Monday, January 18, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - a Time to Celebrate

John 2:1-12, Mark 14:3-9, Matthew 11:16-19, Luke 14:12-14

I’d like to ask you to take a moment and think about what your primary image of Jesus might be.  I’d like to invite you to close your eyes and see Jesus or the Christ or hear the scriptures that are most meaningful to you in terms of describing for you who Jesus is for you.
My primary image of Jesus tends to be the times he stands up for justice: he cares for those rejected by society; talking to women, children, Samaritans, Syrophoenicians, tax collectors, and sinners - those who were seen as marginal or who were excluded from being “insiders” in the Jewish society of the time. Jesus touches lepers, and allows himself to be touched by the bleeding - again something that would be considered unclean, taboo, and that would have put Jesus himself at risk for being seen as unclean. He challenges legalism (especially when it hurts people) by picking wheat to eat and healing on the Sabbath, by stopping the “lawful” stoning of the woman caught in adultery. He overthrows the money changers in the temple who use and exploit people. My primary images of Jesus are the times when he puts his own life at risk, and eventually loses his life in his work to bring the realm of God among us, to offer new life, to change people, to give voice to people, to confront the “righteous.” I see Jesus echoing in his actions the Biblical prophets, condemning the hypocrisy of rich living while others don’t have enough to survive, challenging those who “have”, comforting those who have little and are oppressed, overturning the status quo to empower the downtrodden and to bring down the mighty.
That is my primary image of Jesus. But Jesus is infinitely more complex and deep than my primary images will allow. Jesus is, God is, thanks be to God, multifaceted, multi-layered, and beyond our limited imaginings.
The three stories that were read for today give a very different picture of Jesus.   
Each of these tells us many things, but there are a few things I specifically want to point out.  The first passage from Matthew tells us, among other things, that Jesus ate and drank. 
He did not abstain, he was not ascetic, but instead he enjoyed, he celebrated, he appreciated and he partook of the good things in life. He did not limit himself from enjoying what life had to offer.
The passage in Mark tells us that he saw value in spending money occasionally on expensive, lavish ways to honor and celebrate God and what God has given us.
It is the third passage that I want us to focus on most today.  Because the story of the wedding in Cana is an amazing story telling us much that might seem surprising about Jesus.  The passage in John tells us that he honored and enjoyed rich ceremony and celebration. He went to weddings and parties. At times he celebrated. He partook of and even provided abundance.  More, he partook of and provided extravagance. The jars that Jesus used to make the wine, we are told, were vessels for Jewish purification rites. These were huge jars, which Jesus told the servants to fill to the brim. Each of these jars held 20 to 30 gallons of water, all of which were then turned into wine. Jesus did not make a few bottles of wine here, not a case of wine, but gallons and gallons of wine!! Undoubtedly much more than could be drunk at this one wedding.  In addition, this passage in John tells us that it was excellent quality. Jesus did not skimp here on quantity or quality. And again, for what reason? Simply for a wedding, for a party.
In the book of John, this story of Jesus turning the water into wine is also put in a place of prominence. This story marks Jesus’ first miracle, his first sign and his first action in ministry.  This tells us that it is not just a fluke or an unimportant part of who he is that he celebrated, helped others celebrate and did so with extravagance. 
As Jesus shows us who God is, we learn from this story that God is hugely over indulgent when it comes to good things. God is a God of abundance, extravagance, transformation and new possibility. God may enter the world as a helpless baby. But God’s ministry is also overflowing, celebratory and without limit.
This is one of the first things that Jesus’ life tells us about God in the book of John. And the theme of God’s abundance does not end with this story. The feeding of the five thousand is another example of God’s extravagance as demonstrated through Jesus. Not only were five thousand men, plus more women and children fed off of five small loaves of bread and two little fish, but there were twelve baskets of food left over. Again, our image of God is one of huge abundance.
This celebratory aspect of God is not in conflict with other images of Jesus. This information about Jesus adds to our understanding of God. While Jesus does celebrate and make wine for merry making, this is not in contrast to the Jesus that we know to confront the rich man and tell him to give everything he has, the Jesus we know who rejects the Pharisees’ legalisms, the Jesus who challenges the status quo. For while Jesus does celebrate, for what purpose does he celebrate, and with whom?
The woman Jesus defended, who poured ointment on Jesus, was celebrating her God and celebrating her Lord. She was also giving richly to one who was on his way to death, one who had limited opportunities for celebration left to him. Also, Jesus says in Luke 14: 12-13, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
We are called to celebrate God. And we are called to share and give extravagantly to those who rarely have the gift of extravagance and over abundance, those who may not be able to return the favor.
[1]Dorothy Day founded, lived in and ran the Catholic Worker house.  This was a place (now there are many of these houses) that existed for the sole purpose of caring for the needy.  It was a house that provided care for the needy every day - daily meals for hungry people, shelter for homeless people, a place to rest, an ear to listen. The workers who lived in the house lived in intentional poverty, giving everything they had to care for those who came in need.
One day a well dressed woman visited the Catholic Worker house and gave Dorothy a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked the visitor, slipped the ring in her pocket, and later in the day gave it to an old woman who lived alone and often ate her meals at the worker house. One of the staff protested that the ring could have been sold at the Diamond Exchange and the money used to pay the woman’s rent for a year. Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do as she liked with the ring. She could sell it for rent money, or she could take a trip to the Bahamas. Or she could enjoy having a diamond ring on her hand just like the woman who had brought it to the Worker. “Do you suppose,” Dorothy asked, “that God created diamonds only for the rich?”
I believe what this says to us is that we are not let us off the hook for caring for the poor and marginalized. We are still called primarily and foremost to love God and our neighbors, ALL of our neighbors, as ourselves in our Christian living. But these stories of Jesus tell us something more. They tell us that there are times for parties and celebration amidst our work.  And while we are to invite those who have little, the party is also for us. We need that: for renewal, for replenishment, simply as an offering of our gratitude for the abundant gifts of life that God has given us. 
World War I was a very bloody and aggressive war, a huge war, a terrible war, a time of great death and tragedy and loss.  At the Western Front it was bloody and violent like everywhere else.  But on Christmas Eve, 1915, things changed for a moment.  The German soldiers from Saxony made a brave choice.  Bringing food across the front, and singing Christmas Carols, they came to the British soldiers they were fighting in a Christmas spirit.  The British soldiers, shocked at first, were also moved and found themselves responding by joining in the singing and offering up what they had to share in the festivities as well.  After a time of singing and faith celebration, pictures were shared, personal stories began to be told, sometimes only through hand signs, between German and English people.  In one version of the story officers had to break up the comradery as they realized fighting would soon become impossible between these two groups if they continued to get to know, share and celebrate with one another.  In another version of the story, the bonds made that night were so great that those soldiers could not be compelled to continue fighting those they had come to see as human brothers and sisters.  These soldiers, then, on both sides, would no longer kill each other and had to be moved off the front.  Celebration, especially celebration of God, is not just joyous: with God’s help it can be powerful, an agent of true change.
This is a hard time in the United States right now. We are dealing with ongoing mass shootings. We are dealing with an extraordinary amount of fear, and hatred and vengeance, at homophobia, islamophobia, xenophobia from many different places and in many different ways. We are looking at the devastating effects of environmental damage and wondering if we can stop it and reverse the damage in time. It is a scary time, it is a difficult time. But it is in the midst of this difficult time that God calls us to celebrate, to find those opportunities to see the beauty in God’s world and to celebrate it together with one another.
Some might feel that celebration at this time is audacious. But it is a sign of gratitude, it is a sign of trust that God is with us no matter what we are going through, it is a sign of the blessings that we are given every day. That is part of what church is meant to be, what worship is to be. It is a time of celebration, of expression of extravagance, and abundance.
As part of that celebration we have to let go of outcomes. God works in surprising ways. As we celebrate, as we invite others into our celebrations, God is in charge of who might come through these doors, God is in charge of how our joy will affect others, God is in charge of whether or not our celebrations will lead to transformations. But with a spirit of gratitude and trust, we are called to enjoy and celebrate God’s love for us in this place. Let us today in this place be filled with joy, laughter and play. We have so much to be thankful for. Thank you God, for another day with trees and a sky over our heads, thank you for air and food and shelter. Thank you God for another day with children and the elderly, the middle aged and young adults.  Thank you God that this church is here, that doors are open, that some call this place home and others are here to worship searching for hope and renewal. Thank you, God, for each other, for family, for fellowship. Thank you God.
We don’t just honor God with solemn prayers and faithful promises to care more, to love more, to serve more. We don’t just please God by uplifting the downtrodden. We also honor
God by finding and sharing joy and beauty, fun and laughter in the life God has given us.  Thanks be to God.
In the spirit of celebration I’d like to finish my time by telling you a short story.
A friend of mine told me that one day she had read to her not-quite-three-year old daughter the story of Jesus’ miraculous turning of the water into wine. That night after she put her to bed, she could hear the daughter recounting the story to her stuffed animals as she often did before going to sleep. The little girl said, “Jesus was at a wedding with his mother, but they ran out of drink. Jesus’ mother said, ‘Do whatever he tells you to do.’ They took big jars and filled them with water.  Then Jesus turned the water into...”
There was a long pause; my friend wondered if her daughter would remember about “wine” which was not something in her experience. After a few moments the little girl resumed:
“Then Jesus turned the water into....chocolate milk! And it was the best chocolate milk they had ever tasted!” Amen.

[1]Love is the Measure: a Biography of Dorothy Day, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000) 66-67