Sunday, October 31, 2010

First Sermon at the New Parish

Downtown Deacon has moved to a large parish in a college town. Here is her first sermon preached today at that church.

October 31, 2010

Pentecost 23C, Proper 26

Isaiah 1:10-18

Psalm 32:1-8

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Luke 19:1-10

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Most mornings I wake up to music from WXXX. If the music playing at 6:30 is a Bach cantata or something by Vivaldi, chances are I’ll wake up pretty happily. But if the music playing at 6:30 happens to be a Sousa march or something with clanging cymbals, I’ll feel like I was rudely awakened. Maybe YOU weren’t quite awake when you arrived here this morning. Maybe you were hoping for some soothing words from the readings. No such luck. I imagine the opening words of the Old Testament lesson struck you like a trumpet blast or crashing cymbals: “Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomor'rah!”

What a way to start the day! Isaiah certainly knows how to get our attention! He doesn’t try to sugar-coat his message. Isaiah’s words would have been pretty striking in his own day. His contemporaries expected to hear sharp words from a prophet. They knew well what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah when they incurred God’s wrath. Today, we’re not used to being addressed with such force and vehemence. We’re not used to being hit between the eyes. We like to be approached just a bit more gently.

So why is Isaiah talking to us that way? We’re good people. We’re in church on this Sunday morning after all. We could be at the gym, we could be in a coffee shop, or we could be simply getting our well-earned rest. But we’re not. All of us got up this morning and came to church to hear the word of God proclaimed and preached. We came to exchange the sign of peace with each other and to eat at the Lord’s table. Like the Pharisee from last week’s Gospel, we might well be feeling mighty pleased with ourselves. If we’re honest, we might be feeling just a little superior to that neighbor of ours who says he communes with God on the golf course.

But Isaiah isn’t going to let us get away with feeling smug. He takes away any shred of self-satisfaction we might feel about our diligence in worship. After all, he’s a prophet, and shaking us up is his job. He aims to let us know just what the consequences are for ignoring God’s will for us.

The simple fact of our attendance at church doesn’t impress God one bit. Our scrupulous observation of the ritual doesn’t impress God either. Through Isaiah the Lord says, “Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen.”

This last bit sounds quite discouraging. If God won’t listen to our prayers, what’s the point of praying then? Why are we even here, making the effort to worship according to the forms of the Prayer Book, with everything done decently and in good order?

It’s not that there’s anything BAD about our worship. Not at all. It’s just that worship isn’t enough all by itself. There’s more to our relationship with God. One of the reasons this passage has been appointed for us is to remind us that there is a danger in seeing worship as an end in itself. There’s a risk that we too, like the people of Judah, might become so focused on the details of our worship that we neglect how God has commanded us to live.

God’s concern for us extends beyond how we relate to God to how we relate to each other. Ritual without relationship is empty. So God asks that we extend our circle of concern beyond our individual soul’s relationship to God. God asks we extend our circle of concern to embrace and uplift those whom Jesus calls the least among us. Through Isaiah God commands us, “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” This idea has lasted through the ages. About seventy or so years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed that “The church is the church only when it exists for others.”

Now I realize that many if not most of us here are already on the path to reaching outside the church doors. XXXXXXX parish is well-known in [College Town] and throughout the diocese for its generosity to organizations that feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. We’re further known for volunteering in these organizations, for gathering canned goods for food pantries, for supporting Habitat for Humanity, and for preparing food for the soup kitchen, just to name a few of our many local outreach activities. These kinds of participation provide much benefit to our neighbors in need, and our neighbors are much better off for our concern.

But we could do more, and I believe that as people who’ve been richly blessed by God, we’re called to do more. I’d like to challenge us all to do two things.

First, let’s get to know our homeless neighbors right here in downtown [College Town]. Let’s give ourselves an opportunity to find out who they are and to listen to their stories. During the time I’ve served at the [College Town Agency] and [Downtown Agency], I’ve heard stories of adversity and grace that both saddened and inspired me. I’ve met people like Bill. Bill taught at a northeastern prep school until a psychotic break turned his life into a shuttle between mental hospitals and homeless shelters. I met Marty. Marty was a New York City travel executive until his alcoholism and Vietnam era demons caught up with him. Most recently, I met Lilian, a mother of seven and former [Downtown Agency] donor—yes, a donor. Lillian’s health issues and need to leave an abusive marriage sent her and her children to the shelter for refuge. I’ve changed the names but not the stories. These are real people.

I encourage anyone who is able to sit down and chat with some of the folks who eat in the soup kitchen, or who use [College Town Agency’s] other services. But there are some of us whose time and health constraints don’t permit meeting homeless people face-to-face. Fortunately, there are also online and print sources of stories by homeless people. Once we hear or read these stories by people who are more like us than not, we will never look at homeless people in quite the same way again.

The second thing I’m asking us all to do is, as a once popular bumper sticker used to say, is to question the dominant paradigm. We can ask ourselves what structures of our economy and society keep some of our sisters and brothers without adequate food, shelter, and healthcare, while others have far more than they could ever need. We can ask ourselves how we might become agents of change, however small. Jesus certainly questioned the dominant paradigm of his time. In order to follow him, we need to do so as well.

By doing these things, in addition to our already generous gifts of our time and treasure, we’ll be taking our faith through the church doors and out into the world beyond. This kind of faith in action is what I believe that Isaiah is telling us is pleasing to God. God is quite willing to work with us in the process of helping us to align ourselves with God’s will. Today’s Isaiah lesson ends infinitely more gently than it begins, with the words, “"Come now, let us reason together,

says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” With God’s help and through God’s grace, we and our world can be transformed and redeemed.

Our Gospel today gives us a clear example of the grace of God at work through a seemingly very unlikely person. The tax collector Zaccheus climbs a tree in order to see Jesus in the crowd. Jesus asks Zaccheus to come down from the tree so that Jesus may stay at his house. The crowd around Jesus is scandalized that Jesus would accept the hospitality of a presumed sinner. Zaccheus’s next words reveal his true character. Zaccheus says, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” More than the self-righteous crowd, Zaccheus understands what it means to follow Jesus.

My prayer for us all today is that we too may fully understand and fully embody what it means to follow Jesus, that we may serve God as the General Thanksgiving says, “not only with our lips but with our lives.” May we come down from our trees, or whatever it is that hinders our discipleship and follow Jesus, who came to seek and to save the lost. Amen.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 17, Year C
Luke 14: 1, 7-14

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sometimes I think we Episcopalians have to put up with a lot. Some people say the Episcopal church is obsessed by sex. Others describe Episcopalians as bon vivants who are heavy on form and light on theology. We’ve been called “whiskeypalians.” We’ve been described as “Catholic lite.” We’ve even been called “The Church of the Correct Salad Fork,” as if table manners were more important for us than how we think about God. But table manners aren’t an entirely frivolous concern. Those of us who’ve heard the Gospel read and preached on week after week may have noticed that Jesus pays a great deal of attention to the dinner table. What we eat, how we eat it, and who we eat it with are not trivial matters. How we carry out this basic and essential human activity says much about our relationship with one another and with God.
In the Gospel today, Jesus begins by telling us that when we are invited by someone to a wedding banquet that we shouldn’t sit at the place of honor. It’s preferable instead to sit at the lowest place and be asked to move up rather than take the highest place and risk the disgrace of being asked to move down. At first reading, Jesus’ advice sounds to us like a clever bit of social strategy. Pretend humility for the purpose of getting the status we think we really deserve.
But this isn’t what Jesus is really telling us. Jesus isn’t in the business of teaching us to be successful in any conventional understanding of being successful. Also, there is something in what Jesus says that for us is quite literally lost in translation. Jesus’ original audience would have picked right up on his choice of one important word. The word that is translated here as “honor” is the Greek word doxa. The more usual translation of doxa is “glory,” and for Jesus’ disciples, and for us today, the word “glory” is usually associated with God. Think “doxology.” “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” is one example of a doxology that most of us are familiar with. Glory is given to God and glory must be given by God; glory can’t be given by one human being to another. Unlike honor, it’s glory that really counts in God’s kingdom, and glory is awarded by God to the humble rather than to those who try to lift themselves up.
Although most of us wouldn’t have noticed the Greek usage, Jesus has another way of letting us know his advice extends far beyond the dinner table, important though the dinner table is. Jesus’ advice concerns our salvation. He tells us “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Far more is at stake for us than our human power games. Jesus gives our social relationships cosmic signficance.
Just as Jesus gives advice to guests, he has some instructions for hosts as well. He tells us that when hosting a meal, we shouldn’t invite our friends, relatives, or wealthy neighbors because these people would reciprocate and we would be making an exchange rather than a gift. Jesus’ instructions require that we invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Choosing our guests this way involves more than an act of charity, though it certainly is that too. These four groups of people—poor, crippled, lame, and blind—are specifically excluded from temple priesthood in the book of Leviticus and were also excluded from some religious communities in Jesus’ time. Here too Jesus lets us know that more than simple kindness is involved in having us follow his instructions. Just as the guest who takes the lowest seat at the table will be honored, or receive glory, the host who invites the untouchables of society will be “blessed.” Who usually blesses? God. And here too more reward is involved, for Jesus says “you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Again, salvation is at stake.
At this point you may be getting a bit restless in the pew, thinking that however important it is, the resurrection of the righteous is a long way off. So what does today’s Gospel mean for you and me now, today, the last Sunday of August in 2010? While we don’t want to take away anything from the resurrection of the righteous, we really aren’t looking forward to that anytime soon. We have more immediate things on our minds, like how we’re going to pay our bills, make childcare arrangements, look after an ill family member, or how we’re going to cram all we have to do into that one day off and have a little relaxation besides.
Fortunately for us, there is good news in what Jesus tells us, and the good news is here and now. The good news is that living by Jesus’ words will help us enjoy abundant life right now as well as in the hereafter. Jesus gives us permission to let go of being number one all of the time. I imagine most of us like to be number one in some way or another. It starts early in life. Just watch what happens when a teacher asks a group of preschool children to form a line. There’s a mad dash for the front of that line, and probably even a bit of pushing and nudging is involved. First in line is the coveted spot. Later in life it’s the same story. We want to be on the winning team, be on the “A” honor roll, and eventually occupy the corner office. We take great delight in telling our friends how we got upgraded to first class on our last flight or how we got the best table on the busiest night of the week in the most popular restaurant in town. These are not bad things in themselves, and I have to admit that the occasional times I’ve been upgraded on an airplane I’ve enjoyed it immensely.
So then what’s bad about wanting to be number one? A couple of things. When it’s really important for us to be number one, it takes a lot of our time and energy to get there and to stay there. It’s hard work being number one, and it’s constant work, because someone else wants to be number one too and take our place. And, being number one is a mixed blessing. Yes, it feels good, but we might think that unless we’re number one we’re not worth much. What Jesus tells us to do in today’s gospel is to get out of this rat race.
Not only does Jesus say we should stop striving to be top dog, he tells us to get out of the business of bookkeeping, too. We don’t have to keep mental accounts of whom we did things for and who did things for us and make sure the two columns always balance. If we invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to our tables, we don’t have to worry about being asked in return. When we’re planning a dinner party we can stop saying things like, “We don’t have to ask the Joneses. After all, we’ve had them over for dinner three times and we haven’t even been asked for a glass of wine at their house.” We may even be able to stop obsessing over who paid the check last time. When we stop expecting comparable returns for what we give it’s actually quite liberating. We really don’t need to worry about it, because eventually all will be settled in God’s own good time.
And what will our lives look like if we get out of the rat race and we stop our social bookkeeping? What will life be like if we value ourselves not by our position but because of the simple fact that we are children of God? What will life be like if we forget about the things other people can do for us and simply enjoy their company? I think that our priorities will change. For one thing, if we’re not worrying about being number one we will be able to love ourselves. If we can love ourselves we will be more able to love our neighbors. When all are welcome, the dinner table will become a joyful feast for all and not an anxious occasion for social one-upmanship. We will create space in our lives for joyful possibilities that we couldn’t have imagined previously.

If I and not the lectionary had been in charge of selecting the gospel reading for today, my last Sunday with you at St. Joseph’s, I could not have chosen better than our reading today. I didn’t really know what to expect when I came to St. Joseph’s two years ago. What I found was a church that knows all about table fellowship, a church made up of folks who regularly sit down and break bread with those who are seldom invited elsewhere. I feel singularly blessed to have had the chance to serve as the deacon of a church that lives out Christ’s ministry every single day of the week.
“Let mutual love continue,” says today’s Epistle. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” If we can open our hearts and our dinner tables, who knows who will come to share the feast? Amen.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Easter 6C

Acts 16:9-15

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

First, I’d like to quickly wish a happy Mother’s Day to all the women here who are mothers, who plan to be mothers one day, who feel in some way like mothers, or who wish they could be mothers but for some variety of circumstances it hasn’t happened as they’d hoped it would. Some churches—not this one—make a big fuss over Mother’s Day, even though it isn’t anywhere to be found in the church calendar, and it’s a day that for some can be as bitter as it is sweet.
In biblical times as well as today, the ability to become a mother can be both a source of great joy and of deep pain. We’re familiar with a few women in the Bible who miraculously conceived male children (the gender is significant!) against all odds. Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth are the ones that come to mind. The Bible doesn’t tell us, though, about the many other women for whom this miracle simply never happened. These women sadly lived out their lives thinking that the fact that they didn’t produce children was a sign of God’s disfavor. We can safely assume that they, their husbands, and their communities thought they were to blame in some way.
For much of human history a woman’s worth has been measured by the fruits of her womb or the absence thereof. A woman who for whatever reason didn’t produce an heir, a MALE heir, for a royal spouse could be disposed of and replaced by someone often younger and presumably more fertile. It was taken for granted that the fault was all hers. Our own branch of the Christian tree famously grew out of such a quest for an heir. If a woman wasn’t defined by her children, she was defined by her husband, because by herself she had little or no significance at all.
How remarkable then is Lydia, whom we meet in our reading today from the Acts of the Apostles. Listen to how Paul and his fellow travelers encountered her. “On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us …” A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God. We have just met a woman in first century Palestine who has been introduced without reference to a man! We’re not told that she’s the daughter, wife, or mother of anyone. Apparently this information isn’t what the author of Acts wants us to know about Lydia. He tells us what he does think is important, that she, in her own right, is a dealer in purple cloth from Thyatira. The purple cloth trade would have brought Lydia into contact with the rich and powerful, so we can safely assume she had significant stature as a businessperson. Most importantly for the story and for us today, the author tells us that Lydia was a worshiper of God.
Please notice where our author and his friends encounter Lydia, the worshiper of God. They have spent some time inside the city of Philippi, but on this day they have gone outside the gate of the city to a river, where as the text tells us, they “supposed there was a place of prayer.” This scene is far away from any center of the religious establishment of that time and place, certainly far from the local synagogue where Lydia couldn’t possibly been one of the ten MEN required to make a minyan, the minimum number of men required to hold a prayer service. In fact, we can fairly safely assume that Lydia isn’t even Jewish, since her name is Greek rather than Hebraic.
But Lydia’s outsider status as a Gentile and as a woman who goes to pray by the river rather than in an established house of prayer doesn’t matter much to the author of Acts. What DOES matter is her openness to receive the gospel. Our narrator tells us, “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” Not only did Lydia listen eagerly, but apparently the Lord also opened her mouth so that she might exhort the members of her household—HER household, not a husband’s—to hear the good news and be baptized.
For Lydia and her household, baptism is not the end of the Christian life but the beginning of a new way of being and welcoming. Lydia’s heart was not the only thing that had been opened. After her baptism, she opened her home as well. She said to our narrator and Paul and their company, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” There is something about the Gospel of Jesus Christ that causes people who believe in it to give of what God has given them. Perhaps this is part of what Paul had in mind when he said in Second Corinthians, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” The new creation bursts forth in what conventional thinking would consider an unlikely place, in the heart of Lydia, marginalized by her gender, worshipping far away from the religious establishment.
I’ve had some of my most profound experiences of this new creation in contexts that aren’t explicitly religious and that were just as unlikely as the one in our reading today. I’ll never forget the time I was serving pizza in a soup kitchen in Charlotte. When the last two men in the long line came up to the counter, there was only one piece left. Pizza was a valued food at that soup kitchen, partly because pizza was one of the few things that we served that we didn’t make ourselves from donated or surplus food. We served the pizza right out of the box from the restaurant that so generously donated it. It was the same pizza that paying customers ate. As these two men stood there before me, I fully expected an altercation. I was wrong. The first of the two men pointed to the man behind him and told me to let him have the pizza. The other man, he said, needed it more than he did. For a moment I felt as if we were all standing on holy ground. Who would have thought that a hungry man could have been so generous to another? Certainly I didn’t.
I’ve heard similar stories about our neighbors in our parking lot here at St. Joseph’s. Several weeks ago Colin mentioned in a sermon that the guys are known to turn their own pockets inside out and share what little they have with someone else who has a pressing need. One of the residents of the Hospitality House will bring over a pot of whatever he’s cooked to share with his neighbors who live on our grounds here. It seems surprising that those who seem to have so little are so willing to share what they have, and are often more willing to share than those who have much more.
Or is it really surprising? Conventional wisdom says to get what you can while you can. Conventional wisdom says to hang on to what you have, for you may need it for the proverbial rainy day. But in Christ there is a new creation, and whether that man in the Charlotte soup kitchen or our neighbors here on our grounds admit to having heard the gospel, their actions, like Lydia’s, proclaim the gospel message loud and clear.
Who knows? Maybe the work of Paul and company would have had similar results if they’d done their preaching inside the city at the synagogue instead of down by the side of the river. Maybe a group of men would have heard their message just as well as Lydia and the other women gathered there. But I wonder. It just may be that the margins provide the more fertile ground for the gospel seed to grow than does the center. It just may be that Lydia’s position outside the normal power structures and her location down by the river instead of in a conventional house of prayer helped open her heart to the gospel. But whatever made her receptive to God’s opening of her heart, Lydia surely knew what to do with the good news of Christ once she had received it.
My prayer for all of us today is that like Lydia, our hearts might be opened to receive the gospel, and that like Lydia, we will open our hearts and our homes to others. Amen.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday

A note on comments:
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Palm Sunday
Luke 22:14-23:56

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is a very busy day in the church calendar. First of all, it’s Palm Sunday, and so we’ve celebrated Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey by waving our palm branches and singing “All Glory Laud and Honor to Thee Redeemer King.” Today is also Passion Sunday, and we’ve read the story of the passion of Jesus according to Luke. Today is also the last Sunday in Lent, a time of self-examination and repentance. These past six weeks have been a journey through sin, repentance, and forgiveness in the scriptures that the lectionary gives us during this season. We’re not quite done with that journey, though, as much as we might like to move on to something else. It would be nice if we could just march right on into Easter, but we’ve a way to go yet.
We began Lent this year with the story of the temptation of Jesus. This story set out the difficulties before us, and it tells us that the boundaries between good and evil aren’t as clear as we might wish them to be. The right choice isn’t always obvious. Evil can come to us all decked out in the veneer of good. The devil can quote scripture as effectively as any preacher, and his temptations actually appeal to our sense of reason and maybe even justice. What’s the harm in turning a stone into a loaf of bread? Well, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, my grandmother used to say. Remember, that expression doesn’t just cover the good impulses we didn’t act upon. It includes the good impulses we DID act upon with unfortunately disastrous results.
Last week in our reading from John we heard about Mary’s extravagant use of expensive perfume to anoint the feet of Jesus. Why wasn’t that perfume sold to raise funds for the poor, Judas argued. It’s worth nearly a year’s wages for a laborer. Judas’ argument isn’t unreasonable, not at all. In fact, what Judas says tells us that he’s been listening to what Jesus’ has had to say about feeding the poor. That’s a good thing, to be sure. The problem is that while Judas absorbed what Jesus had to say, he completely missed the point about who Jesus actually IS. WE would never make that mistake.
Of course not. And we’d never betray a friend, either. Or would we? Well … we just might. We might betray our friend if our friend was someone who was wanted by the local authorities. We might betray our friend if we thought it was easy to tell the bad guys from the good guys. We might betray our friend if we’re scared, if our friend were the sort of person who seems to walk with God yet maybe not seem to be quite in his right mind. We might betray our friend if we meant well, if we thought that by turning our friend in to the authorities we could save him and ourselves. After all, he’s in trouble with both our own religious hierarchy and the Roman rulers. They can’t both be wrong, can they? Or can they?
Well, you know the story. We just read it together, and we all shouted, “Crucify him!” We ALL shouted, “Crucify him!” The road to hell has been paved with our good intentions. The good things—the desire for order and certainty—have led us into what was the ultimately evil act of Jesus’ crucifixion. We didn’t mean to walk down this road, really we didn’t. But we did, and a man, Jesus, died for our moral failure. It’s easy for us to blame Judas, call him a bad guy, and pat ourselves on the back. But that’s too easy. If we condemn Judas and go on our way through Holy Week without looking inward, we’re missing the point. Who was Judas anyway? He was one of the disciples. He was one of Jesus’ inner circle, one of the family, so to speak. It’s not likely that one of Jesus’ followers would have a completely evil heart. If we’re going to claim the other disciples as our brothers, we’re going to have to claim Judas, too.
While we’re on the subject of the other disciples, it’s no surprise that they’re not perfect either. What are they doing while Jesus is praying on the Mount of Olives? The disciples are sleeping. Luke rather charitably says that they’re sleeping “because of grief.” Sounds more like avoidance to me. Easier to sleep than to hear Jesus anxiously praying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” But can we honestly say we’d have done any differently had we been there?
Jesus scolds his sleeping disciples, saying, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Pray that you may not come into the time of trial. Do those words have a familiar ring? They occur in both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels in the prayer that has become known as the Lord’s Prayer. In Matthew’s rendering it reads “do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” This translation—more faithful to the Greek than the translation which reads, “lead us not into temptation”—is right to the point here.
What Jesus is getting at is the very situation in which Judas, and later Peter, find themselves. The time of trial, the time of real temptation, can occur at any time that our good intentions blind us to the presence of evil. Any of us can get into one of these situations and many of us have been. There’s a good reason this petition is in the Lord’s Prayer, and there’s a very good reason why it’s the last, the ultimate petition. We need to pray this part of the prayer every bit as much as the part where we ask for our daily bread.
The saddest thing about Judas, though, isn’t that he came into the time of trial and failed. The saddest thing about Judas isn’t that his action started the final chain of events that led to Jesus’ death. The saddest thing about Judas is that as far as we know, he never repented, he never turned himself around and returned to experience God’s mercy. If that were the model we were left with it would be bad news indeed.
Fortunately for us, there is Peter. Peter, too, betrayed Jesus by denying him in an attempt to save his own scared little neck. I don’t mean to defend his actions in any sense. What Peter did was deplorable. But the good news for him and for all of us is that Peter repented. He turned around and went back to the Lord and received mercy.
We too can repent and return to the Lord. No sin, whether it belongs to the realm of things done or things left undone, is too big or too small to be outside the scope of God’s mercy. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, as the hymn says, that is beyond human imagining. Let me read you the last verse.
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man's mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.
Let us take these words to heart as we walk through Holy Week together. The love of God IS broader than the measure of our minds. We can’t imagine giving the life of our only son for the salvation of this manifestly imperfect world. But God could. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Second Sunday after the Epiphany (January 17, 2010)

John 2:1-11

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

Today is the second Sunday in the season after the Epiphany. An Epiphany is a manifestation of God, and the Epiphany season is the time when we celebrate the light of God come to the world in Jesus Christ. The Gospels provide us a view of that light in different ways. The synoptic Gospels, that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, contain an account of the transfiguration of Jesus. Through the transfiguration the disciples come to know Jesus for who he really is, God’s own son. But the transfiguration is missing in the Gospel of John. What is not missing, though, is a demonstration of who Jesus is. We find that demonstration in our reading from John today. When the wine runs out at a wedding Jesus remedies the situation by turning water into wine of even greater quality and quantity that what the wedding host had originally provided.
This story of the miracle at the wedding in Cana is one of those stories that is troubling for some of us. It seems unlikely at best to us today. Changing water into wine is, to our minds impossible and violates any ideas we have about how the world is ordered. This story is one that skeptics are likely to mention when they say that they doubt that the Bible is “true.” The miracle of changing water into wine can also be used to mock Jesus and his divinity. In the 1970’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Herod taunts Jesus by saying, “Prove to me that you’re divine; change my water into wine.” With just a few words, Herod dismisses both the miracle and the divinity of Jesus.
The miracle at Cana, and for that matter, ALL of Jesus’ miracles, bothered Thomas Jefferson, too. Thomas Jefferson—the same Thomas Jefferson who was the third President of the United States, one of the founding fathers of our country, and as my son would insist I mention, founder of the University of Virginia—couldn’t reconcile this miracle of Jesus, or for that matter, any of them, with the Enlightenment understandings of how the world works. In 1819, Jefferson began work on his own version of the Gospels, which he called “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” Jefferson’s aim in presenting Jesus was, in his own words, “to rescue his character.” Jefferson’s version of the Gospels eliminated the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, any mention of Jesus’ divinity, and the miracle accounts. Jefferson was well aware of how controversial his work would seem to others. He suppressed the work during his lifetime, and his relatives kept the work secret until 1895. The so-called Jefferson Bible was only published for the first time in 1904.
I think that a reaction like Jefferson’s to the miracle of Cana misses the point. Our Gospel story today doesn’t depend on whether or not this miracle was an actual historical occurrence. While we’re talking about what this story isn’t, I’d also like to dispel some other misconceptions about it. It’s not, as some would say, about Jesus’ own wedding. In this story, Jesus isn’t being rude to his mother, though it may sound that way to us. This story is also not about whether or not it’s morally acceptable to drink alcohol.
The point of today’s Gospel story isn’t about any of those things. What the story is about is God’s extravagance and abundance in the gift of his own son to us. Of course it IS remarkable that Jesus changes water into wine in this story. What needs to be emphasized, though, is that Jesus changes a LOT of water into a LOT of wine. We’re told that six stone water jars each holding twenty or thirty gallons were filled with water. Do the math. One hundred twenty to one hundred eighty gallons of water become one hundred twenty to one hundred eighty gallons of wine. Quality wine, not the cheap stuff, as the steward noted when he said to the bridegroom, “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.”
More wine than was actually needed. Better wine than was to be expected. We’re starting to approach the heart of the matter. Jesus doesn’t only provide what is needed in a given situation. He provides what is needed in a manner that exceeds any possible expectations anyone could have. Jesus doesn’t just meet the demand, but he exceeds and overflows it. In this inaugural event of Jesus’ ministry John lets us know clearly the sheer boundlessness of what Jesus has to offer. Jesus is no ordinary Galilean, make no mistake about it. The miracle at Cana prefigures the feeding of the five thousand, where Jesus will take a seemingly inadequate supply of food and will not only have enough food to feed a large crowd but have food left over.
I’ll say it again. Jesus is no ordinary Galilean. Jesus can tap into a source of abundance that we would traditionally associate with God and not with mortals. The miracle at Cana establishes Jesus as one whose resources are as limitless as the Creator’s, who will later in John’s Gospel provide not only water but Living Water, not only bread but the Bread of Life.
What is one to do in the presence of such abundance? What is one to do in the presence of such grace? Our Gospel lesson today provides us an example of two possible responses. Let’s take a look at them.
The first response to Jesus’ miracle comes from the steward at the wedding. The steward acknowledges a wonderful act of hospitality in serving good wine throughout the wedding rather than only at the beginning of the celebration. He attributes this gesture to the bridegroom, the presumed host of the wedding feast. What the steward doesn’t understand is that the source of the plentiful and good wine isn’t the wedding bridegroom, but Jesus the true bridegroom. The steward’s response isn’t inappropriate, but it isn’t complete either.
The disciples are the ones in this story who fully appreciate what Jesus has done at this wedding at Cana. John tells us, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. And his disciples believed in him. The disciples lead the way for our own response to the miracle at Cana. John’s intent in relating this story about the first even in Jesus’ ministry isn’t to impress us by sharing an extreme act of hospitality. It’s not that hospitality isn’t important, because it IS important, to be sure. John’s intent is to have us respond as the disciples respond, with belief in Jesus and the sheer abundance and extravagance of his gifts. We know that this abundance and extravagance prefigures even greater things to come because its source is God, who has no limits. NO limits. With God all things are possible, from changing water into wine to the feeding of the five thousand to the resurrection of the body. Amen.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Prayer for Haiti

The following prayer comes from a friend's blog. This prayer is being prayed regularly at her Catholic church in Florida.

A Prayer After the Earthquake in Haiti

Lord, at times such as this,

when we realize that the ground beneath our feet

is not as solid as we had imagined,

we plead for your mercy.

As the things we have built crumble about us,

we know too well how small we truly are

on this ever-changing, ever-moving,

fragile planet we call home.

Yet you have promised never to forget us.

Do not forget us now.

Today, so many people are afraid.

They wait in fear of the next tremor.

They hear the cries of the injured amid the rubble.

They roam the streets in shock at what they see.

And they fill the dusty air with wails of grief

and the names of missing dead.

Comfort them, Lord, in this disaster.

Be their rock when the earth refuses to stand still,

and shelter them under your wings when homes no longer exist.

Embrace in your arms those who died so suddenly this day.

Console the hearts of those who mourn,

and ease the pain of bodies on the brink of death.

Pierce, too, our hearts with compassion,

we who watch from afar,

as the poorest on this side of the earth

find only misery upon misery.

Move us to act swiftly this day,

to give generously every day,

to work for justice always,

and to pray unceasingly for those without hope.

And once the shaking has ceased,

the images of destruction have stopped filling the news,

and our thoughts return to life’s daily rumblings,

let us not forget that we are all your children

and they, our brothers and sisters.

We are all the work of your hands.

For though the mountains leave their place

and the hills be tossed to the ground,

your love shall never leave us,

and your promise of peace will never be shaken.

Our help is in the name of the Lord,

who made heaven and earth.

Blessed be the name of the Lord,

now and forever. Amen.