Thursday, January 17, 2019

January 20, Epiphany +2, What We See #3: Six Barrels of Wine

Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

My first congregation was Hungarian. Most Hungarians are Roman Catholic, but a strong minority is Reformed, and their emblem was the Communion Cup, because they were allowed to drink from it, while their Catholic neighbors were not. And drink from it they did, not just little sips. Hungarians are wine-makers, and my parishioners had grapevines in their yards along with plums and apricots. In the old days the members would donate their homemade wine for Holy Communion.

In the attic I found three big pewter pitchers. These were the old Communion pitchers. At Communion the people would stand side-by-side around the sanctuary, and as they passed the cups from hand to hand, the elders had to follow them to keep refilling them. Especially when particular members had made the wine. One of their communion hymns had language about drinking deeply from God’s cup. Who decided that at Holy Communion our portions should be so small?

There on the table is our old Communion pitcher and most of our old Communion beakers, from when we also passed the cups along and drank the wine. We are more careful now, more careful of addictions and fearful of disease. We also take for granted our abundance, more food than we can eat, more clothes that we can wear, more stuff than we can store. We fear the scarcity we do not live with and we are desensitized to our bounty, the abundance that comes from God. The Belgic Confession calls God, “the overflowing fountain of all good.” There are the signs right there.

“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.” The first of his signs. John’s Gospel never calls them “miracles” but “signs.” Visible revelations, epiphanies, manifestations. A sign is something you see that directs you to something beyond itself.

A sign can be simple or complex. A sign can be richly interpreted, and maybe sometimes overdone! So how richly symbolic was this first of Jesus’ signs? We begin by noticing what we see, and then we will consider what it points to, and we do this in order that we too might believe in him.

We see a wedding reception, however that went back then. People on the floor, on carpets, eating and drinking. Maybe some dancing. We see there, sitting together, Mary, and Jesus, and his four friends—Simon, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanael. We see Mary lean over to say something to Jesus. His response to her pulls her up sharp. She glares at him, but she doesn’t answer back.

A few minutes later we see her get up and walk over to where the servants are. Let’s say there are three of them. She speaks to them and then she turns and points to her son. She sits back down.

A couple minutes later, he gets up and goes over to the servants. They follow him to the front door, where there are six big stone jars, like barrels, say 25 gallons each. They contain the water for the guests to wash their hands and feet when they come in. He tells the servants something. They look at him in surprise, but eventually they nod their heads. He goes and sits back down.

Now we watch the servants fill the jars with water. It’s a job. They have go and get it from a public well, and how many trips does it take to fill those jars up to the brim. When they are done, Jesus quietly gets up again and talks to them. Again they look surprised, but one of them gets a cup, dips it in the barrel, and takes it to the master of ceremonies. He sips it, and now he looks surprised, and he goes to the groom and talks to him, and he then looks surprised. The servants are watching this from the back of the room.

That’s what we can see: Five brief conversations—Mary and Jesus, Mary and the servants, Jesus and the servants—twice, and the steward with the groom. We see two actions—one long and laborious, and the other brief, a drink.

We can ask questions: Will the bridegroom just accept the compliment, or will he admit that he doesn’t know where the good wine came from? Will they now drink all that new wine? It’s a good 650 bottles worth, 3500 cups of wine. How long will that reception go on? The guests will have to start wondering. The servants eventually will have to tell what happened. The disciples find out. But do the servants ever determine precisely when the water was transformed?

More questions: Why did Mary set Jesus up like this? Why did she think it was his business? She was not just making an observation—that’s obviously not how Jesus took it. And why did he put her off at first? Was he wrong about it not yet being his time? Was she impatient with him? He was thirty years old and he had still not acted on his destiny. Is that why she forces him, by talking to the servants? And how was she expecting him to solve the problem? Why would she expect a miracle? She knew that her son was the Messiah, but no one expected the Messiah to be a miracle-worker.

What’s the actual sign? The six big jars? Is abundance the sign?

Or is the sign the movement of the water and its transformation—that the water of cleansing becomes the wine of celebration?

Or is the sign the excellence of the wine—that the old was good but the new is better?

Is it part of the sign that wine is a mild intoxicant? Water is clean and sober, but wine is free and loose, and even dangerous?

Is there something to the wedding feast—that if it’s the bridegroom’s job to provide the wine, then Jesus has become the new bridegroom here? Is this all a sign of who Jesus is, and what Jesus brings to life, compared to whatever was life before him? You can read all these things into the sign.

Who is Jesus? If he wants to manifest himself as the new bridegroom, then according to the prophecy of Isaiah he might as well be God. Not just that he acts for God or stands in for God, but that he impossibly identifies himself with God. Although the disciples believe in him, they don’t connect the dots till after his resurrection. But Jesus already manifests it here, that in him is not just the Spirit of God, which many of us share, but the glory of God, which belongs to God alone. Who does Jesus think he is, to manifest himself this way!

If that’s who Jesus is, what does he bring to life? The gift of life in abundance, overflowing life, intoxicating life. Nature made into supernature, animal made spiritual, vegetable and mineral made spiritual! Natural gifts made into spiritual gifts. Not spiritual and natural in opposition, but spiritual gifts from natural gifts.

This is important for the Christian life. Our Epistle lesson speaks of spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit does not make these out of air, but from out of your natural gifts.

What are you already good at doing? What do you love to do? Don’t deny those, rather deny that you do them for yourself. Do what you are good at and what you love to do, not to keep as your own, but as gifts for the glory of the bridegroom, who transforms them into spiritual gifts, by forgiving any sinful use of them and inspiring your use of them for love and more abundant life.

Last Tuesday night we had a meeting at the church and fifteen of you were seated around the table, and I was struck by the abounding giftedness of our congregation. Who am I that I should pastor such a group! I have few real talents of my own, but I work with an abundance of gifts because I work among you all. We keep thinking our congregation is small. And thereby also poor and weak. But we must not dishonor the bridegroom! We shall not discredit the Holy Spirit!

Our group was listening to a speaker who spoke of scarcity and abundance. Scarcity is real. A billion people on this planet are hungry. My parents did not have enough money to retire on and I worry about it too. We will survive, but maybe no trips to Europe to see our grandsons. The threat of scarcity is real within my soul. When is it accurate and when is it temptation?

But I want to believe in Jesus as the bridegroom, as the God who is "the overflowing fountain of all good," so I am also required to believe in his abundance, in some real way, in some real way that challenges me. We must be transformed by the gifts of God in order to receive them as the gifts they are, we must be challenged by God’s love in order to receive God’s love.

You can believe this, like the disciples, before you can connect all the dots. I invite to believe in it again, one more week, one more year, that God is abounding in gifts to you, that God is your overflowing fountain of life, and God is the unquenchable source of love for you. And if it's not scarce, and so abounding, then you can share it. Why don't you!

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, January 11, 2019

January 13, First after Epiphany, "What We See: Two Men and a Dove"

Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

What do we see? Let’s make this gospel a painting, since St. Luke is the patron saint of painters. We’ll make it a clear day, with a bright sky. Across the center is a crowd of people in a clearing in a valley among some willow trees, and the ground is green. Behind the crowd is a river.

Left of center is one man standing in front of the crowd, and the people are turned towards him as if they are listening to him. He has very long hair and a cloak of shaggy brown fur. But he’s not looking back at the crowd, he’s looking to his right, and pointing with his right hand at another man beyond the crowd.

That man is standing off, turned half away from everyone, bending halfway over, and above him is a bird, descending upon him. Should we picture the bird diving down, like above our main front doors, or fluttering down to alight on him? The bird looks like a dove.

That first man is John the Baptist. We can tell by his hair and his cloak. He is already famous here, and for years to come he will have many followers throughout the Jewish world, even in Egypt and Asia Minor. He has ignited a revival movement among the Jews, both religious and political. He has no ambitions of his own nor any loyalties, but to every political and religious group he gives stern warning. But his warnings are also appealing, and the people have flocked to him.

He offers washing, cleansing, and through that cleansing, hope and expectation. Expectation of what? St. Luke tells us: Of God’s return to Israel along with a Messiah—who will come with fire! And if John cleansed them with water, the Messiah will cleanse them with fire and with the Holy Spirit, the fearsome purifying fire that is unquenchable becomes it comes from God.

When he says “Holy Spirit,” he does not intend what a modern Christian thinks! No one as yet believes in anything like one of the three persons of the Trinity. At this point, the term “Holy Spirit” implies the whole of God, the One God, the capital-S Spirit who is capital-H Holy, high and lifted up, Holy, Holy, Holy. But this One God had made visitations, like to Moses from a burning bush, and to the whole of Israel from the top of Mount Sinai in the column of fire and smoke with flashes of lightning.

A new visitation of God will be scary, and thrilling, and judgment, and purging, and it will be salvation. Fearsome as it is, the people hope for it—the Lord of Hosts returning to Israel like in the ancient days, and the Messiah as God’s representative upon the throne of David in victory and power. These people are gathered in expectation. They are hoping for God’s return.

In this picture the people are all done getting baptized. We don’t see Jesus getting baptized, nor talking with John, like in Matthew and Mark. We see him after he’s baptized, and not listening to John but praying, standing up, bending at the waist, head down. Like at synagogue? Is he praying the Eighteen Benedictions, is he praying the Amida? We are not told what his prayer is.

Shall we picture him with his hands on his chest, or lifted up, like in the Psalms? It makes a difference for how the dove lands. Does it land on his lifted hand, like a trained bird? Or on his head, or maybe on his shoulder, to be closer to his heart, as Riley once said in Sunday School with a child’s insight. How long will it rest on him? Will it fly off again? Or does it somehow merge into him, does it enter into his body? All that we are told is that this dove is the Holy Spirit taking on a form.

That’s weird. God as a dove? Is that even allowed, God as an animal? Isn’t that prohibited as leading to idolatry? God is never manifested as an animal, but only as fire. The closest God gets to a bird is in one of the possible translations of Genesis 1:2, before Creation, when the Spirit of God moved over the face of the Deep, or hovered, or brooded. But not a dove, because a dove is a sacrificial animal, like a calf, a dove is a poor man’s calf. But the Messiah was not for being sacrificed, the Messiah was to be mighty in battle and victorious over his enemies. Well then, maybe this was like the dove from Noah’s ark, that flew out over the Flood three times, until the waters had receded enough for her to make her nest. Does this dove manifest deliverance and peace?

We have  pictured  John the Baptist watching this dove come down on his cousin Jesus. But after all that he had preached about the Holy Spirit coming with fire, could he even imagine this dove to be the visitation of God? Can John the Baptist keep up with this brand new thing of God that he had not foreseen in his prophecies? Was he helped by the words that came from heaven? Could he even hear those words?

The words are addressed to Jesus directly, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” What those words would have meant to Jesus for his own soul I preached about six years ago, but today I will just put those words in a word-balloon, to the horror of classical painters, a word-balloon coming down from heaven over Jesus’s head. If it’s only Jesus who can hear these words, at least he finally knows for sure that he is supposed to the Messiah.

So in what we see here what is manifest? These are the Sundays after Epiphany, and the word “epiphany” means manifestation, some revelation in what you can see. Well, if this dove is the sign of this guy is being anointed as the Messiah, then this Messiah was confirmed in choosing to identify with John’s repentance movement.

You see, he might have joined up with the Pharisees, who were the patriots of purity. Or with the Sadducees, who controlled the Temple, and were the heirs of the Maccabees, the last successful independence movement. Or he might have joined the Zealots, the revolutionaries who armed themselves for the resistance like the irregulars who had fought with David against the Philistines. No, the only group he joined was the whole people that was repentant.

But what did he have to repent of? I mean, he’s Jesus! Well, what do you think repentance is? Repentance is not just the penance for sin, and it’s not even really that. Repentance is an attitude, an attitude of vulnerability, a stance of openness, making space within your life, and keeping that space open before you. “The whole life of Christians is repentance,” is what Martin Luther wrote in his 95 Theses.

This guy Jesus had to repent in order to be anointed the Messiah. He had maybe nothing in particular to repent of but he had to share the stance, the attitude, the vulnerability, the opening, the bending, the offering your neck. Which is what lovers do when you make love. If repentance is the stance and angle of opening up yourself, than repentance is a stance towards love. The risk of love.

Now if we read the gospel in the light of the epistle reading, also written by St. Luke, what’s also manifest is the very first occurrence of the Baptism of the Spirit. The dove is the sign of a new thing, begun with Jesus himself and expanded to his followers. The dove has converted a Jewish ritual of repentance into a work of the Holy Spirit, the subtle miracle we call a sacrament. Just as the dove was the small sign of God visiting and inhabiting Jesus, so baptism is the sign that God inhabits you, God invests in you. You don’t just follow Jesus, God lands on you, enters you, merges into you, as certainly as the water of baptism was put upon your head. On children too, in whom the Holy Spirit delights to dwell.

So what I want to say about our painting is that the picture tells a story, and in this story you are included. I invite you this morning to believe that you are included in this story of the painting, not just among the crowd, but on the right, with the dove descending on you. And I invite you to believe that God also says to you, “With you I am well-pleased.” 

Not, “you’re fine, you’re good, you’re great.” It’s not about you, it’s about God, and God’s attitude toward you, the unshakeable attitude of God towards, which is the impact of God in your life. God does it this way in order to free you for your life of service in the world. When you serve God in the world, for justice and for peace and for mercy and healing, you will be resisted and opposed, but not by God.

Your attempts at the right thing will be ignored, or lack impact, or not be as good as you might wish, and you could always do better, but still you are free for action and creativity, because you cannot shake God’s pleasure in you, it’s unquenchable, it’s from God, “with you I am well-pleased.” Unconditionally? Yes, God’s love for you is unconditional, God’s love is absolutely free, God identifies what love is just by being God. Look at the dove and see that God is love.

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Friday, January 04, 2019

January 6, Epiphany: What We See #1: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh

 Isaiah 60:1-6, 26, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

The twelve days of Christmas are the twelve days after Christmas, ending today. The word “Epiphany” comes from the Greek word for “manifestation”. Manifestation is one kind of revelation—not a voice, but an actual physical appearance, something visible to human eyes. And the gradual manifestations of Jesus to the world are reported in our gospel lessons during these Sundays after Epiphany. So my sermon series is entitled, “What We See.” The manifestations of Jesus are treated by the gospel writers as both historical and symbolical, that is, both immediate and prophetic.

We see the magi. How many there were we are not told. The magi were officials employed by Gentile kings. They could not have made this embassy without the endorsement of the authorities they worked for. Their role in government was a combination of astrologer, philosopher, and political adviser. They studied the stars and planets because the stars and planets manifested what the Epistle to the Ephesians calls “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places,” that is, the cosmological powers that their bosses would always want to have the endorsement of.

They saw a new star at its rising. Low in the horizon, like a planet. Much ink has been wasted on trying to identify which planet this was or what sort of celestial phenomenon—as if to substantiate the gospel. No doubt Matthew understood it as an angel who took a form that would communicate as needed. God was being generous in revelation, offering a form of revelation that went beyond the scriptures but then led the magi to the scriptures. God was offering an invitation and a sign. The sign was that the Messiah of Israel was for the Gentiles too, and the nations were invited to come to the light. St. Matthew wants you to see that the prophecy of Isaiah was being fulfilled at long last.

We see King Herod and his own wise men. Because they’re Jews, the scribes study the scriptures instead of the stars. And what they read there is bad news for Herod and for the whole city that depends on him, because Herod is not of the dynasty of David, and thus Biblically illegitimate. So they who had the scriptures are troubled by the very thing that makes the pagans glad. St. Matthew wants you to see that the people of God can be the enemy of God.

But we can also be God’s friends. The story is for us not to condemn us but to invite us and to encourage us. We can be the people of God who respond to the search of the magi with honest joy and welcome. We do that by sharing what we know of the wisdom of God. In Ephesians, St. Paul gives the people of God a mission statement: “that through the church, the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”  

"The wisdom of God in its rich variety." This is not fundamentalism. Neither is it getting the rulers to pass laws in our favor. And notice there’s no mention of the conversion of the magi. Conversion is not the goal of witness. Conversion is God’s business. Our church’s business is simply to share, to witness, and to welcome.

Getting back to the story, we don’t see Joseph, nor do we see much of Mary and the baby. St. Matthew wants us to see the three gifts. Why these particular gifts? Were they useful to the little family? They were poor, so imagine. The gold would pay for their flight to Egypt, and for a house, and for Joseph to set up shop. And as they fled through the desert, illegal immigrants avoiding places with water where the agents would be waiting, the myrrh served Mary for ointment on their dry skin. And the frankincense would give comfort to their fearful and lonely prayers.

The later tradition has explored the symbolism of the gifts, and we get that in our hymns. Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for a prophet, and the child will be all three. Now gold for kings and incense for priests seem obvious, but why is myrrh for prophecy? Myrrh is one of the spices used for embalming, and St. Mark reports that the women brought myrrh to Jesus’ burial. And if Jesus was killed because of what he said, of what he prophesied, and if prophets generally have so suffer, then myrrh is the symbol of the child becoming a prophet.

What St. Matthew wants you to see in these three gifts are three symbols, three physical prophecies, that together show you not only the identity of Jesus but also what the nature of his kingdom will be. Not a typical kingdom, but a kingdom tempered by sacrifice and the truth about the poor and the weak. You can see in them the Sermon on the Mount, you can see them as symbols of the Beatitudes, and the healings of the sick, and even of the cross and the tomb and the resurrection. The three gifts are physical prophecies of the witness and wisdom of the one they were given to.

But these gifts are also symbols for you and your identity. Stay with me here as I depart from the familiar tradition to get more Biblical. The tradition makes myrrh stand for grief and gloom. But in the Bible itself, myrrh is more often associated with love and joy and celebration. And sex, I might add. Myrrh is a joyful spice more often than it’s a mournful spice, and its bitterness only sharpens its pungence. Both myrrh and frankincense could be added to perfumes, but while frankincense was typically burnt, myrrh was typically mixed into creams and ointments and lotions. It was for the skin. Frankincense was for breathing but myrrh was for feeling. Frankincense was for your prayers and myrrh was for your flesh. In the Song of Solomon it’s regarded as erotic. If frankincense is what lifted you up to heaven, myrrh is what brought you down to feel your body.

Myrrh is for the body, for the skin, for the flesh. It heals the flesh and attracts you to your flesh. And that’s okay, because this infant Jesus was “the Word made flesh.” Frankincense is for your breath. It attracts you to your soul. It leads you to prayer. And that’s good, because we Homo sapiens are the animals that pray. And gold is for your arm. Gold is wealth and wealth is power. Gold means you can have what you want and you can do what you want. Gold is for your intention and your will, and it calls to your heart, which is good and also why it is dangerous.

All three gifts are precious. All three of them speak to your desires.

The desire of your skin, your flesh, your gut, your groin. For feeling, for pleasure, for holding and taking, for loving and being loved.

And the desire of your breath, of your soul and your mind, your hopes and your dreams, your aspirations, your prayers and your desire for transcendence. 

And the desire of your strength, your will, what you want to have and want to do, your plans and your intentions. What you want to achieve, your contribution to the world, what difference you want to make in the world, and what you want to be known for.

All these desires are precious to you, they move you, they motivate you, they empower you, your desire to be in the world and to rise up in the world.

These desires energize your love. And yet, because of our sin, they get in the way of love. That’s from the corruption of desire, and not from the fault of desire in itself. Your desires are part of you, you need them, you cannot exist without your desires. The question is what governs them. What are your desires in service to, where are they leading you? And whom do your desires belong to?

The take home today is simple: submit your desires to the rule of this Messiah, and your desires will have their place. The process of Christian conversion is converting your desires into gifts. Not just the desires of your soul and your heart but even the desires of your flesh. Your desires are God’s gift to you, spiritual gifts, and if you treat your desires as gifts from God, with guidance from God for the use of them, you can keep your desires.

This king needs nothing from you but your faith. This kingdom taxes you only in the currency of love. If you convert your desires according the love of God and the love of your neighbor, then your desires will have their rightful place within his government. And then your desires will lead you to what those magi experienced, overwhelming joy

Overwhelming joy! This is what you were meant for, this is the purpose of all your journey and all your burdens, to offer this gift, and the chance to make this gift gives you overwhelming joy.

Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.