Saturday, December 23, 2017
“And now, a solo from Miss Frouida Baker.” I heard these words almost every week when I was seminarian assistant at St. Helen’s Anglican Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. I worked there for a full year, from the fall of 1971 through the summer of 1972. The Rector was the Rev. Canon J. Whinfield Robinson, a wonderful evangelical low churchman. He wore no vestments—just cassock, surplice, and stole; he was never called “Father”; people did not make the sign of the cross in the church and visitors who crossed themselves were corrected by the sidesmen (ushers). Canon Robinson influenced me greatly, and was always good to me. I learned a great deal from him, and remained in contact with him until he died on January 12, 1997, probably close to ninety years old.
It is the custom in many Anglican churches worldwide not only to have services on Sunday morning, but also to have Evensong on Sunday evening. There would be different lessons and a different sermon from what one had experienced in the morning. And many people came to both services. And so it was at St. Helen’s.
In St. Helen’s choir was an elderly single woman (many would say “old maid”) named Frouida Baker. She was always there, and very often, mostly in the evening I think, she sang a solo at some point in the service. Canon Robinson always introduced it with the same words: “And now, a solo from Miss Frouida Baker.” She was not a gifted singer. As I recall, her soprano voice was kind of warbly.
It has been 45 years since those days. Miss Baker is long gone from this world, as is Canon Robinson. But now that I am 69 and no longer 24, I look back on that year as one of those magic times in one’s life. I have known a few people over the decades who had no family. They either had never married or had been widowed; there were no children or siblings left alive; their parents were long gone and their cousins, if any, were also either departed or there had been no contact since childhood. I suspect that Miss Frouida Baker was one of these.
But she was the quintessential old maid who sang in her church choir week after week after week for years, probably without much reward, notice, or thanks. I can’t say that I ever talked to her even though I was in church with her just about every Sunday for a year. And I have no memory of what she looked like.
But somehow I have never forgotten her, and now that nearly half a century has gone by, I recognize her priceless gift. She made an unremarkable offering of song willingly without expectation of reward, notice, or thanks. She praised and served God humbly and dependably with what she had. She blessed and taught and changed me ever so subtly but powerfully and permanently. If only I could be so humble and so faithful.
Saturday, November 25, 2017
In July 1945 a very short item by C.S. Lewis called “Meditation in a Toolshed” appeared in print. In it he relates a lesson about discerning truth that came to him while seeing a beam of sunlight come through the roof in his toolshed. Similarly, as I was raking leaves a day or two ago, a lesson came to me about the Christian life.
In October 2001 I spent a week at a clergy refreshment and formation conference. At one point the leader encouraged the forty or so of us to come up with a “BHAG” (pronounced bee-hag)—a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” for our lives. She said that a BHAG was something that would take at least ten years to achieve, and had no guarantee of ever being achieved.
At the closing gathering we all sat in a circle, and she asked if anyone would be willing to share whatever BHAG he or she had come up with. There was probably a full minute of silence, so I decided to go first. I raised my hand, got the go-ahead, and said, “I’d like to be included in a future edition of Lesser Feasts and Fasts.” (This is a listing of saints in the calendar of the Episcopal Church.)
There was a pregnant silence for about two seconds, and then the entire group erupted into the loudest, most spontaneous, most feverishly uncontrolled group laughter I’ve ever heard: people doubled over in their seats, slapped their thighs, and guffawed. Tears came down some faces. It went on for about a minute.
Well, I intended it to be funny and to break the ice, and that certainly worked. When the laughter died down and the tears were wiped away, others began to share their BHAGs.
But here’s a secret: I meant it. Not that I be recognized and celebrated by future generations as a saint—that’s not what I wanted. But I do want to become truly saintly. Really, for everyone it is the only “BHAG” to have.
One of my favorite blogs is called “The Catholic Gentleman”, written by a fellow named Sam Guzman, a husband and father in Wisconsin. The tagline for his blog is “Be a Man, Be a Saint”. He’s nailed it. This vision, this goal certainly goes way against the grain in today’s culture, but the culture is spectacularly wrong. Being a man and being a saint is the only purpose of a man’s life. Saint Paul puts it this way: “For me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21) and “I press on to take h old of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12). This is what I want. Indeed, there is nothing else worth wanting—to become the man Christ calls and empowers me to be. To be a man of virtue: to be honorable, dedicated to truth, loving to small and great, chaste, patient, humble, strong, peaceful, courageous… all the virtues. The word “virtue” comes from the Latin word vir, which mean “man”. To be a true man means to be virtuous; to fail in virtue is to fail in manhood.
So what does this have to do with raking leaves? The week of Thanksgiving is the time when most of the leaves have fallen and my yard is littered with them. So it’s time to rake them up. They go into a long pile at the street-edge of the front yard, and a truck will come through the neighborhood once a week to suck them up. I could use a leaf-blower, but so far I have resisted. I still use a leaf rake—a rather small one, actually. It’s much better exercise, uses no power, and it’s quiet except for the persistent sound of the scrape of the rake against the earth. And my heavy breathing once I get going. Raking leaves is hard work.
This year I did the chore over a two day period: first one side, and then the other, moving the leaves from the back yard (where nearly all the leaves fall) through the side gates to the front yard and the strip adjacent to the street. You begin with a few leaves, but it doesn’t take long to build up to a pile, and the more you rake, the bigger the pile becomes. A half hour into the task, and just to make a little progress you have to move the entire pile.
As I was raking, it occurred to me that the spiritual life is like this. The farther you go, the harder it gets. You can see the clear ground behind you, but ahead is the daunting, leaf-covered yard and a lot to move just to make the least progress. The inner voices say, “Take a break; you’ve worked hard enough for now.” And, “Feel that pain in your shoulders, thighs, and lower back as you turn and twist and heave the pile forward; that’s gonna really hurt tomorrow. Better stop now.” And, “You don’t need to finish today. Just leave the pile and come back another time.” And, “Your neighbors will think you’re either too stupid or too poor to buy a leaf blower. They’ll think you’re old fashioned or don’t know any better. That young guy across the street with a leaf blower is obviously smarter and more efficient than you are.” Or even, “Wow, look at that 69-year-old man go! He doesn’t look a day over 65!” And, “You can leave that part of the yard unraked; it’s really not too bad and it’ll be easier and faster to let it go.” These messages are persistent and repetitive, appearing ever more and more sensible and attractive.
But as soon as I connected leaf raking with a dedication to growing in sanctity, I committed to finishing the job in one day. No giving up, even for a short time except to breathe deeply for a moment and swallow a little water. Across the back yard, through the narrow gate, and across the front yard. I recognized that the inner messages of discouragement, urgings to slow down or rest, or about what others may be thinking were the same messages that come whenever I try to become more and more obedient to God and his call to rely on his grace. Maybe the ever-increasing difficulty is a sign of progress—but really, it’s not progress but persistence that is important; I don’t think anyone can ever tell if he is making “progress”.
As I age, I become more and more aware of my grievous sins, my psychological and emotional burdens and failures, and how far short I am of life’s real BHAG. I can talk and preach the message of grace and mercy and God’s love and promises, but it is still hard for me to internalize it. It’s all grace, but that doesn’t in the least mean that there is no hard work to be done; on the contrary, the greater the dedication to “be a man, be a saint”, the harder it is. This is how God works. Any commitment to another takes work, and the commitment to God most of all, for there the stakes are highest and the reward the richest. “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things” (Philippians 3:13-15).
It took nearly three hours, but when it was done, there was a good-sized pile of leaves along the street-side of the front yard. But tomorrow, more leaves will fall. “Let us live up to what we have attained” (Philippians 3:16).
Saturday, October 21, 2017
I like coincidences. They make life interesting because they are completely unexpected, serendipitous occurrences in one’s day. I’ve experienced a few that I remember years later, and still shake my head with wonder as I remember them.
Once I was buying dog food at a local tack and feed shop, and noticed a mother and young daughter in the store. I put the forty pound sack of dog food in the car and went on to my next errand—shopping at the Trader Joe’s about four miles away. As I was wheeling my cart through the store, the same mother and daughter came in.
Back in the late 1990s I was trying to find a scarce book. A book dealer I knew suggested that a contact a man in Tuscon, Arizona, who had made an authorized reprint of the book. I made the contact, and have enjoyed a friendship with that individual for over twenty years. Shortly after the book dealer’s recommendation, I was visiting a print museum in Carson City, and spent a little time talking with the owner. He mentioned that he knew a printer who still used the old-fashioned methods and machinery. I was amazed when it dawned on me that he was referring to the same person in Tuscon.
Two or three months ago I was at the post office in town and noted a car in front of me with a personalized license plate. An hour or so later, when I was driving out of the parking lot at the local Walmart, I found myself behind the same car. Well, that’s not too much of a coincidence since this is a small town. But back in 2012 when I was living in Orange County, California, I headed out to visit a friend. In front of me on the freeway was a car with an interesting and clever personalized license plate. I went on to visit my friend twenty miles away, spent an hour with him, then drove back home. As I turned off the freeway to the surface street that led to my home, I saw that I had pulled up behind the same car with its clever license plate. Orange County has a population of several million people and its freeways are almost always crowded with a million cars.
After I moved out of Orange County, there was one teenager I regretted not saying good-bye to; I was just too busy with many things under deadlines to take the time to do everything I wanted. Two years later I came back to visit friends and they suggested that we go to a movie at a local mall. I remembered that it was that teenager’s birthday. We went to the mall, and, in this same county with its millions of inhabitants, I saw the teenager. We had a very welcome meeting and a satisfying closure.
Back in 1980, while I sat in an easy chair I was watching my two-year-old son sitting on the carpet in the living room looking through the sliding glass door that led to the patio outside. It was pouring rain, and I remember being impressed with his rapt attention as he stared outside. Thirty years later, long after he had moved out, he came home for a visit. Once again I was sitting in that same easy chair; again it was pouring rain, and he stood in the very same place where he had sat as a toddler, looking outside with the same rapt attention.
A year or two ago, after a number of years without contact, I emailed a friend of mine who is a fan of the science fiction books I’ve written. We were glad to be back in communication, and after exchanging some pleasantries, we discovered that the small town where I moved after I retired was his home town, the small town where he had grown up in the 1950s. He was now living in New York and I was living more than 2,000 miles from where I was living when I wrote the books. And in another coincidence, the name of the town where he lives now is the same as the town where he grew up. He came to visit me, and the house where he was a child still exists.
Any of these coincidences could have been missed had something been slightly different. Ten seconds either way, or being in a different room, or holding off on an email, and the coincidence would either never have happened, or would have been unrecognized if it did happen. Sometimes I wonder how many near misses we may have in our lives. Maybe none of these coincidences is of any significance other than to inspire wonder—but then wonder is a terrific part of life.
Monday, October 09, 2017
Eleven years ago today I began this blog with a post about finding invincible beauty and joy in the midst of emptiness and discouragement:
In some ways, that’s been the theme of this blog all along; its title “JohnOneFive” is a reference to the fifth verse of the first chapter of John’s Gospel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” After well over a hundred posts since then, even I am somewhat surprised at how many of them present this theme.
And this one will too. It’s been more than two years since I last posted, and I think that now a lot of attention has turned from blogs to Facebook and other social media. But there are still a lot of blogs, and I hope to continue this one now more regularly. Many things have changed in my life in the past few years, more than I ever thought they would or could, and probably fewer people will read this blog than used to, but maybe it’ll be good for me to get back to blogging anyway. I have a backlog of lots of ideas, and it’ll be good to write them up.
Well. Surrounded by Wonder. I now have a daughter. She’ll turn two in December. She lives in a house with several walls of books. She’s had books of her own just about since she was born, and she loves them. First we read them to her, then she learned to read them on her own, and recently she’s read to others. They’re mostly pictures, of course, but she knows the alphabet and can pick out a few words, and can identify probably over a hundred illustrations like clouds, lampposts, turtles, lions, and balloons.
Watching her sit and read a few days ago, I thought about how many hundreds of excellent books there are in the house that she’ll be able to read in a few years. They are there now, and she even takes them off the shelves on almost a daily basis, and has learned to take care of them. But of course right now they are inaccessible to her—no more than marks on a page.
And then I thought how the whole world must be like that to everyone. Electricity was around before Benjamin Franklin began the process of harnessing it, but no one knew about it except to watch lightning. Only in the past century or so have we begun to understand the nature of atoms, molecules, and the wonders of quantum mechanics, though everything is made of atoms. Mystery has always been all around us, unknown and unrecognized; the Unified Theory is still a theory, tantalizing us with mysteries yet unknown. The more we learn, the more mysteries become evident.
This is all obvious to inquiring minds, and nothing very profound. But maybe it’s a good place to restart a blog after a two-year hiatus.
“Many things greater than these lie hidden, for we have seen but few of his works” (Sirach 43:32)
Monday, May 18, 2015
As I was preparing my sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, I decided to focus my words on one verse from the appointed epistle: 1 John 5:12——“Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” Amidst all the other lessons and teaching and exhortation that can be done, these words hit the very center of the target. How to put them into a sermon was not, however, obvious.
As I lay on the couch my eyes wandered to a wall full of books and eventually settled on my collection of books by Albert Capwell Wyckoff. As I did so, gradually the sermon came into place.
Wyckoff is one of my favorite authors. He was born in 1903. In 1926 the first of his novels was published. Over a ten year period he produced 21 excellent adventure and mystery stories aimed at boys. More than any other popular author I’ve read from that time period, he presented the era in which he wrote with an almost painful attractiveness. Boarding houses, automobiles, chickens in their coop, autumn weather, winter snowfalls, lonely streets at night, homespun meals, drives in the country, … they are all presented with a simplicity and charm that can make the reader ache for the time.
Even the titles of his books draw one in, such as The Sea Runners’ Cache, The Mercer Boys and the Indian Gold, The Secret of the Armor Room. In 1936, his last boys’ book appeared: Search for the City of Gold. He apparently stopped writing, except for an occasional short story in Boys’ Life magazine or other periodical.
During the 1930s, the time of the Great Depression, Wyckoff was a missionary in the Ozarks. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he devoted those years to living among and ministering to people who were impoverished, poorly educated, and whom much of society had passed by. He wrote a short book about those days called Challenge of the Hills.
In the 1940s he became pastor of the Presbyterian church in Columbia, Kentucky where he spent his last days. And at that time, he began to write and publish more books. Rather than adventure and mystery stories for boys, however, these books were Christian novels set in the post-war era. There are eight of them. (A ninth was not published until it came out in a limited edition of twenty copies in 2001, and a tenth exists only in typescript form.) These have titles such as Victory at Daybreak, The Bells are Ringing, and The Winning of Kay Slade. Like his boys’ stories, these also breathe the air of the time in which they were written, presenting the late 1940s with a beauty all their own.
When I first read these books, I enjoyed them very much but concluded that their theology was rather simple. They are mostly about people who lack faith, but are eventually brought to it by the example, encouragement, and prayers of others. And then I thought later that, simple as the message was, it was right in the center of the target. They never intended to be the “whole target”, but only the center. In that, they succeed.
It is easy for church members and leaders, especially in liturgical and historic churches such as my own, to be get caught up in externals of worship, classes, social projects, Bible studies, and the like. These are important, and some are even essential. But as I reflected on the passage from 1 John 5:12—“Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life,” I once again noted that, in words of just about one syllable, that’s the heart of the Christian message: the bull’s eye. And that is what Capwell Wyckoff was writing about in his Christian novels.
Albert Capwell Wyckoff died prematurely, just before his fiftieth birthday in 1953. I am privileged to own his personal New Testament that he kept in the glove compartment of his car, given to me by his daughter. After writing my sermon, I took that small leather-bound volume out of its box where I keep it, and noticed that he had carefully outlined important passages for Christian life and profession. He had used a pink colored pencil and a ruler to make his lines clear and square. Almost certain of what I would find, I turned to 1 John and looked up the passage I had read in my own Bible. As I expected, I noted that he had outlined the same passage:
I am blessed and grateful for Capwell Wyckoff and his teaching. I own all his books and, to the best of my knowledge, every short story that he wrote, either in published, manuscript, or typescript form. He was a fine man, and he knew where the bull’s eye is.
Monday, April 06, 2015
This is the text of the sermon I preached at St. John's Episcopal Church in Centralia, Illinois on Good Friday this year. Curiously, scholars have all but proven that the crucifixion took place on April 3 in the year 33, so this year matches the dates of that year. I post this sermon by request.
The first recorded words of Jesus are these:
In Matthew, to John the Baptist when John says that it is not fitting for him to baptize Jesus: “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (St. Matthew 3:15)
In Mark, as he begins his public ministry: “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (St. Mark 1:15)
In Luke, to his parents who had sought him for several days after he had disappeared at the age of 12 when they visited Jerusalem: “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (St. Luke 2:49)
In John, to two who followed him when John the Baptist had pointed him out as the Lamb of God, he said, “What do you want?” (St. John 1:38).
These words are significant, for they set the theme of Jesus’ life and mission: to fulfill the law and will of God, to bring the message and truth of salvation, to show himself as the one who reveals the nature of God, and the one who challenges people to come into the heart of God.
The last words of Jesus before his death are also significant. Traditionally they have been counted as seven in number, and on Good Friday, they have been frequently preached on. But there are really eight, as you will see. Each stands out in a particular way. They come from the four Gospels, though only two are recorded twice. They follow a logical order, and teach and challenge us as we reflect on the actions which saved the world from eternal ruin, and opened the door to eternal joy and rapture.
1. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)
Did they really not know? They put to death a man who had been proclaimed innocent, three times, by the highest local Roman authority. It had all been engineered--obviously, since one may assume that middle of the night arrests without witnesses were not the custom. Jesus’ first words to those who arrested him were, “I was with you in the Temple every day and you did nothing then.”
They knew that what they were doing was wrong and unjust. Very much so. It was dark work. John’s Gospel said, “Men prefer darkness, for their deeds are evil.”
What they did not know was that he was the Son of God and the Messiah. Paul writes, “Had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory.” They knew the claims he had made and they knew what people were saying. “Hosanna to the Son of David!” cried the crowd on Palm Sunday. “Rabbi, rebuke your disciples!” said the rulers. “Are you the Son of God?” they asked when he was on trial. “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly,” they had said.
He was an innocent victim. Even the Roman centurion made that observation. “Surely this was a son of God--surely this man was innocent.” Sadly, not unique. Jesus was one of thousands then and there have been and are now innocent victims of numerous crimes and assaults. There are and were many who suffer wrongfully, and the outrage cries out daily.
They knew that the hands and feet which they transfixed were innocent, but they were ignorant that they were the hands and feet of their Savior--that the pierced heart released the flood by which earth and stars and sky and ocean were freed from sin--that the thorned brow wore indeed the crown of the King of Israel. Even the mockers were right: “He saved others,” they said. “This is the King of the Jews,” said the sign.
The prayer, then, was heard. “Father, forgive them.” By the very actions they committed, the forgiveness of sins--effected by the shedding of blood--came about. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” This is the most unexpected of the eight words from the cross.
Who are “they”? The Jewish council that condemned him? Pilate, whose limp leadership permitted a bloodthirsty crowd to decide for him? The Roman soldiers who wielded the whip, plaited the crown of thorns, pounded the nails? The crowd who said, “Release for us Barabbas! As for this man, crucify him!”? Judas, who betrayed him? The disciples who abandoned him? Yes. And more.
For it is the sins of the world which are forgiven. Your sins. Those whose sins hurt you. Even the great sins. Even the greatest sins.
This is love--as vast as the galaxy, as measureless as the boundaries of the universe, as incomprehensible as the mind and heart of God. And this is the God who is to be our judge at the end of time. We are fortunate indeed.
2. “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (St. Luke 23:43)
There were two thieves crucified with him. The sons of Zebedee, or their mother on their behalf, had asked to sit on the left and right hand of Jesus when he came into his kingdom. Jesus had responded that it was a privilege not his to grant, but only by the Father in heaven. Strange that the honor was given to two thieves, whose names were never known and whose thrones were wooden crosses placed outside the city gates. For it was by the Cross and on the Cross that Jesus came into his kingdom and opened it to others. Strange that the first one who receive the promise to enter it, once it was assured, was the unknown thief--our brother in heaven.
It is said in the Gospels that when the authorities taunted him, that those who were crucified with him cast the same in his teeth. It is natural to do so. The fury of the downtrodden, the chronically unfortunate, even the habitual criminal and sinner and violent to curse others.
But one realized what he was saying, and saw his last hope. The last hope truly. He came to himself, like the prodigal son, and looked to the far one and said, “Don’t you fear God? We have received the just sentence of our lives, but he has done nothing.” And to the one in the middle of the three. “Jesus,” he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
By these words the nameless man admitted a need for God, the sinfulness of his life, proclaimed his belief in Jesus’ innocence and power to save, and prayed for a simple remembrance. They are words of deep faith. He is the very first to realize--or to hope--that the crucifixion is not a disaster. He is far ahead of the disciples. The disciples, who had walked with Jesus for 2-3 years, had fled and were utterly at a loss, overcome with despair.
Jesus words to him are the most puzzling of the eight words from the cross. “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” It brushes off all the mockery and the taunts, as if they had no effect and no power.
3. “Dear woman, here is your son.” “Here is your mother” (St. John 19:26- 27)
Mary was probably staying in Bethany with the sisters Mary and Martha, with their brother Lazarus whom Jesus had so recently raised from the dead. They were personal friends of Jesus and Bethany was a very short distance from Jerusalem--2 or 3 miles probably. Mary is probably about 45-50 years old at this time.
One can imagine the message coming to her that Jesus had been taken and condemned to death, that he is being led to crucifixion right now. She came at once. Imagine her state. She had loved him perfectly from the time of the annunciation and had seen him grow from infancy to childhood to early manhood. She was the only one who had known him all his life.
She had seen him embark on his public ministry. She had heard the words in the Temple when Jesus was only 40 days old, “He shall be a sign for the rising and falling of many in Israel, and a sword shall pierce your own heart also.” She treasured in her heart, that same heart, the key words of those early days. She must have pondered the meaning of those frightening, chilling words, and worried about them as three decades passed.
Now they were being fulfilled. The signs had been there. The opposition had been there and growing and becoming more and more powerful and less and less willing to coexist with Jesus and his words. At the time of his own death, then, he commended his widowed mother to the beloved disciple John, who alone of the twelve had accompanied Jesus to the cross.
“Dear woman, here is your son.” “Here is your mother.” The most tender words of the eight from the cross. Divine callings and the fullness of grace cannot, and should not, prevent the experience of grief and anguish and ordinary earthly suffering. And ordinary earthly comfort is the means by which heavenly grace works--a new family is made. Young John and widowed Mary, both bereaved, those who loved Jesus best, are brought together. Love continues, and grace abounds.
4. “I am thirsty” (St. John 19:28)
Jesus had probably not drunk since the evening meal the night before. It had been more than twelve hours, perhaps as many as eighteen. No wonder he was thirsty. He asked for water. It was the only request he made of those who put him to death. Why?
The full quote is, “Jesus, who knew by now that everything had been completed, and in order to make the Scripture come true, said, ‘I am thirsty.’” In order to make the Scripture come true--which one? Probably Psalm 22:15, which we have already looked at. “My throat is dry as dust, my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.” A fulfillment of prophecy.
But certainly also a real need. He was truly thirsty. It is because he was a man, with all the bodily needs of a human being. These are the most human of the eight words from the cross.
Jesus once said to a woman of Samaria, drawing water from a well, “Whoever drinks this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks the water I shall give him shall never be thirsty again.” Paul had written that when the Israelites walked in a hot and barren desert and demanded water, and Moses brought them water from a rock, that that rock was Christ. He satisfies the thirst of others, but himself thirsts, humanly, on the cross.
He shows, then, with this word, the true state of Man. One who thirsts for living water--a fallen and ignorant race needing salvation. “A draft from the water springs of life will be my free gift to the thirsty” (Revelation 21:6) “Come, you who are thirsty, accept the water of life, a free gift to all who desire it” (Revelation 22:17b) “You shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation” (Isaiah 12) It is our race which thirsts and in its ignorance bypasses the water of life, generation by generation. But there are also many who receive from the water springs of salvation the once-and-for-all quenching of salvation, given by the Lord of Plenty.
5. “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?” (St. Matthew 27:46; St. Mark 15:34)
One of three passages in the Gospels in which the original words of Jesus are quoted, in the original language. The others are “Talitha cumi,” (little girl, I say to you, arise) when he raised the daughter of Jairus. And “ephphatha,” (be opened) to a blind man to whom he restored sight.
The words mean, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The words sound like an acknowledgement of defeat and despair. It appears as if he couldn’t quite make it to the end. He had gone through arrest with authority, trial without fear, mockery without answering, scourging and crowning and carrying the cross and even crucifixion without any sign of breaking.
But it seems that now, at the time of most intense agony, the futility and hopelessness of his situation has gotten the better of him. He cries out, wondering why God has abandoned him. Perhaps his broken voice, altered by the endurance of agony, spoke unclearly so that is “Eli” made some of the bystanders think he was calling for Elijah. A pathetic statement that his life and ministry had been based on a mistaken notion--Elijah, the one supposed to appear before the Messianic age is inaugurated. “Where is Elijah?” they think he is saying.
He had taught, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Yet he with the purest of hearts feels the distance, the absence of God.
He had taught that whoever would follow him must take up his cross to do so. Yet now it seems that this is not the way of discipleship at all.
He had taught that the heavenly Father knows our needs, and knows even the number of our hairs. Yet now it seems that God is not watching.
So it seemed. So it seemed. There were those who thought it was a cry for Elijah, and others apparently who recognized the words for what they were and remembered them as they were spoken.
But it is no cry of despair. It was not lack of hope or lack of faith. The cry is the first verse of Psalm 22. The psalm describes the details of the crucifixion in a prophetic manner. “They pierced my hands and my feet, they cast lots for my clothing,” etc. The cry of Jesus is a proclamation to the people, whether they understood it at the time or not. He is saying, “I am the One to whom the scriptures point.” He began his ministry in Nazareth by saying, “Today in your hearing this Scripture is fulfilled.” He says now the same as he closes his ministry.
“Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?” They are the most triumphant of the eight words from the cross. They are in the same class as riding a donkey into Jerusalem, fulfilling the prophecy of the humble king. They are in the same class as acknowledging John the Baptist as the long-awaited Elijah, ushering in the Age of Messiah.
We have just read Psalm 22. It is not merely a psalm of despair for it ends in triumph. “He does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty,“ it says, “neither does he hide his face from them; when they cry to him he hears them.” And “My soul shall live for him,” it says. “Kingship belongs to the LORD; he rules over the nations,” it says.
Jesus’ words, then, are a statement that “his hour had at last come.” As he cried out words which seemed to be words of despair, the world’s greatest hope was becoming a reality.
6. “It is finished” (St. John 19:30)
This is the word Jesus utters as the last moment of his death arrives. He says it at the culmination of the many abuses he has suffered during the previous twelve hours. But they are not words of resignation. He is not saying, “It’s all over.” He is saying, “It has been accomplished.” He says, “I have succeeded.” He is saying, “I win!” He is bringing the redemption of the world into full operation. It is the most comforting of the eight words from the cross.
God’s will is not to be thwarted--not by evil men of Judah or Rome who are used to controlling people by issuing orders. Not by Judas, not by the soldiers, not by the members of the Jewish council, not by Pilate or his assistants, not by the bloodthirtsy crowd in the cold, pre-dawn hour. Even when they choose the wrong path, they still find themselves, apart from God as they are, fulfilling God’s plan.
Jesus becomes now Jacob’s ladder, fixed to the earth by a piece of wood, lifted up from it by its crosspiece, drawing all men to himself as he had promised. Now he opens heaven so that from the doorway to heaven a path reaches down from Glory to earth, with its foot at the cross. The hour has come. It is celebrated in the beautiful canticle, the Te Deum, which has the line, “When you had overcome the sharpness of death, you opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.”
Jesus had said several times before, “My hour has not yet come.” When his mother informed him, at a wedding in Cana, that they had run out of wine, he responded, “My hour has not yet come.” When they sought to attack him in Galilee, he said, “My hour has not yet come.” When they tried to arrest him in the Temple, he said, “My hour has not yet come.” But now his hour had come. It was all going as God had said. Even when Pilate claimed the power to free or to crucify Jesus, Jesus asserted that Pilate would have no power at all had it not been given him from above. Now, at last, his hour had come.
The authorities doubtless thought that they had finally overcome Jesus, that their plan, knife-edge risky but so necessary from their point of view, had worked out well. They had eliminated Jesus without having a riot erupt during the festival. It would have been understandable if they were the ones who had said, “It is finished,” heaving a sigh of relief. But they would have been wrong.
7. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (St. Luke 23:46)
This is the most intimate of the eight words from the cross. It is spoken directly to the Father by his Son. It is not really for human ears. We are bystanders and eavesdroppers. All words which came before were said either for our benefit or to a human being for a specific reason. Here, the word is said directly to the Father.
It is a reminder to us bystanders and eavesdroppers that Jesus’ true home was with the Father in heaven. Before the worlds were made, that was his home. As John’s Gospel says, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.” To his disciples just a day or so earlier, he had said, “I am going to my Father.”
The Word shows us the way to the Father. “I go to prepare a place for you,” said Jesus to the disciples. He also said, “You will drink the cup that I will drink.” There is no other way to get to that place he has prepared for us. “No one comes to the Father but by me,” said Jesus, and then he walked the way of death. For those in Christ, death is a way of peace. Even after the cross and the pain, for Jesus there is a time of intimacy with the Father, a time of peace. It is the joy of the last part of the long, hard journey before the arrival home. Weary as one may be, or even uncomfortable or even in pain from the journey, there is eagerness, expectation, and excitement when the End comes into sight.
So is any homecoming in life, and so it is for the final homecoming we call death. I have seen it many times at the bedsides of those completing this mortal life and relinquishing their lives into the hands of God. Like many saints and martyrs before them, they quote the words of Jesus: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” It is the intimate self-offering which is possible when one truly believes that one’s true home is with God, that the true relationship is one of love, and that the true state of life is joy. It is the last moment of deepest earthly intimacy before the eternal and perfect intimacy begins.
8. [A loud cry] With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last (St. Matthew 27:50, St. Mark 15:37).
You see, there is an eighth word. Not traditionally counted as part of the famous seven, it is nonetheless a vital part of the whole testimony of Jesus from the cross. Just as God created the world in seven days, and then completed the creation with the Resurrection on the eighth day, so we must understand the fullness of the last words from the cross with an eighth which completes the seven.
The loud cry is the ultimate rending of the human life of Jesus, the moment of his death. His flesh is left lifeless, hanging grotesquely from the cross; his spirit has gone to the place of the departed, there to rend hell and preach to the departed, as described in the First Letter of Peter.
What is perceived, then, as the ultimate loss and destruction, the final ridding of the earth of Jesus so long and desperately and dangerously sought by the authorities, is actually the beginning of the victory. It is the point of turning. This “eighth word from the cross” is like the “eighth day of creation”; the day of rest, the Sabbath, the seventh day, is followed by the liturgical, theological “eighth day”—the day of re-creation, of renewal and redemption, of resurrection. The first assault of the divine against the gates of destruction is not seen on earth. The first assault after the crucifixion is upon hell, whose greatest weapon is death.
This is always the pattern of our fighting God--to wait until the powers of evil have done their worst and it appears as if there is absolutely no way that they can lose--when all hope for truth, goodness, justice, and love is gone, and the powers of darkness, death, and destruction have no more that they can do--then to strike hard and decisively where it is least expected. God acted this way numerous times in the Old Testament, and now he does it best of all, when the human life of Jesus, the incarnate God, has been forfeited by treason through hell’s greatest weapon: death.
The New Testament presents Jesus as coming to destroy that weapon. The letter to the Hebrews puts it this way: "Since the children have flesh and blood, [the Son] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death--that is, the devil--and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Jesus destroyed death by entering death's domain as a mortal, and then breaking death from within. He accepted the wages for sins he had not committed, so that those who are redeemed would not ever have to do so. Though he is personally without sin, Jesus came voluntarily and in love to accept the consequence of sin, so that those who are under sin's condemnation could be rescued. It was the only way salvation could be achieved. The Gospel according to Mark presents Jesus as experiencing the consequences of this separation, in that he dies with a loud cry (Mark 15:37).
As a mortal, Jesus experiences the fullest alienation from the Father. This alienation is the meaning of death, the darkest, clammiest, emptiest, most endless and bottomless of any hiding place for life. Even he who reveals himself as "the light of the world" (John 8:12) could be lost in its darkness for a time.
Yet not even the utter darkness of death could hold the Author of Life, for that "light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it" (John 1:5). At a pivotal moment in his classic saga of Middle-earth, J. R. R. Tolkien has one of his characters say, "Through darkness you shall come to the light.” In that one sentence the mythic understanding of the way of the cross is set forth. Though the way of the cross led to torment, crucifixion, death, and burial, it was not the end of the journey.
The loud cry is the most fearful of the eight words from the cross, but it is also the most exultant, for it is impossible for a crucified man, in the final slump of death, to make any sound or even to breathe. The great cry at the moment of death, heard as the last impossible expulsion of breath from the dying Jesus, can also be seen as the first exultant cry of triumph at the victory he has won.
Jesus said, "The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life--only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father" (John 10:17-18). Crucified, dead, and buried on Friday, Jesus was raised to life early on Sunday morning. The book of the Acts of the Apostles says, "God raised Jesus from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24).
The final enemy was to be conquered by the resurrection of Jesus on the third day. The cross had done its worst. It was not enough.
I haven't posted on this blog for a very long time--if a year and four months is a long time. Been through many changes--retired, moved three times including two interstate moves, and had changes in relationships and friendships. But now things are settling down and I hope to start blogging again. From being Rector in a good-sized Episcopal church in southern California with seven priests and a deacon on a staff that included about 15 lay people, I'm now part-time (at least that's what the contract says) Priest-in-Charge of two small congregations in southern Illinois. I like it.
I preached a sermon on Good Friday that a member of one of the churches wrote about on Facebook, and a friend in California read the post and wanted to read the sermon. That got me started thinking about blogging again. So a little later I'll post the sermon here.
I preached a sermon on Good Friday that a member of one of the churches wrote about on Facebook, and a friend in California read the post and wanted to read the sermon. That got me started thinking about blogging again. So a little later I'll post the sermon here.
Friday, December 06, 2013
On May 29, 2009, I posted this item: http://johnonefive.blogspot.com/2009/05/gift-of-penny.html It tells the story of how a stranger gave me a penny when I was about six years old, and how his gift changed my life. It also tells how, about fifty years later, I had the opportunity to give someone else a penny in almost the same circumstances, but the opportunity was thwarted when the cashier said to the girl who was a penny short, “Oh, forget it.”
A little farther along in that post are these words: “A penny in 1954 is worth twelve or thirteen cents in today’s money, I suppose.” So it was easy to understand why a penny would count for something in 1954, but would be shrugged off in 2006 or whatever year it was.
Last night I was able to come full circle at last. I was at a supermarket checkout, and the person in front of me was twelve cents short. She asked the cashier if they could just forget the twelve cents. “Sorry, I can’t do that,” she said kindly.
I lit up. “I’ll pay it!” I exclaimed. “Someone gave me a penny a very long time ago and I’ve been waiting for a chance to pay it back! It’d be about twelve cents today!”
I don’t think either of them heard my explanation, but if either did, neither responded. I excitedly withdrew a handful of coins from my pocket, extracted a dime and two pennies, and handed them to the cashier.
“Well, you don’t see that very often,” she remarked. The other person’s purchase was completed, she turned to me with a casual “thanks”, took her four plastic bags in hand, and headed for the door. And that was it.
As I wrote in 2009, “I wanted to give where I had been given to—not to make things equal or release some kind of moral debt, but to return a favor—to treat another as I had been treated. If I had been able to get a penny out of my pocket in time [back in the missed opportunity in 2006], would it have changed the girl’s life as my life had been changed? Not very likely. Had I pushed a penny across the counter for her, I would have felt that I had gone ‘full circle’ and become like the man who had blessed me so mightily and so unknowingly when I was a little boy. I would have felt deeply connected to him and been doubly blessed by his gift.”
Did my gift of twelve cents change someone’s life? Probably not—but who knows? I’ll never know. Just as the man in 1954 never knew how he’d changed my life, or how his gift to a small boy when Dwight Eisenhower was President would inspire a gift to a middle-aged woman fifty-nine years later.
I have no doubt that we are utterly unaware of the overwhelming number of connections we have across space and time with all kinds of people—how we affect other people for good, and how they affect us. It is uplifting when one of those connections becomes visible.