Monday, January 21, 2019

2nd Sunday After Epiphany

2nd Sunday after Epiphany
Year C
January 20, 2019
John 2:1-11

The wedding at Cana - this scene where Jesus famously turns water into wine - is the first of Jesus’ “signs” in the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John doesn’t talk about miracles. Miracles, from the Latin, mirari, are things that cause wonder or amazement. They don’t necessarily reveal anything, but miracles draw folks in by their astonishment of the event in and of itself. In the Gospel of Mark, for instance, Jesus’ miracles often obscure who Jesus is just as much as they reveal something about Jesus. When Jesus walks on water and stills the storm, the disciples are utterly astounded, but they don’t get it. In fact, the text says that their hearts were hardened, comparing them to the Pharaoh that wouldn’t release the Hebrew people from Egypt. Ouch. It is all part of Mark’s secrecy motif, that readers and characters are only able to get so close to Jesus’ identity, keeping that identity at a distance, until the cross and the empty tomb, where Jesus’ identity is ultimately revealed. That’s Mark.

On the other hand, the Gospel of John talks about signs. Signs, in contrast to miracles, serve to point to something beyond the event itself. Signs are not about what we see, but rather go beyond it. In the case of this gospel, signs are things that help point to Jesus’ identity as the messiah, as the Word made flesh that dwells among us. They are specifically meant to reveal something about who Jesus is - for us and for the world. Near the end of the Gospel, the writer states, “now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these [signs] are written so that you may come to trust that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through trusting, you may have life in his name.” The signs reveal who Jesus is and inspire trust and faith in Jesus. Today’s gospel reading is the first recorded sign in the Gospel of John.

While I am not afraid to admit that I enjoy a glass of wine now and then, I find this to be an odd start to ministry. And I find it odd that this is the first thing Jesus does to point to who he is. In our adult forum a couple weeks ago, we kinda scratched our heads there too. And it is one that I struggle with, both as a pastor and as a scholar. I’d expect Jesus’ first act to be one that is big and showy. I’d expect everyone to know he did it. Perhaps, I’d expect the Gospel to start off with the raising of Lazarus or the healing of the paralytic. But we get Jesus turning water into wine. In comparison to other signs in the Gospel of John, it feels almost like a party trick. And the only ones who know that he did this sign were Jesus’ mother (who remains unnamed in this Gospel), the servants, and the disciples. That’s it. The majority of the people around them have no idea that the wine nearly ran out and they nearly missed a sudden end to the festivities. The bridegroom doesn’t even know. The good wine keeps flowing.

Thinking about this event as a sign, the event isn’t about the wine itself. It isn’t about the ability of turning water into wine (which is pretty cool in and of itself), but if we stop there, we miss the point. We’ve gotta get deeper than that. So I must ask what does the event of turning water into wine reveal about Jesus and who he is - for me, for you, and for the world that God so loves? For the other signs, I think that’s an easier question to answer - for instance, as Jesus raises Lazarus, we can say that Jesus comes to bring life out of death, and death never has the final word. It is a bit trickier, at least for me, to see what is supposed to be revealed about Jesus today.

Karoline Lewis suggests that, in looking at the Wedding at Cana, we take into account the prologue of John. The prologue tells us that “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” She encourages us to read, not just today’s gospel lesson, but the rest of the Gospel through the lens of this verse. What if everything that comes after this in the Gospel of John, points to the Grace and Truth that makes God known? In other words, what if the rest of the Gospel reveals what God’s grace tastes like, looks like, and feels like?
God’s grace tastes like the best wine that you’ve ever tasted when you expect the cheap stuff. It’s like getting the expensive, luxury wine (that I couldn’t dream of purchasing) when you expect to get the boxed stuff. If you’re not into wine, substitute whatever you do like to drink or whatever you like to eat. Grace tastes like a gourmet roasted chicken dinner - like the best you’ve had, seasoned perfectly, juicy and moist - when you’re expecting McDonalds chicken nuggets. Not only that, it is abundant and over the top. There were six stone jars, each holding twenty or thirty gallons, filled to the brim with that water that Jesus turned to wine, giving us 120-180 gallons of wine. That’s a lot of wine. To put that into perspective, that is 600-900 of our standard bottles of wine. That’s enough for everyone to their have fill and then some. It is free flowing. And indeed it is good news. It is akin to John’s telling of the feeding of the 5000, where five loaves and two fish feed 5000 people until each taking as much as they wanted, with twelve baskets left over. No one goes hungry, and there’s food left over.

When have you experienced the Grace of God? When have you tasted, touched, felt that grace overflowing for you? Maybe it was in true acceptance from a loved one. Or in kindness from a stranger. Or in hospitality around a table where you didn’t expect to find it. Or maybe it was felt in the presence of someone in your pains. Or in the gifts of God in the sacraments (which are tangible experiences of God’s grace). God’s grace and love isn’t a theoretical thing, but it is tangible and can be touched, tasted, felt.

For me, I experienced it most powerfully when I was in Tanzania. I was fourteen, travelling with
people that I barely knew, to a place thousands of miles from home. Getting there was… an experience. We flew out of Dulles on a ten hour red-eye flight to London. Had a ten hour layover in Heathrow. Then an eight hour flight from Heathrow to Dar Es Salaam. Then a twelve hour drive from Dar Es Salaam to Tukuyu. As we were leaving Dar Es Salaam, we stopped to pick up Mama Allen, who at the time was the bishop’s secretary. I was in the middle of the back seat, as the smallest person on the trip. Mama sat next to me. We’re driving through Mikumi national park. And, sadly I was exhausted, and I was falling asleep, missing all the wildlife all around me. My head kept going backward, as I struggled to stay awake. Mama Allen, someone I had known for just a few hours, pulled me over so I could sleep on her shoulder. In that small act of love from a stranger, I felt the grace and love of God. That’s what the love of God, working through Mama, felt like. It was a moment where I felt that love and grace of God that is bigger than what I could imagine, that grace that crosses the boundaries of country or nationality, of culture, etc.

For me, beyond the good news that God’s grace is abundant, overflowing, and for all, I find more good news in this passage. Yes, the disciples, Jesus’ mother, and the servants know what happened, and see this sign. For them, it does reveal who Jesus is. Joanna Harader puts it this way, “In the free-flowing wine that others take for granted, they see the glory of God.” And that is indeed a gift. But even more so, I see good news in that the rest of the party is unaware of what had happened, and yet they experience the abundance of the grace of God through Christ, without even knowing it. Today, in Christ, we can proclaim a Christ who is at work, giving the gifts of God’s grace and love abundantly and to all, even when we can’t see it or name it. God’s work in the world isn’t dependent on us seeing it or feeling it, but in Christ, the gifts of love and grace are still given, and they still bring life abundant to all.
Amen



Karoline Lewis, "Commentary on John 2:1-11." Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1556.

Joanna Harader, "A Strange First Clue: John 2:1-11." Christian Century. https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/sundays-coming/strange-first-clue-john-21-11

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Baptism of our Lord (Year C) - Jan 13, 2019



Baptism of Our Lord
Year C
January 13, 2019
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22


“You are my son, the beloved one, in you I take great delight.”
What powerful words we hear this morning, from God to Jesus. We may likely be more familiar with, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” That’s certainly the most traditional English translation. Both are plausible English translations. As someone who greatly enjoys translating texts (from Greek, my hebrew isn’t so up to snuff), I find it helpful to hear texts in slightly different ways. It is one of the reasons that I translate a Greek text (in my own words) before working on a sermon. Hearing it another way often restores power to words and texts that have lost power, simply because we’ve heard it the same way so many times before. My translation of this final verse of our reading today, hopefully does a similar kind of thing. I hope that by pushing us out of “how we’ve always heard it,” we can hear this text anew. And we can reconnect with the power of our Gospel text.

I had a professor in seminary, Dr. Ralph Klein, who, as we were talking about the first creation narrative in Genesis 1, mused that God created creation out of pure delight in creating. It may seem odd to start here - none of our readings even mention creation. But I hope, by starting at the beginning, by exploring how God intended creation to be, we might get at what God does in the waters of baptism.

Other near-eastern myths have the Gods create, especially in their creation of humanity, out of self-interest. The babylonian myth, for instance, tells us that humans were created in order to be enslaved by the Gods, so that they would be waited on hand-and-foot. By contrast, in our creation myth of Genesis 1, God creates humans to be in the image of God, godself. This is a unique understanding of who God is, and who God is in relation to God’s creation. God created humanity to be in an intimate relationship with Godself, to be in an intimate relationship with each other, and to be in an intimate relationship with creation, as good stewards of it. At the heart of it: that’s the purpose of humanity. And God took delight in God’s creation, calling it not just good, but very good. That delight in creation is highlighted by God’s rest from God’s work on the seventh day; it is as if God took that day to just take in the wonder and beauty of all that which God has created. It is as if God says to God’s creation, “You are my beloved handiwork, I take great delight in you.” The creation myth of Genesis 1 is a powerful and ancient confession about God’s vision for the world, and about God’s delight in the goodness of God’s creation.

As we know, from the rest of Genesis (and the rest of the biblical text, in general), the goodness of creation doesn’t last. Humanity, in particular, deviates from God’s intention for it. And thus, humanity is corrupted by “sin.” For Martin Luther, sin is ultimately defined by the ways in which people are turned in toward themselves - which then makes it difficult, if not impossible to turn outward - either toward God or toward neighbor. Humanity chooses to go their own way and chooses to separate themselves from God, symbolized in Adam and Eve’s transgressions and their hiding from God. And thus, shame seeks to separate humanity from God. As we continue through the Genesis text, human bonds, not just between humanity and God, are harmed but also humanity’s bonds with each other are destroyed as well. Instead of delight, brokenness and the power of sin take over as the ruling force of the world. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, we see this cycle of God reaching out to God’s people, and the people turn away, so God reaches out again.

“You are my son, the beloved one, in you I take great delight.”

A voice from heaven says. And in this water, as God reaches out to God’s people yet again, Jesus’ ministry begins with his baptism. It is surprising; as we’ve wrestled with in adult forums - If Jesus is sinless, why would Jesus even need to be baptized (by John or by anyone else for that matter)? People gather at the river to be baptized by John. We don’t know what exactly brought each of them to the river to be baptized by John. We don’t know, specifically, what brokenness they were experiencing. They were waiting for the Messiah. They sought forgiveness, perhaps in preparation for that Messiah. I think it is fair to say that, whatever brought them there, they sought to experience and to be in relationship with God. They’re nameless; they are ones that we cannot see - the Gospel text doesn’t let us get that close. Yet, the “one who is more powerful” than John, walks among them. Jesus lines up with the masses of people. Jesus does not turn away from them. Jesus does not condemn them. Rather, Jesus joins them in the water. For Luke, this is why Jesus is baptized. Here, Jesus identifies with the people in the brokenness and the darkness of their lives and of their world. In this water, Jesus takes on all that leads people to the waters on himself.

As Jesus joins them in the water, God takes delight, pleasure, happiness, in Jesus, the beloved son. The cycle of brokenness is, well, broken. This one, the beloved one, is the one who will restore humanity to its intended relationship with God. This one, the beloved one, is the one who will do whatever it takes in order to bring all people to Godself. This one, the beloved one, is the one who will bring good news to the poor and to proclaim release to the captives, in an endeavor to bring all into right relationship in the new community of the Kingdom of God. This one, the beloved one, is the one who will usher in the reign of God into this world, here and now. In Jesus, God stands in solidarity with humanity in their brokenness and in their sin. And God’s grace shines through. Here, in this water, Jesus sees the brokenness of those we cannot or do not want to see. Here, in this water, we see a glimpse of the world as God intended it to be - and God delights in it and delights in God’s son. God finds great delight in the ministry of reconciliation and restoration that God’s beloved son is beginning.

As we move through the Gospel of Luke this year, that ministry of reconciliation and restoration will be revealed further. For the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ ministry focuses on restoring the outcast, the hungry, those on the very margins of society. As we heard in the magnificat, just a few weeks ago, God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” It is a vision for the world of a community of people back in right relationship with each other, where all are wrapped up in the kingdom of God.

This ministry, ultimately, will lead us to the cross. That cross where Jesus, innocent, will hang on the cross in between two criminals. In Jesus, we have a God that risks even death to enter into our darkness, our brokenness, our worry, our sin. Here, on the cross, Jesus identifies so totally and completely, not with the joys, but with the pains of our lives. Here, on the cross, Jesus embraces us in God’s love with an unconditional acceptance of us. No longer can our humanity nor the darkness of our world threaten separate us from God. And we are free to be human, living out our humanity fully and deeply.

Our baptisms, while different than Jesus’ baptism, unite us in Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are freed from any need to justify ourselves to God. By our own power, we can’t justify ourselves. We can’t justify ourselves through good deeds or the avoidance of bad deeds. We can’t justify ourselves through who we are or who we aren’t. We can’t justify ourselves through our sexuality or our understanding of our gender. We can’t justify ourselves through our place in society or what we do for a living. We can’t justify ourselves by having the “right” understanding of God or of Scripture. We can’t justify ourselves through having the “right” religious experience or being free from doubt. In Jesus, all of that goes out the window. But the Good News this morning is that, in this water, Jesus stands alongside us, and through Jesus, we are fully justified and brought into relationship with God. God binds Godself to each one of us in a covenant that nothing can separate us from God or God’s love - not because of what we do or who we are, but because of who Jesus is and what Jesus does. In this water, God lives out God’s intent for a deep and intimate relationship with God’s people. Our relationship with God is what God intended it to be from the very beginning. God accepts us -- not an ideal version of us - but our whole selves - both sinner and saint - and in our whole lives - rejoicing with us in our joys and lamenting with us in our sorrows. Having been forgiven and redeemed, God frees us to live fully into the new life we have found in Christ - as who we are. We no longer need to feel like we have to hide ourselves - our true selves - from God. And God frees us to turn outward in service as part of the Body of Christ in our homes, in our communities, and in the world. Here, in this water, we are adopted as beloved children of God, and we are marked with the cross of Christ forever. And God takes delight in us. It is as if God says to each one of us:

“You are my child, the beloved one, in you I take great delight.”

Thanks be to God for that.

Amen

Monday, January 7, 2019

Epiphany (Year C) - Jan 6, 2019

Epiphany
Year C
January 6, 2019
Matthew 2:1-12

For the last time this season, on this Epiphany Sunday, we hear one of the infancy narratives of Jesus. On one hand, it serves as a transition Sunday between the childhood Jesus and the adult Jesus and his ministry. Yet, on the other, it is so much more. Epiphany, meaning to reveal or to uncover, serves to illuminate Christ, the true King of the world.

The congregation I grew up in made a big deal about Epiphany. Every year, three of the choir
members dressed up as three magi. We sang, “We Three Kings of Orient are, bearing gifts, we traverse afar. Field and fountain, moor and Mountain following yonder star.” And they would process, one by one, on their corresponding verse, with their gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. They would process slowly, with reverence and intentionality behind each step. They followed a Bethlehem star, which was hung above a nativity set, which had been placed near the front of the church, by the baptismal font, for the Christmas season. And, they laid their gifts in front of that tiny manger scene. It was a fun reenactment of the familiar story. (Even though, as I’ve come to learn, much of that familiar story relies much more on the song than the biblical text - the visitors were not kings - they were magi - likely Zoroastrian or other Gentile priests or astrologers -, and there is no mention that there three of them. But it was fun and meaningful nonetheless).

As I think about not just this story, but Jesus’ infancy narratives, in general, I wonder if we’ve romanticized it and tamed it all a bit too much. We tend to make these stories into nice, gentle retellings, complete with sweet domesticated livestock. We tend to gloss over the politics and the messiness of these passages. Especially in today’s passage, we can’t separate the arrival of the magi from the world and its politics that Jesus was born into.

The star that appeared signaled not just the birth of Jesus but also the dawning of a new Kingdom, a new regime, one that brings forth light and life out of the darkness of the rule of Rome. The light is made known as a star illuminates the way to Jesus. These gentile magi want to find this new king of the Judeans to pay him homage. Jesus’ birth has cosmic significance, as the birth is made known in the stars. These magi give gifts that are appropriate to honor a king. The arrival of the magi puts into reality, on a small scale, God’s vision of all people - Jew and Gentile - being united and enfolded into the Kingdom of God.

And Jesus’ birth has real consequences for the world in which we live. Jesus’ is a new kind of kingdom and a new kind of kingship. It is a kingdom where the human boundaries that threaten to separate us from each other - like the distinction between Jew and Gentile - disappear, and real, true, mutual relationships can be fostered and strengthened. The Gospel - the Good News of the arrival of Jesus - is political. Not partisan, but it is political in that the love of God and the grace found in this child affects all levels of society - us as individuals, our communities, and the wider world. It reorients all to the love and life found in Christ, and the birth of the Christ child calls us to live out that love found in Christ as we go about our lives in the world. 

But the star also signaled this arrival to Herod - the current King of the Judeans. What is good news for some, may seem like incredibly bad news for others. The birth of Jesus is a direct threat to his own rule. Herod is frightened. For him, the birth of Christ signals not hope but destruction and an end to all that he holds dear - his own power, his own wealth, his own safety, and his own hold on the world. Herod does everything he can to extinguish the light of Christ - including, as the Gospel of Matthew tells us, massacring all the children, age 2 or less.  Any competition for the throne must be eradicated, and he must keep the light from shining. And Herod, at least in his understanding of Jesus, is right. Jesus comes to challenge and to overthrow the corrupt powers that be. While Jesus didn’t assemble an army and reestablish Israel as its own sovereign nation, Jesus’ preaching, teaching, healing, his death and resurrection all serve to challenge the status quo that keeps people in bondage to the powers that be. It has significance not just for Judea, the province over which Herod was king, but for the whole world. Matthew does not hide or shy away from this brewing conflict, rather this conflict between the Kingdom of Rome (with the powers and ruler of this world) and the Kingdom of God becomes central to the Gospel of Matthew.

Karoline Lewis, this week, makes a helpful point - when people in power fear competition, it signals that they themselves know that their power and their use of power is not what it should be. His defensiveness signals a knowledge that his leadership has not lived up to his promises and to his rhetoric. His fear of a baby (to the point that he resorts to murder) signals that he’s doing everything he can to hold onto his position and his power - and all that comes with it, wealth, honor, respect (even respect out of fear). Someone who is leading well - with integrity, with morality, with the good of all the people in mind - doesn’t fear those who might complete with him. Unlike for the Romans, for Jews, the value and quality of kingship was judged not on the wealth brought into the kingdom (as put on display by building projects), but on the treatment and protection of their people, especially the people that are most vulnerable. And Herod did not live up to the standards of being the King of the Jews. If we look at the kings, the rulers of our world, I wonder if our world isn’t so far removed from that world of Herod, as much as I might hate to admit it.

Karoline further reminds us that, while we may not want to admit it, we are a bit more like Herod than what we might like to acknowledge. Hearing the call to give up our own safety and security (whether that comes with from our money, our status in society, or the barriers - physical and metaphoric- that we put up between ourselves and our neighbors - whatever makes us feel “safe”) for the sake of doing God’s work with our own hands is not an easy call. We’re called to give up power and privilege and lift up the most vulnerable. It isn’t easy. It means putting the good of others and the wider world before my individual wants (and I’m not always good at that - it is the turned-in-on-self sinful nature that Martin Luther talks about so deeply. For him, that is the basic definition of sin. It isn’t an individual action, but rather humanity’s nature to be so inward focused. It is that piece of ourselves that puts our own joy, our own pleasure, etc. above other people’s pain, hardship, and danger).

The Good news this morning is that the light of Christ is not extinguished despite our efforts and the efforts of the world to do so. Herod’s plot to destroy Christ fails. The Magi defy Herod and turn back to their home country another way. The attempt of the Empire to destroy Christ by crucifying him fails, as we encounter the empty tomb on Easter morning. The light of Christ is persistent - nothing, not even death can extinguish it, and that light shines brighter than our sin and the sins of the world. Jesus - the God-with-us - is here and is here to stay, as the Gospel of Matthew makes clear. And that light of Christ shines on us, on our turned in on self selves. Christ loves us, grants us grace, mercy, and forgiveness - so that we are able to turn outward and participate in God’s vision for the world. In Christ, God uses us, turned-in-on self sinners, to carry the light of Christ to our neighbor, to love all people as Christ has loved us, to break down the walls that divide us from our neighbor, to forgive those who have brought us harm, to resist this world and its rulers wherever and whenever it goes astray, and to witness to the breaking in of the Kingdom of God wherever we may find it.

Amen