We Need to Talk about Race…

January 31, 2016 Leave a comment

Epiphany 4, Year C.
Texts: Jer 1.4-10; 1 Cor 13.1-13; Lk 4.21-30

Barbara Brown Taylor shares the story of a weekend retreat where the opening exercise was to tell a story about someone who had been Christ for you, in your life.  After some reflection, one person shared about a friend who had stayed with them through a long illness when all their other friends deserted her.  Another spoke of a neighbor who took the place of an absent father.  Story after story was shared, of compassion and warmth and caring, and everything seemed so cozy and comfortable, until this one woman stood up and said, “Well, the first thing I thought about when I tried to think who had been Christ to me was, ‘Who in my life has told me the truth so clearly that I wanted to kill him for it?”  (Home by Another Way, p. 42f) Read more…

Heaven is Waiting Tables

January 17, 2016 Leave a comment

Epiphany 2, Year C.
Texts: Isa 62.1-5; 1 Cor 12.1-11; Jn 2.1-11

Today we read about the first of seven actions Jesus performs in John’s gospel. We often refer to these actions as “miracles,” but John calls them “signs.” Whereas the word “miracle” seems to indicate something supernatural, the word “sign” simply means that it is something real that points to something else real. It’s different from a symbol, which merely represents something. In this case, John relates the story of a wedding and uses it to point us toward a deeper, greater story about who Jesus is and how his work relates to God’s reign. The question of whether this wedding actually happened or whether actually transformed water into wine is far less interesting than the question of where this story is pointing us.

This wedding reception is obviously a party, a celebration. In ancient Judaism, while drunkenness was frowned upon, drinking was a joyful activity. The prophets frequently used this image of joyful revelry to describe what God’s reign will be like. Isaiah (25.6) describes how the LORD will make a feast for all peoples, set with rich food and well-aged wines. Amos (9.13) imagines the Day of the LORD as a time of abundance, when the mountains and hills will flow with wine. Joel (3.18) also paints this picture, of mountains dripping with wine until it fills all the stream beds. So, from way back, the fulfillment of God’s reign looks like a time with enough wine to keep the party going literally forever.

Then we find ourselves at a party in Cana. Cana is a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere—a backwater within a backwater. It probably makes Nazareth look like a metropolis. The bridegroom’s friends are supposed to provide the wine for the reception, but they must also be from Cana, because what little they can scrape together isn’t enough even to last the night, let alone the customary seven-day celebration. It’s not hard to imagine that whenever little Cana did have a wedding, they probably all ended like this.

This time, however Jesus intervenes and they end up with 180 gallons of wine—that’s the equivalent of about 900 bottles. 900 bottles. For a tiny wedding in a tiny town like Cana. That’s enough wine for the party to last a very, very, very long time. And on top of that, this is—in Jesus’ own words—before his hour has even come.

John is painting a picture for us with this story. Perhaps more accurately, he’s reminding us of pictures we’ve already seen, the pictures painted by Isaiah and Amos and Joel, for a start, perhaps others like the picture painted by John of Patmos of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19). John wants us to see that, before his hour has even come, Jesus is bringing God’s reign to life around him. The beginning of his work—the very first thing he does—is to embody the abundance of that reign and point to the greater abundance yet to come.

When you think about what heaven will be like, what comes to mind? We are usually told that it is a beautiful place, full of joy and happiness. All the ice cream we can eat, all the beautiful art we could ever look at. That abundance is still for us a characteristic of how we imagine God’s reign. There is plenty of everything, including happiness.

What I find fascinating as I read this text is how it fits together with our cultural attitudes. We are a society of consumers. Everything around us tells us that we deserve the best and should settle for nothing less. If your mechanic charges too much, try another one. If the produce at your grocery store is not fresh enough, complain to the management. If your waiter gives you poor service, don’t leave a good tip. This isn’t a bad thing, but I think that it helps us feel entitled. When we find ourselves in heaven, we naturally expect that we will be the ones sipping margaritas on the beach, we will be the ones eating at the feast that never ends, we will be the ones in the banquet hall drinking our fill of the best wine.

This is also true with churches. Most of us are here because we get something out of it. That’s great! I hope we all get something out of being here. However, our consumer-brains tell us that we are getting something out of church if there are youth programs for our kids and small groups and bible studies for us, if they play the music we like during worship and the sermons make us leave feeling uplifted or challenged or enlightened, or even if the people are nice to us. These are all good things, but if that’s all we are looking for, are we missing something?

Notice what the story says. Of all the people at the wedding, nobody knew what had happened. The guests probably didn’t even notice there was a problem; the head steward tasted the wine, but had no idea where it came from. The only people who knew the whole story were the servants. That detail—an afterthought in parentheses—makes this story what it is. Of everybody there, only the servants can truly appreciate what has happened. Only the servants—the waiters, the janitors, the bussers, the jar-carriers—are in a position to see Jesus’ power at work. What if instead of aspiring to be the ones at the tables, John is suggesting where we really want to be is hauling the water jugs?

Konstantin Makovsky – “Wedding Feast”

When the Church is at its best, it is training us to be servants. When we gather here, we read stories about Jesus and the things he does for people. He heals people of their blindness and casts out their demons. He touches lepers and blesses children. He shows up to a wedding as a guest and ends up supplying all the wine. He washes his disciples’ feet, and then tells them (and us) to do likewise. This is our role model.

Ever wonder why Jesus is so big on this service thing? I just listened to an interview with Ray Liotta on Fresh Air. He was adopted as an infant. He said he can remember as a small child feeling frustrated with his Saturday chores and saying to his parents, “The only reason why you adopted us was to do all this work.” It might seem sometimes that the only reason God adopts us is to “do all this work,” like we’re minions of the Almighty, or something. But I think that the real answer is deeper.

When we think about abundance, we focus on the wine. In this story, the wine is the sign that shows us the abundance Jesus gives and the abundance of God’s kingdom; but I think real abundance the story is pointing to is different. I think the real abundance is found in that little, half-forgotten, mostly overlooked parenthetical afterthought, the part that says, “The servants knew where the wine had come from.”

I think that if someone were to search for conclusive proof of the existence of God, the only hope of finding it would be through service. People talk about searching for God in things like rainbows or sunsets or the smiles of babies, but unless you already have a sense of God, finding God in those places is as likely as finding God in the stench of a homeless person passed out on the sidewalk or in the vitriol of a political campaign advertisement.

The servants, however, are the people in the position to see both God and the abundance God gives. God’s glory was revealed to the widow who shared the last of her oil and flour with Elijah; to the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair; to the people hauling the water jugs. God’s glory was revealed through the Son of God who lived his entire life in service.

Through service, we place ourselves alongside Christ—God who came among us—and we open ourselves to the experience of God’s glory. And when we experience it, the abundance of God overwhelms us—it 900 bottles overwhelms us. That experience of God is so abundant that we see God’s presence not only the sunset, but also in the stench of the homeless person. This is the reason Christ trains us to be servants through the Church, the reason he feeds us with his body and blood at this table, so that we might become like him.

In baptism, we have been adopted by God to do all this work, not because God is demanding or lazy, but because God is generous: only as servants do we have the hope of experiencing firsthand the abundance God brings. I am reminded of a poem by the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. He writes: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

As Christians, it is worthwhile for us to ask ourselves: What if, when God’s reign is established, instead of sitting in the banquet hall drinking the wine, we will be the ones waiting tables? What if this is the really, truly good news?

Singing in Exile

January 3, 2016 Leave a comment

Christmas 2, Year C.
Texts: Jer 31.7-14; Eph 1.3-14; Jn 1.1-18

The scene described in Jeremiah is a most appropriate one for Christmas. Christmas is supposed to be a season of joy and happiness, of celebration of what God has done. The song of God’s people, the image of God leading them back home from exile, that is the image of Christmas: God has acted, and God’s people rejoice because God’s action has made everything right.

Sadly, even as we celebrate Christmas, we know that all is not right with the world. Christ has been born, but in the thousands of years that have passed since that first night in the manger, the world has continued to endure war and famine, the oppression of the weak and the triumph of the strong. Even our Christmas celebrations sometimes seem to belie the joy they are supposed to bring us. Time spent with family can be upsetting and draining instead of loving and satisfying. Holidays remind us as much of the people who are not here to share them with us as they do the people with whom we do gather. Once the tinsel has been cleaned up, the lights have been taken down, and the wrapping paper has been recycled we may be left wondering if Christmas has changed anything. Read more…

Beyond the Sentimentality of Christmas

December 25, 2015 Leave a comment

Christmas Day, Year C.
Texts: Isa 52.7-10; Heb 1.1-4; Jn 1.1-18; (Lk 2.1-20)

These words from John have no shepherds, no angels, no magi from the east, and yet they evoke in us the same warm feelings that we get from Luke’s and Matthew’s stories because these old familiar words recount for us what we know to be true: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. These words are sentimental and spiritual, reminding us of all the times we have heard them, and all that they have meant to us, not unlike Christmas itself. Whatever else Christmas is, it is a time of year that is strongly tied to our memories—both painful and pleasant—our families, and our traditions. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why we await it with such eagerness.

However, as we gather this Christmas morning, we know that when we wish each other “Merry Christmas,” we are wishing for so much more than just the nostalgia and the sentimentality and the sense of brotherhood among women and men everywhere. The Christmas about which we read in the Bible is not just a celebration of one baby’s birth or a season of warm thoughts and warm hearts; the Christmas about which the evangelists write is a brimming societal and political revolution. Read more…

December 23 – O Emmanuel

December 23, 2015 Leave a comment

O Emmanuel (God-with-us)

LATIN: O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos Domine Deus noster.   (Listen here)
ENGLISH: O Emmanuel, God with us, our King and lawgiver, the expected of the nations and their Savior: come to save us, O Lord our God.

emmanuelO God-With-Us, O Divine Incarnate,
O rightful Ruler and legitimate Law-Giver,
the world cries out for your vitalizing touch.
The Earth which you have formed
bleeds and dies
awaiting your salvation.
Nation strives against nation,
people against people,
creed against creed.
Your faithful people languish
with your Name on our lips.

You created us,
yet you are a stranger among us.
Even we who bear your name
barely seem to know you.
Rule over us, O Righteous God!
Come, O Long-Expected and Anxiously-Awaited!
Save us, our Lord and our God!
Stir up your power, Lord Christ,
and COME!

 

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” vs 1, 8

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Refrain
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.

Categories: advent, serial sermon

December 22 – O Rex Gentium

December 22, 2015 Leave a comment

O Rex Gentium (King of the Nations)

LATIN: O Rex gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.   (Listen here)
ENGLISH:O King of the gentiles and their desired One, the cornerstone that makes both one: come, and deliver man, whom you formed out of the dust of the earth.

kingO King of the Nations! O Ruler of the Earth!
You are our Sovereign; for your righteousness we thirst!
Our kind you formed from the dust of the earth—
Adam from adamah,
humans from humus.

You created your people,
bricks of baked clay.
You are our cornerstone—
it is your strength and steadfastness
that give us form and function.
You join us into one:
one structure, one purpose,
one holy house for the kingdom of God.

Once you knelt to form a figure in the mud;
kneel once again and lay your hands upon us!
Form your people
fragmented and flawed
into one holy nation,
one republic of righteousness.
Marshal the peoples of the earth
with the clarion call of your trumpet!

Come, O Cornerstone our King!
Come and rule over us!
Without your strength,
we are nothing—
a pile of bricks
a puddle of mud.
You have made us alive;
Come and make us one!
Save us, O God!

 

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” vs 7

O come, O King of nations, come,
O Cornerstone that binds in one:
refresh the hearts that long for you;
restore the broken, make us new.

Refrain
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.

Categories: advent, serial sermon

December 21 – O Oriens

December 21, 2015 Leave a comment

O Oriens (Rising Dawn, Dayspring)

LATIN: O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol iustitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis.   (Listen here)
ENGLISH: O dawn of the east, brightness of light eternal, and sun of justice: come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

dayspringO Blest Dayspring, Light of Light Eternal!
The sun and moon,
the stars of the heavens
pale in comparison to you;
supernovae and Stellae Regiae
are swallowed up within your glory.

Your light dispels the deepest darkness,
your rays penetrate to the blackest depths.
Justice outshines oppression,
peace overcomes might,
love blots out hate,
trust envelops fear.
Even the darkest corners of the
human heart
do not remain untouched by your healing light.

Cut, O Life-Ray,
cut through the shroud that veils us.
Illuminate us
that we may see.
Come, O Star of Justice,
and drive away the shadow of death!

 

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” vs 6

O come, O Dayspring, come and cheer;
O Sun of justice, now draw near.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadow put to flight.

Refrain
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.

Categories: advent, serial sermon
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