Saturday, January 29, 2022

The Love Chapter Soon Will Be Making Another Run...

 


 

The Love Chapter Soon Will Be Making Another Run

 

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
13:1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

13:2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

13:3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

13:4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant

13:5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;

13:6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

13:7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

13:8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.

13:9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;

13:10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

13:11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

13:12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

13:13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

 

Dara and I have been on a couple of sea cruises, and are looking forward to another one to New England, come October of this year. Our fascination with cruises probably goes back to the earliest years of our marriage, when, as newlyweds with hardly any money, we enjoyed the cheap entertainment of watching the TV show, “The Love Boat,” produced by Aaron Spelling. It was a romantic comedy staged on the Pacific Princess, what would be a “par three” cruise ship by today’s standards, but was the height of luxury in the late 1970s. The cast included a guy named “Gopher,” who would one day become a Congressman, Captain Stubing, who would go on to fame with the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and a weekly series of “cruisers” who would make a Who’s Who of Hollywood, any day. The show’s theme song, sung by lounge crooner Jack Jones, included the lyric, “The Love Boat soon will be making another run…”, which was appropriate, as the syrupy plots typically followed a “couple in love—couple has difficulties that threaten their relationship—couple solves their problem and falls in love again,” all thanks to the Love Boat experience. The underlying theme of the TV show was that love was never as easy as Hallmark makes it seems, that serious relationships require regular and on-going maintenance, and that love really DOES mean saying you are sorry and backing it up with more than lip service. This formula sustained the TV show for over ten years, as each week’s new slate of “love dramas” required the Love Boat to make yet another “run.”

 

Today’s scripture text is most usually labeled “The Love Chapter” of the Bible. Paul’s words about love are popular fare at weddings, and even the occasional funeral of a beloved soul. Truth be told, it has a lot more in common with the scripts of “The Love Boat” TV show than you would believe. The early Christian church, and most especially its “branch office” in Corinth, was a serial exercise in demonstrating just how hard love and serious relationships are to create, sustain, and draw together to accomplish a vision of ministry. Corinth was a very diverse church in a prosperous seaport city, one of the largest and most affluent in ancient Greece. Paul himself is considered the founder of the Christian church there. His letters to the church at Corinth had to deal with all kinds of difficulties, some related to the church’s diversity of language, nationalities, differing social and economic status, and most certainly, great differences in religious heritage. Many of the fledgling Christians in the church were Jewish converts, while others were from the various pantheistic and pagan traditions prevalent in Greece at that time. Some were adherents to Greek philosophical thought. While the power of the Gospel to transform lives is legitimate and long since proven throughout history, Corinth was one of its first proving grounds, and transformation is rarely an instantaneous event, even in the later heyday of the Christian church known as “Christendom.” It is more true that most of us tend to “blend” our prior philosophies and faith leanings with our appropriation of the Gospel for a time, and this may set us at odds with other believers who are either more “mature” than we are in our faith, or those who are behind our spot in the curve. This was happening at Corinth, only on steroids, as they say.

 

Paul expertly uses a number of ideas, inspirations, and teachings in an attempt to draw the Corinthian Christians into a unified “team.” He elucidates on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, explaining how they are designed to work synergistically, and to edify and strengthen the church, for even these gifts had become a kind of “talent competition” in Corinth. He introduces the powerful metaphor of the “Body of Christ,” taking his lead from the Eucharist, where Jesus instituted it as emblematic of his body and blood. In last week’s text, Paul lays out this concept for the church, and it made so much sense, we still harken to it today. In chapter 14, Paul continues to teach about the spiritual gifts, but this time, he explains how they may be used in worship, again as something that creates unity, rather than divides. One can see Paul’s deep passion in wanting “his church” to survive and thrive. His teachings, correctives, and even chastisements are all aimed at helping the Corinthian Christians become a healthy “body.” Again, today we turn to Paul to teach and lead the church. Paul’s writings are largely responsible for turning the church from just a movement into an organization—an institution. And regardless of what we think of that institution, we must acknowledge that the church would not have flourished for over 2,000 years without effective organization. We believe the Holy Spirit has been the driving force in all of this, and we believe that Jesus Christ himself planted the seeds of this development when he chose twelve disciples to teach and train as those who would begin the process of carrying forth the message and managing the ministry he instituted. But Paul sets the standard for all we know and believe about the church today.

 

Right in the middle of two of these important sections, we find the “love chapter”—chapter 13. Whether Paul himself plopped this down to divide his more academic teachings in 12 and 14, or the order was different, as some Bible scholars suggest, the fact is, his words about love, which were aimed at the church, have been venerated and preached for centuries to cure a multitude of relationship ills, fits, and starts. It begins with poetic phrases and ends with a famous hierarchy of virtues, the greatest of which Paul proclaims as love. There are several significant “love is nots” in the middle section of the composition: 

 

·      Love is not envious – beyond leading to breaking one of the ten commandments (coveting), envy displays one’s dissatisfaction with one’s own gifts. If we believe our spiritual gifts come from the SPIRIT, then love will lead us to be happy with the gifts we have to share with the church!

 

·      Love is not boastful or arrogant – genuine love between Christians—or even just two people who proclaim to love each other—is never a competition, excluding, of course, the biblical unction to “outdo one another in love.” Arrogance and boasting says, “I do this better than you,” in the least, or “I’m a better person than you,” in the extreme.

 

·      Love is not rude. In the church, this rudeness was playing itself out by being intolerant of the religious traditions others and/or insulting them by belittling them for being less “mature” in their faith. Obviously, at the interpersonal level, rudeness may indicate intolerance toward another, or may be rooted in a feeling of privilege or entitlement. 

 

·      Love does not insist on its own way. No matter how “right” someone may feel they are, if their being right disrupts the church when compromise—or even letting another’s plan or solution win the day—will promote unity, this is ultimately what love demands. Interpersonally, and most especially when a couple is in dispute with one another, giving in to the desires or wishes of the other is the more loving way, even if one feels their way is superior. Love leads to wider acceptance and peace; demanding one’s own way leads to division and tumult.

 

Of course, Paul does give us quite a laundry list of what love IS or DOES:

 

·      Love is patient

·      Love is kind

·      Love bears all things

·      Love believes all things (meaning it gives others the benefit of the doubt)

·      Love hopes all things (meaning it joins others in hoping for the best outcome)

·      Love endures—this may be the most powerful aspect of love of all! Paul lists lots of things that were dear to the Corinthian Church—prophecy, speaking in tongues (about which there were many disputes over), even knowledge, which was just about the most precious thing to anyone of Greek heritage. Paul says love will outlast them all, and by association, he meant that love trumped them all, in the mind of the Divine.

 

Paul writes that love does not “rejoice in wrongdoing,” but rejoices in the truth. This has come to be a point of great debate in our time. Our former President had a penchant for falsehoods, and uttered them with impunity, believing that the end justified the means. Unfortunately, many came to believe he was right. I’m not arguing whether his policies or politics were right or wrong, as this is the purview of each citizen to decide, but the sinfulness of his method of using falsehood to get his way is not open to debate, in a religious sense. Truth is a Christian virtue, and always has been. If espousing and protecting the truth does not permit one to carry out one’s agenda, then it may be time to reexamine one’s agenda. This is exactly what Paul is trying to get through to the Corinthians about.

 

Another takeaway from this point could be that Christians don’t “rejoice” when someone falls on hard luck, even if the one “falling” is an enemy. I’ve been reading “The Book of Joy” by the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu. The Dalai Lama contrasts the German idea of schadenfreude with the Buddhist concept of MuditaSchadenfreude is rejoicing when another—especially an enemy—fails, making one feel superior. Mudita is rooted in compassion, and promotes suffering alongside the one who is suffering, even IF it is an enemy. I think this is where Paul was going with his narrative about this aspect of love, and mudita is certainly in keeping with the teachings and example of Jesus!

 

There is no doubt that Paul’s discourse on love is not describing something easy to do, nor is he suggesting that genuine love EVER is. This is a love borne of sacrifice, selflessness, and a desire to live in unity and peace with others. This love “does not demand its own way,” ever. Dr. Shively Smith, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Boston University School of Theology, writes:

 

Make no mistake. The love Paul is talking about here is not passive and fluffy. This kind of love is an up at dawn, feet on the ground, tools in hand, working kind of love. It builds communities. It nurtures positive social interactions, and not just social networks (which many of us have come to prefer). Paul’s declaration of love unifies. Love is the way by which we talk to each other (1 Corinthians 1:5; 16:20), eat with one another (1 Corinthians 8:13; 10:27; 11:33-34), fellowship together (1 Corinthians 11:20), and affirm all (1 Corinthians 16:15-16, 18). Love transcends our self-imposed caste systems and personal biases. It forms whole and holistic people, who are anchored in the well-being of others. Love will not let us down if we genuinely live in it together (1 Corinthians 16:14).

 

So, when the going gets tough—in the church, in your family, or in your most significant relationship—the Love Chapter is available to “make another run.” It will always serve as a unique and Holy Spirit-inspired reminder of how love works WHEN it works. If what you are currently doing and calling “love” is not having the results you intend, or if it is just not working at all for you, revisit Chapter 13 of First Corinthians! Amen.

 

Here's a sad little epilogue for you. In 2011, Dara and I were on a “Lands of the Bible” cruise—our first cruise—with a large group from our Methodist Conference, sponsored by Educational Opportunities, a Christian educational travel group. Our huge cruise ship, the “Norwegian Jade,” pulled into a port in Turkey, and there, docked near us, but there to be cut up for scrap, was the “Pacific Princess”—the “Love Boat” of TV fame. While God’s love will never end, the final “run” of the “Princess” had come at last.

 

 

Friday, January 21, 2022

Body Language...


 “Body Language”

 

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
12:12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.

12:13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

12:14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.

12:15 If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body.

12:16 And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body.

12:17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?

12:18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.

12:19 If all were a single member, where would the body be?

12:20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body.

12:21 The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you."

12:22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,

12:23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect;

12:24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member,

12:25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.

12:26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

12:27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

12:28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.

12:29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?

12:30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?

12:31 But strive for the greater gifts.

 

 What do you think of when I say “body language”? Most of us have learned somewhere along the way that a disproportionate part of communication is “non-verbal,” and this would be one way to categorize “body language.” I’ll bet some of you use it and don’t realize how much you are “saying” through it, or better yet, can immediately name someone you know who is a master at it. My wife is that way. Over almost 45 years, I have learned to read Dara’s body language, but then that is not rocket science. Moreover, she would say that I’ve learned to ignore it quite expertly. One look at her, and I pretty much know what she is thinking, and the intensity of the message is directly proportional to the amount of trouble I’ve gotten myself into. Sometimes her non-verbal communication is just becoming profoundly non-verbal. As in total silence. When that happens, I’m tempted to use William F. Buckley’s old line he used in a particularly passionate argument with Gore Vidal—“May I ask, what’s my current offense?”

 

One of the problems with body language is that it often sends a different message than any words being conveyed. Children are great with this. “Did YOU break the lid to the cookie jar, Charlie?” Charlie, with his hands in his pockets and his heading hanging about as low as it can go, says, “N—O—O…” Spouses may also be good at sending each other “mixed” messages, with the dichotomous split between the words being spoken and the body language demonstrated. And, of course, most of us will ignore the body language and argue with the words, which is most often an near fatal mistake. You think we’d learn.

 

Body language is not limited to our species, either. Some of the funniest posts I’ve seen on social media were of dogs that were guilty of a major infraction, and whose body language was either humorously incriminating or in a few cases accusatory of another animal in the household.

 

The psychology of body language is quite a serious science. Albert Mehrabian, a noted researcher of body language, is famous for the “55/38/7” formula of face-to-face conversation: 55% of that communication is non-verbal; 38% is vocal (intonation, volume, etc.), and only 7% is words. 

 

Another researcher suggests that people express their body language in one of four ways:

 

·      A light and bouncy movement

·      A soft and fluid movement

·      A dynamic and determined movement

·      A precise and bold movement

 

If you were to watch videos of my sermons (pre-COVID when I preached out of the pulpit), you would guess that I felt a “good” sermon ought to use all four of these forms! I would call it ADHD preaching.

 

There are many different types of non-verbal communication or body language, including, but not limited to:

 

·      Facial expressions (our faces are AMAZINGLY gifted and “plastic”)

·      Body movement and posture

·      Gestures

·      Eye contact

·      Touch

·      Space

·      Voice

 

The study of body language even has its own syntax. Witness this paragraph from an article I read:

 

“There are ten types of non-verbal communication: environment, appearance and artifacts, proxemics and territoriality, haptics, paralanguage, chronemics, kinesics, and eye contact.”

 

Yeah, if you could see my body language after reading that, it would best be summed up, “Huh?” Interestingly, another element of body language researchers tell us is that it is the same in ALL cultures. As such, it is considered the most “honest” form of communication, and yet most people don’t even pay close attention to others’ body language. 

 

Why all of this about body language? Because in the Apostle Paul’s words in the Corinthians passage today, Paul employs a whole new understanding of body language in an effort to help “tame” the raging church in Corinth.

 

Most of us know from our study that that church was born into a major seaport and center of commerce, meaning it was an extremely diverse city in about all ways possible. The church was made up of former Jews, pagans, agnostics, and philosophers, either learned or amateurs. There were people from all over the world who had settled there, and rich, poor, and everyone in between. And samples of all of these populations had become early Christ followers and had gelled into the fledgling church. So much of what Paul writes to these people is about how to deal with the resulting problems and issues.

 

Paul takes this “body language” approach of which we are quite familiar from this I Corinthians text. He’s using the human body as an analogy for the church, in an attempt to draw the factions in the congregation together. He uses it to help them understand the “gifts” God dispenses to each “member” of the church, and how as a “body,” each gift and each “member” is important, but only as much as each contributes to the “health” of the collective whole. Integration is the key to a healthy, happy church. 

 

Paul describes how each “member” is very important to the “body,” but that God often “honors” the perceived weaker members by giving them even more important functions in the church. And yes, this certainly smacks of Jesus’ pronouncement that the “least of all will become the greatest of all,” and that servant ministry is the ticket to making a real difference. This emphasis serves to help affirm and elevate the “weaker” members, as well as to humble those who are all about themselves and their showier gifts. 

 

Paul strongly emphasizes how important integration of the members and their gifts are to the wider “body,” but he holds this in balance with the affirmation of the individual members. A symbiotic relationship between the members, the gifts, and the health of the whole church is necessary, if the church is to be vital, assimilate growth, and offer meaningful and productive ministry to its community and the world.

 

Errors happen, even today, when we over-emphasize the individual and its needs over the needs of the congregation, or vice versa. Churches that develop a consumerist culture, supremely meeting the needs of the individuals—especially the newcomers—soon find themselves struggling to launch and maintain mission and ministry. Churches that are all about “church growth” and employing all of the latest organizational science to “engineer” a strong, well-funded “ministry” soon find themselves losing members to burnout or neglect. 

 

Paul intrinsically knew this, and details some of the more important things about what the adolescent “Body of Christ” needs to build itself up, and we read his clever summary in today’s passage:

 

·      Baptism is what “births” the church and holds the body together (“one baptism, one faith, one Lord”). This may be one of the reasons the modern Christian church struggles—we argue over what baptism means, how it is administered, and have had to make it “portable,” as, unlike the early church, people move around so much, it has lost much of its “corporate” binding power.

 

·      Paul says that GOD is the one who does the “arranging” of the gifts and members. I have always believed that each “healthy” church is given the right people and set of gifts to minister effectively to the community and to each other. This means that each church may have a “personality,” based on this “arrangement” of people and gifts, and that it is important that each church rely upon the Spirit to help them discover and use its uniqueness. It is a futile and ungodly pursuit to try to make every congregation “look the same.”

 

·      The idea that the “weaker” members are the most indispensable is a powerful one, indeed. As mentioned earlier, it sounds like Jesus, and it serves to develop an important patience and sensitivity in a healthy church “body.” As families with a special needs child evolve into more cohesive, kind, and caring units, so churches that value their perceived “weakest” members and help them find their niche in the body will have a more compassionate and loving impact.

 

·      Paul lists several “goals” of his body language: that there be “no dissention within the body,” and that “members may have the same care, one for another” (verse 25); that suffering, when it occurs, be shared by all; and that honors or accolades, when they come, be shared by all, as well.

 

Please note that in all of what Paul writes, there is no room for pastor cults or pedestal pastors! Churches that are strong because they have a popular pastor, or a great preacher, don’t fare well when the “strong pastoral leader” leaves or falls. Unfortunately, it is often the elevation of such “gifted pastors” to the pedestal that sets them up for the biggest fall. Effective pastoral leadership is more anonymous than idolized in a healthy church.

 

So, to summarize Paul’s message to the church at Corinth, and all of the “Corinths” of our time: Strike a symbiotic balance between the “needs of the many or the one,” as Mr. Spock might say; activate and affirm the gifts of the members, but integrate them to edify the whole body and empower effective ministry; and learn to share the suffering, when it comes (and it will), as well as the honors, if they are bestowed (and they might be). 

 

Oh, and NEVER FORGET that the “head” of the “body” is not the pastor, not the Church Council, and not even the Conference or the Bishop, but the Lord Jesus Christ. Start with Jesus as the “head,” and it will be much easier to put the rest of the “members” in place!

 

One final prejudice, on my part. It is my conviction that since we are ALL members of the Body of Christ, and that the Holy Spirit has gifted EACH of us with a gift or gifts, that every single member of the church is “appointed” a ministry, for the common good. I urge all of us to find that ministry! And remember, since each church body has a unique “personality,” as God has appointed to each the members and gifts it needs to be in ministry to that community, a given member’s gifts may find different uses, should she or he move to a new community of faith. 

 

If you can’t yet define what your spiritual gift(s) is/are, go to UMC.org and type “spiritual gifts test” in the search field. A simple test that only takes a few minutes on your part may help with the “big reveal,” sending you then on a journey of finding out how your gift may be used in your congregation. Your pastor may be most helpful, once you do a little homework. Prayer doesn’t hurt, either, in discerning this, but put some feet to your prayers. It will bear much fruit! Amen!

Friday, January 14, 2022

No Wine Before Its Time...

 


“Wine Before Its Time”

 

John 2:1-11
2:1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.

2:2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.

2:3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine."

2:4 And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come."

2:5 His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."

2:6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.

2:7 Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim.

2:8 He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward." So they took it.

2:9 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

2:10 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."

2:11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

 

The setting for Jesus’ first “miracle” is a wedding at Cana of Galilee. I never liked weddings. Never. Now, this is a strange confession for someone who performed close to 150 of them in 36 years of ministry! Here’s the story. What I didn’t like about weddings, before becoming a pastor, was how “artificial” they were. At least in the white culture, we have no real wedding customs. The average wedding is a jumble of customs “borrowed” from other cultures, most of which have something to do with fertility—a fact lost on most brides and mothers of the brides. From veils and lace dresses, to garters and bride’s bouquets, if one researches where these all came from, you will find that all lead to either fertility “rites” of other cultures, or are some mark of “ownership” the husband is claiming over the wife. Either way, we’ve lost the meaning of these elements, but God help the person who suggest you don’t INCLUDE them at a wedding! I was in a class in college where, in a group project, we researched the wedding customs of other cultures. Our group was aided by the fact that one of the members of it was a Nigerian woman, who joyously detailed her culture’s wedding customs. We were all so disappointed that “Americans” had no such customs, other than like the ones mentioned earlier that have horrible roots, at least for young, independent women. Beyond these “plastic” elements of pretty much every wedding I attended (or was a member of the wedding party for), most weddings were just pretty boring, and huge amounts of money were being spent for one day, when a couple had a lifetime ahead of them where they could USE those funds for something more productive. Someone may say, but YOU are married—didn’t you and Dara follow any of those “plastic” customs. The short answer is “NO,” but if you are ever interested, I’d be happy to tell you about our simple, but interesting wedding!

 

Oh yes, how did I deal with my “distaste” for American weddings when became a pastor and had to officiate at 150 of them? Honestly, this was something I had to wrestle with God about when I sensed God calling me into the ministry. That and funerals, but that is another matter for another narrative. The “answer” I got from God on the wedding matter was to “be creative” and encourage my couples to do so, too, and to focus my efforts on helping them get their marriage off on the right foot. So, that’s what I did, and with this focus, I found it a delightful experience to meet with, get to know, and counsel with my couples, and then help them make their marriage ceremony a loving and joyous experience, counteracting the stress and pressure of it for them as much as I could. I wish I could say that all of my weddings resulted in long-lasting marriages, but that would be inaccurate. However, I believe my “track record” in this regard was pretty good, given the continuing feedback I receive from many of those couples. As I was studying the text for this message, I got an email from a couple I married over 20 years ago, letting me know how happy they are, and how their family has grown and prospered. It truly made my day.

 

Now, back to Cana of Galilee. We don’t know much about why Jesus was at this wedding, but from the text, one might guess that his mother was the one invited, and she dragged Jesus along. The text says that MARY was there, and that Jesus and his disciples “had also been invited,” so that sounds to me like the real “guest” was Mary, but the family of the wedding party felt compelled to invite her son and his “homies.” Then there came the matter of the wine. 

 

Years ago, a famous “bottom shelf” wine company ran a series of TV commercials featuring Orson Welles, the famous actor/director. The aging movie “superstar,” who was doing the ads to raise money to finish a couple of films he was working on, would utter the name of the wine company and utter the catchphrase, “We will sell no wine before its time!” Of course it was a bit humorous as a premise, as anyone who knew anything about wine, knew that this cheap wine was pumped out like soda pop, not delicately aged by serious vintners. I think of this every time I read this story out of the Fourth Gospel.

 

In the story, the wine “gives out” and Mary takes the concern to Jesus. His response sounds a bit rude and indignant in English, but is not so in the original Greek. However, it does show an initial disinterest, on the part of Jesus, who also says his “time” has not yet come. (“We will sell no wine before its time!”) It certainly sounds like the setup of the story here is that Mary is kind of “pushing” Jesus to do his miracle thing and fix the wine shortage, somehow, as even for a wedding in the first century, this was a bummer for the party. Still, Mary persists, telling the servants, “Do whatever he tells you,” pretty much committing Jesus to do SOMETHING.

 

The Gospel of John doesn’t call Jesus supernatural actions such as healing or calming storms on the sea “miracles,” but “signs.” The Fourth Gospel is all about trying to help his readers understand the theology behind just who Jesus was, not just relate the events. So, when Jesus performs an intervention that goes against the “natural order” of things, it is a “sign” of Jesus’ identity as the Divine Logos of God. And John goes to great lengths to add symbolic elements to his account of the such stories, such as the stone water pots Jesus asks to be filled with water in this miracle. John tells us they were the same water jars “for the Jewish rite of purification.” Is this John’s way to telegraph that the one doing the “sign” is the “lamb of God who [will] take away the sins of the world,” “purifying” us all of our sinfulness? And the Fourth Gospel also gives us the contrast between the “inferior wine” and the “good” or “best” wine that Jesus brews up. Is the “inferior” wine the law that has become more of a prison for the Jews, thanks to the way their religious leaders lorded it over them? Is John then saying that Jesus, the Divine Logos of God, is the “best” wine? It is so good that even those who are drunk notice its quality, not just its quantity! And since all of humanity is “drunk” with sin, do we not crave the “best” wine?

 

John tells us the final result of this “sign” is that God is glorified, and that his disciples believed in him. These are the natural outcomes of God’s efforts to reconcile humanity through the Christ Event—we come to believe, and God is glorified. 

 

I’m guessing that all of you who may be reading this message know full well how God sent Jesus into the world to save the world, as hopefully all of us have said “yes” to God’s “YES” to the world. And I’m guessing we understand that we seek to glorify God through our worship. These outcomes of the “sign” at Cana of Galilee are obvious. But let’s not miss the unheralded souls in this story—the servants who “carry the water” to the wine steward. The text says that they knew who had “tampered” with the water, but they had done the heavy lifting. Might the wine steward’s NOT knowing, and the servants’ KNOWING be a metaphor for the disparity between the Jews and the Gentiles, with the Gentiles playing the role of the servants who “get it” regarding who Jesus really is, and the Jewish leaders who don’t’ “get it”? Just a thought.

 

Maybe our best takeaway from this “sign” story is that we, as modern Christian disciples, are called to “draw and carry the water,” providing the raw material and doing the heavy lifting for the wonderful things that Jesus wants to do through the Body of Christ today. Evangelism, ministries of mercy and justice, spiritual teaching and nurture, and working together to transform the world through the Love of Christ, these are the “good wine” we are privileged to draw, carry, and distribute. It’s TIME for THIS wine! Amen.

 

 

Friday, January 7, 2022

Ascribe...


 

Psalm 29
29:1 Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.

29:2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory of God’s name; worship the LORD in holy splendor.

29:3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.

29:4 The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.

29:5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

29:6 God makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.

29:7 The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.

29:8 The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

29:9 The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, "Glory!"

29:10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.

29:11 May the LORD give strength to God’s people! May the LORD bless God’s people with peace!

 

I knew a man, years ago, a great man, indeed. He was a Christian missionary and a pastor, and after returning to the United States, he began a new ministry. His loving wife, and faithful disciple of Jesus Christ herself, often bore the brunt of the day-to-day work of keeping this new ministry afloat. Her husband, always the visionary, relied upon her to care for their family, help maintain the large home which also served as a retreat center for various church groups, and prepare the meals when retreats were held. He knew he could rely upon her, and she was happy to “sell out” her life to her husband and to Christ. I’m sure, though, that often the burden was large, and it was her faith that sustained her through it all. I’m telling you this story because her husband regularly polled the family as to where they were reading in the scriptures, a dedication he demanded of them all, including himself. When he asked his wife, her answer was always “in the Psalms.” That was probably her way of communicating to her Bible scholar/husband that her stress level was often at its peak, and only in the Psalms could she find God’s soothing voice. So it is with the Psalms.

 

Jesus’ stress level was probably at its peak on the cross, at least that’s my guess. Oh, I’m sure there were many times Peter tried his patience, some of which are recorded in the pages of the Gospels, and he certainly had to contend with James and John, the “Sons of Thunder,” who liked to argue which was the greatest. But still, after enduring a horrible beating and ridiculing by Pilate’s people, and when nailed to the cruelest form of capital of his day, he must have felt such loneliness and abandonment. Where did he turn? The Psalms. Jesus shouted out a verse from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Less a cry of abandonment, and more the venting of anguish and frustration, these words have been echoed by faithful followers down through the ages when things don’t go their way, or when it seems to promises are not being kept. I have uttered them when my “big picture” apparently didn’t match God’s “big picture,” and mine lost out, at least in the moment. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are not meant as indictments against God at all. Instead, they allow our spleen to vent in God’s direction in our most difficult moments, which is better than kicking the dog, yelling at our spouse, or taking it out on the kids or the neighbors. Besides, we have a good model in Jesus! Yell at God because God can take it, and is obviously the one in the best position to do something about our plight. I’m sure that there were days when my friend’s wife was “in the Psalms,” and it was Psalm 22 she was “in.”

 

The Psalms are the hymns of the early Jewish people. They were read, sung, or recited in corporate worship, but they were also terribly personal, as I’ve related. Why would a congregation sing “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” unless something better came next, which it most certainly does in Psalm 22. In fact, all of these kinds of “griping” Psalms, which we call the Psalms of lament, DO include a resolve, when God comes to the rescue, offering peace in the least, and a fix in the most. Of course in Jesus’ case, the Resurrection was the resolve, and that is the best of all!

 

Psalm 29 is mostly a praise Psalm, giving words and images for the worshipper to use to indulge Yahweh in a bit of unearned praise, meaning it is mostly praise for praise, sake, with the exception of the final verse, which is a bit of a prayer the author slips in while he has God in a good mood. It invokes the “voice” of God, which is another way of stating the “word” of God, and God’s word holds sway over nature—trees, weather, water, fire, the wilderness, and the wind. Being that this Sunday is often celebrated as “Baptism of the Lord” day, images of God’s word and the waters are appropriate. Our United Methodist baptismal liturgy, in its “Thanksgiving over the Water” section, evokes numerous times when God saved through “the waters.” And it is in the waters of baptism that God begins the longer effort of “saving” the life of the one baptized.

 

All this said, I was most intrigued by the first word of Psalm 29, “ascribe.” The psalmist tells the “heavenly beings” to do the “ascribing,” but ultimately, I think the command applies quite nicely to God’s human creation. It is we, whom God would much rather have do the ascribing! The Hebrew root of the word we translate “ascribe” is yahab, which is short for “give” or “ascribe” to Yahweh. It may also mean “grant” or “credit to.” The psalmist says we are to “ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.” “Glory” is a worship word; “strength” is an attribute we acknowledge to God. I want to push us on this “ascribing” business a bit, so please indulge me.

 

God is none of these things to me—glory, strength, power, wisdom, or even love—unless I “ascribe” them to God. While in the beingness of God, God is these and more, they mean little to the one who does not acknowledge or “ascribe” them to God. “Ascribe,” a word we probably don’t use in our daily vocabulary, may be the most powerful “faith” word of all. When we say we “believe,” this is more like Dorothy repeating “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home” as magic words leading to Kansas, or like Peter Pan saying “I DO believe in fairies, I do, I do, I do!” But “ascribing,” that is another thing, entirely. Ascribing means acknowledging, which implies accepting the reality of, which, in turn, means we are putting ourselves under the jurisdiction of what we ascribe. It’s kind of like what an old preacher told me the word “Amen” means: “I’m in favor of it, I’m with it, and here’s my share of the cost.” When we ascribe things to God, it’s like getting into the car, starting the engine, putting it in gear, and driving off. “Believing” is sitting in the idling car, hoping it will go somewhere. No wonder the psalmist uses the “A” word here! To quote a sermon by our former Bishop Tom Bickerton, the psalmist wants us to “take this baby out onto the road and see what she will do!” Note, however, that “ascribe” is very different than “prescribe.” There are many who, either because of tradition or what they understand as “orthodoxy,” take great pains in “prescribing” what is right belief, not just for themselves, but for all others. We must all wrestle with scripture and how it defines our faith, and we may or may not all agree on what we read, interpret, and attempt to apply, in these efforts. Ancient creeds were an attempt to summarize and codify certain key beliefs, but they were only effective if a given sample of the faith community agreed to them—if they weren’t “ascribed” to by the faith community, they were just straw doctrines. In terms of our individual appropriation of our Christian faith, we are the gatekeepers on what we “ascribe” to God. If we believe God to be a benevolent, grace-granting, pardoning, and just God, then we will respond accordingly. If we ascribe to God anger, judgment, and fear, then this is what we will respond to, unfortunately. Our own understanding of the nature of God is how we will tend to respond to God. 

 

In my own ministry, for example, as it grew and matured, I came to ascribe to God the attribute of justice as a necessary progression of grace and love. A God who loves is a God who gives grace, and makes this grace available to all people—ALL people. Working for justice for all people became for me a direct result of God’s love and grace. Think of it this way: Justice is grace with shoes on—taking it to the streets and offering the witness that this is who God is, especially as God witnessed it to us in Jesus Christ. 

 

On a day when we honor baptism, isn’t this precisely what the parents, pastor, and church “ascribe” to doing with this child when they all take their vows? Baptism ascribes to God what is God’s, to the parents what their responsibilities are in this little one’s life, and reminds the church what they are to do, if God’s vision for this child is to become a reality in the years ahead. In terms of Jesus, think of the “vow” of John the Baptist in preparation for christening Jesus: “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” If that isn’t ascribing a vision to the life and ministry of Jesus, I don’t know what is! Too often, in our time, the church “hopes” stuff may happen, rather than “ascribing” that it will, through the power, glory, and majesty of God. There’s more hand-wringing going on in the Christian church today than hand-clapping, hand-joining, and hands working, unfortunately. It’s time for us to do a little less “believing” and a whole lot more “ascribing,” in my way of understanding discipleship.

 

I mentioned earlier that this is a worship and praise Psalm. What is worship? And what does praise “do” for God? Have you ever thought about that? Praising is certainly a way of showing appreciation to God, and I’m in favor of that. But do you think God just sits around waiting for us to offer praise when living out our Christian faith is about so much more than that, like actively loving, carrying out acts of compassion and mercy, mending relationships and fostering new ones, following the teachings and example of Jesus in an effort to help usher in the “kingdom” or vision of God for the world? I’ve spent quite a bit of time contemplating what “worship” is, and why God would get a kick out of it. Here are a few of my conclusions:

 

·      Worship is an occasion to center ourselves, in preparation for connecting with God.

 

·      Worship is an opportunity to show our appreciation to God for God’s steadfast love and exceeding abundant grace.

 

·      Worship is a classroom wherein we hear and absorb God’s “voice” (word) for us.

 

·      Worship is a time of centering ourselves in preparation for “ascribing to God” what we will be doing in response to God’s vision, power, and in acknowledging God’s glory.

 

·      Worship is a time to bless God by God’s witnessing God’s people gathered, praying, praising, listening, learning, and ascribing together; God gets a kick out of us when we do this!

 

·      Praise may be done in private, but worship is a corporate experience.

 

As we learned from the life of Jesus, there is a time to “come away” and have our private time with God, but most of life is lived in community. This is why Christ chose the twelve—he wasn’t just training them, he was building a church, an ecclesia, or gathering of believers (or, in accordance with this message “ascribers!). And together, they went forth to heal, redeem, and serve. Sounds like a benediction to me.

 

Remember the little prayer at the end of Psalm 29 that the psalmist sneaks in? “May the Lord give strength to God’s people. May the Lord bless God’s people with peace.” May this be our benediction, too, as we go forth to ascribe, act, and serve, in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen!

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