Thursday, January 21, 2010

Water Into Wine

John 2:1-11

The greeting from our United Methodist wedding liturgy includes these lines:

With his presence and power

Jesus graced a wedding at Cana of Galilee,

And in his sacrificial love

Gave us the example of the love of husband and wife.

Every time I say those words at a wedding, I feel like it’s a bit of a stretch. Not the sacrificial love part, but the part about Jesus at the wedding in Cana. It’s as though we’re saying, in the history of why marriage is important to the church, that part of that reason is because Jesus also went to a wedding and made sure the wine didn’t run out. To be honest, the story of the wedding at Cana doesn’t seem all that solid of an endorsement of marriage, at least not to the extent that our wedding liturgy might have us believe. Yes he was present, yes he was helpful, but he didn’t offer a blessing, or comment really, he was just a guest, and he didn’t disrupt the wedding, didn’t overturn tables or call the whole ordeal a disgrace. It’s just not as compelling as it would be if Jesus had spoken at length on how good and wonderful it is to be married and how we should all do it as soon as possible.

All we really know is that Jesus was a helpful, if somewhat reluctant wedding guest. Jesus didn’t say much about marriage. He talked about divorce, but didn’t encourage or discourage marriage, beyond sticking with your vows once you made them. We assume that he was never married, but as the Da Vinci code has pointed out, there has long been some speculation on the matter.

Marriage is not an original Christian idea. It’s a longstanding Jewish custom to be sure, but the first 1000 years of Christianity didn’t value marriage. After all, Christians were concerned with the quick return of Jesus and personal holiness, and all the trappings of marriage and family were distractions and if not downright evil.

Paul said it was not a good idea to marry unless the alternative were burning alive with passion (1 Corinthians 7:9). But he really thought it’d be better if everyone were single like himself.

But I digress. This story about the wine at the wedding, isn’t really about a wedding and certainly isn’t about marriage. Instead, the wedding is a backdrop for Jesus’ first miracle. John chooses to show us Jesus’ first sign of turning water into wine. At first blush, it seems like a party trick, but Jesus is rather discreet about it, and not at all interested in doing it at first when his mother pointedly tells him that they are out of wine and Jesus says “what’s it to you or me? Who cares, it’s not the end of the world.” It’s certainly not healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, or feeding thousands, it’s giving wine to a few hundred wedding guests, helping the host to save face. In the grand scheme of things, a fancy wedding is not a big deal, then or now.

Can you just imagine, you’re one of hundreds of guests at a wedding, you’re at a reception, and the Embassy Suites has run out of wine and it turns out that Christ is there and he lends a hand?

Can you just imagine being in an earthquake, in say, Haiti, and it feels like the entire world is falling apart and crushing you and it turns out that Christ is there, but the world continues to collapse?

What does it mean that Jesus saves a wedding celebration but not thousands of innocent people in Haiti?

As I was watching the events unfold, and reading the news, I kept wondering if Pat Robertson would say anything ridiculous. And sure enough, he didn’t disappoint.

In case you missed it, the evangelist who famously declared 9/11 and Katrina to be acts of divine punishment for the gays and lesbians in our country, for our acceptance of abortion, and for our overall level of immorality has stated that the Tuesday’s earthquake in Haiti is because of a pact they had made with the devil. That’s right, hundreds of years ago, the Haitians won the rebellion against the French only because of a pact with the devil.

And obviously for Pat Robertson, this abundance of badness has something to do with the poor people of Haiti and God and Satan. Instead of geographic forces, compounded on economic ones. I’m sure it’s hard for him to understand that bad things happen like that but they do. They just do. It’s part of life.

And I’m sorry for going after him, because Pat Robertson is a child of God too. And while he’s extreme, there are still lots of people, even me sometimes, who think that we deserve either our bad or good fates, at least sometimes, and we do, sometimes, but not always or usually and certainly not when it’s an earthquake instead of say, ruining a life because you decide to drive drunk. There are differences.

For Haiti, the miracle is in the response, the whole world sending the troops, food, volunteers, coming to help, all of us praying. The miracle will be in the slow rebuilding of a destroyed country. It’s not immediate or glamorous like water into wine, but it is love and concern and respect and human decency.

And this passage, while about God’s extravagance, isn’t really about the injustices of the world either. At it’s heart, the gospels show us over and over that God wants abundance for us: delicious feasts and flowing wine. The kingdom of heaven is after all like a wedding banquet, and Jesus is happy to provide the wine of salvation. That every day on earth is not a feast day is certainly a tragedy, but it’s not God’s fault. It’s not God’s fault that we don’t enjoy our lives to the fullest, that we don’t stop to enjoy a good meal nearly as often as we should, that we don’t cultivate enough deep and lasting friendships, that we don’t spend enough time with our families, that we don’t read enough good books, or take as many good, deep breaths as we should.

And it’s not God’s fault that tens of thousands of God’s children are dead, wounded, scared, hungry, thirsty, mourning, and in so much need. Tragedy is not God’s design. God’s intention is for those of us who are safe and fortunate to reach out to others because we are all meant to live abundantly good lives whether we live in the US or in Haiti.

When Jesus shared the last supper, he used delicious foods to represent his body and blood. He didn’t offer up a cup of vinegar and say drink from this all of you, this is my blood of the new covenant, instead he chose a cup of wine—something tasty and rich with imagery of grapes and harvest and vines, as he is the vine and we are the branches.

God gives to us out of radical abundance, sacrificial love, flesh and blood, grace and mercy. Thanks be to God.

Monday, January 4, 2010


Matthew 2:1-12

In case you are wondering, I am a Pisces. That means I am introverted, dreamy, artistic, sensitive, and fishy. Just a quick survey: how many of you know your astrological sign? And how many of you ever glance, even just casually, at your horoscope in the paper?

Here’s what the prophet Isaiah has to say about the practice of astrology:

“let those who study the heavens stand up and save you those who gaze at the stars, and at each new moon predict what shall befall you. See, they are like stubble, the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of flame. No coal for warming oneself is this, no fire to sit before! Such to you are those with whom you have labored, who have trafficked with you from your youth; they all wander about their own paths: there is no one to save you” (Isaiah 47). So beware: Astrology is a path that leads to nowhere.

In Matthew’s tale of the Magi, he writes that they have seen a star rising and have come to pay homage to the child who has been born King of the Jews. Because they observe and follow the stars, the magi are astrologers. Biblical translators have not always been comfortable with this, and so the NRSV and the King James call them “wise men” and the hymn we just sang refers to them as “kings.”

Matthew tells us very little about these cameo characters. They could have been Persian priests or Arab kings. They could have been named Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar as according to tradition. But whoever and whatever they were, Matthew tells us that they practices astronomy, and were most likely magicians or sorcerers, who found the star of Jesus and followed it until they found him. They were certainly not Jews, but they knew a king when they found him, and they knelt before him, and gave his family expensive gifts. And because of them, we kneel when we pray and we give each other gifts at Christmas.

Of course, the church has not always been so kind to those who conduct alternative spiritual practices. Recently, some folks have been quite upset about the Harry Potter books and Christian children reading and learning about witchcraft. And here, we have a group of star-gazing wizards, worshiping Christ in the Bible. Matthew offers no judgment or commentary, does not explore this interesting relationship between pagan magicians and a Jewish king, just leaves it there, perhaps to show us just how universal Christ is, that even these men recognize the truth of Jesus. In fact, the magi are better informed about the nature of this young child than are the chief priests and scribes who Herod consults.

This story makes it possible for us to consider the validity of different faith practices. Instead of condemning astrology, proving that it is false, or showing that Jesus is better, Matthew lets us know that it actually is quite effective and accurate. The magi find a message in the stars, they follow it through, and they find Jesus. It might not be a conventional route to the Messiah, but it’s a successful one nonetheless. Which leaves us with the prospect that God can be found by alternate faith routes.

The scandalous part is that Matthew doesn’t mention anything about their faith after meeting Jesus. He doesn’t say that they stop practicing magic. Obviously, the astrology they used worked, because it led them to Jesus. What could it mean if they met Jesus and yet didn’t change or convert? We don’t know if they ever found out what happened to Jesus as an adult. There’s a legend that the apostle Thomas baptized them on his way to India.

They might have been like Gandhi, who loved Jesus and his teachings, particularly the sermon on the mount, but was not interested in associating with Christianity. He once said: "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ." And so Gandhi believed in Jesus, followed his teachings, and yet remained Hindu. Perhaps this was also the case of the magi, who found a Jewish king, were in awe of him, but remained astrologers—perhaps it’s possible that they were both pagan magicians and Christians, just Christian in the sense that they worship Christ, but are not part of the religion of Christianity, especially since that wouldn’t exist for a few more decades.

But whatever happened to them afterwards, we know that the wise men went looking for Jesus—and they already knew they were looking for a humble child who would become this king. They were seekers--those who are looking for something, but aren’t sure what, are maybe looking for God, or for meaning in their lives, or for answers, or for community, or just for something bigger and more secure than themselves.

In church evangelism lingo, we contrast “seekers” with “believers” as if when someone finds their beliefs, they stop seeking altogether. Hopefully we’re all seekers, whether we’ve been here forever, or just walked through the doors for the first time, whether we’ve always believed in Jesus, or we’re still not sure what it is we’re looking for or what we believe in.

The gospel reminds us that Jesus comes for everyone, Jews, gentiles, and foreign magicians—everyone can recognize Jesus as the Messiah and pay him homage.

The magi are a small group of outsiders, showing us the proper way to worship Christ: kneeling and offering gifts, showing us that sometimes it’s the seekers who are better able to kneel at the manger than those who have done so their entire lives. As Stephen Bauman writes: “Not every committed Christian in name has a taste for actually kneeling in the dust and muck of a barn in a backwater town with astonished recognition that this is where God prefers to make an entrance.”

We all need regular reminders that no one is above another, that no one has an exclusive claim to truth, and that there are many and varied paths to find it. Epiphany gives us a chance to reflect on holy humility:

What if the magi walked into a church, and were told to leave because of their practices—and yet they were among the first to ever worship Jesus?

What if Gandhi were kicked out for being Hindu, even though he understood the message of Jesus so thoroughly?

The Magi, might not be Christians, they might follow stars, but they were wise enough not to worship the star of Bethlehem itself, but the source that gave it light.

Light has come to the world--the scandalous light of Jesus, that still surprises this cold, dark world. Amen.

Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20

This is the story of Claire, a little angel. Even though she’s not mentioned in the Bible, she was still very much present for the birth of Christ.

All of the big angels are talking and singing—God is doing something amazing for the people on earth, but Claire doesn’t really understand. It sounded like Gabriel told that young girl that she would give birth to God. Claire isn’t exactly sure just how God plans to become a baby, but it sounds like God the Creator, is sending God the Word, to become human, incarnate, and God the Holy Spirit is working to make sure all the right people understand. At least that’s what Claire thinks she’s heard.

Claire and the other angels have been watching over Mary from heaven, praying for her and doing what they can to keep her safe. They have been watching Joseph too, helping him to understand this miracle that Mary so easily accepted.

The time has almost come for God the Word to be born and things are getting complicated. On earth, the human emperor has decided he wants to know just how big his empire is and so he’s taking a census, asking every person to be registered in their hometown. This means that Mary and Joseph have to travel to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem. This could be a dangerous trip for them, but it’s also important because it will fulfill the prophet Micah’s prophesy: “you, O Bethlehem, . . . from you shall come forth one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old” (Micah 5).

And so Mary and Joseph are journeying across the rocks and the hills, joining up with various caravans as they enter Bethlehem. It’s such a small town, but so many people are here! Claire has trouble from time to time picking them out of the crowd! Claire and one of the bigger angels, slip down from heaven, and walk among the people on earth, invisible to their eyes. Night is coming, and Claire watches as Joseph and Mary search for a place to stay. They don’t know anyone there and all of the inns are full. Mary’s starting to cry, Claire can see that she’s worried about giving birth to her baby on the street and she sends Mary just the tiniest encouraging bit of warmth to keep her spirits up. Finally, it seems that an innkeeper has taken some pity on them, because they are young and poor, he won’t give them his own room, but he will let them stay in his stable, where they will at least be dry and warm. Claire is upset that God is going to be born in a barn like a calf, but the bigger angel smiles at her, this must all be part of God’s plan, God’s great reversal, that God almighty will be born on earth as lowly as possible.

Claire watches as Joseph faithfully helps Mary deliver the baby. Mary wraps him tightly in bands of cloth and she lays him down to sleep in a feeding trough since it’s the closest thing they have to a crib.

Again, Claire thinks this is just wrong and horrible, that God—now as the infant Jesus—is lying in a food dish! Surely the other angels could have helped with something better. Couldn’t Jesus have been born in a palace with lots of blankets and a proper cradle? But the bigger angel whispers to her, a quick story of how Jesus will one day feed thousands of people, he will share meals with sinners and thieves, and he will even use a loaf of bread and a cup of wine to explain the sacrifice of flesh and blood that he will make. Claire shivers at the thought of this tiny baby, so wrinkly and pink, ever doing these things, ever suffering. But she understands that the manger makes sense, and is somehow a proper bed for this new child.

Claire can’t stop staring at the baby, he is just so amazing, Claire, of course, has never had any doubt of God, but just looking at this baby, she can tell that he’s really a human baby, but she can see that he’s God too. She just has to tell someone, but who? If they were in heaven, they would start singing, but can they do that on earth among these tired, worn out people?

Just then the bigger angel, takes her by the arm, and they disappear, out of the town, to the hills nearby. The bigger angel must have shared Claire’s thoughts, because she leaps into the air and spreads out her wings and her heavenly glory to the shepherds who are watching their flocks. Claire holds her breath as the shepherds cry out in fear—“oh why are they always afraid of us?” she thinks to herself. But the bigger angel is wise and says: “Do not be afraid for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

Then Claire and a great many of the other angels from heaven joined in singing their song: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace and goodwill!”

When the song was over, all of the angels, but Claire departed for heaven. She slipped in among the sheep and watched as the shepherds talked of this amazing thing that had happened. They said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

And Claire, flew along with them, silently, and invisibly, as they went with haste and they found Mary, Joseph and the child lying in the manger.

And they went out into the town and the fields and told everyone of the angels, and the young family, and the tiny, infant Messiah, of the child who has been born unto all of us, and everyone was amazed. Everyone accept for Mary, and for the little angel Claire, who pondered all of these things in their hearts.