The Best of the Best

John 2:1-11

“They have no wine.”

I hear a question in Mary’s voice as she points out to her son Jesus that the wedding guests have run out of wine. It’s a primal question that’s familiar to all of us, isn’t it?  Will we have enough? Will we have enough to put food on the table? Will we have enough to make a good life for our family and enjoy the life we’ve created? Will we have enough to retire and stay retired? It’s a fear of scarcity I hear in Mary’s voice. But Jesus answers her fear, as he always does, with an assurance of abundance.

This story is first of seven of the fourth gospel’s “sign” stories.  Signs are one of the ways in which John presents Jesus as the Christ, the anointed one of God.  And it’s through Jesus, the one who embodies God, who gives us a glimpse of the nature of God; it’s through Jesus that we are assured of God’s abundance. And John’s story about the wedding feast at Cana is a story about the discovery of God’s true abundance.[i]

But what is “true” abundance, really?  Well, it may not necessarily be what you think. I’m going to propose, that we, in post-modern western culture, view this scarcity vs. abundance question through a rather foggy lens. In other words, we approach this question on an individual level. Will I have enough? But, according to John, it’s God’s intention, as we see in the life of Jesus, that all people and all life should flourish. And Jesus says that our task is to tend to this flourishing by helping our neighbor flourish as well.

Now, to help us understand how we might live into this task, we can look to the words of Theologian Sallie McFague in her most recent book: Life Abundant.  First, she invites us to live “cross-shaped” lives.  So, what is a cross-shaped life? Well, it’s a life that offers an alternative vision of the beatitudes. A vision that begins with the same kind of invitation to a transformation that Matthew presented, but with a twist. Cross-shaped living offers us something more. And that “something more” is what she calls, “abundance through the practice of enough-ness.”[ii] In other words, this “enough-ness” challenges us to limit our consumption of the world’s resources in recognition of the needs of others.

Maybe think of it this way. The earth is God’s house, and as such, it only makes sense that we should abide by God’s house rules. But God’s house rules are not the same as society’s rules.  Society’s rules say that we are free to amass as many material goods as lawfully allowed, and in the process, we can use all the natural resources necessary and push aside anyone who gets in the way of the fulfillment of our accumulation of wealth. Society encourages us to look out for number one.

But God’s house rules are a little different.  God encourages us to look beyond ourselves and see, that we are in fact, living in an interconnected global home.  In other words, in God’s house we have roommates. And the rules in God’s house reflect this reality. If you’ve ever had roommates, you know what I mean. The rules are simple: “Take only your share, clean up after yourself, and keep the house in good repair for future occupants.”[iii]

Now, just for fun, let’s see what it might look like if we applied these rules to our lives.  First, “Take only your share.” When Jesus turned the water into wine he created an abundance of wine; more than enough for all the wedding guests.  But notice something here, he didn’t say that only the wedding party could partake, nor did he keep all the wine, the best wine, for only himself and his mother. The best of the best was intended for all to enjoy. God’s first house rule is to take what only what we need so there will be plenty for everyone. I almost feel foolish saying this because it’s so obvious.  We learned to share when we were in kindergarten. But today, particularly in our nation, and in the global community in general, sharing resources seems to be pretty-far down on the list of priorities.

Rule two: “Clean up after yourself.”  This one is interesting.  It’s interesting because in God’s rule book this means a whole lot more that just washing your own dishes.  “Cleaning up” refers to taking care of one’s neighbor. Let me give you an illustration of what I mean.

Many years ago, the Roman Catholic Church wanted to record something of the life and ministry of Mother Teresa in Calcutta. For several days, a camera crew went with her on her journeys throughout the city. One day, in a back alley, Mother Teresa came across a man who was sick and dying. It was a horrible sight to see. The man’s body was full of oozing sores. The smell was almost unbearable. But she stopped, called for a basin of water, a cloth, and a towel. Then she knelt-down next to this dying man and began to wash his body. Someone off camera said, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” Mother Teresa, without looking up, answered, “Neither would I.”[iv]

Jesus said, “whatever you do unto the least of my beloved ones, you do unto me.” When we reach out to the sick or the lonely; when we speak for someone whose voice has been silenced; when we seek justice for groups of people who has been marginalized or undervalued by our society; whenever we “clean up after ourselves” by serving our neighbor; we are doing it unto Jesus himself, because the poor and the oppressed are the heart of Christ. Mother Teresa understood this.  She understood that by cleaning the wounds of that dying man, she was symbolically cleaning the wounds left by humanity’s greed on the poorest among us.  She understood that this simple act of compassion was being done not only to the dying man, but unto God.

But humankind’s greed, unfortunately goes beyond just keeping the poor, well… poor; we have also neglected to care for God’s creation. God’s third roommate rule is “Keep the house in good repair for future occupants.” Pollution of the air, contamination of the ground water, over use of the earth’s natural resources, global climate change; these things and more are the result human greed and an instant gratification mentality.  And, if we’re honest here, we must admit that we’ve all have some culpability when it comes to these things. But we can change, we can make a fresh start today, we can begin to live out God’s third house rule and begin to preserve this home for future generations.

And this type of thinking was not alien to Jesus. As I have already said, at the heart of the wedding at Cana narrative is this idea of abundance; but it’s an abundance that comes in the form of a miracle. Why? Well, perhaps, it’s because the whole of creation, the forest, the lakes and streams, the eagles and robins, the bears and chipmunks, the clouds and the stars and the sun and the moon; the crisp air on a clear winter day or the lapping waves on warm summer evening; perhaps it’s because this earth is a miracle.  The extraordinary within the ordinary. And God created this earth, like the wedding party wine, with enough resources for all.

Which brings us back around to the first two rules.  You see, God’s house rules are not linear; they’re circular. You can’t leave one out or the circle will be broken. So, as we continue our Lenten journey in the days and weeks to come, we are invited to complete the circle.  We are directed to take only our share, to clean up after ourselves, and to keep this house in good repair for future occupants.

So, as we depart today, my prayer for our community and for our nation is that the unbroken circle of God’s love may move us to overcome our fear of sacristy and point us toward God’s true abundance; an abundance where there’s plenty for all. May the best of God’s best be within our hearts, guide our hands, direct our tongues, and finally, lead us all to live cross-shaped lives.  May it be so. Amen.

[i] Rev. Ann Sutherland Howard Finding Wild Space (www.Day1.org) 2010

[ii]Sallie McFague, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril.                     (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001

[iii] Ibid. McFague

[iv] Rev. Dr. Robert Sims God’s Living People (www.Day1.org) 2004

Come & See

John 1:43-51

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.[i]  As I read these words this past week, I couldn’t help but recall hiking in a county park with my three oldest children many years ago.  It was the second day of their summer vacation, which happened to coincide with my day off.  So, we decided to go hiking.  Now, the park near our home really wasn’t really that large, but we managed to get lost.  Well, not really lost per se, but we were having trouble locating the path back to our car. We were temporary dislocated. Okay, we were lost.  But we were lost because of the unusual lay out of the trails.  You see, the parking lot was on one side of the park, and there was a side trail that lead out to the main trail, which, unknown to us at the time, was a giant loop.  You can see where this story is headed, can’t ya.  There we were hiking around and around this giant loop trail without realizing we were going around in circles. And, of course, the kids were getting hot and whining, we were all getting tired.  Now, after about the third time around this giant loop, we began to notice that certain landmarks looked familiar, and on the fourth time around, we finally figured out we were going in circles.  And it was only then, only when “the health of our eyes demanded a horizon” that we looked up and began to watch for the side trail back to the car.

Now, you and I both know that a lot has changed in the world since Emerson penned these words in 1836.  But the durability of a statement like this never ceases to amaze me. I mean, how many times in your life have you looked back and said, “I see where I went wrong, where things went off the tracks,” or “why didn’t I have the vision or the forethought to prevent this or that from happening?” Have you ever been lost on the giant loop of life because you’re looking down instead of toward the horizon?

I think that’s what Emerson was driving at here.  When we look down at our feet, when we let the everyday circumstances of life cloud our vision, that’s when we become lost.  But if we simply look up, if we gaze upon the horizon, if we seek a vision of something greater than ourselves, it’s then that we find our way. And for Emerson, this concept was a theological one.  You see, these words come from an essay he wrote called nature, which primarily focused on humankind’s relationship with the divine. And for Emerson, that relationship was very spiritual in nature.

Now, as we begin to look at our text for today from the Gospel of John, it too deals with the relationship between God and humanity. But unlike Emerson, John views this relationship in both spiritual and physical terms. I read an interpretation this week that claims this passage, “…is the critical link between the prologue’s description of the cosmic word and the main texts narration of the signs and discourses of the flesh-and-blood Jesus of Nazareth.”[ii] What does that mean in English? Well, it means that John was speaking on a very spiritual plane in the first verses of this text.  He said, “In the beginning was the Logos, (logos) the Word, and this Logos was with God, in fact, the Logos was God. And finally, the Logos became flesh and lived among us.” He was of course talking in very spiritual terms about the incarnation of Jesus.  But here in this call story something interesting happens.  John makes a turn from the spiritual to the physical; from the theoretical to the practical.  And he does this by telling a story.

A story that John has structured around the down-to-earth, physical encounters that individuals had with Jesus and the idea that these encounters would lead to a vision of “greater things.” You see, over and again, from these early disciples, to a Pharisee named Nicodemus, to the Samaritan woman, to a man born blind, to Peter and Pilate and eventually Thomas, characters throughout John’s Gospel are encountered by Jesus, and consistently, he gives them a glimpse of something “greater.”

And so, what we see across the pages of the fourth gospel are women and men, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, powerful and vulnerable, people of all shapes and sizes and from all stations in life encountering Jesus. And to each one, in one way or another, he says “come and see.” To the blind man he said come and physically see. To the disciples he said come and see what you’re missing. To the masses, the crowds that followed him he said come and see what new thing God is up to; come and see as your future opens before you; come and see the grace of God made manifest and accessible and available to all people.[iii]

And that, in a nutshell, is the challenge of Lent.  Yes, lent is traditionally a time to take a long, hard look at ourselves, our actions and our words, and make any necessary course corrections on this journey of life and faith.  When Jesus invites us to “come and see” we must first look at ourselves.

But we simply cannot “turn around” we cannot “change our ways” we cannot “repent” unless we take very seriously the Great Commandment. Love God and love neighbor. So, God then, in our context, is enfleshed when we serve others. And God is present whenever we participate in acts of justice; whenever we attempt to propagate peace.

So, simply put, “come and see” is a twofold vision.  It is, at the same time, a call to introspection and an invitation to extend a wide welcome to all. Come and see is an offer to experience something greater than ourselves. And that “greater something” is a very real-life, down to earth, experience of God’s love. Not in some remote or far-removed way, but instead, a God who is enfleshed in Jesus Christ, present around us and within us, calling and challenging us to serve all of God’s people.

And I know what you’re thinking. There are barriers to justice. There are circumstances that stand in the way of peace. Just this past week we saw yet another school shooting.  17 young people went to school in the morning, never to return home.  And don’t think for a minute, that as a parent, that doesn’t scare the life out of me. But even though the thought of school violence scares me, I cannot let my fear take over.  I mean, there’s a reason Jesus said “fear not” more often than anything else. We simply cannot let fear eclipse our faith. We cannot close our eyes to the reality of violence and hope it just goes away on its own. Instead, we must follow our faith; we must put our faith into action. We must open our eyes and our hearts and our minds a begin to move toward a solution.

And maybe that’s the “greater something” Jesus was inviting us to “come and see” today in our context.  Maybe we are being invited to create and share a vision of God’s love in action.  Maybe this year we’re being challenged to “live-into” this twofold understanding of the Lenten journey.  Maybe we’re being challenged to see the times when our fear has lead us to inaction and to acknowledge the places in our society where self-interest and the love of money have trumped the safety of all.  Perhaps, it’s time for us to look up from the giant loop trail we’ve been following, and realized that there is an exit, a way out, when is comes to gun violence in our schools. But it will take courage, and faith, and a love for the youngest among us.

“The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.[iv]  May that horizon lead to change and may we be blessed with a vision of justice and peace and safety for all, as we continue this journey of life and faith. Amen.

[i] Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nature. (James Munroe and Company) 1836

[ii] Elton W. Brown. Feasting on the Word, Vol. 1, Year B. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor Eds. (Westminster John Knox Press) 2008.

[iii] David Lose, Come and See. In the Meantime. ( www.davidlose.net)  2015.

[iv] Ibid Emerson

From the Inside/Out

Mark 9:2-9

“Does God change?” Or to put it in more theological terms, “Is God immutable?” Ah, the time-honored question of the Immutability of God. So, first off, what is Immutability? Well, it’s the understanding that the nature, character, and covenant promises of God do not change, ever. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says it like this: “[God’s] being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth are infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.”[i]

But does God change? We know Jesus changed, right?  As his earthly life progressed he changed physically. He grew from an infant to a child, he left childhood behind and became a young adult, and from there he grew into a man.  And he grew Spiritually. He was recognized as a theological prodigy at a very young age, which, as he grew in knowledge and years, lead him to become an itinerant Rabbi. And we know that Jesus was God or, at the very least, had a mystical connection to the Divine.  So, does that mean God changes.

Well, to take on that question I think we need to examine very carefully the story of Jesus’ transfiguration.  In our reading for today, we see Jesus go up the mountain, where his appearance changed, as so poetically stated by Eugene Peterson, “from the inside/out.” Glory surrounded him, the voice of God echoed a strong sense of pride and love, and with it, a command to those in attendance to “listen to him.”

Now, this transformation, the inner change that burst forth, happened in front of three of his closest companions: Peter, James, and John. And during this transfiguration some interesting things happen. The three disciples see a vision of Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, whose symbolic mantel and message Jesus had taken on. And in that moment, that holy moment, that moment when the veil between God and humanity was as thin as it could get, Peter wanted to build three memorials, or dwellings depending upon which translation you read, because he wanted to stay in that moment.

You know, I read somewhere this week that Peter’s response was kind of like looking at a light bulb and going blind, instead of looking around the room at what the light from the bulb had revealed.[ii] I know I’ve done that. I’ve missed the beauty of the current moment because I was either lamenting the former moment or figuring out how to manipulate the upcoming one. So, maybe that’s the first lesson of this text; to stay in the moment and enjoy what’s happening right now.

But that’s not the sum of this text. As Jesus and his newly-inspired followers descended the mountain, we can safely speculate that they had been changed because of their experience. We can see from our perspective here in the 21st century, that they had begun to see everything differently. Because, up until this point in Mark’s Gospel, we’ve seen Jesus and his followers moving back and forth across the Sea of Galilee, between the Jews and the Gentiles.  But in this passage, right here in the middle of the gospel, we see a significant change.  Jesus’ face is now turned squarely toward Jerusalem and the Cross and all their travels from here on in, will be in the direction. So, it not too far of a leap to say that James, John, and Peter’s perception of Jesus, and perhaps even their understanding of God changed with the movement of this gospel.  Now, they didn’t all-of-the-sudden fully understand Jesus or the quest they were on, but the Transfiguration was a giant step in that direction.

Now, before we leave this mountaintop narrative, there’s one final nugget for us to discover. Embedded within this ancient text is something very interesting. The tense of the verb that Mark uses for “listen” in the “listen to him” is called in Greek the “present imperative.” That mean, God is commanding the disciples, the whole world, and us, the readers of this text still today, to listen to Jesus.[iii]

And this is where this ancient story and our lives intersect.  The emerging movement within the Christian tradition is based on the premise that our life journey and spiritual journey are one and the same; and that along the way, there is both changes and choices; the possibility and opportunity around each new bend in the road to meet these changes we inevitably encounter with faith or fear, hope or despair, regret or renewal, even wisdom or foolishness. It offers a new and different way of being “Christian;” yet the idea is rooted in the heart of our faith tradition. As Isaiah proclaimed, God is always up to something new.[iv] Maybe we should attend to Mark’s timeless imperative here and “listen” to Jesus and this ever-changing way of understanding the journey.

Which leads us back to our original question, “Is God unchanging?”

Well, rest assured, as usual, I’m going to give you a vague and overly simplistic answer to our question. Yes and no. Yes, God is permanent. Like an anchor in the storm; like a mighty oak that may bend, but never break; like a bush burns, but cannot be consumed; God is always, well, God. But what changes is our perception of God.  Across time God changes because humankind has changed.  Our relationship with God is dynamic, ever-evolving, and ever-in-the-process of becoming more. And it’s our perception of God that informs our understanding of the nature of God.  Let me give you an example of what I mean.

Author Brian McLaren tells the story of a conversation he had with Tutsi and Hutu tribesmen of Rwanda, in the aftermath of decades of genocide in that region.  As McLaren relates it, one of the first to speak was a man named Claude, the son of a preacher, who’d been raised in the church, but who’d heard only one sermon, over and over, his whole life. “That sermon,” he said, “went like this: ‘You’re a sinner and you are going to hell.  You need to repent and believe in Jesus. Jesus might come back today, and if he does and you are not ready, you will burn forever in hell.”  Then Claude continued, “When I got older, I realized that my entire life had been lived against the backdrop of genocide and violence, poverty and corruption … and in spite of huge amounts of foreign aid, our people remain poor, and many, hungry. Eventually I realized something.  I had never heard a sermon that addressed these realities.”

Later that day, McLaren writes, he noticed another participant, sitting alone at a table with her bowed head in her hands.  Having a translator inquire if she was all right, Justine replied, “I’m Okay, but I’m shaken up.  I don’t know if anyone else here sees it, but I do.  I see it.  Today, for the first time, I see what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God. I see that it’s about changing this world, not just escaping from it and retreating into our churches.  If Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God is true, then everything must change.  Everything must change.”[v]

So, with her words in mind, when we ask the question, “Is God unchanging” I’m convinced we’re asking the wrong question.  What we should be asking instead, is how am I changed, how are my compassionate actions increased because of my changing perception of God? Justine, in her wisdom, realized that change was not only something that happens to us, but something that we are called to participate in. Or to say it another way, if a Creative God can change things, why shouldn’t we act as co-creators with God, helping God, create a better world? Perhaps we can. Perhaps we can change from the inside/out? Perhaps.

May it be so. Amen.

[i] The Westminster Shorter Catechism

[ii] Caspar Green, Scarlet Letter Bible, (www.scarletletterbible.com) 2012.

[iii] Edward F. Markquart, Transfiguration: a Gospel Analysis, (Sermons from Seattle) 2018

[iv] John Bennison. The Immutability of Change. (www.progressivechristanity.org) 2011

[v] Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change (Thomas Nelson Publishers 2008) pgs.18-23