1-29-16 - Just Passing Through

Jesus pulls a serious Houdini move at the end of our gospel story. We’ve watched the tension rise throughout this scene, as he makes his dramatic announcement in his hometown synagogue, which is met with amazement that soon turns to rage as his neighbors take offense at what he says next. This rage turns the crowd into a rampaging mob, ready to kill:

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

We must be missing part of the story – it's hard to imagine how they got that mad that quickly, but ugly things happen when strong emotions sweep a crowd. Jesus had so flipped their expectations, so badly disappointed and insulted them, that they went berserk. And it can be an unfortunate human tendency to try to expel that which threatens your sense of security. Hence the push to the cliff’s edge.

But somehow Jesus is immune to their evil intent, and impervious to their gang attack. He simply passes through their midst and goes on his way. Did they stop looking at him, caught up in their frenzy? Or did he somehow make himself invisible, or dematerialize the way he seemed to do a few times after his resurrection? We are not told.

This curious scene does suggest to me a way to pray about situations of mass rage, whether in a real-life mob or a media attack: to remember that Jesus is there, unseen, unnoticed, but present. We can pray his presence into those situations, pray that those who have eyes and ears will perceive him. We can ask him to protect the vulnerable. We can ask him to release peace into conflict and turmoil.

The incarnate Jesus was just passing through this world, but he transformed every situation he encountered, even his own suffering and death. The risen and ascended Jesus is still transforming situations, even among people calling for his blood, or that of his followers. But now he can be everywhere we call upon his name in faith.

We need only invoke his name and by faith release his power and love, and see what changes. They may never know he was there, but something will have changed.

1-28-16 - Hell Hath No Fury

We’ve seen them too often, the images of religious people screaming, ranting, protesting, attacking, their faces contorted, eyes bulging, fists raised. And here is just such a scene near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, in the synagogue in his hometown, after he tells the people he’s not likely to be doing any miracles there.

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. (This Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

An over-reaction, perhaps? Or did they feel he had blasphemed, claiming to be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy? Or offensive, reminding them of times when God’s favor had rested upon outsiders rather than the people of Israel? We don’t know exactly what so infuriated them, but it surely had something to do with their expectations being dashed. I dare say that when people’s religious hopes and expectations are not met, they experience a more profound let-down than when facing other disappointments.

Why else would our congregations so often be the ground for such conflict? Because people bring to faith communities unspoken, unnamed, often unconscious expectations of finding the perfect family, the one in which you are perfectly seen and accepted and affirmed, and all your needs are met. God's supposed to do that for us. And when that doesn’t happen, people often get angry, and that anger can be directed at clergy, at fellow-congregants, at others who share the building. At its heart, though, it's an anger that God has disappointed us.

Jesus’ fellow townsfolk just acted out more clearly and obviously the rage many feel toward a God who allows suffering to go on, evil to flourish, peace to fail. We want God’s miracles, damn it! As well we should. I believe God wants us to pray for God’s power to be unleashed.

We just need to pray and release. Pray with fervor and realize there are many factors involved in how the answers to our prayers will be manifest. I do not believe God will undercut his gift of free will. Humans are free to choose their course, and that inevitably inhibits the realization of God's will. We might say the miracles are when we are enabled to choose the good, choose against our own self-interest. That’s how God’s power to transform gets worked out.

Let’s not judge those rage-filled congregants of Nazareth; at some time or other many of us might have been in their shoes. We can only wish they could have seen past their own desire and expectations to discern the Holy One in their midst. But he was too familiar; they couldn’t see him as God.  Let’s not make that mistake.

1-27-16 - Unpredictable God

If prayer were never answered in ways we can discern, chances are we’d be okay with it, though we might stop praying. What is challenging, often maddening and sometimes heart-breaking is that sometimes it seems God answers in ways we want, and sometimes it seems that God does not. It’s the unpredictability more than the disappointments that inhibit our faith, I think.

The people of Nazareth, having heard reports of the wonders Jesus was doing, expected that he would do the same and more in his hometown. But he says it’s not that predictable:

And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

This sent them into a murderous rage. Was Jesus saying God is capricious? That God cares more for Gentiles than for the chosen people? Why was only one widow helped during the three-and-a-half year famine? Why only one foreign leper healed? Does God only intervene when there’s a larger purpose? Why does God interact at all with God’s creation?

If I knew the answers to that, I’d be much holier (or maybe richer…) than I am now. Why God seems to respond in some cases and not in others continues to perplex us. And none of us has a very full data set from which to draw conclusions. We have some stories in the bible, we have some experiences of our own or other people, but no one knows what God’s record is. We only know that when we pray, sometimes remarkable things happen, and sometimes they do not.

When remarkable things result, and we feel they’re connected to our prayer, we should give thanks and tell people about it. It helps increase our faith and builds that of others. And when it seems we have no response, or not the one we want, we should also talk about that – talk to God about it, and other people, because that’s one definition of faith: to believe despite evidence to the contrary.

I’ve said it before, and need to hear it often: the purpose of prayer is not to ask for things and see what we get. The purpose of prayer is to communicate openly with the God who made us and loves us and knows us better than we can know ourselves, and through that communicating to come to know God more fully. And God has invited us to allow God’s Spirit to pray through us; then we're praying for what God already intends to accomplish.

I have a feeling God’s prayers have a 100% response rate. Let’s figure out how to join ours to God’s. It's as simple as "Come, Holy Spirit..."

1-26-16 - Connections

I always feel a little more powerful when I meet someone who can help hook me up to things I need or people I should know. (Actually, I like best being that person for others…) Connections are how we get ahead. So imagine how excited Jesus’ neighbors in Nazareth were when their "homie" became a religious sensation, known not only for his wisdom but for his amazing miracles and works of power. This was the ultimate connection, someone who channeled the power of God! And he was one of them!

Then imagine their disappointment when he indicated he was unlikely to exercise much power in his own town:  He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown."  

(This Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

He cited a few examples of prophets of old who were unable to address the needs of their own communities, only helping outsiders. And boy, they did not want to hear that. In fact, their response was quite violent, probably more intense than if a stranger had said he couldn’t help them. No one expects too much from a stranger. But one of your own? You should be his first priority. How dare Jesus say he was not accepted there, that his powers would be somehow inhibited?

I find in their angry response an invitation for us to examine our own hearts when it comes to Jesus. I dare say anyone who has ever prayed fervently for something has experienced some disappointment in the outcome. If that disappointment is acute, or experienced too often, we can find ourselves angry. And since the church does not offer many outlets for expressing negative emotions about God, that anger can become pushed down and calcify into a polite estrangement. We don’t try to push Jesus off a cliff, but we stop trusting or asking or hanging out with him.

If this has been your experience (and I’m in the midst of discovering I’ve been having a bout of it…), it’s so good to recognize that, and begin to process it in prayer, and maybe in pastoral conversation. Not for nothing is the rite of repentance in our tradition called “Reconciliation.” The greatest damage done when we turn away from God is to that relationship itself.

I believe that God is always, like the father in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son, out there in the road waiting for us to return. Can we walk back to that place, walk back through the hurt we encountered, the anger we experienced, the loss we suffered? Is our relationship with God worth it to us?

We don’t need to seek out connections; we are already hooked into the most powerful network in the universe, the power and love that flow from the throne of God. If that connection needs strengthening, let’s put our time and energy into repairing that breach. The arms of love await us.

1-25-16 - Hometown Hero

I had a friend who grew up in Springfield, Missouri and went to high school with Brad Pitt. I’m sure it’s a huge deal whenever he comes back to visit family. “We know this guy!” people think. “He’s one of ours.”

Everybody grows up somewhere, goes to school, plays sports, makes friends – and enemies. For Jesus, that somewhere was Nazareth, after he and his family returned from exile in Egypt. And his townspeople were pretty sure they knew him. Even as he manifested a very different skill set than the one needed for carpentry, and as his fame grew, they were pretty sure they knew him.

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 
(This Sunday's Gospel passage is here.)

Joseph’s son was how they knew him. Joseph’s son was predictable. But this man had another father, and that paternity was now being revealed. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” reflects Jesus owning his divine identity, his messianic mission. That life would not prove so predictable.

Do we ever feel proud of Jesus? Do we feel we know him? It can be hard to feel gratitude or pride when we’re just so used to him being around. Those who have grown up in the church have heard about this guy our whole lives. We know his life story, his teachings, his miracles. He’s a stained glass window in the background. How can he surprise us now?

My approach is this: I always go back to the beginning. As many glimpses as I may have caught of Jesus over the years, I know I don’t have a clue. So I pray, “Let me know you, as you know me.” Occasionally I get words in my mind which I feel are him speaking; they reveal a little. I ask him for inspiration in ministry, and sometimes am flooded with ideas. That shows me a little about who he is. Prayer, ministry, worship – these are some of the best ways we have of getting to know Jesus. What's your strategy?

This Jesus, who lives in us and through us and around us, is not completely knowable in this life, and yet is much more than a cardboard saint. “For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened,” he promised (Luke 11:10). As we seek him, we find him, and he isn’t anything like what we expected.

1-22-16 - Already Fulfilled

Many people have trouble understanding what they read in the Bible. Scholars have developed many lenses through which to approach the task of interpretation: who the writer or writers were; the people to whom they were writing; their historical and/or theological concerns and emphases; what was going on in the time and place in which the writing originated; the literary style used, and others. And there are other layers, such as the concerns of the communities who collected these writings and included them in the canon of scripture; the angle taken by translators – it never ends.

And the “meaning” we draw out can vary according to the society in which the scripture is being read, its assumptions and preoccupations. We read passages on slavery or the role of women very differently than communities did one hundred or thousand years ago, or even today in other parts of the world. We we don’t have those writers in front of us to ask them, “What did you mean by this?” We have to guess, using clues from history and theology, geography and archaeology, similar literature, and tradition.

Among the most difficult parts of the bible to comprehend are the writings attributed to the prophets. Some of these are very specific, dealing with historical events that have clearly come and gone – or have they? Others seem more cosmic and apocalyptic, dealing with the end of time and final judgment – or do they? There’s a lot of “eye of the beholder” in what we perceive when reading the prophets.

So imagine how shocking it must have been in the synagogue in Nazareth that day, when Jesus finished reading this part of Isaiah’s prophecy, sat down to comment on it, and said simply, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ A more definitive interpretation could not be. “This is what this meant, and now that I’m here, it has been fulfilled. No more waiting.” Did they find that good news?

How do we hear these words? As Good News, that redemption has been proclaimed, and secured in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? I hope so. And let's go deeper than the face value of these words, to the simple “Today this has been fulfilled.” That “Today” encompasses every day, the eternal present in which God lives and works. I dare say all of God’s promises have been fulfilled today, because they have been fulfilled in Christ, and their power is available to us through his Holy Spirit.

It requires faith to proclaim, in the face of injustice, that the promise of justice has been fulfilled; to believe, in the face of brutality, that evil has been vanquished; to claim, in the face of hunger, that enough has been provided; to declare, in the face of death, that life is ours forever. Yet that is what it means to live by faith – to live in the “already” future life of God that is all around us, and becomes more accessible the more we believe and proclaim it.

Today these promises have been fulfilled in our hearing. In one sense, that is the “correct” interpretation of any piece of Scripture. The promises of God are already revealed. It is up to us to help make them fully known.

1-21-16 - Hearing the Word

At Bible Study this week, I was reminded of why we need to hear the Word of God and not just read it. Different voices bring out different aspects of the text, lending it color and nuance and, yes, texture. The practice of reading Scripture in the assembly of the faithful goes back thousands of years – it was already a feature of weekly worship when Jesus began his ministry. In fact, he was a lector:

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.

We’ll leave for another day the shock of what he did after he read; today, let’s just focus on the act of reading scripture aloud. Hearing the Word read is yet one more way the Gift of God is mediated through human beings, which happens at each stage of scripture’s development. People were inspired by God, told and retold, shaped and reshaped stories about their encounters with God, wrote down those stories and received teachings, collected and shaped those writings, and translated those collections. Countless human beings were involved in each of those stages, which makes the Bible a rich tapestry of ideas and enthusiasms – and probably distortions as well.

And each time we hear a passage of Scripture read, it is mediated through the thinking and voice of another person, giving it new life and possibly new interpretations. Just try reading a passage, emphasizing the verbs and then read it again emphasizing the pronouns. You’ll get two very different readings. And the Word of God comes through differently when we hear it rather than just reading it for ourselves. I often recommend that people read it aloud even when alone, just to hear the cadence of the words, the way the ideas go together or seem to clash, the wit and wisdom that are often to be found just below the surface. Just as can happen when we read poetry aloud, we often find scripture easier to understand when we hear it.

I once knew someone who likened the ministry of reading Scripture in church to being an aqueduct – a vessel carrying the Living Water to the people. I like to tell lectors to read it as if they're reading a story at bedtime. That day in the synagogue, Jesus was the Living Water. We get to carry him as we read his stories to each other.

1-20-16 - Early Days

I remember those early days of ordained ministry, when starting sermon preparation felt like unwrapping a gift; when people loved all my crazy ideas; when they wanted to nurture the “baby priest,” when I more often felt filled with the power of the Spirit. Sigh! Was it like that for Jesus? Luke tells us that, after Jesus’ baptism and 40-day testing in the desert, Jesus was doing great:

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

Jesus started his formal ministry in his own region. And what he taught and the works of power he performed – healings, exorcisms, that water-into-wine trick – garnered him lots of attention and approval. But he knew better than to get hooked by all that affirmation. Had he been vulnerable to that, the devil would have bested him in the wilderness. I believe Jesus was able to receive the adulation without counting on it. In his heart he must have known that his mission would prove controversial once people really understood his message: come close to God and put all your trust in Him – no matter what it costs you in human terms

Sometimes our early days of faith can feel very bracing, exciting, fulfilling. But as our sense of connection to God is weakened through our distraction or stress, and disappointments pile up, we can become spiritually complacent or stuck in routines. I suspect beneath most complacency is anger; anger that God has left us where we are, not blessed us in certain ways we deeply desired to be blessed. Our focus turns inward and we can lose sight of the blessing that is all around us, coming at us through other people, through the beauty of this earth and its creatures, through our own God-inspired creativity.

You may not feel this way; if you don’t, hallelujah. Chances are you may have at some point and worked and prayed your way out of it. That’s the path we’re given – to be honest with God about what we’re feeling, and what we’re not, and ask the Spirit to help open our spirits again.

Being praised by everyone isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; sometimes it ends in crucifixion. Being adored by God is a gift that will never end.

1-18-16 - The Spirit is Upon Me

When Jesus began his public ministry, full of the Holy Spirit, his reputation quickly spread as he went from synagogue to synagogue, teaching. And when he came to his home in Nazareth, he showed all his cards. Reading from Isaiah, he sat back and said, “This prophecy is fulfilled in me. Today.”

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

Anointed to bring good news. To those most in need of it – the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed. This, he was saying, is what God is up to, has always been up to, is doing among us even now. Today.

We who bear the name and life of Christ share in this anointing, I believe, whether or not we choose to live it out. Today we celebrate the life and ministry of one who did not shirk that anointing, but embraced it, gave himself to it even unto death, in the footsteps of his Lord Jesus Christ. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that the Good News hadn’t gotten around to everyone yet. There were still plenty of poor people who needed to hear it, plenty of people held captive in systems of racism and white privilege that held resources and opportunities for the few, plenty of people blinded by greed and power and lack of insight, plenty of people oppressed by injustice and cruelty and the legacy of slavery.

And so he went with his anointing and preached Good News, not only proclaiming release but working tirelessly to bring it about. He worked and proclaimed and wept and dreamed until he was silenced. His dream is not fully realized – the last few years have made that abundantly clear. God’s dream is not yet fully realized in our world.

Today I invite you to read that prophecy of Isaiah that Jesus claimed in the synagogue so long ago, and ask the Spirit to renew this anointing in you, to allow the Spirit to work through you to bring to visible completion the Good News Jesus proclaimed and won for us. I invite us to open ourselves to God’s dream of wholeness for all of creation, of blessing for every child of every race in every place.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.'  

Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. Jesus invites you to join him in making it so.

1-15-16 - Transformation

Should it surprise us that Jesus could cause vats of water to become wine of the finest order? No more than that he could walk on water or speak palsied limbs into wholeness. As far as I’m concerned, the One who made the molecules that we know as matter can order and reorder them.

When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

This was the first BIG way that Jesus revealed the Life of the Kingdom he came to invite humankind into. This Life of God is a grand and cosmic reality; it is also manifest on a sub-atomic, micro level. And one of its most fundamental principles is transformation. That is how God-Life becomes visible, wherever one thing is transformed into another.

In this story, we see water transformed into fine wine, the ordinary into the extraordinary. At our communion tables, we experience ordinary wine transformed into the blood of Christ. Whether or not molecules are altered in that transaction is immaterial (ha-ha…). There is a spiritual transformation that catalyzes an even deeper transformation: ordinary people are transformed into carriers of God’s Life. The Bread becomes the Body, and then the corporate Body becomes the bread broken again to be shared with the world.

As we allow that Life to take root in us, we experience the deep transformation of our spirits, being reshaped by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of the One who took water and made something beautiful out of it, even more beautiful than pure water, which is pretty amazing itself.

However you are feeling about yourself or your life today, remember this: This Jesus has taken us at our best and our worst, our most faithful and most self-centered, our most creative and least inspired, and has already turned us into wine of rarest vintage to bring life and joy to the people around us.

Let’s not only attend the party – let’s bring the wine.

1-14-16 - To the Brim

Sometimes I wonder if God shakes his God-head at the tiny scope of my prayers. “Please, let me be on time!” “Please, heal this cold.” “Please, tell me what to preach.” The Maker of Heaven and Earth invites us to pray for earthquakes to subside and wars to cease, and most of us don’t even pray about cancer and terrorism. Do we think we’re only worth the small stuff, or that God is finished doing the big things?

If we based our prayer life on what we read in the gospels, we’d pray about big things all the time – abundance beyond measure, even beyond need. Twelve baskets of leftovers, and here, at Jesus’ first public miracle, more wine of greater excellence than the whole town of Cana could get through:

Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim.

Did he use those jars because of their size? Or because of their purpose, for ritual baths? Are we to make a link between purification and the wine that is to be manifest in these vessels? Those who go in for a more allegorical approach to biblical interpretation would say every detail, especially n the Fourth Gospel, is fair game. But I'm going to focus on their size and capacity. Jesus wasn’t making only a little bit of table wine; he was crafting vats of the finest vintage. Because that’s how God rolls.

“Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap,” Jesus says later, exhorting his followers to generosity. (Luke 6:38). The Realm of God is not a place of just enough. Sometimes "just enough" is our experience, often enough, it would seem, to dampen our expectation of God’s radically abundant provision.

Maybe we need to recall those times when we’ve experienced more than enough, when the jars were filled to the brim, when the gift was completely out of proportion to our sense of deserving or ability to respond in kind. Remembering those times can help us raise our expectations of God’s power and love. Another thing that does that for me is reading healing books. Those stories of God’s power to transform situations, sometimes against all natural hope, inspire me to greater boldness in my prayers, and bolder prayers lead to greater capacity to engage in God’s mission.

The next time you feel the pinch of scarcity – or even just the fear of it – call to mind a large stone water jar, filled to the brim with water, a little sloshing over. And then realize it’s not water at all, but thousands of dollars worth of wine, all for the taking and sharing.

And then realize God wants to fill us to the brim with Life, transformed into grace for the world. Are we vessels with enough capacity? There’s a prayer…

1-13-16 - Follow Instructions

In addition to its many other charms, this story of the wedding feast and the wine gives us a glimpse into Jesus’ relationship with his mother. He had no problem saying “no” to her when she nudged him to use his super-powers to address the wine shortage – and she had no problem ignoring his “no.”

When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’

Despite his demurral, Jesus does indeed give the servants instructions, and somehow jars filled with water become jars of finest wine. His instructions to the servants are two-fold: Fill the giant jars with water, and then draw some off and take it to the chief steward. Jesus works the miracle, but it is accomplished through ordinary servants who followed his instructions, as daft as they may have seemed.

When God is up to something in this world, something big and transformational, it is generally done through people like us. And the bigger the “something,” often the whackier the instructions seem. Quit your job. Sell your house. Leave your country. Call that person. Join that movement. Raise thousands of dollars. Give away thousands of dollars.

Is God is always asking outrageous things of us, and we just aren’t getting the message? I wonder. I do know that the instructions usually come one at a time. We have to do the first thing before we find out what the next is. Fill the jars, all the jars. All the jars? With that much water? That’s crazy? But we have to do that before the next instruction: draw some off. And it’s only after the chief steward has tasted that we know just what a crazy thing Jesus has just done.

Can you recall a time you felt prompted by the Spirit to do something odd, bold, even controversial? Did you do it? What happened? Are you receiving such promptings in your life now? What instruction are you being given?

If, like me, you draw a blank when asked that question, you might try asking God straight out: “Where do you want me to serve in your plans today? What purpose can I help fulfill?”

Then pay attention and see what develops – and while you’re waiting, enjoy the party!

1-12-16 - When the Wine Runs Out

An Episcopal Church, running out of wine? It could never be. Yet I’ll never forget the Easter Sunday at a New York parish that shall remain nameless, when inexplicably the Altar Guild failed to put out enough communion wine. Alerted to this crisis in the middle distributing communion, the Curate, who lived onsite, ran up to his apartment and fetched several bottles of Rioja, and no one was the wiser. Except that those seated in the back half of the 1000-seat sanctuary thought, not unlike the steward in this week’s parable, “Wow – they really get the good stuff out at Easter.”

Jesus had no intention of coming to the rescue when the wedding hosts ran out of wine. But the story wasn't over.
When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’

I love the way it says, “When the wine ran out,” as though it were a given that the wine would run out. And that is often our experience in life, that the good things don’t last, romance fades into the ordinary, the abundance we enjoy dwindles to “just enough,” or sometimes not enough at all. Yet the record of the New Testament – and much of the Hebrew Bible too – is that this is never the end of the story. Things run out, and somehow more is found. Oil and flour, wine and water, bread and fish, time and energy - even life.

Our invitation, in those moments when it seems the wine has run out, is to widen the lens and see where in the picture abundance might be found. We can ask God to show us where provision is, instead of getting paralyzed with fear or forlorn with despair. We can pray for an infusion of hope, which fuels our creativity and openness to new ways of thinking. And we can share our concerns with people around us, and see what their perspective on the matter is.

One message of this funny story about Jesus at the wedding feast is that nothing is impossible where God is concerned. We don’t always know how things are transformed, but the effect is that there is enough and more than enough. In my experience, the more we trust in that, the more often we see it manifest.

Wine may run out, but God’s grace never does. And somehow, more often than not, it turns out that someone has a stash of a good Spanish red nearby…

1-11-16 - Life of the Party

I was once part of a church that got into conflict about whether or not to host wedding receptions. Some deemed it not worth the risk of harming the floor in the parish hall, which doubled as a gym, or the nuisance to staff and supplies. I was staunchly in the “pro-party” camp, proclaiming that the wedding reception was at least as important as the ceremony in terms of the community’s coming together to support the new marriage. “Jesus’ first miracle was at a wedding reception! How on earth could we make couples go out and pay tens of thousands of dollars instead of celebrating at church?”

The gospel story we get to play with this week is one of the few in the Bible in which we find Jesus at a party:

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.

It is such a gift that the gospels show us scenes of Jesus at parties. One wonders how such a dour seriousness became associated with the Jesus movement, when he himself knew how to mix it up with people socially. He often got into trouble for it – but he also often found in these occasions opportunities to demonstrate the life of God.

Our holiday party season may be behind us, but there are plenty of social opportunities to come – and maybe Jesus would like to come with us the next party we attend. Every conversation we have, every time we offer help to the host, there is an opening for showing love, and even for spiritual encounter, as we are conscious of Jesus being with us. And if we’re hosting, we might think about where Jesus is sitting. I confess I’m usually too busy hostessing to be spiritually present… and yet, what better gift can I offer my guests than my spiritual self along with fine food and drinks?

We may not be turning water into wine, but we can transform the ordinary into the sacred just by bringing Jesus along with us and letting his Spirit kick things up a notch. You never know what might happen.

1-8-16 - Cherished

Arguably the most important gift of baptism is never articulated in the ritual itself: being told we are loved beyond measure by the God who made us and sustains our life. It is implicit, of course, in the rite as well as in the whole Gospel story. “For God so loved the world….” begins one of the best-known summaries of the Good News. But it’s not explicit in the liturgical language.

It was when Jesus was baptized:
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Why can’t that voice ring more loudly for us? Our awareness of being beloved is so easily drowned out by the criticisms of others, the judgments of the world, and our own harsh self-appraisals. I wonder if Jesus was able to recall that deep affirmation in the moments when he was most under attack or stress. I hope he was.

How can we better remember, proclaim and live out of our belovedness? One way is to remind ourselves in prayer every morning, when all possibilities are new: You are beloved. And again at the end of the day, when we can be tempted to regret things we’ve done or left undone: Can we park those regrets at the door marked “Beloved: Please Come In?”

Of course, we generally understand belovedness most fully when we experience it from other people. So maybe we can make a practice of letting others feel beloved, whether or not they return the favor. I’m reminded of the promise in the marriage vows, to “love, honor and cherish.” That word “cherish” seems to me to be the most neglected in many marriages, and even friendships. The word is rooted in the Latin carus, from which we also get charity and love.

We are more than loved by God, my friends. We are cherished. We are delighted in. We are pleasing in God's sight. God sees us even now, through Christ, as we will fully be, and so God is already as delighted with us as can possibly be. We don’t have to do one more thing.

Except receive God’s love, take it in, let it grow in us, and accept that we are cherished.

1-7-16 - Empowered

When John the Baptist was asked if he was the Messiah, or Elijah returned, he demurred.
‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Baptism in water is only the visible part of the gift. It is our unseen baptism in the Holy Spirit that changes everything. Unfortunately, many churches neglect this greatest of all gifts, so dazzled by the play of water we don’t notice the fire at work. But fire is promised, and the Spirit is given to us, just as Jesus was anointed by the Spirit in his baptism.

The question is, What happens to that gift if we never use it, if we leave it wrapped up in a closet somewhere? I don’t believe the Spirit leaves us, but neither will the Spirit make his presence felt if we don’t invite her and exercise her gifts. Most of us have the ability to run a marathon, but unless we train and exercise, we lack the capacity. Similarly, many Christians leave the gifts of the Spirit unexercised. Then, when we’re confronted by what feels like a big prayer, a big need for healing or peace of reconciliation, we feel daunted and lacking in power.

Well, guess what? We have the power! We are given the power at baptism and it is confirmed in us at confirmation (that’s what “confirmed” means – confirmare, to strengthen). The power that made the universe and raised Christ from the dead lives in us. Are we going to exercise it or leave it on the shelf?

Like the other gifts of baptism we’re exploring this week – adoption, forgiveness, inclusion, belovedness – the gift of the Spirit’s power gets stronger if we remind each other it’s there. We can build our power-paks is by asking for prayer more often. I know people who always say, “I’m fine,” when asked how they might be prayed for. That denies the Christians around that person the chance to exercise their spiritual gifts. Don’t say, “No thank you.” Tell people where in your life you’d like to see God’s power and love manifest. Don’t hold back or just ask for easy things. Be bold in prayer.

When you ask another person to pray for you, you’re more likely to pray for them. When we have a whole community exercising its faith in prayer, we get an empowered church, and nothing can stand in its way.

1-6-16 - Welcomed

There has been much conversation about refugees in the past year. From the influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America, to the worldwide refugee crisis, to the rhetoric of candidates, the call to welcome the stranger has been hotly debated.

Spiritually speaking, we are all refugees, people who have been welcomed into what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, a realm wholly separate from the realm of this world, but accessible from anywhere. And the rite by which our welcome is sealed is baptism. In baptism, we are given a passport and all the rights of citizenship – insight, hope, and power beyond comprehension. There are no second-class citizens or resident aliens in the Realm of God. All have equal rights and equal status – and equal responsibility.

The reason that we, our holiness imperfect at best, can be welcomed into the Realm of God, where holiness reigns, is that Jesus brought his perfect holiness into the realm of this world. In that sense, he too was a refugee from another realm, needing to acquire the language and customs of an alien land. His baptism in the Jordan River was a sign of his taking on this world, submerging himself in human reality.

And, as we know from the story the Gospels tell, Jesus was about as welcome as many refugees are in today’s world. The clash of values, and the discomfort both his poverty and his power caused, led ultimately to his death. And in that death and his rising again he opened the way for us to be welcomed into God-Life.

How does it challenge you spiritually to think of yourself as a refugee welcomed into the Realm of God? What new language and customs and ways of relating to others do you need to learn in order to thrive in this land? What support groups might you join to ease your assimilation into this Life? And how might you help others assimilate?

As we explore the gifts of baptism this week, I hope we remember our dual citizenship and seek to become ever more comfortable in that land where there is no death. And that we reach out to offer Life to those seeking to join us.

1-5-16 - Forgiven

Most Christian traditions agree that baptism confers some measure of forgiveness – a washing away of sin. They might argue just how much sin is forgiven, and how completely. Are sins we have yet to commit washed away in baptism, or only those already laid to our account? Is it only "realized" sins, or the proclivity to sin itself which is cleansed? And if the cleansing is both is retroactive and anticipatory, why bother baptizing babies who have barely had a chance to get busy sinning? Some even ask, why the focus on sin at all? Isn’t baptism just a happy occasion of God’s grace flooding us?

Yes, yes, and yes. Whether or not we use the word “sin,” I think most would agree that human beings are wired toward benefit to ourselves, and this ingrained self-orientation often leads to words and actions that adversely affect others and our connection with God. That's what we call sin. Yes, we’re capable for pushing past this wiring to be other-directed, but I don’t believe there is a person in the world for whom that is the default position. Oh wait, maybe there was one…

It is this basic orientation toward self for which we receive forgiveness in baptism. And so this sacrament, made holy by virtue of Jesus’ baptism, gives us ultimate forgiveness, deservedly or not. Baptism is the source of our identity as forgiven sinner/saints. And as we understand, believe, appropriate and incorporate our identity as already forgiven, we are better able to push past our natural motivation toward self. The saint in us gradually overwhelms the sinner.

All that in a few drops of water? Yes! That’s the beauty of sacraments – it’s not the signs and symbols that do the work, but the Holy Spirit, invited and active in the gathered community, who effects eternal changes in the temporal realm. How differently might we behave if we felt eternally forgiven in the very midst of our messy, often self-seeking lives? How much freer we would be if we wore ID bracelets that read, “Forgiven!”

Maybe we should try that… or at least remind each other more often. So here: I'm reminding you. You're forgiven.

1-4-16 - Adopted

Next Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ – always the gospel reading for the first Sunday in the Season of Epiphany. Of all the “showings” that revealed Jesus’ Messianic identity, his baptism was among the most significant. This story's inclusion in all four gospels (though “off-screen” in John’s account…) attests to its foundational importance for the early church. Indeed, Jesus’ baptism has been seen by Christians in all generations as the font (if you will) from which our rite of baptism sprang, and it has shaped our understanding of this one ritual that all Christians have in common.

Instead of taking apart the gospel text, I will reflect this week on baptism itself, addressing some of the different ways the Church understands baptism. Today I start with the new identity we receive in baptism as we are adopted into the family of God.

Our catechism and baptismal liturgy speak of baptism as a rite of adoption. What happens when someone is adopted? They don’t lose their prior identity, but they are welcomed into a new family, not as a guest or servant, but as a son or daughter with equal rights and responsibilities as other family members. Baptism confers such a complete affirmation and status upon us that it’s the exact opposite of that old expression, “Blood is thicker than water.” The waters of baptism trump every other form of relationship, inviting us into a vast and eternal family in which the most recent addition is as valued and valuable as the eldest.

Our families of origin are wonderful and terrible and everything in between; our spiritual family is meant to be a place of healing and growth. Does it help you in your spiritual walk to know that you have been adopted into a new family, made a true brother and sister with Jesus himself? What would help you remember that at times when you feel low?

How wonderful it would be if followers of Christ went around reminding each other of our adoption as precious sons and daughters of God, treating each other as true sisters and brothers. In Christ, we are. Water is way thicker than blood!

1-1-16 - Follow Your Star

I had not intended to take this week off from Water Daily, but as each day passed, I found myself unable to think of anything to say about such a familiar passage of Scripture.*

So here it is, the last day of the week – and year. I will offer just a few thoughts for the morrow, when the wheels of time will have spun us into a new year. I want to invite us to borrow the attitude of those magi who traveled so far to see this King their stars seemed to indicate had been born.

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Like the magi, we’ve heard of Jesus. We’ve even met him. But we don’t begin to know him. So let’s follow whatever stars we discern can lead us to a deeper acquaintance, even intimacy, with Him.

And when we arrive at those moments of connection and knowing, let’s allow ourselves to be overwhelmed with joy.

And let’s frequently enter the house where we know him to be, and offer our devotion, kneeling because that’s what you do when you’re overcome with gratitude and awe.

And let’s open our hearts and wallets, giving fully of ourselves to this One who’s given everything for us.

And when we return to our ordinary lives – for these moments of grace-filled connection don’t last forever; our lives are like the string that connects these pearls into a beautiful strand – let’s go back by another route. Not because we are afraid of going back, but because God is always leading us forward into new gifts, new blessings, new landscapes and vistas, new uses for our gifts, and new companions on the way. Where will the road lead you this year?

Wishing you every blessing as the New Year unwraps its gifts!

* I was also at my mother’s home from Christmas Day onward, engaged in a frenzy of sorting a lifetime’s accumulated belongings as she prepares to downsize into an apartment in a few weeks… that took whatever creative energy I had left after Advent and Christmas services!