Fifty years ago this weekend, about half a million music lovers crowded into vans and cars and buses, and journeyed down muddy roads to congregate on Max Yasgur’s farm for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. The whole event was famously and somewhat wondrously mismanaged. If you listen to the recorded concert you will hear announcements about how the hamburger stand burned down but they will be trying to get some food to people soon. You’ll hear announcements like “If anyone found a cassette tape, please bring it to the stage.” Nothing about the logistics inspired confidence.
But there were many utopian proclamations made about the gathering, in the moment and after. Many stories and myths have spun out about the gathering, but there remains the seemingly miraculous fact that the weekend was largely non-violent—maybe with the exception of an altercation between Abbie Hoffman and Pete Townshend.
At one point on Saturday morning of that weekend, the owner of the farm, Max Yasgur, spoke to the crowd:
I think you people have proven something to the world — not only to the Town of Bethel, or Sullivan County, or New York State; you’ve proven something to the world. This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place. We have had no idea that there would be this size group, and because of that you’ve had quite a few inconveniences as far as water, food, and so forth. …But above that, the important thing that you’ve proven to the world is that …a half million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and I – God Bless You for it!
Master of Ceremonies and ad-hoc security chief Wavy Gravy was predictably more lyrical, declaring “we must be in heaven, man!” and “there’s always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area.”
He was looking on the bright side, I’m sure: at least two people died at the festival, one accidentally and one of an overdose. It’s sometimes said that a baby or two might have been born there, but I don’t think that has ever been confirmed.
It was, in other words, a horrible, muddy mess with utopian aspirations, a lot of substance abuse, and a fragile but largely maintained commitment to peaceful squalor. And yet the words from the stage made it sound like the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the coming of a new world order. It was what it was, but the participants shaped it into something more. They shaped it into an age, an event, a happening, the hallmark of a generation. Maybe you were part of that generation and these folks didn’t speak for you, but to look back on that time is necessarily to contend with what those speakers had to say about themselves and their dreams of peace, community, and freedom. In its own muddy way the event was decisive. The lofty rhetoric held up even after the ideals of that generation seemed severely compromised.
Jesus had been hearing high-flying rhetoric since before he was born. While he was still in the womb, his mother proclaimed stirringly that the poor would be lifted up and the rich would no longer be obstacles, that the mighty would be cast down from their thrones. This truth was in his blood. Presented in the Temple, he saw Simeon looking down on him and heard him declare that now his eyes had seen salvation, a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of the people of Israel. His cousin John let everyone know that when Jesus began his earthly ministry he would baptize with the Spirit and with fire, and that all would see the salvation of God. Everywhere around Jesus were the words of revolutionary new life. He was spoken into being by the proclamation of an angel and the power of the Holy Spirit.
In Luke’s gospel, it seems, Jesus is surrounded by the sound of a new epoch beginning. Before he can do much of anything, even in utero, it seems that his presence causes the people around him to perceive time bending, the universe reaching toward what could be: the lowly raised up, rough places made plain, justice and mercy rolling like a river. Jesus knew that the sound he was hearing, the sound of an age arriving, was a very old song, one of God’s most beautiful melodies. In Luke’s fourth chapter, when Jesus teaches at a synagogue in Nazareth, he opens the scroll and lets the song burst forth: “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk 4:18-19). All this, he tells us, if fulfilled in his presence.
Jesus knew, I think, that the prophecies about him were not so much about what would happen in the future, but about the way the view of the future was changing in the present moment when people encountered him. The way the universe was bending around the presence of God in him, the way that he was drawing others in to hear God’s ancient song of promise sung again as if for the first time. Sung this time as inevitable, sung as an irresistible force, as a truth carried in and communicated by his very flesh and blood.
What we hear Jesus speak in this morning’s gospel is a word of frustration and distress, and a word of warning. Hearing that song of rejoicing and promise will be decisive, and we can’t hear it soon enough. And if we are to know him, we must be ready to see our sense of what is inevitable change. It may change so thoroughly that all our relationships are altered. It may—it will—change our sense of what must happen in this world, not only what is possible, but what must be given room to take place. We will share his urgency if we are really encountering him. We too will be in distress until that fire of love purifies our world.
Let the world tell us that we are moving backward in the battle for justice or that we are doomed to fail in our stewardship of creation. Let the world go ahead and fabricate unnecessary and fraudulent harm in the name of “the times in which we live.” But remember always that when we know God’s love, when we really see the face of Jesus, it will take an act of hypocrisy and denial for us to go on believing what the world says. It will take active resistance to live as if our lives are unchanged. We’ll have to pretend painfully that we are not being called by God to be part of an all-encompassing embrace of love. Because we know we are. We know what God’s creation must be because we know God incarnate in creation, in this strange prophetic salvation we’ve found in Jesus. If you’ve heard that song, the one that runs through Jesus and all around him and back as far as God’s word, God has broken through what the world says. You are moving to the rhythm of God’s ancient song.
Clearly Jesus was no stranger to the awful tension of being in the world but not of the world. Clearly Jesus understands what it is to find that the world around you, the times in which you live, are a kind of funhouse mirror of distorted aspirations. We’ve all been subjected to empty utopian promises again and again, but scripture tells us that the word that courses through Jesus and swirls around him is a different kind of word. It’s a word that changes everything when it changes us. It’s a word that means what it says: this must be heaven.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
18 August 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia