Thursday, March 26, 2009

Seven Last Words of Christ #5

Lenten Meditation
March 25, 2009

Fifth Word
John 19.28, “I am thirsty.”

There are few moments so intimate and difficult as accompanying someone who is about to die. The voice fails. The breath labors. The vision clouds. The mouth dries. For those who have been there at the bedside, a haunting dismay arises, peaceful and painful, inevitable yet tinged with anger, not forgotten ever, but in time, endured. It is among the most cherished of moments as whatever it is that gives life evaporates, and words fail to make anyone understand. Many who die have stopped taking food days, even weeks earlier. But once it becomes impossible to drink, it may be only hours or at most a few days. That Jesus would thirst before he dies is understandable. He was human. That he might not be able to drink what is offered is painful to recall.

We’ve made the ones who put the sour wine to his lips into monsters. But perhaps it was not so. In Mark he does not drink; in Luke the wine is offered, although mockingly; in Matthew it is simply offered, without opinion; but in John Jesus receives the wine. John is the only one who hears in Jesus’ death his thirst.

The one who soaked the sponge makes me wonder what Jesus thirsted for in life. In death, certainly, the thirst was real enough, a thirst like any other. Psalm 22 puts it well:

    I am poured out like water,
       and all my bones are out of joint;
    my heart is like wax;
       it is melted within my breast;
    my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
       and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
       you lay me in the dust of death.

In life, what do you thirst for? Personal gain and fulfillment, an economic cushion, a good grade, employment that is meaningful, relationships of comfort and of trust, success for your children, a retirement cottage on the lake? Not bad things, not in and of themselves. But even so, the things we thirst for will not satisfy the thirst of Jesus on the cross. Living water carries no mortgage. The bread of life does not charge a value added tax. Unity in faith is not exchanged for entrance to the ball.

In life, what did Jesus thirst for? Unity, to be sure, “that they may all be one,” and justice. Righteousness that rolls down like rivers, and love. When life is near its end, by which I mean its purpose, its goal, its reason; when we walk the Way of Jesus and take up our cross; when we feel poured out like water, and the veil of eternity is lifted, and God delivers up our soul, may Jesus’ thirst become our own. On the cross, he thirsts for water, yes, but also for everlasting peace on earth, for justice, for unity, and for love. May our lives do what sour wine cannot, and satisfy the parched and dying longing of Jesus’ soul.

[We each received a cup of water to hold during the extended silence following the spoken meditation, with the instruction to meditate on how Christ's living water quenches our thirst, and how our lives can quench the thirst of Jesus for unity, justice, righteousness, and love.]

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Seven Last Words of Christ #4

Lenten Meditation
March 18, 2009

Fourth Word
Mark 15.34, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

To be forsaken, to feel abandoned or deserted, to believe even for a moment that in all the universe we are completely alone, may be one of the most awful experiences we know. Living alone is hard; dying alone is harder. We value independence, and at times we seek solitude. But not the sort of forced loneliness we call forsaken. You don’t have to hang on a cross to know what it means. A family member walks away. A trusted friend betrays your trust. A lover whose reality did not live up to your imagination abandons you. Your church doesn’t notice. To be forsaken is to feel surrounded by the torn places in the web of life and to hang on by a single, silken thread.

Jesus on the cross felt forsaken. Why else quote the line of lamentation that begins Psalm 22? It is a traditional lament, in that its meter is three-two, while most Hebrew poetry is three-three. There is something missing, incomplete, halting in the dance. Laments stop too soon, leaving empty space in the prayer where God ought to be. The words are honest. They plumb the depth of our darkest feelings. I cry but you do not answer. My ancestors trusted you, but I am despised; why do you not deliver me?

If I said, “Twinkle, twinkle,” you’d say, “little star.” If I sang, “O say can you see,” you’d sing, “by the dawn’s early light.” If I sang, “On a hill far away,” you’d sing, “stood an old rugged cross.” When Jesus says, “My God, my God,” his audience should suspect where he is going. When he continues, “why have you forsaken me?” they should know the rest of the tune. But for some reason, they do not understand. They think Jesus calls on Elijah, and the cruel ones wait to see if Elijah will appear. What we know, and what the early church remembered, is that Jesus was quoting a Psalm that, short of Rachel weeping for her children, wallows in the lowest lows in scripture. But it also has the highest highs. The Psalmist admits, “I am a worm, and not human.” Yet he commits his cause to God. Jesus recognizes that even on the cross, with his life seeping away, it was God who delivered him at birth, God who kept him safe so he could nurse at his mother’s breast, and, even now as trouble encircles him like charging bulls and ravenous lions, even now as he is poured out like water, even now as his bones creak and his skin wastes away and his tormentors laugh and divide up his clothing, God remains his salvation.

If Jesus identifies with being forsaken, he also identifies with the Psalm’s ringing song of praise. You and I who follow in the way of the cross may be tempted to flounder in our forsakenness. Jesus does not want that to happen. He knows we know the words that follow: From you comes the praise of the great congregation! The poor shall eat and be satisfied. Those who seek him shall praise him. All the ends of the earth shall praise the Lord. Jesus’ song continues in us as it reveals God’s purpose for the coming kingdom. As the dead bow down and generations to come will sing, as past and future ring with the songs of salvation, Jesus’ song resonates in our hearts, not as excuse or apology but praise proclaiming our place in the life to come, the dominion that belongs to God.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Seven Last Words of Christ #3

Lenten Meditation
March 11,2009

Third word
John 19.26, “Woman, here is your son.”

At birth, the midwife hands the baby to the mother with a gentle whisper, “Here is your son.” At graduation, the neighbor leans over, remembering the rehearsals and games, the late nights and early mornings, points at the stage and says, “There’s your boy.” At the wedding, you walk her down the aisle, place her hand in another man’s hand—a boy really—and the pastor says, “Who gives this woman to be married?” And you say to yourself, “Woman? No, please God, not yet, she’s my daughter.”

Generations pass, and we take pride in our children, joy and anguish, too. Their successes are ours, and their failures. Hands off or hands-on, we live our lives through them. And when, as occasionally and tragically happens, we lose them all too soon, we live our own death through them. This is something larger than sacrifice.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ mother remains anonymous. Yet watching Jesus die, if she really is his mother and not mainly a symbol, she must remember him in the manger as in Luke, the mysterious strangers bearing gifts as in Matthew; lost and found in the temple with the elders (Luke again); beside himself outside her door in the crowds, herself thinking him possessed; then the dangerous journey to Jerusalem; tables overturned; prison; this. Now her child on the cross with strangers on either side, and his best friend standing with her, she hears what no mother or father can bear: her son making arrangements for his death and her survival.

John gives us something more than a casual exchange. We experience the anonymity of mother and disciple (who really knows another human being?) in the carefully-constructed scene on the cross. Jesus places us in each other’s hands, commits us to each other’s care. His unnamed mother can represent the church, while his unnamed disciple can represent each of us who remain faithful and devoted. On the cross, Jesus constitutes between them the community we are to become—according to John, it is it at the cross and not at Pentecost that the church is formed. “Where are my mother and brothers?” he once asked. And he answered, “All those who do the will of God.” At the cross, the will of God is that mother and disciple become mother and son, that the church become not just a classroom or a cafeteria but a family, a community of mutuality and equal regard.

When we stand at the foot of the cross, we become one faithful people. We may come as beloved disciples, followers, students; we may come as fathers or mothers; but we become something more. At the foot of the cross, we behold in each other a deeper relatedness, for we are all children of God. When Jesus entrusts us to each other, we become related not by our blood but by his spirit. Then, when we come away from the cross, we come away changed, bound by deeper ties. Empowered and encouraged by Jesus’ word, we take each other in.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Lectio reflection: 1 Corinthians 1.18-25

“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” Philosophy, religion, politics—it all gets turned upside down by the cross. There’s not much wiggle room for reasoned thought, dogmatic theology, deliberative decision-making. Such harsh and sharp words from Paul! They cut to the core, because in fact we value the wisdom of the philosopher, the scribal accuracy and passion of the religious, and the politician’s persuasive power. We grant degrees, ordain, and elect. We give honor where honor is due.

What would it mean for us to take seriously the claim that God’s foolishness is wiser that human wisdom, God’s strength is stronger than human strength? Of course, in the church, we could claim that we’re already living that upside down life. We who follow the way of the cross are already measuring on a different standard, metric measures in an avoirdupois world. After all, we stand up for the poor and needy, run soup kitchens and food pantries, clothes closets and hand-me-up shops. We fly the not-for-profit banner in the capitol of capitalism and get arrested in Selma.

But we haven’t really transformed the world. The Nazi death camps are the most egregious symbol of our failure, but the killing fields are still wet with blood, and the Congo River runs red. Terry Gross interviews Tim LeHaye and John Hagee, men who inspire millions of Christians to ignore threats to creation as theologically insignificant, all the while constructing elaborate houses of scriptural-sounding, self-righteous cards that show the end-times are here (oddly, they copyright their work!). If we who see the world through the concave emptiness of the cross want foolishness, we simply open our eyes, but we hardly want to claim such nonsense as God’s wisdom.

What would our preaching look like if we really preached the foolishness of a crucified savior? We couldn’t offer the popular, pious insights of self-help. We’d acknowledge that the gospel overturns not only our worst but our best. Then we’d have to preach that our expectations are too small. We want tiny miracles, a parking space close to the door, a diet that sheds the final fifteen pounds. We don’t really want resurrection. We don’t really believe people can change. We want Dr. Phil to be right and Oprah to sound prophetic. But the true stranger in our midst? The absolutely other? The one who appears dangerous and threatens decent order with crazy claims about the Confederacy or bizarre notions that cilantro is the devil’s food? Clearly they are fools. But isn’t it just such as these whom God might use to shame the wisdom of the wise? Can we see in the crazy lady on the corner a glimpse of the kingdom at hand?

The cross is a scandal, not a piece of jewelry. We domesticate it at our peril. Instead, we need verse 30, in which true righteousness, sanctification, and redemption become visible in the one who takes the cross, the Christ who “became for us the wisdom of God.” Right relationships include true justice. Holiness reclaims the original goodness of the garden in the face of serpents and fruit. And redemption frees us from any system that accepts as worldly wisdom, faith or politics that slavery is acceptable or that bondage is ever good. The wisdom of the cross is that anything less than death is folly, so long as death holds the power to claim to be our end. Jesters know what is true, for if they didn’t make us laugh, we’d cry. Our purpose is life that turns death on its ear, that answers Paul’s question by pointing to the scandal of Jesus crucified, saying, “There’s your wise, your scribe, your debater. There’s God’s wisdom. Crucify me upside down.”

Seven Last Words of Christ #2

Seven Last Words of Christ
Lenten Meditation
March 4, 2009

Second word
Luke 23.43, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Paradise. Let’s assume for a moment that it’s not Cancun. What has Jesus promised us?

For the first eight centuries of Christianity, Paradise referred to an earthly garden of delights that Adam and Eve lived in for a time. Even into the 16th and 17th centuries, explorers sought to discover the exact location of Eden on the map, God’s walled garden guarded by the angel with the flaming sword. Paradise comes to us from the Greek word paradeizos that translated the Hebrew word pardes that came from the Old Persian apiri-daeza, meaning a walled-in garden. Ezekiel speaks of this garden covered in precious stones (Ez. 28.12-14) on the holy mountain of God. Isaiah sings of God who makes Zion’s desert like a garden, filled with joy, gladness and thanksgiving (Is. 51.3). Much later in Revelation, the heavenly city of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven is described as a new Eden, with precious stones and constant water and abundant food.

Jesus’ promise to the thief comes in response to his plea, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The thief is no follower of Jesus, has not to our knowledge been baptized or confessed his faith. He hasn’t lived according to the commandments. Why should Jesus remember him? I believe this is what the thief hears: you, who are dying with me, for no reason except that you have asked, will be with me in the primordial garden, the birthplace of humanity, a place of abundance and renewal. Nothing, neither death nor life, nor confession of faith nor lack of it, no, nor anything in all creation will separate you from God’s eternal love made known in Jesus Christ. And the best way to describe the pure abundance of that love is the garden of Paradise.

Plea, promise, and presence are what matter here. The details of such paradise—precious stones, garden walls—are not in the end significant. I don’t need to know if paradise means heaven, with streets of gold and Frank Capra’s angels second-class trying to earn their wings. I don’t need to give the after-life any real thought or speculation. I certainly don’t need to orient my life around the question of whether I’ll be seated in smoking or non-smoking. These issues don’t motivate Jesus during his ministry. They don’t matter to Jesus on the cross.

What matters on the cross, in the midst of suffering and death, is that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. What matters is the holy assurance that then and there, when life is at its worst, and the veil between life and death is stretched thin enough to breathe through, we will be with God and God will be with us, and we who suffer together and live together and even die together will not be cast away but will be together, in some way that transcends time and space. The key word in the end is not Paradise. Paradise can lead us to distraction. The most important words he speaks are, “you will be with me.”