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More Than a Miracle

(a sermon for January 27, 2019, the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, based on Isaiah 62:1-5 and John 2:1-11)

After having now officiated at 250 some-odd weddings over the years – including two within my own family this year – I think I can say with great certainty that at just about every wedding ceremony, something almost always goes wrong!

Mind you, it’s usually something very minor:  the groom stumbles on a line in the marriage vows; the flower girl panics, starts crying and refuses to walk down the aisle; the musicians miss their cue, leading to several moments of awkward silence as the processional is supposed to begin!  You know, just little mishaps that are barely noticed, much less remembered; but then, there are also things that happen that everybody sees and no one ever forgets!

Like at the wedding I attended with my parents years ago, long before I was a pastor: where literally moments before the ceremony was about to begin the church organ broke down and my father (who would be providing music for the reception) was asked if he could possibly bring his electric organ over to the church so that there could be music for the ceremony!  And so my father and I immediately rush over to the fire station where the reception was being held, lift that Hammond B3 organ on the back of the truck, head back to the church and very discreetly roll it into the sanctuary where the church organist was waiting, sheet music in hand; all of this in the space of ten minutes!  But we’re running late, and so after hitting the power switch, Dad and I go back to our seats and the organist sits down to begin playing the processional music.  Except – and this is an important piece of the story – that particular instrument was equipped with an electronic rhythm maker, AKA an automatic drumming machine which somehow in transit had inadvertently been switched on (!); so the moment the organist set her hands to keyboard to begin playing “O, Promise Me,” immediately the sanctuary was filled with a rousing and incredibly loud swing beat!  No matter the years that have gone by, I will never forget the sight of my father, red-faced and slinking down the church aisle, amidst riotous laughter (!), to turn off that automatic drummer so that the wedding could proceed!

I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a great lesson for a young pastor-to-be, but not the one you might think.  For you see, I also noticed that day that while we all laughed at what had happened, at the end of it all what people remembered the most about that particular wedding day was how beautiful the bride was, how great the ceremony was, how much in love she and her groom looked to be, and how much joy there was in their starting out on this journey of life together.  So often, you see, at a wedding – as in life, actually – there’s so much more to what’s happening than what you can actually see.

In our text this morning from John’s gospel, we’re told that “there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee” and that it was attended by Jesus, his disciples and, as it happens, also Jesus’ mother.  And under the heading of something always going wrong at a wedding, during this celebration the unthinkable happens: the host runs out of wine to serve all of his wedding guests. Understand, this was no mere faux pas; in a culture where hospitality meant everything, it was literally humiliating for a family to run short of wine; indeed, this was the kind of mistake that would tarnish their family’s reputation for years to come. So with a bit of prodding, shall we say, from his mother, and even though in his own mind it was a bit early to “go public,” that his “hour has not yet come,” Jesus changed six stone water jars, each one holding some 20 to 30 gallons of water, into wine for the celebration; and not just wine, but good wine, the kind of wine that any right-thinking host would have brought out for his guests early on in the evening.

This was Jesus’ first recorded miracle, and on the face of it, changing water into wine seems to be a great act of hospitality and celebration (I always loved the story about the little boy who heard this Bible story in Sunday School, and afterward when his mother asked him what he’d learned that day, the little boy replied, “I learned that if you’re going to have a party, make sure you invite Jesus!”).  And moreover, the fact that there’s this little exchange between Jesus and his mother just makes the story for me; not only is it truly funny and delightfully real (“They have no wine,” Jesus… “Well, what’s that got to do with me, Mother? Will you please just stop pushing me!”), but also, in all seriousness, it hearkens back to everything we read about during the Advent and Christmas seasons:  Mary’s knowledge, from the very beginning, of who Jesus was and why he’d come, not simply to this wedding celebration but indeed for humanity itself.

So, no doubt, there’s great significance in this miraculous changing of water into wine; but as we heard this text read this morning did you notice that it’s never actually referred to as a miracle?  That’s right; in fact, none of the miracles Jesus performs in John’s Gospel (and there are seven of them) are called miracles but rather signs.  In other words, in this story – as with so many other stories about Jesus, especially as they’re given to us in John – there is much more happening than simply what we see.  The miracle, as it were, is meant as a sign that points us beyond the miracle itself to what we’re supposed to see:  Jesus’ power and his glory.

More than a miracle, you see, as great as that is, it’s a proclamation of everything that Christ’s coming brings to the world!

For instance, it’s worth noting that those six 30-gallon jugs of water Jesus sent them to fill were containers used by devout Jews to fulfill the law as regards ceremonial washing; even and especially at a wedding feast, there were rituals of cleansing that needed to be followed.  So these six jars were not have simply been filled with buckets of well water, but with the purified and undefiled water of the Pharisees; this is what served as the “vessel,” so to speak, of Jesus’ miracle, and in doing so Jesus transformed these symbols of an older time and older way into a harbinger for the future and the imminent arrival of a “kingdom” of God!.

I mean, even the idea that Jesus would transform something tired, worn out and empty (like, old jars of water) into that which is rich, fragrant and ripe with the fullness of joy (as is new wine for a wedding feast) points so clearly to power of God; a power manifest in abundance where once was scarcity; celebration where uncertainty had once prevailed; the salvation of God’s own people symbolized by new, good wine!  You see?  Ultimately, it’s not about water becoming wine per se, any more than it is about a harried father of the bride saving face at the reception!  It’s more than a miracle, but a sign which reveals glory of Jesus, who takes the old and makes it new;  in whom a seemingly dead end of living becomes a new life filled with purpose, both now and eternally.

And the best part is that just as in the aftermath of this wedding celebration and everything that happened there, “his disciples believed in him,” even now, these are the signs by which we also come to know him… and believe.

Alyce McKenzie, Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Texas, makes a point of saying that in John these “signs” of Jesus happen when “human resources are at an end.”  At the wedding at Cana, there is no more wine left; likewise in the other miracles recorded in John, for instance when “humans have come to an end of their medical skills, supply of food, and supply of courage, Jesus heals, feeds, and comforts amid the storm.”  Even and especially in the cross, we bear witness to the Word made flesh coming to an end of his earthly life – it is his hour of death – and yet even in death, “God who sent him will flow into him with resurrecting power that will result in his glorification.  A miracle of supply where there is only lack.”

McKenzie’s words are a reminder to us that most often in our lives we are unaware of the glory and power of Jesus in our lives until those moments that we have no other resources in our lives, or from within ourselves, to draw from.  It’s only in those times when we’ve come to realize that the old lives we’ve led have nothing more to give that we discover, much to our surprise and amazement, that there’s been something new and transformative happening all along! I mean, how is it that there are moments in each of our lives when despite the cacophony of competing voices all around us and the many contradictions that would seemingly assault us, we still can stop in the silence of a new morning and know that it is a gift at the hand of the divine? How is it that the person in the midst of their own struggle of life and living – whatever that struggle happens to be – has had every bit of strength and courage tapped out of them, and yet still wakes up in the morning secure in the knowledge of what’s expressed in that wonderful hymn, “deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome some day.”  How is it that any of us can look to the nations of the world as they currently exist, with all their division and hatred and evil seeming to run unabated, and yet still be confident to our very souls that in the end truth, and justice, and dare we say, love will prevail?

It is because ours is the God who has given us a sign in the person of Jesus, who is the Christ; and who is the one who is the very fulfillment of those hope-filled words of prophecy we heard this morning from Isaiah:  “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch… You shall no more be termed forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight is in Her.”  And, get this:  “For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”

Sounds like it’s time to break out the new wine, because there’s going to be plenty of it!

Beloved, it’s as simple and as all-encompassing as this: Christ has come into the world not to leave that world as it is, nor to leave you and me standing alone in the midst of life’s sorrow and its emptiness.  Christ has come that we might be filled up as surely as were those stone jars with water that became wine.  Christ has come that you and I might begin to recognize the signs of his presence and power; and in doing so start to behold his glory: in our worship, in our work, in our prayer and service, in our relationships with one another, and in life unfolding.  And the thing is, when it happens it might just seem like a miracle; but in truth, it’s much more than that.  It’s the place where by God’s good grace life – true life – begins!

That each one of us here might discover that wondrous truth for ourselves is my prayer for us today.  May it be said of you and of me , just as those wedding guests discovered in Cana, that the best was indeed yet to come.

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on January 27, 2019 in Epiphany, Jesus, Life, Ministry, Sermon, Spiritual Truths

 

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A Summer Day With Jesus: Daily Distractions

"Jesus Teaches the People By the Sea," by James J. Tissot(a sermon for June 26, 2016, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost; 2nd in a series, based on Mark 3:7-12 and John 2:1-12)

Here’s an undeniable truth of life: No matter what time of year it is, there’s still stuff you gotta do!

I guess I’ve always held a highly idealized view of what summertime ought to be; basically that the days should be long and warm, and the living should be easy!  Things need to slow down, work and responsibility certainly ought to be at a minimum, and there should be ample time allowed for simply sitting out on the dock watching the world go by!

That’s the dream, to be sure; however, the reality is that summer carries with it its own framework of responsibility:  lawns have to be mown, for instance, and gardens need tending; and unless you happen to be on vacation, retired and/or independently wealthy, there still is that little matter of having to earn a living, no matter how nice it might be outside!  Bottom line is that summertime, or anytime for that matter, there’s still stuff you gotta do!

I was struck that at the end of last week’s reading of scripture – where Jesus goes to that “solitary place” early in the morning to pray –the disciples come looking for Jesus just so they can tell him that there are things that he needs to be doing.  “Everyone is searching for you,” (1:37) they say; there are people with diseases and demons, people who are lining up with questions and concerns and wondering where you are and if you’re coming! And it’s at this moment that Jesus’ quiet moments of spiritual renewal come to an end.

In all honesty, if I’d been there I might have asked why we couldn’t just remain in that place of solitude and prayer for a little while longer, or at the very least why we needed to go full tilt into the business of the day; or at least just ease into things!  But Jesus knew better; he understood that “proclaim[ing] the message… is what [he] came out to do.” (v. 38) And so he got up, and went to do the “stuff” that needed to be done; and the truth is, his work was only just beginning.

That’s what we learn in our first reading today, from Mark’s Gospel: that there was now “a great multitude from Galilee follow[ing] him;” and not only that, but now there were people from throughout the region seeking him out in great numbers.  David Lose, of Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, points out that by now “the whole people of Palestine recognize [Jesus] as someone very special.  Jesus has become, in today’s terms, a rock star;” to the point where now the disciples have “to take precautions to avoid [his] being crushed by his fans.”  Everywhere that Jesus goes it immediately becomes an event, often bordering on a mob scene; all because now people are starting to see who Jesus is and what he can do!  There are many similar scenes throughout the gospels; where Jesus and his followers walking through a village, and suddenly, there’s this throng of people pressing in on him; asking him to heal their diseases, asking him if their lives might somehow be restored, asking him again and again if their hope and their faith is real.

This is how it goes for Jesus every day, day in and day out!  There’s always more people, always more to do; and you have to wonder if Jesus ever felt like the message he was called to proclaim was getting lost somewhere in midst of all of those daily distractions!

Perhaps that’s part of what was behind that little exchange between Jesus and his mother that we find in our other reading this morning, the story of the Wedding in Cana from John.  This is when Mary comes to Jesus to let him know that the wedding planners for this event had run out of wine; the subtext here being, Jesus, if you wouldn’t mind… it would be a really nice thing if you could make some wine and get these people out of an awkward situation… just do it for me!  And to this Jesus responds – rather abruptly – “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?  My hour has not yet come.”  “This isn’t my time.  Don’t push me,” is how The Message translates that; and for me that says it all!  Now, biblical scholars are quick to tell us that this exchange has to do with Jesus not wanting to “go public,” so to speak, too early in “reveal[ing] his glory,” and that’s certainly true; but I think ultimately it’s more than that.  Because even this early in Jesus’ ministry, he began to realize that all these requests, these miracles, these distractions could easily keep him – and everyone else – from what those miracles were meant to represent!

And the thing is, you and I can understand that.  After all, who among us cannot name a time when our life’s obligations and opportunities became so voluminous and overwhelming that we risked losing the reasons why we took on those commitments in the first place?  You see it all the time: parents who work so hard to provide the best for their children, yet never end up having enough time to spend with them; people who put every bit of heart and soul into their jobs for the sake of professional advancement, only to find out that they’ve never really found any fulfillment whatsoever in the work; any of us who put everything we have into some kind of task, or goal, or cause and then discover that our single-minded devotion to that thing – whatever it happens to be – only served to obliterate everything else that ever mattered!

It’s so very easy, you see, for us to become distracted from what’s truly important.  The fact is, there’s always stuff you gotta do – stuff you want to do – but if you’re not careful you can be so distracted that you miss the real point of life and of living!

Jesus does understand this; and in both of our texts this morning, he answers the distraction by turning his attention to that which he came to do.  In John, water does indeed turn to wine, “the first of his signs…  [that] revealed his glory.”  And in Mark, Jesus simply moves forward on his mission: “cur[ing] many,” calling out “unclean spirits,” and later on, appointing the twelve to proclaim that same message; his same message! The point here is that Jesus’ response to these distractions that would seek to overwhelm him and pull him away from his ministry was to affirm and redirect his efforts so that it would fall in line with his Father’s will for him and for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.

And for those of us who are walking with Jesus on this summer day, friends; well, that would seem to be a good strategy as well.

I don’t think that I’ve ever shared with you that for a period of time a few years ago, I actually served as a police chaplain.  It really wasn’t quite as exciting as that sounds; our local police department wanted to have some connection with the pastors in our community in times of crisis; and that really didn’t happen all that often.  But they did give me a badge (which was kind of cool, I’ll admit), and I got to do a ride-along once or twice; so it was worthwhile.

Well, one day they called and asked if I might assist the police with what they described as a sensitive matter.  It seemed that there was this elderly woman who had been living in a house with her brother; but the two of them had not been getting along, and there had already been several “domestic disturbance” calls to that house!  Long story short, the woman had finally decided to move out, and had found an apartment just outside of town; and, they asked, since she doesn’t have a car would you mind, please, going to pick her up and giving her a ride?  The officer assured me she was sweet and harmless and I’d be doing the department a big favor if I could just do this; and though it was a busy day for me, I said, yes, I can do that; after all, this shouldn’t take too long.

Well, I went to pick her up, and as promised here was this sweet elderly lady waiting for me.  I introduced myself, put her few belongings in the back of my car, and she sat down beside me in the front seat.  And when I said something to the effect that we’d have her in her new place in no time, she replied, “Well, I actually can’t get into to my apartment for an hour and a half; and I’m kind of hungry.  Could we go get something to eat?  There’s a new hot dog place out on the main road… do you know it?”  Okay… Well, it was lunchtime, so a few minutes later, we’re eating hot dogs and fries together; and she’s telling me all about herself and her life, about her low-life brother and about how she needed a new start.

It was a nice lunch, and a good conversation; and the beauty part was that by the time we got back to the car, it was just about time to get this woman to her apartment.  However, it was at this precise moment that she announced to me, “I think I need some underwear…  There’s a sale on underwear at R.H. Reny’s in Biddeford… can you take me there?”  Twenty minutes later, we’re in downtown Biddeford, and she’s in the store buying underwear while I’m waiting in the car (what can I say, it wasn’t that far out of my way!).  I must confess that by now I’m thinking, well, no wonder the police called me for this (!); they don’t have time to waste driving this woman all over the county!  And I’m starting to think of all the things that are back at home not getting done; and getting all antsy and irritated in the process.  I certainly didn’t need this kind of distraction because I’m busy enough as it is!

Anyway, she finally gets back in the car, and as I pull out to drive her directly to her apartment, she says, “You know what I’d really like?  An ice cream sundae… didn’t we pass a Friendly’s on the way over here?”  And I said, “Aren’t you supposed to meet your landlord?  You said an hour and a half, and we’re pretty late as it is!”  She replied, “Did I say an hour and a half?  I meant that we’re supposed to meet him at four!”  And of course, it’s only three!  Now, I wanted to say, “No, I’m sorry, I can’t do that, I don’t have time; we’ll have to find out someplace to wait.”  I wanted to say, “Good grief, I’m a pastor, not a taxi driver!”  But I said nothing… we went to Friendly’s for ice cream… and by the way?  The whole time I’m with her – every minute in the car, every moment between bites – she’s talking… telling me more about herself than I probably needed to know… and I’m listening, but not altogether gladly.  There was ton of stuff I had to do back home; a million ways I could be spending this particular afternoon more effectively; other, better places I could be than here!

I’m quite lost in my inner grumbling when I’ve realized that she’s paused for a moment; and then, with a tear in her own eye, looks me squarely into mine and says, “I know I’m asking a lot of you.  But you know, I don’t ever have anyone to talk to who actually cares enough to listen to me.”

At that moment I was utterly humbled by the realization that I’d spent this whole afternoon totally distracted:  not by that woman and our shared trek across southern Maine; but rather by my own misguided sense of what was truly important.  Here I was called to be a pastor to this perfect stranger; it was the whole reason I’d come, so to speak; but because of my self-distractions, I’d nearly missed the opportunity to minister in Christ’s name to this one in need.

We’re spending this summer day with Jesus, and it’s a day filled with things to do, people to see, love to share.  It never seems to end; but when we ask our Lord about this, about when things might slow down and life might go a little easier, he simply smiles and answers, “This is what I came out to do.”

And if you follow me, this is what you’re called to do, too.

Beloved, you and I are called to this wonderful, incredible and sometimes overwhelming ministry of love and care in Jesus’ name.  Let our prayer be that none of us become so distracted that we miss out on the wonder of that.

May all that we do lead us to confess Christ’s holy name, and proclaim that our…

…thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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