Monthly Archives: January 2016

Alternatives

“Having studied . . . theologians who could not bend, his faith was shattered when the storms of life overwhelmed his doctrine. . . . He never saw an alternative to the God of the inflexible doctrines he learned.”

(A summary of Pastor Wilmot in John Updike’s book In the Beauty of the Lilies.)

I am loving this quote today! I hope that you have encountered the God that is far beyond all of our inflexible doctrines! It’s a hard way to have to learn to be open, but it is a beautiful, joyous journey into the Great Mystery!

RevJule

Time to Party?

A Sermon for 17 Jan. 2016

 A reading from the gospel of John 2:1-11. Listen for God’s word to us as we hear the way the gospel of John begins Jesus’s public ministry. Listen.

“On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

Parties are wonderful, aren’t they? The music and dancing, the laughter and conversation, the food and even the drink. If you’ve ever thrown one – no matter the size – you know how much work they can be. Someone’s gotta get it all set up: from the invitations to the décor. Every detail must be attended. After all, typically when we throw a party, we want to put on our finest. We want everyone to enjoy themselves. To feel welcome. In all honesty, sometimes we even want them to think well of us for having thrown such a fabulous shin-dig where a good time was had by all. The biggest disaster to any such event is not having enough for all your guests. Enough space, enough food, enough wine. And this is exactly the predicament in which those throwing the wedding party in Cana find themselves. It’s a total faux pas.

“On the third day” the story begins – and yes, on the third day illusions to the resurrection are intended here (John 2:1). The party has begun! According to the gospel of John, the pre-existent Word has become flesh. And having just called some as his followers to come and see (John 1:39), Jesus and his disciples have been invited to a party. This is no typical celebration. According to the gospel of John, Jesus begins his ministry at a wedding. Again, our author intends for us to catch the deeper meaning of the setting. Long years the people of Israel were told by God’s prophets that God was like their groom – and a frustrated one at that, waiting for his bride to be faithful. Remember the prophet Hosea? Just to prove a point, God had him marry Gomer, a wife of whoredom to show metaphorically that God’s wife, Israel, had forsaken the sacred covenant. In anger and hurt God declares to Hosea: say to my people “she is not my wife, and I am not her husband” (Hosea 2:1-2). The covenant has been defiled. . . . A wedding in Cana is the perfect place for the embodied Word to begin revealing his glory.

But it seems Jesus doesn’t know that – or at least not at first. We never do hear of him being married himself, so maybe Jesus never knew firsthand that certain customs were to be followed to a T. Weddings were infused with ancient traditions which when unmet brought great shame to the family involved. Hospitality was to be expected. . . . I’ve lived in the South long enough to know that the South prides itself on being a place of hospitable welcome. In my years of living here, I’ve learned about the pineapple being the traditional sign of gracious friendship. I’ve learned that sweet tea made just so is to be offered. And I even have learned about a secret welcome symbol. Supposedly in the days of slavery, runaways were to look for homes with a magnolia tree planted out front. For those seeking freedom, the magnolia stood as a sign of full acceptance inside. I like that the first time I drove on to the property of this church, I saw a great big magnolia right outside. If only we all could remember that the next time a new guest to worship ends up sitting in your typical pew! . . . All of this is to say that hospitality comes in many shapes and sizes. In ancient Israel, hospitality codes held together the moral fabric of their culture. According to one author, “In the Ancient Near East, hospitality was the process of receiving outsiders and changing them from strangers into guests” (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, p. 408). The host would receive the stranger and by the ritual of foot washing (given as a command by Jesus, by the way: only in the gospel of John’s telling of the Last Supper). The host would receive the stranger and by the ritual of foot washing, would show that the stranger has been welcomed in as guest. Through this act, the host and stranger-turned-guest entered into a two-way relationship in which both parties had particular responsibilities. Hosts became protectors who saw to the needs of their new guests. And in turn, such strangers-turned-guests were to honor the host – not insulting them through any hostility or rivalry. The guest would receive what was given – especially any food offered. Oh, and it was incumbent upon the host to offer the best. To do otherwise was to insult the guest. Hospitality was this dance together of two who gave and received, trusting that if – and when – the tables were turned, the other could rely upon the same gracious, welcoming care.

Jesus’ mother seems to be the only one at the wedding of Cana who knows this is how it must be. Even before the bride and groom, she is worried about the unfolding breech of hospitality. You know how forceful mothers can be. And who can back down from the chutzpah of a Jewish momma on a mission? She sees the problem at the party. For she knows a thing or two about the responsibility of receiving in an outsider. After all, the angel said God willed it to be for her. She’s played host to another in her own body, which taught her the gift of life that hospitality brings. What’s more, she knows the true Host is present at this wedding who must attend to the needs of the strangers-made-guests. It was what he was born to do. Indeed the time of her son, the embodied Word, has begun. . . . Jesus takes up his mother’s ministry of hospitality in signs that reveal the abundant goodness of the true Host. That water becomes the best wine – and an infinite amount at that: anywhere from 120-180 gallons of the finest wine anyone ever could imagine. As promised – as we heard in our reading from the prophet Isaiah where God declares: “You shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you (Isaiah 62:2-5). As promised, God’s blessing has come upon the people and in such a boundless way. . . . Isn’t it beautiful? Here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, as the story is told according to the gospel of John, we learn a wonderful thing or two about God.

Some of you already know that I was raised in the church – a Presbyterian one at that, in a small town of the Midwest. At five-and-a-half weeks of age, I was baptized. And if my conscious memories of being in worship every Sunday tell me anything, then I’m pretty sure my parents had me there each week right from the start. I still vividly remember walking into the sanctuary as a small child. There was the bank president and the high school basketball coach. There was my Sunday School teacher and my best friend’s mother up in the choir loft. I remember the deacons actually ushering us in and seating us in a pew. My parents liked to be some of the first ones there, so we typically had our pick of the pews. . . . You know how in some church sanctuaries people rush in and sometimes even when the prelude begins, some people talk louder over the music to catch up with the person next to them – forgetting that other worshippers might be trying to quiet the cares of the world to prepare themselves in reverence to encounter God? Well, in my home church, that NEVER was a problem. Far to the other extreme, in my home church, you got pinched. You know: low in the pew so nobody else could see. If I fidgeted; if I made noise; if my sister and I played tic-tac-toe; if I did this tapping on my eardrums to see how the organ music sounded when you did this; we got pinched. We weren’t the only ones – my friends’ parents did the same thing to them too. You were particularly shamed if you didn’t get back in line before an over-the-shoulder-glare came from someone sitting in front of you. We were just little girls being little girls – what’s wrong with that? And while the preachers and teachers talked about the goodness of God’s love, the aura created was one of punitive judgment. . . . How can we learn about the abundance of God’s mercy? How can we know the joy of God’s presence? How can we claim the greatness of a love that never will let us go and that receives us in gracious welcome, because the Host won’t allow an outsider to remain a stranger but found a way to initiate inclusion for all at a marvelous, never-ending feast? . . . How can we know in our bodies that God is good, if we’re busy living among each other in ways that pinch, pinch, pinch the joy right out of Life?

One theologian writes and I quote, that: “Christians ought to be celebrating constantly. We ought to be preoccupied with parties, banquets, feasts, and merriment. We ought to give ourselves over to veritable orgies of joy because we have been liberated from the fear of life and the fear of death. We ought to attract people to the church quite literally,” he writes, “by the fun there is in being a Christian” (Robert Hotchkins, Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4, pp. 262,264). . . . That’s Cana-grace. That’s the kind of life the Host invites us into so that we too would take up the ministry of receiving any stranger as we provide for their needs as finely and abundantly as God does ours. . . . Indeed, sisters and brothers of Christ: it’s time to party! For among us is the One who embraces life and makes the way for the feast of abundant love to go on forever!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

 

Keep Christmas Alive

A Sermon for 3 January 2016 – Epiphany Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 2:1-12. Listen for God’s word to us.

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

Just before the holidays in 2007, something extraordinary took place. We could call it a Christmas miracle! . . . The setting for this miraculous event wasn’t a stable in Bethlehem in the dead of winter. Rather a Starbucks drive-thru on an overcast day in South Florida. (www.huffingtonpost.com/arthur-rosenfeld/pay-it-backwards-an-act-o_b_151793.html) . . . On his way to teach a morning tai chi class, a gentleman decided to warm himself up with his favorite cup of Starbucks tea. It started like any other Starbucks drive-thru. “Welcome to Starbucks. Would you like a tall, venti, or grande?” The gentleman placed his order at the menu board then pulled up as far as he could to wait his turn to pay. No sooner did the gentleman place his order and pull up in the line as far as he could, than the guy in the SUV behind him started laying on the horn. He obviously had left home before having his first cup. Shouting all sorts of expletives, and throwing in a hand gesture or two for certain effect, the guy in the SUV apparently was ticked that he STILL wasn’t close enough to the menu board to place his order. . . . It was just a few days before Christmas – nerves sometime can be quite frayed. The tai chi centered gentleman in the car in front was about to get out to let SUV man have it. Teach him a lesson or two about messing with a martial arts master. In his own words he reports that “my heart beat was up, my hands were clamming, my muscles were tense, and the whole world had constricted down to the tiny business of completing my hostile mission.” One last time he glanced in his rearview mirror, when suddenly he noticed that the twisted, hate-filled angry face of the man in the SUV behind him had become the same one staring back at him in the features of his own face. In that moment, he didn’t like what he saw – hostile ill-will quickly rising in that Starbucks line. . . . As he pulled forward to pay for his own tea, he took out an extra $10 and told the barista to throw in the cost of the order for the guy behind him. Shocked, the barista reminded him of what a jerk SUV man was being. Was he sure? Especially because SUV man just had ordered breakfast and coffee for five – totaling a small fortune at Starbucks. The extra $10 wasn’t nearly enough to cover the cost of the order. . . . He didn’t have to do it. He could’ve just taken back his money and pulled away. No one would have been the wiser. Instead, in an act far exceeding the norm, he pulled out his credit card and told the barista to run it. After all, it was just a few days before Christmas. “Peace on earth, goodwill to all, and all that jazz.” It would be his unexpected gift of goodwill to all – not only to transform his own spirit, but maybe to do a little for the undeserving jerk in the SUV behind him. . . . The miracle was that when SUV man pulled forward, his face still seething in impatient anger, the barista explained to him to keep his own credit card because his order had been paid for by the gentleman in the car in front of him. Instantly the generous act melted SUV man’s heart. He insisted to pay for the order of the car behind him. It was the least he could do. And for the next several hours, in that little Starbucks drive-thru in South Florida, humankind was on fine display . . . as one driver after the other graciously accepted the unexpected gift, then in turn enacted the same generosity to the person in line behind them. . . . No angels showed up to herald the good news. But on that day, those who had driven through that Starbucks not only experienced, but they also, in turn, embodied the true spirit of giving. Christmas in a nutshell.

So many of us love Christmas because it is a time for seeing the generosity in people all around. There’s something about Christmas that makes many of us a little merrier. Even if we never will any other time of the year, at Christmas we more freely express our appreciation for one another. We’re kinder – even to total strangers. The whole world shines a little brighter. . . . Maybe it’s the carols that cheer us. Or the excitement in children that has the capacity to get under the toughest skin. I know a lot of us carry deep pain over loved ones lost that seems even harder to bear during the holidays. . . . And many of us get all stressed out trying to make for that one perfect night. . . . But if we’d stop long enough, we might realize that growing inside us is a desire to give to those around us as freely and as joyfully as was given to the world that first Christmas night. The true generosity of Christmas.

Today we’re nearing Epiphany – on January 6th when the twelve days of Christmas come to a close at least for this year. It’s the Sunday at last for the wise men. The ones for whom we can give great thanks – for that’s what they’re doing: embodying the generous spirit of Christmas! . . . Even if we typically have them right there in the nativity with the shepherds and the angel, the gospel of Matthew alone records the story of the travelers who came from afar under the glow of that star. Whether they arrived the night of the birth or a few years later, as is suggested by King Herod’s hateful edict to slay all the children two years old and younger. Whether there were three or a whole caravan of twelve as some scholars have suggested. We know that the gospel of Matthew places these generous gift-bearers at the start of the story – a significant way to begin the good news of what God is up to in the world and how God hopes for the world to respond. . . . They are foreigners from another land. Most probably professional star-gazers who spent their lives waiting for something. . . . Really it’s quite odd; their story half-plausible. I mean, why would anyone from so far away even care about a new star rising in the sky? And how did they know to link that star to a new king born of a little clan so far-off in Judea? It kinda makes you wonder what they already knew of the Messiah’s prophecy, as it’s entirely possible they were from what once was Babylon where Jewish exiles kept hope alive with stories of a Messiah someday to come set the world aright. Had these wise ones heard and hoped all along? Is that what caused them to risk such a trek and not be deterred until at last they reach the house where the child Jesus is? . . . “Overwhelmed with joy,” the scriptures read. “They saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage” (Mt. 2:10-11). Somehow they know something amazing is in their midst: a gift beyond measure that floods their spirits with the very same generosity. . . . With them they carry chests of treasure. Items they must have considered precious – worthy for a new born king. They offer the child gifts. . . . Even though Mary and Joseph know his impressive future, this display must have seemed as unexpectedly miraculous to them as the revolution of generosity in that Starbucks drive-thru a few years back.

Epiphany is about giving gifts – humankind’s real reason for generosity. For Epiphany is the story of the manifestation of God’s great gift spreading out into the world as the wise ones return from their Bethlehem trek – like a light expanding from its source to inspire us with overwhelming joy that we might live the same generosity as God’s amazing gift. . . . I’m sure many of us have taken down the trimmings of the season. We’ve packed away the Christmas carols and returned the less-than-satisfying gifts. The cheer of the season’s about worn off as it’s time to figure out how to pay off the incoming bills and get back to business as usual – at least for another three hundred-fifty-some days.  . . . But here we are with travelers from afar. Ones of exceeding wisdom whose gratitude moves them to act – to give their very best gifts in honor of the One who gave the greatest gift to us all. . . . We’d do well to spend some time with these wise ones. To meditate upon their example – not just for one season, but every day of the year. . . . Because wouldn’t it be awesome if even a few of us kept the generosity of Christmas alive all the days of the year? Wouldn’t it be remarkable if even a handful of us return from this year’s Bethlehem trek like a light from its source radiating something different because of what we’ve made such a fuss to celebrate? Wouldn’t that be the most wonderful miracle from Christmas this year?

One of the songs of the season that I fell in love with the instant I heard it – and most probably have shared with you before – includes these words: “Emmanuel. Prince of Peace. Love come down for you and me. Heaven’s gift: the holy Spark to light the way inside our hearts. Bethlehem, through your small door, came the hope we’ve waited for. The world was changed forevermore when love was born. I close my eyes and see the night when love was born” (When Love Was Born, Mark Schultz, WOW Christmas 2011). . . . Love come for you and me. Heaven’s gift: the holy Spark to light the way inside our hearts. . . . I wonder if God’s amazing gift just might be enough to overwhelm us with gratitude until our lives are changed each day and forevermore.

Happy Epiphany, brothers and sisters in Christ! . . . Every day let us live the Light of the Lord our God!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)