Author Archives: sicutlocutusest

‘They Have No Wine…’ John 2:3



“They have no wine.” That’s all Mary says to Jesus after noticing the newlyweds’ embarrassment. Could she be more indirect?

He knows what she wants but he’s not feeling ready. He tells her it’s not time to reveal his glory and suffer the consequences. The wine he could make would be free to the guests but cost him plenty.

Mary marches right over to the serving table as if he’d said ‘no problem’ instead of ‘no way.’ She once said a costly yes; she’s not about to take no for an answer from him.

Because they have no wine.

It’s human history she’s talking about. Life’s disappointed guests have been milling around with empty glasses from time immemorial. She’s waited long enough for the mighty to fall, for the poor to dance at the wedding, for the kingdom’s elixir to flow. Three Persian potentates once bent their knees to him. Why is he still knocking out chairs and cabinets in Nazareth? She wants him out of the house.

He gives in and produces liquid heaven in preposterous quantities. He squanders it on us, the undeserving who can’t distinguish rotgut from Rothschild. He becomes the wastrel we need him to be.

Thank you, Mary.

Prayer
When we are reluctant to act on our callings, O God, send Mary to remind us, “They have no wine.” Get us out of the house.

Epiphany: Hide and Seek with the Divine

Our planet has come full circle: things should feel new; yet for many people, the calendar is cleared only for business as usual, and the soul’s season, like the weather outside here in the North, is winter.

But the church has entered a different season – Epiphany.

A season of signs, it starts with a star in the east and ends with fire on a mountain.

A season of voices, it starts with directions in a dream and ends with acknowledgment from a cloud.

A season of unveilings, it starts with a glimpse of baby skin and ends with a display of gleaming garments.

A season of worship, it starts with the homage of kings and ends with the prostration of disciples.

In the dead of winter, the church gives us God-sightings, gives them as if to persuade us that our world only appears solid, still, dark, and cold, but is in fact stirring all the time, ardent, vivid, and porous. As if to say that this stretch of predictability we call our daily life is really, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, a startling game of hide-and-seek with the divine. As if to say that heaven’s flame burns hot here too, not just on the other side of Peter’s gate.

Starfire, dream-clouds, baby’s flesh, garments of light, kings on their knees and disciples on their faces — Epiphany is the church’s way of impressing on us that discipleship is as much being spoken to as it is speaking, as much adoring as serving, as much perceiving as doing, as much finding as seeking.

Seeking is never over, there is always more to find. But in Epiphany, the Spirit seems to desire for us a momentary end of seeking. She brings us to an encounter with the immense and saving beauty that burns in Jesus, the bright beauty destined for us all.

She lights the lamp and leads us:  “Come closer,” she says. “You’re getting warm. Now over here. A little more. Yes, yes. Now do you see…?”

And if we are attentive, we do perceive it. We fall on our knees.

 

 

 

Epiphany Year B: Who Is Jesus?

 

Epiphany is the mystical season par excellence, the season of coming to know beyond knowing, of coming to love what we come to know. It is a season of light, but it is also a season of deepening mystery; for just when we think we have grasped him, he slips away, inviting further following and more profound revelation and the testing of our love. Just when we think we have grasped him, he asks us the defining question, “Who do you say that I am?”, and we need to start over.

Worship during Epiphany Year B brings us gospel stories that ponder Jesus’ identity and recount people’s responses to him as, in the light of his presence, their hearts open to the gift of God’s mercy.

In the first week’s story, wise men “from the East”—scientists and philosophers—discover in an unknown, poor child a new light, a new wisdom, a new hope surpassing anything they ever discovered about God and the world on their own.

Next, John baptizes the grown-up Jesus, and at that moment—as Jesus is identified with sinners— the curtain lifts and we hear that he is God’s cherished child, that God is pleased with him.

Two more stories are about people who perceive in him the “Lamb of God” who pardons sins and reconciles enemies. When asked by these would-be followers where he lives, Jesus says, “Come and see.” In following him there, disciples receive deeper revelation of who Jesus is and what his way is about.

On the last Sunday, we experience a disorienting moment atop a mountain. There the disciples see Jesus suffused with the glory of God. They are so enthralled that they wish they could remain forever enveloped in that great, transforming light.

We often say that light is the season’s theme, and it surely is. We watch Jesus call followers, who seem compelled by his light. We watch him teach and heal, “leaking” the light that is in him all around, revealing God’s intentions and the character of God’s Kingdom. We see the light that lives in him lift shadows of despair, violence, and injustice.

But for all the light that is dawning; for all the revelations of Jesus’ identity that abound in these texts; for all the excited talk about the Messiah and the Lamb of God; for all the rush to get in on the ground floor and follow him; for all the hope that the Kingdom of God might finally be near, confusion about Jesus does not go away. In fact, the mystery deepens.

It won’t be long (Lent begins early this year) before we are reading stories in which even his closest friends scratch their heads, perplexed by the implacable enigma of this man. Even John the Baptist, who had earlier recognized him as God’s chosen one, will ask, “So, are you really The One?”

There will be so many claims swirling around him that Jesus himself will eventually ask his disciples, “What are they saying about me?” And “What about you? Who do you say that I am?”—a question that will still haunt him — and us — when he’s hanging on the Cross.

When we are asked, “What is your faith about?”, many of us answer that it is about love, or justice, peace and reconciliation. But if that’s all we say, we may be sidestepping its one truly distinguishing characteristic—the person of Jesus himself. If Christianity is not about him and about the ways in which he is a window onto the character of the God we worship, it doesn’t have much that is new or distinctively compelling to offer.

And that’s a problem, because many of us grew up in traditions in which Jesus was not a sympathetic character. He was a stern, all-seeing judge of our sins. He was the one in whom, on the Cross, God took out the wrath that was meant for us, and so now we feel that we owe Jesus an eternal, un-payable debt.

Or he was an ethical exemplar—for some, a this-worldly political figure whose revolutionary stances we admired; for others a cardboard character, a flesh-and-bloodless moral paragon, too perfect to feel close to or even to admire.

Some of us got the “gooey” Jesus, all long light hair and dreamy eyes; a white, romantic, handsome guy from Central Casting with a lamb draped over his shoulders, and he embarrasses us now.

Some of us dismiss Jesus as a mostly made-up character in a story too weird and implausible to credit.

If the Christian faith really is, in the end, not just some generic ethical teaching about love and justice; if it not merely a religion that stems from a long-ago and far away mythical Jesus, but is in some sense about Jesus, the embodied kingdom of God; if he is the “way, the truth, and the life” as the gospel says he is, sent to lead us in a unique and graceful way into the arms of a God determined to restore all creation in justice and love; if Jesus is somehow necessary, then maybe the project of Epiphany is to let him ask us, over and over, the same question that he asked his first followers, “Who do you say that I am?”

Maybe in these few weeks of Epiphany, we might make a deliberate effort to drop our learned responses to him, our preconceived ideas about him, our skepticism, even our distaste, in order to ponder his mystery with a new and genuine openness to what the Spirit might reveal to us about him.

We call ourselves followers, disciples, but some of us hardly know the one we are following. Maybe it’s time to walk and talk with him, maybe this is a chance to see whether in the talking and in the going—in the practice— the transforming light he shed wherever he went might envelop our lives too.

If he is the one the Christian tradition claims he is, things could really change. But that remains to be seen. It remains to be seen, it remains to be heard, to be touched, and even to be tasted, in this precious season of Jesus, this season of light.

 

 

 

 

Epiphany: A Brief Primer


Epiphany is an ancient Christian festival that pre-dates the celebration of Christmas. For many centuries it was (and still is in some parts of the Church) the second most important celebration of the Christian year, Easter being the first. Epiphany is also one of the two major festivals in the Christian year on which it was customary to initiate people into the church through baptism, the other being the Great Vigil of Easter. Its length (5-8 weeks) depends on the date of Easter, which determines the start of Lent.

“Epiphany” means “revelation.” During the season of Epiphany, Christians contemplate the figure of Jesus as a revelation of God’s hopes for the world. It is a time of growing insight into the way we believe God was working for our good through Jesus’ ministry of preaching, healing, justice, and reconciliation. Who he is for us and our salvation “dawns on us” gradually during this season of light.

Epiphany begins with a double commemoration—the visit of the Magi to the child in Bethlehem, and Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river.

The story of the Magi, or ‘wise men from the East’, is found in Matthew 2:1-12. These mythic Magi are ancient astrologers, the scientists and philosophers of their day, who follow the trajectory of a new star from their own countries to the manger in Bethlehem, after eluding the machinations of King Herod. There they acknowledge the Babe as a ‘new king’ and a revelation of God, presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then they return home ‘by a different way.’

The gospel of Matthew says nothing about the meaning of these gifts, but later Christian imagination assigned symbolic meaning to them. Gold honors the Child’s royal lineage—Jesus is said to be descended from the house of King David. Frankincense, a costly incense, recognizes his divine origin—Jesus was said to have been born “of the Holy Spirit.” Myrrh, a bitter ointment, foretells the suffering of Jesus on the cross.

Because of the importance of Epiphany, we have countless homilies and commentaries on its meaning from early Christian preachers. Three aspects of Epiphany stand out in these sermons:

The visit of the Magi symbolizes the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s promise of salvation. The non-Jewish world is given a great gift through the birth of this Jewish baby in Bethlehem: we come to “sees the light” with our own eyes and receive the blessings of God’s promises given first (and forever) to the Jews. We are, in Paul’s words’ “grafted on” to the ancient tree, adopted into the family and made heirs of the Promise.

The Magi’s visit also stands for the illumination of secular learning with the light of faith—human knowledge deepened, corrected, and perfected by the encounter with divine mystery. The wise men discover in an unknown, poor child a new light, a new wisdom, a new hope surpassing anything they ever discovered about God and the world on their own, by their own lights. Epiphany is thus the feast of the learned and the wise who know much, but who also humbly bow before divine wisdom, acknowledging their own limits and unknowing in light of the vastness of the mystery of God.

The journey of the Magi was also a way of speaking about vocation, or faith’s steady calling to the human heart. Epiphany is a season of callings—Jesus chooses his disciples and begins schooling them in the ways of the Kingdom of God. Christians have always seen in the Star a sign of beckoning for the Church and for each and every disciple. Following the Star perseveringly our whole life long leads us to our deepest desire, to wholeness and fulfillment through our obedient responsiveness to God.

In the story of Jesus’ baptism from Matthew 3:13-17, the author places Jesus in the company of ordinary people—“sinners”—who have lined up at the Jordan to be purified and prepared by a baptism of repentance. These are the same people with whom Jesus will most closely associate himself throughout his ministry. “I have come,” he said, “to look for the lost.”

The early Christians saw in Jesus’ submission to baptism—which they believe he did not require, not being a sinner—a revelation of his human solidarity with the poor and the despised who knew that they were in need of God’s mercy and had no one else to turn to. In the story, a heavenly voice declares that Jesus is God’s son, but we come to know precisely what sort of son we have in Jesus when we are shown that he identifies himself with sinners.

The heavenly voice also reveals that God is “well-pleased” with him (and presumably with this identification). Christians have traditionally understood this epiphany as an assurance that, by extension, God has also accepted us as beloved children and is well-pleased with us too, especially when, following the practice of Jesus, we live in solidarity with those whom the world rejects, and work for justice and peace.

Some Thoughts on Preaching John 10:1-11


I’ve heard countless sheep and shepherd sermons over the years. Some have informed me that sheep are the world’s stupidest, smelliest animals. Others insisted that they’re smart creatures, clean and good-natured. One preacher read us a long excerpt from a biblical encyclopedia article about shepherding as a disreputable profession in Jesus’ day. Other preachers referred to the same information, only a bit more artfully. In one oddly memorable sermon, an older preacher regaled us with his youthful escapades around sheep on a hippie commune. Still another shared a travelogue of her recent trip to Ireland where, she assured us solemnly, ‘you can see a lot of sheep.’

All these sermons eventually meandered home to their various points and conclusions, some of which were worth the wait. Still, every time this text comes up in the Lectionary, I find myself praying that preachers will resist the temptation to indoctrinate or entertain us with lore about sheep, lest they and we be led, like sheep, astray.

They do this, I think, because they believe that, lacking real-world knowledge of sheep and shepherding, we’ll fail to grasp what Jesus is getting at, so they contextualize, ‘splain, describe, and illustrate. The irony is that Jesus’ audience had way more sheep culture than we do, even after we’ve heard a dozen sermons on ovine IQ, yet they had trouble grasping his message, too. Notice that about halfway through, Jesus seems to register some perplexed looks, some unspoken confusion. ‘You’re a shepherd? Funny, you don’t look like a shepherd…’ It appears that they have no idea what he’s talking about. So he re-winds and changes the metaphor. ‘Okay, not a shepherd; this time I’m a gate. The sheep gate. Got that?’

Um. Maybe…

We progressives say we’re not literalists, but the truth is when things aren’t straightforward and clear, we get as nervous as the next person, as eager to nail things down as any fundamentalist. We say we prefer heart over head, yet in our need to get to the factoidal bottom of things, we cling to our commentaries and seminary notes,  forgetting to feel. But in texts like these, the thing is to feel, and to try to help other stubborn literalists to feel, too. Forget sheepy information and encyclopedia articles, one to one correspondences, the sheep equal this, the gate means that, God is represented by X, in Jesus’ day a sheep pen measured so many square feet… We’re not in that world, we’re in a different world, the realm of acute, converting feeling.

We’re also not in the world of ethics. At least not immediately. It may be true, for example, that identifying oneself with a shepherd was not an endearing comparison, that it probably had the same upending shock value as identifying with a Samaritan. If this is right, it does suggest some compelling ethical applications to the church’s  mission to stand with the outcast and oppressed. Yet as important as moral applications are for provoking conversion and commitment, they’re not the only means to that end. What happens when we routinely resort to moralizing is that our exhortations eventually go the way of all churchy language—in one ear and out the other.

The best-kept secret of preaching, alas, is that people are capable of coming to deep ethical conversion and courageous commitment by way of awe as well as (and maybe more than) moral exhortation. But we hardly ever give them awe. The most important stories don’t work by explanation or exhortation. They work by imagination, goose bumps, nerve endings. Explanation has its place, but only just enough to set the stage for wonder. Too much, and we’ll end up with heads full of animal husbandry and hearts bereft of mystery, truth, and power. No one was ever converted by knowing the exact dimensions of a sheep pen in first century Palestine.

We might be converted, however, if we suddenly felt the overwhelming fear in the text: the trembling terror in lurking bandits, thieves and strangers; all that looking-over-your-shoulder for killers. We might be saved if we go down through the fears we can articulate—money woes, our children’s futures, illness, aging, and diminishment—to finally touch the fears we cannot speak or face—that maybe no one knows our name, that maybe no one could ever want to “own” us, that we could be picked off at any moment and no one would care.

We might be converted if our nerve endings start to twinge in longing for recognition and dignity, safety and nourishment, belonging and life, in sync with the same desires of other human beings, and of all creation. We could be saved if we’re led by imaginative preaching to hear in the air the name-knowing voice that echoes in this text and in all the scriptures, beginning to end–the ancient litany of tender and insistent calling that resounds in the church’s heart deeper than any fear.

Instead of trips to Ireland and seminary notes, we might be changed by a mirror held up to the vivid Jesus in this text; by a long, loving gaze at him as he works his poet’s heart out attempting to capture our imaginations, trying out one metaphor after another in an ever-turning prism of meaning and possibility, until some glint off one of its surfaces ignites a small flame in us, and something shifts to make way for a little more light. And then a little more, until everything is fire.

Jesus’ Syllabus

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“If you do not hate your father and mother… you cannot be my disciple.”—Luke 14:26

I know a professor who’s delightful in the classroom. His courses routinely overfill. But he loathes those huge classes. He suspects many students come for his style, not his material; to be entertained, not educated. He can’t get a personality transplant, so he’s revised the course requirements—now it’s a killer. This semester, the crowds thinned out fast.

“You must hate your family…” That’s a killer, too. Jesus sounds tired of being the teacher everybody likes but nobody learns from. Tired of crowds that come for surprising stories and clever banter with lawyers but remain unchanged. Maybe he’s stiffening the requirements to thin them out.

Or maybe he’s having a smelling-salts moment, head snapping back as he comprehends, with mind-clearing clarity, how much it’ll cost him to love what is most worthy of love, and to love it in and above all other loves. Maybe he’s saying it aloud to make it real for himself as well as for us: “I will have to loosen every tie that binds.”

Here’s a horrible vision of life: I’ll love you and let you live if you’re like me; I’ll hate you and kill you if you’re not. It’s the ruling vision of our world. We know the ferocious consequences of its demonic irrationality. The question is whether we have any sense at all of the sacrifice it’ll take to destroy it and create the boundless fellowship of God.

Jesus says, ”You want to be my disciple? Then don’t come to me casually as if we were going to a picnic in the woods instead of a pitched battle in the anguished heart of the world. Read my syllabus. Read it again. Then come, follow me.”

Prayer

I’ve read it, Jesus. I’m not sure I can do it. Give me courage and grace.

 

 

And

 

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“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  [Mark 1:35]

At her denomination’s annual meeting, a social justice activist listened impatiently to a keynote address about spirituality. She was heard to mutter, “The world’s in flames, and these bliss-ninnies want to do guided meditations.”

In her view, ‘spirituality types’ are several singing bowls removed from the problems of the real world, clueless about root causes and systemic solutions. You want to pray? Do justice. Let that be your prayer. Want to linger devoutly over Scripture? Linger over Matthew 25. Then get to work. Enough with the navel-gazing!

Meanwhile, the keynoter was wondering why the ‘social justice types’ always seem so touchy, so grumpy. They have this air of fatigued arrogance about them, she thought, as if everything hinges on them—world peace, justice for he poor, an end to hunger. They can’t relax for even a nanosecond, because maybe, just maybe, the next action or petition will be the thing that finally fixes everything.

Jesus, Scripture says, puts his body on the line all day. And in the wee hours he prays. He never separates inseparables. For him, the kingdom comes by wonder and strategy, protest and ecstasy, imagination and politics, beauty and meetings, service and solitude, rallies and gratitude, rest and work, resolutions and praise.

It’s not a competition between the soul’s silence and the noise of the street. It’s not the sanctuary versus the subcommittee. It’s not even a matter of finding a balance, or making equal time. It’s about that and. About yielding our whole selves—every gift and skill, picketing and praying—to the Living One, in the sure and certain hope that, with us and without us, the kingdom comes, work of our hands and pure gift beyond our dreams.

Prayer
In prayer and action, O God, we hope in you. In you alone.