Anyone here ever read Charlotte’s Web? While many of you may remember the overall plot of EB White’s classic book, I suspect the beginning has gotten a bit fuzzy for most of you. Fern—the delightful girl who befriends the farm animals—sleepily asks where her Pa is going with the ax one morning when she come down for breakfast. Her mother explains that some pigs were born overnight and that one of pigs is a runt. “It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything,” her mother says. “So your father has decided to do away with it.” Fern will have nothing to do with this and wakes up quickly. She runs down to the barn lickity split and stops her dad from killing that poor pig. Later that day while she’s at school she decides to name him Wilbur, and she takes wonderful care of him. It’s only later, after that pig has grown quite a bit, that Wilbur makes his way to Zuckerman’s farm up the road.
Wilbur soon discovers that farms aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. He can’t find a friend to play with among the other animals and loneliness sets in. He cries himself to sleep one night when a voice tells him that in the morning she will be his friend. At the sliver of dawn, he asks all of the other animals if they were the one who had spoken to him the night before, but they all tell him to go away. Finally the same voice calls out to Wilbur, “Salutations!” White describes what happened next in this way, “Wilbur jumped to his feet. ‘Salu-what?’ he cried. ‘Salutations’ repeated the voice. ‘What are they, and where are you?’ screamed Wilbur. ‘Please, please, tell we where you are. And what are salutations?’ ‘Salutations are greetings,’ said the voice. ‘When I say “salutations,” it’s just my fancy way of saying hello or good morning.’” It’s how Charlotte meets Wilbur.
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.
The last words Jesus utters from the cross, that means of execution by the Romans, are simply: “It is finished.” It is complete. Accomplished. The work he came to do both in and for this world as the Son of the Living God has been done. And, implicit in the Greek, there is also the sense of a new beginning, a start of something that has been waiting to spring up around us, much like the sight of those first sprouts of a germinating seed.
Truly this man was God’s Son.” The centurion and those with him make this realization once their deed is done—after Jesus takes his last breath, and the earth trembles and graves open and risen saints emerge. “Truly this man was God’s Son.”
The only words Jesus himself speaks from the time of his trial before Pilate to his last breath is that plaintive cry: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachtani.” “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” These final statements from Matthew’s crucifixion scene stand in stark juxtaposition to one another. “Truly this was God’s Son” “Why have you forsaken me?”
Poet and frequent artist-in-residence Kathleen Norris loves coming in to teach students at parochial schools. She reads them the Psalms, although, she writes, they “are usually not aware that the snippets they sing at Mass are among the greatest poems in the world.” But when she asks them to pen their own poetry, they begin to let loose. They know what it’s like to feel emotion, to experience the world on their terms, to feel sadness and joy, and, for those who’ve been picked on by older siblings, anger. She shows them how all this is fair game in the psalter, a minefield of depth when it comes to emotions. The writers of those poems knew that this was a place for them to express themselves authentically and truthfully before God.
Norris explains one interaction in this way. “Once a little boy wrote a poem called ‘The Monster Who Was Sorry.’ He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him: his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes: ‘Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, “I shouldn’t have done all that.”’” Norris, astounded at his words, declares that the boy has “more honesty than most adults could have mustered.” The metaphor of the messy house describes the feeling of rage perfectly, as do his words in the aftermath when his anger subsides. “I shouldn’t have done all that.” (From Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, pg. 4ff)
Our Psalm this morning runs in a similar vein to “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” In the Latin its title is de profundis, taken from the opening words “out of the depths.” Immediately we get sense of the profundity of it all, the intensity of the depth the writer feels himself in. “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord hear my voice, let your ear consider the voice of my supplication.” The psalmist sits way down in the pits and recognizes that only God can help. The poem continues, “If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand.” If you were to mark down every time we messed up, who wouldn’t be found guilty?
The Israelites get a bad rap. They’ve been making their way through the desert, enduring hot days and miles of walking, and when they get to their campsite they can’t find fresh water anywhere. Yes, they grumble. But they’ve just spent the last 400 years of their history as slaves, and they thought that somehow things would be different, that they would no longer be pushed to their physical limits. They want to be in the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. Instead they’re at Rephidim, and there’s not a drop of water to be found. And they’re thirsty.
So they complain to Moses, who in turn complains to God about the complaining Israelites without seeing the irony or the humor in it. “What shall I do with this people?” he cries out to God. “They are almost ready to stone me.” God instructs Moses what he is to do. He’s to gather the elders in the midst of the people, and take the staff with which he struck the Nile, and go. When he gets to the rock at Horeb, he’s to strike it with the same staff and water will come forth. Moses does as the Lord commanded him and water flowed out for the people. And they changed the name of the place to Massah and Meribah, because the people quarreled (Massah) and tested (Meribah) the Lord. They wanted to know if God was indeed among them or not.
But which of us wouldn’t be panicky if we showed up at the intended destination and there was no water to be found? Some of the campsites at State Parks in Massachusetts don’t have potable water, and they make sure you know that before you reserve a spot for a night or two. “Fresh water is not available for showers or drinking. Remember, campers should bring at least 1 gallon drinking water per person, per day.” Which isn’t too big of a deal you might think, except that these instructions are for campsites on the islands in Boston Harbor and you can’t just pop over to a local Kwik-E-Mart and grab some bottled water after the ferry has left you behind. You’re then in the same predicament as those Israelites, and I suspect that grumbling wouldn’t be far behind, especially if your buddy did the trip planning and forgot to tell you about the water.
Since September I’ve been preaching a series on the marks of a 21st century disciple. At times I’ve included the line explicitly, “This and such is a mark of a 21st century disciple.” At times I’ve been slightly less direct, moving around something that defines the life of a disciple, looking at it from different angles, without spelling it out quite so specifically. (Part of that is due to my background as a writer and not wanting to repeat the same sentence or its variant every single Sunday. That would get old.)
On this Sunday our Biblical texts serve up faith, and even those who are not followers of Jesus could probably tell you that it is one of the key characteristics of a disciple. Faith. Or perhaps belief, but not the belief in something as true — “I believe that this church building is made of stone” or “I believe in the law of gravity” — but rather the belief that something will happen in the future, something that has not happened yet— like “I believe the Sox will win the Series this year”—and never losing hope, even when it looks like it won’t take place. In the Greek it’s pistis, and besides faith and believe it also gets translated as assurance, fidelity and trust. Something that is sure and true. Something promised.
Any preacher who begins talking about faith sooner or later pulls out the epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 11. The writer of that letter—whoever she is—gives a fantastic litany of the faith of our forebears, and begins with this definition. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Or as Eugene Patterson pens it in the Message Bible, “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.” All of this is a backdrop for this morning.
“Put your sword back! These are the last words—a definitive rebuke—the disciples hear from Jesus before they run away. If ever there was a moment in God’s eyes when violence would be justifiable, this is it! But Jesus is clear: Put your sword back! His followers are not allowed to respond with violence. They are not allowed to kill. They are not allowed to harm others. They are not allowed to ‘deter’ violent crime with the use of violence.
Why? Because all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. Violence begets violence. Killing begets killing. Nukes beget more nukes. Death begets death. Jesus, the incarnation of the God of nonviolence, stands for life. He will not succumb to the way of violence. Although he knows that he will perish under the cross’s violence, he places his hope in the God of Life and awaits that third day.” — John Dear, from Bread and Wine: Reading for Lent and Easter
“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
“Few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain-passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.” — John Muir from The Mountains of California
“These captives [taken by those of other cultures long ago] lay out in a stark and dramatic way what goes on in every life: the transitions whereby you cease to be who you were. Seldom is it dramatic, but nevertheless, something of the journey between the near and the far goes on in every life. Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were, for the person who dwelt among them, valued this, chose that, wrote thus, no longer exists. Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment. And some people travel far more than others. ”
— From A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit