New Beginnings: Pre-Season Plans
Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 31, 2016
Jeremiah 4:1-10, Luke 4:14-21
This is the year. We have the players. We have the coaches. We have the plan. We have the determination. We have worked hard in the off-season and we know that this year, we will go all the way. We will win…and you fill in the blank…the Super Bowl, the NCAA football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer championship, the NBA title, the World Series…the Little League World Series…the bowling title…ok, so you get the point. So how many of you have either heard or said these words? How many of you have believed them at the beginning of a season? How many of you have ever been disappointed? What is amazing is that we believe these words. We look at last season when our favorite team was in last place and we want to believe that this season is the one in which we will finally get the brass ring…then once again we are crushed. We wear bags over our heads. We yell at the television…or at least I do. But we want to believe, because otherwise, why bother?
I offer that image because it appears to be what Jesus is doing in this opening story of the Gospel of Luke. Jesus has been baptized by John, resisted temptation in the wilderness, done a little preaching in the minor leagues and gained a reputation as an up and coming prophet. He then returns to his hometown of Nazareth in order to lay out his game plan for his coming ministry. And his plans are pretty ambitious. He has come to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, set the oppressed free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Then he declares that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He is claiming victory before the season has even begun. And the people believe him. In the face of all odds, the people believe him. They believe him even though for most of the past five-hundred years none of those things had happened. If you want to think of it in sports terms, they had been waiting longer for this liberation than have Cubs fans for a World Series.
The question for us this morning then is, how well did Jesus and then the church carry out his game plan? At first our answer would be, pretty well. As Luke tells the story in his Gospel, we see Jesus carrying out his game plan. He sets people free from fear, pain, disease and death. He gives sight to the blind. He feeds the hungry. And people respond. A grass roots movement grows up around him and the crowds become so large that he cannot enter any town without creating major congestion. Granted, all of this will lead to his arrest, trial and crucifixion, yet when God raises him from the dead it appears as if the ministry he began would continue. The Book of Acts tells stories of the disciples creating a community in which everyone had enough to eat and a place to live; where there was love, grace and acceptance; where people were healed and lives renewed; where all persons, Jew, Greek, slave, free, male and female were welcomed and included. If the story had ended there, it would have appeared that Jesus game plan worked. Yet we know that the story of the church and the world did not end at the end of Acts.
Over the next several months my articles in First Things will take us through the history of the church. What we will discover along the way is that the church quickly moved from this loving Acts community to an organization with a hierarchy and a desire for power. Once it was legalized under Constantine it used all of its resources to gain both religious power, meaning the destruction of old pagan worship, and political power, meaning attempting to control the secular authorities. Along the way it excommunicated people, executed people, tortured people, authorized Crusades that killed tens of thousands, conducted pogroms against Jews, diminished the role of women, and actually conducted war in the name of the Pope. Even after the Reformation, the Lutheran and Reformed, including Presbyterian, engaged in wars lasting more than one-hundred years, virtually destroying Europe. Here in America the Puritans and Anglicans persecuted Baptists, Mennonites and Quakers. And the Southern Presbyterian Church defended slavery and segregation. It was as if the game plan that Jesus laid out at the beginning of his ministry had been completely lost and replaced with a game plan of power and prejudice. And these game plans have two serious consequences.
First the world is worse shape because of it. When the church, the body of Christ forgets its mission, its game plan, the world suffers. People go hungry and uneducated. People live in substandard housing. People of color are incarcerated at levels far beyond other populations. Payday lenders are allowed to prey on the most vulnerable by charging almost unlimited interest rates. Refugees are looked upon with scorn rather than compassion. The world is a poorer place.
Second, people don’t like the church; don’t want to be part of the church. Millennials, those in the 25 to 35 age range, believe the church to be racist, anti-gay, anti-woman, self-centered and unconcerned about the poor. The church is only about money and political power. Half of all millennials, and a third of boomers and builders, those over 50, sees the church in a negative light.
If we are willing to look and listen, these realities should tell us something about what happens when the church forgets its game-plan; the game plan of Jesus that inspired a movement that began to change the world. But there is hope, there are bright spots in the church world. There is Pope Francis calling on the church to shed its ostentatious ways, return to serving the poor and to become more welcoming. It is the Presbyterian Church becoming a welcoming and affirming church for all people. It is our presbytery finally beginning the conversation on race in Detroit. And there is this church, First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, which has chosen to pick up Jesus’ game plan and run with it.
Last week was our annual meeting, and (for those of you who weren’t there you can pick up a paper copy of our annual report, view it on line and watch the video) we looked back at all that we had accomplished in 2015 in the context of mission, inclusion and community. But this morning I want us to see ourselves, both individually and collectively, through the lens of Jesus’ game plan. We bring good news to the poor by feeding hungry children and families, by welcoming into our church through SOS, by building a school in Mexico and soon two more in Kenya. We proclaim release to the captives and set the prisoner free by working to educate students at Alcott Elementary, because a lack of education means a higher likelihood of people living their entire lives in poverty and often entering the pipeline to prison. We offer recovery of sight to the blind by supporting medical missions in Mexico and others of us in organizations that work to prevent blindness around the world. We proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor by being a welcoming and affirming place for all people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender or income, as well as assisting people in immediate need through the deacon’s fund. In other words, I believe that we are a bright spot for the church and the world.
Now, before we become sore patting ourselves on the back, we need to realize that Jesus’ game plan calls us to do more, to be more. And let me be clear at this point, all that we do in and through this church is because we are followers of Jesus Christ, and not simply because we are a do-good, organization. We do it because Jesus Christ, in his first great sermon in Nazareth, called upon his followers to follow his lead, to take up his call and to live into the reality that in Jesus Christ it is possible to change the world because the power to do so comes from him; he has accomplished it.
My challenge to you and to us, this morning then is this, to ask ourselves, how am I living out the game plan that Jesus offers? How am I part of the team, here in this church and other teams in the world that preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor?
New Beginnings: The Life of the Party
Rev. Amy Morgan
January 17, 2016
Isaiah 62:1-5, John 2:1-11
The party was dying. We had invited about 25 people over to our house to enjoy a delicious, 18 pound smoked brisket. My husband, Jason, had been up since four in the morning babysitting this hunk of meat, and we’d gathered together friends and neighbors and people we barely knew so that we would have enough folks to eat this enormous feast of smoked goodness.
Jason had told everyone to be there around 6 o’clock and to bring a side dish. People mingled and chatted for several hours while we waited for the meat to finish cooking to perfection. But by 8:30, the party was clearly dying. People were hungry. Kids were tired. And I had nothing to feed them.
Finally, someone kindly suggested we break into the side dishes. And some hot dogs turned up out of somewhere and we threw them on the grill. And, loaves and fishes style, there was somehow enough food to go around. The party was saved. And the brisket came off the grill at 10:30 that night.
Which is why I truly sympathize with the hosts of this wedding party in the gospel of John and truly appreciate the miracle Jesus performed there.
A proper Jewish wedding feast was supposed to last seven days. And horror of horrors, the host had run out of wine before the festivities were supposed to be over. This would have been the very height of hospitality failure, a major embarrassment with serious social consequences.
And the mother of Jesus, as she is known in the Gospel of John, seems to think Jesus can do something to help.
You know, I always wonder about what Jesus’ mother thought, all that pondering in her heart, concerning what Jesus was capable of doing, what it meant for him to be the Son of God. There are some interesting non-Biblical texts that tell stories of Jesus as a child performing some rather exotic miracles. But according to John’s gospel, this water-into-wine episode is the first of Jesus’ signs or miracles. And it comes at the urging of this mother, who somehow knew this type of thing was in his wheelhouse.
Now, like much of the Gospel of John, this story is saturated with symbolic meaning.
First, we’re told that this happened on the third day. One the one hand, we could hear this simply as chronological storytelling. The gospel says that on the first day of his ministry, Jesus called his first disciples. On the second day, he called Phillip and Nathaniel to follow him. And here we are on the third day.
But knowing how John’s gospel is constructed, I’m more inclined to think we are supposed to draw the obvious parallel to the other “third day” in the larger narrative. Not only did Jesus resurrect a dying wedding party on this third day, he is inaugurating the resurrection of a whole people, the Jewish people, who were like empty jars, waiting to be filled to overflowing with that which makes for joy and celebration. These people were dried up from centuries of exile and oppression, occupation and subjugation. Prophets like Isaiah had talked about God’s love and desire for Israel in terms of great endearment, as we heard in today’s first reading. God rejoices in Israel and calls for celebration and praise, singing and dancing and feasting. This is what Jesus gives to the world in this sign. Not jars filled with wine to keep the dizzy crowd drunk and rowdy. But rather a faith overflowing with joy and goodness.
But as is also often the case in the gospel of John, not everybody in this story gets it. John’s gospel is full of mystery. There are many episodes where people are left scratching their heads at what Jesus says and does. But there are always a few who understand.
In this story, there is the steward who assumes the fine wine came from some hidden reserves of the host. He’s puzzled that the host would have saved the best wine for last, when the guests are too far gone to appreciate it. The sign, the miracle, the resurrection is lost on him.
Then there are the guests themselves, who we imagine happily guzzle down this miraculous gift without a clue as to its divine origins. The party went on for the prescribed seven days, and everyone went home, unchanged.
Imagine drinking wine that had been miraculously transformed from water by Jesus Christ himself, and never knowing it. Imagine perhaps even getting drunk and foolish on that wine, and never knowing the difference. What a waste!
But then there are the disciples, who have been following Jesus only a day or two. They don’t really know who he is or even why they’re following him. John the Baptist declared him to be “the Lamb of God,” whatever that means. Andrew said he is the Messiah, but what does he know? Mostly, Jesus just says, “follow me,” and “come and see.” Except for his revelation to Nathanael that he has some kind of time and space warp vision that allowed him to see Nathanael sitting under a fig tree. But that’s what it took to convince Nathanael that something good could come out of Nazareth. Jesus promised Nathanael would see greater things that that, and he delivers in this sign of turning water into wine.
The disciples know the source of the gift, the fine wine. They get to really see and experience the miracle. And because of that, they believe in Jesus. They are filled to overflowing like the jars of wine, they get a glimpse of the resurrection joy to come.
But why are the disciples privileged to witness this miracle and not any of the other guests?
Well, the disciples, unlike the average wedding guest, were following Jesus. They were hanging out around him. Watching his every move. They were expecting something to happen. They were looking for a sign. And they got what they were looking for.
Finally, there are the servants in this story. We don’t hear too much about them. Were they Jewish? We don’t know. Did they know anything about Jesus? Probably not. But we are told a couple of important things.
One, they did what Jesus told them to do. Household servants weren’t necessarily required to take orders from just anybody. When Jesus’ mother tells them to do whatever Jesus tells them, they could have said, “hold on just a minute, lady, let me go talk to the master about this.” When Jesus tells them to fill six enormous jars of water used for the Jewish rite of purification, they could have said, “you know what? I’m just going to run this by the boss.” That’s a lot of water to lug around for no apparent reason. The purification rites happen before the wedding takes place, so there was no clear need for those jars to be filled. But the servants do what Jesus tells them to do, even though it is difficult, labor-intensive, and seemingly unnecessary. They give Jesus the authority of their master.
The second thing John’s story makes very clear about these servants is that they knew where the wine came from. They saw and experienced the miracle of the water being turned into wine. In fact, they were bearers of that miracle themselves, taking water from the jars and serving wine to the steward. They were privileged the witness and to bear this miracle, not because they were following Jesus. Not because they were looking for a sign. Purely by grace were they able to witness this resurrecting miracle.
So the question that confronts us today is, where are God’s miracles? Where are the signs? If Jesus can turn water into wine to save a wedding party, why doesn’t he turn sand into AIDS treatment for people in Africa or rubble into food for starving Syrians? In the face of these obvious deficiencies, it is difficult to see God’s abundant grace.
But this kind of thinking will lead us to be like the guests at the wedding. They had friends and family who were ill. They were living in a poor backwater town, part of a minority group surviving under the thumb of the Roman Empire. They saw need and they experienced tragedy. And for just a short time, for just seven days, they came together to celebrate the union of two people, the possibility of new life for their community. And even though they missed the miracle, they were still given this extended experience of joy and celebration. They got a reprieve from the realities of life and death, grief and struggle. But they missed the blessing of recognizing the hope for true life, abundant life, that was right there in their midst, right there on their lips.
If we are not looking for God’s activity, we’re likely to miss it. We may enjoy a reprieve from the struggles of life, the weight of tragedy, and the burden of sin from time to time. But instead of recognizing in those moments the love and grace of God, we will simply go on as we have, our lives unaltered, still waiting for the world to change without really expecting anything to happen.
Perhaps we could say that it isn’t God’s job to miraculously heal all the problems of the world in an instant. We are, after all, the hands and feet of Christ, the stewards of the earth, and there is much more we can and should do to help those in need. This is all true, all well and good, but do not forget that the steward, too, missed the miracle. And that is because he failed to do what the servants did. He was serving the wrong master.
If we place our authority in earthly leaders and governments and institutions, things will sometimes work out, but we will miss out on the miracle of it all. If we hold ourselves ultimately responsible for the life of the party, we may be left scratching our heads at the way things work out instead of believing in a gracious God and celebrating God’s love and salvation.
If, instead, we live like the disciples, following Jesus, staying by his side, watching his every move, expecting the miraculous, we will not be disappointed. We will recognize God’s hand in the resurrected party and the resurrected life.
But not everybody is ready to be a disciple. Some of us are still finding our way to Jesus, figuring out who he is and what we believe about him. We may have grown apathetic or disillusioned as we’ve struggled to reconcile our lot in life, or the condition of the world, with a God who promises abundant life. We may not be comfortable with talking about miracles and signs in the context of hard facts and scientific inquiry.
But we can still do what Jesus asks of us. We can still give him authority and serve him. We can do the heavy lifting, the hard labor, even when it doesn’t make any sense. And by God’s grace, through that tedious and seemingly meaningless work, we can be carriers of the miraculous, witnesses to God’s wonders.
We aren’t told that the servants came to believe in Jesus, but we do know that they knew where the wine came from. What they did with that information was up to them. But I’m going to bet that the next time Jesus came to Cana in Galilee, they were on the lookout for what he might do next. And do you know what they would have seen? A sign much greater than the resurrection of a wedding party. When Jesus comes back to Cana, he saves the son of a royal official from dying. He goes from bringing life to a dying party giving life to a dying child.
Wherever Jesus goes, he brings life. To parties and to people, to nations and to the world. The signs of Jesus’ power, the miracles of God’s love, are all around us. We can enjoy them, even if we don’t recognize them. We can be puzzled by them, even as we experience them. Or they can draw us deeper into belief and closer to God. We can watch and wait with expectation, or simply do God’s work in spite of our misgivings. Either way, God is at work and hoping we will notice.
To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.
New Beginnings: What the Word Does
Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 3, 2016
John 1:1-18, Jeremiah 31:7-14
Subversive…that is the only word we ought to use for these opening words from the Gospel of John, subversive. I realize that had I given you ten words to choose from to describe this passage, subversive would probably not have been at the top of your list. And it would not have been because either we don’t really understand it…it is just a bit confusing with all of this Word stuff, or because we have been trained to see it as merely theological. Jesus is the Word. The Word-Jesus was God. Jesus became one of us meaning God is with us. Yea Jesus. It is one of those nice Christmas passages that reminds us that God has become enfleshed in human form. The problem is that this is not, I would argue, how people in the first century would have read it…and I am not just talking about Christians. Anyone reading this in the context of the first century Roman Empire would have read this in an entirely different way…and here is why; Rome believed that the Roman Empire was the light that had come into the world.
Emperor Augustus, one of the longest reigning Emperors in Roman history realized the power of story and of religion. So over his reign he devised a new civic religion in which Rome was cast as the light that had come from the gods. Rome was the light that had come into the world to enlighten all humanity. It had been blessed by the gods with the knowledge necessary to lift up and save humanity. This creation epic then gave Rome the right to conquest. It gave it the right to conquest because all of the other nations and people were unenlightened. Thus they need Rome to conquer them in order to lift them up. It also meant that those who were not enlightened and refused to do so could be enslaved because they were inferior. Thus a culture of violence was given theological cover. It was, in the end, Rome’s duty, to bring all people into the sphere of the one, true, enlightened Empire.
Thus when John begins to speak of the Word, the Word that was with the God, the Word that was God, he is speaking the language of the Empire. But when this Word turns out not be Rome, when it turns out not to be the Emperor and is instead a carpenter’s son from Nazareth who was hung on a cross, died, was buried and then was raised again, he is offering a set of beliefs which tear at the very heart of the Roman creation myth. This is subversive…and it gets even more subversive when John goes on to describe how this new Word is going to create a new kingdom, a new Kingdom of God. This new kingdom is going to be based not on violence and conquest but on love, on inclusion and on welcome. In fact the single commandment which is to guide the lives of those in this new kingdom is to love one another as Jesus loved them, meaning giving his life for them. This new vision for a new kingdom is subversive because it undermines the very foundations of Rome.
This passage continues to be subversive because Rome never left. Sure Rome fell, but it was reincarnated in new forms with every new generation. It was the Caliphates of the Islamic states, it was the Golden Hordes of the Mongol Khans, it was the Holy Roman Empire, it was Chinese dynasties, and the global Empires of European states and even of the United States. How so? When I was in the Philippines I learned of the Filipino-American War which took place from 1899-1902. When the United States defeated Spain in 1898, it received not only Cuba and Puerto Rico, but also the Philippines. And even though the Filipinos had been fighting for independence from Spain since 1892, when the American arrived they claimed that the Filipinos were not capable of self-government and so the United States needed to take control. This led to the war in which perhaps as many as 200,000 Filipinos died. See, Empire and its inherent theology of superiority are alluring. We are more enlightened and so conquest and violence are acceptable. This really hit home in a recent survey when 1,000 Americans were asked, “Should we or should we not bomb Agrabah?” Fully one quarter of all respondents, of both major parties, answered yes…even though the only people currently residing there are Aladdin, Jasmine and a genie. Yes people said we should bomb Walt Disney cartoon characters.
Why am I telling you all of this? It is because we are now officially in an election year. And as we move through the next ten months we will hear people speaking the language of Empire; the language of violence and destruction; the language of superiority. In the face of that language our challenge is to be subversive. It is to ask subversive questions. It is to maintain a subversive point of view. It is to remember that we follow the one who brings light and life to the world and commands that we love friend and enemy. Is there evil in the world? Yes. Do we need as a nation to confront evil? Yes. But as we do so we are to do it as those whose lives as aligned with the one who is the Word made flesh, the light to the world, Jesus the Christ, God with us. And through that relationship we are to then choose who we believe is best to lead us into the future.
My challenge is to ask, “How am I allowing the subversive words of John shape how I hear the words of those who are in, or who desire to be in, positions of power in our world?”