First Congregational Church
January 20, 2019
Second Sunday after Epiphany, Baptism Sunday, Human Relations Day Sunday
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Q: What did the green grape say to the purple grape? A: Breathe! Breathe!
Q: "What's purple and huge and swims in the ocean?" A: "Moby Grape."
Q: What did the grape say when he got stepped on? A: Nothing. But he let out a little whine.
This morning we get to spend a little time with one of my favorite scripture passages, mainly because I’ve been able to remember that it’s Jesus’ first miracle. There are some folks that can memorize chapter and verse when it comes to the Bible. I’m not one of them. I used to feel guilty about that, but then I figure that I have the spiritual gift of finding bad jokes, and I feel a little better.
Still, when I speak to our piano tuner’s wife, I can sense an opportunity for regret to revisit that guilt. Our piano tuner is blind, so his wife drives him to his jobs over here, and she’s just as sweet as can be. And she’s memorized more than one book of the New Testament - one being the book of John, if I remember correctly. The whole thing! But then I remember that bad joke finding thing, and then I’m good again - she said with tongue-in-cheek.
Back to the passage for today, there are certain pieces of information that make the reading richer. In Jesus’ day, weddings lasted for days, and based on our modern day practice, we perhaps figure that the bride’s family was responsible for most all the cost.
Regardless of the event or non-event, the inability to provide what a guest needed was a failure in hospitality that would bring shame on host and family. That principle was so strong, that the Bible gives examples of the principle overriding normative and simple etiquette and respect - much to the shame of human behavior.
The Bible doesn’t say it, but in Jesus’ day, it was custom for guests to bring wedding gifts in the form of food and drink to share the burden of providing for such a large group. If a family didn’t have enough wine for a wedding, it might indicate that the family wasn’t very popular or didn’t have much community support in addition to their own lack of resources.
A lot of weddings from that time were held on a Wednesday. I didn’t find any reasoning for that specific day, but during that week of celebration, rather than going on a honeymoon, the couple kept an open house, dressing in crowns and bridal robes. As commentarian William Barclay said, "In a life where there was much poverty and constant hard work, this week of festivity and joy was one of the supreme occasions.”
Wine in Jesus’ day was not what wine is in our day. Not only was it a sign of joy, but it was essential part of life, simply because water was often poor. Biblical age wine was also diluted, generally two parts wine to three parts water. And drunkenness was a great disgrace, so wine was as much a part of that culture as coffee is in ours.
It was also customary to address one’s elders with respect, most especially one’s family. Back in my seminary days, when we went over this passage, a deal was made about Jesus addressing his mother. He calls her “Woman,” rather than mother, mom or even her first name. It was thought to be a derogatory address, leading to all sorts of speculations about what Jesus - or the writer of John’s gospel - really meant. Since that time, Biblical scholars have backed off that indictment, and today it seems to be regarded as a simple address, perhaps even one with a hint of a smile behind Jesus’ words.
John 2:1-11 Jesus Changes Water Into Wine
2 On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
4 “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”
5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, 9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Thank you, Cassie. After Jesus used the word, “Woman” in addressing his mother, he used the phrase, “Why do you involve me?” It was a common conversational phrase, but if it was uttered angrily and sharply it indicated complete disagreement and reproach. When it was spoken gently it indicated not so much reproach but misunderstanding. It was most likely that Jesus was simply telling Mary to leave things to him, that he would have his own way of dealing with the situation and his actions were that of a friend and faithful community member; the provision of wine a sign of shared hospitality.
The “jars” are an interesting part of our passage, too. The size may not come immediately to mind, unless you think about a burning barrel or 55 gallon drum, and estimate either half the number of “jars,” or half the size. It’s still a lot of water - that someone had to haul from point A to point B to be used in washing dusty or muddy feet and hands.
I never really paid attention to any movies or readings about hand washing before, but apparently first the hand was held upright and the water was poured over it in such away that it ran right to the wrist; then the hand was held pointing down and the water was poured in such a way that it ran from the wrist to the finger-tips. This was done with each hand in turn; and then each palm was cleansed by rubbing it with the fist of the other hand. This practice occurred before eating and between each course. So not only was all the water in those barrels necessary, it was basically “throw away” water. And with no magic words or wand, Jesus turned it - not into Boone’s Farm, and probably not a Chateau Lafite Rothschild at the other end of the spectrum, - but at least something respectable.
While all of this information may add some nuance and insight into our passage, there is still the “so what” aspect of it. For today, for us, a part of that “so what” is most likely overlooked, falling so near the end of the passage. The last verse says, "What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” through which revealed his glory - and belief followed.
I wonder if we don’t think about glory in terms of angels showing up in the fields to the shepherds - complete with light and singing and all sorts of celestial show. I wonder if we don’t typically think that “glory” as the bright shining presence of God, the white-hot holiness of the divine that is so stunning, even Moses had to be hidden in the cleft of a rock to keep it from frying him to a crisp. We think that “glory” is the power of God that is so raw and so real, the priests who once entered the Holy of Holies did so at great peril (and if anyone else tried casually to enter that place where the glory of God dwelled, they would surely die).
Glory is big. Glory is bright. Glory is loud. Glory is a multi-sensory extravaganza that you will not miss if you are anywhere in glory’s neighborhood when it happens.
But John tells us that when Jesus quietly transformed water into wine, in an effort to do no more than solve a social mishap that helped a family save face in front of their friends, this was somehow Jesus’ first revelation of no less than his glory. In fact, this glorious manifestation was sufficient as to cause the disciples to put their faith into Jesus.
There is no evidence that the wider crowd at this wedding reception ever knew what had happened. Only Mary and the disciples—and the servants who had done Jesus’ bidding—realized what had happened. The bride and groom don’t even get any mention here.
Somehow they discerned Jesus to be the Messiah, the one who would bring abundance where there had once been only scarcity. Somehow they saw in this quiet miracle in Cana an echo of all those soaring prophecies from Isaiah about how when the kingdom fully comes, all the good things we enjoy would flow freely and in never-ending abundance. When needs are met—even needs as commonplace as the one in Cana that day—somehow joy follows and that joy is related to the glory of God.
So how do we discern Jesus to be the Messiah, the one who brings abundance where there is scarcity? Do we look into the moments of miracles, even little ones, to the glory in them, to the abundance of joy in them? Iranaeus once said that “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” God desires us to flourish, to enjoy and take delight in God’s creation even as God did at the dawn of time.
This moment of glory happened in a little village, in a home, rather than the busy market or buzzing synagogue. Perhaps there is more glory to be found in our homes and gardens and workshops and offices than any of us even realize.
There is an old legend which tells of the days when Jesus was a little baby in the home in Nazareth. It tells how in those days when people felt tired and worried and hot and bothered and upset, they would say: "Let us go and look at Mary's child," and they would go and look at Jesus, and somehow all their troubles rolled away. There was faith which could trust even when it did not understand - that Jesus would do the right thing. No need on earth can exhaust the grace of Christ; there is a glorious superabundance in it - even when reality seems contradictory to that fact.
It will be easy to see when the hungry are fed, when the homeless are housed, when children without decent shoes get new kicks from a local clothing ministry, when the despairing are comforted by a word of hope, when the sad can dry their tears with the gospel comfort of the resurrection to come.
It’s not so easy to see glory when the only thing inside is emptiness and loneliness or the sense of absence of God. But the glory is still there, waiting for our own discovery of it. Even though the light is lengthening just a bit lately, some folks still struggle with the darkness of heart and exhaustion of spirit, and maybe if my finances can make it to the end of the month, then - maybe - this glory thing will turn its light on me.
I think we do better in looking for the glory before, instead of after we feel better or sense less angst. God has already forgiven and counted us as beloved. From the beginning of the beginning, God has poured God’s love into this world and our lives, and we miss some of that glory by putting it off. So let us all change that, for all of us, especially for those who are tired and sick of being sick and tired, as we pray.
Lord of Light and Joy, we confess that we are not always so good at looking for your glory in the simple and close-at-hand. And yet you offer it to us, consistently and freely. Help each of us to see your love and light and joy and blessings - not only in our lives, but in our opportunities for service to members of our family in you - both those near and those far away. Help each of us turn moaning and crying into songs of praise and hope. Give us spirits of trust and rejoicing, that we may truly be your people all of our days. Prepare us for joyful service in your world as all your people say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
January 13, 2019
First Sunday in Epiphany
Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, Luke 3:21-22
“The Handiwork of God”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
After a hardy rainstorm filled all the potholes in the streets and alleys, a young mother watched her two little boys playing in the puddle through her kitchen window. The older of the two, a five-year-old lad, grabbed his sibling by the back of his head and shoved his face into the water hole. As the boy recovered and stood laughing and dripping, the mother runs to the yard in a panic.
"Why on earth did you do that to your little brother?" she says as she shook the older boy in anger. "We were just playing church mommy," he said. "And I was just baptizing him ...in the name of the Father, the Son and in...the hole-he-goes.
This is the Sunday that the church celebrates Jesus’ baptism. We are in the year C, the first Sunday after Epiphany, and that means we get two passages from Luke and one from the book of Acts.
I included a map in the bulletin announcement page, because A: it may help with a little mental framing, B: we had the room, and C: I, for one, am fascinated at how much I have forgotten since the days when I prided myself in being a relatively good map rememberer.
If nothing else, it can link the two locales on which our passages are based. Jesus’ baptism takes place in the Jordan River, which not only feeds into the Dead Sea, but marks the eastern border of the area known as Samaria. The actual place of his baptism is called Bethany beyond the Jordan, which is about 6 miles from the Dead Sea.
John the Baptist had been doing his thing in this wilderness area, and people were going out to him to be baptized. As he told the crowd to share with those in need, told the tax collectors not to collect more than they were supposed to and told the soldiers he was baptizing to be content with their pay, John was also predicting Christ’s arrival. When Christ came, he would baptize not just for the forgiveness of sin, but to mark a new era, one no longer marred by brokenness, but an initiation into a community that anticipated the second coming of the Holy Spirit.
The other reason for the inclusion of the map was so you could “remember” Samaria - a name no longer recognized by Palestine or the international community. Samaria, the area marked by the dashed lines, which bled into the area known as Judea, to the south, is mostly known today as the West Bank.
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with[a] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
The Baptism and Genealogy of Jesus
21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. 15 When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
Thank you, Pat. One of the things that is interesting about this whole baptism thing is that it isn’t done from a distance, it’s not done with a branch or a rock or any other implement that is held, but is done by hand. Whether they fully immersed people or sprinkled water on their heads, baptism involved some actual manual contact between at least two people. And it’s still done the same way today.
Whether figuratively or in reality, the winnowing fork Jesus was to use would be “in his hand” as it says in Luke’s verse 17. In the second passage Pat just read, in his own baptism, Jesus had John’s hands doing the baptism, and in the passage from Acts, we don’t know who did the baptizing, but Peter and John laid their hands on the baptized, again utilizing these most convenient and “handy” tools. It’s also interesting that all three of these scripture passages include mention of the Holy Spirit in practically the same sentence as the word baptize. It’s hard to avoid the probability that these “coincidences” are there for a reason.
Last Sunday I attended church with my sister and the rest of the family, and the pastor used a phrase that day that I’ve heard him use before, but this time, it seemed to come across to my ears with flashing billboard lights and blinking letters. It was the phrase, “the fingerprint of God.” His message, the first of a new year, and being it was communion Sunday, focused on taking on new practices, like all good preachers are want to do on that particular Sunday. And one of the sub-points was about looking for the fingerprints of God that happen to be all over us and creation.
Another of his sub-points was to take a look at the ways that some of us have become used to, settled into, even too accustomed to the God we have shaped in our own minds, and how looking for the fingerprints of God can be not only enlightening, but refreshing and surprising - in a good way.
There was a boy riding on his bike outside a church.The priest saw him and told him to come into the church and the boy said,"...But they'll steal my bike."The priest explained how the Holy Spirit would take care of it, so they went inside.The priest showed the boy how to make the sign of the cross and told the boy to repeat it..."In the name of the Father, The Son…Amen" The priest said,"What about the Holy Spirit?” The boy replied, "Its outside taking care of my bike!"
I think it’s rather common for us human beings to look at baptism from our side of things. If it’s an infant, there is the right outfit - new or old - the gathering of the family and naturally, there’s food that goes with the gathering. And all that’s good. If it’s an older person, baptism is most probably about a state of a person’s heart, especially if they are wanting a ‘new identity’ in Christ, complete with a clean slate. And that’s all good, too. But when we are able to witness a baptism, how often do we think about God’s part in it, more specifically, the Holy Spirit’s part in it? And what part does the Spirit play, aside from perhaps enabling some moments for potential goosebumps?
The passages for this morning remind us that baptism - including Jesus’ baptism - is an empowerment by the Holy Spirit toward a new world, complete with subsequent opportunities to invite others into that vision of a new world, where all who are there - are those with whom God is well-pleased - where all will be reconciled to God and therefore to one another - perfectly and completely.
If we were to focus only on the baptism parts of these passages, we could speak to the past and to the future, but there might not be much in the “present” application. When the Holy Spirit comes into the limelight of these passages, there is a “present” component to the passages that reminds us that we are never without God, never alone, never unlovable in God’s eyes. When we include the Holy Spirit in our world view, much more is possible - in and through us.
Although Menlo Church pastor, John Ortberg gave this illustration several years ago, it still has the breath of life in it. He told a little story about canoeing in the wilderness, and how tedious and tiresome it can be to paddle a canoe all day, hour after hour, but then how it feels, when the wind picks up, to be able to grab a poncho, tie it to your paddles and make a sail, and then go flying across the lake. Ortberg’s point was that you can paddle if you want to, but it's a lot more fun to sail.
January in northern lower Michigan is not the time that we normally think about sailing, especially when we have to traverse stretches of ice - either by foot or car. Sailing can be risky, even in warm weather, because waves - like life - can surprise you. The path you thought you were going to take is suddenly not the one you are on. Sometimes you get wet sailing, even if it’s just that fine mist that makes hardly any moisture. But even the fine moisture can make you smile. Even the risk can be good when you realize that God has God’s fingerprints all over the situation. There is just no place in which God is absent. And if that knowledge doesn’t excite us, then it can at least give us an assurance that all will be well - no matter what happens.
If there is anyone who hasn’t been baptized and would like to be, let me know, and we can certainly make that happen. If there is anyone who would like to renew their baptism, we can do that, too. For today, look for God’s handiwork - in your life, in the lives of those you love, in people of whom you may not even be fond. For this week, check in, from time to time, realizing that the Holy Spirit is with you in that moment, in each decision, each reaction and each transaction, and if you need to step up those interactions, then do so with all Godspeed. For this moment, let us pray.
Gracious, Holy God of Spirit and Light, thank you for being the hand that guides us, even when we don’t recognize such leading. Thank you for giving us tangible practices that remind us of our connections - to you - through time and to each other. Help us to live into your handiwork, your fingerprints, that others will be drawn to you and your grace, mercy, love and joy. Forgive us when we turn away from your reaching out, from your offered hand, for whatever reason. Give each of us - and all your people - eyes with which to see your handiwork - now, this day, in the days to come, in all of eternity. For calling us beloved and touching each of our hearts, all your people thank you as we say, Amen.