Singing the Gathering Song

In the spring of each year, in Wilkesboro, NC, there’s a music festival called MerleFest, which is named for Merle Watson, the son of the Grammy-Award-winning Appalachian guitarist Doc Watson.

The annual four-day festival takes place on the grounds of Wilkes Community College on the last weekend in April, when about 75, 000 people flock to this small little mountain town, to see American music in its many forms and shades on 13 different stages.

You can hear bluegrass, jazz, gospel, folk, Cajun, country, Americana, blues, and more. Artists who have headlined the festival include Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Darius Rucker and a whole lot more.

When I was in college, I went to the MerleFest festival with some friends to see one of my favorite musicians, named Gillian Welch.

She and her partner David Rawlings have built a career over the last twenty or so years by playing deceptively simple and yet beautiful songs on nothing more than two acoustic guitars.   

Me and my friends couldn’t afford to go because its pretty expensive, but through friends from church actually, I learned about a volunteering program where you could work the gate, taking tickets, pointing people to the bathrooms, and checking bags, for 6 hours in exchange for admission.

So, one day we went down to work the gate all day and go to the show that night.

The headliner that night was Allison Krauss and she was to play on the main stage as the closing act.

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings – the people we really wanted to see – were scheduled to go on right before them on the cabin stage (a really small stage just next to the main stage, where unknown acts are essentially used as filler music between the headlining artists).

As it was getting dark, my friends and I finished up at the gate and headed inside, but we were standing at the back of about 75,000 people who hadn’t been tied up for the last six hours, so we could just make out the two stages way in the distance.   An act on the mainstage was finishing up and Gillian and David were next.

But it was kind of a raucous crowd.  People were talking, especially way in the back where we were.  I remember it was really loud, and it was pretty clear that people were talking over the previous act.

There were lots of people buying food at the food trucks shouting about how much things cost.  There were lots of distractions.  People were being really, really loud

Gillian and David came on stage and it seemed like we weren’t going to hear much.  But Dave strummed this big E minor chord into the mic and they started singing with this beautiful harmony, and the loud conversations that 75,000 people were having slowly began to fall silent, until everyone was completely quiet.

I saw 75,000 heads turn.  I saw 75,000 people lean forward, fixed on the music.  Everyone was glued to what was happening on that little cabin stage.

The beauty of the music was drawing everyone in.

When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, he is drawing all the world to himself.

In the death that he dies, he is shown forth as God’s gift to us, that the whole world should fall silent, turn our heads, lean in and be drawn into the grace of God, as it blends in perfect harmony with God’s beauty and glory and majesty.

In gazing at the cross of Jesus we see the depth and height and breadth of God’s love extended to us and to the sea of all humanity, so that all the conversations the world is having about where truth and beauty and value can be found become silent before the cross, where God’s glory is revealed and our true hope is shown for all to see.

In our gospel text today, we hear about a festival, this one in Jerusalem, and how many thousands of people are streaming to the mountain of God to worship at the Passover – not only Hebrews, but some Greeks.

These Greeks come to Phillip, who has a Greek name himself and perhaps they think they may be able to easily connect with him.

And they come to see if they can get a backstage pass to meet this Jesus whom everyone has named the newest rising star because he has performed miracles, amassed a following, raised Lazarus from the dead — and many want to see Jesus, the man who can do things no one else can, up close.

And Jesus let himself be seen, so that we see in this moment God is beginning to gather all humanity around Jesus as he begins to show who he really is, and to point to the hour of his death.

As I looked at facebook this past week, it seemed to me like a greater-than-usual number of my friends lost loved ones recently and a number of them were posting obituaries.

Perhaps because we can’t gather for funerals right now in ways we usually would,

people are posting more on social media as a way to remember their loved ones and connect with their community.

An obituary is an opportunity to pay tribute to someone.  To remember them.  An obituary seems to try to sum up the kind of life a person lived.

Jesus seems to believe it most important that we understand the kind of death he died.

In his death, Jesus endured the trouble, the disturbed heart, of giving up his life as he offered up his body and his future, and let them be taken from him.

Jesus made himself available to be publicly humiliated and shamed, he was denied by his friends, he was abandoned by his followers,

put through a sham trial, stripped naked and his clothing divided up.

Jesus endured this ordeal for you and for the world.

This is the kind of death he died.

In his death, like a seed that fell to the ground, he gave away his life so that it would no longer remain one single seed, but bear much fruit.

His death brings the fruit of our forgiveness, a repaired relationship with God, reconciliation with one another, our healing and wholeness.

His death drives out the forces of evil, the powers of darkness in this world, the distractions that pull us away from God.

His death means that our own personal deaths in this life aren’t the end of the story and our obituaries aren’t the last word on our life but instead,

the Resurrected Jesus, leads a new song we will all join in singing around the throne of God.

But even now, we sing the new song. 

Even now, in baptism, we are joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection so that we a new community of people for who live in God.

Even in a hurting, distracted, loud and noisy world with racist killings, immigrants and refugees turned away from safe lodging,

and the ongoing sickness and death caused by a pandemic, Jesus is drawing us all into life in God.

His cross demonstrates God’s determination to be with us in our suffering,

and our Living Lord is at work keeping us glued to God’s mission,

and drawing us to God in ways, just to be honest, that are pretty unfathomable and wildly surprising.

In this time of pandemic, when most of us have been content to hold on, ride it out, and just get through it, Jesus is at work drawing people to himself.

We have witnessed a dozen baptisms in the pandemic, with many more that are scheduled. 

God is drawing people to himself, blessing women and men and children in the waters of rebirth with God’s triune name and promises.

We have a full, ongoing new members class with more than a dozen people. Some of these people we have never met…

or at the very least we have never seen the lower third of their face. But these are people whom Jesus is drawing to himself – women and men and children who are excited to serve, and belong, and give themselves away through the work of this congregation

One email from this past week read:

“We have never been inside Epiphany Lutheran but we are feeling a connection to your church family nonetheless! Would it be possible to sign up and receive church emails?  Also, might there be a class for newcomers interested in exploring Lutheranism some time in 2021?”

Another email reads:

“My husband and I are interested in becoming members of the church.  I know this may appear to be a strange request during this COVID time but our family has attended services over the last few years and the message of Epiphany has really resonated with us. 

This had been members of a church in my hometown of Lancaster, PA, and hadn’t considered being formal members of another church but would like to be more involved in this church community and grow our family faith here.

God is doing all this.

It is remarkable

There are people who God is calling to himself through this community from here in town, all the way to California, Baton Rouge, LA, and Sabastian, FL, and more and its not just Epiphany. 

I happen to be friends with a number of pastors who are trying to figure out how to manage an influx of new members from near and far.  Many of whom were not previously apart of a church or faith.

And God is drawing all creation to himself.

Jesus’s death and self-giving in the cross invites our heads to turn toward him and see his love, invites us to lean into his grace, and pulls us into the joyous new way of living for other.

It is so easy to be distracted and give our attention away, so pay attention to what we want, what gives us comfort, to the easy path,

But God is gathering us around the cross of Jesus, from many places, and creating a new community called and empowered to die for the sake of others,

to lay down our desires in order to serve those who are in need and those on the margins,

to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, to assist those who are desperate.

This seed is planted in you today, the true BODY OF JESUS, to bear much fruit in our life together.

In Jesus, we have become new fruit, born into a life we share with one another, that is for others. 

We are God’s hands and feet in the world.  We are God’s voice in the lives of our neighbors.  And Jesus is always drawing us all to himself.

May you know that your admission to the song of God’s Kingdom has been paid by the death of Jesus.

May his new life work in us to point to his cross as the source of all life.

May we bear much fruit to the glory of God.


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