Sunday, January 27, 2013

January 27, 2013 - Epiphany 3C

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            For this sermon and the one next week, I plan to offer a two part series on the concept of fulfillment. The lectionary provides a great way to do this because both the New Testament epistle and the Gospel reading are continuous readings of chapters 12 and 13 of 1 Corinthians and chapter 4 of Luke. We’ll start today with the Gospel.
            Last Sunday, we had the reading about the transformation of water into wine at the wedding at Cana of Galilee. In John, that is Jesus’ first act of ministry. In Luke, this story is his first foray into public ministry. Jesus has just been baptized and spent 40 days in the wilderness. He then comes to Nazareth, to the synagogue and he participates in worship. Typically, someone would read a portion of Scripture and then offer a sermon or an interpretation. If you’re a lay reader today, you’re probably glad that you’re not expected to offer commentary after you’ve done the reading. And Jesus is handed a scroll that seems to be destined for his reading. He reads a portion of Isaiah 61. In a sense, what he reads is his mission. It is no coincidence that the passage that Jesus reads is a vision of the Kingdom of God which Jesus came to fulfill.
            And it is worth spending a few brief moments on what Jesus reads. He begins by saying that he has been anointed for this task. The word anointed in related to the word “messiah” in Hebrew and “Christ” in Greek, so this reference should not be overlooked. And in the previous chapters of Luke, we are told that the Holy Spirit came down from heaven like a dove and filled Jesus. With this in mind, he begins- “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me.” And then Jesus lists five tasks.
            The first is to bring good news to the poor. We can interpret this literally to start. Jesus came with a message that focused on the least of these, as opposed to the establishment. Most people assumed that the Messiah would be a part of the ruling elite- that they’d find him sitting a places of honor. But instead, Jesus starts with the poor. Are the poor any more deserving of a messiah than the rich? Of course not. But the poor were invisible in Jesus’ time, just as they are today. In all of our discussions as a nation, whether it is on education, social security, or energy policy, when do we ever consider the poor? No one lobbies on Capitol Hill for the poor. There is no Super PAC that advocates for the poor. When we see a poor person on the street corner, what do we often assume? That they have spent time in jail, are addicted to something, or have a mental disability?
            Poverty is a systemic problem. Our culture is designed with a series of oppression systems in place that are designed to keep those in power there. I know the American Dream is the idea of upward mobility, but for the most part, it is just that, a dream and not a reality. And the same was true in Jesus’ time. So he comes and acknowledges those who are invisible, and says that the good news is for them. How might we share this good news with the poor?
            Next, Jesus says that he will proclaim release to the captives. Now Jesus was referring to situations of exile, something that doesn’t really translate well into our cultural context. But consider that in Galilee, the life expectancy was around 30. But in the hills, in the Roman city of Sepphoris, people were expected to live well into their 60s. They were not slaves, they had a sense of freedom, but they were captives. I know that we like to think that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, but slavery endures in our lives. According to an online slavery calculator, I have the equivalent of 58 slaves that work to sustain my lifestyle. It happens in a variety of ways, through precious minerals that are mined for use in microchips, to cotton and other clothing materials, to coffee beans, there are people who work under slave-like conditions around the world. Jesus came to offer the liberation, he came to offer them citizenship in the Kingdom of God instead of the kingdoms of man which is full of captivity. How might we work to release the captives of our world?
            Jesus then offers recovery of sight to the blind. And while Jesus did give sight to a blind beggar, he is proclaiming something larger than a few miracle stories. How many of us are blind to the grace of God which surrounds us? As I said last week, how many of us see distractions and challenges as just “damned events” in our lives instead as opportunities for ministries? Jesus comes to reorient our lives, that we might focus on God and see the things that truly matter. How might we pay better attention to God’s glory all around out, and then show it to others?
            Jesus proclaims that the oppressed will go free. Oppression is something that is running rampant in our culture right now. We are in the midst of a fierce war of words where we dehumanize those whom we disagree with. Liberals bash conservatives and conservatives slam liberals. We have several billion dollar so-called news organizations whose sole purpose is to oppress and belittle the other side. We like to think of ourselves as being the greatest and most advanced nation on earth, the one nation that hasn’t succumbed to the atheism of Europe. Though perhaps we were founded on the ideas of liberty and justice for all, our society is a far cry from fulfilling that idea.
            Women still only earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by a male worker. Minorities are incarcerated at rates nearly 10 times higher than whites. Education dropout rates are much higher among the poor and minorities. Same sex couples are oppressed by not being offered the same freedom of expression of their loving commitment to each other that heterosexual couples are allowed, despite the fact that heterosexual couples get divorced at a rate of nearly 50%, showing that there isn’t very much sanctity left in the institution. To all those that are oppressed, Jesus comes offering freedom. How might we unbind them of the stigmas and prejudices which our culture places on them?
            And lastly, Jesus proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor. In Biblical terms, this was the Jubilee year. Jubilee was based on the concept that every 50 years, we need to do a reset. Slaves and land that was occupied as a debt payment were released, all debts were forgiven. And this Jubilee was ordained by God in Leviticus. Poverty is not something that should be passed down from generation to generation. The sins of the father did not need to plague the sons and daughters. Jesus came pronouncing forgiveness, a fresh start, a new beginning. How might we let go of our resentments and the things that we hold over each other?
            It is also worth pointing out that Jesus doesn’t fully quote Isaiah 61, as he leaves out a sentence. Jesus stops mid-sentence to omit “the day of vengeance of our God.” As Jesus says in John 3:17, the Son was not sent to condemn the world, but to liberate it. Jesus came to offer these pieces of good news, but he makes it clear that he did not come to bring vengeance or punishment. Yet our culture is a vindictive one, one full of lawsuits and an overcrowded prison system. We focus too much on punitive justice instead of restorative justice. We clutch onto our resentments as if they are the most valuable things we own. How might we, like Jesus, put away the need to be vengeful and instead focus on building the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven?
            So those are the things that Jesus speaks of in his reading. And then he offers a sermon that is a bit shorter than this one- he says “today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus did not simply interpret the prophecy of Isaiah, he boldly proclaims that he has fulfilled it. But in what sense? The moment Jesus uttered those words, the doors of jails didn’t fly open, the poor weren’t instantly fed, the blind didn’t all regain their sight. What sort of fulfillment is this?
            What we see in Jesus is that fulfillment is a process, not a quick fix. Jesus came to live, die, and be resurrected in God’s process. In the same way that a house is not built all at once, but one brick at a time, so too the Kingdom of God is built over time. God is a God of process. Creation was a process. Israel became a nation through a process of liberation and journey. The very fact that we live in a universe built on linear time is evidence enough that God cares about process. There is a wonderful double meaning in the world fulfillment. On the one hand, Jesus came to fulfill this mission, in the sense of working towards a goal. But we also use fulfillment to mean a sense of purpose and happiness. When we are fulfilled, we are living into the core of our identity. And Jesus is fulfilled by his mission in that sense as well. And in both forms of fulfillment, it happens as a process.
St. Teresa of Avila realized that we work in continuing the fulfillment that Jesus began and famously wrote that “Christ has no body but yours / No hands, no feet on earth but yours / Yours are the eyes with which he looks / Compassion on this world / Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good / Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world / Christ has no body now but yours.” That is a good segue into the reading from 1 Corinthians today about the body.
St. Paul uses an often used metaphor, that of the body and its various parts. He says that we are all parts of the body, interconnected and interdependent on one another. In a sense, he is saying that our fulfillment is dependent upon one another. It really is a wonderful metaphor. It begs us to consider what part of the body we are. Later in this passage, St. Paul talks about different gifts, or as the original Greek puts it “graces,” that we each have. It is an invitation to consider what grace you bring to the Body of Christ.
What is your fulfillment? What are you working towards? What fulfills and satisfies you? Every part of the body is important and needed. I know we all would like to see ourselves as the brain, or the heart, or maybe the hands, something important. But the fact of the matter is that every part is important. St. Augustine once said that people often liked to see themselves as the important part of the body, and no one ever thought about being the hair on the body. But he reminded his audience that when we get a bad haircut, we suddenly realize how much value we place on the hair.
The body also shows us that it is important to be true to ourselves. If the foot is not content being a foot and would rather be an eye, then the whole body will stumble. How often though do we try to be something that we are not?
In the body, it is also important to remember that there is no belonging without participating in the body. If you are a part of the body and become dead weight, you will likely fall off or be cut off. Everyone that is in the Body of Christ has a task, there are no free rides in discipleship.
And there is humility in the body. We need each other. The eyes are really important, but if the feet neck doesn’t allow the head to turn, those eyes aren’t going to see very much. Independence has become an idol in our culture, and we too easily forget that our common life depends on each other’s toil. One theologian said that there are two things which we despise the most in life- the failure of others, and the success of others. We don’t tolerate failure because we don’t want to be brought down, we want to achieve our fulfillment. But we also don’t want others to become too successful, because we tend to view the world as a hierarchy, so if someone else is the winner, we must be the loser. But the metaphor of the body invites us to turn leave behind that hierarchy and instead realize that health is only found when all of the body is being fulfilled.
None of us are Jesus, none of us are the Messiah. None of us will be the salvation of the world. But as St. Teresa said, together, we are. Together, we continue in the fulfillment of Jesus. We are fulfilled when we function as the body, offering our different graces to fulfill the mission of Jesus. The things that were the fulfillment of Jesus mission are tall tasks- giving good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and Jubilee to the world. Jesus fulfilled his mission by starting the process of bringing fulfillment to these causes. Our fulfillment is to be found when come together, not for our own greater good, but for the greater good of Jesus. And when Jesus’ mission is fulfilled, so too will ours be.
Our readings today invite us to consider our own place in the body. What gifts do you bring to the table? Are you fulfilled? If not, we would do well to discern if we are functioning as the proper body part, or are we trying to be something we are not? Are we committed to a process that is larger than ourselves? What does the fulfillment of your mission look like?
 But you might ask, “why bother?” I can be very happy by just focusing on my own life. And if everyone would just do the same, the world would be a better place. When so much of the body is determined to be selfish and greedy, why should I pay attention to them? Didn’t God create us to be individuals, so why should I join up with others? Why should I seek fulfillment outside of myself? Well, for the answer, we’ll need to turn the continuation of these readings next week.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

January 20, 2013 - Epiphany 2C

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            Well, it’s been a while since I’ve been in this pulpit. Let’s hope that preaching is a bit like riding a bike and that I haven’t forgotten how to do it. Epiphany is one of those forgotten seasons of the Church year. It falls between Christmas and Lent and doesn’t get much attention. And that’s a shame, as the lessons of this season have something to teach us. Epiphany comes from a Greek word, meaning manifestation or appearing. It is the season in which we remember that God was made manifest in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth. A season in which we recount the stories of the light coming into the darkness of our world. A season where we hope that this light will be found in the dark alleys of our world and in the dark corners of our soul. And if we allow these Epiphany readings to speak to us, they can enlighten our path through the upcoming year.
            This morning we’ll take a look at the first miracle found in the Gospel according to John, the turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. Actually, “miracle” is the wrong word for it. John actually calls it a sign, not a miracle, and he does so intentionally. If it were a miracle, it would be a nice little story about Jesus the superhero with super powers. And while it would make for an amazing story, it really wouldn’t do much for our souls or our theology. But this is a sign, the turning of the water into wine points us towards a larger truth. And it is that larger truth that is worthy of our Epiphany focus this morning.
            The sign that we see in this wedding story is the transformation that God brings into our lives. Before we race ahead to the act that all wine lovers are drawn to, the turning of water into wine, let’s take a look at the setting. It is no coincidence that Jesus does this first public sign at a wedding. Now if you think weddings these days can get out of hand, what Jesus experienced would have taken it to a whole other level. Weddings in ancient Israel would have typically lasted a week, and they were truly public celebrations. The bridegroom would go through the streets in a parade to meet his bride and then the festivities would begin. The fact that Jesus starts his ministry at this wedding banquet is very incarnational.
            We are in chapter 2 of John, and remember the first chapter is John’s prologue about the Word becoming incarnate, starting with the well known “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God.” Some scholars suggest that John was writing, in part, against the Gnostic movement. And part of what the Gnostics said was that the body was evil. That the flesh was a prison for the soul and that enjoyment of the body was sinful. In a sense, they were anti-incarnational. They said that things of the flesh are to be avoided. Life is not something to be enjoyed. And we might not go that far, but how many of us have turned into boring adults who have forgotten how to have fun? I know that I’ve been guilty of that from time to time.
            How many of us are so stressed with work, so consumed with financial stress, so plagued by our pasts, that we don’t allow ourselves to enjoy the gift of the present. Many of you have told me that Ellie will teach me things, and you’re right. Though she’s only 2 months old, she’s already taught me about the idols of productivity and prestige. When I hold her, a very simple and incarnational act, life seems to be at its fullest, not when I’m received awards or having an inflated ego. Taking time to actually experience the gift of life is to embrace the reality of the Word becoming flesh.
            So to those Gnostics that were against these sorts of life-affirming experiences, Jesus shows up at a wedding and has a grand time. I don’t know if there was a DJ, I don’t know if there was dancing, but I know that a good time was had by all if they ran out of wine. Jesus begins his ministry at a party. Jesus begins with extravagance. He starts with joy. And remember, this story is a sign, pointing us to something larger and truer than this particular story. The Epiphany lesson is that the coming of God into our world in the person of Jesus is about God’s extravagant love. It ushers in a time of joy. After the water is changed into wine, the head waiter is shocked at the quality of the wine. He expected the cheap stuff since everyone was a few drinks in, but what Jesus provides is the crème de la crème. And so it is. What God provides isn’t simply the basics in Jesus, God gives all of Godself in Jesus. The first sign is that God startles us with the abundant love of taking on our flesh to be with us.
So let us move into exploring the transformation of this passage. And the transformation that we find here begins the way that much transformation does, with a crisis. Because a wedding was a public event, and the whole town of Cana was there, the family’s honor was at stake. A wedding was the one blow-out event of a lifetime. A family would pull out all the stops to make sure that everyone has a great time at the party. So to run out of wine not only would lead to a bad party, but it would have brought shame on the family. It was a crisis.
And before we go any further, it needs to be pointed out that, though it seems that Jesus is rather harsh to his mother, a lot of that is related to issues of translation. That could perhaps be the subject of another sermon, but not this one. But I just want to say, don’t let that trip you up.
And so the water is transformed into wine. The first thing to note is that the text says that the water that was changed was for the Jewish rite of purification. Before eating, the guests would have needed that water to be ritually clean. And Jesus takes that water and turns it into wine. The water which reminded us of our impurity, of our uncleanliness, of our sins, is transformed into the wine of joy and welcome to all. This aspect of the sign points to the fact that all are welcome to join Jesus at the party.
This sign points to the vision of Isaiah. Isaiah says that Israel will have a crown of beauty and a royal diadem in place of its grief and suffering. It will no longer be called Forsaken, or Desolate, but will go by the name Delight and Married. In the way that the bride and groom rejoice over each other, God will rejoice over us. As soon as he tastes it, the waiter knows that this is something grander and bigger than he expected. In Jesus, the old water has passed away in favor of this new, richer, more vibrant wine. In Jesus, a new age is ushered in, so it’s only fitting that this new age of joy and hope starts with a party. So the transformation of water into wine is a sign that the party has started, that the Kingdom of God is open for business. It is a sign that God’s glory abounds all around us.
I realize that mystery is tough for us moderns. Miracles make us raise an eyebrow. And I’m sure there are those of us that can’t help but wonder, “did Jesus really turn that water into wine?” “How else might we explain the sudden emergence of 150 gallons of wine?” You might ask me, “did the transformation really happen?” And I’d have to say, in all honesty, I don’t know. But I know stories of Jesus changing empty beer cans into furniture in a broken home, I know of Jesus turning hatred between bitter enemies into loving reconciliation, I know of stories of burned bridges being rebuilt, of wrongs becoming right. And that’s a miracle enough for me.
This story reminds us that when you invite Jesus to the party, in the way that this family invited him to the wedding banquet, Jesus will accept the invitation, and he will transform you. And this is Good News, but realize that as it has been said “God often comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable,” transformation isn’t always as nice as water becoming wine. If that’s what following Jesus was all about, then I think more people would be Christians instead of joining wine of the month clubs. If inviting Jesus to transform us was an easy process, we’d have less violence in our culture and less greed. The transformation that God will do in our lives is not always easy or as pleasant as getting free wine. Living for the Kingdom of God instead of our own kingdoms of power, prestige, and wealth means transforming the way we live.
I’ll share a bit of confession with you all. In my spare time, I enjoy playing video games. Mostly I play baseball or college football games, but I’ve enjoyed playing such titles as Modern Warfare and Grand Theft Auto. But after the recent surge in violence in our culture, I realized that inviting Jesus to transform me meant that I could no longer participate in those systems. Were those games turning me into a killer? No. Do I have a right to them as an American? Of course. But was I participating in a system that was leading to evil? Yes. And so I’ve given them up. It’s a rather simple example, but inviting Jesus to transform us means that we will need to consider hard how we live our lives. Do we really want to be transformed? If the answer is yes, we might start by taking a look at how we live our lives. What institutions do we participate in by our complicity? What evil is done on our behalf, or so that we can live the life that we desire? This part of the sign points us towards the total transformation of our lives, souls, and world that God calls us towards.
And finally, I’d like to do a little what-if exercise with this text. Jesus, at first, seems to refuse Mary’s plea to help with the situation of being out of wine. We proclaim that Jesus was both fully-human and fully-divine, maybe at first the human side won out. Whatever the reason was, Jesus was hesitant to do anything. Jesus was having a good time, and he was interrupted. He was distracted with the crisis. And his first reaction is one we all know- “it’s not my problem, let me enjoy what I’m doing.” A spiritual writer once said that he was annoyed with all the interruptions to his ministry, people calling or coming by the office. Then he realized that his ministry wasn’t his to-do list, it was the interruptions. In the interruptions, God breaks through the busyness of our lives.
The sign in this part of the story is that we live in God’s history. Everything we do is a part of the life of God. And so the question isn’t “do I want to be interrupted?” but “how will I handle this opportunity for ministry that is set before me?” What if Jesus had said no at Cana and it set the tone for his life and ministry? What if when he came upon the lepers who asked for healing he said, “you know, I’m busy right now, sorry.” What if when the crowd was ready to stone the adulterous woman to death he said “you know, it’s not really any of my concern?” But Jesus realized that his life was not his own, but was a part of God’s history. And when we are in God’s history, we cannot refuse to act, but instead only control how we will respond. Will it be with grace, or with indifference? Will it be by living for ourselves, or for others?
Henry Ford is reported to have once said “life is just one damned event after another.” Well, I couldn’t disagree more. Life is not just one damned event after another. Life is one opportunity to show the glory of God after another, one chance to show the world that we are a follower of Jesus by serving and loving. How we respond to the interruptions of life matters. Everything we do matters to someone, regardless of how big or small the event is.
This weekend, we of course remember the great Martin Luther King, Jr. What would our culture look life if he had responded differently to the interruptions of life? In 1954, at age 25, King moved to Montgomery, Alabama after finishing his studies at Boston University. He was busy. He had a young family, was the new pastor of a church, and was finishing up his doctoral dissertation. And then on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. It was an event that King had nothing to do with. He had never met Parks before. But that event began a movement, and local leaders called on King to be the leader of this movement for justice.
What if King though had responded by saying “you know, I have a young family that needs me. And I’m working on this dissertation, and it really need to focus on that. And furthermore, I’m the pastor of a new congregation, and I should spend time getting to know them. Sorry that I can’t help you, but it just isn’t a good time for me, Rosa Parks isn’t my problem, I don’t have the energy for it?” What would our world look like if Martin Luther King had refused to respond to the breaking of God into our world in this interruption? Imagine how our world might be better if we never again said “you know, I’m just too busy right now, I just can’t afford to give more to charity, I’m not sure that I’m qualified to help in that way, I’m afraid I won’t do a good job, someone else will handle it.” Having healthy boundaries are a good and healthy thing and saying “yes” to everything can lead to other problems, but let us not forget that God comes to us in the distractions of life.
In a sermon entitled “The Drum Major Instinct,” King talked about our actions, and the price of inaction. And he concludes by saying that “I want to be at Jesus’ side in love and justice…so that we can make the old world a new world.” Or, if you’ll allow me a paraphrase- I want to work with Jesus to transform the old water into new wine.
Once the water is changed into wine, the head waiter doesn’t say “thank God we had a miracle-worker at this party!” Instead, he assumes the wine came from storage somewhere. This is our call: to be drum majors alongside Jesus and all of his followers like King. To bring out of our storage the love, justice, compassion, grace, and peace that will transform our world into a new one.
It’s a good message to start the new year with, and a good Epiphany lesson. When we invite Jesus to participate in our lives, when we see distractions not just as “damned events” but opportunities for grace, then we can experience Gospel transformation. The old waters of fear, injustice, oppression, vengeance, resentment, and sin can indeed be transformed into the new wine of love, peace, and justice. And in a few moments, we’ll be invited to gather around God’s Table to take a sip of that new wine. May it strengthen us for ministry. May it give us the courage to act and respond in the way that Martin Luther King did. And may it give us a foretaste of that heavenly banquet, inspiring us to work to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.