Sacramental Illumination

A Sermon for Epiphany2; Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

In Mission Impossible Fallout a terrorist organization steals plutonium cores and plans to use them to wreak havoc. The hunt (pardon the pun) is on; agents are searching major cities all over the world. They are surprised when the terrorists are located high in the Himalayas. Julia, Hunt’s partner, realizes nuclear explosions here would contaminate water for as much as half of the world’s population. It’s an interesting thought that the loss of water, after all, we have so much of it, could be a major crisis. And then I read an article in the New York Times about the Tuyuksu glacier which supplies water to 2 million people. It has shrunk by miles, and a water shortage likely in the next 20 years. When you look at all Central Asia, the Tibetan Plateau, Himalayan, and Karakoram shrinking glaciers are the source of water for millions. It may not be a nuclear blast. but changing weather patterns are threatening the lives of millions and millions (Ruby and O’Neil).

In our Gospel readings for the last two weeks, water is significant. Last week Jesus is baptized (Luke3:15) in the waters of the Jordan River (Matthew 3:11). This morning Jesus turns water, reserved for rites of purification, into excellent wine. One aspect of this miracle is its Eucharistic, and sacramental, overtones (O’Day). By an act of the divine muse, this connected to a phrase from today’s collect illumined by your Word and Sacraments. I got to thinking about sacrament as illumination.

You recall that a sacrament

 is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace (BCP 857).

Pondering all Jesus’ miracles, you might notice a common trait, they all involve something extraordinary happening, something that is unbelievably beyond human possibility, something spiritual. Grace is defined as

God’s favor, undeserved, unearned, by which our sins are forgiven, our hearts stirred, and wills strengthened (BCP 858).

Grace, in part, is a sort of spiritual mitochondria. Mitochondria are the parts of cells that produce the energy they use, sort of little power plants. Grace is, in part, a spiritual power plant, that enables us to do those things that are beyond our human abilities.

Certainly, the transformation of water into wine is beyond human ability, so, by grace empowered spiritual action Jesus transforms water into wine. However, we get to easily distracted by the transformation; much more is going on here. The water was set aside for purification. In the Bible, purification rites are how an unclean person is restored to the enjoyment of religious privileges, and daily life. (Easton). It can be as simple as washing hands and goes from there. Our practice of baptism in part is developed from this concept (Sakenfeld). It is what John is referring to last week when he tells the crowd I baptize you with water (Luke 3:17). Another connection in this morning’s story is the revelation of Jesus as a presence of divine glory (Gaventa and Petersen).

When Jesus’s mother tells him about the wine crisis his response is What concern is that to me? It’s a good question, he isn’t the host (The Living Church). Jesus is a guest, and guests are supposed to bring food and wine as a sign of their support for the marriage, a shortage could be a sign of a lack of community support for the groom and bride (Trozzo). It was also customary to invite as many as people as possible to a wedding feast. To run short of wine would be a major hospitality blunder, shaming the whole family (Keener and Walton). In Jesus’ day water was not safe to drink, wine was the usual and customary drink, so, the lack of wine could be a public health issue (Trozzo). Beyond all these kinds of reasons there is scripture; Psalm 104:14 reads

You make grass grow for flock and herds and plants to serve mankind; that they may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden our hearts (The Living Church).

One of God’s attributes is bringing wine to gladden our hearts. In Proverbs and Hosea, the abundance of wine is an eschatological (end of time) image, of restoration (Trozzo). Biblical marriage ceremonies are also symbolic of the last days and the celebration of God’s future reign (Gaventa and Petersen). One final bit, when needs are met even commonplace needs like the one in Cana that day somehow joy follows, and that joy flows from the revelation of the glory of God (Hoezee). Which may be the point, the wine problem is a concern for Jesus, because in meeting the need of an everyday event, like the wedding feast, God’s Glory is revealed.

So, how does all this connect to sacraments? You know there are two great sacraments; Baptism and Eucharist, and several other sacraments: confirmation, ordination, marriage, reconciliation of a penitent (better known as confession) and unction (anointing of the sick) (BCP 860). The Catechism goes on to say

God is not limited to our rites, they are patterns of countless ways by which God uses material things to reach out to us (BCP 861).

So, any time we are confronted with someone else’s problem, there is the opportunity for us to follow Jesus example and meet a common need, and in doing so reveal the presence and glory of God. And when the challenge is beyond our human abilities we can rely on the mitochondrial energy of grace, to empower such a spiritual sign. Any time the presence and glory of God are revealed is a time of illumination, spiritual illumination.

Last week I read of a bus driver being called a hero because she saw a 2-year-old in a diaper and onesie walking into the street, she stopped her bus, got out, picked up the child and carried it to safety. This is a moment as full of grace as Jesus’ transformation of water to wine, it is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, it is a spiritual illumination, revealing the presence of God. I believe such moments are present to us all the time; we just don’t see them as such, because we have limited our understanding of ‘the ever-present’ to time excluding geography; yes, grace is present all the time, and ~ grace is also anywhere and everywhere.

May this season of Epiphany, this season of light, this season of illumination, reveal the opportunities for it to be your concern, to draw on the power of grace, meeting a common need, revealing the glory and presence of God, in a sacramental illumination moment.


References

Easton, Matthew George. Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary. WORDsearch Corp., 2008.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 20 1 2019. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 2:1-11. 20 1 2019.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Richter, Amy. “The Frist Sign Epiphany 2.” 20 1 2019. Sermons that Work.

Ruby, Matt and Claire O’Neil. “Glaciers Are Retreating. Millions Rely on Their Water.” New York Times (2019). <https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/01/15/climate/melting-glaciers-globally.html&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.

The Living Church. “Many Gifts and the One Gift of Joy.” 20 1 2019. livingchurch.org. <livingchurch.org/2018/08/22/freedom-and-popular-culture>.

Trozzo, Lindsey. Commentary on John 2:1-11. 20 1 2019. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

 

 

Our Prodigal Selves

A sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent: Joshua 5:9-12, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3,11b-32, Psalm 32

 

He was simply known as Bill. The Air Force Academy Cadets did not notice him much; there was only an occasional nod of the head or “good morning.” as they rushed off to whatever. Bill was the janitor, the housekeeper, who picked up behind them, kept their squad room spotless, from floors to showers. Bill was just another fixture, all but invisible, blending into squad’s dorm.

One afternoon James Moschgat was reading about the US Army battle for Italy when the story of Altavilla caught his attention.

On September 13, 1943, a Private William Crawford of the 36th Infantry Division, had been involved in some bloody fighting on Hill 424 “in the face of intense and overwhelming hostile fire… with no regard for personal safety… on his own initiative, Private Crawford single-handedly attacked fortified enemy positions.” It continued, “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty, the President of the United States …

James couldn’t believe it; his squad’s janitor held the Medal of Honor. He asked Bill about it the next day. “Yep – that is me,” he said. When asked why he didn’t say anything he answered: “That was one day in my life, and it happened a long time ago.”

Things changed. The cadets greeted Bill with respect. They began to pick up after themselves. Bill was invited to some formal squad affairs. Bill also changed. He moved with more ease, wasn’t quite so stooped. He answered the cadet’s greetings eye to eye and a hearty “good morning.” He learned many of the cadets’ first names. As James left the dorm for the last time, Bill shook his hand and wished him “Good luck young man.” (Moschgat).

You know the story of the Prodigal Son or Sons¸ or whatever title you apply to Luke 5:11. You know the brash young son asks for his inheritance, essentially telling his father to “drop dead” (Hoezee, Luke). After squandering it all, he returned home intending to ask his father for a job as a hired hand. But he never got the chance, as his father lovingly welcomes him home, throws a lavish party for him, and gives him luxurious gifts. You know the parable is about God’s boundless grace, given to all without merit. You might even have thought about the older brother. He bears the burden of goodness, always doing what he should, as he should when he should (Epperly). He gets angry at his younger brother and his father, complaining that his father has never given him anything. The father replies “All this will be yours.” But we never hear if older brother eventually understands his father’s grace, or is as lost as his younger brother was (Ringe). You might understand how indignant he feels if you’ve ever worked hard all day, given it your best, only to have all your efforts overlooked at best and perhaps considered worthless (Lose). Have you ever noticed that the older brother never got any joy or fulfillment from his work; that, for all intended purposes, he thought of himself as a hired hand, exactly what his younger brother, in shame, sought to be (Hoezee, Luke).

Yes, we know this parable is about grace. However, when we remember that this morning’s Gospel reading begins with the Pharisees and scribes grumbling about Jesus fellowshipping and eating with tax collectors and sinners, the undesirables of the undesirables, we begin to understand how it is also about relationships. Not just our relationship with God, but also with each other, as Paul is defining it to the Corinthians. Jesus, reconciling everything to God, through himself, changes all relationships. Paul says we must see everything and everyone as reconciled with God. Not only are we bearers of God’s image; we also are bearers of God’s saving grace (Hoezee, 2 Corin.). The parable reveals that grace, righteousness, and justice are not about balancing the books. Grace, righteousness and justice are about restored relationships (Ellingsen). It is about seeing God / Jesus in everything and every person (Epperly). Perhaps most difficult for us to glean is that it is about our internal transformation (Sakenfeld). We get that in our relationship with God; we struggle with it in our relationships with others.

There is a Bible study method that invites you to see which character, in, or implicit, or imagined you are in a parable. You are asked to reflect on how you are that character; not as the typical allegory, but as you. You know the father is the allegorical figure of God. This study method asks you to imagine yourself as the father, as you are. We might ask ourselves, “How did we contribute to our older son’s feeling?” We might review our behavior to see if we ever expressed the feelings we have for our dutiful older son. We might wonder how we can express the same joy we have for his diligence that we expressed for our younger son’s return from his indiscretions. Moschgat’s story of his cadet squadron’s changed relationship with Bill is edifying.

At the end of the article, he lists several learnings; two apply this morning. He writes

Everyone Deserves Respect. Because we hung the “janitor” label on Mr. Crawford, we often wrongly treated him with less respect than others. He deserved much more, and not just because he was received the Medal of Honor. Bill deserved respect because he was a janitor, walked among us, and was a part of our team.

He continues – courtesy makes a difference, daily words moving from a perfunctory ‘hello’ to heartfelt greetings matter (Moschgat). I once heard a priest say “How are you?” is the most dangerous question you can ask because you must be prepared for the truthful answer; ready to listen to all of it. It is important to notice that the cadets did not directly change Bill’s behavior. They changed their behavior, and the impact of the change in themselves evoked the change in Bill.

The Book of Common Prayer teaches us that “the ministry of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP). Our mission is to reconcile all relationships. Clearly I cannot reconcile all your relationships, nor can any of you reconcile all of anyone else’s relationships, and none of us can reconcile relationships of those we don’t know. What we can be, is responsible for is our own relationships. We can trust that through Jesus our relationship with God is reconciled. We can understand that it is our behavior towards others, not just what we say; that is the true measure of our Christian relationships, especially involving those we don’t like and/or don’t believe are worthy. And, finally, we can trust that by working on our behavior, by working on changing ourselves, we will, as the cadets demonstrated, evoke changes in the other.

It is my prayer for each of us that some portion of our remaining Lenten discipline, and our daily discipline thereafter, will be to tend to our prodigal selves, known and unknown, joyfully welcoming our repentant self, and likewise jubilantly celebrating our diligent self.

 

References

Ellingsen, Mark. 6 3 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 6 3 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Fredrickson, David E. Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:1621. 6 3 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Helmer, Ben. “Ambassador for Christ, Lent 4 (C) – 2016.” 6 3 2016. Sermons that Work.

Hoezee, Scott. Lent 4 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. 6 3 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

—. Lent 4 Luke. 6 3 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. Perspective Matters. 6 3 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Lent 4 C: The Prodigal God. 6 3 2016.

Moschgat, James. Leadership and the Janitor. Fall 2010. <http://usoonpatrol.org/archives/2010/09/07/leadership-and-the-janitor&gt;.

Ringe, Sharon H. Commentary on Luke 15:13, 6 3 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Episcopal Church. Book of Common Prayer. 1979.

Emmanuel Grace

A Sermon for the Last Sunday in Epiphany: Exodus 34:29-35, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a], Psalm 99

For my last quarter as a senior in college, I went with a group to England. While there, I took a side trip to Stonehenge. At the time, the public could still walk among the stones. You could feel them, not just their tactile sense, but their mystical sense. Stonehenge feels different. Even though I cannot describe it, I will remember it forever. Fast forward to sometime in the future, when Angie and I take a longed for trip to Scotland, and Italy, the lands of our respective heritages. While there we want to see the art. I’d like to see Michelangelo’s Moses with its horns. Look at the next to last page of your orders, and you will find a picture. It’s not bad, you get a sense of the statue’s grandeur; maybe even its size. But I want to be there. I wonder if being in its presence evokes a similar sense of mystery as Stonehenge did. I wonder what those horns evoke.

'Moses'_by_Michelangelo

And no, Michelangelo did not make a mistake. The Hebrew verb ‘shone’ is derived from the noun ‘horn.’ Ancient eastern icons often show gods with horns. Pharaohs of some Egyptian dynasties are regularly shown wearing a ram’s horn on their face. At the same time, the translators are right, ancient eastern gods were believed to have glowing faces (Gavenat and Petersen). Maybe it is just possible to carve a horn and not so much to carve radiance. However, what has my attention this morning is not so much why Moses’ face glows, or Jesus’ for that matter, but the response of those around them.

Moses comes down the mountain for the second time, yep, this is after the whole golden calf debacle, and his face is glowing. The people are afraid, and they work out a deal; when Moses isn’t doing his prophet thing, he will cover his face. It is a little strange because it is possible that Moses’ radiant face just may be the reflection of grace extended by God for Israel’s idolatrous ramp with a calf (Hoezee, Exodus). Then again grace can be scary because it is also a reminder of your sinful and evil behaviors (Hoezee, Luke). Some think that by having Moses veil his face the Israelites are trying to prevent another profane act. I wonder if they are trying to keep it from being too close. We all know that Emmanuel, God is with us, is fine, but just not too close.

We also know Jesus’ transfiguration is connected to Moses shining face. Jesus, Peter, James and John go up the mountain. Jesus is praying, his face changes, his clothes glow and suddenly he is talking with Moses and Elijah about his departure. We all know ever impetuous Peter wants to build a three booths, for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. It sounds like a fine idea; it is a great way to honor all three. However, eight days ago, Peter acknowledged Jesus is God’s Messiah. Eight days ago, Jesus shared with his disciples about his future: suffering, betrayal, and death. And as Scott Hoezee points out, since then nothing! Not one word (Hoezee, Luke). I kind of get the feeling this whole messiah thing is not what Peter or any of the disciples was thinking. Jesus speaking about his future carries a pall of sin and evil; it is dark. I think that the whole booths thing, while impetuous, is a pretty clever way of getting Emmanuel back in the box. We all know that Emmanuel, God is with us, is fine, but suffering, betrayal, and death is not exactly what anyone expects, or what they want.

A common theme to these stories is Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” In Exodus, the people want to cover it up. In Luke, the disciples want to box it in. I got to wondering. When we come across Emmanuel, are we as welcoming, as we are to everyone else? Or are we more like our biblical forbearers and try to find a way to be welcoming, at a safe distance?

But here is the thing about Emmanuel and grace, they are not safe. They always remind us of our complicity in sin and evil. Because, only then, can they always remind us that we, and everyone else, are forgiven and that all creation is being healed.

It has been my experience that Emmanuel grace is generally not so much in your face (Hoezee, Luke). You know you’ve encountered Emmanuel grace by NSP, non-sensory perception; you feel it, you see it, not in a tactile or sensory way; you just know it’s presence. And, in faith, as we risk a closer encounter, we begin to glean how as each of us is made in the image of God, each of us reflects Emmanuel grace to the other, and in doing so, each strengthens the other. And the more we share, the more we trust that we can venture into the shadows of the world; because we all know, each of us have our own shadows, that are forgiven in the light of Christ (Carvalhaes).

Emmanuel grace, the grace of God, who is with us, is very much the Kingdom of God. Right here, right now, is where ever, whenever any of us happen to be. From highest mountain top to broadest plain, Emmanuel grace is ours to share anywhere anytime; from highest mountain top to broadest plain Emmanuel grace is ours to receive anywhere anytime. May we all be strengthened from glory to glory.

 


 

References

Carvalhaes, Cláudio. Commentary on Luke 9:28-36, (37-43). 7 2 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 7 2 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Exodus 34:29-35. 7 2 2016.

—. The Lectionary Gospel Luke 9:28-36. 7 2 2016.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Yarchin, William. “Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Exodus 34:2935.” 7 2 2016. Working Preacher.

 

Simple Acts – Extravagant Grace- Transformative Belief

A sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Epiphany: Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10
1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

You all know the story of the Wedding in Cana. Jesus is invited to a wedding, and the host is running out of wine. After being prompting by his mom, he asks some servants to fill up jugs of water. The water becomes wine, very good wine, and there are lots of it something like a thousand bottles (Lewis, 2016). This is not the only ancient story of a supernatural production of wine in the ancient Mediterranean world (Harrelson, 2003). I suspect it’s extravagance exceeds the others.I’ve preached and suspect you’ve heard about the glory and extravagant abundance. You might have explored the implications of a wedding feast as not so much a family event but a village event. It is a time when everyone takes a break from the endless drudgery of daily, weekly, and monthly, labor (Cox, 2016). It’s a time to eat and drink abundant food and wine. It is a time to celebrate the bounty of harvests past and, more importantly, the harvest to come. Throughout scripture, a wedding is symbolic of the last days and God’s future reign (Gaventa & Petersen). Not all the elements are bright. To run short of wine is seen as running short of blessing (Lose, 2016).

This morning two short almost throw away phrases caught my attention: “and they took it” the other phrase “and his disciples believed.”

Imagine you are a servant at this feast. You know wine is running short. You are a part of that background buzz in a social event at the edge of calamity. You hear a guest say something to another. His answer lets you know he is her son. His answer that his hour, his time has not come is cryptic, but that is none of your concern. Then she turns to you; the eye contact is direct. I image the tone; it is rare, it is not commanding, not acquiescent, not even specifically directed at you. Still, there is an air of expectation: “Do whatever he says.” Without explanation, Jesus says to fill the water jars. The guests use the water to purify – or to wash their hands, so there is water there. But they are large, and there are a lot of them, and you have other responsibilities to tend to. Nonetheless, you help your colleagues fill them. When you are done, he says “Take some to the chief steward.” You note he didn’t taste it. You don’t taste it; you just do as you were told. You notice the steward’s amazement as the wine is tasted. You witness his summoning the bridegroom for an off to the side conversation; you can overhear the stewards’ praise for the quality of the wine being served after the guests won’t likely realize it’s quality.

We’ve been so trained to hear this story one way it is easy to overlook some gleanings. Think about how easy it is to be a part of sharing grace. The servants’ tasks were very simple. There are no decisions just do as ask. The same is true for us in just doing as we are asked we can be a part of sharing abundant grace. Notice that Mary has no authority over the servants, she asks, well speaks, and they comply. Notice also how few of the recipients know the source. None of the guests, not the steward, not the bridegroom, only Mary, Jesus, and the servants. Sharing grace is often a quiet even unnoticed effort.

I know you have heard it because I have said it experiencing God’s grace more often than not happens in usual and customary places. Being a part of serving God’s people doesn’t take anything special, just a willingness to participate when opportunities arise, especially when you cannot see the connection between the source of potential troubles and the offered solution. Part of witnessing God’s grace is learning to see differently. While not as specular as a thousand bottles of wine moments of divine grace happen all the time. And when you are involved in sharing grace, you never know whose looking. And that brings us to second phrase “and his disciples believed.”

Of Jesus disciples at the wedding two were following John, one is unnamed. The other, Andrew, goes and gets his brother Peter. Down the road, presumably on the way to the wedding, Phillip and Nathanael accept Jesus’ invitation to “come and see.” That makes five disciples: two heard John’s proclamation about Jesus identity. Peter is invited by his brother to meet the Messiah; Philip and Nathanael accept Jesus’ invitation to come and see. None have any real direct experience of Jesus. All this happens in the three days.

I’ve been to a few swanky weddings, but I’ve never seen anyone arrived with five additional guests. I never have seen someone just shown up uninvited. Without making any insinuations about social protocol, there does seem to be a quality about Jesus that draws people to follow him anywhere. It doesn’t take much to imagine that they have shared the stories of how they came to be with Jesus. They would all know the possibility that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Although he does not seem to have any of the expectations; he is not a mighty warrior, he is not from Royal blood, at least not obviously, he is not from the prophetic tradition, he is not of a priestly clan, he is just a man going to a wedding. There is John’s proclamation, but John is a bit of an extremist, living in the wilderness; still there is something about Jesus that makes it is easy to follow him. When I’ve been to big parties where I don’t know anyone, I’ve tended to keep the person who invited me in sight. It doesn’t take much to imagine the disciples are aware of the impending flummox over the shortage of wine. It is possible they overhear the conversation; so they may well know the whole story. We know that, at the least, they witnessed something because John tells us they know Jesus miraculously provides lots of really good wine for the rest of the wedding feast. We know what they saw leads them to believe in Jesus. Two heard John the Baptist call Jesus the Lamb of God, which has messianic implications. And we heard Andrew tell Peter that Jesus is the Messiah. What that means, at this point we don’t know. I’m not sure they know. I am not sure it is important. What is important is that they came to believe, they came to have faith in Jesus.

Of all the places one might say is the place where you came to believe in Jesus as God’s Messiah I don’t imagine a huge party would be high on anyone’s list. So if you want to see Jesus, my experience is that folks witness the presence of God more often than not in the mundane and ordinary, grocery store, school, an office even a wedding.

Two points: If you are seeking God look in the places you are every day. If you are really seeking God, try the street corners, back alleys, homeless shelters, food pantries, charitable clinics, refugee camps, and transition houses. Go anywhere folks are reaching out to the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the oppressed, the depressed, those who are abused or otherwise marginalized and driven by society to the edge of life. Go any place where there is risk and the potential for tragedy. In the bible, this is where Jesus spent almost all his time. It is also the places from which God calls almost all the kings, prophets or other to lead his people.

Neurologists know our brain is configured to recognize and instantly react to danger, fear, scarcity and so on. I know that media and advertising businesses play on that reality. I see and hear every day how politicians use it. Much of what we hear every hour of every day deliberately pokes at our fear, danger response. We need, God’s people need stories of grace and abundance, stories of extravagant abundance and amazing grace for all (Lose, 2016).We need stories like this one. We also need to be a part of the story; we need to experience, to witness grace and abundance freely shared with all. And you can, they can, we can all be a part of sharing God’s grace and abundance. It is not even hard. Like the servant sharing is as simple as doing what we are asked by God, or by someone else, in a moment of observed or unobserved risk, tragedy, fear, or need, perhaps without analysis or deliberated consideration. It is as simple as St. Stephen’s Friday Families, our support of community ministries. It is as simple as sitting next to a visitor who wanders into God’s house. It is as simple as asking them to share a cup of coffee after worship.

So, while the story is set in a wedding in Cana, it is not just about a wedding with catering problems. The story is about simple acts that reveal extravagant grace, which leads to transformative belief. It is a continuing story you are a part of, sometimes as the servant, sometimes as the witness, sometimes as both. It is a story of how we proclaim the Kingdom of God is right here, right now.


 

References

Cox, J. (2016, 1 17). Come and Dine, Epiphany 2(C) – 2016. Retrieved from Sermons that Work.

Ellingsen, M. (2016, 1 17). Retrieved from Lectionary Scripture Notes: http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/

Epperly, B. (2016, 1 17). The Adventurous Lectionary. Retrieved from Pathos: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly

Gaventa, B. R., & Petersen, D. (n.d.). New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville.

Harrelson, W. J. (2003). The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press.

Hoezee, S. (2016, 1 17). Epiphany 2C John 2:1-11. Retrieved from Center for Excellence in Preaching: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu

Lewis, K. (2016, 1 17). Embodied Epiphanies. Retrieved from Working Preacher: workingpreacher.org

Lose, D. (2016, 11 1). Epiphany 2 B: What Grace Looks Like! Retrieved from In the Meantime: 17

Pérez-Álvarez, E. (2016, 1 17). Commentary on John 2:1-11. Retrieved from Working Preacher: http://www.workingpreacher.org/

 

 

Sordid Grace

A Sermon for Proper 27

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17, Psalm 127, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

A classmate of mine, Shania, had once been a carter serving the high society in Savanah Ga. She attested to the truth of the portrayal of Savanah’s society in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. She shared the story of one socialite who wasn’t satisfied with her family’s social position; that was primarily the results of its short history. So she decided to do some genealogy work, looking back to the Civil War and Revolutionary War for ancestors of note. She wasn’t successful, at least not as she had hoped. There were no heroes; however, there was a great-great-grandfather who had been hung as a horse thief.

They were no longer a nomadic society, but the elders of a tribe or clan village were the arbitrators of law and justice.

Elimelech and Naomi live in Bethlehem with their sons Mahlon and Chilion. Famine was in the land, and Elimelech moves them to Moab. Nothing is said about famine there. We do know it is risky because Moab is a traditional enemy of the Hebrews, and its inhabitants are looked down upon as morally inferior (Harrelson). Regardless, Mahlon and Chilion marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. It appears that Elimelech has made a wise decision, until he and both sons die. Naomi and her daughters in laws are at great risk with no providers or protectors.

Naomi decides she will return to Bethlehem which paradoxically means “House of Bread/Food” (Harrelson). Orpah decides to go home; Ruth swears loyalty

Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God. (Ruth 1:16, NRSV)

Naomi’s decision is precarious. It has been ten years, and the family lands would not have been left fallow. Redeeming them will be a challenge, even if she can identify one of Elimelech’s relatives. As an alien, Ruth is at even greater risk (Hoezee).

When they arrive in Bethlehem Naomi is recognized. Still, they have no shelter, and no source of income or food. The story says nothing about where they live. It says Ruth goes out to glean the fields, which is the traditional way the poor and destitute feed themselves. I recall a prohibition against joining fields, because it reduces food sources for the poor,      even if joining them could make the fields more profitable. But back to the story. It so happens, the field Ruth chose belongs to Boaz, an in-law of Naomi through Elimelech. He treats Ruth well (Luther Seminary, n.d.). Here we catch up to today’s story.

After Ruth tells Naomi about her encounter with Boaz, Naomi has an idea and gives her detailed instructions. She tells Ruth to clean up, dress up, gussy up and after the party that follows the harvest, and it will be a big party – lots of feasting, then go lay down by Boaz’s feet and do what he says. It’s is a risqué and risky ruse (Wines) (Jacobson, Lewis, & Skinner). However, everything goes as planned. Boaz recognizes that Ruth could have solved her needs be seeking out one of the eligible younger men; however, that would have done nothing for Naomi. Her seeking out Boaz is Naomi’s only hope of redemption (Harrelson). He is impressed and promises to do as she has asked.

There is a potential problem because there is a relative who has a potentially superior claim to redeem the land. So, Boaz gives Ruth a cloak full of grain, as food security and perhaps a sign of good faith, and promises to get things all settled. Boaz goes to the gate to find the relative and learn his desire. It is complicated because in the 10-year absence the land would not have been left fallow meaning someone is working and profiting from it (Harrelson).

Boaz inquires about the relative’s intent to redeem Elimelech’s land, making it known that if he won’t redeem it Boaz will. The relative decides not to exercise his privilege and Boaz claim is made and witnessed by 10 elders. The others at the gate bestow a blessing that includes references to Tamar and Perez, her son, whose birth is another intriguing story about assuring family lineage. Tamar and Perez are Boaz’s 5th generation relatives.

Ruth and Boaz have a son, Obed. Curiously the story has the Bethlehem’s women refer to Obed as Naomi’s son. However, recognizing him as Naomi’s is the only way the lands of Naomi’s family can be redeemed, and her future secured (Harrelson). Our reading ends noting that Obed is David’s grandfather; making Ruth, an alien, David’s, the prototype King of Israel, great-grandmother.

At one level, this is a story of redemption. Redemption is the process by which people, property, and prestige lost through poverty, violence, or some other cause are restored to a family. The “redeemer” is the designated family member who is expected to recover what has been or is in danger of being lost from a family’s control (Harrelson). Much of the Leviticus and Deuteronomy law about intimate relationships is all about maintaining clear lines of property ownership, which, in an agrarian society, assures survival.

The tale, for all its simplicity, is remarkably complex, with lots of intimations and innuendos. All of which require the hearer to know the background story of the Hebrews, and the rest of the story, to understand any given scene, to really understand what’s going on (Wines). As always, much learning can be lost when verses are skipped, as we did today; but again I wander.

The story of Ruth is also about the mysterious ways of God. At a national level, where purity of bloodlines is paramount, and looking ahead we are perhaps surprised when we realize that David descends from lineage outside Israel. David’s ancestors are unsavory aliens. Put that into today’s presidential debate! Same is truth for Jesus; Ruth, Boaz, Obed, and David are part of Jesus’ lineage in the opening of Matthew’s Gospel account (Harrelson) (Hoezee). Jesus’ ancestors are also unsavory aliens.

As we see the movement of the story from emptiness to fullness, from bitterness to joy, from brokenness to Shalom we witness the silent hand of God at work (Wines) (Hoezee). In the midst of worldly indifference, God cares (Wines). Naomi’s redemption is not the results of her exemplary behavior. It is a story of the quiet graciousness, of Ruth and Boaz, individually and together revealing God’s grace. As we see aspects of Naomi in our life’s story, we recognize how we also receive unmerited love. We see how our redemption is due to someone else’s faithfulness, not our own (Harrelson).

The story is another revelation of how the words and actions God’s people, and that includes all peoples, from every family, tribe, and nation, reveal God’s work, and God’s love. The story shows that Naomi and Ruth are servants to each other, as our Baptism calls us to be (Jacobson, Lewis, & Skinner). The story is full of people crossing boundaries, the decision to go to Moab; Ruth’s pledge of loyalty to Naomi, Boaz’s gracious treatment of Ruth, and Ruth and Boaz’s allowing Obed to be recognized as Naomi’s son all cross significant cultural boundaries. The story shows us what can heal and blossom when people from different social positions decide that relationships are more important than cultural definitions (Wines).

Shania’s client got all caught up in the shame of her family’s sordid history. I wonder what could happen if she explored her family’s journey to its current, albeit modest, social position.

Each of our family’s history, our church’s history (local and writ large), our community’s, state’s and country’s histories all have episodes of sordid darkness that has its effects on our lives today. We can pretend that history does not exist. We can wallow in the muck and darkness. We can allow our lives, at all levels, to be defined by ignoble gloom, evoking fear, intolerance, and shame, etc. Or, we can seek those moments of grace, where, from the least expected quarters of life, the silent hand of God changes lives, filling the empty, raising joy from bitterness, and restoring Shalom from brokenness. We might even dare to seek those times when we are called to be the silent hands of God. After-all, it is divine desire that all peoples become children of God and heirs of eternal life, in the fullest image of God.


References

Gaventa, B. R., & Petersen, D. (n.d.). New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville.

Harrelson, W. J. (2003). The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press.

Hoezee, S. (2015, 11 8). Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17. Retrieved from Working Preacher.

Jacobson, R., Lewis, K., & Skinner, M. (2015, 11 8). Sermon Brain Wave. Retrieved from workingpreacher.org.

Luther Seminary. (n.d.). Retrieved 11 8, 2015, from Enter the Bible: http://www.enterthebible.org/

Wines, A. (2015, 11 8). Commentary on Ruth 3:15;. Retrieved from Working Preacher: http://www.workingpreacher.org/

Where have you seen or heard God’s active presence this week?

There are other readings this week than the Gospel according to John. As compelling as it is these readings also deserve contemplation. As I reviewed my first reading notes, I was drawn to one by verse 9 of psalm 95; actually verses 8 & 9.

8 Harden not your hearts, as your forebears did in the wilderness, *
   at Meribah, and on that day at Massah, when they tempted me.

9 They put me to the test, *
    though they had seen my works.

My note reads: what works have you/we seen / heard? I am sure it comes from a challenge David Lose of Working Preacher issued a couple of weeks ago to invite our congregations to share where they have seen God in the past week.  I passed on the direct method, though I have inserted the question in an intervening sermon or two, and have used it in bible studies prior to committee meetings and so on.  The question is, without a doubt, an underlying dimension in the reading Exodus, which tells the tale the psalm  refers to. After all, the Hebrews have experienced, first-hand, God’s liberating power, an expression of God’s abundant love. And yet only a little time later, the memory of God’s love fades; the memory of God’s power diminishes to the point of non-consideration. Why?

Today, psychologist, nuero-scientist, and others who explore human behavior might well point to how our brain is wired, and how overpowering fear is, in part because of where in the brain, the more primitive parts, fear is processed. But that’s the point isn’t it. To recognize our fear, stop ourselves, our family, friends and neighbors, from reacting out of primitive animalistic perceptions, and make use of the higher functioning parts of our brain (pun intended) to see or heard God’s active presence, and then prayerfully discern what to do. My wife is fond of saying that life happens to everyone; the question is: are you going to allow life’s events to define you, or are you going to turn to God’s presence for the wherewithal to determine how to respond.

Part of being a faith community is to coach each other turn to God. Perhaps part of the psalm’s purpose is to serve as a prayerful or liturgical reminder to turn to God. Part of Lent’s intent is to rehearse turning to God, so as to change the very nature of our bodies’ natural reaction; much like athletes retrain their bodies’ reaction to the challenges of their sport.

It all begins with realizing that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves (collect for the 3rd Sunday in Lent). It continues by looking for and listening for God’s presence and actions. It goes on by helping others to do likewise. And while we can change our response, at least some of the time, we can not all the time, so it all ends in gracious judgment of our savior Jesus Christ.

Where have you seen or heard God’s active presence this week?

Continue the Journey

It was blog by a colleague [i] who pointed me to water and sailing and a story I should never forget. I had just met AFM who would become my wife. We went camping with a group of friends. Someone brought a sunfish sail boat. I invited her to go sailing with me. As we set out I told her about tacking with the wind, and to be careful of the boom. We were having a good time. When the wind began picking up it was time to turn around and head back to shore.

Image

The turn went fine. On the next tack, the boom moved quite quickly, hit me on the shoulder and knocked me off the boat.  When she saw I was okay, AFM almost rolled off the boat in laughter. I couldn’t decide to swim after the boat, now drifting away, or swim off into the middle of lake and obscurity. 34 or so years later, I’m glad I swam after the boat.

The wind, the Spirit, does choose where it blows, and when we choose to follow God’s call … to the land that I will show you. [ii] it is very much like sailing. And occasionally you will find yourself if not off course, perhaps off the boat. And in such cases there is always the choice, to swim away into obscurity, or get back onto the boat, back on course. Abram’s and Nicodemus’ stories both show us folks who choose to get back on course; perhaps not as fully as one could imagine, and perhaps to face another decision the leads on off course, but never to final obscurity. We are always welcome to continue the journey.