You have kept the good wine until now.

Preached on 20 January 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The Second Sunday in Epiphany, Year C

“You have kept the good wine until now.”  That’s what the steward says to the bridegroom.  And you know what?  Neither one of them actually knows what just happened.

This is the very start of Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of John.  His first sign.  The first time he reveals his power and glory and purpose. The first instance of the grace upon grace that John writes about in his prologue.  Not a sermon.  Not a healing or an exorcism.  Not a call to repent; not even forgiveness.

No, John tells us that Jesus’ first sign is unexpected abundance at a joyous celebration of a new relationship; the joining of two people in marriage, two households, two families.  It is a sign of God’s utter delight in us in our humanity.

This sign happens in a very public place, but almost no one is even aware of it.  Jesus, of course, the servants who fill the jars with water and then draw out wine know and possibly Jesus’ mother may be the only ones.  Apparently, the disciples find out because John writes that they believe in him because of it.  But everyone else?  The steward and the bridegroom, the bride and the guests they all enjoy the results, but they are unaware that a miracle has occurred.  Jesus was not trying to call attention to himself, you see.

Everything about it seems wrong, though:

  • The wrong person; when his mother points out the problem Jesus responds, “What concern is that to you or me?”
  • The wrong time; “My hour has not yet come,” Jesus says.
  • The wrong vessels; nobody stores wine in stone jars.
  • The wrong wine; you’re supposed to serve the best wine first
  • The wrong people are witnesses; the servants, not the bridegroom.

And yet, it’s perfect.

  • The bridegroom and the family are saved from the shame of running out of wine.
  • The whole party benefits from the grace without even knowing what’s happened.
  • We see God’s delight and God’s desire for our

I wonder if we’re a bit like the wedding guests in the story; enjoying the gift of God’s abundant grace, but missing the sign.

How do we look for and recognize the signs?  Do we see better in hindsight?  I wonder if there’s a part of us that resists seeing them?  Do we prefer to attribute those gifts to our own inherent goodness or merit, to our own hard work alone, without acknowledging God or the countless people and other factors that have helped us along the way?  Maybe we need to pay more attention, look for them with expectation.

You can be sure that God is giving us an abundance of exactly the gifts, the grace that we need, right now.

“You have kept the good wine until now.”
That’s what God does.  That’s what God is doing here, with us.  The marvelous thing about it is, That doesn’t mean that God has been holding out on us, that there hasn’t been good wine all along.  The best, in fact.

It’s more like God is the master sommelier, always pairing the perfect wine with the food on our plate.  God perfectly matches the gifts God gives us with the opportunities we have.

Do you think that might connect with our reading from Corinthians about spiritual gifts?

Paul writes to the brothers and sisters in Corinth about the gifts they receive from God.  He reminds them that the gifts are for the building up of the community.  They receive a whole variety of gifts – and he names them – but no one should think that their gift is better or more important than another.  God is the source of all of them and all are needed.

What is the good wine God is providing in abundance right now, here at Ascension?  And what are we doing with it?  Are we trying to save it, put it in the wine cellar for a special occasion?  Are we hiding it, hoping no one will notice?  Or are we pouring it out, seeing that everyone is included and treasured?  Are we sharing God’s delight?

Often, we see gifts as problems to be overcome rather than grace to be embraced.  I think the gift of a tight budget may be one of those.  I bet you never thought of it as a gift.

Now, I’m not trying to romanticize poverty or tell people who are truly struggling financially that they should feel lucky.  No, not at all.

However, maybe you can remember a time in your life, like maybe living the dorms in college, or when you were first starting out; or remember a time in the life of Ascension when there wasn’t much money.  So, you had fun by being together.  You worked together to get stuff done, whether it was preparing a meal or painting a room, fixing a fence or cleaning up the kitchen or the garden.

By coming together to accomplish something, we build community and form friendships.  We get to know each other better, discover the gifts in one another.  We share our lives and our stories.  And in all that knowing, we can learn to discern what God wants us to do.  Together.  So, you see, even a tight budget is a gift of grace.

Next week is our annual meeting.  I urge you to come.  We’ll learn about the gift of a tight budget and about the many opportunities to experience the grace of God’s abundant gifts shared in community.  Coming together to care for one another, to take care of our place, and to care for our neighbors, we build up our community; we care even more deeply about one another.

Lord, you have kept the good wine until now.
Sisters and brothers, let us rejoice and be glad.

Advertisements

You

Preached on 13 January, 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
Baptism of our Lord, Year C

You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own. Forever.  This may well be the single most important Truth about you and who you are.  It’s what the priest says while marking your forehead with oil when you’re baptized; a proclamation of what was already true.

Now here’s the trouble I keep running into.  Baptism, like all sacraments, is God’s action.  And, it’s a mystery.  Not a puzzle-to-be-solved-if we-only-knew-enough mystery, but a truth beyond our ability to explain or even to understand.  It is a mystery that can only be experienced.

And so, every attempt to talk about what it means or what is happening or why, always diminishes it.  They all fall short.  But still we try.

Baptism is about being named and claimed by God as a child of God.

At Jesus’ baptism, God names him and claims him as God’s own.  Every year, on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord.  Now, each gospel-writer has a somewhat different way of telling the story.  This year, we hear from the author of Luke.

First, I want to acknowledge that the baptism John did was not the same as the baptism done through the church.  We hear a bit about that in our reading from Acts.

There are a couple of details are unique to Luke.  In this account, John speaks of the One who is to come after him as having a winnowing fork in his hand.  That he will separate the wheat from the chaff and the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire.  You get the sense that John is expecting judgment, separating the good guys from the bad guys; rewarding the good and punishing the bad.

On the one hand, we often interpret this as being about heaven and hell after we die.  On the other hand, it sounds like John is expecting the One to come – whom we know to be Jesus – to meet out judgment right away and set the messed-up world to rights.

That’s not exactly what Jesus does, though, is it?  Have you ever noticed that there are a lot of expectations presented that Jesus doesn’t quite fulfill – and in many cases doesn’t even come close?

Maybe there’s another way of understanding the wheat and the chaff and the winnowing fork.  In listening to a discussion of this week’s lectionary, I heard one person suggest a different possibility and it got me thinking.

What if the wheat and the chaff are actually within each of us?  Every healing, every exorcism, every act of forgiveness is a winnowing, separating the wheat from the chaff.  Jesus cleanses us, purifies us, restores us, keeping that which is good and nourishing and fruitful (the wheat) and ridding us of the chaff within us.

Perhaps the judgment of the winnowing fork is not so much about rewarding or punishing our behavior.  Rather it is about restoring our souls; setting us to rights within our selves and our relationships and most importantly setting us to rights in our relationship with God through Christ.  To my mind, this understanding is more in keeping with the whole of Jesus’ life.

Another detail in Luke’s account is that after Jesus is baptized and is praying, a voice comes from heaven, “You are my beloved son, with you I am well-pleased.”  God speaks directly to Jesus.  God sees him.

Seeing is a central theme in Luke’s gospel.  Over and over again, we will hear that Jesus sees someone; someone whom the others disregard, ignore, dismiss, someone whom they see as unworthy and undeserving.

That word, “You,” focuses our attention on Jesus and calls us to come near and see him more clearly.  It call us to see all those whom Jesus sees:  those we may be tempted to ignore, avoid, or just plain pretend we don’t see.  When God says, “You,” we may even hear God’s voice, God’s call to us, saying “You are my beloved child.”  To hear “you” is to be regarded, even favored by God.

And then, then we say that same “you” to others, to those who so desperately need to be seen, to be regarded, to know that they are loved by God.

Baptism is a response to that love.  In just a few minutes, we will renew our baptismal vows, recommitting ourselves to a life in Christ.  I want to talk a little bit about a couple of those vows.

The first vow in the baptismal covenant is to continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and in the prayers.  That is about your ongoing involvement in a community of faith.  Christianity is not a solitary religion.  We need each other; it is a faith practiced in community with others.

Every time someone is baptized, you, the people gathered, vow to do everything in your power to support that person – that infant, that child, that man, that woman, that parent – in their life in Christ.

It doesn’t mean only the individuals whose baptism you attended, as if you’re keeping track.  It’s a vow we make to one another – all of us.  The truth is, we need one another.  This community needs each and every one of you in order to live the life Christ calls us to.

As we move forward through this transition and into this new year, we need to prayerfully discern, What will you do to support this community in its life in Christ?

How will you support the children as they grow in Christ? Their parents and families? The church offers numerous opportunities to share your life, to give of your time and creativity so support one another in order that each may grow into the full stature of Christ and serve the world in his name.

Because, you see, You, each and every one of you, are claimed by God as a beloved child.  You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own.  Forever.

 

Treasures of Christmas

Preached at the early service on the Feast of the Epiphany 2019
at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington

Of all the Treasures of the Christmas season, I particularly treasure the Spirit of Generosity and the Generosity of Spirit that it inspires in people.  The very heart of Christmas is giving and receiving tangible gifts.  They serve as signs of our relationships; of our affection and love for the recipient.  You might even call them embodied love.

We begin the season on Christmas Day, remembering the first Christmas gift: God’s gift to us in Jesus – a tangible, embodied gift of God’s love, all wrapped up in a person like us.  Then we can’t WAIT to get into the act and respond, giving our own gifts of love to our loved ones.  We may have started planning and preparing days, weeks, maybe even months earlier – choosing gifts that express our love, that capture our relationship, that make someone’s dream come true, that makes their face light up.  And oh, what joy it gives us.

Now, I know a lot of people complain about how commercialized Christmas has become and many will say that it’s all based on greed.  But I disagree.  I think the commercialism only works because of humanity’s inherent Generosity.

Even people who aren’t church-goers or believers or anything get caught up in the spirit of giving, the Spirit of Generosity.

But we find that giving gifts to our family and close friends isn’t enough.  The Spirit of Generosity grows and expands in us and we are moved to give presents to people that we don’t even know; people we will never see.

Often that Spirit of Generosity expands even further until it becomes a Generosity of Spirit as we give not only tangible gifts – things – but we give our love, our prayers,  our very selves; serving others in a whole host of different ways.  It is this Generosity of Spirit that brings us together for so many holiday parties and get-togethers; the desire to spend time together and share our lives.

Twelve days later – today – we finish the season of Christmas celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany.  This is the day when the magi from the East finally arrive in Bethlehem to greet the newborn king of the Jews.
And they come bearing Treasure.  It may very well be that our tradition of giving gifts at Christmas comes from this story.  In many cultures, THIS is the day that gifts are exchanged, not December 25th.

Today is the day we remember and celebrate that the Treasure of Incarnate Love that God gives us in Jesus is for the whole world.  You see, right from the very beginning, Jesus was made known to the magi who were outsiders, the gentiles.

It is this Spirit of Generosity and Generosity of Spirit that are at the very heart of Christian living; from offering hospitality to working for justice to loving our neighbor to sharing the Good News by sharing our own stories.  They give us joy and love and life in abundance bubbling up from within us, like the laughter of a child on Christmas morning.

So, as you go forth from here on this Feast of the Epiphany, may you always carry the Treasures of Christmas in your heart:
The Spirit of Generosity and a Generosity of Spirit.

 

Drawn to the Crèche

Preached at the Celebration of the Nativity of our Lord at the late service on
Christmas Eve, 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington

The crèche draws us and we approach, timidly, tenderly.  This is what we’ve been waiting for, hoping for, longing for, all through Advent, all through our lives even.  And what do we find?

A wee, tiny, newborn baby.  A sign of hope.
A lifetime of possibilities.

Can you remember holding a newborn baby?  Or maybe just watching a new mother or father with their tiny baby?  Can you remember how it felt?
So tiny, so fragile, so holy.  I remember when I was a new mother and people would say, looking at my daughter, “you forget how small they are at first.”  And I wondered how you could forget, but I found that within months, I, too, had forgotten.

That is the baby Jesus in our story today.

I wonder if Mary remembers the words that the angel, Gabriel, spoke to her all those months ago as she labors and gives birth or as she nurses Jesus and cares for him in those first few weeks.  If not, I bet they come flooding back when the shepherds show up that night, telling her and Joseph about the angel chorus.

And Mary hears all this and treasures it, pondering it in her heart.  I’m sure she ponders all these things all through her wee baby’s life; as he grows into a boy, and then a youth, and then a man.

I’ve been reading a lot of poetry about this story which is such poetry in itself.  These lines by Yeats stood out.  Perhaps they express what Mary may feel as she listens to the shepherds.

The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.

What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop,
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up? [i]

The crèche draws us.
Do we find this flesh, this fallen star,
this love that makes our hearts’ blood stop
and bids our hair stand up?

Do we find the light of God, in Christ the child?
A light that can only be received, never taken.
A light by which we are both liberated and bound.

Liberated:  to love freely, to live fully,
and to be at peace, knowing God is present,
God is faithful, God is a God of hope and promise.

And bound:  to one another, to all humanity;
bound to God in light and love.

With blessing comes responsibility; we are blessed for the purpose of being a blessing to others.  We receive the light to pass the light on to others.

When I was baptized, I received a candle as a reminder of that.  As the priest lit it from the Paschal Candle, he said, “Receive the light of Christ and may all who know you always find it burning brightly within you.”
The crèche draws us to this light of Christ.

In the 12th century, Guerric of Igny wrote,

Behold then, the candle alight in Simeon’s hands. You must light your own candles by enkindling them at his, those lamps which the Lord commanded you to bear in your hands. So come to him and be enlightened that you do not so much bear lamps as become them, shining within yourself and radiating light to your neighbors. May there be a lamp in your heart, in your hand and in your mouth: let the lamp in your heart shine for yourself, the lamp in your hand and mouth shine for your neighbors. The lamp in your heart is a reverence for God inspired by faith; the lamp in your hand is the example of a good life; and the lamp in your mouth are the words of consolation you speak.[ii]

The crèche draws us and reveals to us the holy in the vulnerable, in the poor, in those on the margins whom the world may reject.  For Jesus, the poor are not a cause; the poor are who he is.

The crèche draws us and calls us
to live Christmas beyond Christmas;
to do the work of Christmas:

To find the lost and heal the broken;
To feed the hungry and release the prisoner;
To rebuild the nations
and bring peace among the people;
To make music in the heart.

You see, the crèche draws us, but we can’t stay there.  Like the angels and the shepherds and the wise men, and even Mary and Joseph, we go back; back to the world, back to our lives.

But we can still sing the alleluias!

 

 

 

[i] “The Mother of God” by W. B. Yeats.  From http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/christmas1bpresentation.html.

[ii] Guerric of Igny, quoted from Celebrating the Seasons (Morehouse) From http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/christmas1bpresentation.html

To Touch the Face of God

Reflection offered at the Family Celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord
on Christmas Eve 2018, at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington

Some stories never grow old.  The Christmas story is one of those.  We can hear it year after year after year.  We know all the details; we know how it begins; we know how it ends; there are no surprises, no new plot twists.  And still, we go out of our way to hear it again.  Even on a cold, dark, winter night, we come together to hear it again.

And not just to hear it for its own sake; we could do that at home.  No, we want to hear it together.  It’s a story to be shared.  It’s like a family story, except that it’s a family that stretches all across the globe and throughout the ages.  It’s in the sharing of the story that we experience its meaning; perhaps because it is a story of relationship and connection.

What touches you in the Christmas story?  Does that change every time you hear it?  Where do you find yourself in the story?  Maybe you were in a Christmas pageant when you were younger.

I think the Christmas story endures because it reveals to us something Beautiful and True.  It speaks directly to our hearts and souls and touches us in the depths of our being.

What strikes me is the intimacy of this story.  It wouldn’t work in a large theatre.  No, it requires the cramped confines of a stall.  It is as if God is saying, “Come here.  No, closer.  Look.”  And then God opens God’s hands, “See?”  What is revealed is so small and precious and vulnerable, and yet, floods the whole earth with light and life and hope.  It overwhelms the stories of darkness that deaden our souls.

In the birth of Jesus, we have God fully embracing our humanity – all of it – start to finish; challenges and joys; work and play; love and family and all while in relationship with all sorts of people; with us.

God embraces humanity and invites us into a relationship so intimate, and in such a way – as a baby – that we can hardly help but respond with tenderness and love.

Like the shepherds, we are amazed.  They respond, joining the angels in songs of praise.  And so do we.  We can’t wait for Christmas to come before we start singing; anticipating this story we love so well.

And so, we come together tonight, to hear the story, to be amazed once more, to be bathed in the light of Christ.  As God opens God’s hands, we are drawn even closer.  We reach out to touch the smooth, tender cheek of Mary’s beautiful, precious baby.
We reach out to touch the face of God.