school a large group of friends getting together to watch the last episode of the television series MASH. The other night I called a member of the church about something, it was a little past nine o’clock, and he said, “actually we are watching the last episode of ER.” We did not talk long! We have other experiences in life where we know something is finished. You cross the stage and receive a diploma. You lose a game, and walk off the field. You pack up all of your belongings into a moving van and pull away from a neighborhood and a group of friends. You walk your daughter down the aisle at a wedding. You leave an office, your last day in a workplace. You sit and wait in the presence of someone you love, some talking but mostly silence, you watch the breathing patterns become more labored, and then, something changes. There is an ending, a still-point.

The feelings about it all continue, for some time; the internal debates go on, about what you might have done differently, and yet, the fact remains: it is finished.

At the cross, John tells us, he bows his head and gives up his spirit, literally he hands over his spirit, just as he had been handed over to be crucified by the religious and political leaders. Jesus is active here: no one takes my life from me, he had said in John 10, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down

He bows his head and gives up his spirit.

In the biblical languages, spirit is a word that also means breath. He “breathes his last”, Mark’s gospel tells us. In Luke’s Gospel, the community also remembers him saying the words “Into your hands, O God, I commend my spirit”. For Luke, this is an act of trust, relinquishment, surrender. His spirit returns to God. But in John, he hands over his spirit to those who are present, his mother, the disciple (John) and others. This is in anticipation of what will happen later: after the resurrection, and this is recorded in the very next chapter of John, he breathes on the disciples, and says “Receive the Holy Spirit”.

And this, for me, is the really fascinating dimension of this word of Jesus. From the cross, Jesus says, "It is finished". This is of course a brief word filled with contradiction: it it finished, but it is never finished His work on the cross is finished. This is our justification by faith in his final, complete and sufficient offering on the cross. And yet there is the necessity of his ongoing work of grace in our lives, Methodists have called this sanctification, it recalls the teaching of Paul in the letter to the Romans, to "present your bodies as a living sacrifice".

The cross is a contradiction, it is finished, but it is never finished. This is both the gift and calling, the law (Jesus' fulfillment) and the gospel (the good news about what happened on the cross), the finality of it all and the way that all of this goes on into infinitity. It is done, it is fulfilled, the cup of suffering is empty, let this cup pass from me, Jesus had prayed, he drank it all...but, as Pascal observed, it is also true that "Christ will be in agony until the end of the world." The contradiction can be heard in the simple phrase of the gospel hymn: Jesus paid it all. All to him I owe.

It is finished, but it is never finished. I wonder: This do we ever really finish anything? Do we ever finish being a parent? Do we ever stop learning? Do we ever move beyond the most important relationships? I recently completed reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. It is moving book by a widow who goes over and over her husband’s last words, their last experiences together, which included their adult daughter’s hospitalization. It is clear that he has a continuing presence in her life, even as time passes. His life has ended, their marriage is finished, and yet her identity has not quite changed. She cannot bring herself to check the box “single”, she cannot not think of herself as a wife. It is finished, but it is never finished.

Once Joan Didion has moved through an entire calendar year, she knows that she is living through days that her husband had not lived the year before. Toward the end of the book she confesses “I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account.” Letting go is difficult. She continues:

“I look for resolution and find none…I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go…”.

This is the true of the cross as well. If it were finished, why would we plant a giant cross on the front of our campus each year, why would our eyes we drawn again and again to survey the wondrous cross, why would we sing these hymns? His work is finished-- It is the full, complete and sufficient sacrifice. His work is finished; ours never is. He hands over his spirit to us, he lives in us, and there is some ongoing purpose.

A year or so ago one of our daughters was home from school, it was a Sunday, we had been here for the morning services and decided to go to a small Chinese restaurant for lunch, it was a place we could all agree on. The food is good and we knew it would not be too crowded.

We ordered, we talked, it is amazing how our kids grow up and mature, the meal came, we prayed –a ritual that has been with us since they were very small, and then we ate, we continued talking about everything under the sun, had you overheard our conversation, you never would have guessed it was a “preacher family”!

We finished the meal, and we waited for the check. Finally the waitress came by, and in the limited English she spoke she said that someone had paid our bill. I questioned her, just to be sure that this was actually the case, and she assured me that there was no misunderstanding.

I could do nothing in that moment, except to become more aware that I lived in a “grace-filled world”, and to go into the rest of my day with eyes opened to the ways that I might, in the title of the movie, “pay it forward”.

Because of the healings and the teachings and also the conflict with some of the religious leaders, Jesus drew a crowd, and some, many pinned their hopes on him, that he would be the next David, the next great king and political ruler. They shouted and waved palm branches when the parade came by. It would be the inauguration of a new era.

The story takes a very different turn, however. Jesus comes to fulfill not so much what the people want, but what they need: a right relationship with God. This happens in the most grotesque of ways, on a cross. Suffering is not avoided or judged, it is embraced and transformed. The cross is the bridge between holiness and sin, between what we want and what we need, between what is finished and what is never finished.

God comes clearly into focus as Jesus hangs from the cross, and the decisive moment is when he says, “It is finished.” What is finished, fulfilled at the cross is the response to our greatest need: to forgive or be forgiven, the assurance that we are not alone, an unresolved grief. It is the debt paid in full; it is the cup of suffering that is completely drained. It is creation of a grace-filled world, in response to our deepest human desiring.

What is never finished is what we do with the cross he has handed to us. This is the compassion that he asks us to share with others: a decision to forgive, a gesture of friendship, a gift that meets the most basic of human needs, a prayer of intercession.

And so his last words become our legacy. What I have done for you, he says, you must now do for others. It is finished , but it is never finished.

Sources: Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking. Carlyle Marney, He Became Like Us. N. T. Wright, John for Everyone.

Monday, April 06, 2009

i thirst (john 19)

The origin of the word Lent has to do with the lengthening of the day, and for us this coincides with the onset of spring, in our family that is always marked by our older daughter’s birthday, as she was born on the first day of spring. Deeper back in my own personal history I am reminded of the cycle of sports season, the end of basketball, at least for some teams, and the beginning of baseball, and as a kid I loved to play baseball. I think I slept with a baseball glove on my hand, and I spent most of my waking hours on a baseball field. It was glorious, and in hindsight I must also thank my mother, who I know was not no enamored with baseball but logged countless hours on the sidelines, in a folding chair, watching the games unwind. Some of you here this morning are smiling, so you know what I mean.

Most of those games have long since been forgotten, but one stands out in memory. Our team had played really badly, in fact we had lost by something like 28-3. This is a baseball score, not a football score! I will confess that I pitched a few of those innings, and they were long innings, it seemed like the game went on forever. Afterward the coach met with us for a team meeting, it was hot, and my eyes were drawn to the water cooler. The coach began his “motivational” talk. He wondered (out loud), if any of us wanted to win as much as we wanted a drink of water? I realized this was one of those questions that was not really asked in anticipation of an answer….he was using the question as a rhetorical device, to get a point across to a group of tired, mildly interested eleven year old boys. Then the coach stopped talking, walked just outside the dugout toward the water cooler, and poured the entire contents, ice and all, onto the ground. I can still feel the jolt of seeing that water seep into the dry red clay of South Georgia. I was thirsty!

Water is basic to life. I have in mind the In John’s gospel, the obvious, everyday, commonplace always points to the not so obvious, the unusual, the extraordinary. The host runs out of wine at a wedding. A child is born and something is not quite normal, he is blind. A group of hungry people search for food. The reading of John’s gospel trains us to see the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary, the miraculous in everyday life. At times we become dehydrated, we are thirsty. And sometimes we are in need of something, and at the very time we realize it, it is almost too late.

We all have wants and we have needs. Some of our desires have been with us since early childhood, some of our impulses are the invention of modern marketing, some of our dreams are woven into the essence of who we are, they do not go away, they return, again and again, like a hunger and a thirst that is not satisfied. When we look at things from the perspective of eternity, there is an added dimension: we recognize that we thirst for something that cannot be fulfilled in this life.

In today’s psalm, the writer is searching for a language to express the soul’s most fundamental longing and desire. My soul thirsts for you, O God. It is a bodily expression that names a search for something that we need, and yet for something that is beyond us.

In the gospel, Jesus is at the community well, it is the middle of the day, it would have been hot then in the ancient middle east, as today, very hot, and dry. John tells us that Jesus was tired. He was human. We will encounter his humanity later in the message. At the well he encounters a woman, a Samaritan woman. Samaritans were the ancestors of Israelites who had intermarried with the people in the Northern Kingdom, the Assyrians. They were looked down upon as half-breeds, they were not quite kosher. And so it is understandable that the woman is surprised to be included in this encounter with Jesus, who asks her to pour him a drink. This kind of conversation did not happen.

Jesus says to her, “I am thirsty.” The conversation, of course, leads to something more than water on a hot day, more than the quenching of thirst in a dry and weary land. John’s gospel is a recurring narrative of the obvious and not so obvious: birth and new birth; blindness and the light that is coming into the world; a hungry gathering of people and the miracle of the loaves and fish. “We are drinking this water today”, Jesus says, “but imagine that you have a need that you are not even yet aware of; I would like to tell you about living water, that springs up to eternal life.”

Jesus was speaking to the woman about a desire that she did not quite know about, but it was there. We have very real desires in this twenty-first century world, but they are not very often spiritual desires, and in fact we are sometimes suspicious of spirituality. Some think spirituality is not quite real, some think it may be real but it does not have value, some think it is real in some way but it is relative, some think it is too touchy-feely. And so spirituality has become something of a taboo subject, to be avoided. Tom Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, England says that we live in a “paved over world”. Materialism in its many forms has superceded the spiritual, even in church, and so we have suppressed the spiritual, we have paved over it. And yet spirituality erupts through the pavement, like a bubbling spring…. Wright thinks of the spiritual motivations of those who executed the plan of 9/11, or we think of religion that gets sick and manifests itself in bizarre behaviors, or hypocrisy, and this can happen in all faiths.

A paved over world represents the separation of spirituality and real life, the estrangement of spirituality and suffering, the divorce of body and spirit. A paved over world separates prayer and action, worship and service, Christianity and citizenship, Sunday and Monday. A paved over world is an attempt to control God, to place the living God in a box---my own private life, or this particular circle of friends, or myself when I am happy. A paved over world is an attempt to keep things dry, sterile, under control.

Wright calls spirituality, in our time, the “hidden spring”. We have tried to manage our lives rationally, control the resources of the world and even the spirits of the world efficiently, we have attempted to explain religion in psychological or cultural or economic terms, and yet there is this bubbling water, which represents God’s desire to get into relationship with us (which is spirituality) and set things right in the world (which is justice).

Christians believe that we thirst for the waters that are to be found in this hidden spring, and when we taste these waters we come to life, like a fern growing in the mountains, washed by a mid-afternoon summer rain. The stream in the desert that flows through the days of Lent is a series of words spoken by Jesus from the cross.

This morning’s word is one of identification with us: “I am thirsty”, he says. The word reveals that he is human and divine. It is a word spoken in the moment---this was his bodily need, and it is the perspective of eternity---John says, “to fulfill the scripture”. And it is a word that draws upon a deep and rich tradition.

Israel wandered in the wilderness, and thirsted for water, and water came to them from the rock at Massah, which means “test”, and their thirst was quenched. The whole journey from slavery to promised land was a test, one that Israel fails, finally, but Jesus passes through this wilderness, he is the new Israel, he takes our place, hanging from a cross, and he is thirsty, John tells us.

“I thirst”. Someone has noted that, in the Beatitudes, Jesus fulfills each of the teachings. He says, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”. Jesus is the one who hungers and thirsts, and on the cross he makes things right---he puts the world into a right relationship with God.

I suppose my baseball coach at the end of that long day was getting a message across to us, although we were not in a place in life to comprehend it. Who knows what went through the minds of those who surrounded Jesus on the cross at Golgotha. He has forgiven his torturers. He had included the thief in the kingdom of God, a paradise that would be his that day. He had grieved with his family and friends. And he had wondered, out loud, where God was in all of this. It must have been disorienting to everyone there.

The expression of Jesus, “I thirst”, recalls his question of Peter at his arrest. When Peter tries to defend Jesus against the soldier, Jesus says, “put your sword back, am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” The cup that he drinks is the test, it is the suffering, and even the embrace of death. It is the bubbling spring that cannot be paved over, the lamb who takes away the sin of the world, the blood and water, death and life, flowing from his pierced body. As Stephen Cottrell notes,

“Here the waters of refreshment are flowing. This is the place of healing. This is the place where burdens can be laid down. It is a sign of God’s rule on earth. The parched wilderness is now a flowing stream, the burning sand of Christ’s thirst a spring of water. The dead wood of the cross has become a tree of life. The desert is coming into blossom. From the scars of passion flowers are growing.”
This happens through the offering of his body, his deepest longing representing our thirst for an intervention, the fulfillment of the desire that things are made right, that a spirituality of the cross would flourish and justice would flow to all people.

The cross is always decisive, it is always a test, it takes everything out of us, and yet it is the source of life itself, the bubbling stream that cannot be paved over, the fountain filled with blood, in a hymn that mixes images of baptism and communion. In the days of Lent, on the way to the cross once again, we ask for the grace to meet Jesus at the well of mercy, and we count on his promise that he teaches and lives: those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled.

At the beginning of Harley Dickson’s book about our church’s 27-year mission in Cap Haitien, Haiti there is a quote from an unknown source. In listening it helps to know that there is, at the entrance to the clinic that has saved so many lives, a pump that is a source of clean water, virtually the only source in that community. It also helps to know that, in the Old Testament, Baca is a place of tears.

I do not know his name
But yet I know he passed this way.
Because I was revived
Beside a well he dug
That I might drink
And gain some fresh, new strength.
I do not know his creed Or color
I only know that Weary, fainting,
I have found Sweet rest
beneath the friendly shade
Of trees he planted
as he passed Through Baca’s vale.
Blessed is the one Who
passing through the valley
digs a well. (unknown)

Sources: Stephen Cottrell, I Thirst. Harley Dickson, The Real Miracle. N. T. Wright, Simply Christian.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

living with contradictions

From the cross, Jesus says, "It is finished". This is recorded in John's gospel (19. 30), and it is of course a brief word filled with contradiction: it it finished (apparently one word in the greek language), but it is never finished (and this is extended into the very next sentence, where Jesus hands over his spirit (pneuma), just as he had been handed over to those who crucified. And so his work on the cross is finished, but his work through us is never finished. I have wondered if this has anything to do with justification by faith (in his final and complete offering on the cross) being a completed act, and yet the necessity of sanctification as the ongoing work of grace in us, which is also cruciform ("present your bodies as a living sacrifice", Paul urged in Romans 12). The cross is a contradiction, and I am processing all of this. It is finished, but it is never finished. This is both the gift and calling, the law (Jesus' fulfillment) and the gospel (the good news about what happened on the cross), the finality of it all and the way that all of this goes on into infinitity. It is done, it is fulfilled, the cup of suffering is empty, let this cup pass from me, Jesus had asked, and yet he drank it all...but, as Pascal observed, it is also true that "Christ will be in agony until the end of the world."