Category Archives: Epiphany

At All Costs, Ecstasy

MLK_Jail–Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, booking photo, Birmingham Jail

John 2:1-11I

“They have no wine,” Mary says.

Such an odd, indirect thing to say, “They have no wine.” Yet Jesus knows what she’s after. What he hears her say is, “Do something.”

He is in no mood to do anything. He doesn’t even make sympathetic noises about how mortifying all this is for the poor just-marrieds. He turns his mother down. “This has nothing to do with us, woman.” His ‘hour’ hasn’t come, he says; that mysterious ripe time we hear so much about in John’s gospel, an ‘hour’ that includes his death.

Mary is not eager for that suffering to come any more than Jesus is. Yet a long habit of pondering has only magnified the urgency: The hungry (and the thirsty) will be filled with good things, the rich sent empty away. How much longer should this revolution wait? His hour may not have come, but maybe his minute has—and a wedding seems like just the right place to kick off the great reversal.

That’s why, over at the servers’ station, she is acting as if he’d said ‘no problem’ instead of ‘no way.’  “Do whatever he tells you,” she says, which is good advice for servants of every time and place. So Jesus goes over and starts giving instructions, and before long, six stones jars are filled to the brim with water.

The way he accomplishes the miraculous changeover is discreet, but the results are showy: he makes exquisite wine in preposterous quantities. When the steward tastes it, he just about dies. Who is this who plies with liquid heaven undeserving fools who can’t discriminate between rotgut and Rothschild?

Who indeed? This is the question of every epiphany. Who is this waster, who produces more than the world can drink? Who is this prodigal, who doesn’t seem to know the price of things? This is the question that the Spirit keeps whispering to us in the hope that we too, like the steward, might come to find the answer, taste God’s surprising vintage, and go about tantalized all our lives.

II

The head steward has no idea where the wine came from. But the servants know. Good servants always know. So do disciples, and if you go back and read the first chapter of John’s gospel, you’ll see that Jesus had just called his first set, five to be exact. John says that it was at Cana that these first few “believed in him.” Not before the wedding, note; but at the feast they believed. And not because he performs any old miracle, but because it’s this one.

They’ve all heard the words of Isaiah read in the synagogue: “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you!” They’ve heard Wisdom, too: “She has set her table and poured her wine,” the wine of joy in the Spirit, free of charge and available to all in God’s New Day.

When Messiah comes, everybody knows, a giddy glee — not unlike inebriation (but safe ) — will grip the world. These disciples feel it now in Cana. Who is this? It must be Messiah. And they believe in him.

But they would not have been at the wedding at all, and would not have believed, if they hadn’t responded when he called days earlier, if they had not first followed him. Things happen in this order: Jesus calls, you follow, and then, in the course of following, of living with him, of going where he goes and doing what he does, you discover him as the source of joy, the fount of new wine, and you trust him, you believe.

So, in addition to being a story about the abundance of God’s New Day in which every creature’s watery old life is changed into a ruby red new one; in addition to being a story about the slap-happy joy of being in the presence of God’s Appointed One whose mission is to change mourning into gladness and keep the gladness coming in great unquaffable quantities; in addition to all that, this story is about belief and discipleship.

Between the lines we learn that it’s in the following that love, knowledge, and experience combine to make for faith. You’re a disciple if you go on the road with Jesus, go with him to weddings, and drink from the cup he proffers.

III

Today our nation commemorates the life, work, witness and sacrifice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Chances are you’ll be hearing a lot about Dr. King’s dream today, as if he’d been only a dreamer, as if the dream had been precious and peculiar only to him. You’ll hear people quote from his March on Washington “mountaintop” speech, that what matters is the content of character, not the color of skin, as if that were all he ever said.

And that line will be repeated with astonishing denial, or astonishing cynicism, or astonishing naivete, since, to take only one case, skin color can still be the difference between life and death in our criminal justice system. You’ll hear that line repeated as if he’d never also made daring critiques of the demonic nexus of racism, poverty, capitalism, war, and prison.

You’ll hear a lot about dreaming, as if all we need to do is dream on, now that he’s dead, as if dreaming on honors him. But Dr. King was not only a dreamer: he was first, last and always a disciple. He got up when he was called, and he followed. He went to the mountaintop and he went to the wedding. His eyes had seen the glory of the Lord and his lips had tasted the wine of Cana. And his faith was formed, perhaps even discovered, and certainly strengthened, in a community, following the Liberator, on the road, on the march, with Christ.

To my knowledge Dr. King never preached on John 2:1-11, but there’s no doubt he lived this story; for only from a deep awareness of abundance, only from a conviction born of the experience of everlasting reliability, only in the company of God’s Christ who keeps providing us not with enough but with forever far more than enough, only in the company of fellow followers who had also tasted the wine, could any flawed human being stride toward his inevitable “hour” so unflinchingly.

Drinking deeply of the wedding wine is still capable of intoxicating God’s people with hope, against the odds. And the hope it instills is still able to yield in us the substantial fruits of courage and perseverance, forbearance and resistance. It is still powerful enough to reveal to us nothing less than the joy of the cross.

It’s a good thing too. For if we are following, like Dr. King, we are inevitably on our inebriated way to a mountaintop. Make no mistake, the mountaintop we are going to is an imposing hill called Golgotha.

You remember, don’t you? From Cana, Jesus goes directly to the Temple in Jerusalem. Flush with the wine of messianic joy, he strides to the money-changers’ tables. You know what happens next.

Wedding Wine (John 2:1-11)

With thanks to Kathy Coffee..

cana

–Les Noces de Cana, Louis Kahn, 1949

They have no wine, Mary says. If she says it any louder, the guests will hear and head for the door.

It’s a little indirect, but her drift is clear. She wants Jesus to do something about it.

He’s been hanging around the house for thirty years, knocking together benches and chairs. His father likes him home. The sign on the door says Joseph & Son.

The gold is long since spent on groceries, the frankincense a whiff in the walls, the mystic myrrh tossed on a shelf in the shop.

Building chairs is a good job for a son, but this son was knelt to by Persian wizards. She can be forgiven if she thinks he’s destined for greater things.

She wants him out of the house.

She says, They have no wine. And they have been thirsty since Adam.

Not yet, he says. What you ask will be free for them, but will cost me plenty. One more order of chairs…?

Soused and surly, the guests are frantic to take the edge off.  Any wine will do. The old purveyors line up to supply them rotgut, smiling their oily smiles, rubbing their hands.

She thinks, not for this did the angels sing that starry night. Not for this, my darling dear, that you have a mother.

Since the day John leapt in the womb, she has been tasting it. She can taste it now: wedding wine. Bouquet of the cosmos, undertones of Eden, the finish of revolution.

She turns to the servants.

Do what he tells you.

Pour paradise on drunks.

Contemplating Jesus’ Baptism: An Opinionated Opinion

560px-Haskovo_Historic_Museum_2011_PD_247

–Haskovo Historic Museum, Haskovo, Bulgaria

On Baptism of Jesus Sunday, one of the most important commemorations of the season of unveiling we call Epiphany, we are often quick to turn the ancient Christian memory about Jesus at the Jordan into an intra-psychic contemplation of ourselves.

Rather than focus our religious imagination on the revelation about Jesus as God’s child and chosen one for the work of redemption, and on what sort of redeemer he is, we move immediately from Jesus’ experience to our own. We make Baptism of Jesus Sunday all about our own baptisms and our own naming as ‘beloved’ by God.

Now, this is true and well done insofar as we believe that in our own baptisms God accepts and adopts us in Christ. We are indeed God’s beloved, God is indeed pleased with us, and we can indeed move confidently into our own ministries, and towards our own suffering and deaths, secure in this necessary knowledge.

It is also true and well done insofar as this powerful and transforming message of our belovedness is desperately needed by so many in our pews (including by us who preach this message). We whose lives are often overwhelmed with experiences of inadequacy, isolation, rejection, and shame; or for whom God has always loomed too large as judge and antagonist need this message. It must be preached repeatedly and perseveringly, yes, even on Baptism of Christ Sunday.

But the fact remains that Jesus’ baptismal experience is his own, not ours, and it is unique: we are not the messiah, no matter how often we may mistake ourselves for him; and it is not through us, except by the divine grace of incorporation in him and the extension of his ministry to us, that healing comes to the world. The voice at the Jordan was for him, not us; it addresses him and his identity, character, and mission, not us and ours; and it effectively grounds his loving, sacrificial ministry in ways only he could know and with graces only he could draw upon.

No matter how much we may wish to appropriate Christ’s baptism, we have to acknowledge some difference and allow some distance between him and us so that we can contemplate with awe, as the ancient festival intended, the mystery concealed and revealed in this striking event.

Our tendency is to assume that everything in scripture has an obvious, immediate, and necessary application to our own experience and our own needs. And we are, in my opinion, also far too quick to assign ethical imperatives to everything the gospels say about Jesus. It makes us nervous simply to let a story hang out there for our contemplation without moralizing it. Our protestant tendency is always to skip sustained contemplation of Jesus and sprint to the question of us.

I think the immediate focus on ourselves misses the point sometimes. It’s useful, to be sure; but it isn’t all there is. I wonder whether we would discover something even more ‘useful’ by means of a more imaginative and more lingering gaze at Jesus himself in these stories. What would we see that we haven’t seen before because we took our eyes off him to talk about what we need, who we are, what we are required to do and become?

What is hidden here that steady contemplation might unveil? What if we permit the stories to be truly the stories of Jesus first, focusing our attention on him as the only protagonist worth thinking about — the one in whom we too are learning, by patient contemplation and wide open hearts, to be well pleased?

In Season and Out

epiphany

By the time you read this, Advent will be a memory—although we never really leave Advent, do we? We are always longing for love to materialize, always waiting for promises to come true, always scanning the signs of the times, always living under the judgment of a God who prefers mercy to sacrifice, always creating highways in the human wilderness to announce the good news about God’s unshakeable commitment to the earth and all who dwell upon it. Advent may be over, but Advent never leaves us. Desire for joy and justice is the permanent subtext of our lives.

Christmas will have come and gone too—although we never really leave Christmas, do we? We are always adoring on bended knee at cradles occupied by unfathomable babies, always surrounded by glory-singing angels, always offering ourselves and all we have in praise, always finding God most tenacious and tender among the suffering, the homeless and the poor, always subverting the violent power of kings with humility, with the insistence of stars, with the simple truth. Christmas may be over, but Christmas never leaves us. Human life is forever divinized. God forever wears a human face.

By the time you read this, it will be (almost) Epiphany—the season when eyes of faith flood with the most wonderful light, and the beauty of the One who lives and breathes in Jesus’ ministry is irresistible. All season long, the veil lifts and God is known in the wonders Jesus does, the words he speaks, and the kinds of people he calls to his side to share his company and his daily work.

You too, come and see, Jesus says. Come, see for yourselves. And if we go, and if we see, and if by his grace we stay, we will never leave Epiphany, nor Epiphany us.

Come and see, he says. And if we do, we will become like him, all light from light.

“Leaking Light” — Epiphany

adoration_of_the_magi_giotto

–Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423

Our planet has come full circle, and 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 northern hemisphere, is winter. But the church has entered a different season. We call it Epiphany, from a Greek word meaning to point out in a striking way, to reveal.

Epiphany is 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 unveiling, it starts with a glimpse of a baby’s 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.

How generous and wise the liturgy is to gives us this string of bright, hot God-sightings in a cold, dark time. It is the church’s way of showing us that our world only appears solid, still, dark, and cold, but is in fact ardent, vivid, and porous. As Barbara Brown Taylor says so eloquently, Epiphany reminds us that we live in a world that is leaking light, and that this long stretch of predictability we call our daily life is really a wondrous game of hide-and-seek with the divine.

Starfire, dream-clouds, baby’s flesh, garments of light, kings on their knees and disciples on their faces—in Epiphany we learn, again, to see, to listen, to worship, and to be called; for discipleship (we know, but too soon forget in our drive to be useful and productive) is as much about being spoken to as it is about speaking, as much about adoring as serving, as much about perceiving as doing, as much about being found as searching. Discipleship is born in awe, it arises from encounter, it is a consequence of worship.

Our planet has come full circle; but for us this does not mean just another round in an endless, futile turning of things. In this new year, we are not so much going around again as we are spiraling down and in, deeper and deeper. Spiraling down and in on a mystery. A mystery that calls to us to duck under the surface, to come and see, to taste and hear, to feel and know, to adore, and thus to follow.