Sunday, January 17, 2010

Out of wine...

(A sermon preached on John 2:1-11 at All Saints' Episcopal Church 1/17/2010)

I have always wanted to preach on this Gospel text: the opening story of the second chapter of the Gospel of John. This is my first opportunity to do so. We only hear this story in its entirety every three years: but in reality, it gets a lot more play in church then we might realize.

This is from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, page 423.

Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and this woman.

(Yes, this is the wedding ceremony. I will resist the urge to comment on this in light of the law of 2010 New Hampshire. Continuing...)

The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation

(That’s debatable, but again, not my point today. Here it comes though...)

...and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.

This is one of the best examples of the institutional church making a GIGANTIC and CONVIENT leap in using a Gospel text to suit its needs. But I’m afraid it’s just flat out wrong. There is just NO WAY that the Gospel writer’s point is a public endorsement of marriage, and the story has no other Biblical source but this account.

It is in fact likely that there is only one real reason that John tells this story. Jesus, for the first time in the Gospel of John, publicly demonstrates his power, and his disciples are completely convinced that they are not mistaken in their earlier stated belief, in Chapter 1, that Jesus is God’s son. This is John’s ultimate message: that Jesus is the Word Incarnate. The story concludes:

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (John 2:11)

That’s the real point of the story...not an endorsement of marriage.

There is, however, something that has always struck me as odd. It’s not to say that the Gospel writer intended to say something else in his telling of the story, but it’s there, nevertheless.

It’s the bit of dialogue between Jesus and his mother.

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.” (John 2:3-5)

Is it me, or is something missing here? Mary voices concern to Jesus, Jesus dismisses her concern, and then Mary tells the servants to listen to Jesus, who proceeds in solving the problem. This doesn’t seem to follow any logic whatsoever.

I have come up with three possibilities as to the missing part. To illustrate these options, I’d thought I’d reset the story a little differently.

There was a wedding in Cana. At the reception, Jesus was sitting at the “Adult kids” table with his friends. They were kicking it back and laughing amongst themselves. Peter had been bragging about bringing a date, but it turned out to be Phillip’s younger cousin, so they all were giving them both a hard time. Not too far into the evening, there was some whispering going on at some of the other tables. Mary, Jesus’ mom, came over to the table, next to Jesus.

“They have no wine,” she said in a concerned voice.

Jesus raised an eyebrow. “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

Now, as I said, there are three possibilities here. Jesus may have said this in a teasing, good natured voice, with a wink and nudge, pretending that his mom’s concern was drinking more wine herself, while conveying that he really understood and would help the situation. Mary would have given him a look of mock disgust, before telling the servants to “Do whatever he tells you.”

Option two. After Jesus remarked, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come,” Mary gave him the scalding look that only a mother can give her son. As the disciples reacted with uncomfortable silence, Jesus, thinking better of it, nodded consent to his mother, and she told the servants “Do whatever he tells you.”

Possibility three restores a bit of dialogue, and illustrates what’s really at stake. “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” The disciples are a bit taken aback by Jesus’ response to his mother. Mary, calmly, says “Jesus, may I speak to you privately for a moment.”

The two go off to the side hallway, and Jesus speaks first.

“Look mother, I have things planned out, and this is not my place to intercede. It’s not important in the grand scheme of things.”

“No Jesus, you look. Running out of wine at a wedding is a great dishonor, and you know that! This is Joe and Elizabeth’s biggest day of their life. Their families will be embarrassed, and this is what people will talk about when they remember the occasion. How dare you do nothing when you could do otherwise!”

Jesus was silent for a moment. “Of course I will help.”

Mary returned to the main room, and told the servants “Do whatever he tells you.”

In the grand scheme of things, running out of wine at a wedding means very little. In 1st century Jewish culture, it meant a great deal more, and for those personally involved, it meant everything.

My point is this: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come,” is the perfect excuse not to act. It is reasoning not to get involved because it’s not important in your eyes. It is the justification to ignore the plight of your neighbor as not your problem, and it is to ignore the hospitality need of the moment because it wasn’t the way you had things planned.

In this case, Jesus rejects his own words. He deviates from the way he planned things to do what is needed. Ironically, it became the norm for his ministry, not the exception. The second sign in the Gospel of John is less known, but also occurs in Cana. A royal official comes to Jesus, and begs him to come with him and heal his son. Jesus says to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” The official says to him, “Sir, come down before my little boy dies.” Jesus says to him, “Go; you son will live.” The official believes, and upon journeying home, finds his son well. (John 4:46-54)

Whether it was Nicodemus coming to him at night, the Samaritan woman at the well, or even his mother and friend standing together at his crucifixion, Jesus in the Gospel of John uses each encounter to demonstrate the glory of God, while at the same time, pastorally caring for people.

That’s really good news.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Spiritual Meaning of Haiti

Diana Butler Bass, the progressive Christian author, posted this on Facebook this morning:

Pat Robertson blames the earthquake on Haiti's "pact with the Devil." How 'bout we blame it on tectonic plates shifting under the earth? Why must natural phenomenon have a spiritual meaning?? Isn't the greater spiritual meaning found in the fact that rich western countries have exploited and oppressed countries like Haiti for centuries through slavery, colonization, and corporate injustice?

ABC's News version of Pat Robinson's words this time:

On the Christian Broadcasting Network’s “700 Club” today, after a lengthy interview with a missionary who talked about helping the victims earthquake in Haiti, Rev. Pat Robertson had some interesting thoughts as to why the earthquake struck the impoverished nation:

"And you know, Kristi, something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French, uh, you know Napoleon the 3rd and whatever, and they got together and swore a pact to the Devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French.' True story. And so the Devil said, 'Okay, it's a deal.’ And, uh, they kicked the French out, you know, with Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by, by one thing after another, desperately poor.

Pat Robinson's words are despicable, but not surprising: his resume is full of disturbing, un-Christian statements. I'm not going to waste time discussing the content of his statement seriously.

It is important to note that many people see Pat Robinson representing Christian thought and practice. That is really disturbing to me. Christians should not remain silent and let hateful speech and thought stand as Christanity.

The other quick point I wish to make is emphasising Diana Butler Bass' real point:

"How 'bout we blame it on tectonic plates shifting under the earth? Why must natural phenomenon have a spiritual meaning??"

She's so right here: science is the authority when it comes to things like earthquakes and hurricanes.

Butler Bass then points out the underlying spiritual question concerning Haiti :

"Isn't the greater spiritual meaning found in the fact that rich western countries have exploited and oppressed countries like Haiti for centuries through slavery, colonization, and corporate injustice?"

It is a question we must take seriously: not only in acknowledgement, but also is moving forward as to what should be done.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Help Haiti by prayers and donations!

Please keep the people of Haiti in your prayers. If you are able, consider a donation to Episcopal Relief and Development's Haiti Fund.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Wise Guys of Epiphany

(A sermon preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church 1/3/2010)

This is our opportunity to talk about the wise men who visit the newborn Jesus, but I first feel like I need to talk about Easter.

(Did I say Easter, meaning Christmas??? NOPE!!! I mean Easter!!!)

There are some key things that all four Gospels tell us about Easter:

Easter Parallels (all four Gospels tell us that):

---Jesus was crucified

---The Romans carried it out, and Pilate was the one with the authority to have Jesus crucified

---Two others were crucified with him

---Jesus’ disciples hid

---One of his inner disciples, Judas, betrayed him to the authorities (the chief priests & elders)

---Peter denied knowing him

---The inscription “The King of the Jews” was on Jesus’ cross

---He was laid in a tomb

---Women discovered the empty tomb

Now, in comparison, let’s move back to Christmas:

Christmas Parallels (All four Gospels tell us that):

---Jesus was born.

That’s it!

Even that, is somewhat an assumption:
---Mark never talks about Jesus’ birth, but we can assume he was "born" by later accounts of family

---John says Jesus was the word of God from the beginning, and that the word became flesh…that points to birth.

Matthew & Luke both have stories of Jesus’ birth, but there are only a few places of agreement:

---Jesus was born in the days of King Herod

---A Virgin birth from Mary, although described differently: Luke has Gabriel visiting Mary, and she says, “How can this be, because I am a virgin. Matthew says that “Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit." An angel then appears to Joseph in a dream to keep him from dismissing Mary

---It happened in Bethlehem

Everything else of our Christmas tradition that comes from the Gospels comes from either Matthew or Luke, but not from both. That's really important to remember when we are considering the accounts of Christmas.

So, onto the subject at hand: Who were the witnesses to the events of Christmas?

Luke tells us about nearby shepherds...lowly neighbors of Judean society...who come to see the newborn baby, and rejoice in what they find. They are Luke’s first witnesses to Jesus, other than the barnyard animals.

Matthew, however, has no account of shepherds. Instead, the Gospel of Matthew focuses on a group of foreigners who come searching for a newborn king they have read in the stars. They are never mentioned to be kings, but “wise men”. Christian tradition has turned them into specifically three kings, to match the three gifts that are given, but the text never names how many people actually came, and there is some oral tradition of a larger group of people. Their gifts match what would be given to a king from another ruler, but it would most certainly come by lieu of emissaries from a king, not the actual king himself. What is clear is that the gifts come not from fellow Jews (which the shepherds of Luke almost certainly were), but from foreigners. In a footnote, the NRSV Bible calls the wise men “astrologers”. The wise men (Greek “magi”) were likely a learned class from Persia, east of Judea. Foreign regimes often sent emissaries to greet and give gifts to new kings or rulers. Precious metals and costly spices and resins were appropriate gifts for a king. Thus explains gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh: what would otherwise seem to be strange gifts for a newborn baby.

The emissaries go first to the palace in Jerusalem...that’s where a newborn king should be...but instead find uncertainty and fear. So their journey continued throughout the countryside. They passed by all the wealthy dwellings and places of power. Finally, they find Jesus, Mary and Joseph in a house, not a stable. It is possible that a room opened up somewhere, and that the young family had moved on from the actual birthplace, the only thing certain is that there is no mention of a stable anywhere in the Gospel of Matthew. (The stable comes from Luke, where there aren’t any wise men.)

Still, wherever and whatever the dwelling was, it is certainly not the expected place to find a newborn king. All this, however, does not bother the emissaries: they rejoice all the same, and lay their gifts among the perplexed family.

The sense of joy is what is shared by both groups of witnesses: Matthew’s wise men and Luke’s countryside shepherds. They all seem to sense that something significantly new has happened. Upon seeing for themselves, they all eventually return to their homes, back to their lives, and yet they seem transformed by the experience.

The wise men, however, have the additional interaction with Herod that I wish to draw your attention to. The notes in the NRSV Bible tells us that “In the time of King Herod” places Jesus’ birth within a fixed time period and set of political realities: Herod the Great was King of Judea from 37-4 BC, and the Emperor Augustus was his patron. (Yes…that’s the year 4BC…so much for Jesus being born in year zero.)

It is a group of foreigners...not the King of Judea, the chief priests and scribes...that recognize the signs that God has done something new: bringing a new king of God’s people into the world. So, the role of the wise men as witnesses stands in contrast to the people who should be the witnesses.

Blogger Jeremiah Bartram writes this in his entry "They seek---and they find---Wisdom":
“We see the wisdom of the ages in these mysterious strangers, who have come from afar. They are learned, they are astute – but they are not calculating and corrupt, like Herod. They do not dissemble. There is a purity to their mission – as there is to any dedicated intellectual or scientific project.

Why are they making this voyage? We don’t know, precisely.

They naturally go first to the court, as the expected place where a new king would be born. But they take the change of venue in stride; they recognize the kingship of Jesus in very humble surroundings – and they offer their royal gifts, without any apparent expectation of return. Emissaries from a foreign court seek a return. They are there to curry favor, to cement an alliance of mutual self-interest, for the purpose of trade or defense. Not these strangers: they are “overwhelmed with joy”; they enter the house; they see the child with his mother; and they kneel down and pay him homage. Thus, they are no ordinary emissaries: whatever the original intention of their mission may have been, they surrender to the Grace that lies before them, in the form of a helpless baby. The story shows us human wisdom saluting Wisdom incarnate, and paying homage to it.

And then, warned of Herod’s true intentions in a dream, they avoid the court with its glamour and its danger, and return home obscurely by another road: anonymous, without drawing attention to themselves, prudent. No need for outward show or ceremony, no need to call on the aging tyrant, now in his final, violent years; and certainly no desire for the reward that he might have offered for information leading to the child.

People of wisdom: they protect, they do not betray.”

The story’s conclusion creates a vivid contrast between King Herod and the foreign visitors, and gives clear parallels toward Jewish scripture. The Gospel of Matthew suggests that kingship defined by the political realities of the time, embodied by Herod the Great, the Roman chosen king of Israel, stands in contrast and opposition to what God wants and is doing. Kingship and religious leadership is ultimately redefined in Jesus.

Matthew’s audience would see that the birth of Jesus fits what has been foretold: but as usual, even while following the script, God does things in new and surprising ways.

Thanks be to God!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Welcome 2010!!!

Happy New Year everyone!

Been taking a bit of a blogging break, with a low output of posts. I'm planning on cranking things up again in January.

My blog's one year anniversary is January 20th: any thoughts out there for a special topic???