Saturday, February 2, 2013

God’s promises will be true tomorrow, even if we do not know what the community of the people of God will look like

Epiphany 3-C
Annual Meeting 
January 27, 2013
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Ps. 19
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

The passage we read from Nehemiah this morning tells a remarkable story. The people of Israel have come back home: they have been released from their captivity in Babylon -- to rebuild their city and their Temple, which is the center of their religious and social life. The first thing they do when they get there is to read the law: to remember the relationship God established with them. The law is more than a set of rules: it is the bonds and the boundaries of this relationship. They are going to be able to restore things to the way they used to be, and they are profoundly grateful. Their feasting – eating fat and drinking sweet wine and making sure that everyone has enough to eat – this is a sign that their grief is over, that their joy has returned.

It would be one thing, of course, if we could tell this story as one of a blameless people, carried off into exile by a conquering enemy. The enemy conquered them, but the prophets who spoke for God told the story this way: Israel had been disobedient. They had not followed the law. The people were selfish, corrupt, thought of themselves and not of others. The prophets condemned Israel for following gods of greed and self-centeredness, gods which turned them away from the communal responsibilities to the poor, the widowed, the downtrodden. According to the prophets, God sent those conquering enemies into Israel for a reason: the people of Israel had disobeyed God. The people would protest: Hey! This is the way we have always done things! But, no, the prophets would say, that “old way” got twisted, distorted. That “old way” strayed from the way God would have them live. When God let them go back, they needed to promise once again to God that they would be people of the law, of justice, of mercy, of compassion -- that they would worship only God and live rightly.

The Gospel of Luke sees John the Baptist – and probably Jesus, in this story of his speaking in his hometown synagogue – as prophets in the line of those who chastised Israel from straying from the covenant. Prophets don’t condemn for all time: they shout out to give you a chance to turn around. It’s not too late – yet! – prophets say. You have still got time to get it right, to live right with God, you still can love God and love your neighbor. Prophets grab people by the collar and yank them around to face the future. That future is where you are going to live the rest of your life: now is your chance to change your life, to live it the way God would have you live it. There is always time to claim a future of abundance, love and mercy. There is always a way to plan the future so that there is enough for everybody, a future not constricted by the way things used to be, by that old-time “business as usual.”

Jesus, like the other prophets, reminded the people of God of this. In this his first sermon he reads a piece of scripture they knew well, a piece from that time when they came back to a shattered home. Jesus reminds them of God’s promise to rebuild, to restore. But Jesus does not let them stay in that comfortable, if glorious, past. TODAY, Jesus says, the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. TODAY: not in the past, no matter how good or bad it was. God’s promises are true TODAY, and they have a certain shape. But God’s promises will also be true when TOMORROW is TODAY – God’s promises will be true tomorrow, even if we do not know what the community of the people of God will look like. God’s promises – the good news of abundance will come to the poor, even if today we cannot possibly imagine what it would be like to redistribute wealth and privilege. Captives will be set free, even if now we have no idea what it would take to rehabilitate people who have done terrible things and return them to productive life in our society. Blind people – physically blind – will be able to see, even if today any surgeon would tell you it’s not possible. Blind people – spiritually blind – will see and understand what God is doing for justice and righteousness, even if now their hearts are hardened against all change. People who are oppressed by all sorts of burdens – people like you and me – will be freed from what ails us. We will live the lives that bring us God’s peace and prosperity, God’s serenity and simplicity, even if right now we cannot possibly imagine a way out of our rut of struggle and debt and discontent.

Those people listening to Nehemiah might have wanted Jerusalem to be the same when they got back, but it was changed, for ever and ever. Some things were GONE and could not be resurrected. But what all the prophets told them – and what Jesus was telling the people in Nazareth – was that they could take the most precious thing they had -- the love of God -- and carry it with them into the future. The love of God was the foundation upon which they would build the new Jerusalem, not some old stones that conquering armies have shattered. What was really important they had with them TODAY and they would take it with them into the future.

TODAY, Jesus says, you can believe that God’s promises are TRUE, even if you cannot imagine what that will look like. Your future, Jesus says, does not have to be a nostalgic rehashing of the way things used to be. TODAY something new has happened, a future God has been planning since the beginning of time.

Filling the hungry with good things: Cana

Epiphany 2-C 
January 20, 2013
Isaiah 62:1-5
Ps. 36:5-10
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

You have been invited to a wedding. It’s kind of far away, in a not very interesting place. The family are dear friends of your family, but they are not very well off, and you suspect that it will be a not-so-grand wedding. It will be fun, and loving, and festive. So you go to this out of the way place, for this humble yet elaborate ceremony and party, and yes, your fears are confirmed: the catering has been done on the cheap; they’ve run out of wine.

This is the scene into which Jesus walks, a week after his baptism, and three days after calling his disciples. The Gospel of John is one of those “pretend” histories; John gives you dates and places and you think, Oh, this is the way it was – an eye-witness account. But not: John’s gospel is a symbolic history, a theological story. John knew what happened at the wedding in Cana, and he structures this story with meaning rather than mere fact.

We do know this: Cana is a poor, out-of-the-way place. It really is the generic banquet hall off the interstate kind of a wedding, and not some swank affair on Park Avenue with a reception at the Waldorf. This modest place, among ordinary people, is the place John declares is the site of the first sign of Jesus, the first place where God’s glory is revealed. Wait a minute here. This is the gospel that begins with a bang:

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and the Word was with God. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth. … From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law was indeed given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

With an introduction like that, where do you think Jesus would first reveal God’s glory? Surely in some important place – in Jerusalem, on the temple mount, or on Mt. Sinai. The beginning of the Gospel of John is banner headlines: THIS IS BIG. But where does John take us? To an out-of-the-way place, among ordinary people, and to a crisis provoked by scarcity, which brings us to our next meaningful clue: Mary.

There is no story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of John, and so this is the first mention we have of Jesus’ mother. I guess John assumes we know she is important. I guess John assumes we remember her song, recorded in the Gospel of Luke, when she understood that the baby she bore meant that God was bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. I guess John assumes we remember the story from the Gospel of Matthew, when three regal wise men knelt at her baby’s cradle. I guess John assumes we know the story of the angels’ shouts and the shepherds visits, that Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. I guess John assumes we know what happened when the Holy Family took the baby Jesus to be blessed in the temple, and what the wise and ancient Simeon told Mary: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your soul too.”

John assumes we know all that – all that prophecy and all that conflict – and so when Mary says, “They have no wine,” we hear all the longings of the poor, cursed with scarcity and yearning for God to turn the tables and provide for them. We hear all the hopes that this Jesus is truly the grace and truth of God. We hear also that this grace and truth comes at a cost, with a prophecy of violence, death and grief. Mary knows all this, knows that to begin this journey means that it will be difficult and deadly. John Chrysostom, one of the church’s early theologians, speculates that she had heard that Jesus had been baptized by John, a fellow-conspirator in this revolutionary hope, and that he was beginning to collect his own disciples. From then on, he writes, “She began to have confidence.”

This is the big epiphany, the light that shines in the darkness, the warmth that melts the cold, the hope that a world of scarcity will be overcome by one of abundance. This is the party where the food is terrific and the company is scintillating and the wine never runs out. This is the grace and truth of God.