Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Epiphany 3, January 24, 2010

January 24, 2010

(A sermon preached at Christ Lutheran Church, Cullman, AL)

One thing that my home state of North Carolina and your state of Alabama have in common is colorful politicians and funny stories about them.

Thad Eure was secretary of State in NC for over 50 years. He called himself "the oldest rat in the democratic barn."

He used to tell a story about a man running for governor who was politicking and speechifying at a huge outdoor rally down east of Raleigh.

They were serving a big dinner of pork barbecue and fried chicken with all the necessary accoutrements.

As the candidate made his way through the serving line, he received on piece of chicken, a little bitty, scrawny, no-account piece; a wing or a back or something.

He smiled his politician's smile and asked the serving woman for another piece.

Without looking up she said, "One per person."

He smiled again and looked around to make sure everyone saw how nice he was being and said,

"Yes, but it's an awfully small piece and I'm a right big man. Could I please have another piece?"

Again she said, "One per person."

At this point the candidate got a little huffy and said,
"Hey, look. Do you know who I am?"

She said. "NO, but I know who I am. I'm the chicken lady, and I said one per person!"

Today's Gospel lesson is about knowing who you are.

More particularly, it's about Jesus knowing who he is and what he is called to do.

And it is also about our knowing who we are and what God has called us to do.

Our identity as a Christian people flows out of Jesus' identity as the Christ of God, and what we are called to do flows out of what Jesus was called to do.

As we look at this story, it is important to place it in its proper context.

The outline of the story in Luke goes like this:

John the Baptist is Preaching and Baptizing.

Lots of people are coming to get baptized

One of these people is Jesus.

After Jesus gets baptized:

- the Spirit descends on him like a dove
and he is declared to be:

- the Spirit leads him into the wilderness:

- THEN our text begins -
"filled with the power of the Spirit:"

- he goes to the synagogue (HIS HABIT)
and reads and preaches/teaches about

Now, immediately after this, following the section we read, his friends and neighbors get very upset by his sermon and run him out of town; really, they meant of kill him, but he got away.

What are we to make of this strange story?

How can we begin to understand what this means for us here today.

There are two things I want to focus on here:
one is identity and the other is activity.

We'll take them in turn.

First: is the business of the Spirit and Identity.

As I retold the last half of chapter 3 and the beginning of chapter 4 in Luke, I purposely emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit.

What Jesus was about in life was rooted in the leading of the Spirit, the power of the Spirit and the comfort of the Spirit.

All too often we in church act as though what happens in the life of the church is up to us.

We take a bow in God's direction and say a prayer or two for guidance, but we go about the church's business relying on our own ideas and interests and abilities.

We forget that even Jesus was dependent upon the Spirit; who are we to think or act as though we can go it alone, get by without it?

In the Bible, FORTY is a number that symbolizes a long time, usually a long time of testing and waiting and getting clear spiritually.

Think about the children of Israel being in the wilderness for 40 years, the rain fell on Noah's ark for 40 days and nights, etc. etc.

When the bible says Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days, it means he spent a great deal of time in prayer and study and spiritual discipline, seeking to know exactly what it was that God was calling him to be and do.

Biblical Scholar and Anglican bishop Tom Wright points out that what we sometimes call an "inspired" performance (that is "full of the Spirit") is usually the result of long years of practice and preparation.

A great musician, a fine actor, a superb athlete; none of them appears on the world's stage without the blood, sweat and tears of long years of dedicated work to get ready.

Jesus had spent the time in prayer and study to be prepared the moment God called upon him to come forth as the Lord's anointed. When the Spirit came upon him, he was ready to receive it.

We are called to do no less. We are called to be prepared, to be ready, to be open to the Spirit.

And the only way to do that is to take seriously our call to study the Bible and to pray and to seek God's will in and with the community of the faithful.

It is not by accident that it was Jesus' habit and custom to go to the synagogue.

He didn't go there because they were "the friendliest church in town," (they most certainly were not.)

He didn't go there because his Mama and his brothers and sisters and his cousins were there (though they were.)

Jesus went there to pray, to hear God's word read and explained, to discuss God's word with others, and to prepare for those times when God called upon him to do something extraordinary.

And, when that moment came, Jesus was ready.

I said there were two things: The first has to do with preparing for and receiving the leading off the Spirit.

The second is to examine the nature of the task Jesus was called upon to perform.

A pastor friend of mine likes unusual church signs. He especially likes the ones that are unintentionally funny.

He called me up recently and told me he had seen a sign on a church that said in big letters GOD CARES FOR YOU.

Underneath in small letters, it said, Sundays, 10 AM Only.

My friend said, "Since God only cares for me at 10 AM on Sunday, will you care for me the rest of the time?"

The things that Jesus is called to say and do as the Lord's Anointed shout out to the world: GOD CARES FOR YOU!

Good News to the Poor, Release to the Captives, Recovery of sight to the Blind, Freedom for the Oppressed.

As the followers of the Christ, we too are called to care, not just on Sundays but all the time. We are called to find ways to love the world in the name of Christ.

We are called as individuals, as family members, as students and teachers, as butchers and bakers and candle-stick makers; and we are called as the church, as a community of faith.

We are called to find ways to do these very things Jesus talks about in the Bible. To do any less is to back away from our calling to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

When I was a kid, Yogi Berra of the Yankees was my favorite baseball player.

When I got older, I grew even fonder of him as I read in the sports pages some of what were called "Yogisms," things he said that did, and didn't, make sense.

That restaurant's so crowded nobody goes there anymore.

If you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Anybody who is popular is bound to be disliked.

This is my all time favorite:

If you don't know where you're going, you might end up someplace else.

It is very clear that Jesus knows who he is and where he is going.

He is the Lord's anointed called into the world to save the world.

The question today is: Do we know who we are and what we are called to do?


Friday, January 15, 2010

January 17, 2010 - Epiphany 2, Lectionary 2

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
January 17, 2010

A sermon preached at Cross of Life Lutheran Church, Roswell, GA, the sunday before new pastor arrives.

Some years ago I heard a story about an Italian trying to start a vineyard up Northeast of here a ways, on the other side of Sewanee.

The County Commissioners were a bunch of good Southern Christians, and at that time that county was dry, like most of the rest of rural Georgia, and the Commissioners were none too keen on granting a permit for such a business.

The man from Italy was very confused by their attitude. Most of all, he could not understand how making wine could be considered un-Christian.

"After all," he said, "did not Our Lord turn water into wine at the wedding of Cana in Galilee?"

Wall, that remark sure got'em stirred up. Every good southern evangelical was very clear on the reality that though Jesus may have turned the water into what they CALLED wine, it was not wine as we know it; it was grape juice, unfermented,, non-alcoholic; the recipe for which was lost from Biblical times until the 1800's; when a dentist and Methodist communion steward named Welch rediscovered it.

(That's mostly true; Welch's grape juice was originally created as non-alcoholic communion wine. The whole jams and jellies thing came later.)

Anyway, the Italian Catholic vintner stood there in amazement as the folks argued among themselves until the chair used his gavel and called for order and said,

"Well, I have researched this thing and I have to say there was no such thing as unfermented grape juice in bible times. They didn't have the technology for it. Jesus really did turn the water into wine. . . .

And I've always been a little disappointed in our Lord for that!"

The story of turning water into wine at a wedding is very well known, and it has been used for a number of purposes.

It is cited in the Lutheran wedding service for example; as a way, I suppose, of saying that Jesus endorses marriage;

or perhaps that Jesus endorses drinking a bit and partying after a wedding.

Along those lines, I've heard it cited on both sides of the drink/don't drink argument.

See, it's not like a healing, or a Transfiguration, or a raising from the dead, or a feeding of the 5000, or even a stilling of the storm or a walking on the water.

It doesn't come with any easily discernible, easily preachable, easily applicable meaning.

It's just this extraordinary thing Jesus did.

It makes one feel more like saying, "Party on, Dude," than "Amen Brother!"

So, knowing that John included this story in his gospel for a reason, we must ask the question -
What are we expected to learn from this story?

If the fact that Jesus could turn water into wine is not the real point, then what is?

John is a writer whose work is full of symbolism.

Unlike the other Gospel writers; Matthew, Mark and Luke; he makes no pretence that his is a straight forward, historical narrative of the life and ministry of Jesus.

John's intent is to reveal to us SPIRITUAL TRUTH through the use of human stories.

Reading John is something like watching the TV show LOST.

Things are always different than they seem and this means it's generally a bit tricky to figure out what John is getting at.

A prevailing theme throughout John's Gospel is the dawning of a New AGE.

To John, the coming of Jesus as the Messiah has changed the world from what it used to be into something totally new and different.

This is why John prefers to use the word SIGNS instead of the word MIRACLES.

These things that Jesus did, like turning water into wine, were signs to the faithful that the new age of God's dealing with the world had come.

So - what Jesus did was not about an obedient son reluctantly doing what his mother asked;

nor was it about Jesus making sure the Host of the wedding was not embarrassed by the wine running out,

nor was it about making sure those attending the party were able to keep drinking.

What is really Significant in this story is that the water was special water.

It was water that had been set aside for the Jewish purification rites.
It was there for the people to wash up in.

This washing was not about being sanitary or comfortable.

This washing was a religious ceremony; it was a ritual cleansing in order to go before the LORD during the wedding feat.

IN this SIGN - Jesus takes the OLD - the ritual bath water;

and turns it into the NEW - fresh wine.

It is important to realize that Jesus DID NOT take the BAD and turn it into the GOOD!

He did not take the USELESS and turn it into the USEFUL.

He took good things from the past and transformed, changed them, into other good things for the future.

A good question for us today is "what does this text say to us?" today, in Roswell, GA, in the year 2010.

What is our water that Jesus has come to turn into wine?

You all are in the midst of an important transition, from one pastoral ministry to another.

As always in a time of transition; you have experienced a great deal of excitement, upheaval and yes, some anxiety and stress.

It is important for us in times of transition, upheaval and change to remember that God in Christ is actively involved in turning our old water into new wine.

The New Age brought by Jesus the Christ is an ongoing age of transformation and growth.

We are not the people we once were;

nor are we the people we will someday become.

We are in a state of fluidity; we are water being changed into wine.

Now, we have choices, as individuals and as a community of faith.

We can face the future's changes with fear and resistance;

or, we can embrace them with faith and excitement.

Either way, change is going to happen, the New Age is upon us, the water is beginning to change, and God is smack dab in the middle of it.

My late father-in-law was a story-telling Baptist deacon.

He used to tell the story of the old country preacher pulled over for dangerous and uncontrolled driving on a curvy mountain road.

Preacher - "Sorry Officer, I was a bit distracted. I was thinking about my sermon for the funeral I'm going to preach up in Blairsville this evening.

Officer - "Hmm, what's that bottle there on the seat?"

Preacher -"Uh, that's just some Holy Water I use for Blessings and Baptisms and Healings and such."

Officer - "HMM - let me see that."

He uncorks the lid and smells the "holy water."

Officer - "That's not water, Reverent. That's WINE!"

Preacher - "PRAISE THE LORD! He done done it agin!"

As you move forward into God's future for your church,

Let that be your cry of faith,

"GOD has done it again! And this time, God did it in us!

Amen and amen.