Friday, January 19, 2018

“Water into Wine” - January 21, 2018

Text: John 2:1-11

There are those times when things go wrong at church.  Well, things go wrong everywhere, to be sure, but when things go wrong in worship, the seriousness and solemnity of the occasion magnifies everything.  We try so hard to do things decently and in order, and when things go awry, it really stands out.   

Exhibit A for things that go wrong at church would have to be weddings.  Stuff just seems to happen at weddings. 

I had a groomsman, the younger brother of the groom, lock his knees and eventually pass out.  He was OK, but that does tend to get people’s attention.

Years ago, I was a groomsman in a wedding where the bride and groom were trying to light the unity candle and the bride dropped her candle on the open Bible on the table.  A Bible going up in flames is not the image you want to begin your marriage.

There was a wedding rehearsal where I was off in a side room with the groom and groomsmen, waiting to enter the sanctuary when the organist began the processional.  There was a woman at this rehearsal who seemed to be semi- in charge of things, but she was not one of the mothers.  So I asked who the woman in the orange dress was, and one of the groomsman let out an expletive to describe this woman.  That’s when I remembered my microphone was on.  We were all pretty scared for a moment there, but fortunately, nobody was paying attention to much of anything at this rehearsal, and no one heard or noticed what this guy said.

And then there was the wedding where the bride and groom were to come down the aisle to recorded music.  The song was by Luther Vandross, “Here and Now.”  “Here and now, I promise to love faithfully.”  It’s not what Susan and I had at our wedding, but it’s a nice song and an appropriate sentiment for a wedding.

Unfortunately, things did not go as planned.  The usher who was to unroll the aisle runner, an uncle of the bride, was nowhere to be found.  We waited and waited, but this guy was out taking a smoke or something.  Finally, the maid of honor looked at the best man and said, “Eddie’s gone.  We need to do the aisle runner.”  The best man said “I’m not doing it,” so the maid of honor muttered a couple of choice words and said that she was going to do it, and she did.  She pulled the runner all the way down the aisle, unrolling it.

The problem was that by the time that was done and the maid of honor was back in her place and the bride and her father were ready to enter the sanctuary, the song was over.  The cassette – this was back in the olden days – went on to the next song.  The next song was, “Love the One You’re With.” 

Things can go wrong at weddings.  But this is definitely not a recent phenomenon. 

Our text this morning is from John chapter two.  In the first chapter of John’s gospel, we have the prologue, which speaks of Jesus as the Word become flesh; then Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist.  After that, he begins to call his disciples, Andrew and Simon and Philip and Nathaniel, which we looked at last week.

Then we come to our text for today.  After these sort of preliminary stories, the first thing we see Jesus doing is attending a wedding.  Jesus’ mother was there, and then we are told that Jesus and his disciples were also invited.  The wedding is in Cana, not far from Nazareth.  While at this wedding, something goes badly wrong.

Now we need to step back for a second to understand what weddings were like.  It was not simply a ceremony and a reception.  A wedding was like having a massive open house that could go on for as long as a week - days of eating and drinking and dancing and celebrating.  The wedding was all about joyous celebration with family and friends.

The poor, which included most of the population, had cheese and bread and olive oil for their basic diet, with water to drink for most of their meals.  The water was often of poor quality, but that is what they had.  Wine was a cash crop and while many worked in the production of wine, the poor had little wine to drink, just as they had little meat to eat.

It is still that way in a lot of places.  Those who work in the harvest don’t necessarily share in the harvest.  I was in Costa Rica in November.  Costa Rica is known for its coffee.  People there tend to drink coffee with warmed milk and often sugar.  The reason is that for many years, all of the really good coffee was exported.  You could be living in an area that produced wonderful coffee, but all you could get yourself was the B or C grade stuff.  The coffee they drank wasn’t very good, so everybody put milk and sugar in it.

For much of the population in Israel, when they had wine, it was wine of a poor quality.  But a wedding was different.  A wedding was a time for extravagance.  A family would scrimp and save for some time in order to do it right.  Sheep and calves and every delicacy would be served, and there would be wine in profusion.

Somewhere through the course of this wedding, long before the celebration is over, the wine runs out.  Mary, who seems to be a close friend of the bride’s family, gets wind of this and reports it to Jesus.

For the wine to run out in mid-party would be a great embarrassment.  People would talk about it for years to come.  “Remember the Cohen wedding, when the wine ran out?  What a disaster.”

For the family, this would have been a social faux pas, a great embarrassment.  But Jesus does not seem especially concerned.  His response to his mother seems rather harsh.  “Woman, what concerns is this of ours?  My time has not yet come.”  It’s not our problem, and besides, this is not the time for me to act. 

But Mary seems to have no doubts about it.  “Do whatever he tells you,” she says to the servants.  This seems to indicate that Mary was close to the family, an insider.  

Mary knew her son.  Despite whatever misgivings he may have had, Jesus does something.  There were six very large stone jars used to hold water for Jewish rites of purification.  Jesus told the servants to fill them, all the way to the brim, and then draw some out and give it to the chief steward – basically the head waiter.      
They did what Jesus asked – and the water had become wine.  Not just any wine, but fine wine, far better than what had been served up until that point.  The steward was amazed.  Everybody serves the good stuff first, and then when people’s sense are perhaps dulled a bit they bring out the cheap stuff, the 3-buck Chuck.  But the chief steward says to the bridegroom, “You have saved the good wine until now!”  Of course, the groom had no idea what he was talking about, but he wasn’t arguing.

Now, one of the details that is easy to miss is the amount of wine we are talking about here.  There were 6 large stone jars that held water for rites of purification.  These would typically hold 20 to 30 gallons each.  So we are talking about a huge quantity of wine.  We are given this detail about the jars in order to point out the extravagant way that Jesus responds.  When Jesus supplies a need, he really supplies a need. 

Like most of what goes on in John, there is meaning at two levels in this story.  First, there is the very practical level.  Wine is running out and the party is going to fall flat on its face.  This will be an embarrassment for this family, and so Jesus acts.

It wouldn’t take much reflection here to question Jesus’ action.  Sure, it might be embarrassing to not provide the proper hospitality at a wedding, but did it call for a miracle?  Really?

In fact, maybe it would have been better to do nothing.  Maybe having the wine run out would teach them a good lesson about the need to plan wisely.  How else would they learn?  A bailout was not going to help them learn responsibility.  It was their own fault, and they did not deserve a miracle.  Not acting could have been an act of tough love. 

And even if Jesus were so inclined as to help out here, why would he do something so trivial as turning water into wine?  In the big picture of things, wasn’t this a small matter?

Well, perhaps.  It wasn’t a life or death circumstance, but it mattered to someone.  And that is important.  One of the things we learn here, right at the outset, right at the beginning of the gospel of John, is that if it matters to someone, then it matters to Jesus.  If it matters to you, it matters to Jesus. 

It is interesting that Jesus’ first miracle - or sign, as John calls it - is not some big, splashy, pyrotechnic kind of event.  He is not raising someone from the dead.  It is not a public healing.  He is not feeding the multitudes or walking on water.  And in fact, hardly anyone even knows about it.  Mary and the servants and Jesus’ disciples are the only ones in on it.  The bride and groom don’t know, the guests don’t know, the chief steward who discovers that the good wine has been saved for later does not know.  The miracle is not for public consumption.  Jesus simply sees a need and responds.  Or more accurately, a need is pointed out to him and he responds.

I think that is significant.  Miracles are not just show-offy sensational events that are witnessed by the masses.  Now, to be sure, sometimes they are.  If you were watching the Vikings game last week, as I was, you saw a show-offy miracle that was indeed witnessed by the masses.  But it’s not always like that.

Miracles are not just for those extraordinary moments.  Miracles are not just for the holiest persons among us.  And perhaps, each day is filled with miracles if only we will look and listen.  How many times a day are we blessed in ways we don’t even realize?  How many miracles are there around us of which we are unaware? 

Albert Einstein once commented, “There are two ways to live your life.  One is as though nothing is a miracle.  The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Perhaps there are miracles all around us, miracles in abundance.  And it is important for us to know that even those matters which are not life and death are important to Jesus.  If it matters to us, it matters to Jesus.

This is one level, the obvious, up-front level of meaning.  But John always seems to have more than one thing going on at a time.  It is helpful to know the symbolic importance of wine in Israel.  Our call to worship, from Psalm 104, kind of summarizes the Hebrew understanding of wine when it says that “wine to gladden the human heart” is a gift of God.

Wine was so vital to the culture and economy of Israel, that it took on important theological significance.  Wine was used throughout the Scriptures as a symbol of holy joy.  Wine was not just something to drink, but it was a powerful metaphor that everyone understood.

And what does Jesus do?  He provides wine in great abundance, extravagantly providing far more than was needed.  This is not just about a beverage for a wedding; it is about God’s grace.  It is about God’s love and care and welcome that is poured out for everyone – for the whole community.  It is about grace that God pours out to us when we are feeling empty, when our spirits are depleted, when the well is running dry.  Jesus is the connection to a deep and boundless spring of God’s grace.

Now, one more thing: it is interesting the way that Jesus responds to Mary’s request.  He says. “My hour has not yet come.”  There are two kinds of time.  There is chronos – the time on your watch.  But Jesus is talking about kairos – God’s time, big-picture time.  It was not the right time.  It was not his intention to perform his first sign.  But he does anyway. 

Basically, Jesus had a Plan A, but circumstances intervened.  Life intervened.  Jesus was flexible enough to make up Plan B on the fly.

That’s life, right?  We may have a Plan A, but we often have to go to Plan B, and maybe Plan C or D.  The Good News is that God provides new wine in the midst of the losses and disappointments and general disruption of life.  God is there when Plan A doesn’t work out.  And I have seen it – I have seen this happen right in our midst, right in this place, right among you.

Some of you have known tragedies that could make you sour or angry or completely defeated, but you are not.

Some of you have been so bruised by life that you could become cynical and hardened, but you have not.

Some of you have achieved great success and could easily feel pretty self-important, but you continue to demonstrate a deep humility.

Some of you have honestly faced challenges and new realities and with God’s help, you have been open to new possibilities, new approaches, new people, new ways of living.

Turning water into wine was not on Jesus’ calendar, but he gave up Plan A and embraced a new possibility.  And for all the times that things do not go the way we had planned, Jesus is there.  The well never runs dry, and in whatever circumstance, Jesus pours out grace upon grace.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

“Come and See” - January 14, 2018

Text: John 1:35-51

Do you remember when you first met your closest friends?  Do you remember where you were and your first interactions and impressions?  When I was four years old, we moved from in town out to the suburbs, next door to a church.  I was four years old.  And I remember seeing a kid about my age in the church parking lot.  He was hammering rocks in the gravel parking lot.  Which seems like a kind of dead-end activity today, but I guess if you are 4 years old it looked kind of impressive.  I still keep in touch with that kid, who today lives in South Carolina.  He was the pastor’s son.

Do you remember when you became a fan of a particular musician or sports team or actor or public figure?  Did it happen all at once, or was it a gradual thing to where you really couldn’t say how and when it happened?  Did other people influence you? 

Do you remember when you met your significant other?  Do you remember when you met your spouse?  Were there fireworks?  Was there an instant connection?  Or were you acquaintances and then maybe friends, maybe for a long time,  before things took off?  

And then, do you remember when you met Jesus?  Do you remember when Christian faith became real and meaningful to you, something that you owned for yourself?  Was there a flash of insight, was there a moment of dramatic conversion, or was it more of a gradual coming to faith?

We are (mostly) following the Narrative Lectionary, a set of scripture readings for each Sunday that sees the Bible as a continuing story, a narrative.  Over the course of a year, we cover a pretty wide variety of Biblical material.  We began in September with the book of Genesis and the story of creation.  Through the fall we hit some of the great stories of the Old Testament.  We looked at the Psalms; we heard from several of the prophets – Isaiah, Amos, Zephaniah, and last week Gary Martin shared from Hosea.  We looked at Jesus’ Advent and birth, and now we are in the gospel of John.  We will be in John through Easter, taking in a story or episode from the gospel each week as we follow the life of Jesus.

This morning we have this very interesting passage from the first chapter of John, which tells about the calling of the first disciples.  How did they learn about Jesus?  How did they come to follow Jesus?  How did this whole movement get started?

John reports on how the ball got rolling, and what is perhaps remarkable about it is how laid back it all is.  There is no pressure, no real fireworks, no arm-twisting, not much drama about it.

We heard from John the Baptist several weeks ago.  John had developed a following, with disciples of his own.  Part of John’s message, of course, was that he was preparing the way and that one greater than him would come.  One day, while John was with a couple of his disciples, Jesus walked by.  John said, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”  John basically says, “This is the guy,” and the two disciples right away decide that they will follow Jesus.

The dialog is very interesting.  Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?”  And they reply, “Where are you staying?”

What kind of answer is that?  If someone asks you, “What are you looking for?” would you reply with “Where are you staying?”

Well, the word is actually a little stronger than staying.  It’s more like, “Where are you abiding.”  The question may have had to do with geography, but Jesus does not answer it that way.  He doesn’t say, “I’m staying over there on Lynn Avenue, you turn the corner and it’s third house on the left.”

The deeper question is whether Jesus is the one for whom they have been looking.  Where are you abiding?  Where are you hanging out?  What are you really about?  What’s your story?

Maybe that is more of what they are asking, but still, Jesus doesn’t really answer.  He just says, “Come and see.” 

Come and see.  You can’t really get the answer ahead of time.  To get the answer, you have to follow Jesus.  The answer takes time.  You get the answer through lived experience.

Now you may have already known this, or maybe you just noticed this morning, but John is somewhat different from the other three gospels.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all follow pretty well the same story line and contain many of the same stories, much of the same teaching from Jesus.  John is a little different.  It was the last of the four gospels to be written.  It is more theological in tone - not just reporting what happened but explaining it for us.  Although explaining might be overstating it, because there always seems to be multiple layers of meaning, and in John, everything is not always spelled out.

In Mark, Jesus’ first words are “The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe the good news.”  In John, Jesus’ first words are “What are you looking for?” and “Come and see.”  It is about looking and finding and inviting.  As the gospel begins, Jesus makes no big dramatic claims.  Now John does – he begins the gospel with a very theological prologue, saying “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.”  But Jesus simply says, “Come and see.”  Check it out.

It is a low drama, very invitational way to call people - through their own curiosity and interest, a way that respects and honors their own experience.  And that’s the way it is for many of us, maybe most of us.

Many years ago, what was then the American Baptist Convention had something called Life Service Sunday, a day to especially encourage people to consider ministry as a profession.  In 1959 they published a brochure which told about how various leaders had been called to ministry.  Joan Thatcher, publicity director of the American Baptist Convention, asked Martin Luther King, Jr. to compose a statement for that brochure. In her request, Thatcher noted, “Apparently many of our young people still feel that unless they see a burning bush or a blinding light on the road Damascus, they haven’t been called.’

This is what King wrote:

My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular.  It came neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road of life.  Moreover, it did not come as a sudden realization.  Rather, it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me.  This urge expressed itself in a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry.  At first I planned to be a physician; then I turned my attention in the direction of law.  But as I passed through the preparation stages of these two professions, I still felt within that undying urge to serve God and humanity through the ministry.

During my senior year in college, I finally decided to accept the challenge to enter the ministry.  I came to see that God had placed a responsibility upon my shoulders and the more I tried to escape it the more frustrated I would become.  A few months after preaching my first sermon I entered theological seminary.  This, in brief, is an account of my call and pilgrimage to the ministry.

For King, his calling was a process, a journey.  It was a matter of, come and see. 

Two potential disciples expressed interest in a life of faith with Jesus.  And Jesus’ call to them was: come and see.  And they did.  These two followers of John become followers of Jesus. 

One of them is identified as Andrew.  He finds his brother Simon and says, “We have found the Messiah.”  Which is a pretty strong description of Jesus, based on Andrew’s brief interaction with him, although I suppose he is going by John the Baptist’s word as well.  But the fact is, at this point, he really has no idea what it means to be the Messiah.  This is something that he will have to come and see.  But he brings his brother Simon to Jesus and Jesus immediately calls him Cephas, or Peter, which means Rock.

The next day Jesus heads to Galilee.  He finds Philip, from Andrew and Simon’s hometown, presumable a friend of these brothers, and says “Follow me.”  And Philip does.  And like Andrew who immediately went and found his brother, Philip immediately goes and finds his friend Nathanael.  He tells Nathanael about Jesus of Nazareth.

Nathanael’s immediate response is, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’  You’ve got to love that response.  Nazareth was not a cosmopolitan kind of place; it was more of a backwater, Podunk town, with Gentile and Samaritan territory nearby, Roman soldiers and citizens in the area, far from the good influence of the temple in Jerusalem.  Nazareth was not exactly known for producing religious leaders, much less Messiahs.  And so Nathanael understandably responds with skepticism, with a bit of an eye roll.

Now, Philip might have tried to argue with Nathanael.  He might have tried to use scripture and his debate skills to try and convince his friend.  Or he might have just let the comment slide and said, “Whatever, suit yourself.”  But I like his response.  It is the same approach that Jesus took.  “Come and see.”  Why don’t you check it out for yourself?

And Nathanael does.  For his part, Jesus seems to appreciate Nathanael’s honesty and straightforwardness.  “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” he says.  And Nathanael winds up making a great profession of faith: “Rabbi, You are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!”  Nathanael repeats some of the traditional language.  He really doesn’t know what these words mean.  But he has signed up to find out.

There are a great number of people who find meaning and value in being part of a community of faith.  There are countless people who find love and healing and community through the church and who find hope and joy in following Jesus. 

But the trend isn’t so good.  Every year, surveys indicate that more and more people claim no religious affiliation.  People read about misconduct on the part of church leaders or see self-proclaimed Christians who seem to be a lot more interested in political power than in serving a hurting world, and they are turned off.  It’s not really news, but there is a lot of skepticism out there regarding a life of faith. 

Taking a stance of superiority and just assuming we are right and we have all the truth is not going to cut it.  It’s not real attractive.  I’ve had strangers knock on my door and tell me that I need to turn my life around, and I have to say that their message was not very compelling.  I have heard preachers on campus yelling at students as they walk by, and to be honest, their approach is not very effective.

There is a way of sharing the Good News that respects the other person.  I love these words of Jesus that we also hear from Philp.  “Come and see.”  We can bear witness to our own experience and invite others to come and see for themselves.

To say “Come and See” is to honors each person’s unique experience.  “Come and find out for yourself.”  When we do that, what we experience may not be exactly the same as the next person.  We understand Jesus, we grow in faith, we come to know God as part of our journey.  That journey may be different for each person, and it can take us places we never would have imagined.  Faith can’t be completely explained in advance, if it ever can.  It has to be lived.

Montgomery, Alabama.  1955.  The issue facing the community is the forced segregation of city buses.  Local pastors are gathered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.  The pastors are strategizing, trying to figure out what to do, how to proceed.  Rosa Parks had recently been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person. 

The meeting went on, with nothing clear emerging.  Until - the most unlikely thing.  The young pastor of the host church, new to town, unknown to the city fathers - a guy in his 20’s - raises his hand.  The Montgomery Bus Boycott had a leader.

Dr. King, who had been at the church for about a year and earned his doctoral degree just six months before, became the leader of the civil rights movement - not just in Montgomery, but in the country.  His journey with Jesus would take him places he never could have imagined.  There was no way to know where it would all go, but Jesus said, “Come and see.” 

Jesus continues to say to each one of us, “Come and see.”  Because following Christ is not a once-and-done thing – it is a daily choice, a continuing journey.  Come and see.  Amen.