Monday, January 21, 2019

The Party Never Ends

'On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward." So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now." Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.'
--John 2:1-11

Each month, on the 3rd Thursday, I visit with two inmates at a local prison.  At the end of my time last week I was walking out of the building with the chaplain, who was suddenly stopped by an inmate who had a very serious question.  The inmate wondered:  “If I pray hard enough, God can do anything through me, right?”  The chaplain nodded.  The inmate continued:  “So if I ask God to let me turn water into wine like Jesus did, and I pray hard enough for that, God will do it, right?”  As you can imagine, that started up a whole conversation around prayer and the motivations behind prayer, but suffice to say the inmate’s thoughts were that if he could perform such a magic trick people would believe him, and it would bring them to the Lord. 

Fresco of the Wedding at Cana in the ceiling of Annunciation Cathedral in Jerusalem.

That is what the turning of water into wine sort of feels like: a magic trick, and one that we find nowhere else in Scripture. Whereas the other Gospels show Jesus’ first public action to be his baptism in the Jordan River, John instead has Jesus' inaugural action be to change six jars of water into wine, so that the couple and their parents will not be shamed for allowing the wine to go out, thus being seen as inhospitable.  This, John tells us, was the first of Jesus’ signs. Yet, what that inmate did not understand, and what we sometimes forget when we hear such stories of Jesus' miraculous actions, is that signs always point beyond themselves.  In the case of this sign, the feature of the story that is being pointed to is not the magic trick but what Jesus' actions point to within the context of the setting itself, the wedding banquet. 

It was said:  "A wedding is a time for good wishes, feasting, and joy.  The Gospel of John tells us how Jesus shared in such an occasion when he performed his first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, giving there a sign of new beginnings.”  If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because you among those who heard those words spoken by The Rev. Marshall Jolly at the beginning of a certain wedding in Greensboro of North Carolina back on June 2 of last year.  As my then-fiancee Kristen and I were putting together the liturgy for our wedding, we were very intentional with those opening words, and we wanted to make clear the primary significance of Jesus’ presence at the wedding in Cana; that is, Jesus appreciated a good party.

The Rev. Marshall Jolly presides over our wedding on June 2, 2018.

That is not to say that Jesus was a "party animal," nor that he condoned over-indulging on alcohol at social events.  Rather,Jesus saw the importance of celebrations and participated in them himself.  As the wine starts to go out he makes sure that the party keeps going, that the celebration does not stop.  What I find especially interesting about this story is that Jesus doesn’t even take credit for his action.  Instead, his turning of the water into wine happens “off-screen”—if you will—and the one given credit is the bridegroom, who keeps the good wine until the end.  What matters in this moment is not that everyone at the wedding sees Jesus perform this miracle, like when he later feeds 5000 people; after all, it seems that only the servants, Jesus’ mother, and the disciples even know what has happened.  What matters is the celebration itself, and what everything about this scene represents.  Any wedding is cause for a grand celebration among the community, and that is why Jesus’ presence and actions at this wedding matter. 

It is the love between the couple, the guests’ love for the couple, and God’s love for the whole of humanity that is encapsulated by a wedding banquet.  Not only does this story remind us of that, but by turning all of that water into wine, Jesus shows us once again the abundance of the grace and love of God.  The six jars equaled roughly 180 gallons of wine.  Think about that for a second.  There is no wedding party on earth that can drink that much wine!  It’s a laughable amount, and that is the point; so, again, the significance of the story is not the magic trick itself.  Jesus' actions point to the gospel truth that the Good News of God, which Jesus has come to proclaim, can be compared to a wedding banquet that has more than enough libations (wine or otherwise) to satisfy the needs of all its guests, a party that never ends.  This is the gospel of abundance, which tells us that the grace, mercy, and love of God are unending, that there is always more than enough for everyone, and Jesus has come into the world to not only share in our celebrations but to even use them to remind us of that gospel truth. 

As I said in my post last week on his baptism, Jesus undertook the fullness of the human experience.  This is the radical nature of the Incarnation, that God would not only come among humanity but would deem to put on humanity, to participate in our sorrows and joys, which are so often given shape and meaning in our rituals, such as a baptism or wedding.  A wedding in first century Palestine, for example, lasted for seven days, and even in a place like Cana—which was and is a peasant village—there was copious amounts of food and drink.  Folks who went about their daily lives struggling to even get a morsel of bread got to kick back and celebrate with those they loved because everyone contributed from the abundance of what they had.  It is this act of celebration that Jesus adorns because it gives shape to that which Jesus came to proclaim, and that which we know to be the great truth of God:  love. 

It is the unbreakable bond of the love of God for humanity that we celebrate at a wedding.  The binding of the couple’s hands—which came to be known as the tying of the knot—symbolizes the unity not only of the couple but of all of us to God our creator.  To borrow words preached by The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a wedding he officiated in 1948, the couple becomes “the heirs of a legacy of togetherness.”  Yes, it is the togetherness of the couple, of the blending of their families, friends , and communities, but the power of a wedding is also the reminder that we are part of the legacy of togetherness between the whole of humanity and God, and Jesus is the knot that ties us all together.  Certainly Dr. King understood that, and we who work so passionately to create God’s Beloved Community understand it, as well, as we seek to walk the way of love. 

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his speech "What Is Your Life's Blueprint?' on October 26, 1967.

 The wedding in Cana is a rather quirky story, one that is often misunderstood and sometimes reduced to a comedic trope when tv or films talk about or portray Jesus—just watch Dogma or Family Guy.  

Jesus turns water into funk, from season 1 of Family Guy.

That’s surface-level stuff. It’s not about Jesus performing  a magic trick, but it’s about what his action represents.  In a culture that valued so highly hospitality and celebration, Jesus makes sure that they do not run out.  He not only meets our needs, but he provides far more than anyone could ever dream.  He shares in our parties because the love that is poured out in them is a reflection of the love God has for us all, love that binds us together with God in the person of Jesus.  And this love, through the power of God, will someday marry the whole human race one to another.  May we always celebrate, walking the way of love, finding our joy overflowing with abundance, for as Jesus reminds us today, and as the great 20th century American poet Robert Earl Keen sang:  the party never ends!

  Robert Earl Keene sings 'The Road Goes On Forever (and the Party Never Ends),' circa 1990.

Monday, January 14, 2019

On Baptism, Belonging, and Bumblebee

'Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. "'
--Luke 3: 21-22

As an avid Transformers fan I sometimes like to include them in my preaching.  This past Sunday, the commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus, one of my original Generation 1 bots stopped by the pulpit to lend me a hand.

Pretender Bumblebee assisted me with my sermon for the Baptism of Jesus.

I asked Bumblebee to join me because EVERYONE needs to see his movie!!  I gave my own review of the film--simply called Bumblebee--here.  (SPOILERS WARNING!) I loved the film, but not just because it's a Transformers story (believe me, the other five 'films' have nothing in them to love, even for me!).  Bumblebee is so much more than a story of an alien robot that turns into a VW Beetle. I won’t spoil anything for you in this post, but the film follows Bumblebee, of course, on his first mission on earth, having come from his home planet of Cybertron.  Upon arriving he befriends a young human woman named Charlie, and their two stories mirror each other beautifully.  Bumblebee is far from home, separated from those he knows and loves, and to make matters worse he has lost both his voice and his memory.  Charlie, meanwhile, is estranged from her family following the death of her dad.  She doesn’t really know who she is anymore and feels lost.  Their paths cross, and together they go on a journey of discovering who they are—or, rediscorvering.  They become who they were always meant to be, they not only find a new connection with their families of origin, but together they form a bond of love and support for each other, and in doing so become a new family.  While I love me some Transformers for its sci-fi action and complex stories about war, at its heart what the new movie is all about is a sense of belonging, about family, and about transforming into who you were meant to be.

Charlie and Bumblebee begin their journey in Bumblebee.

Like Bumblebee and Charlie, we find Jesus in the Gospel text on a journey of self-discovery, as he has ventured out into the great unknown.  The last time we saw Jesus in the Gospel of Luke he was 12 years old.  Now he is in his early 30s, and the time has come for him to be the person that he was always meant to be.  And what is the initial public action in which Jesus participates when he takes his first steps into this larger world?  It is the rite of baptism, the rite of belonging. 

A mosaic of a 1st century AD baptism.

Baptism was not anything new to 1st century Jewish folks.  The ritual bath called the mikvah was used in several circumstances.  The most common was an outward cleansing of the dirt on one’s body, but John used it for a different reason, namely the inward cleansing of the soul.  And many communities, like John’s own community—the Essenes—used the water bath as a means by which Gentile converts became part of their Jewish community.  Christians continued this practice, but it was a ritual steeped in belonging way before we were doing it. Still, one might wonder: why would Jesus need to do it?

There is a wonderful line attributed to the story of Jesus’ baptism that we do not get to hear in Luke’s version.  This line comes from Matthew’s version of the story when Jesus approaches John, who is surprised and wonders why Jesus would come to him to be baptized.  Do you remember what Jesus says? “We must fulfill all righteousness.”  I’ve often wondered what he meant by this, and over time I’ve come to believe that at the core of Jesus’ desire to be baptized was the need to belong to the human family.  This, I suspect, is what he means by fulfilling all righteousness. How could Jesus do what he did, be who he was meant to be, if he were not one of us?  How could we possibly look to him as not only our Savior but also our model for how to live faithfully in this world if he did not do what we do, including participate in our rituals?  It wasn’t that Jesus needed baptism to wash away his sins—we know that he was the sinless one—but he chose to be baptized so to fully embrace his own humanity, to share in the human journey with us, to be part of our family.  And this, brothers and sisters, is why baptism is so special.  It brings us into the family of Jesus and gives us a place of belonging. 

A depiction of the Baptism of Jesus by David Zelenka.

But there’s another layer to it.  Baptism doesn’t just bring us into the family, but it commissions us for the lives that we were always meant to live.  In his own baptism Jesus is declared by the voice of God to be God’s “Son,” God’s “Beloved,” and in our own baptisms we are called child of God, we are called beloved.  Like Jesus we are sent out into the world to do what God has called us to do, to be agents of God’s love and reconciliation for all people.  Before Jesus can begin his public ministry he goes through the rite of baptism, he takes his place in the family of God, and the same is true for us.  The waters of baptism not only make us brothers and sisters in this family, but like Jesus we whom the Holy Spirit has sealed and marked forever are called to go into the world, empowered by that same Spirit, to love and to serve.  Those waters transformed Jesus from the carpenter of Nazareth into the Savior of the world, and they have the same transformative power to make the wounded, vulnerable, and lost part of the family of God.

The desire to be part of something, to belong, to have a family—whether one of blood or of our own choosing—is a fundamental characteristic that is shared by every single person who has ever lived.  Is there anyone who does not seek some form of belonging?  Who does not seek a relationship with someone who tells us that we matter and that we are loved?  This is what makes Bumblebee such a good story, not because it’s about a car that turns out to be an alien robot—although that’s cool, that’s cool—but because in the characters of Bumblebee and Charlie we see that desire played out, and we see them form such a relationship.  The whole world is longing with such a desire, and you are the agents who can go and say to the lost, to the lonely, to the scared, to the outcast, “You matter.  And you are loved!”  Christians have long been doing this.

'When the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.'
--Acts 8: 14-17

John and Peter go to the land of the Samaritans, those foreigners whom Jews regarded as filthy, disgusting, godless people, and around whom Jews had erected every kind of wall.  But the followers of Jesus tear down those walls and give those Samaritans a place of belonging, reminding us all of the unifying power of the love of God that baptism embodies.  As the voice of God spoke through the prophet Isaiah and declared, “You are mine!” (Isaiah 43: 2), so too did the Spirit speak when Jesus was baptized, so too did John and Peter speak among those foreigners, so too does the Church speak when we are washed in those waters, and so too will you speak when you go into the world to love and serve the family of God. 

I call you brothers and sisters in almost every one of my posts because that’s who you are.  You are my brothers and sisters.  We belong together, as a family, united by the love of God, made manifest in Jesus and given outward representation by the same waters of baptism that washed over him and wash over us.  I wonder, then: who is the person out in the world who needs to hear that message of love?  Who needs to hear that they matter, that they are beloved?  Who is looking for a place of belonging, for a family who will nurture them to become the person that God has always called them to be?  Who will be transformed by the Good News of God’s love that only you can proclaim?