There’s No Such Thing as a Brief Mystery

Carnival-Mask-Party-at-Bene-1024x685(If you want to listen along, you can click here.  Sermons are best heard rather than read, kind of like Guinness is best straight from Ireland, and not from the local grocery…)

Luke 9:28-36

28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

There’s No Such Thing as a Brief Mystery

Be changed in front of us, God

So that we might be changed.

As we sing our last Alleluias

Put a different

Transformative

Transfiguring

Song in our hearts for a while.

Amen.

My friend lives just outside of New Orleans, and this time of year his social media feed is flooded with picture after picture of brightly colored masks, beads, and parades galore.  And while I don’t really celebrate Carnival with any sort of regularity (except for the eating of many fatty foods on Fat Tuesday, and here’s a free commercial: come to the youth fundraiser this Tuesday for some pancakes and sausage before the fasting of Ash Wednesday and Lent start up), but even though I don’t really celebrate Carnival in any sort of way, I love the idea.

I like the idea of taking a season of your life to feast intentionally, to enjoy things.  Carnival is about enjoying things, and notoriously for indulging too much in them, which I don’t suggest.  But remember that life is not all sackcloth and ashes, beloved.  My favorite verse from the Jewish writings, the Talmud (and the only real verse I have memorized), says, “We will have to give account in the judgment day of every good thing which we might have enjoyed but did not.”

Think about that for a moment.

I also like the idea of taking some time to pretend.  Halloween and Carnival are both feasts where we dress up as other things, pretending for a bit.  The other day Alistair, our 4 year old, brought in his nurse’s kit to the living room and informed me it was time for a check-up.  But the check-up couldn’t begin, he told me, until he had put on his name tag which identified him as Nurse Alistair. Nothing could start until that happened.

Go all in, buddy.

I like the idea of Carnival because it is about things being more than they appear, and so I like that every year the Transfiguration story, which is what we have here before us, comes during Carnival because part of the point of this story is that Jesus is much bigger, much better, much more amazing than Peter, James, John, Larry, Cathy, Karen, or Joe understand him to be.

Now this is a short sermon, so let’s all not follow the disciple’s example and fall asleep, OK?

Actually, that’s kind of my point: we’re usually just kind of groggy when it comes to thinking about God, me included.

So often we consider Jesus to just be some sort of prophet, shouting about God on a street corner like you might find in downtown Raleigh.  You know, at every street festival here in Raleigh, I’ve always found one street preacher, sometimes literally on a soapbox which is just the height of irony because I want to be like, “Get off your soapbox!”

And they’re warning people about God’s wrath or anger, a “turn and burn” sort of message.  And we look at ourselves and think, “Oh, that’s not us. We’re not that kind of Christian…”  But how easy is it to have our first reaction toward a situation in our lives, where something bad happens to us, be “God must be mad at me for this to happen…?”  Or, “What did I do that made God do this to me…?”

I remember hearing a story about the prophetic and prolific Reverend William Sloane Coffin where, just after his son had died in a tragic accident, had someone come over to his house to bring a casserole. And she said under her breath in confusion at the whole thing, “I don’t understand the ways of God…” implying that somehow God was involved in causing the accident.  Reverend Coffin flew up in a rage and said, “I’ll say you don’t!  God had nothing to do with it…”

We can easily turn God into an angry prophet, causing pain and punishment.

Or, likewise, we can turn Jesus into an angry law-giver, too.  Follow the rules, we say.  Tow the line.  Do right and punish wrong.  For some Jesus is a rule-giver, and God is making a list and checking it twice…

This is why, Beloved, in this mystical, mysterious moment Jesus appears with Elijah, the preeminent prophet on the one hand, and Moses, the preeminent law-giver on the other: because Jesus is not an angry prophet, though sometimes he is full of righteous anger, and he is not the supreme law-giver, though he does provide a new lens through which we look at the law.

Jesus is so much more.  Jesus is the embodiment of God with skin on.  And Jesus, with his life and love and death-defying work on the cross, will sometimes break the law in order to love in a more Godly way, and will stay silent in the face of damning prophecy, like he does with the woman caught in adultery, to love in a more Godly way.

Jesus is so much more than we allow him to be, so much more than sometimes our religious organizations, like this recent heartache in the United Methodist Church, allows him to be, so much more than our pasts allow him to be, our brains allow him to be, and even our callous hearts allow him to be.

Jesus is God’s indulgent love for a world drunk on rules, and right belief, and judgment.

But here’s the thing: it’s hard to see sometimes.  And it takes a long time to see sometimes.  And it’s difficult and takes so long because God’s work in Jesus is mysterious.

We so often pretend like God’s work in Jesus is one where a problem is solved, right?  Humanity is lost, we don’t know the way, and so God in Jesus shows us the way and all we have to do is act like Jesus, or believe in Jesus, or follow Jesus and, problem solved.  Sometimes the church has even presented it like this, as if Jesus is some part of a divine math equation.

But following Jesus has never solved any of my problems.  Actually, it’s made them all more complex!  It’s made loving more complex because I’m forced to love people I don’t want to love.  It’s made buying things more complex because I’m forced to think about the impact of my purchase power because people’s lives and livelihood are at stake.  It’s made voting more complex because…well, we can’t pretend that’s easy for any of us, can we?

God’s work in Jesus is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be held.  It’s why Peter is so wrong when he wants to build a tent for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses, as if you could ever cement something so awesome in one place.  Jesus will not be some guru on a hill living in a tent that you can visit whenever you have a problem and get the right answer.

No, God’s work in Jesus is mysterious.  We will learn to do mysterious things we never thought possible, like lose our lives to gain them.  Like become the least so that we can know what it’s like to be the greatest.  Like love our enemies, even though that makes no kind of sense.

The Transfiguration shows us that God’s work in Jesus is going to be bigger, more mysterious, more dazzling, than we can ever fathom, and so we should stop trying to peg God down in the tents of rules and “should/should not” and “these people are sinful and these people are not” and instead lean into that most mysterious of things: graceful love.  Following Jesus is about learning grace again, and again, and again.  Which is not easy.

Because there’s no such thing as an easy mystery, friends.

You know, we’re about to head into Lent in just a few days, and here’s a thought: if you’re looking to give up something this Lent, think about some way where you think you might have put God, or Jesus, or something spiritual in a tent, enshrined, in cement. Maybe some idea of God from your childhood that you just can’t let go of.  Or maybe it’s that thing you’ve always thought about God that you wish you didn’t because it’s caused you pain, or caused others pain.

Or maybe that’s not it for you.  Maybe you need to give up something that you’ve long held about yourself, something that causes you pain, that you think might not be true when seen through God’s amazing Christ-lens.

And maybe, this Lent, give it up. Give it up for Lent. Imagine that God is more dazzling than that view you’ve long held.  That, in Jesus, you are more dazzling than you think. Maybe God has a surprise up Jesus’ sleeve.

And, sure, you may not be able to give it up in forty days. But that’s ok.  Because these things take time, and God’s work in Jesus

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Eight Days a Week

Eight_days_a_week_beatlesSt. Paul, St. John, St. George, and St. Ringo have this wonderfully delightful ear worm (i.e. an addictive song) called “Eight Days a Week.”

“Eight days a week, I love you.

Eight days a week, is not enough to show I care…”

I trust fully that in the scriptures nothing is not significant, and though I don’t think we need to preach whole sermons on the meaning of small details in passages, paying attention to the small details gives us an insight into the greater meaning before us.

And so when it comes to this Sunday’s scripture, commonly called The Transfiguration, the Gospel writer Luke throws in this nice little detail that struck me this time going through the passage that I hadn’t put much thought into.

Before we go on, though, you should read it.  You can find it here: Luke 9:28-43a.

That opening line where the writer says, “About eight days after (the preceding sayings)…”

Eight days is an unusually specific amount of time, right?  Why would that little detail be part of the history passed down over the millennia, finding it’s way into our laps this week?

Well, I actually think The Beatles can help us here.  Their use of hyperbole in “Eight Days a Week” actually gets at what I think the Gospel writer is saying here. The Beatles are professing their surpassing love for their love interest, a love that cannot be contained in a simple seven day week, and so they have to create a bigger, greater week to express how expansive that love is.

And in this Gospel text we have Jesus taking Peter, James, and John, Jesus’ inner circle (and I’d also probably stick Mary Magdalene in that inner circle, though she’s not on this particular trip), and they go up a mountain, and Jesus is changed in front of them.

Now, the disciples are characteristically sleepy, and so they about miss the whole thing, which would have been a shame because Jesus is standing there between Elijah, the preeminent prophet, and Moses, the preeminent law-giver, and they’re having a discussion about how Jesus is going to defeat death as Jesus is shining like the sun.

He literally, in that instance, becomes the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, or as the prophet Malachi says it, Jesus is the “sun of righteousness,” the shining example of right relationship. (Malachi 4:2)

Because Jesus is not just another one of the prophets, he is greater than all others.  Jesus is like the “eighth day” of prophets, his bold word can’t be contained in any single moment of truth.  He is Truth.

And Jesus is not just another law-giver, he is greater than simple rules, the fulfillment of all laws.  Jesus is like the “eighth day” of laws because with his very life he will reshape and redefine what it means to be a part of God’s covenant, and grace will flow from his mouth in the face of blind legalism.

See, I think all of this happens “about eight days later” because the Christ cannot be confined to normal, simple categories like “prophet” or “law-giver,” and the Gospel writer knows this!  Luke is trying to give us a glimpse at just who Jesus is: he is the one who defies all boxes, even eventually the box of death, so that we all might have life.

But we, like the sleepy disciples, too often miss this.  We too often turn Jesus into a simple prophet, or into a simple giver of rules to follow.  Fundamentalists, who look for end-times sort of prophecies at every turn in the scriptures and the world, and legalists, who look for fences and rules (and, therefore, rule-breakers) in the scriptures and the world, don’t get the real meaning of the transfiguration.

And, I dare say, most of us don’t most of the time.  Because we like our rules and our structures.  Peter, too, doesn’t get it.  He wants to build tents for Elijah, Moses, and Jesus, to enshrine them there on the mountain.

And then they come down the mountain and Jesus meets a man whose son is tormented by demons, and he complains that his disciples couldn’t cast the demon out.  The disciples, who were too legalistic to understand the grace needed for the moment, and too prophetic themselves to listen to any other voice in the moment, can’t figure out how to do it.

And so Jesus, defying the laws that would say don’t touch someone so ill lest you become unclean, and defying the prophetic tradition which would simply deride the religious elite for standing idly by, overpowers the moment in grace to bring true life to the boy, to his father, and to everyone who looked on.

Simple prophecies don’t bring life. Simple laws don’t bring life.  Grace must bridge the two for life to happen, and Jesus is shown in this passage as that expansive bridge.

Look, what I’m saying is this: the Transfiguration is about taking seriously the idea that Jesus might be bigger, better, more overflowing with grace than our simple religious and moral boxes will allow.  And that, if we want to glimpse true life, we might need to let Jesus overflow a bit past our preconceived notions of who is in and who is out, who is wrong and who is right, who is worthy and who is not.  God, in Jesus, is like the “eighth day,” busting out of our normal reality of what something means to bring us into a more righteous, gracious, holy existence.  And it is dazzling.

To be righteous, which literally means “right relationship,” we may need to let Jesus change a bit in our eyes…and not just every day, but eight days a week.

Role Reversal

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<I don’t usually publish my sermons before Sunday, but we have a guest preacher this coming week in our morning services, so this one will only happen at our Sunday evening service>

17[Jesus] came down with [the twelve] and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.18They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

Role Reversal

Pray with me:

Today you say people are blessed

When it appears they aren’t.

Help us to keep this in mind

The next time we imagine

That we are without your blessing.

You say that we are

Help us to live into that.

Amen.

I remember sitting there at the restaurant and seeing this amazing thing happening right before my eyes.

There was an elderly man, quite elderly, sitting with another, younger man, who I imagined was his son.  And the elderly man could not move his hands without shaking violently, which made eating impossible.

And so during dinner his son, talking to his father the whole time…who wasn’t really able to respond…fed him his meal.  He carefully cut up the food in small portions and lifted the fork this his mouth.

And in between that, he ate his own dinner.

Now I saw this before I had kids of my own, but being around kids my whole life, well, I’ve fed a few babies their dinner.  And at that table I saw that unmistakable act of love that happens when a parent feeds their child, probably that very same act that the father had at one time done for that son.

Except now the roles were reversed.

It was heart-swelling and heartbreaking and all of that in one.  True love.

True love feeds us when we can’t feed ourselves.

True love tells us we’re beautiful when we feel like no one, not even ourselves, thinks we’re worth looking at.

True love tells us we’re blessed when everything else points in the opposite direction.

True love tells the truth about us when the world tells us lies.

Jesus today pulls a huge role reversal for everyone who is listening.  No one in their right minds would call the poor blessed.  No one in their right minds would call the mourning blessed.

But see: Jesus isn’t in his right mind, at least not in the way we think about it.

Jesus is in love.

So the poor are blessed not because of the money they have, but because of their value.

So the mourning are not blessed because of their sadness, but because they loved enough to cry, by God.  One of my favorite poets, Nayyirah Waheed, has this lovely thought about mourning, especially when it comes to men mourning.  She writes,

there have been so many times
i have seen a man wanting to weep
but
instead
beat his heart until it was unconscious.

The world tells people, especially men, to bottle it up.  Jesus says blessed are those who mourn.

Jesus today pulls a huge role reversal on everyone who can hear him, including you.  Because the Kingdom of God is different than the rest of the kingdoms of the world.  And the ones who you usually identify as wise in the world are the ones who know nothing in the kingdom.  The ones who usually are served in the world learn service in the kingdom.  The ones who have nothing in the world have an insight into true value in the kingdom.

And hearing that role reversal of the kingdom of God, well, it should make us think differently about how we live in this kingdom.

But what does Jesus know anyway, right?  He’s madly in love.  With us.

 

You See What Happens

<If you want to listen along, click here…>

Are you ready?

Dinosaurs Never Drank Coffee...1Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

You See What Happens

Pray with me:

We’re exhausted Lord,

But if you tell us to do it again

We’ll dip our nets into scripture

Just one more time this morning.

Bless us with whatever you’d have us catch.

Amen.

I saw a sign the other day that said, “The dinosaurs never drank coffee, and you see what happened to them…”

I happened to be drinking coffee at the time, which usually makes me feel good anyway, but suddenly also made me feel as if I was doing something good…

Ancient maps that plotted out the world would get to the edges of civilization, and all of a sudden out of the water you’d see these huge sea dragons popping up from the waves.  “Out here there be dragons,” it’d say as kind of a warning.  “Venture to far, and see what happens…”

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It’s the same thing my parents used to tell me about touching the stove when it was on.  And, sure enough, one morning I did just that.  It’s burned into my memory just like that burner was seared into my finger.  There’s a picture of me sitting on my mother’s lap with a Band Aid on my finger, smiling by that point, memorializing the lesson.

“See what happens…” is the warning we give when we’ve decided on an outcome.  Cautionary tales are instructive for us so that we don’t have to live through the same mistakes that others have made.

And today, Beloved, scripture has provided us with a cautionary tale.  Though, I doubt you heard it like that at first.  Let’s see if you do by the time we’re done, right?

If hindsight is 20/20, visioning and vision casting is at best “seeing through a mirror darkly” as St. Paul would say it.  I kind of wonder what Peter was thinking when this wandering Rabbi Jesus stepped into his boat, Peter’s boat, and had the nerve to tell him how to fish.

Peter was the fisherman, not Jesus.  Peter was the expert at that particular craft, not Jesus.

But I guess Peter says, in effect, “we’ll see what happens.”  I mean, time is precious, but when you’re stuck out on a boat in the middle of the lake, you might as well see if you can catch something, right?  He didn’t seem worried, though.

So, despite all his natural inclinations, all his “best business practices,” all of his models for success that fly around the corporate world today, Simon does it differently, with Jesus in mind, just to see what happens…

And, well, you know the story.

Do you wonder, like I do, why Simon Peter doesn’t try to hire Jesus?  I mean, the catch is so big the ships begin to sink.  Think of all of the potential.  Peter should probably have hired Jesus on the spot, I mean, just to see what would happen to the revenue…

But he doesn’t.  Perhaps because, though hindsight would tell him that hiring Jesus would ensure huge catch after huge catch, he sensed that you couldn’t control this one…

This one, who walked into people’s lives, and people’s boats, as if he owned the place.  Who told experts how to do their jobs differently.  There’s something about this one who made him un-hirable.

I’ve mentioned it before, by my Celtic Christian ancestors used to call the Holy Spirit the “Wild Goose.”  One who couldn’t be contained or controlled, only followed.

Peter seems to see that Jesus is a wild goose of sorts, and that learning from this one would not involve controlling him, but following him.

Which makes me wonder why so much of religion seems intent on controlling God so much.  Of claiming God’s in their boat, instead of perhaps seeing that it’s not their boat at all, but God’s.

Jesus isn’t here to play economic games anyway, we find out. Jesus will not be here to operate using the systems of the world as we know them. If he were, he would have stayed, sold the fishes, and built and army and an empire.

No, Jesus is intent on showing a more perfect way.

Peter sees in Jesus that he’s in the presence of something he’s never encountered before.  Something a bit more holy than he’s used to.  It breaks him.  He immediately starts confessing himself in the presence of this holiness, and the holiness, without skipping a beat, bids him to follow…leaving all that fish, all those torn nets, all that work that he labored on for so long behind.

As the bald and beautiful Reverend William Sloane Coffin once wrote, “There are two ways to be rich in this world.  The first is to have much money.  The second is to have few needs.”

Peter would spend the rest of his life learning that second lesson.

And this, my friends, is the cautionary tale of the scripture before us today: Jesus is the one who will break you.  Jesus is the one who will take your well-intentioned, well-planned business models and break them under the call for generosity over profits, for love over leverage.

Jesus is the one who will take our propensity to harness power for our own good, to get the biggest catch, and break open our boxes to allow the Spirit to lead us in a new direction.  And it is at this point where I want you to think concretely about your life and ask yourself what box you’ve put God in, and imagine Jesus begging you to follow him out of that smallness into a largess you’ve not considered before.  Afterall, the fish overwhelmed the boat so that it started to sink…perhaps some of our ideas about God need to sink to the bottom of history for us to follow Jesus today.

Jesus is the one who will break your plans for the future, too.  We may see through a mirror darkly, but we still make plans.  Peter had plans.  They probably included getting up and fishing the next day.  I bet they didn’t include abandoning everything and taking a different path of simplicity for the rest of his life…

And yet, that’s where the Wild Goose led him.

And Jesus is the one who will break your nets, sometimes.  Except usually you’re not the fisherman, but rather the fish, caught up in the cycle of the rat race.  Caught up in the cycle of keeping up with the Joneses.  Caught up in the cycle of why can’t my kid behave better or why I can’t I get a better job or why did this happen to me?

The God seen in Jesus is the one who steps into that mess and starts to tear those nets in two, allowing a new path, a new vision to be seen, not based in the old systems of economics and society that we’re all so used to, but into a new way of being.

In this season of Epiphany where the scriptures are giving us clues into just who Jesus is as the one who takes away shame, as the one who fulfills the scripture, today we see that Jesus is the one who will break our agendas in order to change them into a more Godly agenda, the one who cannot be tamed but only be followed, the one who begs you to continue on the journey to the cross and the empty tomb so that you can see what happens…

But it’s a cautionary tale, Beloved, because it will change you.  It changes you.  It breaks you, and we don’t like to be broken.  We like our agendas, our schemes, our economic systems, and we like knowing who is in and who is out.  Simon could have just stayed with his catch, by the way.  He would have made a lot of money that day…

But Jesus wasn’t there to modify Peter’s economic status or bring his business to the next level.  Jesus is not interested in modification. Jesus is interested in transformation.

Did you notice, by the way, that the Gospel writer Luke calls Simon Peter only Simon through the beginning half of this story?  When does he become Simon Peter?  Only when he realized the Divine in his presence.  He got a new name. His life was transformed. He was no longer pigeon-holed, but had broken free from that old way of being, broken into something new.

See, here’s the thing, when you realize that you are in the presence of a burning bush (and as the poet so rightly says, “every bush is burning); when you realize that you are in the presence of a pillar of fire, in the presence of the Wild Goose, in the presence of Jesus the Christ, the messiah, well, the old names, old ways of being just won’t do anymore. When Jesus steps into your boat…well,

…you see what happens.

The Smelly Miracle of Changing Determined Self-Interest into Determined Generosity

fish netI love the miracle stories in the scriptures, especially the ones in the Gospels.

They lift up these ordinary objects like bread, fish, water, and wine, and make clear that in the presence of the Divine ordinary things become extraordinary.  A small bit can feed a bunch with God’s blessing.

But even more than that, Jesus’ very presence actually changes things.  It’s like he has his own gravitational pull making the regular orbit of the systems of world fall out of orbit and into a new pattern of holy rotation.  Perhaps that’s the best definition for the phrase Kingdom of God: that place where God takes our systems and replaces them with God’s systems.

This Sunday we have another wonderful miracle story.  Take a moment to read it (even if it’s pretty familiar): Luke 5:1-11. 

Ready?  Onward.

So, did you notice the disciples in the story?  Did you notice their state of mind?  They’re tired.

Exhausted, even.

The fishing the night before hadn’t worked, and then this guy shows up, gets in their boat (literally, steps in their shoes), and suggests that they should do it again, but differently.

That is probably the phrase that I find riles people up the most: “do it differently.”

Humans are animals of habit. We don’t like “different,” even when it comes from Jesus.

I’m going to write that again because I think it’s probably an honest phrase that all Christians need to internalize: we don’t like “different,” even when it comes from Jesus.

That self-knowledge was an important realization for me.  Because we pay lip-service to the idea that we want to do what God asks of us, but usually we put in the fine print of that statement our terms of agreement.

And then we exhaust ourselves by doing the same old thing, over and over again, without any progress.

And then enters God into the midst, walking beside us, literally getting in our boat, and encouraging us to do life differently.  To do our work, differently.  To do things differently.

When the disciples do it differently it’s amazing what happens: they find there’s too much to do!  They need help.  The scene of the disciples hauling in that load of fish is probably the first instance of a community gathered around Christ sending out an email blast for volunteers to help…

Peter realizes that something special is going on with Jesus, and starts to take stock of himself.  He knows he’s in the presence of God, and feels inadequate. We’re not surprised by this…Peter’s whole life will be one of battling with his ego in one way or another.

And yet it is under Peter’s leadership that the church is established.  Ordinary, imperfect, unworthy things become extraordinary in God’s hands.

But, and here’s the true miracle I think, the Great Fish Haul of 30 A.D. (that’s what I’m imagining they called this event) will not be used for the sole good of the fisherman.  Peter’s realization that he is inadequate-and-yet-made-more-than-adequate in God’s presence will absolutely change the way he sees everything.

He’ll see his work not as his work, but as God’s work through him.  Jesus tells him as much.  And for the rest of his life he’ll be figuring out how to make that real.

The true miracle is that Peter’s determined self-interest (his work) will be changed into determined generosity.

And this is true, I think, of all of the miracle stories!  God uses the ordinary things to change people’s perspective of scarcity and abundance, freedom and captivity, life and death.

It is easier for five fish to become five thousand fish than it is to change humanity’s will from one of self-preservation to self-sacrifice.

And yet, that’s what we see Jesus do. Every time.  And sometimes that work is smelly, like in this week’s Gospel reading. But it happens. I’ve seen it.  I’ve seen it in communities within the church, and outside of the church.

I’ve seen people haul in nets of talent and use it to bless the world. I’ve seen exhausted people haul in nets of time, time they didn’t even know they had, and use it to bless the world.  I’ve seen people haul in nets of resources and, instead of keeping it, use it to make other nets for other people around the world.

I’ve seen it.  You wouldn’t believe your eyes how imperfect, exhausted people (like you and me) can suddenly find their hands full of generosity in the presence of God.

And yet I’ve seen it. A true miracle.

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

<If you want to hear the music, listen along…>

monty-python-sign-in-norway-facebook-screenshotAre you ready?

1On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9When 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 10and 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.” 11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs

Pray with me:

Fill us with gladness today, Lord

As you filled the hearts at Cana.

We are your empty jars,

Make us into good wine for the world.

Amen.

Some music to begin here, folks.  We have over 20 of our youth and adults at a Teens Encounter Christ weekend today, and they’re singing up a storm over there, so we’re going to join them a bit today with a hit from the Captivating Canadian crew Five Man Electrical Band:

And the sign said “Long-haired freaky people need not apply”
So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why
He said “You look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do”
So I took off my hat, I said “Imagine that. Huh! Me workin’ for you!”
Whoa-oh-oh

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

This season, the season that comes between Christmas and Lent, is a season of signs.  It’s where we get clues to who Jesus is through these signs he’s doing.

And today, with the wedding at Cana, this familiar miracle story of Jesus, I figured, well, it was a wedding story, so we should have some music along with it.

Because music can sign to us, signal, what we’re supposed to do. Like, if I start in like

Young man, there’s no need to feel down

I said, young man, get yourself off the ground

I said, young man, cause you’re in a new town

There’s no need to be unhappy…

You know that eventually you’ll end up doing what?  Right, you’ll do these weird things with your hands that no sane person would ever do on their own, and yet we do it at weddings, stadiums, all these public places…

The music is the sign of what’s to come, right?

Ok, back to the Bible.  So Jesus is at this wedding, and maybe it’s a wedding of relatives, who knows?  We think that because Jesus’ mother has the inside scoop on what’s going on behind the scenes.  She knows they’ve run out of wine.

And as I said in my Friday Faithprints, this would have been disastrous for the married couple.  It was up to them to show everyone a good time, to throw this great party, a party that lasts for days, and if on the third day…

Wait a second.  Did you notice that?  It was on the third day.

See, the Bible writers are all about giving us signs on what is about to happen.  Remember a few weeks ago when Mary and Joseph lost Jesus and they go looking for him?  I mean, that story was on the Sunday after Christmas, so let’s be honest, attendance was modest and you may not have heard that story, but how long was Jesus gone missing?

3 days.

And here, how does Jesus’ miraculous story start out?

On the third day.

Amazing things happen over three days…

So, the third day the wine runs out, and they have a few more days of this party to go, and if the wine runs out the family will be shamed.  Not feel ashamed, but actually be shamed.  Because we sometimes forget that these Biblical stories don’t happen in a vacuum, and this wedding is not taking place in Duplin at the wedding barn at the sweet muscadine winery they have over there.  This is taking place in the East.  Jesus, Beloved, is more Eastern than Western, and so the culture, the thought process, it is all more Eastern than Western, which is why I think it is so hard for us in the West to truly grasp what Jesus is saying a lot of the time…

The East was, and is, an honor and shame society.

And so you don’t feel ashamed.   Feeling has nothing to do with it.  You are shamed, in that society.  And if you are shamed you are often ostracized, thought less of.  Your reputation suffers.

And Jesus often deals with shamed people throughout his ministry.  And what he does is he takes away the shame and integrates them back into the community.  He shows everyone that shame is not holy, and therefore is wholly unnecessary.

And see, the real miracle here in this story is not that Jesus can turn water into wine.  There were stories of other magicians running around ancient Palestine able to do such things.

No.  The real miracle is that, in providing for the party, Jesus gives the sign that the God we see in Jesus is not the God who can do tricks, but the God who can do the impossible, the God who can restore shamed people back to wholeness; who can restore communities wracked by shame back to honor.

That is the sign.

And notice, notice who knows what Jesus has done.  His mother certainly does; she knows her baby, right?

And it says the disciples trust Jesus after seeing this, so it’s clear that they know.

But who are the ones who catch the glimpse of what God has done through Jesus here?

The servants.  The scripture says that the steward did not know where this great wine had come from, but that the servants who drew the water knew.

And that, Beloved, is another sign.  Sign, sign, everywhere there are signs in this scripture.  Because the sign here is that the servants, the lowly, the marginal, they will be the ones who get Jesus first.

Kind of like those shepherds at his birth, who were on the margins of the honor/shame society.

Kind of like the women at the tomb who, on the third day, are the first to learn about the resurrection.

Kind of like the woman at the well who was at the margins of the honor/shame society.

The sign here, my friends, is that in Jesus we have the marriage of divinity and humanity, and he will, at the wedding feast of our lives, bestow upon us:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me

I once was lost, but now am found

Was blind but now I see

 

My chains are gone, I’ve been set free

My God my savior has given back me

And like a flood, his mercy rains

Unending love, amazing grace…

The kind of love and grace that takes away shame.  That’s the kind of love and grace we see in Jesus.  And it’s something that nothing but God can do.

And so when you see Jesus on the scene, you know that shame is on the run, and in this season where we ask, “Who is Jesus?” the answer we see today in this sign at the wedding in Cana is that Jesus is one who wipes away shame and make people whole enough to truly live.

Which should make us pay attention to the people who are being shamed in this world, today.  At the party of life, are we as Christians part of the ones doing the shaming, or are we the servants who know that Jesus doesn’t stand for that and wants those people to be restored, by God?

And it also makes me wonder: how are you?  Has someone told you things about yourself that make you feel empty?  Perhaps you’ve been told that you’re not good. Or maybe you’re one who has said that to others, because you feel empty, and you have to make others feel how you feel so that you won’t be all alone in your shame…

See, here’s the thing about empty pots.  We learn today that God takes shame, emptiness, and makes them overflow with goodness and grace.

So, if you ever wonder if you’re any good; if you think you’re hollow and empty inside, see the sign given today: in Christ you are made whole.

Which makes me want to sing that one wedding song, that sign of that first dance of new life

At last, my love has come along

My lonely days are over

And life is like a song…

The sign that God gives in Jesus is that humanity is restored, that God’s love embodied has come along to wipe away shame…at last…

Jesus and the 10 Year Challenge

2r8az1The “10 Year challenge” has been going around the social media circles the past week or two, mostly on the Book of Face.

I think the idea evolved over time, of course, as all things do.  I believe the first challenge was to post the first profile picture from your Facebook account alongside your most recent one.  At least, that’s the challenge that I heard of first.

And then for most of my friends it became this 10 year challenge to post your profile pic from 10 years ago.  And I think it might have started out all as one thing because, well, face it: around 2006 Facebook stopped requiring a college email address to join, allowing anyone with any email address to join.  And it took just a little while for the masses to catch on. So most people’s first profile picture actually turned out to be around the 10-year mark, and most of them were of people’s faces, so…

The result of this social “challenge” was pretty fascinating to me.  I wasn’t so much interested in how people looked over 10 years, but rather I was interested in reading their comments.  I was more interested in how they felt about how they looked.

I was hoping most people would be generous with themselves, and many were.  But many qualified their statements about their looks with a self-depricating, “Could have been worse!” or even, “A lot of living happened in those years…”

The shadow side of such humorous statements is a little bit of shame.  And shame is this terribly permeable thing that infects us without us even knowing it.  It’s like a virus, passed on from person to person, from generation to generation, whereby we subconsciously learn that something is not right.

It’s different from guilt, mind you.  Guilt is this feeling that we did something wrong.

Shame, on the other hand, is the feeling that we, in and of ourselves, as a person, are wrong.

I bring this up because one of the big themes of this week’s Gospel lesson is shame.  It’s not the only thing to mine from the lesson, but it’s a central theme.

Oh, if you haven’t read it, take a gander: John 2:1-11

I’ll wait.

Good?  Ok.

I’m betting most of you know this story, of course.  It’s the wedding story at the start of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of John.  And in this season between Christmas and Lent we have all of these Jesus stories piled up, one on top of another, that give us a glimpse at just who Jesus is.  They’re each mini “epiphanies” or “awe moments.”

And to get the setting for this story you have to know a little bit about ancient weddings and parties of the East.  They, like weddings of the East today, were multi-day affairs.  None of these “fly in on Friday, have a rehearsal, get married on Saturday, have brunch on Sunday, and go” sort of weddings.  The party lasted for days.  And people participated for days.  Not just the bridal party, but everyone, partied for days.

Which meant that the host had to have food and drink for days.  This was the way that you were a good, honorable host: you fed people and made sure they had fun.  It was up to you as the host, not them as the guest, to ensure you brought the fun.

And it was shameful if you didn’t.

Honor and shame cultures are not something that we in the West understand very well, though I think if we got more acquainted with it we’d be better off.  Because we play honor and shame games all the time.

But, back to the text, to bring shame upon a newly married couple by running out of wine early would be to start off their marriage, and indeed their social standing, at a huge deficit. That may not seem like a big deal to you, but trust me when I say that the world revolved around these ideas of honor and shame (and in many places it still does), and it would be devastating for that family.

And so when Jesus turns the water into wine (605 bottles worth of wine, mind you), he’s not simply performing a miracle.  This is not a story whereby Jesus shows up and makes a miracle and everyone believes he’s the Son of God because he can make water into wine.

To say that’s it is to miss the culture of the time.  Plenty of tricksters were going around doing that kind of thing for people as street performance art.  Writers, historians, and theologians like Geza Vermes and Marcus Borg, amongst many others, have pointed this out for years.

The real miracle in the story, my friends, is not that Jesus can make water into wine, but rather that Jesus can take shame and make it as empty as those six stone jars.

That Jesus finds honor where others find emptiness, and can indeed restore honor where shame ruled the day.

And it’s not just any wine that wipes shame away, mind you.  It is great wine.  Not unlike the wine the disciples are accused of being drunk on in the Pentecost story in the book of Acts.  The word used there is gleukos, or “sweet wine.”

Have honor restored by the God who wipes away shame isn’t just like drinking the same old stuff.  It’s like a totally new, totally different, totally amazing thing.

Here’s the thing about the 10 year challenge, Beloved: most of the change that I hope has happened to people is on the inside.  Because I have to be honest, I have to testify, that in 10 years the most change that has happened to me is the change of having my insides, my shame, cleaned up and cleaned out, by God.

I want that change to be seen, too, on my outside.  Because when you’re filled with new wine, you want to share it.  It’s too sweet to keep to yourself.

Because we’re all those clay pots at times in our lives, whether we recognize it or not.  Empty of substance but filled with these shame signals that we get from the world.

And if there’s one thing that Jesus came into the world to do, it’s to show us, prove to us, that God is interested in doing a new thing in and with humanity.

A thing that wipes away that shame.  Sometimes it takes 10 years.  And sometimes it only takes 6 empty jars.

But God can, God does, do the work of turning ungodly shame into something honorable, amazing, and beautiful…like a wedding of Divine love and the human heart that lasts and lasts.

On Not Being Known

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<Listen along by clicking here>

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

On Not Being Known

Let us pray:

Let your light shine again tonight,

Lord God.

That we might not forget your promises.

Your power.

Amen.

Merry Christmas.

And I mean that.  We think of the word “merry” today as meaning something like, “happy,” but that’s not how that word was originally meant.

The word “Merry” originally meant “strong,” or something like “safe” or “comfortable,” or “comforted.”  In God rest ye merry, gentlemen let nothing you dismay…” the singer was not singing to merry gentlemen.  She was wishing them a safe, comforted Christmas with nothing to fear.

So, Merry Christmas.  Strong Christmas. Comforted Christmas.  I wish you that.

I was told once that grief is the most public journey that you make alone.

I think that’s probably true, though I don’t know firsthand.

I wonder if that’s the hardest thing about grief: before it happens, you don’t know what you don’t know, right?  And then after heartbreak of inhuman proportions strikes, it feels like other people don’t know.

Like they don’t get it.

They try.  With well-meaning words and hugs and invitations to be social.  All important parts of journeying with people going through the stages of grief, of course.

But there’s still a disconnect.  Your pain is not their pain, even if they hurt for you.

I remember walking with a young man as he was dying of AIDS.  I’d go visit him, and he’d squeeze my hand.  I did all the talking.  He was largely unconscious most of the time.

Toward the end the family gathered around and we commended him to God.  His mother cried on my shoulder.  His friend kneeled at the bed.

About an hour later I was walking outside, still pondering the whole process in my heart, and I heard the birds chirping and people walking along the street talking and laughing, and I felt myself getting angry.

Angry at the birds for chirping and singing.  Didn’t they know that a piece of creation just died?

Angry at people, oblivious to what happened, but I was just kind of angry at them for not knowing.  How could they know, of course?  But that kind of rationality didn’t matter.  I wasn’t thinking with my head, I was thinking with my heart, and although I didn’t know Raphael very well, it was broken for him and his family and his friends and his boyfriend…

The part of this passage of John that speaks to me tonight is the part where John says that, “Jesus came to his own, but his own did not know him.”

The “know” there is the Greek katalaben, which is probably better translated like, “grasp” or “seize” than a simple know.

Something more like, “they didn’t get it.”

Which, of course, is why God became enfleshed in the first place, I think: to get it.  To get humanity.  To understand us.

Jesus laughed with the children, and slept on the boat, and was held by his mother, and had brothers, and maybe some sisters, and a father.

And he cried.  He cried because his heart was broken when his brother Lazarus died.

And he cried when his hands were pierced, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  He grasped, seized, truly knew what it was like to be made of the dust of the ground, not just to make from dust.

He knew.  He knew, so that God could know.  So that we could know that in our grief, God grieves…because God’s been there, Beloved.  God’s been there.

And this is why the light can shine in the darkness: because only a God who has been there knows the way through it, carrying the light, the torch of hope, that lights the way, that marks the path straight through the tomb and out the other side.

This is, for me, the most beautiful part of our faith.

Our God is not glib.  Our God knows, seizes, grasps what it means to be human, so that God might be able to walk us through the path and transform our pain into something else, in time.

As we head into Christmas, with all the lights shining through the trees, even if our hearts don’t feel like singing, perhaps we can stare at the lights and just imagine them as the light of a God who knows, marking the way through these woods.

Because at Christmas we’re not only reminded that God shows up at the scene of our grief and heartache, but God knows.  And can lead us through.

Because a light shines in the shadows, and the shadows cannot overcome it.

So, indeed, may we all have a merry Christmas.

 

You’re Never Too Old for a Lullaby

<Listen along by clicking here to hear the lullaby for yourself>

candle_lighting_serviceIn those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  And she gave birth to her firstborn, a son, and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy which shall be for all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,

And on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger.  When they saw this, they made known what he been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

You’re Never Too Old for a Lullaby

Join me in prayer

Sing to us again tonight, God.

Sing the song of peace.

The song of fierce love.

The song that casts out fear.

The song that is so loud it drowns words of hate.

The song that is so sweet we can’t help but listen.

Sing the lullaby of grace,

The song of the angels tonight,

The song of the Christ child.

Sing it, so that we might know the tune,

And sing along.

Amen.

I was putting Findley and Alistair to bed a few weeks ago.  Being 3 years old and 5 years old, bedtime can sometimes feel like washing a cat: it’s impossible to come out unscathed.  And there is much howling.

But eventually they settle in after hugs and kisses and high-fives and fist-bumps, all in that order.  And then comes the song request.

And from their birth I’ve had a rotating playlist of songs I’ve sung them, a mix of 60’s folk music, Civil War era bluegrass, and hymns.

On this particular night they’ve requested the hymn Abide With Me,

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.

The darkness deepens;

Lord with me abide.

When other helpers

Fail and comforts flee

Help of the helpless, Lord

Abide with me.

I’ve sung that hymn at countless funerals, but it also works just as well for rocking a baby to sleep, because it’s meant to give hope and assurance. It’s a lullaby, really.

I get done with the verse and Alistair says, “Dad, who is that song written for?”

“For babies, when they’re very young.  Or for when you’re very, very old,” I say. “It’s a lullaby.”

Finn yawned and then said, “Yeah dad, you’re never too old for a lullaby.”

I’d like to think he knows what he’s talking about.  Because every Christmas we gather in here together, young and old, to hear this same story again and again and again, and it is essentially the story of the making of a lullaby.

Because we must realize by now, Beloved, that the God who can calm the waves, and the God who can raise the dead, could surely have shown up in this world in a variety of ways, holding power in the left hand and might in the right, adorned by the blasting of trumpets announcing a royal arrival.

But God does not do that.

No, God knows that if we’re going to have any sort of change in this world that humanity will buy into, God can’t pull puppet strings.  God can’t control us.  That kind of power and might will last for a while, but will only cause unending rebellion in the end.

We don’t like to be controlled.

No. Instead God’s going to pull the heartstrings.  Instead God’s going to hold the finger of his mother in the left hand, and clutch a bit of straw in his right, and the trumpets will be quiet, and the only music in the stable that night will be the sound that we all know, my friends, the sounds that calms our hearts and calms our fears: the sound of a mother or a father humming their newborn baby to sleep.

This, Beloved, this is how God will get humans on board with the divine agenda of love and peace: through a lullaby.

A lullaby that we come to sing tonight.  A lullaby that we bear witness to tonight as we sing,

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,

The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head…

A lullaby that we bear witness to tonight as we sing…

Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…

Because while we know that not all in the world is calm, and not every corner of the world is bright, we dare not tell that to our baby.  Not because we want to delude them, I think, but as a father it is because I secretly harbor this hope against hope that my boys will be able to do what I have not figured out how to do quite yet: live with calming peace that is never shaken and a bright love that is never dimmed.

Because this world is like a fixer-upper with good bones, and I want my boys to see the possibilities that God has put here instead of all the ways it isn’t perfect.

This world has good bones, boys.  This world has good bones, Beloved.  We can do something amazing with this, by God.

And I have to think, friends, that that hope against hope that I have for my kids is the same hope against hope that God has for each of us.

And so every year.  Every. Single. Year. we come here again to be sung that song in the hopes that, this year, a bit more calm and a bit more brightness will infect our world through God’s work in us.

That the lullaby would become true, and we can live as peacefully as a baby sleeps. Because not only unto you is a child born, but within you tonight peace and love and hope are being carried.  This is the gift that Christ gives us again every year, so let’s open it and use it again.

You know, I don’t know what brought you here tonight.  For some of us, it’s tradition.  For some of us, well, we’re dragged here by our parents or partners.  For some of us it is, curiosity, or habit, or piety, or devotion.

But one thing I do know: tonight you, yes you, are being held in the arms of God, who, like a mama, is rocking us and humming this beautiful lullaby of love and peace and joy so that it might be true in our lives, in Raleigh, in our world.

Because this place has good bones, Beloved.

Listen to the words.  Have your heart moved again, by God.

Because my 5 year old is right: you’re never too old for a lullaby.

Merry Christmas.

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