Sunday, April 24, 2011

we are the easter people

The great claim of this day is that this story matters more than anything in the world, and that it is the truth. And it is not only a truth about someone else, about a person who lived 2000 years ago; it is also a truth about us. It is the truth, but as Jesus said, it is also the way and the life. To be a follower of Jesus is not first and foremost to believe a set of truths: it is, before any of that, to die and rise with him.

This event was and is at the center of the Christian movement; without the resurrection, we would not have been that interested in a Galilean Jew named Jesus. Without Easter, there would be no Christmas oratorios or pageants. If Jesus had not been raised from the dead, we would be about as familiar with his teachings as we are with the teachings of Josephus. Josephus was a Jewish historian who lived in the first century. Have you ever heard of Josephus?

And yet this event is more than a historical occurrence; from the earliest letters of Paul, the first writings in the New Testament, to the gospels in all of their detail, to the transformed lives of the second and third generation followers of Jesus, it mattered not only that this happened, once, but that it continued to happen, indeed that it continues to happen.

And so, on Easter Sunday, we make the bold claim not only that this is true, that this is real, but that it matters. “Because I live”, Jesus says, “you will live also.” On Easter Sunday we make the bold claim that we are the Easter people.

What does such a statement imply?

First, Easter people have passed from darkness to light.

On Friday evening many of us sat in the darkness and listened to the last words of Jesus, from the cross. The environment of this sanctuary corresponded to the details of Good Friday—darkness over the whole land. The book was closed, the sound reminding us of the sealing of the tomb, the finality of death, and the dying of the light.

Matthew tells us that the women are walking just as the dawn was breaking, early in the morning, to see the tomb. Mark’s gospel, the earliest, tells us that they are going to anoint the body, but here they are simply going to the place. Suddenly there is an appearance of an angel, a messenger of the Lord, who is dazzling, like lightning, with clothing as white as snow.

The meaning of it is not that morning naturally follows night. This is the inbreaking of God, the shock and surprise of light in the midst of darkness, a gift that comes from beyond us. We don’t create the light or will it into being; it is always grace, God the creator is still speaking a word, “let there be light” and there is light.

Second, Easter people have passed from fear to joy.

In the resurrection we are given an additional gift. Forces from beyond us liberate us from slavery and take us into a new world. We move from being constricted to being set free. We replace a God whom we fear with a God in whom we rejoice. This is portrayed vividly in the angel, the messenger, who removes the stone and sits on it. We do not fear death. As the hymn expresses it:

The strife is o’er, the battle done
the victory of life is won
the song of triumph has begun

And so Easter people have passed from fear to joy. I love Frederick Buechner’s comment about joy:

God created us in joy and created us for joy, and in the long run not all the darkness in the world and in ourselves can finally separate us from that joy, because whatever else it means to say that God created us in his image, I think it means that even when we cannot believe in him, even when we feel most spiritually bankrupt and deserted by him, his mark is deep within us. We have God’s joy in our blood.”

Because I live, you will live also. We have passed from darkness to light, from fear to joy. God wants to change us. This is not subtle, gradual. It is transformational, mind-altering, heart breaking.
We are the Easter people.

Third, Easter people have passed from hatred to love.

If you have lived through the events of Holy Week: the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, the denial of Jesus by Peter, the abandonment of Jesus by all of his disciples, the rejection of Jesus by the religious leaders and the punishment of Jesus by the political authorities, you will know the wounds and scars were deep, and indeed they led to his death by torture, on a cross, an act of excruciating physical pain and utter public humiliation. And so it is remarkable that in Matthew 28. 10 Jesus speaks to the women who want to worship him and says, “Do not be afraid, go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me”.

The resurrection is the power of the gospel to make all things new, to transform bitterness into forgiveness and hatred into love. Go and tell those who betrayed me…no. Go and tell those who denied that they knew me…no. Go and tell those who abandoned me….no. Go and tell my brothers to meet me!

So what do you and I do with something like that? We are not in denial about any of this. Easter is not about the denial of death. Death is real. Betrayal is real. Abandonment is real. Sin is real. I am talking about more than positive thinking. I am talking about faith in a God who overcomes sin, death, betrayal, abandonment, evil, injustice.

If we are Easter people, we have passed from hatred to love. The resurrection is not only the truth, it is also the way and the life. These are the actions of God in us and for us and through us. In one sense this is already accomplished: “love’s redeeming work is done”. In another, the resurrection continues to happen. We not only believe in the resurrection, we live it.

So what if Easter is true? What if all of this is true? I know that this can be a challenge, even for people of faith. In The Brothers Karamazov, a woman has an encounter with Father Zossima, in which she acknowledges that she is unable to believe in the resurrection. She believes in God, but not eternity, immortality, life after death. And so she does what any rational person does: she asks for a proof.

Father Zossima responds, “one cannot prove anything here, but it is possible to be convinced.”
“How, by what?”, she asks.

“By the experience of active love. Try to love your neighbors actively... The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of your soul.” (56)
So it is not that if you believe in the right things, it will change you. If you love, you will be transformed, and it will become easier to believe in the resurrection.

A few years ago I met a physician and preacher in the British Methodist Church named Reginald Mallett. Dr. Mallett would come to the United States each year to speak in churches and at conferences. I heard him tell of an experience, years ago now, which he had heard at a funeral given by an Irish minister at the death of his 38 year old daughter. I have shared with you one year on All Saints one year, but it is an Easter story as well. It is a vivid witness to the passage undertaken by the Easter people.

When I came to this city, the Irish minister said, I discovered that it was divided by the river that separated two groups of people. On this side of the river we were Protestants. On the other side of the river they were Catholics. And we on this side of the river had nothing to do with those on the other side of the river.

And then God sent into our home a little girl, and as she grew up she went to school on the other side of the river. She made friends with people on the other side of the river. She brought them home and we met them and we came to love them.

As she grew older she brought home a fine young man who lived on the other side of the river. They married, and they went to live on the other side of the river. They had three children, our grandchildren, he said, and they lived on the other side of the river.

And I came to see that there was more of my heart on the other side of the river than there was on this side of the river.

The Irish minister said, referring to his deceased daughter, now my little girl has done it again. She has crossed another river, and I have to tell you, that my heart is no longer here. It is on the other side of the river.

I have reached the stage in life, and I dare say many of you are there, where I have as many friends on the other side of the river as I have on this side of the river.

He is not here. He has been raised. He is going ahead of you.

And so we are in process, in motion, passing from darkness to light, from fear to joy, from hatred to love. We are the Easter people. We are the people of hope.

He goes ahead of us, and to make our way to the other side of the river requires that we die and rise with Christ, in baptism and in faith. A few weeks ago many of us gathered in this sanctuary and received the ashes on our foreheads, a symbol of death. We remembered that the earliest churches saw these forty days as a time of preparation for baptism. The apostle Paul writes,

Do you not know that all who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death?
Therefore we were buried together with him through baptism into his death,
so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the father,
we too can walk in newness of life.
If we have died with Christ, we have faith that we will also live with him.

Maybe you are here this morning and the struggle in your own life is between darkness and light: there is sin that separates you from God and from God’s dream for your future.

So…if the stone has been rolled away, are you ready to walk out of the tomb?

Maybe you are here this morning and the struggle in your life is between fear and joy: you have been paralyzed by some damaging, traumatic or scarring experience.

If death has been swallowed up in victory, are you willing to rejoice?

Maybe you are here this morning and the struggle in your life is between hatred and love: there is some relationship, some history, some prejudice.

And so if Jesus can call his betrayers brothers, are you willing to actively love others, to live in the resurrection?

The great claim of this day is that this story matters more than anything in the world, and that it is the truth. And it is not only a truth about someone else, about a person who lived 2000 years ago; it is also a truth about us.

We are the Easter people.

Sources: Kennon Callahan's Easter affirmation and Reginald Mallett's remembrance of the Irish minister's eulogy. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

he descended into hell (holy saturday)

The Apostles' Creed affirms that Jesus was "crucified, died and was buried" and then "he descended into hell". On this day, between Good Friday (his death) and Easter (his resurrection) we take a moment to imagine his descent into death and hell, and thus the depths of his love for us. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar writes, about the descent into hell, that "Christ disturbs the absolute loneliness striven for by the sinner: the sinner who wants to be damned, apart from God, finds God again in his loneliness, but God, in the absolute weakness of his love...enters into solidarity with those damning themselves".

We resist God. But God comes to us, descends to us, even in the very darkest places in our lives. The last words of Romans 8 (The Message) are helpful:

I'm absolutely convinced that nothing---
nothing living or dead,
angelic or demonic,
today or tomorrow,
high or low,
thinkable or unthinkable,
---absolutely nothing can get between us and God's love
because of the way that Jesus the Master has embraced us.

Friday, April 22, 2011

victim divine

A few years ago the United Methodist Church published a supplement to the Hymnal entitled The Faith We Sing. It includes praise choruses (“How Majestic Is Your Name”), gospel songs (“The Lily of the Valley”), and more recent contributions that have been used widely in various communities within the larger church (“I Was There To Hear Your Borning Cry”, “Sing Alleluia To The Lord”).

Included in this volume is a Charles Wesley text entitled “Victim Divine”. This Eucharistic hymn is based on Hebrews 10. 12-22, and upon first listening it is unusual by out current standards: there is no repetition of text; there is within the hymn a complexity of design in the text’s movement from beginning to end, a complexity that requires attention of the mind; and the hymn is multi-sensory (an attribute often given to contemporary or alternative worship). “Victim Divine” is also deeply scriptural, almost a commentary on the Hebrews text, and it is profoundly doctrinal, in that it wrestles with beliefs about God and Jesus Christ, the meaning of salvation and authentic worship.

The first stanza is an affirmation of the grace of God in the sacrificial offering of Jesus Christ upon the altar. The sacrifice is “once offered up, a spotless Lamb”. Here there is an echo of Hebrews 10. 11-12, which describes the complete and sufficient offering of Christ, in contrast to that of the priests which are offered “again and again”, and Exodus 12. 5, which contains the instructions for the Festival of the Passover (“Your Lamb shall be without blemish”). Christ is the atonement for our sin and the Passover lamb that secures our salvation.

The second stanza places Christ in the “holiest place”, the holy of holies, where the offering for sin and guilt is made. There he intercedes for us; the letter to the Hebrews holds together the perfection of Christ’s sacrificial priesthood (7. 26-27) and the humanity of his offering (4. 14-15). In the holiest place, before God, Jesus prays for us, and the blood of sprinkling, symbolic of mercy and forgiveness, extending back to the Passover and forward to the New Covenant “spreads salvation all around”. Salvation is offered to all. Atonement is unlimited.

The third stanza connects the offering of Christ with the events surrounding the crucifixion. “The smoke of the atonement here darkened the sun and rent the veil”. The darkness (Matthew 27; Luke 24) recalls the ninth plague (Exodus 10) and the prophetic vision of Amos:

Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light. (5. 18)
On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon,
and darken the earth at broad daylight. (8. 9)

When Jesus cries with a loud voice and gives up his spirit (breathes his last breath, the offering is complete (Matthew 27. 50). It is finished (John 19. 30). At this moment, Matthew writes, “the curtain of the temple is torn in two, from top to bottom”(Mark 15. 38; Matthew 27. 51). Donald Juel likens the tearing of the temple in the death of Jesus to the opening of the heavens in Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3; Luke 3). There is an openness to the Holy in the revelation [uncovering] of God who looks down upon prodigal children as royalty.

This fourth stanza is marked by a multi-sensory character:

He still respects thy sacrifice/its savor sweet doth always please
The offering smokes through earth and skies,
Diffusing life, and joy, and peace
To these thy lower courts it comes/and fills them with divine perfumes.

The burning of incense by the high priest was for the purpose of pleasing God. The sacrificial death of Christ (Ephesians 5. 2) has cosmic dimensions, descending even to us. “Victim Divine” concludes with a remarkable statement about the meaning of salvation:

We need not go up to heaven/to bring the long sought Savior down;
Thou are to all already given, thou dost e’en now thy banquet crown:
To every faithful soul appear/and show thy real presence here!

Salvation is not our achievement or ascent to God. Salvation is God’s gift to us, in the incarnation, in the One who empties himself and takes the form of a servant and becomes obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2). God comes down to us, in the incarnate (human ) Jesus, and in the material elements of Holy Communion. The real presence of Christ at the table, the body and the blood of the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, has already been given to us. The sacrifice is complete, sufficient and effective . Therefore we enter the sanctuary with “a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10. 22).

Communion texts, whether they be anthems or hymns, convey a variety of messages, among them mystery , invitation , unity (“One Bread, One Body”), and spiritual hunger (“You Satisfy The Hungry Heart”). “Victim Divine” recaptures the sacrificial meaning of Holy Communion, which lies at the heart of all other meanings, and places the experience of receiving with bread and the cup within both Old and New Testament traditions. Its depth is both challenge and gift, and yet it offers the potential for a human response to God that involves the whole self in all of the senses: singing the hymn, touching and eating the bread, smelling the incense, in the midst of darkness, a light which can no longer be covered. We do not need to go up to heaven to have a spiritual experience. In Christ, God has made that available to us here, now.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

the long defeat (passion/palm sunday)

When I first started going to Haiti years ago I came upon one of the best books I have read in my life, Mountains Beyond Mountains, written by the Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Kidder. It is a biography of a man named Paul Farmer, who grew up in the rural poverty of the Deep South, attended Duke as an undergraduate and then Harvard Medical School, and now divides his time between Harvard, where he teaches, and central Haiti, where he operates a medical hospital.

I enjoy reading, but it is unusual for me to read a book more than once. I have read Mountains Beyond Mountains three times. It is passionate and funny, and is about the best portrait of the Haitian people I have come across. I was on a panel discussion with Paul Farmer a few years ago at Wofford College, and I found him to be a wonderful human being, not arrogant in any way, and genuinely interested in the students. I took Jacques Lamour, who is from Haiti, with me that day. On the ride back Jack said: “it was a great day; Paul Farmer got to meet Jack Lamour!”

I was alerted recently to a passage in Mountains Beyond Mountains that I had missed the first times around. Farmer is reflecting on the dilemma of living such a divided life, teaching at a place like Harvard, where most everyone is successful, and practicing in Haiti, where most everyone is desperate.

Toward the end of the book an emaciated young man is flown to Boston for emergency surgery, with funds raised by Farmer’s non-profit organization. Later the young man would die, and one of the staff would question whether this was an appropriate expenditure of the twenty thousand dollars it took to fly him there. This gets back to Paul Farmer and he has a conversation about it with Tracey Kidder.

Could the money have been spent in a better way? Farmer responds, “”Yeah, but there are so many ways of saying that? For example, why didn’t the airline company that makes money…why didn’t they pay for the flight? That’s a way of saying it. Or how about this way? How about if I say, I have fought for my whole life a long defeat. How about that? How about if I said, that all it adds up to is defeat?

A long defeat. I have fought the long defeat and have brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think that sometimes we may win. I don’t dislike victory….No, no, I’m not complaining. You know, people from our background…we’re used to being on the victory team, and actually what we’re really trying to do is to make common cause with the losers. Those are two very different things. We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it’s not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.”

Where did Paul Farmer get the phrase, “the long defeat”? It is from his favorite book, The Lord of the Rings, where Galadriel says, “Through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” And Galadriel had sprung from the profound imagination of JRR Tolkien, who once wrote, in a letter to a friend, “I am a Christian….so I do not expect history to be anything but a long defeat—though it contains some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

Palm Sunday flows into Passion Sunday, the events of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the King of Glory, becomes a story about betrayal (by one of the disciples) and abandonment and denial (by another). It is the journey that began when Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, but it began even earlier, when Herod slaughtered the innocents, when those worshipping in Capernaum drove him from the synagogue. Holy Week is the culmination of the events of Jesus’ life, the natural and inevitable conclusion, maybe, of the one who gained so much of his identity by reading the suffering servant passages in Isaiah, “surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”

It is the way of Jesus, this road of suffering.

He emptied himself,

taking the form of a servant,

and became obedient unto death,

even death on a cross

Have this mind in you that was in Christ Jesus, the apostle Paul writes to the Philippians. And so those who follow Jesus will encounter grief, sorrow and suffering. We can choose to become passive, stoic, or cynical all of this-----“only the good die young,” the popular song expressed it, , or, in the words of Tolkien and Paul Farmer, we can learn to fight the long defeat.

Why do we fight the long defeat? On Christmas Eve each year I have stood in the center of our sanctuary, the room filled with candlelight and repeated the words of Howard Thurman, about the work of Christmas:

To find the lost

To heal the broken

To feed the hungry

To release the prisoner

To rebuild the nations

To bring peace among brothers and sisters

These are inspiring words, and I think he gets it exactly right. And yet…some of the lost remain lost, some of the broken are still broken, children go to bed hungry, prisoners are released and then return to prison, nations are rebuilt but then they are crushed again, and violence and warfare continues. So what do you do?

Do you chalk the words of that poem up to the idealism of a great preacher and prophet, and then maybe give up, the benefit is not worth the cost, do you throw in the towel and have a seat on the sidelines? Or, do you fight the long defeat?

Two weeks ago Dr. Eugene Macklin from Haiti was with us. What name do you give to an experience of a country that has extreme poverty and then hurricanes and then an earthquake and then cholera but the long defeat? “Is it getting any better?”, someone asked the doctor, who listened, and smiled and talked about the lives that have been saved.

We fight the long defeat for a simple reason: we are followers of Jesus, and Jesus seemed to constantly be making common cause with those the world called losers: gentiles, lepers, the poor, children, women, the sick, the mentally ill, the hungry. Why did he do that? It was his mission in life: the son of man came to seek and save that which is lost.

Now none of this sat well with the religious authorities, and it was finally what got him killed. You can feel the tension building in the gospels, and if you are here on Friday evening at the Tenebrae service, you will hear the words, and sense the deepening darkness, and feel the impending finality of the long defeat.

So why such extravagance, why such a gift, poured out in that way, what a waste, God dying for the ungodly, why such a sacrifice for a world that had turned its back on him? It is all beginning to unravel in the readings for Holy Week, the last chapters of any gospel, take your pick. And yet, Jesus fights the long defeat. Jesus makes common cause with the losers. Why does he do this? Listen to the explanation of Will Willimon, who was with us on Friday:

“The significant thing is that Jesus willingly accepted the destiny toward which his actions drove him, willingly endured the world’s response to its salvation…And he did it for Love: the cross is not what God demands of Jesus for our sin but rather what Jesus got for bringing the love of God so close to sinners like us.”

Sinners like us…finally the motive for such an extravagant, costly grace is the life of each person, that each person matters to God, that young Haitian lying on an operating table, a young woman struggling to find herself in this world, a man at mid-life wondering if he has made the right sacrifices or if they have simply been compromises, a woman at the end of life who also feels betrayed or abandoned. On the cross Jesus makes common cause with them, with us, on the cross Jesus does not turn his back on them, or us, it is, in the words of Wesley’s hymn, love’s redeeming work …

To find the lost

To heal the broken

To feed the hungry

To release the prisoner

To rebuild the nations

To bring peace among brothers and sisters

And that is not only our making the world a better place, not only what we can do in this world, but more crucially---there is that word, related to the cross---more crucially it is what God does in us and for us, we are lost and broken, we are hungry and imprisoned, we inhabit the ruined cities and live with our own irreconcilable differences. The cross is what Jesus got for bringing the love of God so close to sinners like us.

People like us, we are used to being on the victory team. But in holy week, we journey once again into the heart of darkness, into the mystery of our faith, into the clearest image we have of the long defeat:

He emptied himself,

taking the form of a servant

And became obedient unto death,

Even death on a cross.

Sources: I am grateful to Alan Jacobs for his reflection on the concept of “the long defeat” in Mountains Beyond Mountains and its origin in Tolkien. William Willimon, Why Jesus? Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas”.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

resources for holy week

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, a day that marks the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem and, ultimately, his death by crucifixion. My liturgical practice has been to work with musicians in the creation of a service that begins in celebration and ends in a very different place: Palm Sunday is not Good Friday, but by the end of the service my hope is that our thoughts are at least being guided in that direction.

Over time, I find myself being drawn to a few resources, over and over again, and I share them with you here. For the individual Christian, these might be sources of spiritual renewal and reflection. For the preacher, these might also stir your heart and mind to plan for these significant services in a new way.

So, a few resources for Holy Week:

1. The Gospels. It is worth noting that there is an extraordinary amount of detail about the events of Holy Week in the gospels. For example, the Gospel of John picks up Jesus' entry into Jerusalem in chapter twelve----therefore, almost forty percent of this book focuses on the events of Holy Week.

2. Raymond Brown, Introduction to the Gospel of John (Anchor Bible, two volumes). The late professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City was at work on a revision of this classic when he died in 1998. The attention to detail, balance and spiritual depth is amazing, and for Holy Week, particularly Jesus' washing of the disciples feet in John 13 and the women's discovery of the empty tomb in John 20, there is really no parallel.

3. The Hymns of Charles Wesley. I find myself returning, again and again, to "O Love Divine, What Hast Thou Done" and "Christ the Lord is Risen Today". The most profound Wesleyan theology of the atonement is found in the former hymn, and the most expansive Christian reflection on the resurrection is expressed in the latter.

4. Parker Palmer, "On Staying At The Table". Subtitled "A spirituality of community", I have found this brief essay to be the most relevant contemporary statement about the last supper and what it means for followers of Jesus today. Why did Jesus stay at the table with Judas? And what does that mean for our own experiences of disappointment and betrayal?

5. Parker Palmer, The Promise of Paradox. One chapter within this book is a reflection of the "stations of the cross" as contradictions within our own spiritual lives.

6. Wendell Berry, The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. A compelling poem by one of our most profoundly prophetic voices, ending with the injunction, "practice resurrection."

7. Kennon Callahan. I met Ken years ago at his annual continuing education seminar on church planning, and I discovered that his work was grounded in a theology of hope. His affirmation, "we are the easter people, we are the people of hope" can be found on his website (twelve keys) and in his books.

8. I will have two reflections in Christian Century's Living by the Word column this week, one on Easter Sunday and another on the Sunday following. You can access these beginning Monday via their website if you do not already subscribe.

9. Interfaith Reflection on Holy Week. Given the history of Jewish-Christian relations, it is imperative that preachers and worship leaders reflect on need to avoid anti-semitism in the liturgy and in commentary on biblical texts during the services of this week. Negatively, passion plays have been linked historically to anti-Jewish mob violence; positively, Christians can learn a great deal about our own tradition from the Jewish observance of Passover.

10. Fasting and Silence. In consultation with your physician you may wish to fast on Good Friday, as a spiritual discipline. And as a means of detachment from our media-driven culture, you may also wish to observe a period of silence (one hour to three hours). During this latter period you might read in some of the materials listed above (Raymond Brown or Parker Palmer, or the last twelve chapters of John's Gospel, for example).

11. In full candor, I will also confess that I find myself returning to the sermons and reflections of the following as I approach Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter: Peter Gomes, Will Willimon, Kathleen Norris, William Sloane Coffin and N.T. Wright. I also continue to benefit from Richard Hays' commentary on I Corinthians 15 (in the Interpretation Series) and Gail O' Day's commentary on John in the New Interpreter's Bible Series.

Saturday, April 09, 2011


I wrote to the Providence UMC congregation two weeks ago that I have been invited by my Bishop, Larry Goodpaster, to serve as a District Superintendent, and I have accepted this invitation. I have served at Providence for eight years, and it is a remarkable congregation. It is not a perfect church---I am often reminded of the Apostle Paul's insight that we hold the treasure of the gospel in earthen vessels, to show that the power belongs to God and not to us---but it is an extraordinary mission in the heart of a large city.

While all of this is most visible in some of our signature ministries---an awesome chancel choir, risk-taking local mission with the homeless on a large scale, substantive and long term initiatives in Haiti in the areas of education, health and microcredit, a Sunday School to worship ratio of almost 65%, a large adult disabled community within the church, and I could go on---there are more hidden activities that are equally compelling. We were included in a research project by Diana Butler Bass that became the basis for her book Christianity for The Rest of Us, and her thesis was that mainline churches were in fact thriving in most every community across the U.S. It is true.

I will miss the people of Providence. Many have become close friends, and many more have shared in the sacrifices necessary to help us move beyond an almost overwhelming indebtedness. I will miss preaching at Providence: it is an engaging and engaged gathering of people who listen to the sermons week by week. I will miss the study that I knew was required of me if I were to keep that kind of engagement going, at least from my end.

I will also miss introducing many of my friends from across the connection to Providence. We have welcomed Bishop Robert Schnase, author of the Five Practices material and David Wilkinson of Durham, England, Greg and Susan Jones and Sergei Nikolaev, Jim Salley of Africa University and Bishop John Innis of Liberia, David Mosser from First UMC in Arlington, Texas and Wallace Alston of the Center of Theological Inquiry, Ben Witherington and Bob Tuttle, Zan Holmes and Will Willimon, Gil Rendle and Steve Bryant, and I could go on. Almost all of them have made two comments: how active and mission-focused Providence is, and how many young adults and families are present on a given Sunday morning.

I will miss all of this, and more.

And yet I am blessed to be en route to a new ministry, as District Superintendent of the Waynesville District in our Annual Conference. The Waynesville District includes sixty-nine churches in the seven western most counties of our state. The offices are at Lake Junaluska, the administrative and spiritual center of the Southeastern Jurisdiction, and we will live there. I know many of the pastors in this district, we have a number of close friends in that community, and it is a beautiful part of the world. We have loved Charlotte, but we have always been drawn to the mountains (we have a small cabin there) and now find ourselves heading toward them.

So the coming weeks will be about my own attempt to have a good conclusion to a ministry that is very important to me. I know that many of the friendships will endure. And I also know that when our moving van makes its way up Interstate 40, west beyond Asheville, I will give thanks for the people that God will give me to serve in that region.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

it begins and ends with grace (john 4)

It was about noon, the hottest part of the day in a desert culture and Jesus, exhausted by the journey, sat down by Jacob’s well. A woman, a Samaritan, came along at that time to draw water, and Jesus asks her for a drink. It is the beginning of a conversation, but it becomes an exchange between two unlikely conversation partners. He is Jewish, she is Samaritan. Jews looked down on Samaritans, and Samaritans hated Jews. There was a long and contentious history, rooted in the exile and the division into tribes. The Samaritans had intermarried with the Assyrians, their captors. They were no longer religiously pure or politically correct. South of them was Jerusalem, where the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. Later it would be rebuilt by the Judeans, who had always remained separate from other cultures.

That is a very brief history of two invasions and two exiles over several hundred years, but it all flows into the conversation between these two people, Jesus and the woman at the well. And it leads her to ask the question: How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a Samaritan? And then John’s comment: Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans. We learn something very significant in this request. Jesus is in a place which would have been reckoned as pagan by his people. The very vessels would have been unclean to a devout Jew. In many religious cultures a spiritual leader or even a practicing religious man would not take a drink in a religious environment different from his own, and would not converse with a woman. Jesus does both. So what does this say about Jesus? We might connect these actions with our gospel from last Sunday: God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

A few weeks ago I heard Lovett Weems speak. He talked about a simple concept: a presumption of grace. What if we entered into every conversation, every encounter, with a presumption of grace instead of a presumption of judgment? I have reflected on that question. Why do I presume that I am more spiritual than you are? Why do I presume that I care more about the poor than you do? It may be true, it may not be true. Why do we presume that we are more compassionate than other people? Why do we presume that we are more generous than other people? It may be true, it may not be true.

What if we began with a presumption of grace? Jesus does not begin with a judgment of the woman, although given the history, the politics and the religious factors involved, he might have. He begins with a presumption of grace, and he does so through the simple act of sharing life with her. I was sitting with a group of friends, waiting for a concert to begin. We were at the Station Inn in Nashville, which is like a Mecca for bluegrass music, and an exceptional group was going to perform that evening. The whole place itself is smaller than the chancel area of this sanctuary, so we were up close. We were also close together, as the place was filled. I was glad we had gotten seats.

In the intermission the guy next to me asked where I was from. He had a beard, longer than mine, and appeared to be about my age. I told him “Charlotte”, and asked where he was from, and he said he was from Memphis but he was moving to Nashville. “What do you do?,” he asked. “I am a Methodist minister. What about you?” By now we are in a conversation, I realized. “I am a record producer”. “Tell me about your church,” he continued. That is a wonderful opening: I talked about the music and the joy class and Haiti and the homeless. He seemed more interested than I would have imagined, even if he was not your stereotypical church person, but then I don’t think of Providence as your stereotypical church. Then I asked him, “So do you produce bluegrass music?” He said, “Well I really produce rock music”….and then he named a few people…Sister Hazel, Three Doors Down. Now I have not heard their music, but I know enough to know that, in his world, this is a big deal. The conversation continued, because the intermission stretched on. We exchanged addresses and he called my cell phone, so I have his number, and he has mine. I am going to send him a book; he is going to send me some music. And although it was closer to midnight than noon, and the Station Inn is not Jacob’s Well, and I am not Jesus and he was not a Samaritan woman, we were unlikely conversation partners, a minister and alternative rock music producer/musician. At some point, and I can’t remember the particulars, we began to talk about Christianity and the church. Bluegrass musicians are pretty open about sharing their faith, so it came up naturally, and he was surprisingly open about it all too.

He said, simply, “For me it begins and ends with grace.”

A presumption of grace…the Samaritan woman is startled to discover that this man is willing to share life, a cup of water, even an extended conversation with her. Their dialogue is remembered in the long passage that takes up most of the fourth chapter of John’s gospel. It is a fairly complex passage, almost as if they are talking across each other, Jesus on some kind of symbolic level, the Samaritan woman in a more literal way. But it has everything to do with what they share in common, in that moment: water. For the woman, water is the next thing on the agenda, relief, nourishment. For Jesus, water is this---he is exhausted---but it is more. It is living water. For the woman, drawing water from a well represents the endless cycle of her responsibilities. For us, drawing water from a well might represent the endless cycle of our agendas, our to-do lists: what I have to do today, tomorrow, this week, and then it all begins again. It is ordinary life. Jesus helps her to see the extraordinary in the ordinary---the water in that well is a foretaste of life in which there is no thirst, it is the gift of God that leads to eternal life.

Then there is the brief and awkward conversation about the woman’s personal history. It takes up three verses in a thirty verse passage, so we might say ten percent of their encounter. Interestingly, Jesus does not judge or condemn her. He simply names her present reality. She quickly changes the subject. That happens in conversations that become awkward, doesn’t it. And if you read the scripture for today, you will see that the topic becomes worship, where to worship, how to worship. As I have reflected on this passage this week I have come to the conclusion that this may be the first recorded discussion in history of traditional and contemporary worship. The Jews worship in Jerusalem, at the temple, and the woman connects Jesus with the temple. Obviously he is a prophet. But the Samaritans worship on a mountain not far from that well---it was actually Mount Gerizem, which had become something of a rival temple, an alternative worship setting. The underlying question: should we worship on this mountain or that mountain? Which is better? Which is right?

How do you think Jesus would answer that question? Is he going to come down on the side of traditional or contemporary? He responds, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor Jerusalem….the hour is coming when we will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.

And so again Jesus pushes us beyond the ordinary to the extraordinary: it is not where we worship or how we worship, but who we worship. We worship God the Father, through the spirit. Our obsession with styles of worship can in fact be a way of avoiding the substance of worship, which is God. We have many strategies at our disposal to keep God at a distance. One of the most seductive is the church’s insistence on keeping this conversation going: do we worship on this mountain, or on the mountain a few miles away? In this moment something begins to happen. Jesus reveals himself to her. He says, “I am the Messiah who is coming into the world, it is I, who is speaking to you.”

And as in many of the best conversations, this is where they are interrupted. The students of Jesus come along, and they are astonished that he, a rabbi, is speaking with her, a woman From the very beginning, women and men have been a part of the gospel story, no one was excluded from a conversation with Jesus. And so the woman leaves her water jar and goes back to the city. And listen to what she makes of her encounter: Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! Some people hear a sermon, or participate in a worship service, and they learn something about the preacher. Some people hear a sermon, or participate in a worship service, and they learn something about the church. Some people hear a sermon, or participate in a worship service, and they learn something about the Bible. Some people hear a sermon, or participate in a worship service, and they learn something about God. But something in addition is possible. Some people hear a sermon, or participate in a worship service and they learn something about themselves. That is transformation, and that is what happens when we encounter Jesus Christ.

To worship in spirit and in truth is to become honest before God about where we have been and who we are. To worship in spirit and in truth is to understand that our character and our integrity are at stake. And so the Samaritan goes away saying, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done”. That is her witness, and that is our witness. Witness is not telling other people what they should do; that is judgment. Witness is telling other people what has happened to us and in us and among us. And so the conversation---and it is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the gospels—moves from water to worship to witness. What we do with the conversation is up to us: do we draw water from a stagnant well or do we taste living water? Do we get caught up in where and how we worship or do we enter more deeply into the question of who we worship? Do we keep Jesus at a distance, or do we begin to see him for who he really is, and thus, do we begin to see ourselves for who we really are? Do we imagine that we are not good enough tell others about Jesus? Do we think we do not know enough to tell others about Jesus? Or do we simply share the Jesus that we know, and the Jesus who knows us, and say, “Come and see”?

Do we see others with a presumption of judgment? The woman at the well, the person we have a contentious history with, or maybe ourselves? Or can we follow the Jesus who always seems to encounter any person he meets with a presumption of grace? And so the Samaritan woman asks, “how is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a Samaritan?” And we might ask, “How is that you, a holy and righteous God, shares life with me, a sinner?”

The answer: “it begins and ends with grace.”

Sources: In gratitude to Paul, for the conversation, and to Lovett Weems.