Epiphany 2C: Water Plus a Miracle

Wedding at Cana
Duccio di Buoninsegna
1308-11

OLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 62: 1-5

Read the Old Testament passage

There are actually at least two ways to read this passage. Some hold that the prophet is speaking in the voice of God and reaffirming God’s promise to always act on behalf of the city. Others claim that the prophet himself is vowing to act as God’s intercessor, as God’s voice. Taken this way, the prophet, as he says, cannot stay silent. He is compelled to speak what he believes in the deepest part of his being. Either way, think about the context in which this passage was probably first said. God had made extravagant promises to God’s exiled people. Earlier in the book of Isaiah, God promised to build up the barren and war-torn city of Jerusalem. God promised to bring the exiled people home, and promised them the richest of feasts. And so they come home around the year 539, when Persia’s King Cyrus proclaims an end to the exile and allows them to leave.

But the reality to which the people returned was far from glorious. The land seemed to them like a desert. It was true that the land was not empty: people had remained in Judah during the years of exile, and others had moved into the area, making a life for themselves in Jerusalem and in the surrounding countryside. But none were able to undo the damage done by Nebuchadnezzar and his army some sixty and fifty years before. And when the exiles returned, it was all they could do to secure homesteads for themselves and try to grow crops to feed their families. The land had not remained untouched ready for them to return. It wasn’t like they just threw off the sheets covering their furniture and moved back in. Others had claimed their place. There was no place to go.

Times were difficult, and people were hungry. When prophets finally convinced them to rebuild the temple, it was clear that its glory could not match the glory of former days. The land still felt like a wasteland and so it was easy for them to assume that God had, in fact, deserted them.

The prophet, though, knows this is not true. The prophet believes that God has promised newness, transformation, and abundance in God’s time. But that reality is new; it is not a “redo” of the former things. It is a promise of new life. The prophet knows that God has promised new names for Israel, both for the land and for the people. This name—signifying a new destiny, a new hope—will be given by the Lord. A new name signifies a new and restored relationship with God. The name, “My Delight” says how God looks upon Israel and what God is promising to do. Emmanuel Swedenborg says that “Love consists in desiring to give what is our own to another and feeling [his or her] delight in our own.” So the prophet is calling the people to feel God’s delight, to live God’s delight, to be God’s delight. We proclaim that we rejoice in God. But this…this is God’s rejoice in us.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does the premise of a “new name” mean for you?
  3. What does that mean for you to be “God’s Delight”, for God to delight in God’s people? Why is that difficult for us to think that way?
  4. What, then, would it mean for God to be “Our Delight”?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11

Read the Epistle passage

In this passage, Paul seems to deal with spiritual gifts by pointing to the Corinthians involvement in other religions prior to their becoming Christians. He points to what it means to live by the Spirit of God; it means more than just being “religious”. It means living to the true potential of what God has instilled in each of us.

The lectionary breaks this chapter into two sections (and two weeks) but the main focus throughout the chapter is on spiritual gifts. This week’s reading essentially proclaims that all are given unique spiritual gifts and asks the question of us all, “So what will you do with them?” “What will you do so that they serve to the glory of God?” Remember that in this letter to the Corinthian Church, one of Paul’s main focuses was their seeming lack of community, their perceived inability to care for every member. This passage strikes at the heart of that notion. We are all given unique gifts by God. Are we using everyone’s gifts? Are we engaging everyone in ministry? Are all the gifts just as important as the next? Do we even recognize all the gifts that God has given us as a community? God instills gifts into each of us and instills gifts to each community. But different as they are, they are all of the Holy Spirit.

And what does this say about our own gifts and the way we engage them in the work to which God calls us? This is God’s Spirit alive in us. And yet sometimes it is difficult for us to recognize gifts in ourselves.

In Stepping Stones of the Steward, Ronald E. Vallet tells the story of a poor Jewish man, Eizik, son of Yekel, [who] lived in the city of Krakow. One night he dreamed that, in the far city of Prague, buried at the foot of the bridge that went across the Vltava River, was a great treasure. When he awoke the next morning, he remembered his dream but did not think too much about it because it is not that unusual to have such dreams. However, that night he had the same dream again. This continued night after night, the same dream, until ten days and nights had gone by. Finally, Eizik concluded that he had no choice but to make a journey to the far city of Prague to see if a great treasure really was buried where he had seen it in his dream.

He set out on the journey to Prague, a journey that took many days and was very difficult. As he approached the city of Prague, he saw the Vltava River, just as he had seen it in his dream. Crossing the river was a bridge, just as in his dream. He hurried to the foot of the bridge, where in his dream the treasure had been buried.

As he bent over and started to dig, he felt a hand grasp his shoulder and heard a voice say to him, “What do you think you’re doing here?” It was the hand and the voice of a soldier. Poor Eizik was so startled that he could think of nothing to do except to stammer out the truth. He told the soldier of his dream and of his long journey to Prague to seek the buried treasure. On hearing the story, the soldier laughed, gave Eizik a kick, and said, “You stupid Jew, don’t you know that we all have dreams like that? But it makes no sense to pay attention to them. I myself had such a dream. I dreamed that in the far city of Krakow, in the house of a poor Jew named Eizik, son of Yekel, a great treasure was buried beneath the stove. Now, wouldn’t I be stupid if I left my post and make a long journey to Krakow and went searching through the city looking for the house of a poor Jew named Eizik? Why, there are probably many Jews with that name.” With that, he gave Eizik another kick and said, “Not go on home!”

Eizik made the long journey back to Krakow, went to his home, moved aside the stove, and dug. There he found a great treasure of gold!

The treasure of gold did not lie in the far city. Instead, Eizik discovered that the treasure had been very near to him for many years. But the knowledge of the treasure involved a long and difficult journey. (Ronald E. Vallet, Stepping Stones of the Steward (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1989), 9-10.)

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How readily do we accept different gifts in the community?
  3. Is there such a thing as someone having the “wrong” gifts for a community?
  4. What does this say to you about your own spiritual gifts?
  5. What happens if we do NOT engage someone’s gifts?
  6. What happens if we do not engage our own gifts?

 

 

GOSPEL: John 2: 1-11

Read the Gospel passage

According to the Mishnah (which is essentially a redaction of the oral tradition of Judaism and the traditional understandings of Scripture), the wedding would take place on a Wednesday if the bride was a virgin and on a Thursday if she was a widow. The bridegroom and his friends made their way in procession to the bride’s house. This was often done at night, when there could be a spectacular torchlight procession. There would be speeches and expressions of goodwill before the bride and groom went in procession to the groom’s house, where the wedding banquet was held. It is probable that there was a religious ceremony, but we have no details. The processions and the feast are the principal items of which we have knowledge. The feast was prolonged, and might last as long as a week (so, OK, that would be quite a lot of wine!).

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is at the wedding, although her role seems to be more than that of a guest. Perhaps the couple were relatives or something. But she seems to be one of the first to know that the wine is running out. She instructs the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do, and they appear willing to take her instructions.

This was an embarrassing situation—the wine has run out, and there appears to be no solution. Either no more wine is available, or there is no money to buy more wine. The guests seem unaware of what is happening. If something is not done, all will be embarrassed. Some commentators even inform us that litigation was possible in such cases. (Can you imagine being sued for not providing enough food and drink at a marriage ceremony?) But, regardless, it is clear that Jesus mother expects Jesus to do something out of the ordinary. She expects him to fix it. Maybe it’s a message to us that Jesus didn’t just come for the “big”, splashy things. Maybe it’s a reminder that God is in even the ordinary, those seemingly small things in life that we think we can handle, that we think don’t really even matter to God.

But this? I mean, really, wine? Why didn’t he turn the water into food for the hungry or clothing for the poor? Why didn’t he end the suffering of one of those wedding guests who were forced to live their lives in pain? Why didn’t he teach those that were there that God is more impressed by who we are than what we do? Now THAT would have been a miracle. But instead Jesus, in his first miraculous act, creates a party, a feast. Maybe it’s a reminder that we ought to just relax and trust God a little more. Maybe it’s trying to tell us that God is indeed in every aspect of our life. And maybe it’s telling us that life is indeed a feast to be celebrated.

And think about the wine itself. It begins as ordinary grapes. Well, not really. If you go even farther back, you start with water. Everything starts with water. And then those ordinary grapes with just the right amount of water, the right amount of sunlight, and the right amount of nutrients fed to them from the rich, dark earth begin to seed. And then we wait, we wait for them to grow and flourish and at just the right time, they are picked and processed and strained of impurities and all of those things that are not necessary. And then they are bottled and tucked away while again, we wait. They are placed in just the right temperature, with just the right amount of light, and just the right amount of air quality, and we wait. We wait and until it becomes…well, a miracle.

And Biblical theologians have over and over pointed to the relationship that this story has with the Eucharist. Think about it. We take ordinary bread and ordinary wine (or in our case, ordinary Welch’s Grape Juice), and through what we can only describe as a Holy Mystery, a veritable miracle, those ordinary things become holy. They become for us the body and blood of Christ, the very essence of Christ to us, for us, and in us.

And remember that when the wine ran out, Jesus did not conjure up fresh flagons of wine. Rather, he took what was there, those ordinary, perhaps even abandoned vessels of ordinary, everyday water and turned it into a holy and sacred gift. Water and a miracle…

So this story of wine makes a little more sense. Wine is water—plus a miracle. But in case it is lost on us, remember that our bodies are roughly two-thirds water. No wonder the ancient sages always used water as a symbol for matter itself. Humans, they taught, are a miraculous combination of matter and Spirit—water and a miracle—and thus unique in all of creation. No wonder that wine is such a powerful, sacramental, and universal symbol of the natural world—illumined and uplifted by the Divine. Wine is water, plus spirit, a unique nectar of the Divine, a symbol of life.

And we, ordinary water-filled vessels though we are, are no different. God takes the created matter that is us and breathes Spirit into us, breathes life into us. We, too, are water plus a miracle. 13th century German mystic Meister Eckhart said that “every creature is a word of God.” It’s another way of reminding us that we are water plus a miracle.

So maybe this story of Jesus’ first miracle is not as odd as we thought. Our lectionary places it immediately following the remembrance of Jesus’ baptism and the remembrance of our own. It is the point where God’s Spirit, where the holy and sacred itself, was poured into each of us. So, yes, we are a miracles, created matter, Spirit-breathed. We are the good wine that God has saved for now. We are water plus a miracle.

 

  1. What meaning does this hold for you?
  2. In what ways does this speak of God’s abundance to you?
  3. How does this passage speak to you about our own faith journeys?
  4. How open to God’s abundance are we?
  5. What does it mean to see ourself as a miracle of God?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit. (e.e. cummings)

 

Joy has no name. Its very being is lost in the great tide of selfless delight—Creation’s response to the infinite loving of God. (Evelyn Underhill)

When I die, God isn’t going to ask me “Did I create the Earth in six days or five days?” but “What did you do with what I gave you?” (Richard Cizik)

 

Closing

 

Where there was no wine, there was you

and you said drink, and there it was, startling and sweet.

And where there was no bread, there was you

and you said feed one another, and there it was, filling and strong.

And where there was no love, there was you

and you said touch, and there we were, our hands looking like yours.

 

Here’s to everyone: To fullness of life on earth and bounteous blessings for all humanity; To justice, compassion, and the warmth of the sun for all God’s creatures; To the golden health of loved ones everywhere, and the radiant glory of those who have gone before. God bless us now and evermore. So be it. Amen. (Jan L. Richardson, “And You Said”, in In Wisdom’s Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season, (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2000), 41, 157).

 
 
 
 

Proper 16A: The Keys to the Kingdom

Old KeysOLD TESTAMENT: Exodus 1: 8-2:10

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

By the end of the Genesis story, Joseph and the rest of those with him had risen far in the Egyptian society. They were immigrants and yet they were accepted and had even achieved status and power. In fact, Joseph was second in command to Pharaoh. But things change. A new king was installed over Egypt who did not know Joseph and who actually feared the status and power that Joseph and the Israelites had gained. So very quickly Joseph and the Israelites moved from being accepted and welcomed guests to being suspect aliens that were feared by the Egyptian citizens. The new Pharaoh successfully characterized the Israelites as a threat to Egypt’s economy and way of life and with that fear instilled in them, the Egyptian society rallied behind their new leader.

So, to keep the Israelites “in their place” and control them a little bit more, the Egyptians created a forced labor program and put the immigrant Israelites to work rebuilding their infrastructure. But the Israelite population kept growing in multitudes and the Egyptians became more and more fearful of these immigrants taking over in their society. So, in an effort to counter this problem, the new Pharaoh ordered that when a Hebrew woman gives birth, the midwife who is assisting her, should kill the child if it is a boy. Well, keep in mind that a midwife is a medical person of the time. It was not in their nature to take a life. So when Pharaoh asked why there were still Israelite boys who were allowed to live, the midwife simply told him that the Hebrew woman gave birth too fast for them to get there and take the child. (Apparently, Pharaoh does not see the females as a threat. Sure…you just go ahead and think that Pharaoh!). Pharaoh’s next order is to take the Hebrew male babies and throw them into the Nile. (What a bizarre thought…to throw dead babies into your main source of water and irrigation!)

During this time, a man from the Tribe of Levi married and the woman had a male child. Rather than risk the wrath of Pharaoh against her child, she hid him and then eventually placed him in the river. Ironically, it was Pharaoh’s daughter that found the child and adopted him. And, even more ironically, it was the child’s mother who then received wages for being a nursemaid for the child. The child grew up as Pharaoh’s grandson. He was named Moses, which means “I drew him out of the water.” He would become the central figure in the Exodus story, the central figure in the way that God shapes Israel’s future. Israel’s future has been preserved. Even from oppression, comes survival. God can use this.

Perhaps our message is one of sort faithful subversion. Perhaps we are called not to just follow in blind obedience but to respond with compassion and grace. Perhaps true loyalty (true patriotism, if you will) is not blind faith but rather a faithful response at every turn of whether or not our society and our world truly look like they are called to look. Sadly, parts of this commentary sound like they came from yesterday’s New York Times rather than a 3,500-year old Biblical text. Are we called to preserve our world and our society or are we called to transform it into something else?

All through history, the world has gone through out and out paradigm shifts. Old ideas and archaic notions were given questions and did not have an answer to provide. So, things changed. Painfully, sometimes, things changed. Here, a life is brought into oppression and terror and creates life itself. Moses would lead the people out of their enslavement and to freedom. But they would never be the same again. It happened again 1,500 years later. A life was brought into oppression and terror and creates life itself. Jesus would lead the people out of their enslavement and to freedom. But we would never be the same again. So, why is it so important for us to preserve our society the way it is? Why do we fear those who are different? Maybe in this time of wars and airstrikes and uncertainty; of arguments over budgets and debt ceilings and insurance and who is actually “American”; of the juxtaposition of natural drought and human oppression as it creates a moral and physical crisis around the globe; of fears over terrorists and loss of life as we know it—maybe now is the time when we are called to look anew at what God may be calling us to do. Maybe a newfound freedom waits just over the horizon. But we will never be the same again. Thanks be to God!

Years ago when I was traveling in Israel, I met a Jew from Chicago who had dedicated his life to the Zionist cause and whose home was a kibbutz in the desert. When his passion and militancy in that armed camp were questioned, he told a midrash on Moses at the Red Sea. He described for us Moses leading the people homeward only to suddenly be confronted ahead by the deep sea waters and behind him by the fierce armies of Pharaoh. Moses is poised between the devil and the deep blue sea. “It was,” he says, “when Moses’ big toe touches the water that the sea parts and slavery is left behind. The moral or teaching of the tale,” he told us, “was do not stand on the river bank praying for miracles.” Like Jesus, intent upon abundant life for his followers, the call is to step over old boundaries, risk the unknown, and to brave the darkness for the sake of new life….The ultimate challenge to us, however, as it was for those who accompanied Moses to the sea, may be finally to step into the deep water and brave the darkness in search of that person we are waiting to become rather than cursing the shadows and clinging sadly to what was. (Excerpt from “An Invitation to Find Ourselves”, a sermon by Rev. Dr. William L. Dols, available at http://day1.org/555-an_invitation_to_find_ourselves, accessed 10 August, 2011.)

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What image of God does this story depict?
  3. What about this story mirrors our own society?
  4. What things do we clutch and try to preserve that may be getting in the way of what God is calling us to be?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 12: 1-8

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

Continuing with Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he now focuses not so much on whether or not Israel figures into this salvation formula, but on the newly-formed congregations themselves. These are more than likely “house churches”, small congregations of a few families and individuals that are finding that they are a lot more diverse than they thought.

So Paul begins by calling the congregations to see themselves and all they are as a sacrifice to God. For Paul, submitting to God means letting go of the allegiances of this world, those things that get in the way of who one is being called to be before God. It is a call to renewal of one’s whole self before God. Paul then turns to a warning to people not to think too highly of themselves or their spirituality, not to see themselves as better or more spiritual or more gifted than others. It is a calling to a spiritual maturity that will move one past the need to validate oneself. Paul repeats the image that he used in the Corinthian letter of the church as a body, composed of everyone’s diverse gifts. And together as a body, the church can be the church. Everyone’s gifts that they bring to the table are important and necessary for the Body of Christ to BE the Body of Christ.

Paul challenges us to see ourselves as the embodiment of Christ in the world, not primarily as individuals but as local communities, yet belonging also to a larger whole. Difference is acknowledged. People are not all the same. They do not all have the same abilities. The common life is nothing other than the life of Christ, the life of the Spirit. This remains the constant. We are not asked as individuals to be Christ or Christs, let alone saviours of the world, although many suffer from this misconception and the burn out it produces. We are asked to be members of a body, of Christ, and to play our part – not more, not less. It is essentially a discussion about stewardship, about using what God has given you and infused into your life to build up and bring in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

The truth is, spirituality is not something that is generally measurable. I mean, really, what does it mean for one person to be more “spiritual” than another. Living into God’s calling means surrendering to God; it means getting oneself out of the way. Instead of figuring out what we need to do for God, we are called to listen to what God is calling us to do for the world. C.S. Lewis once said that “all genuine religious conversions are blessed defeats.” So, are we trying to be spiritual or are we trying to listen to what God is calling us to be?

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. In what ways do gifts contribute to or deflect from the unity of Christ’s Body?
  3. What, then, does this say about what the Body of Christ is or what it should be?
  4. What does it mean to surrender to God in terms of our spiritual life?
  5. How well do we use everyone’s gifts to be the Body of Christ?

 

 

GOSPEL: Matthew 16: 13-20

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=274779886

This Scripture also appears in the Gospel version written by the writer who we know as Mark but Peter comes out looking a little different. There, Peter fails to understand who Jesus is and is all but characterized as one who is not with Jesus or some sort of outsider. But here, Peter comes out looking pretty good. He depicts the true disciple who understands who Jesus is and the significance of Jesus in the broader picture.

This interaction between Jesus and the disciples is probably the writer’s way of trying to clarify understandings of Jesus and his work and perhaps clear out some of the “misunderstandings”. Keep in mind that in 1st century Judaism, the name “Mashiah” (Messiah) had several different meanings. It essentially means “anointed”, or “one who is anointed” for a specific purpose and vocation. That could mean a prophet, a king, a warrior, or a savior. From that standpoint, the “Messiah” probably meant to each person whatever it was that would fulfill the needs and fears of that person. Also keep in mind that this version of the Gospel was probably written after the destruction of the temple and the devastation of Jerusalem. There were real fears present. There were real questions. OK, then, who IS the Messiah? Who is going to help us now? And what does that mean? Some people saw Messianic qualities in John the Baptist; others in Elijah; others in Jeremiah or others. They saw in those people the answer to their questions, the answers to their own unique array of issues, problems, and fears. But those people were gone. (And, at the point of this writing, so was Jesus!) And yet Jesus, as Messiah, lives as God’s Spirit moves and works through the community of faith building the kingdom of God. The meaning was not one that could be “nailed down”; instead it has to be lived out in one’s life.

This passage also characterizes an understanding of what the church itself is supposed to be. The word “church” is seldom used in the Gospel accounts. In fact Matthew uses it only here and in the 18th chapter of Matthew. The church is not merely an institution. This is not meant to be the beginning the Christian church as we know it. Rather, church here is referring to the foundation that spawns the continuing work of Jesus Christ in the world. It is a foundation that is so strong that nothing else can overcome it—not even death itself. The work of Christ has begun and nothing can stop it. The “key” image in rabbinic thought primarily refers to authority that is given to Peter (and to the church) to BE the church. This really has nothing to do with apostolic succession or “church authority” as we know it today. (That will come MUCH later after many arguments over who God is and who the church should be!) It has nothing to do with building great big congregations; it has to do with being swept into the Kingdom of God and being a part of ushering it into its fullness. Mark Allan Powell makes that point that “the church has the authority to declare God’s will not because it exhibits more insight or greater faithfulness to God than others but because Jesus Christ, God’s Son, has chosen to be present in the church and to exercise his authority on earth through this community.” (From Feasting on the Word, by Mitchell G. Reddish, p. 385)

The passage ends with Jesus’ directive to keep what is called the “Messianic Secret”. Why? One would think that he would want it shouted from the rooftops. And yet, the truth is not revealed until well after the Resurrection. It, again, has to be lived into. This writing is pointing to what is to come. As the story continues, Jesus’ earthly life will come to an abrupt and painful end. And, yet, the story continues, bound in heaven and hear on earth. You just have to live into it to get the full meaning and realize that God’s creative power is always and forever loose in the world. There are lots of understandings of God in this world. (Actually, who are we kidding? There are several understandings among those who are reading this right now!) Some understandings resonate with us; some challenge us; some make us uncomfortable; and, frankly, others probably just get in the way. This is not a God to be explained but one to follow. So, then, who do you say Jesus is? Jesus is not a model of the way we should be; rather, Jesus lives through us. So how does that change the answer to the question?

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does the notion of “Messiah” mean for you?
  3. What would our church look like if we truly understand this notion of the “church” represented here?
  4. What makes you realize that “creative power of God” in our world today?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.   (Rainer Maria Rilke)

 

What we are looking for on earth and in earth and in our lives is the process that can unlock for us the mystery of meaningfulness in our daily lives. It has been the best-kept secret down through the ages because it is so simple. Truly, the last place it would ever occur to most of us to find the sacred would be in the commonplace of our everyday lives and all about us in nature and in simple things. (Alice O. Howell, The Dove in the Stone)

 

Meaning does not come to us in finished form, ready-made; it must be found, created, received, constructed. We grow our way toward it. (Ann Bedford Ulanov)

 

Closing

O God, you have prepared in peace the path I must follow today. Help me to walk straight on that path. If I speak, remove lies from my lips. If I am hungry, take away from me all complaint. If I have plenty, destroy pride in me. May I go through the day calling on you, you, O Lord, who know no other Lord. Amen. (Galla, Ethiopia, from An African Prayer Book, Desmond Tutu, ed., 119)