Be Thou my Vision

After the fall of the temple in 70 AD, Pharisees were the only Jewish religious group to survive into the new era – and by the time the gospel of John was written, Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah were being shunned, sent out of the synagogs, sent out of their communities. Jews wouldn’t do business with them, eat with them, marry them, protect, socialize, or worship with them. So Christian Jews were much more vulnerable to being labeled as traitors to Roman rule. There was some protection for Jews in the Roman world because of their numbers and their traditional standing – they were a known entity. But Christians were seen as upstarts, innovators who refused to worship Caesar as god, and were losing the cover of their Jewish communities.

It is this threatened, marginalized community that John is trying to support and bolster. He uses night and day imagery, these sharp distinctions to keep it clear, to show the risks involved in claiming Jesus as God.  You believe or you don’t believe. You have seen the light of salvation or you are condemned by the darkness. John calls the Jewish authorities, The Jews, as a derogatory term for those who refuse to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. In truth, they would all consider themselves Jews – even into this time, a Christian was a subset within the Jewish faith. But it is beginning to change. And so we get stories that are written as though they are at the time of Jesus, but come from a perspective, through the lens, of the political and social realities of this schism 60 years later.

The language of John’s gospel reflects the tension and polarization between religious groups in a way that might sound familiar to us given our political and American Christian polemic. Many of us react against John’s black and white treatment of faith because it doesn’t fit with our modern, more liberal, inclusive tendencies. John’s description of God’s mission is very inclusive – it was for the world, for all people (Jews, Gentiles, Romans, Samaritans… enemies and neighbors, all), but it is narrow in it’s claim that Jesus alone is the way, the truth, and the life….the face of the living God.

It is okay, I think, for us to consider, even question this.

Today’s story is about blindness and healing, sin and sight – but who is really blind?

John 9:1-41 

As Jesus and his disciples walked along, they saw a man who was blind from birth.  His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; but, in order that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 

When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” Then he went, and washed, and came back able to see. 

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”  But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”  He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”  They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” 

They brought the man who had formerly been blind to the Pharisees.  Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.  The Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”  

Some of the Pharisees said, “This Jesus is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 

So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” 

He said, “He is a prophet.”  

They did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”  

His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind;  but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”  His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.  

  So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man Jesus is a sinner.”  He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 

He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 

But they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.  We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 

The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.  We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.  Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.  If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 

They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out. 

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 

Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”  He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.  Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 

Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,’ your sin remains.

modern-love-085

You can’t get away from sin and judgment in the gospel of John. They are difficult concepts to sort out in our lives and world, but they are straightforward categories in John – as crisp as day and night, life and death, black and white.

But, what if we don’t believe that? (she asks with hesitation).  What if the rest of the biblical witness both convicts us in judgment and frees us from the punishment of sin in grace? What if we consider the value of morning and evening, for example – the hours of light that are not yet day (hat hour when birds of spring sing their hearts out), and the gloaming of dusk that is not yet fully dark (when fireflies come out to mate)? What about those of us who may believe God is bigger than narrow terms of black and white (given the full spectrum of created light), that God is present to a day that is longer than the holy hours of noon and midnight?

Judgment and sin (and the nature of sin, and what constitutes sin) are things I think about – quite a lot; worry about, to some degree. I’ve been the pastor here for a number of years now and my interpretation of scripture, my ideas are what you hear. Maybe you don’t pay that much attention to what I say, and if I go off on some weird tangent of heresy, you’ll ignore me, but still, I don’t want to preach and teach wrong information.

The thing is, there are so many conflicting messages, images, passages in the Bible concerning sin and truth, God’s love, God’s desire for us, and God’s judgment of us. When they differ or contradict one another, which are we to give weight to? Which image of sin is correct – things we do wrong (bad deeds) – as in the 10 commandments – or lack of belief in Jesus, as in the gospel of John; or the tribal greed, selfishness, and injustice of our lives individually and collectively that the prophets and gospel of Luke warn against? If it’s all of those things (plus more), how can we possibly make it through that narrow gate of salvation?

Is it possible for love to be the ultimate category that sweeps all things into its embrace even if the gospels say it differently?  Is it okay, is it allowed, to expand the exclusionary claim of ‘faith in Jesus alone as the path to God’ given that the earth has turned (some 2000 times)? Is the “revelation of Christ” an on-going construct of life within the presence of God? Or not?

Lutherans are known for embracing paradox and mystery. That’s why it’s difficult to evangelize – how long does it take to explain your faith in the mysteries of God? We believe it is more complicated than John 3:16 — as John 3:17, 3:18 and 3:19 – and the whole of even that one chapter – will attest!

My best shot at this is to see it as one of Donna Mae’s quilts. Beautiful, interlocking, distinct pieces of cloth – each possessing it’s own pattern, color, visual texture. The quilt is a thing of beauty and warmth because those different pieces are attached to each other; they are sewn together, often in contrasting blocks or clashing colors. Seen as a whole, those differences are what give it depth and interest, and artistry, and imagination. Its function is other than its parts. And then there is that quilting stitch that rides over the top of all the blocks, uniting them in glory.  I believe the biblical witness is like that. I believe we are given the depth and breath of Scripture so that we don’t take any one image or exclusion or gift too seriously, or take them for granted. It’s a hard line to walk – to take them seriously, but not any one as ultimate: To see them as an absolutely free gift, yet not casually given.

We do know sin when we see it, when we do it, when it’s done to us. We know the lasting consequences of evil – how it even spills out into the next generation and the next after that. We can consider a place like Syria, where the children of this generation will know nothing other than deprivation, hunger, loss, death, hatred, for a whole generation – how long will it take for those brothers and sisters of ours to plant and grow a peaceable kingdom in the craters of their devastated land and lives? How long? Approximately 10% of the Syrian population is Christian – various forms of Orthodox, Eastern Catholic and Protestant. Most of the Christians live in what once was Aleppo, where Jafra is from. What would their vision of sin be, do you suppose? Who is their enemy? How might they interpret the man born blind? What would Judgment look like? How about Grace? Is Forgiveness a concept, a category? Does it belong only to God?  And where might God be, exactly, if you live in Syria?

Sin – as conceptualized by white, northern, middle-class modern American Christians is likely not the norm by which God judges. And we are not the victims.

It was to the survivors of a place like Aleppo that the gospel of John was written. Jerusalem had been destroyed. Survivors filtered out, finding their way to little communities in widening ripples. Jews who used to protect them became too fearful of losing their own protected status under Rome’s malevolent eye. Safe harbor in the transitional communities of Jewish Christians and Christian Jews was becoming an ever more perilous option. For the Christian faith to survive, people had to take a stand. There were no longer lukewarm, both/and nuances, so the severity of ‘choice and consequence’ presented by the gospel of John makes sense. For them.

But what about for us? Jesus is the way, the truth, the light… But is Jesus the Absolute and Only way, truth, and light?  Is Logos, the Word, the Light who was from God and of God and through whom not one thing came into being, only Jesus? Or is Jesus the Christ for us? …the One in whom we see and experience and follow into God? In Hebrew scripture King Cyrus of Persia was called the Christ – the one who brought them back from exile, it was Woman Wisdom in Proverbs, the one who was with God in the beginning who called them to rational and right living. Can it not be whoever brings people to faith in God?  Can that not be Christ for them? I’m not questioning your faith, I only ask the question. However, I am not willing to diminish the reach of God’s love, to limit it to those who believe in just my way. I believe in God, I believe in the power of Love and forgiveness, and hope. I find that in Jesus. But I am not Jewish. I am not Muslim. I’m not Buddhist, or Native. What if you were born and raised in Yemen, into a good and faithful Muslim family? What if you prayed 5 times a day, practiced the rituals, held to the fasts and feasts, gathered under the beautiful mosque domes whose tile ceilings raise you off your knees in awe. Is God not One? Is God, who brought sight to the man born blind, not able to reach through other traditions, other cultures, other Christs?

I have three children. I love them each – completely, differently, uniquely, but not one more than the others.

I can get myself pretty tangled up in these topics – often seeing too many sides of any given issue to find clarity in any one of them –  and I welcome you into my tangle. I am truly interested in your thoughts and questions and disagreements. A community of faith is not meant to be homogenous – at least that’s not the biblical model. Even the Pharisees in our story today were divided, and recognized the conundrum Jesus embodied. “Some of the Pharisees said, “This Jesus is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.” 

So may we be. That is how faith grows… honesty, doubt, questions, trust… the Samaritan woman kept asking questions, and in the end she believed, and engaged others through her questions to decide for themselves.

I believe not only in Jesus as Christ and Christ as One with God and God’s free spirit, but also in this blindness the Pharisees are found to have. I think we, too, often see and yet don’t see God standing in front of us, see and don’t see our sin, see and don’t see the truth of Jesus. But sin, spiritual blindness, is not finally the category that defines us, nor limits God’s reach. The Christ, the bearer of Love and peace and forgiveness expands that. The Holy Spirit binds us together in stitching over the top of the separate and distinct pieces of cloth. We are one in God, because God is One, not because we have homogenous or unified faith. We are one as we allow ourselves to enter the love that sometimes judges and sometimes comforts and sometimes asks us to work, to bind together and not to rend.

One thing I like – well appreciate- about the gospel of John is that there are about 4 really good ending places…. and then it goes on. Jesus keeps coming back, letting Thomas poke his finger into the wounds, making another breakfast for his friends on the shore, saying one more thing. In the midst of black and white, night and day, seeing or sin, I’m grateful for those “let me try this one  more time” moments of resurrected grace. I think God just isn’t willing to give up on this human enterprise.
The gospels tell the truth. Love tells a larger truth.  And in that, we live and move and find our being.

Thanks be to God.

Paddle Pilgrim

pp2-cover-final-outlines_1_origPaddle Pilgrim is…   

~  a web/blog site

~  the title of books recounting kayak journeys down the Mississippi and the Erie Canal/Hudson River

~  the spiritual identity of of David Ellingson, a Lutheran pastor, Master Gardner, former distance runner, father of five grown children, and native of Shell Lake, WI.

Rev. David Ellingson teaches courses in spirituality, environmental ethics, human development, and youth ministry at Trinity Lutheran College in Everett, Washington.

In addition to painting vivid word pictures of river scenery, he writes movingly about the “interior landscapes” of solitude, silence, prayer, and communion with creation. 

His is a creation-centered spirituality which is particularly relevant today and will speak to those who love the out-doors.

Come to his presentation: 

Friday, 2 February, 7pm

West Denmark Parish Hall

     2492 170th Street, Luck

Freewill offering will be taken and Fellowship offered!

spacepaddle-pilgrim-camera-pics-063-2_orig

Fish Boil! – January 27th

The first full moon of 2018 is the night of January 1st. Dfish-boil-clipart-outline-18ecember 30th is too soon for our Fish Boil dinner, and the next full moon, January 31, a Blue Moon, is on Wednesday. We will lean into it by feasting on January 27th. Some years you just can’t get there in a moonlit sky.

Come join us!

$10 a plate. Very good food. Quite interesting company and best-ever setting!

Overturning the Transactions of Exchange

temple-mount-poster-ngRome’s army destroyed the temple in 70 AD when they wiped out most of Jerusalem. That was 37 years or so after Jesus’ death, 20 some years before the gospel of John was written.

John was written looking back at a time when the temple was still in effect, but knowing that it would be destroyed. That’s important to remember, because there’s a kind of time warp when a gospel writer talks about, or quotes Jesus talking about, the temple. Things were interpreted already knowing the end of the story.

But even so, from the time of the first temple built by Solomon, through its destruction in the Exile and consequent rebuilding by Herod the Great, the temple was understood to be God’s dwelling place, a sign of the covenantal promise of divine presence. That’s where God – or at least God’s name – was said to dwell. Although God was everywhere, God was especially present there, behind a huge curtain in the holy of holies.

God’s proximity was dangerous.  Although this was ancient belief, it’s still something to think about. One cannot tame or manage God. But ancient Israel had been given a safety valve. The wellbeing of the people could be assured and inevitable transgressions covered through sacrificial rites and rituals performed in the temple. Biblical law proscribed these policies to be enacted by priests descended from priestly lineage established way back in the day of the 12 tribes and Moses. Jews scattered throughout the region by the Babylonian exile 500 years prior, continued to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices. The temple was a big honkin’ deal – a powerful symbol (the most powerful symbol) binding Jewish people in their common identity as the people of God.

But it was complicated.

Temple priests were resented because of that inherited status, and because of their connection to, and complicity with, Roman authority. Alienation between temple officials and kindred who suffered under imperial and religious power drove a wedge between class and clan. And Rome ruled even the religious roost. Roman officials appointed the chief priest – and he served their interests – or he was replaced. Roman treasuries benefited from the temple marketplace, and the market was a necessary feature of temple worship. You couldn’t schlep a sheep from Syria.  Buying local was the thing to do. Roman and Greek coins with the image of Caesar or Hermes were profane and had to be exchanged for temple coins.

At Passover, the population of Jerusalem exploded, bringing an increased need for services of all kinds including an increased presence of Roman troops for crowd control. Disruption in the buying and selling of sheep and doves, goats and grain would not go unnoticed. Spilling tables full of coin boxes would not fail to create a commotion – like kids scrambling for quarters and candy at Fastelavns.

In this volatile setting, Jesus makes a whip, drives out the sacrificial animals, pours coins out onto the ground and tips over tables. He’s shouting. He’s clearly angry.

But in John, it’s not what you think.

This is the second event on Jesus’ appointment calendar, coming immediately on the heals of the wedding in Cana where he had a really good time. And it’s called the second of his signs, the second manifestation of God  – what’s going on? Why is he so mad?

John 2:13-25

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 

  His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 

After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.  When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.  But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people  and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

Jesus enters the temple courtyards and finds what one would expect to find during a pilgrimage festival. Everything is as it should be for the required sacrifices of a high holy day….. the boisterous crowds, pens of animals, vendors hawking their goods. The various trades and booths are in place for the exchange of coins, and critters, and oil and incense and grains and wine as prescribed by Levitical law. Nothing is out of order — for a moment or two.

In the other gospels, this story – where Jesus kind of goes berserk – occurs at the end of his life.  It is a final straw proving him to be a dangerous, out of control rabble rouser – an insurrectionist. But here in John, Jesus’ concern is not one of justice or temple malfeasance. He doesn’t call it a “den of robbers” as he does in other accounts. It’s not an issue of exploitation of the poor. What he says, is that his Father’s house should not be made into a marketplace. But Jesus is an observant Jew. He and his disciples have made the pilgrimage from Capernaum. There is no mention of them lugging along a lamb on their shoulders. And for the temple system and religious protocols to function and survive, a noisy marketplace is exactly what the temple courtyards need to be. So….?

Sacrifices were made for thanksgiving and for the forgiveness of sin. Sacrifice was a transaction of exchange – give a goat, get God’s grace. If you are too poor to buy a lamb, two turtledoves will do.

Jesus is calling out a complete dismantling of institutional atonement. He is enacting a radical change of theology. When he says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” he is referring to his body, the Temple, the indwelling presence of God in he, himself. John the Baptist twice called Jesus the Lamb of God. Where Jesus is present, the temple is no longer necessary.

Where Jesus is present, the temple is no longer necessary.

Now, one could receive that as good news of great joy that has come to all people…. but mostly they didn’t.

Jesus is a complete outsider to the power structure of the temple, yet he challenges its authority on one of the busiest, most significant feast days of the year. Neither sacrifices nor tithes could be offered that day. It’s little wonder that the Jews asked for a sign of his authority to do this. I don’t imagine it was a very polite request. What possible right did he have to ruin the transactions of worship?

The right he claimed was a different kind of exchange.

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There is an old atonement theory popularized by Anslem of Canterbury called the satisfaction theory – that Christ suffered as a substitute on behalf of humankind, satisfying the demands of God’s honor. Martin Luther called it the Happy Exchange: in his innocence, Jesus takes on our sin; in exchange, we receive his purity and innocence before God. (In Luther’s colorful words, the Harlot becomes a chaste bride).

That may be the way it works, but I hope not. I hope that God does not require innocent blood for forgiveness; that punishment is not the prerequisite for grace. I hope that forgiveness has something to do with God’s abundant, passionate love for the creatures of God’s design. I have this ongoing argument with the church. And I’m not alone.

“Jesus was an ambiguous figure,” writes Marcus Borg—“you could experience him and conclude that he was insane, as his family did [in Mark 3, for example], or that he was simply eccentric or that he was a dangerous threat—or you could conclude that he was filled with the Spirit of God.”

This story is the second of seven signs in the gospel of John – and at first it seems hard to see why it’s designated as an epiphany, a God-Sighting. Jesus is acting rather peevish and human. But if it is a sign of God’s presence then it means that God shines out of Jesus and through his actions.

Locating the temple clearing episode in the beginning of Jesus’ public life instead of at its end, may be precisely so that we don’t see it as an exchange of life for life – but rather that we see it as a release of life; a freeing from rituals and rules and exchanges and transactional theology. So that we might take what comes at the end of this gospel seriously when Jesus prays, “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them in love.” 17:25, 26

Where we look for God, expect to find God, imagine God to be are all thrown into the air in the Gospel of John. We are called to think again, to see what is put before us with fresh eyes – “to see Jesus again for the first time,” as Markus Borg writes. Maintaining, sustaining the church or religion is not the goal. The stated purpose of this gospel is to witness to the presence of God out and about in the world; to see it, believe it, to follow Christ, imitate Jesus in enacting divine love through human actions of forgiveness, inclusion, dwelling with, abiding in God, being one with our neighbors and even our enemies.

Steeples may crumble, the church may fall, but where Jesus is present, the temple is no longer necessary. It’s an unsettling word.
May we hear the gracious word of life, and see and tell, and grow and invite and go on with our daily lives with a new spirit in tow.

Pastor Linda

Come and see!

water wineCana was, presumably, a small village in rural Galilee; a place of no particular consequence. It’s not mentioned anywhere else but in John and biblical archeologists don’t know for sure where it was.

One of the addenda to the gospel says it was Nathanael’s hometown, so maybe that’s why they were there, how they got invited, but we don’t know that either. What we know is that there was a wedding – and somehow Jesus’ mother (who is never given a name in this gospel) is among the invited guests. So, too, are Jesus and his newly found followers. We don’t know who is getting married – except that the bride and groom weren’t anyone special or important to history or theology. We don’t know how many days into the wedding they are at this point – apparently weddings of the era lasted for several days and were, hmm, well… the wine flowed!  Answers to some of these questions would be satisfying, and might help us with the really pressing question of the story – where’d the wine go? How did they run out of wine?!

Our perennial sense of not enough information is part of the artistry of this author.

John is the gospel of choice for those of us who prefer to be left pondering these unknowns, dog-paddling into the mysteries of God…. If that isn’t your spiritual comfort zone, reading this gospel can feel like getting sucked into a maelstrom. There are illusions and inclusios and words that circle and ring all over the place – “On the third day,” for example, reminds us of the other time we hear “on the third day” which is the last thing of Jesus ministry: Alpha and Omega. Jesus’ mother only shows up here and at the end, at the foot of the cross. Her presence encloses his ministry, not letting us ignore the paradox of a Human Son of God. We are at a wedding and the true bridegroom (we know) is Jesus. He provides the finest of wines in outlandish abundance from stone water jars. Each of these words and themes vibrates throughout the gospel like the sounding of deep bells until the story sings, filled with enharmonic overtones. For those of you who know wine, those who can taste the layers, the depths and hints, the soil of the vine – – hold on to that sensory experience as we read, because that layered, nuanced, mysterious depth is the way to comprehend the gospel of John. You can’t do it reasonably. You can’t cognate your way to faith through this gospel. It comes to you; you experience it, get swept up into it, you become an incarnate reflection of the Word of God. Faith apprehends you, or it doesn’t.

That was part of last week’s theme – that more information won’t help. You have all the information you need. You have to come and see, come and taste – come drink this wine you swirl in the glass, come hear the “deep calling to deep.” Come let yourself down into the waters and feel both the buoyancy and the undertows that tug at you. This is a sensory gospel – poetic, symbolic, and rich.

It’s goal is not so that you will know more when you get to the end, but so that you will be changed; enlightened not with knowledge, but with light, so that you glow; so that you will know God in the way we know the warmth of a fire on a cold winter’s night, the warmth of sunshine, the warmth of a loving look.  This is a gospel – the good news – of a love story of God for the earth and for the creatures that dwell therein.

The last sentence of chapter one was about Nathanael being amazed by Jesus, and Jesus saying, “You’ll see greater things that this!”  Three days later, they find themselves at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, experiencing a foretaste of those things.

John 2:1-11

1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”  And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.  He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.  When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”  Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

 

When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” (say it to yourself three ways)

What a great start to a story.

Because whatever the inflection, I think this means something to us, resonates with us. We can feel it. It’s a wedding! We don’t live in an honor/shame based society, but we still can feel the shame of this. A wedding in a small town where everybody knows everybody and everybody was invited. There are guests from out of town, from Nazareth. The bride and bridegroom are in the spotlight, but the family, the Papa, honor, hospitality, festivity….. and the wine is gone?

When was the last time you felt shame?  – vulnerable, crushing, public shame? When was the last time your deficiencies were hung out on display? Can you feel it in the pit of your stomach?

We don’t know the cause for this calamity, it could be that guests brought guests, and there was no way to say “no” when they came through the gate. It could be that the family was obligated to overextend because of class inequality between bride and groom and the need to maintain a front of honor. It could be a mistake in planning, or a bad crops of grapes in prior years. Doesn’t really matter. There are always explanations we’d like to have a chance to offer, but when Shame is involved, we rarely get that chance. Public knowledge and judgment out-run, out-weigh any explantation we might want to give.

The author of John uses this story, that awful queezy-pit-of-the-stomach feeling as the inaugural event of Jesus’ public life and ministry. Matthew has him preaching a sermon on the mount, teaching about the kingdom of God. Luke hands him the scroll of Isaiah to read and then sees him run out of his hometown synagogue for being presumptuous. Mark has him exorcize a demon who recognizes him as the Son of God and then forbids the demon to speak.

John invites him to a wedding, an everyday, very human kind of joyful, hopeful, life-giving celebration. And there he encounters a very real, everyday life-killing kind of problem – scarcity; humiliating, shaming deficiency when there should have been enough.

John uses this as the first of what will be seven signs – seven miracle kind of things – performed by Jesus. John doesn’t call them miracles, though, because the miraculous thing isn’t what we should be focusing on. The sign is the attention grabber (like the burning bush was for Moses), but it isn’t to be the showcase. The purpose is to point beyond it:  to announce, reveal, show forth God’s light, God’s compassion, God’s power, God’s richness, God’s love. I said last week that John the Witness is always depicted pointing his index finger at Jesus. In this gospel, Jesus is not to be worshipped. He is always pointing beyond himself, too, always seen to be one with the Father. He is God’s Word spoken for us to see, the incarnate conduit uniting earthly and divine.

But what I find so interesting about this sign is that it’s hidden. In fact, it’s nearly invisible. Six stone jars standing unused in the courtyard – each capable of holding 20 to 30 gallons of water. 150 gallons of water. How long would it have taken the servants to fill them from the well, bucket by bucket… all afternoon?

When did it happen – this fermentation transformation? How did it happen? God only knows! But pay attention to the details – who knew that it happened? In a courtyard of an un-noteable family, in a nothing-much little town somewhere in Galilee, the glory of God, the over-flowing, out-pouring abundance of the finest wine appeared in stone jars – – unknown to everyone at the party except Jesus, his mother, his disciples …  and the servants. When, in Mary’s magnificent Magnificat, she says that the poor are raised and the mighty made low –  maybe this is what she’s talking about – this kind of thing. The wealthy, the mighty don’t know they are made low. The “first” don’t realize they’re suddenly left out and “last”. In fact the wine steward compliments the bridegroom on his unconventional distribution of wine, saving the best for last instead of using the general state of inebriation to bring out the box of Franzia. The steward doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. But the servants do. The servants are suddenly ushered into the kingdom of God, suddenly they See. And nothing will ever be the same for them.

They know they reside in the kingdom of God where, at any moment, stone jars standing empty in the courtyard might pour out the presence of God. They who are nearly invisible, they who are people of no account, non-entities, are now insiders to glory and grace –  experiencing, witnessing, the unreasonable, un-fathomable abundance of God: “from his fullness we have all received: grace upon grace.”

“… so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;” God said through Isaiah, “it shall not return to me empty, but my word shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy,  and be led back in peace…”                             Isaiah 55

Grace upon grace.

Come and see!  It is for you to know, to drink, to claim as your own and to live for the sake of the world.

Pastor Linda

God’s promise in cookie form

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Narrative Connection:

The year is somewhere around 585 BC. Ezekiel speaks from Babylon, exiled from a country that has died, its temple and capital city completely destroyed. Like his fellow prophets, Ezekiel understands this disaster not simply as collateral damage of Babylon’s empire-building. To him, since nothing can happen unless God knows it, Judah’s people and leaders brought this devastation upon themselves through their disobedience to God. For many, this exile was a crisis of faith. Had God abandoned them?

According to Ezekiel’s understanding, as a consequence of their continued disobedience and disregard for the ways of God, ancient Israel was conquered and overcome first by Assyria and then, with much more devastating results, by the Babylonian empire.

However, Ezekiel has a vision – and through it comes to see that God still has a plan for them: God’s spirit will bring new life to a people dead as stone, dead as dry old bones.

Ezekiel 37

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.  He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”  Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.  Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.  I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”  So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.  I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.  Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”  I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.  “

We know this reading, if we know it at all, because we know our basic anatomy – ‘the toe bone’s connected to the foot bone, the foot bone connected to the leg bone, the leg bone connected to the knee bone, now hear the word of the Lord’ – and the bass section’s refrain – “dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones…. now hear the word of the Lord.” When we sang it in High School, it came to a triumphant climax, “Dem bones gonna rise again!”

In the traditional lectionary, this vision of Ezekiel is a side reading during Lent. Heard in that context, it foreshadows the Resurrection of Jesus, and the rising of the people of God on the last day.

The beauty of the Narrative lectionary, however, is that we get to hear the reading in its own setting within the cohort of Hebrew prophets; we get the chance to think about why Ezekiel was given this vision to start with.

The passage lingers over the details: a large valley filled with bones – dry, brittle bones: and a rattling, a clacking heard as the bones align themselves, as they are stitched together with tendons, dressed with muscle, draped with skin. And as the four winds swirl around them, they come to life.

It is a metaphor for the restoration of a nation that has been devastated by war. Not in reference to any specific battle, Ezekiel paints this visual metaphor of what Exile feels like to its survivors: they are as good as dead, hope is lost; they are lifeless and out of joint, scattered, dried up. And through Ezekiel, God offers an image of unfathomable hope: being brought together again, being a living people, and at home.

One of the things that I find very cool about scripture is in trying to put the bigger picture together. For example, Ezekiel is writing at the same time as Jeremiah, but from different places, and different experiences of exile. Both prophets talk about, warn about, the destruction of Jerusalem and implore the people to turn back to God, to turn back to the source of their life and being… and both – in the midst of the awfulness of desecration and destruction, the death of thousands and thousands of solders and civilians, amidst the dis-embodiment of the people of Judah in exile – both speak of God’s intention to claim and renew, of God’s compassion that overrides the horror they have experienced.

I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place, says the Lord God,” Jeremiah prophesies from Jerusalem. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope…I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”  “I will put my law within you, and I will write it on your hearts; and I will be your God, and you shall be my people.”  (from Jeremiah 29 and 31)

And at roughly the same time, from Ezekiel in Babylon, God says,

Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. The people say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’  Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.  And you shall know that I am the Lord, … I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord. I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone … and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.   (from Ezekiel 37 and 11)

Ezekiel and Jeremiah were not in communication – there was no texting going back and forth, no instant messaging, but the message of God spoken through them was the same: God intends to be God to these scattered people. God will come among them, enter into them in breath and spirit to restore life, to bring them home again. And, historically, God did that through King Cyrus, the Persian king who conquered Babylon and ended their exile. He is the king that the word of God spoken through Isaiah calls the Messiah, or in the Greek Septuagint, the christ, the savior.

The language is interesting, evocative. But even within Hebrew thought and faith, King Cyrus the Persian, was not the awaited Messiah. Cyrus was an encouraging word, but not the ultimate Word.

And the word placed within their hearts, the breath blown into their lungs, the piecing together of the dried up bones of the nation of ancient Israel – was at best a resuscitation. God’s word continued to speak of a new creation, a new saving, a new living beyond empire, beyond oppression and upheaval. And, although we believe that Jesus is the fulness of that word, the full expression of incarnation and resurrection, even we are still awaiting the finality of the event amidst our live’s hopes and fears.

The other thing I like about scripture, the magic of inspired scripture, is that we always hear the word of God spoken into our own context, into our own need and hope and longing.

So, we may hear today’s reading as a gospel spiritual rising from the disembodied bones of slavery;   we may hear it as our Christian hope for the depth and breadth and height of life held within the eternal presence of God;  we may hear it in the context of Mary’s magnificat where the strong are toppled from their thrones and the humble lifted, restored, and fed…. and, because this the the second Sunday of Advent, we hear it today in the context of the Incarnation – the coming of Christ in the birth of Jesus, God in human flesh and form… and of the Cookie Walk.

Well, right?

It’s my nature, I guess to think of big things in small, whimsical ways … and I was mulling over the sermon topic while I was baking cookies on Friday night.

So, if you imagine all the baking that happened on Thursday and Friday – all the sticks of butter sitting out on counters throughout the realm of West Denmark, all the bags or bins of sugar, the eggs sitting on countertops waiting to be cracked, the little vials of vanilla or almond extract, the flour, salt, spices, nuts, dried fruit – all the bones of ingredients are the same spread on all our scattered kitchen counters; then that the butter is connected to the su-gar.. No! not going to do that! …  it’s creamed together, the eggs are added, the dry ingredients are mixed in – it’s all the same process – the same chemistry – as butter takes on sinew and flesh and skin – and in the oven comes to life as a cookie. Each has the same basic ingredients – and each is unique – and each batch is brought together in the Hall to then go out again, boxed in new combinations – from many kitchens to one new kitchen and hands and hearts and bellies.

I mean, it’s whimsical, but it’s a view of how a stick of butter comes to life, how a cup of firmly packed brown sugar takes on flesh. It doesn’t do it of its own accord; cookies are not part of the intrinsic nature of butter. But whether it’s in Selma’s or Patty’s or Brenda’s of Ronnie’s or Kristan’s or any of our kitchens, the chemistry that forms a cookie is the same.

Just so, and in this way, the word of God, the spirit of God, comes to each of us as different individuals, different minds and hearts and needs and gifts, and forms sinew and skin in our particular shape, and brings us together and creates a community of faith, a people of the Word, a cookie of God’s own design, to be irresistable and delicious in the world.

May the word of God find you, and fill you, and through a chemistry of God’s own, create in you an irresistable sweetness and joy, a little nourishment for our wait, and for the way home.

Happy Advent,

Pastor Linda

Standing barefoot in the dust before God

Last week, on the run from trouble he himself had instigated, Jacob slept rough with only a stone for a pillow and he had a dream, and in it received this blessing: “The Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you … Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…

Jacob left his stone pillow, turning it upright into an altar in the sand, and made his way through the desert to his uncle’s home. In time, he married both of his uncle’s daughters, had relations with both of the daughter’s handmaids, and between them had 12 sons and one daughter. (And we think family life is messy.) Out of the 13 kids, Joseph is the one the biblical storyline follows through his obnoxious youth and as he is sold by his jealous brothers and taken into Egypt on a slave caravan. He suffers various calamities there, but, because Joseph can interpret dreams, he eventually rises to power in the Pharaoh’s household. Years pass, and he is reunited with his family. He is able to rescue them at a time of severe famine in their homeland. So they leave Canaan to settle near him in Egypt along the Nile where, even as foreigners, they thrive….

Generations pass. Joseph is no longer remembered. The family ‘begat’ by Abraham and Sarah long ago now comprises a vast, but enslaved, people. A new pharaoh comes to power in Egypt who is wary of these prolific Hebrews, conscripts them into labor camps, and tries to have their numbers decreased by decreeing that their midwives kill the newborn boys. They sneakily refuse.

In the midst of this, Moses is born. By a twist of fate (or divine intervention), he is taken into the Pharaoh’s own household and raised as an adopted grandson. However, his cushy life comes to an abrupt end.

One day Moses sees a guard beating a Hebrew slave. He intervenes and kills the guard, buries him in the sand and hopes that no one saw him do it. They did. And in a repetition from last week, Moses, now fearing for his life, flees to the desert. He, too, finds his way to a shepherd, who, also, in time, becomes his father-in-law. (This repeated storyline between Jacob and Moses fleeing to the desert and becoming a shepherd for their fathers-in-law probably has less to do with a mystical foreshadowing of their chosen status, than it does with the lifestyle options available to them. In the 13th century BCE, people of the mid-east were tribal, nomadic shepherds – you could be a keeper of sheep, or camels or goats – or some combination thereof.… but the apprenticeship career options were limited.)

Anyway, this is where we catch up to the story. One fine, hot, sunny day Moses was out in the wilderness tending his father-in-law’s sheep. He comes to the mountain at Horeb, known to Bible readers but probably not to Moses, as the mountain of God, or Mount Sinai; and he happens to see a burning bush. Fire is a common sign in the Bible of God’s presence but, again, Moses wouldn’t have reason to know that – this is his first meeting with God.

This bush burns and burns… and burns, and burns… and he is curious.  He might actually have seen it a long way off, a flickering light glinting across the Sinai’s barren wilderness. He might have been steering the sheep toward it all along, like the magi following their star. However it happened, Moses came up close to see this odd thing.

Exodus, chapter 3:4-6

“When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’  Then he said, ‘Come no closer! But remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’  He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”

Hymn #490    Let all mortal flesh keep silence.Pig-Pen

Don’t think of it as dust. Just think of it as the dirt and dust of far-off lands blowing over here and settling on “Pig-Pen!” It staggers the imagination! He may be carrying the soil that was trod upon by Solomon or Nebuchadnezzar or Genghis Khan!, said Charlie Brown.…”

 

Last week, I noticed that when God spoke the promises to Jacob, God did not say, “Your offspring shall be as plenteous as the dust.” Back in the day, when God made similar covenantal promises to his grandfather Abraham, God did say, “I will make of you a great nation, you shall be exceedingly fruitful, numerous… Look to the heavens and count the stars if you are able, so shall your descendants be.”  The promise to Abraham was about numbers. To Jacob, God said, “Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth and you shall spread from west to east, from north to south and all people shall be blessed through you and your offspring…

My imagination has been playing with this difference. God is no longer concerned with quantity, it seems, but with activity.

What is it about dust?

This week, God tells Moses to take off his shoes, to stand barefoot in that dust because it is holy ground.

The argument can be made that all ground is sacred. As any farmer will be happy to tell you, soil is the essential element of life….both living and life-giving – soil is a blessing. We can’t have a Harvest Fest without it. Dirt is essential, and it shares the chemical essence of our being. Oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, magnesium – our bodies hold these things is common with the crust of the earth.

In the first story of creation, God forms the earth, separates the dry land from the water – and, in the second story of creation, forms some of the dust into a human being, breathes into his lungs, and the dustling comes becomes a man. At the end of that story, the man and woman are sent out of the Garden of Eden and the ground is cursed.  “Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;” God tells Adam, “by the sweat of your face you shall eat your bread.” Any farmer will also tell you the truth of that curse. (In full disclosure, God should have made mention of rocks.)

But standing in his bare feet in the dust, Moses is back on holy ground.

The Sinai peninsula, where Moses stands, is not the Garden of Eden. Here is a description from the Encyclopædia Britannica:

“The Sinai falls within the great arid belt crossing northern Africa and southwestern Asia, manifested by a degraded soil structure, sand-dune expanses, salinization, and wadis (seasonal watercourses).    Vegetation is mostly ephemeral, but perennial scrub survives on the steep southern slopes (the burning bush). The region is essentially composed of igneous rocks and is sharply incised by deep, canyonlike wadis. This gaunt mountain mass is separated from the Gulf of Suez to the west by a narrow coastal plain, and on its eastern side, rises precipitately from the Gulf of Aqaba.”

Vacation-land it’s not. But there Moses stands, sandals in his hands.

So a word about sandals. God said, “Take them off. This is holy ground.”

Removing one’s sandals is an ancient spiritual practice.  It’s one still honored today – especially by Buddhist and our sibling Muslim worshippers. When entering a holy place, one takes off one’s shoes. More than for the sake of silence or purity or cleanliness, it is a deeply humbling act recognizing our humanity; it’s a sign and symbol of our vulnerability, or our ‘otherness’ from God. We remove the artificial boundary, the pretense, the defense between us and the ground of our being.

Typically made of animal skin or plant fibers, sandals in Moses’ day not only protected the tender underbelly of the foot but could also symbolize property, purity, social contracts, and status. Actually, they still do today. In Egypt a pair of sandals could be purchased for the price of a sack of grain: not exactly a luxury, still an investment. Sandals of the upper class were more artfully made, sometimes adorned with bling of precious stones and metal work and other decorations. Sandals discovered in the tomb of Tut-ankh-Amon were inscribed with the image of foreign captives on his insole, proclaiming with the every step he took, the Pharaoh’s power over the people and nations his armies subdued.

In Deuteronomy, we learn that removing one’s sandals – or having them removed by another – nullified previously binding legal and social ties, creating the conditions for new claims, new relationships, and new responsibility.  (1)

Removing one’s sandals is also a sign that we’re home. The first thing many of us do when we get in our front door is to kick off our shoes. The ground of our being might be the linoleum or oak of our kitchen floor. We feel it and know we belong.

God said, “Moses, take off your sandals.

So, is the significance of Moses standing barefoot in the dust of creation his vulnerability – the awe of standing before his creator, humbled in the humus? Is it the new relationship, the new claim, new responsibility God is placing on his life to release the captives under Pharaoh’s feet? Is it a sign of assurance, that this nomadic wanderer stuck between two cultures, at home in neither one, has found his true home, wiggling bare toes in the dust of Mount Horeb, the mountain of God?

Maybe yes – all; but this story isn’t primarily about Moses’ encounter with God. I hope you are running through flashbacks of places and times and people that have brought you near to God.  Personal, life-changing engagement with what is sacred, holy, divine is where we have to begin… The life of faith begins with some authentic encounter in loving God, in knowing God, trusting God through the world and through the Word

But… the thrust of the story, the thrust of God, is for Moses to go – to go back into the land of Egypt, back to the place of his fear, back into danger, back to the need of his people. This is not a story of Moses’ holiness or righteousness… or of peace.     It is a story of justice and salvation.   It is a story of God working through someone who has many good reasons not to be that someone – and who lists them boldly before God, finally pleading not to be that someone, not to be sent as the agent of divine change. “Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, ‘What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently!” And God adjusts the plan. “Your brother will go with you.

This is a story that shepherds Moses – that calls him – and courageous people of all times – to rise out of the dust and get on with the holy, hard work of speaking out, calling out the captives, standing up to arrogance and fear and greed – the powers that enslave us.    “You are dust…you are my Dust, beloved and holy and ordinary and often inept….. and as dust you shall go to be a blessing to all people…. and to dust you shall return.”

In this scripture, with Moses the shepherd standing barefoot, wiggling his toes, halfway up the mountain of God, with his father-in-law’s sheep no doubt straying back down the mountain, this is an empowering call to action. “You are my dust!” We, the people of God are dust motes: everywhere, ubiquitous, a fine covering, dust that works its way into every crevice and cranny and every situation; created stuff that is seen and not seen; an agent of irritation and change. Dust has a way of working itself in-between your toes even when when you’ve got socks and work boots on out in the garden or out in the woods or out with your sheep. Desert dust covered up entire pyramids and the Sphinx and cities. Dust has power. Dust has presence – just ask Moses as he backs away from the bush – not quite able to turn his back on God – and returns his sandals to his feet.

Dust has a calling, a claim on us – to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly, dustily, with our God. It staggers the imagination.

____________

(1) Anathea Portier-Young, Associate Professor of Old Testament, Duke Divinity School,  Durham, NC