Lent Lesson #4: The Way

A Sermon for 18 March 2018

A reading from the gospel of John 12:20-36.  Listen for God’s word to us.

 

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.  21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.  23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.  Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.  27 “Now my soul is troubled.  And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’?  No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  28 Father, glorify your name.”  Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”  29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”  30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.  31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.  32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.  34 The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever.  How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?  Who is this Son of Man?” 35 Jesus said to them, ‘The light is with you for a little longer.  Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you.  If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going.  36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.’”

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

 

It was a wonderful Easter Egg Hunt yesterday!  So fun to see all the little ones coming together enjoying the hunt and the surprises inside when they opened up each egg to pile up their stash in the parlor!  A big thank you to all who helped make it happen.  From buying the candy, to being the helping hands filling eggs at the potluck last week, to assisting in the actual event yesterday!  Thank you for creating such fun!  . . .  It’s got me reminiscing about a few favorite games from childhood.  Remember Simon Says?  Rainy afternoons at Vacation Bible School, it was the go-to recreation activity in the church fellowship hall each summer.  The Rec Leader would pick one person to be Simon.  The rest of had to get in a line on the other side of the room.  Simon excitedly shouted out commands the rest of us were to follow – but only if “Simon said.”  You may remember that the trick was for Simon to try to get everyone to follow a command without saying “Simon says” first.  If you fell for it, you were out.  ‘Cuz Simon didn’t say to hop on one foot.  And either you weren’t listening attentively enough, or you just were tired doing the last command Simon did tell you to do like jumping jacks, or hand stands, or whatever crazy thing Simon would have the group doing.

Follow the Leader was a different game.  Instead of one person barking out commands the rest had to follow, Follow the Leader involved us all – usually behind one another in a line – doing the actual movement that the leader did.  In Follow the Leader, if the leader jumped up and down, so did we.  If the leader wiggled on the ground like a worm, so did we.  If the leader turned around to shake the hand of the person behind them, so did we.

As Christians we think we grow out of such games as we age.  But we don’t.  As we consider Christianity through the centuries, we likely see two factions:  those approaching faith as if it’s a game of Simon Says.  As if it’s just about doing certain commands passed on from:  God, the bible, the church, or maybe even the pastor.  Granted, there are certain commands we follow as members of the Body of Christ.  But thinking the life of faith is like Simon Says – carefully attuning to the commands of the Leader in order to do what is said, doesn’t seem to be what Jesus had in mind.  Over and over again he’s telling people to follow.  “Follow me.”  As in the gospel reading for today, when Jesus’ words are recorded as thus:  “Whoever serves me must follow, and where I am, there will my servant be also” (John 12:26).  Elsewhere in John, it’s recorded that Jesus said:  “I am the Way” (John 14:6) – the I Am statement of Jesus that was the focal point of our Sunday School class today.  You can think of that Way as a physical thing like a pathway.  As in Jesus is the Way:  the One who gains our salvation.  And it’s also possible to understand the statement as a process – a manner of doing something, like a way of putting together a puzzle.  As in I am the Way – the Way to live in this world.  The way to be in this life so that the typically-believed lines between heaven and here are blurred and the joys of abundant, eternal life begin now – every moment in which we are following the Way.  Way as a process leaves us understanding our faith not just as a special destination for someday beyond our physical death.  Way as a process is about faith that is a journey here-and-now and forever yet-to-be.

The gospel of John especially seems to be interested in understanding the life of faith as a Way to live in this world – becoming, as Jesus says in John 12:36, “children of Light.”  As this gospel tells the story, Jesus has returned to Jerusalem for what will become his last Passover pilgrimage.  A week before entering Jerusalem, he’s just outside the city in the little town of Bethany.  He’s been there at least once before – though likely he’d often been to the home of his friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary.  By the way, this is the same Lazarus he raised from the dead.  . . .  When Jesus went to see them six days before his last Passover in Jerusalem, the gospel writer records that Mary – perhaps Lazarus’s sister who many scholars today believe is the same Mary elsewhere named Mary Magdalene.  Mary lovingly anoints her Lord with a pound of pure nard – a costly essential oil you can get on Amazon today for about $50 per ounce or $800 for a pound.  Jesus says she’s getting him ready for burial.  Which is code for us to know that Jesus knows the Way he’s living in this world is not at all popular.  The gospel of John records that the next day he enters into Jerusalem to crowds waving palm branches as they shout out “Hosanna!  Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the LORD!” (John 12:13) – but we’ll get to those details next week when we gather for a similar palm parade as the week we call Holy begins.  In Jerusalem, the religious leaders are in a whirl again because the crowd sees something in Jesus they refuse to.

Some Greeks who are in town too for Passover request a visit with Jesus.  It is at this moment, Jesus declares, the hour has come.  The time is fulfilled.  It’s important to realize, about the Way, that this is NOT the first time Jesus is preparing to die.  All along his path, he has been dying – dying to his own personal way in order to live the Way of God he came to embody.  In The Meaning of Mary Magdalene by Cynthia Bourgeault – an Episcopal priest whose scholarship I’ve made reference to in these past few weeks – because I find Bourgeault’s reading of scripture a fresh way for us to make sense of Jesus.  Bourgeault writes of the three key elements of Jesus’ Way.  She names them kenosis or self-emptying, abundance or seeing the “dance of Divine generosity that is always flowing toward us” (p. 104), and singleness – which has nothing to do with being unmarried but singleness in the terms of seeing “the world through a single lens of wholeness” (p. 106).  Not this or that, but one unified whole.  . . .  Knowing Jesus, we can see how he did in fact inhabit this world daily through such self-emptying, abundant, singleness in seeing it all as one interconnected whole.  Bourgeault reminds us that we see Jesus’ Way already from the temptations in the wilderness.  She writes:  “In each case Satan asks Jesus to take (feed yourself by turning stones into bread; display yourself by drawing on your divine powers; advance yourself by letting me set you up as ruler of the entire world).”  Bourgeault writes:  “Jesus responds simply by letting go of the bait being dangled, content to rest in his emptiness” (p. 103).  He lives among us in a way that continuously is letting go.  Allowing.  Content to remain empty of himself that God might fill him up.

As recorded in the gospel of John, when the Greeks come to visit him Passover week; Jesus reminds of the truth of the grain – which is a beautiful way for Jesus to point to the wisdom all around us in this world.  “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).  Every farmer knows the truth of the seed.  The necessary dying.  The descent into the darkness that has to come for new life to grow – for resurrection to take place.  Jesus has been living this Way everyday – some might even say he’s been doing it in preparation for the big death, the moment he breaths his last in trust that he again will be lifted up.  Bourgeault beautifully writes:  that in his crucifixion, Jesus was wagering “his own life against his core conviction that love is stronger than death, and that the laying down of self which is the essence of this love leads not to death, but to life.”  She continues:  He was proving “that the spiritual identity forged through kenotic self-surrender survives the grave and can never be taken away.”  It reminds us “that it is not only possible but imperative to fall through fear into love because that is the only way we will ever truly know what it means to be alive” (The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, Cynthia Bourgeault, p. 186).

It is the Way Jesus – who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life – calls us all to follow.  The Way he invites to be, that we too might Live – truly Live.  Emptying ourselves so that we approach life less as a clenched fist and more as an opened hand.  Trusting in the abundant generosity of God that perpetually flows.  Seeing everything as one, unified whole – each of us interconnected with it all.  Thus we follow our Leader every step of the Way, as children of the Light.  Living his Way.  Dying his Way.  Living again forevermore.  May it be so.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Lent Lesson #3: Why? Love.

A Sermon for 11 March 2018

 

A reading from the gospel of John 3:1-21.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.   16 “For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’”

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

 

On Wednesday night, six of us spent a little over two hours together with about 200 other people at the Enrichment Center of First Presbyterian Church, Nashville.  After donning a hairnet and sanitizing our hands, we entered the gym for a short prayer.  Then, the high-energy, full-of-facts Rise Against Hunger organizer took the microphone.  Before explaining in about 5 minutes exactly how we were going to pack 20,000 meals in a short two hours, he told us why we were doing what we were about to do.  He told us:  “815 million people worldwide don’t get the food they need to live a healthy life.  66 million primary school-age children across the developing world attend classes hungry.  Malnutrition in all its forms – from wasting to obesity – directly affects one in three people.”  He told us too that “Rise Against Hunger has a goal to end hunger worldwide by 2030” (https://www.riseagainsthunger.org/understanding-hunger/world-hunger-facts/).  Why we were there was to pack the plentiful food we have here to be sent to those worldwide who do not have enough.  Our efforts and daily efforts by organizations like Rise Against Hunger and others, are working towards the goal of ensuring that from the year 2030 on, no one on this planet again will suffer from hunger.  Indeed, it is a lofty goal to accomplish in the next 12 years, but if efforts get duplicated daily like the ones of the helping hands we saw in one place one night this week; I think we have a shot to make it!

As I reflected upon the experience, I realized that it would have been easy on Wednesday night for our Rise Against Hunger instructor simply to demonstrate how we were supposed to pack the sealed food bags.  Then let us get to work!  With something like 200 excited people from the ages of 4 years old to at least 80 ready to get going, he could have skipped the stories of the families he has met who have only salted clay cakes with which they try to quell the pangs of hunger in their empty bellies.  He didn’t have to tell us that the world produces enough food to be eaten per person each day as the equivalent of something like 17 Big Macs per person per day – if only food was distributed properly worldwide.  He didn’t even have to tell us that Rise Against Hunger is partnering with other global hunger-relief organizations to bring an end to hunger everywhere by 2030.  He could have just told us to put the flavor pack in the bottom of the plastic bag, add a mug-full of crushed soy next, one small scoop of the vegetable mix, the cup of rice on top, to be measured to between 3.89-3.94 ounces, sealed securely so nothing gets out or in in transit, then placed in the boxes for shipping.  We’re famous in the church for jumping right to the how, without remembering that if we do not connect the why of any action to the how, sustainable efforts are likely to fail.

Why do we do any of it?  Why show up to pack meals, or attend a potluck after worship to discover our talents for ministry, or even gather to worship at all?  Why commit to a life of faith when faithfully following the way of Christ is a daily challenge to our time, our ethics, our check books, and our choices?  Why keep trying when our efforts seem lost on a younger generation and the challenges of finding ways to be relevant as a people of faith today appear to be dauntingly hard work?  Why start with the why at all?

In the lengthy gospel of John reading we heard today, Jesus clarifies the why.  Why he even is here.  . . .  A wise man of faith comes to see Jesus one night.  It’s not really clear why he seeks him out, but he must have been curious.  Curious to know more about the one that just put the Temple in an uproar at Passover when, in a burst of great passion, he cleared out the money changers, animals, and coins.  Nicodemus comes to him to state:  “we know you are a teacher from God, for none can do as you do apart from God’s Presence.”  Jesus launches into an esoteric proclamation about needing to be born from above – or as some translations read:  needing to be born anew.  As one great teacher hears in the concrete literal realm, the other great teacher waxes eloquently on a whole different level.  Born of the Spirit, Jesus says.  As mysteriously as wind that blows, though where it starts and where it stops, who can know?  It’s passages like this that remind us that Jesus was less like a common carpenter and more like a sage among his people. Unlike a regular instructor, he stood his ground in the tradition of great Wisdom teachers.  Gurus they’re called in India.  Shaman’s in indigenous cultures.  Moshels, in the Near East – including in Judaism itself:  ones who teach wisdom for the transformation of the whole human being (The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault, Shambhala, 2008; p. 23).  If we can’t see that, we’ll end up as confused as Nicodemus by Jesus’ words.  We’ve got to be born anew – initiated onto a path that changes us a little bit more each day.  Deepening our trust in God.  Increasing our willingness to follow.  Walking more and more to the Light so that that in us that is contrary to God daily will diminish.

But why, we might be thinking.  Why?  . . .  In what may be one of the most famous verses among Christians, Jesus tells us why – why we do any of it.  John 3:16 part A:  “For God so loved the world.”  And I’m going to stop it there.  Too long the tradition has focused on the latter half of the verse, thinking it the reason why.  Making the promise of some sort of reward here and now and forever yet to be the motivating factor of faith.  Like domesticated pets who perform on command in order to be given a treat; we’ve long lived as if an eternal reward is what Christianity is all about.  When we keep our focus on part A of 3:16, human beings retain dignity while God remains something so much bigger than One doling out eternal treats.  The why of it all is A:  for God so loved the world.

Love is the reason for it all.

As the story goes, it might seem a little ridiculous for love to be the reason for it all.  Why love a world prone to wander?  Why keep covenant with a people who too often turn their backs – and I’m not just talking about all the sinners out there.  Why would God continue to love ones such as us?  Ones settled in our ways and satisfied – kinda – with going through the motions of our days.  Though it’s easier to bring to mind people out there who don’t even seem to be trying, we know ourselves – and all the ways we’re really not that loveable.  Why would God keep on loving the mess which is us?  Another John on another occasion sincerely wrote these words, 1 John 4:7-12:  “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  God’s love was revealed among us in this way:  God sent God’s only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent the Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.”  It goes like this, in the words of the translation of the bible called The Message:  “My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God.  Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God.  The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know God if you don’t love.  This is how God showed love for us:  God sent the Son into the world so we might live through him.  This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once-upon-a-time loved God, but that God loved us and sent the Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.  My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other.  No one has seen God, ever.  But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and God’s love becomes complete in us—perfect love!”

Why we do any of it is LOVE.  Why we love one another – which doesn’t mean turning our cheek to let any old behavior in ourselves or another go.  That’s not love, to be so passively disinterested in all of us living our best lives for God.  We love ourselves, each other, and those beyond the walls of this facility because God loves the world.  Because God is love; therefore, we love as deeply as God loves.  We pack meals for the hungry around the world because God loves every one of us – those who hoard and those hunger.  We gather at a potluck to discover our talents for ministry because God loves for our talents to be used for God’s purposes in this world.  God loves those who will benefit from the ways we use our talents.  We invest ourselves in ministry in this community – with the families who bring their children for Playcare, the people who live beside us in this neighborhood, and those who spend their days in Hillwood-West Meade at work, study, and play because God loves them.  God has called us to be a church for this community because God loves this community.  We are here to enact that love.  We don’t have to do everything – but we do have to do something – the something that enlists our talents to embody God’s love from this place.  We’ll get to the how – we Christians are a savvy people who throughout history have figured it out.  But let us remember every day the why:  the why of all of it:  love.  God’s love.  Abiding love for all the world.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018

Lent Lesson #2: Fiery

A Sermon for 4 March 2018 – 3rd Sunday during Lent

A reading from the gospel of John 2:13-22.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”  17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”  18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”  19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”  21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body.  22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”

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

 

It’s the third Sunday amid the season of Lent.  And how interesting that the gospel reading assigned in the lectionary for today takes us back to the second chapter of the gospel of John.  Right to a story that doubtfully ever will be depicted on a sanctuary stained-glass window!  Seemingly in contrast to the gentle Jesus who carries the little lambs, the story of Jesus entering the Temple to throw over the money-changers is not often told to youngsters.  It appears in all four gospels, which is one way the early church proclaimed to listeners:  now hear ye!  This one MUST be included in any understanding of the Christ!  In the Synoptics of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; the wild-eyed, resolute Jesus cleanses the Temple as one of his last acts in Jerusalem before his arrest and crucifixion.  But in the gospel of John at the outset of his public ministry, the first time we hear of Jesus going up to Jerusalem for the Passover; he’s pouring out coins, throwing over tables, cracking a whip to rid his Father’s house of that which he finds an utter disgrace.

While some point back to this event as the time Jesus got really really mad, righteous anger fuming like smoke from his ears; zeal is the word that is used.  The gospel of John declares that zeal for the LORD’s house consumes him – which is not about anger at all!  Right about now we well-reasoning Presbyterians should be warned.  The gospel’s taking us into the depths of an energy many tend to shy away from:  passion!  That upwelling of energy that moves us into the amazing.  That intensity of emotion that leaves us feeling absolutely alive!  . . .  Webster’s defines zeal as an enthusiastic, intense interest – as in a cause or ideal.  Also known as ardor.  Another unfamiliar attribute today.  Ardor is warmth of emotion, intense heat, red-hot burning passion.  Which by the way is not just about something sexual as seems today’s only acceptable realm for such intensity.  Though truth be told, most in our post-modern culture are misdirected regarding passion in that realm too!

Here in the gospel of John, the story of Christ decidedly begins with passion.  Jesus’ upsurge of intense energy that will not allow the house of God to continue to be desecrated.  It might be helpful to point out a few things about the context of Jesus’ act.  First, it was Passover.  The annual festival when Jesus and his people celebrated freedom from the Pharaoh.  Release from the bonds of Egypt.  When God saw the people miserably enslaved for the benefit of the Pharaoh’s economy, God found Moses.  Ardently consuming a bush that was not burned up, the LORD declared:  “Go to Pharaoh to let my people go!” (Exodus 3).  Passover was the annual institution for a free people to remember and rejoice!  God delivers in order for a liberated people to give great thanks.  In order for a people to be an alternative light to all the nations.  Imagine the affront to such freedom the buying and selling of animals caused.  The exchange of the emperor’s money inside the Temple gates in order for the annual Temple tax to be paid by every Jew of the nation.  Of Jesus and the money-changers, one author writes:  “had the traders been confined to the streets around the Temple, all would have been well.  The (Jewish) Talmud records that a certain Babha Ben Buta had been the first to introduce 3,000 sheep of the flocks of Kedar into the Court of the Gentiles.  His profane example was eagerly followed, until in Jesus’ day the stench and filth of the flocks of penned sheep and oxen filled the air as they were bargained for by the traders and visiting pilgrims.”  Thus, the author continues, “Jesus made a whip of cords and drove them all, including the cattle and sheep, from the Temple area.  To those who sold doves he said:  ‘Get these out of here!  How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!’” (Robert Backhouse, The Kregel Pictorial Guide to the Temple, 1996; p. 22).  What God has made free, let none re-enslave!

It also might be helpful to know the layout of Herod’s massive Temple.  The Second Temple, which was even grander than the First Temple built by King Solomon that ended up destroyed when the people were exiled by the Babylonians.  Nearly six hundred years later, the Second Temple was the expanded spot for God’s people to gather.  Imagine something like a massive medieval cathedral with an exterior wall enclosing 36 acres on “the top of the hill on which the city stood” (Ibid., p. 12).  That’s like four times bigger than the entire building and property of this congregation.  The Temple expansion Herod began in 19 B.C. finally was completed in 64 A.D. – thirty-some years after Jesus’ resurrection and a handful of years before Rome destroyed forever all but a portion of the Western-facing wall.  Around an impressive edifice in the center of the 36 acres, stood a four-and-a-half-foot wall called the Wall of Partition.  At the punishment of death, only Jewish men or women could traverse it.  One author describes what was found inside:  “Passing within the Wall of Partition, a flight of 12 steps led up to an area 9 feet higher, where the Women’s Gate and the Gate of the Pure and Just gave access to a paved court known as the Court of Prayer.  At the end of this court, on a semi-circular raised dais, sacrifices and gifts were brought to be presented to the LORD.  Beyond this was the Court of the Priests, with its great altar of sacrifice and brazen laver for the ceremonial washing of priests.”  The description includes that:  “The porch led into the Sanctuary itself, compromising the Holy Place and the Holiest Place.  Inside the Holy Place stood the seven-branched golden lampstand, the table of showbread, and the altar of incense.  The Holiest Place was about 30 feet square and 60 feet high and was separated from the Holy Place by a great curtain” (Ibid.).  Outside these inner sanctums, sprawled a massive courtyard all the way to the edge of the 36th acre with a thousand-foot in length Temple wall.  People from around the world were allowed to be in that part of the Temple in order to make their own prayers to the LORD.  It was there, in that massive Court of the Gentiles, where anyone from anywhere might have been able to pray – if not for the ruckus that had become the buying and selling of all things needed for a proper Passover sacrifice.

The gospel of John records the scene in the Court of the Gentiles as that which stoked the fervor of Jesus.  The place of prayer for all had become nothing better than a street-fair circus (with lots and lots of animals).  The site alone bursts the gates of Jesus’ guts so that a fiery furnace flares.  It’s easy to understand how this scene gets pegged as anger – as an enraged inferno ablaze among bleating sheep, wrestling cattle, and flapping doves.  Passion may be so unfamiliar to us that we cannot tell the difference between one who is in a rage and one who is utterly inspired.  Zeal puts us among the latter as a force far stronger.  Think of the one so on fire for a cause that nothing can stop them.  The one whose body and soul has come fully alive as passion courses like racing blood through every cell of their system.  Passion is less like out-of-control rage and more like on top of the world vigor.  Like the greening that returns to spring grass.  The zest that gets one moving – despite any obstacles.  I’m pretty sure it’s known in Jewish circles as hutzpah – gusto.  The bold audacity to get up to try again and again and again.

This is the energy recorded in the gospel of John as the surge of life that engulfs Christ’s body at the beginning of his public ministry.  Passion:  the fiery voice of One living fully alive among us that we might too!  . . .  Imagine the body of Christ today being infused with such zeal.  Coming alive to ensure justice for all to have enough.  Space for all to heal.  Welcome of any excluded.  Peace in every heart and home.  Whatever it is that alights our spirits as our deepest concern meets the world’s deepest need.  Then at last we will know the kernel of Christ’s intense energy.  The essence of his fiery fierce passion:  not anger.  But love.  Love.  Love enacted for all the world to see.  May his body today surge with this same zeal!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

Theophany: Encountering God

A Sermon for 11 February 2018 – Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Mark 9:2-9.  Listen for God’s word to us as we hear this gospel’s account of the transfiguration of Christ.

“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.  And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.  Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.  Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.  As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

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

 

Scripture is filled with theophanies.  Appearances of the Divine when it’s best to take notice.  Just three chapters into the history of the people in Egypt, the man Moses is tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro.  He goes out beyond the wilderness to the mountain of Horeb, known as God’s, with the presence of mind to turn aside when a bush was on fire but not consumed.  There God appears to Moses.  In the great theophany, Moses encounters God.  His life’s work is re-directed, as he learns the very name of the Divine:  Yahweh, I will be what I will be!  (Exodus 3:1-15)

When at last Moses leads the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, another great theophany takes place.  This time Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire.  The mountain shook like a volcano waiting to erupt when God called Moses to ascend.  The LORD gave command after command, as the terrified people waiting below begged for mercy.  They could not tolerate the tumultuous event directly.  “Stand in our stead,” they told Moses, “lest we encounter God and die” (Exodus 20:18-21).  The theophany – the appearance of the Divine – scared them so.

Isaiah records a similar awe-provoking event.  When he saw the pivots of the temple shaking.  The throne of the LORD filled with the Presence as seraphs rejoiced:  “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!  The whole earth is full of God’s glory!” (Isaiah 6:3).  And before that, again at Horeb.  When the prophet Elijah is worn out from fighting the prophets of the idol Baal who had been welcomed by the wicked queen Jezebel.  Elijah flees for the wilderness only to find himself fed that he might prepare himself to stand outside the entrance of the cave.  The winds rush.  The earth quakes.  A fire blazes.  At last sheer silence prevails from which the Voice queries:  “what are you doing here Elijah?”  The theophany instructs, until restored; Elijah returns to his post  (1 Kings 19:1-18).

Three of the four gospels of the New Testament record the theophany read of today.  Second Peter 1:16-18 refers to it as well.  Six days after Jesus has begun to teach his disciples that the Way he’s on leads to death before resurrection, the gospel of Mark records Jesus taking Peter, James, and John with him up a high mountain.  What they see stands in the long line of biblical theophanies.  Appearances of the Divine that instruct even as they demand.  In Mark’s gospel the experience is pretty straight forward, of course – as little detail as possible for this gospel’s rush to record the whole story.  Like Moses on Sinai for the commandments, a thick cloud overtakes them all.  The Voice proclaims:  “this is my Son, the Beloved.  Listen to him! – exclamation point, meaning:  emphasis intentionally added.  To be sure they don’t challenge Jesus on his teaching again.  And like that, the flash is gone.  Theophany over so that Peter, James, and John can spend the rest of their lives seeking to make sense of just what they saw.

Yes, scripture is filled with theophanies.  Times when the Divine is seen.  It’s a wonder we don’t talk about them more.  The times in our lives when God appears.  When we know deep inside that the ground on which we stand indeed is holy.  The Presence has slipped into our midst – rather we have slipped into the awareness of the One who is ever-present.  As English mystic Evelyn Underhill says:  God always is coming to us in the Sacrament of the present moment.  Carl Jung put it simply:  Summoned or not God is present.  In An Altar in the World – a book that would be a wonderful read during the upcoming season of Lent – Barbara Brown Taylor writes:  “People seem willing to look all over the place for this treasure (the treasure that is connection with God).  They will spend hours launching prayers into the heavens.  They will travel halfway around the world to visit a monastery in India or to take part in a mission trip to Belize.  The last place most people look is right under their feet, in the everyday activities, accidents, and encounters of their lives.”  She continues:  “the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it.  . . .  The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are” (2009, p. xiv-xv).

Perhaps with our consent to be where we are, opportunities will arise for us to be enveloped by God’s Presence – even if for a mere second.  We talked about it at the most recent Renewal Team meeting.  Because whether or not the tradition has emphasized the importance of Divine encounter, the great mystics of the faith long have known.  Encounter with God is what truly matters.  Connection, as one philosopher has written, with “something greater than the self – something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding” (Paul Woodruff as quoted by Rev. Cathlynn Law, 20 Sept. 2015 at http://ucup.org/multimedia-archive/the-practice-of-paying-attention-sermon-series-on-altar-in-the-world-by-barbara-brown-taylor/).  It’s what the whole spiritual but not religious movement is all about.  Encountering the Divine who appears everywhere – not just in the ritual of Sunday morning worship in a sanctuary.  But, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes:  right under our feet – in things like “a trip to the grocery store . . . (or) something as common as a toothache” (An Altar in the World, p. xiv).

Perhaps God is met in various ways and places – because God’s people have been created for such connection.  “Having hearts that are restless until they rest in You,” Saint Augustine of the Fourth century professed.  No one way fits us all and no one way can sustain us all throughout all the days of our lives.  Thankfully, there are seven classic ways of encountering the Divine.  It’s best we try them all:  ritual – hence the heavy emphasis on worship, nature, art, community – which is why we Presbyterians love such times of fellowship like potluck dinners, dreams, the body, and one that life ensures we’ve got down pat:  suffering.  Ritual, nature, art, community, dreams, the body, and suffering all are ways to open our eyes to the Divine in whose Presence we are saturated – like fish that happily live in water, but whose Presence we so seldom glimpse – like fish in the water who no longer recognize that in which they swim.

We call the liturgical feast celebrated today Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday.  And long have we focused on what was going on with Jesus.  When we step into the shoes of those first disciples gathered around, to see as they might have seen; we begin to notice the theophany – the appearance of the Divine come to instruct, even as it confounds.  To connect with our restless hearts that thirst for something More.  To remember that encounter happens on mountain tops, deserts, and banks of rivers.  In dreams of the night and visions of the day.  In the process of creating and the pain housed in our bodies.  In what happens between people in community and what happens in the quiet recesses of our own hearts.  In the acts we do with intention together in here as we reach beyond ourselves for the Divine.  And in the places we walk out there as we live and move and have our being in the world.

In a few days we will enter the season of Lent.  Forty days for intentional practices that become the portal through which God appears.  We’re invited to remember the wisdom of the mystics as we choose how we’ll inhabit this Lent.  Looking for God to appear, open to theophanies of the Divine in ritual, nature, art, community, dreams, the body, and suffering.  God waits to be encountered afresh – where we haven’t yet dared to tread.  . . .  Every moment offers the opportunity to see the God who is Present.  To give thanks for the Divine who appears.  This year, may we observe a holy Lent paying attention to the God all around.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

What Jesus Sees

A Sermon for 4 February 2018

A reading from the gospel of Mark 1:29-39.  Listen for God’s word to us as we continue to hear of the first day of Jesus’ public ministry, as told by the gospel of Mark.  Listen:

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.  30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.  31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.  Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.  32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.  33 And the whole city was gathered around the door.  34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.  35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.  36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”  39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.”

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

 

Do you wonder what Jesus saw?  As he walked the few feet on the Sabbath from the synagogue in Capernaum to Simon Peter’s prominent house next door, what did his eyes behold?  . . .  I’ve been to the remains of Capernaum –along the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  I’ve walked through the gate of what once was considered the city at the crossroads of the world – with routes in Jesus’ day leading from Capernaum to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and beyond.  There, in a once thriving, wealthy Jewish city; it is believed those of many faiths at least were encountered, if not found living side-by-side industriously beside the sea.  It also is believed that Jesus made Peter’s house in Capernaum his home-base during much of his public ministry.  Located right between the synagogue and the seashore – just a stone’s throw from each; when needed, Jesus took up residence there with Peter and the others.  Whether he already knew the family before calling Simon and Andrew to follow; Jesus is welcomed to make their home his own.  Which might explain why Jesus did many miraculous things in Capernaum – more than most anywhere else in the land.  The gospels record that in Capernaum Jesus “healed Peter’s wife’s mother of a fever, brought a child back to life, cured a leper, healed the centurion’s servant, ‘cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick’ (Mt. 8:16) [The Holy Land:  the Land of Jesus, Palphot-Printed in Israel, pp. 37-38].

On that first Sabbath day according to the gospel of Mark, after teaching with astounding authority in the synagogue, then casting a destructive spirit from a man; Peter takes Jesus and the gang back home for Sabbath brunch.  What they find as they enter is of distress.  Instead of pre-prepared Sabbath preparations, the woman of the house is ill.  Likely the eldest female of the family – with defined Sabbath roles to fulfill, Peter’s mother-in-law lies fevered in the bed.  The gospel records that at once, they told Jesus about her.  He must have seen the deep concern on their faces.  The helpless glimmer in their eyes.  That pleading catch in their voices – perhaps a hint of heighted anticipation; for the One who just has entered their home proved his gifts minutes before at the synagogue.

We don’t know much about the woman in the bed.  Connected through marriage with the celebrated Apostle Peter, history never tells her name.  As if just a mother-in-law no one really sees.  Her story nearly is lost between the other events of that day.  . . .  Perhaps it would be of benefit to imagine what Jesus saw.  When they took him to her bed, surely, he beheld a wonderful, wizened woman.  An elder saintly Granma, who scooped children up on her knee telling tales of the ancestors of old.  This was the woman who had prepared her daughter to be Simon Peter’ wife.  The one who assisted when time came for motherhood.  She knew how to work the little plot of land on the family compound and kept the fires tended for preparing the family’s meals.  Even taught the wee ones the prayers their families had been saying for years.  Here was the woman – a gritty Jewish grandmother, who was not about to let herself get pushed around.  I suspect Jesus stood at the bed of a woman who was a mighty contender – one who would not have it for a little fever to take her down.

You might think the description stems from an overly active imagination.  But we know that’s just not so.  The Greek of the gospel gives the clue.  For when Jesus took her well-worn hand, he lifted her up.  With the very same word the gospel will use 15 chapters later when three other women go to visit a tomb, only to find the crucified one had been lifted up.  Foreshadowing the day when Jesus will do likewise, Peter’s mother-in-law is raised by Christ himself to new, restored life.  . . .  What’s more, this foretaste of the resurrection takes place on the Sabbath.  The day set aside by the ancient commands for God’s people to follow God’s lead.  To complete the work of six days by resting to look with joy on it all.  To stop in order to consider the goodness of it all and delight in the abundant diversity of what grew.  Thus, God blessed the seventh day, making it holy, setting it apart.  . . .  It was clear:  service was NOT to take place on Sabbath.  Rituals of gratitude, restoration, thanks.  All that is a part of Sabbath.  Anything akin to work is not.  Lest one forgot their place alongside the whole creation.  Another marvelous making of the Sovereign of the Universe – beloved of, but NOT God.

Nonetheless, with one little word, we learn that the wise ole’ momma Jesus lifts up, gets up.  And, without hesitation, she begins to serve.  Clue number two and three:  on the SABBATH, Peter’s mother-in-law immediately takes on a ministry the Twelve later will fight not to embrace when they quarrel about which one of them is the greatest (Mark 9:35).  The restored woman becomes Christ’s first deacon – at least according to the Greek used in the text.  “A servant of the church gathered in her son-in-law’s house” (Ofelia Ortega, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, p. 334).  As one commentator writes, “Service is a key topic in the call and pursuit of Jesus.  This woman gets up and turns the Sabbath into a paschal day of service to others.  Jesus does not command her.  She is the one that assumes the initiative and awaits the consequences, discovering the value of mutual service above the sacredness of the Sabbath.  . . .  This woman is Jesus’ first servant and joins him in the radical announcement, in action, of the kingdom of God” (Ibid.).  Wow!  What a woman – returned to wholeness, she is ready to give of herself like Christ, in service to those gathered round.

That’s what Jesus sees.  Likely why he lifted her up in the first place.  For when he looks at us, he sees us restored.  Whole again.  Able to be in service for the kingdom he has announced in our midst.

It’s the point of salvation – Christ’s work of healing in our lives.  Many of us have been steeped in the paradigm of punishment for sin.  It’s been drilled into our heads that we’ve done something wrong as individuals, and as a collective; and for that we deserve to be punished.  We neglect other views of Christianity found throughout scripture around Jesus’ ministry of healing.  His work to restore wholeness.  . . .  Since the time of Job’s friends, who did everything in their power to convince Job that God’s punishment for sin was the source of all that ailed him, the people of God long have wondered what to do with illness.  Jesus takes up a ministry of healing as a way to return wholeness.  He sees the brokenness that comes in body, mind, and spirit from daily life in this world.  But that’s not all he sees.  As the hands and feet of God on earth, Christ sees us lifted up.  He reclaims the health in us that somehow gets broken.  Embracing his vision of us as whole – here and now, and in full some day after death – we too can step into new life.  We can nurture the Life Force in us with care and sensitivity and vigilance so that the spirit of God within can animate us for service in Christ’s name.  We can look in the mirror to see what Jesus sees:  citizens of the kingdom in which joy and peace and love reign.  Whole again, we can get up.  And without hesitation, we can serve in Christ’s name.

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018 (All rights reserved.)

The Urgent Mission

A Sermon for 28 January 2018

A reading from the gospel of Mark 1:14-28.  Listen for God’s word to us as we hear how this gospel begins Jesus’ public ministry.

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”   16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.  17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.  19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.  20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.   21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.  22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.  23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”  26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.  27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this?  A new teaching—with authority!  He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”  28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.”

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

 

And he’s off!  That’s how the gospel of Mark begins!  I said last week that John’s gospel begins with signs of the wonderful abundant life God offers.  Well, Mark’s gospel seems more like a 100-yard dash for the Olympic gold!  No sooner is Jesus baptized in the waters of the Jordan, than he’s driven into the wilderness by the Spirit.  Undergoing his own forty-day transformation in the wild, Jesus shows up in Galilee with a message.  “The time is fulfilled,” he proclaims.  “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).  Like Matthew, this is the gospel in which we have Jesus picking up his first disciples as he walked alongside the sea.  Immediate.  Immediate.  Immediate.  Words are heard.  Nets are dropped.  Lives are changed.  Even unclean spirits take their leave as Jesus goes into the synagogue at Capernaum to teach on the sabbath.  Without a moment to waste, now that time’s fulfilled; the writer of Mark even keeps from weighing down the story with a lot of details.  Lives are at stake.  The time for transformation has come.

We know a thing or two about hurry, thanks to our culture today.  Everywhere we look, we’re enticed to believe gratification should come instantly.  “Now, now, now” life taunts like a two-year-old toddler that will not be denied.  We want food fast.  Instant credit.  And access to whatever anyone is thinking right away!  . . .  Only, immediate doesn’t prevail in the gospel of Mark because Jesus is impatient.  Or even because readers have shorter attention spans than most do today.  One commentator writes that “Mark begins like an alarm clock, persistently declaring the time and demanding some response” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 1; Ted A. Smith, p. 285).  The urgency in the gospel of Mark’s telling of Jesus’ story is for the purpose of change.  Repentance – now.  Turn from however else our lives might be wasted.  Turn to the ways of God’s kingdom today!

As portrayed in the gospel of Mark, it seems that Jesus understood that change requires urgency.  Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter, whose ideas on leading change regularly hit international bestseller lists; writes that “At the very beginning of an effort to make changes of any magnitude, if a sense of urgency is not high enough and complacency is not low enough, everything else becomes much more difficult” (Leading Change, John P. Kotter, chapter 3).  It’s inertia.  Newton’s laws of motion, that a body at rest tends to stay at rest.  And a body in motion, well:  watch out!  Urgency produces productivity, every great manager knows.  Once a body gets going, there’s no stopping it.  Be it in business.  At the gym after weeks of holiday feasting.  Or on the sabbath in the synagogue.  Change – the kinds of transformed lives Jesus seeks to create – requires a sense of now!  Get going today!  Why wait until tomorrow to begin living the ways of the new life?  . . .  Jesus’ first public words, according to the gospel of Mark indicate:  “the time has come!”  A major shift has taken place.  It’s time to get on board now!

It’s the difference between living lives that simply go through the motions and letting go of the routine to be open to whatever comes.  While there most certainly had to be those in Jesus’ ministry who were satisfied with the status quo of their lives, we don’t hear much of them.  O, we know of the rich young man of Mark chapter 10.  Remember him?  He wants to know how to gain life.  Only to be told to give what he has away so he might be able to follow freely. The gospel records:  “Walking away grieving.”  The young man’s complacency was too high.  His creature comforts too cherished to heed the call.  . . .  Contrast him with those men fishing the Sea of Galilee.  They had to let it all go too to follow.  To gain the new life of being a disciple of Christ.  Complacency low, they willingly left.  Ready to find new purpose in the daily cast for people.

I read a story once – years ago – about how Spirit works.  I think it was in one of my all-time favorite daily devotional books by Sarah Ban Breathnach.  It’s about the flash of insight.  The great idea that comes.  Only we have several excellent excuses why this just cannot be the path for us.  We second-guess.  And worry.  Wondering what everyone else might think.  We calculate if it really could work until, too settled in how it already is, we allow the moment to pass.  It’s said that Spirit weeps.  But does not rest.  For if we refuse Spirit’s inspiration, Spirit will move on, looking for the one who senses the importance of the opportunity.  The urgency of the call.  Searching the world to find who indeed will bring the seed into full-grown, abundant fruit.  . . .  “Execute or nothing,” an article on the Sense of Urgency reads.  “When you create a vision and cook up good ideas,” the article states, “you are left with two choices:  execution or nothing.”  It goes on to explain that “if you choose to execute, you will be forced to invest your own money with no guaranteed returns, work without pay, and worst of all, sacrifice time spent with family and friends.  However, you also will gain something that many people never find in their lifetime:  purpose.  Purpose . . . that makes you want to wake up in the mornings not because you have to, but rather because you have a purpose to carry out.  It’s . . . what fuels your dreams and empowers you to do better daily” (https://www.secretentourage.come/motivation/creating-a-sense-of-urgency/).

Maybe Jesus invited a hundred other men before those four at the Sea said yes.  The point is, this One from Nazareth knows the fulcrum has tipped.  The time has begun for his ministry of transforming lives for God.  As is recorded in the gospel of Luke, the prophets’ words have been fulfilled:  that the Spirit of the LORD God rests in him.  He has been anointed to bring good news to the poor.  Release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.  To let the oppressed go free.  To proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor (paraphrase of Luke 4:18-19).  . . .  Lives are at stake.  Jesus knows.  He senses the urgency.  He calls his church still, to do something about it now.  Not because we sense the urgency of our own survival.  After all, in word and deed; this One taught not self-preservation but self-emptying – the only way that leads to Life.  This One willingly, urgently gave of himself for the world; for he knows the need.  He sensed it in the hearts of ones wearily at work along the water.  He noticed it in the faces of wondering synagogue-listeners.  He sees it through our eyes everywhere we go today.  The time to do something about it – is now!

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

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

God’s Abundance

A Sermon for 21 January 2018 

A reading from the gospel of John 2:1-11.  Listen for God’s word to us as we hear of the gospel of John’s recording of Jesus’ first act upon his mission.

“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!

 

I heard an incredible dream recently.  The main symbol in it was a table.  Now this wasn’t just an ordinary dining room table.  It was the largest buffet table one ever could imagine!  At least twelve feet wide and two or more lengths of this sanctuary long!  It was immense!  On it was every food conceivable.  All the delicacies to enjoy:  delicious-looking pastries, bountiful fruit, casseroles that smelled wonderful, and vegetable dishes that would make your mouth water just looking at them.  All this, in just the first few feet of the bountiful table which was centered in the middle of an elegant, open-air balcony where people of all kinds joyfully were milling about.  The occasion was Easter brunch.  The mood was festive.  Laughter and excitement and hope filled the air.  Families were all together.  Friends were enjoying the merriment of each other’s company.  Everyone had a spot somewhere at the sophisticated banquet.  In a word it was the picture of abundance!  Such an incredible dream!

We’re not sure what the room looked like in Cana of Galilee.  Though I’ve been to the church sanctuary erected over the spot believed to be the site, where the first sign of Jesus’ public ministry took place – at least according to the gospel of John.  We’re not even sure if the wedding reception was in a room or outside somewhere in the open-air on the land surrounding the bridegroom’s home.  What we do know is that after inviting a few men near Bethany to come and see, Jesus set out for the region of his home in Galilee.  Cana was a few miles northeast of Nazareth and it seemed Jesus’ family was present at the event.  . . .  The writer of John’s gospel makes some interesting decisions in telling the story of the One met in Jesus, the Christ.  From the start, reference is made to resurrection:  “On the third day,” chapter two begins in the gospel’s launch into Jesus’ public ministry.  Every reader of the gospel knows what else took place on the third day.  From the start, we’re supposed to hear the story of Jesus with resurrection in mind.  The whole point of this gospel is to embrace the gift of God’s promise.  The surprise of the Light that shines despite the darkness.  To welcome “What has come to being in him,” as John 1:4 states:  “Life!”  God’s promise for all: never-ending, abundant Life!

Interesting too, this gospel begins Jesus’ public ministry at a wedding.  Jesus and his first followers have been invited to a party:  a celebration to honor covenants made.  We’re again supposed to catch the deeper meaning of the ministry of the embodied Word beginning thus.  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.  . . .  The metaphor has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with union.  The coming together of opposites to create a third.  Divine and human melding into one.  As is happening in the Word becoming flesh to dwell among us.  The Transcendent mingling with the stuff of Earth that both become something holy.  Something cherished.  Something new.  Indeed, a wedding in Cana is the perfect place for the embodied Word to begin revealing his glory.

Whether Jesus is goading his mother when she comes with the concern that the wine has run out, or if he’s not yet aware of his time; one thing is for sure.  Mother Mary knows the One who is present at the party.  After all, he grew in her very own womb.  She knows the Bridegroom, the true Host, has arrived.  The One who will attend to the needs of the guests.  For it was what he was born to do.  . . .  At her prodding, Jesus takes up his mother’s ministry of hospitality in signs that reveal the abundant goodness of the true Host.  The water becomes the very best wine – and an infinite amount at that.  Anywhere from 120-180 gallons of the finest wine anyone ever could imagine!  At last the prophesy of Isaiah is fulfilled that promised:  “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 is upon the people.  A boundless sign shows it to be true.  . . .  Isn’t it beautiful?  Here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, as the story is told according to the gospel of John, we see the abundance of God.  Something like a bountiful table.  A never-ending cup.  Streams of mercy that overflow for all the world!

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).  . . .  Too many have been made to think it’s all about rigid rules, and buzz-kill sacrifices, and hiding any sense of enjoyment lest God or anyone else might be watching!  But that’s more like John the Baptist-kinda of faith, than Christ’s Cana-kind of grace.  As see in the One who stands as the sign that heaven and earth – Spirit and flesh have been wed.  The time for profuse joy and peace and hope has begun and is expected in us because of the bountiful nature of God!  The gracious invitation to the never-ending celebration from the true Host, who dreams for our lives to be as extravagantly generous as God.  As filled with eternal merriment thanks to the gift of everlasting, abundant life!

Brothers and sisters of Christ, as Cana teaches:  the abundant grace of God is here!  Let the party begin!

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

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