Monday, January 21, 2013

Sermon: "We're Not Jesus (When the Wine Runs Out 2.0)"

"We're Not Jesus (When the Wine Runs Out 2.0)"

Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
Second Sunday after Epiphany
20 January 2013

Day Texts: Isaiah 62.1-5
Psalm 36.5-10
1 Corinthians 12.1-11
 John 2.1-11

NOTE: On January 20th I actually preached two different sermons, for two very different communities, though drawing from the same basic material.  The first, "Midnight in Montgomery" can be found here.

Audio version available here  

-It’s pretty amazing how, as we grow, the same old stories can take on strange new meanings.  They grow with us, or, perhaps, we grow with them.  Regardless, that’s how it is with today’s text for me, the story of Jesus’ first-ever miracle - the ol’ water-into-wine trick. 

-See, the last time this text came around in the lectionary, it was three years ago.  Back then, it was also the day before Martin Luther King Day.  And as I recall it was just days after a major earthquake ravaged the people of Haiti.  Of course, churchy folks and people of good will everywhere were quick to respond.  Thank God. 

-But of course, I felt indignant.  I wanted people to help poor black folks in Durham, North Carolina, their neighbors, as well as in distant Haiti.  So I somewhat self-righteously preached about how we needed to be more attentive to places where, as in the story, “the wine had run out.”  Not just the places that Brad Pitt cares about, far away.  But the places nearest to us, so familiar as to go unnoticed.  We needed to bring the wine of joy to places of emptiness and despair.  In our own neighborhoods.  To our own neighbors. 

-Which is a great sentiment, and I still stand by that.  As members of the Body of Christ, justice and being in community with marginalized folks is, frankly, not optional.  But I also think I got it pretty wrong.  Because I made a mistake that people of privilege are often quick to make.  I assumed that in the story, I was Jesus.  And if there’s one thing I can say I think I’ve learned in the past three years, it’s that putting ourselves in the place of Jesus rarely works out for the best.  For anyone.    

-Because of course, beard to the contrary, I’m not Jesus.  But my one consolation is that I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one falling into that trap.  We do live in Rochester, after all, which is, last I heard, the second-most voluntaristic city in the nation.  I’m constantly blown away by how many people here give so much of themselves, and how deeply we all care about making a difference, in the lives of others and in our fair city.  It’s totally inspiring, and I count myself blessed to live among such amazing people.

-And yet, Rochester remains near the top of the charts in child poverty and among the lowest in education.  In a supposedly post-civil rights world, we continue to be more far more segregated than any place I lived in the South.  Despite all the best efforts and deep passions of people here, things aren’t necessarily getting better all the time.  We aren’t Jesus, after all. 

-What’s more, a common story I keep hearing is one, not of success, but of burn-out.  Organizers continually share how well-intentioned do-gooders pour themselves into a project or a place, only to withdraw a few months later, once the excitement has died down, and there are no results to show.   At a meeting yesterday about community gardening in Beechwood, this truth was stated best by a twelve year old girl from the neighborhood.  She noted, “most of them all, they’re the man.  They’re here because their work revolves around a thing.  It’s like big business.  But once the thing is gone, once the work is done, they are gone.  And we’re left feeling stood up.” Like the groom in the story, we get to the end of our meager resources.  The wine runs out.  And so the party ends prematurely. And we leave, still thirsting for a different world, but unable to bring about the celebration. 

-”There comes a point,” Dr. King used to say, “when a man gets tired.”  And if we’re honest with ourselves, we get pretty tired more often than we like to admit.  Not because we don’t care.  I happen to believe we are good creations made in the image of a Divine Lover who has shared with us Her deep desire for Her children to flourish.  God has shared God’s love of justice, and of community, and of giving good gifts to others, and of delighting in the goodness of the world.  And yet, again and again, we finite mortals get tired.  We have infinite desires and a limitless capacity to dream impossible dreams.  But we can only do so much.  The wine runs out.  Its not that we lack the capacity - we just lack the capability.  We’re not Jesus, after all.  

-Which is, I imagine, a hard truth for us idealists to knock up against.  Hard to confess that, in the end, we cannot ultimately change the world.  Hard to admit that, too often, our hopes of giving our lives over to something greater than ourselves are dashed upon the bedrock of our own brokenness, our own over-commitment, our own disappointments, our own apathy.  It’s hard to come to grips with the fact that we are blinded and enslaved by our privilege, and we are tangled in webs of pain and damage beyond our ability to heal.  Hard to find love beaten down again and again by unjust and broken systems and unfeeling bureaucracies.  Hard to sustain our commitments, when the wine of joy runs dry.  It is hard, I imagine, for us not to get to be Jesus.

-But see, here’s the thing, the really Good News.  We are not Jesus.  Were never called to be.  We do not have to be.  Because in Christ - the only Christ - God has come near to us. To reveal God’s glory.  And it is a glory that delights, not in patting the strong and accomplished on their backs.  But in coming to places of weakness, where the wine has run out.  And filling those emptinesses with the overflowing wine of joy.

-If we find that we come to that place of utter emptiness, if we have been reduced to nothingness, we can take heart.  We can have hope.  Because just as, in the beginning, God’s Spirit hovered over the formless void and the waters and spoke a new creation into being, so here, at the beginning of his ministry, for his first miracle - and each day in our lives - Jesus speaks a word over our weakness, and delights to create something new in us. 

-It is, in fact, precisely where we are not Jesus, that Jesus desires to come, fill us up with the waters of new life, and then to transform and transfigure us into beloved children.  Empty jars overflowing with the wine of the Spirit, in order to be the joy that fills others as well.

-Martin Luther King only told one story about his personal spiritual life.  It was about a midnight in Montgomery, Alabama.  He had been welcomed home from a meeting by an angry phone call, threatening to kill him and his family if he refused to leave town.  After years of tirelessly striving for justice, Martin was spent.  He went down to his kitchen alone, brewed a pot of coffee, and then, collapsed into a desperate prayer.  And he said, “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right.  But now I am afraid...I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left.  I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

-And then, he recalls, “I seemed to hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Martin Luther King, you stand up for justice, stand up for truth.  And I will never leave you nor forsake you.  And I will be at your side forever.’ And, Dr. King tells us, “my uncertainty disappeared.  I was ready to face anything.” 

-And so it is with us, my brothers and sisters.  It’s when we are nothing, when we are empty, when we come to the point of saying, “I have nothing left,” that Christ is most powerful in us.  The long battle for justice, and for truth, and for beauty, is far from over.  And yet, I wonder how much different our part in it would be, if we would let go, stop trying to do what only Jesus can do, and simply allow ourselves to be nothing.  To fall into the arms of the only one who can possibly sustain us. The one who was himself made nothing upon the cross, that he might give us his everything.

-We cannot do it alone.  But thank God, we do not have to.  Because first and best of all, Christ is with us, and promises to be for us.  And Christ sends Marys, companions, to notice in one another’s lives those places where the wine has run out.  And so to advocate for one another.  To intercede for one another.  To keep each other from despair.  To confront our emptiness.  And to lead us to the One who can make us into something far more powerful together than we could ever be alone.

-We are not Jesus.  Thank God.  But God has made us in Jesus’ image.  Our deep longing for justice and our limitless thirst for love and community are not flukes.  And in Christ, God comes to us, and fills us up with the wine of God’s glory, of God’s very self.  And so makes us capable of dreaming impossible possibilities.  And living for them, even and especially, when the wine runs out.  To live for faithfulness, and not effectiveness.  To live for one another, and not just our ideals.  To live for something, and someone, who remains committed to us, and to a better world, and promises to sustain us, and be with us, and for us, even when our commitments fail.


Sermon: "Midnight in Montgomery, or, When the Wine Runs Out"

"Midnight in Montgomery, or, When the Wine Runs Out"

Preached at Bethlehem Lutheran Church
Fairport, New York
Second Sunday after Epiphany
20 January 2013

Day Texts: Isaiah 62.1-5
Psalm 36.5-10
1 Corinthians 12.1-11
 John 2.1-11


Audio version available here

"Coffee Pot Gospel Blues (I Heard the Voice)" (a song I wrote and recorded about Dr. King's Midnight in Montgomery with my seminary band, the Rockumentary Hypothesis)

NOTE: I preached two different sermons this Sunday for two very different communities, though each was drawn from the same core material.  The other, "We're Not Jesus," can be found here.


-It was midnight in Montgomery, Alabama.  Friday, January 27th, 1956.  A weary preacher slumped over his kitchen table, tired yet unable to sleep, waiting for his coffee pot to finish percolating.  He could not get the voice out of his head.  Not the loving, encouraging voice of his wife and daughter, who, thank God, slept soundly.  But the unexpected, hate-filled voice on the phone, welcoming him home with an n-word and a threat to take all he held dear if he did not get out of town quickly.

-It was midnight in Montgomery, and a darker midnight in Dr. Martin Luther King’s soul.  After countless hours pouring his heart and soul into the battle for human dignity, his strength was spent, his eyes dry, and his spirit empty.  And so, at the end of his considerable powers, he did the only thing left.  He prayed:
“I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right.  But now I am afraid...I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left.  I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

-It was midnight in Montgomery, and it is, as far as we can tell, the only time Dr. King ever spoke about his personal experience of faith.  And I, for one, am incredibly grateful for this.  Grateful that he shared, not a time of great triumph and success, but a time of struggle.  Of utter humanity.  Of weakness.  Of emptiness. 

-A time, not unlike in today’s Gospel, when we are told by Mary the mother of Jesus that there is “no more wine.”  I am so tempted to skip ahead in this story to the grand finale.  To the overflowing abundance of the miracle of 180 gallons of water turned into 180 gallons of wine.  So much goodness that there is no possible way to consume it responsibly.  We want the feast and celebration.  We want Martin Luther King, Jr. day, a day off from work, where we can listen to the “I Have a Dream” speech and feel inspired.  We do not really want the countless sermons in which the good doctor declared “I’m tired...tired of marching for something that should have been mine at birth.”  

-We certainly don’t want to be the groomsman and his servants, shocked that their meager resources only went so far.  That on perhaps the one day of their poverty-racked lives when it was their chance to be happy and party, the wine has run out, and they are left scrambling to save themselves from shame.

-”They have no wine,” Mary tells her Son Jesus, and indeed, for many, there is still no wine.  The city in which we live ranks among the highest in the nation in child poverty, amidst the lowest in education, and remains one of the most segregated areas in this supposedly post-civil rights era.  We have one of the highest levels of volunteerism in the country as well. And yet, time and again, I hear stories of folks who burn out, lose their passion and abandon their commitments after only a few months.  Because there are no immediate returns.  Because broken systems thwart earnest efforts.  Because they have no wine.  And who can blame them?  Is it possible to sustain love of the light in the midst of such a dark and dreary midnight? 

-I am so thankful for Dr. King’s midnight in Montgomery, because I’m betting that if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve probably all come to that kind of place in our own lives.  A place where, after much effort and deep hope, we found only disappointment and emptiness.  Where the project we had poured ourselves into failed to yield any returns.  Where the relationship with our family member or partner fizzled, and we were left alone.  Where the church or community or political party or the job that we’ve spent a lifetime serving and sacrificing for betrays us or fails to live up to our expectations.  We’ve given, and we’ve striven, and we’ve put all we think we have into it.  And there are no returns.  No change.  No joy.  Just a weariness, and a disappointment, and an emptiness.

-”There is no wine,” Mary tells her Son Jesus.  Whether we dwell in material poverty or are impoverished in our capacity for imagination and community, we will at some point, if we’re honest with ourselves, face a time when, like Dr. King, we simply cannot go on.  We are, after all only finite, mortal human beings.  But blessed and cursed with the God-given capacity to dream of infinite possibilities.  And even the greatest among us will find our hearts broken by our striving to reach them. 

-And it is there, precisely and only there, at the bottom of the empty wine jars, that Jesus meets us.  There, where the wine has run out, that Jesus is waiting.  There, where we have been reduced to nothing, the God of the Cross, is ready and willing to make something new.   

-For this Jesus is not the God of the strong, not the God of the self-sustaining and not the God of the successful or the self-sufficient.  This Jesus, God Incarnate, does not choose, for the site of his first miracle, the wedding feast of a king or an emperor.  No, this Jesus comes to a provincial town, to a provincial wedding, and to a poor man at the end of his rope, grants the gift of a different story.  Not the story of “the wedding that ended when the wine ran out.”  But rather, the story of “just when we thought we were done for, He came, and filled us up, and kept us going.”   This Jesus’ power is made manifest, not in abundance, but in weakness. 

-And did you notice what this Jesus does?  Just as, in the beginning, the creative Spirit of God hovered over the formless void and the waters and made a delightful something out of nothing, so too, for his first miracle, this Jesus calls for water, and out of the emptiness of human desperation and the nothingness of human need, creates joy and delight.  This same Jesus, who would one day allow us to reduce him to nothing on the cross, so that He could give us everything.  That is God’s glory, revealed today.  To share God’s abundance with the empty. 

-That is who our God is, brothers and sisters.  God wants the wine of joy to be flowing.  God desires and delights that we should be able to work and live for a world in which there is abundant joy for all.  Where indeed, the good desires of our hearts will no longer be impeded by sin, or dried up by despair.  God longs for this different world.  And so God comes to us, in Christ Jesus, to fill us up, to baptize us in water and wine, to make us new creations. 

-And I wonder if Mary might be a model for us here.  The poor peasant girl with the unexpected pregnancy surely knows what it means to be nothing.  And yet, perhaps because she knows emptiness, she is the first to notice that the wine has run out.  And to come to Jesus on behalf of another.  Not with words of gossip or criticism.  But with intercessions, and concern.  Mary knows what it is to be filled with the wine of the Spirit, to live the impossible possibilities of the kingdom of God.  And so she is ready to enter the emptiness of others.

-And I wonder if that’s the kind of beloved community Jesus is trying to bring about.  One where we are willing to be honest about our own emptiness, our own vulnerability, our own failings.  And so, be unafraid to enter into the emptiness and nothingness of others.  And so, somehow, to fill each other up.  To sustain one another in whatever mission or vocation the Spirit is calling us to undertake.  To be unafraid to be empty jars that God fills with the waters of baptism.  To be transformed into new wine, to be shared with a world where, far too often it seems, the wine has run out.  

-It was midnight in Montgomery.  Prayer finished, the great preacher had run out of words.  And then, he seemed to “hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘stand up for justice, Martin Luther King, you stand up for truth.  And I will never leave you nor forsake you.  And I will be at your side forever.’ And, Dr. King tells us, “my uncertainty disappeared.  I was ready to face anything.”

-The voice that calls, louder than the voices of hate or doubt, is the voice of Jesus.  When the wine has run out, God sends us Jesus to fill us up, because God desires joy for us.  God desires hope.  God longs for us, the Body of Christ, to share the abundant life of the Spirit with all people.  When the wine runs out, in the darkness of our midnight, God in Christ promises to be with us.  And when the wine runs out, Jesus makes us God’s beloved community, so that, together, we will be ready to face anything, together.  Emptiness, yes.  But also, overflowing joy, and a hope worth sustaining.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sermon: Wonder-Numb, or, Herod is Not King

"Wonder-Numb, or, Herod is Not King"

Preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord
6 January 2013

Day Texts: Isaiah 60.1-6
Psalm.1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3.1-12
 Matthew 2.1-12


What a difference! The three kings had only a rumor to go by. But it moved them to make that long journey. The scribes were much better informed, much better versed. They sat and studied Scripture like so many dons, but it did not make them move. Who had the more truth? The three kings who followed a rumor, or the scribes who remained sitting with their knowledge? -Soren Kierkegaard


-Confession: something in tonight’s worship has deliberately misled you.  Now I know what you’re thinking: someone being misled…by the church?  Shocking I know. 

-In this case, the culprint’s our opening hymn, “We Three Kings.”  And I’m not talking about the part where, in a supposedly Christ-centered community, we are singing about following an astronomical entity.  No, actually, it’s that title.  We three “kings.”  It’s just plain wrong.

-Because, as you may have noticed in the Gospel lesson, we’re never actually told that these travelers are “kings.”  They really are “of Orient are.” But in the Gospel, we’re told that they are in fact “wise men.”  Magi.  Which is actually something more mystical, something closer to what we might call an astrologer.  An alchemist.  Dare I say, a magician?  Or even, wizards?  While in church tradition they are named Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar (hipsters looking for baby names, take note), for my money, we could just as easily dub them Gandalf, Dumbledore and Obiwan Kinobi.  Those kinds of wise guys.  But bearing gifts, instead of, you know, light sabers and wands.

-Now, there are kings in the story too.  Just not the kind you’d enjoy singing about.  Unless you also admire folks like Stalin or live in North Korea, I’m willing to bet you’ve never taken to song to celebrate King Herod.  Herod the Great, who enslaved his own people to build his garish palaces and temples.  Herod the Elder, who had two of his sons and one of his many wives strangled because he feared they had designs on his throne.  Herod the Tyrant, who along with massacring three hundred of his servants on suspicion of conspiracy, also ordered the murder of all the infants of Bethlehem. 

-To this Herod’s doorstep come the wizardly wise men, fresh on the trail of a rumor and a star.  “Hey,” they exclaim, “we heard the new king has been born!  Finally, we’ve arrived.  Please, will you show us where he is?”  Imagine the silence.  Herod is not amused.  In fact, we’re told that Herod is, in the original Greek, “disturbed to the core of his being.”  Scared, yes.  But also enraged, and envious, indignant.  And, we’re told, when the tyrant is stirred, so is the rest of the city.  They’ve all afraid of what comes next. 

-Including Herod’s own wise guys.  Scribes and priests, faithful Jews whom he consults to fill in the gaps of the pagan Gentiles’ queries.  Sages who follow scrolls instead of stars.  As a book nerd myself, I can’t help but feel for these guys.  If the my boss came to me with news that the Messiah had been born in my own time, the one foretold in the scriptures I had spent my life studying, I like to think my first reaction would be ecstatic excitement! 

-Until I remembered whose payroll I was on.  And what he would do to me if I decided to drop my scrolls and join up with the Magi to go and follow the star to Bethlehem.  I’d want with my whole being to go find the Liberator.  But I might have just as likely stayed, for fear of the Oppressor.

-As a fearful scribe in such a kingdom, I might meet rumors of stars much like Mr. Bilbo Baggins of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  When the Magi Gandalf comes to invite him on an adventure, Bilbo promptly declares, “Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things!  Make one late for dinner!  We don’t want any adventures here, thank you! You might try over the Hill.”  Fearful of what others will think or what the tyrants will do to me, or simply worried about good old-fashioned failure, I often prefer to commit my gifts and talents to safer uses.   I’ll go along with Herod, with Sin and Death and the stability they deceptively promise.  Because adventures mean change.  And change can feel more terrifying than selling my soul to Herod. 

-I feel Bilbo’s trepidation, though admittedly, my own adventure is far less romantic.  See, I’ve struggled with low-grade depression for a little over a decade.  Friends who love me have been urging me for years to seek help, to try medication, to see if it helps me in my journey.  Tomorrow, I’m finally going to see a doctor about it.  And it’s scary.  Scary to admit that I’ve been depressed in the first place.  To have to try something I’m not sure will necessarily work.  Scary to risk change.  Or risk it being an utter wash.  Most of all, I’m often scared of what others will think about a pastor on meds.        

-But see, adventures, and rumors of change, and news of new kings and new creations, I think they should disturb us.  Because they lead us into messy, dangerous places.  Where commitments to people and to projects disintegrate and end.  Where well-intentioned personal budgets spiral into excess and debt.  Where child poverty, and homelessness, and warfare and injustice and real-life tyrants tear our world apart.  Where our efforts to control the uncontrollable end up controlling us.  Where change seems impossible, and Herod’s rule seems unending and inevitable. 

-It is here, precisely here, into failure, brokenness, and oppression, that Christ’s star deigns to shines its light.  Into the deep darkness, exposing the seams in Herod’s Lies.  It bears the Good yet terrible tidings that, in fact, we are no more kings than the Magi in the carol.  The hard truth that, despite all our best efforts and intentions, we are not in control. 

-But see, the Good News is, neither is Herod.  Because, lest we forget, there is another king in this story.  The other king, the one laying in the manger.  Not surrounded in power by scribes and slaves and soldiers with swords, but vulnerable, worshipped by shepherds and sheep and peasants and hay.  This king is not crowned by jewels and palaces, but by a star, does not manipulate us into his kingdom with threats and skullduggery, but draws us, inspires us, calls us in the heights of the heavens and dwells in the deepest, darkest places of our hearts.  Jesus Christ, the same one who one day would hang upon a cross to prove the love of God for the world, is a king who works by powerlessness.  By vulnerability.  By giving up control.  By refusing to work with any means except beauty, and truth, and wonder.  

-Herod is not the king.  Jesus is. 

-And this Jesus is always drawing us to himself, almost always in unexpected forms.  Sometimes by the beauty of a star.  Or by ordinary bread and wine made mysterious.  Or by the wonder of wandering wizards and wise men.  Or, most often for me, in friends, willing to disturb my fear with rumors of truth.  Like in the Hobbit, where Bilbo’s own desire for safety is corroded by the songs and tales of dwarves and wizards. As he listens to their song, “Something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls…he looked out of the window. The stars were out in the dark sky above the window.” In community, we can help each other believe that another world is possible.  And to risk going there together.

-Jesus, the king of the universe, calls and calls again.  And, again and again, Jesus calls us through our community.  And in those times where we are tempted to poo-poo the adventure, God in Christ invites us to disturb one another with rumors of the truth.  To leave Herod’s court, to help one another take the risk of following the star of wonder, however crazy and unsafe it might seem.  To try that new commitment that once seemed impossible.  To leave that situation of abuse and oppression that seemed inevitable.  To rise up against both earthly tyrants, and the tyrants of Sin, Death and Fear.  We may just find ourselves, like the Magi, leaving the manger’s side, listening to our dreams, which return us to familiar places, but by a very different path.  A path of freedom, and not of fear. 

-So if you, like me, come to the end of this holiday season, world-weary, adventure-averse and wonder-numb, hear this: Herod is not king, and Herod’s world is not the ultimate kingdom.  Let us enter each others’ courts and into the courts of the world as Magi, as wandering wizards, and not as kings, with words of wonder, invitations to risk, and rumors of glory.  And let us also hear one another, as hopeful hobbits, faithful failures, vulnerable vagrants, ready to follow to where the true king calls us with his infant cry.  And let us, as scribes freed from the Oppressor, sing songs of “stars of wonder,” proclaim that the rumors are true, and prepare to tell tales of adventures yet to come.