Water, Wine, and the Places that Need Filling: Sermon for January 20, 2013

We really should have listened...

We really should have listened…

Recently I’ve had occasion to think a lot about wedding receptions. We had a fairly small wedding, family and closest friends only, but that doesn’t mean that planning a reception was easy. You find a caterer, you negotiate a price, you pick a menu, and you stress out about whether or not there will be enough food.

When it came time to get our wedding cake, multiple friends gave us the same advice. They told us that we would be tempted, pressured even, to order a cake that the bakery said was big enough for every person at the reception to get a full piece. Our friends all told us to only order half of that. They said most people only ate about half a slice anyway, and others didn’t have cake at all, so a smaller cake always turned out to be plenty.

We were convinced they were wrong. We knew that as soon as we did that, there would be a massive run on cake that would end with half our guests getting none. And so, we ordered the big cake.

I was thinking about that when I read today’s Gospel. Jesus goes to a wedding reception in the town of Cana, and his mother is there. And she comes up to Jesus and tells him, “they’re out of wine”.

Now, maybe she wanted a glass herself, I don’t know, but the big issue here is not just that no one had wine. It’s that this was potentially humiliating for the couple who had just been married and their family. It reflected badly upon them as hosts, and opened them up to the ridicule of others. The fact Mary pulled Jesus aside was probably because she didn’t want the families to be embarrassed at their own wedding.

Mary already knew that there was something extraordinary about her son. I’m not sure she knew just how much so, but she knew he could do something to fix this. But when she tells him that the wine has run out, his first response isn’t “okay, I’ll fix this”. It’s, “Mom, why is this my problem? It’s not my time yet.”

His mom, like most moms, doesn’t take no for an answer. She doesn’t even respond. She just tells the servants to do whatever he tells them to do. And Jesus, maybe knowing he’s not going to win against his mother, tells them to fill up six large, stone jars with water. And then he tells them to draw some out. And when they do, it’s not water anymore, but wine.

Scripture tells us that when the chief steward tasted it he called the groom over and said “why did you keep the good stuff until now? Everyone knows you start off serving the good stuff and then, once everyone is drunk and they can’t tell the difference anymore, you switch over to the cheap stuff.” Sage advice from the Bible.

But more importantly, we are left with this: the first of the signs of who Jesus was, and this final line “and his disciples believed in him.” Jesus performs many more miracles over the course of his ministry, but this is the first. And it was the one that started to truly reveal to the ones around him who he was.

I confess that I read this a story today and I feel a little anxiety for the newly married couple. We were so worried about running out of food at the wedding, and this was our nightmare. We didn’t want to be embarrassed. That’s why at the end of our reception, despite our friends’ unheeded advice, someone sent us to the hotel with a box filled with over half of our wedding cake. And Heidi doesn’t even like cake.

We were so worried that what we had wouldn’t be enough, that we vastly overestimated our need, to the point that in the end a lot went to waste. Now, this is an extreme example, but I think it points to what we do in a lot of areas of our life. We worry that we don’t have enough. We worry that the cake will run out, or the wine will run dry. We worry that we won’t have enough money, or we won’t have enough time. We worry that our best won’t be good enough, or that we won’t make it through.

We worry so much that we often fail to see that we have more than we need.

Now at this point you might be saying, “but the people in this story…they didn’t have all that they needed. They ran out! This is a cautionary tale about not getting caught with too little.”

And that’s one way to look at it. But it’s not the only way. And, I would submit, it’s not the way to look at it if you want to see Jesus.

Jesus performs a lot of miracles in his life, but as miracles go, in a real way, this one wasn’t all that impressive at first glance. He didn’t feed 5,000 people. He didn’t raise someone from the dead. He didn’t heal the sick. He didn’t do anything that really transformed the world or changed lives. He just helped out a family that didn’t pick up enough wine at the store. Creating infinite wine is hardly the stuff that inspires discipleship.

But like I said, the real point here is not that they ran low on wine, and it’s not that Jesus can make more. If Jesus hadn’t been at that wedding, maybe it would have been a little embarrassing for the family for a little while. Or maybe not. Maybe they would have cut everyone off and said, “look, you all drank all the wine already…you’ve had enough.” Either way, we’re not talking about a crisis.

What we are talking about, though, is this: Jesus was there, and because of that scarcity became abundance.

Asking Jesus for more wine seems so trivial. Like asking Jesus for a parking space or praying that the ball will curve just enough that it makes it through the goal posts. But if you look at the miracles of Jesus, you find a common thread. Every time, the people thought that they had either lost something, or they didn’t have enough of something. They had lost life, they had lost health. They didn’t have enough fish, they didn’t have enough bread. And every time that they thought there was too little, Jesus transformed it and they ended up with an abundance.

This is just a common, everyday example that, if you ask me, may have had something to do with the fact that Jesus’ mother asked him to do it. And Jesus knew enough to listen to his mother.

And it’s an example to us too, especially those of us who are in the habit of buying enough cake to feed a small army. We tend to be the same people who worry we won’t have enough in the places where it really counts. Places like our spirit. Places like our hope. Places like our faith. It’s a sign that Jesus can create something incredible in those places where it feels like we have run dry.

Maybe you’ve experienced that. Maybe you have hit your rock bottom in another way. Maybe something in your life has reached the point of not being sustainable anymore. Maybe the problem wasn’t that you didn’t have enough wine, but that all the wine in the world couldn’t satisfy your thirst.

A lot of us here know something about that.

An acquaintance of mine reached out to me several years ago and told me they needed to stop drinking. They did everything you’re supposed to do. They went to meetings and went to counseling and did everything else. But the hard part for them was the faith piece. They kept being told to have a higher power, and they had grown up with the kind of religion that had, in my mind anyway, probably had something to do with driving them to drink. They wanted to do it on their own. They didn’t need, as they put it, the superstition and religious mumble-jumble. And they wanted to be sure I knew it.

Okay, I said. I’ve always wondered why people single clergy out to tell us why they don’t need God. I think they think it’s going to shock us or offend us or something. But at any rate, I said okay, and that they should do whatever works for them.

But gradually, they started to see that they couldn’t do it alone. That as much as they wanted to reach into their own stores of self-reliance and strength and resolve, at the end of the day they were coming up empty and it wasn’t quite working. Eventually, they opened themselves up to the possibility that maybe there was something bigger than themselves in the world, and maybe that something, whatever they called it, was going to provide the miracle. Maybe in their hour of greatest need, that something would fill them up, not with wine, but with strength where there was none. Serenity where there never had been any before.

They wouldn’t quite call that something God. Not yet anyway. I would, but they wouldn’t. And that’s okay. I’m not sure that the groom at the wedding in Cana ever figured out exactly what had happened either. All he knew is he had more wine.

But the reality for me is this: we all, regularly, know what it is to run out of wine at the worst possible time. We are all scraping the bottoms of our barrels in more ways than one. We are all facing shortages, physical and spiritual, and we are all afraid of losing more. And yet, we live. And often, we more than live, we thrive.

Whether we see it or not, whether we believe it or not, I think it’s because someone is filling us back up without us even knowing. I look back at the places in my life where I had absolutely nothing left in my own, and I see how even in that scarcity, God transformed nothing into a blessing. I have had my share of miracles, whether I know it or not. Whether I give God the glory or not. Whether I choose to believe it or not. The challenge for me is that when the steward comes back and says to me, “did you know all this wine was here? Where did all this good stuff come from?” That I don’t pretend that I’m somehow responsible for it. And that I don’t pretend like it just came from nowhere. That I open my eyes to the miracles around me.

I’ll close with this. Tomorrow is the day we observe Martin Luther King Day. As a college student in Atlanta, his hometown, I was always aware of his impact there. Some nights I would drive down to his old neighborhood, down to where his tomb is now, and I’d think about who he was, and how he did what he did. I would think about what it meant to have that kind of courage when everyday you knew there were people who literally wanted you dead. People who, in the end, got their wish. To keep on day after day like that is a miracle.

I think Martin Luther King was a great man. But what amazes me even more about his story is his faith. He was first and foremost a pastor, and more importantly, first and foremost a Christian. I have to believe that there were days when the wells were dry, and yet, someone filled him up again and again. He may have been a great man, but he believed in an even greater God. And in the end, I think that God worked miracles to fill him up again and again, and to keep him going when most of us would say “no way”. And throughout his life he gave the glory and the credit for that back to God.

You and I, we might not being making speeches on the Mall. We might not be inspiring social change on the level that he was. We might not be fearing for our lives everyday yet still moving forward. But we are all wrestling with our own fears. We are all pushing back against the voices that tell us there’s not enough. And we are all waiting for the miracles when our wells run dry. On this day I challenge you to do this: find the places where you have already been filled up. And then give God the glory. I promise you, your life will change because of it, and you will rarely be left with the fear of an empty glass again. Amen.

“Here I Stand” – Sermon for March 11, 2012

John 2:13-22
2:13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

2:14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.

2:15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.

2:16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

2:17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

2:18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

2:19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

2:20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”

2:21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body.

2:22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

When most of us think about Jesus we have this certain image. We picture a loving, non-violent, peaceful man who is kind to everyone. We don’t picture someone who is angry. We don’t picture someone who knocks over tables and yells. We think that’s the exact opposite of who Jesus really is. But then we have passages like this, and we’re often not really sure what to make of them. And we have to ask ourselves, what in the world could have made Jesus so enraged? The answer is in the story.

Jesus went to Jerusalem. It was almost the Passover, and he went, along with many other people, to the Temple. The holiest site in Jerusalem. The physical center of the faith. The people who came to the Temple did two things: they made sacrifices and they paid their taxes. Giving to the Temple was not optional. It wasn’t like a Sunday morning offering. It was something you had to do to go in.

And in order to make sure all the mandatory religious activities were able to happen, this industry sprang out in the Temple. There were people who sold sheep and cows and doves for the sacrifices. And there were money changers who would convert Roman currency to Hebrew money, sometimes at rates as high as 300%. It was usury at its worst, but they had the market cornered. Every observant person would not risk not paying the rates. This is how religion had been done for a long time in Jerusalem, and no one could really question it.

Which is why they were so shaken when Jesus came and, literally, turned everything upside down. Throws animals out. Takes the tables and knocks them over. Money was probably going everywhere. And the religious leaders came to him and said, “What gives you the right to do this?”

He tells them, “you can destroy this Temple, and in 3 days I’ll raise it up again.” They think he’s crazy because the temple has been being rebuilt for years. But Jesus was talking about himself and how he knew they were about kill him, and how he would rise up again. He was telling them, though they didn’t know it, that everything was about to change, and business as usual was over.

They killed him not long after. The religious leaders knew he was a threat. If he would overturn tables and cause a scene in their Temple, what would he do next? They thought they could overturn him just as easily as he overturned those tables. Who did this son of a carpenter from some backwoods town think he was?

But he rose again. And in the new movement he started there was no room for animal sacrifices or money changers. At least not for a while.

Fast forward 15 centuries. To Germany. And to a monk named Martin. The church was trying to build a new temple, this time in Rome. It was called St. Peter’s. And they had a fundraising problem. So they started to sell these indulgences. Pay a little and your sins will be forgiven. Pay a lot and the soul of your dear departed mother or spouse will be sprung from purgatory and released to heaven.

These were poor believers paying this money. As poor as the Jewish people who journeyed to the Temple in Jerusalem and paid three times what they should have to change their money. But they were good people, willing to pay the price to be faithful. Willing to pay into this corrupt system because they didn’t think there was any other way.

And so the young monk wrote a list of things he thought were wrong. And he posted them in a town called Wittenberg. And Christian faith would never be the same. We Protestants are spiritual descendants from Martin Luther. But his reforms shaped even what the Catholic Church has since become. Because Luther, like Christ, had the courage to stand up to the ones who had corrupted the faith, to turn their world upside down, and to reclaim what was good in the name of God.

They didn’t kill Luther, though they tried. But he paid heavily. He was excommunicated and thrown out of the faith. But when he was asked to recant, he couldn’t. He said only, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

Jesus and Luther were cut from the same cloth. And the people around them thought they were heretics. Thought they were anti-faith. Thought they were misguided at best, and downright sinful at worst. And yet, in the end, they ushered in new faith, and new life. We wouldn’t be Christians without Christ, of course. But we also wouldn’t be the Christians we are without Luther.

But being an alternative religious voice doesn’t always make you popular. That doesn’t always mean that you have the most people who agree with you. It often makes you a bit of a target. Churches that stand up against what they see as being against the true message of Christ often incur the wrath of others who say they’re not really Christian. They’re getting it all wrong. They’re out in left field.

But they’ve said that in the past about others. And they’ve been wrong.

I’ve been thinking about what the church has become, especially in our North American context. I’ve been thinking about what people think being a Christian means in America. As the division and rhetoric picks up in this country, the dominant images of Christianity are often becoming less and less flattering. The voices that speak the loudest, the ones who stand in front of the Temple changing money and demanding payment, are often not kind ones or compassionate ones or ones that tell you much at all about the love of Christ.

They may not speak for us, but they’re what people think of when they think of what it means to be Christian. And whether we realize it or not, they’re the ones who may be stopping people from feeling like they’d ever have a place in our temple.

One Sunday about five years ago I was preaching down South at a church that was a lot like ours. It was a welcoming place. Warm, ready to embrace the stranger, slow to judge. The service ended and I processed out into the narthex. And there was a young woman, about 18 or 19, sitting there waiting to talk to me.

She was a student at a very fundamentalist Bible college down the road. Her father was a preacher, but that brand of Christianity wasn’t working for her anymore. The faith she was a member of was so strict that she could have been thrown out for drinking a beer. And if the people at her college had found out who she really was deep down, she would have been thrown out for that too.

She had been so wounded by the faith. So wounded by those who sat at the doors of the Temple and told her the price she would have to pay to enter, a price that would mean denying who she was, that when she came to this church that would have totally welcomed her, she sat out in the narthex. Because she didn’t know she had a place in the sanctuary. It broke my heart.

But the saddest thing is, she came a lot further than a lot of people do. I wonder if there were good Jewish people in Jesus day who were never able to go to the Temple and worship because they just couldn’t pay the price. I wonder how many good Catholics in Luther’s day lay awake at night afraid because they couldn’t buy their way into heaven. And I wonder how many of our neighbors want to walk through the doors of a place that would love them as they are?

We say we will welcome everyone who walks into our doors. And I believe that’s true. But how will we welcome the ones who would never dare to do that on their own. How do we welcome those who have grown accustomed to a representation of Christianity that has come to be defined not so much by the face of Christ, but by the faces of modern day moneychangers at the front of the Temple? The ones who would distort Christ’s message of love for something so different?

We are a welcoming place, that is for sure. But when I meet people in this area, and they find out I’m the pastor, I still get all sorts of questions . And they’re not because you have been doing anything wrong. They’re because the voices of faith they have heard the loudest in our culture cause them to have to wonder. Here are some real questions I’ve heard about us:

Would I be welcome in your church if I drink alcohol? If f I believe women are not inferior to men? If I think maybe the world was not created in six 24 hour days? Would I be welcome if I like to read Harry Potter? If my kids can’t sit quietly for an hour? Would I be welcome if my daughter is gay? If I’m a recovering alcoholic? If on some days, I doubt?

You and I hear these questions and we think “of course”. Of course you would. But they don’t know that. And their questions are reflective of just how far some have to come to walk through the doors of our church.

You might say, “We’re not that kind of church!” And we’re not. But here’s the thing. They think we’re that kind of church. Not because of anything you’ve been doing wrong, but because they think every church is that kind of church.

Because if all they’ve ever seen standing in front of the Temple, standing between them and God, are the faces of the moneychangers and the sacrifice sellers, the faces of the ones who twist faith into something different than it is, the ones who go on the evening news preaching hatred instead of Christ, can you blame them?

So what is at the front of your temple? Because if we are all members of Christ’s body, then we are all part of his temple. When people come to know you at the most sacred places, what do they see first? Do they see a religion as they’ve always seen it done before? Or do they see grace, and a Christ who would sweep away what doesn’t matter and replace it with a new creation?

There are people outside of these doors who belong here. Who would be loved here. Who would be welcome. And we know that. But they don’t. So when you go back into the world this week, how can you tell them about the Christ you know? How can you lead them into the temple, past what doesn’t matter, and into what does? Don’t take for granted that they know what kind of Christian you are. Show them.

We who are the “frozen chosen”, we don’t like to talk about our faith or our religion much. I get that. But when we aren’t talking, others still are. And they’re the voices your neighbors, who may love to be here, are hearing. So this week, think of one way you can represent the Christ you know in your life to those who might need to know there’s a place for them here. I’m not saying go door to door handing out Bibles. I’m saying a simple word of welcome may mean as much to someone who needs it as Jesus turning over tables may have meant to those who had been standing outside the temple, waiting for a new day to come.

And so, this Lent, decide where you are going to stand. Will it be idly by as Jesus turns over the tables of religion at its worst? Or will it be with Christ, who is turning us into something new? I know where I’m going to stand. I hope you will stand with me. As Martin Luther said better, “Here I stand. I can do none other.” Amen.