“Follow the Cup” John 2:1-11

John’s Gospel is arranged very differently from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  The author of John’s Gospel isn’t as interested in the chronology of Jesus life as he is the meaning of Jesus’ ministry and life.  John arranges his Gospel around seven “signs” that Jesus performs that are the marks of Jesus being the Son of God.   Each sign reveals a little bit more about Jesus for those who have eyes to see.

The miracle at Canaan, turning the water into wine is the first sign, the one that caused his disciples to first believe in Jesus.

What is it about turning water into wine that does that?

I want you to follow the cup, to watch it in this story.

A cup, one like this one, simple, wooden, in the hands of everyone at the wedding feast.

Everyone’s got a cup, and when the story begins, we are mid-feast.   Everyone has been partaking, imbibing, joining in the toasts and the celebration.

Point # 1, The cups in the story aren’t empty, not yet, but they are running low.   The wine is giving out, getting low in supply.  The party is still going on, but it is threatened, and there is a general sense of dis-ease about what to do, and no one has any good solutions, and so Mary takes it up with Jesus.

We have a misperception about what it means to share our faith.  We tend to think that what we are called to do is to share our faith with those poor folks out there who have empty cups.  Those whose lives are empty, wanting, and dried up.

But the truth of the matter is that most folks don’t reach the point of empty cups, there is always a “little something” in them.

Reaching people with empty cups is a lot easier, they are eager to receive almost anything.

Reaching people whose cups aren’t quite empty yet, well that’s a bit more complex because one is never quite sure if what you want to top them off with is better than what they already have.

This is a part of the first sign in John’s Gospel.

There is a general sense of dis-ease about how the party is going, where it may be heading, but no one is quite sure what to do about it, and they are standing around looking at what they have in their cups right now.

That’s a pretty accurate description of our world, isn’t it?

How is your cup doing?  The cup of your life?

Few of us here today would say that we have empty cups, but we do have a general sense that what’s in there may not be quite enough, or really good stuff.

I wish I had more.

I wish I had more faith.  I wish I had a better job.  I wish I didn’t have this arthritis in my body.  I wish I had made a different choice back there.  We are good at looking at the cup of our life and looking for what we don’t have, what we wish we had, what we wish we didn’t have.

We have a general sense of dis-ease about the way things are going, about the economy, about our neighborhoods, about our schools, our politics, our church, our jobs or our relationships but, we’re not really sure what to do about it.

Now, if you’ve ever been to a party where it looks like things are going to give out you know that there are two classic ways that people respond to that situation.  Here are your options.

Some will go and grab for all they can before it’s gone.  You’ve seen these folks, tapping the keg, tipping the coffee pot to get the last drops, maybe slipping an extra can of soda into their pocket for later.   One response to the prospect of the party coming to an abrupt end is to make sure you get in your good time no matter what.

Others, will respond with nursing their drinks.  Conserving what they have to make it last as long as they can.

The funny thing about both responses is that neither one will save the party.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in our world today, in the party we’re at right now we see both extremes as well.  Some who grab for all they can get.  Some who nurse along what little they’ve got.  Neither one really able to understanding the actions or reasonings of the other, and; neither one able to save the party.

Follow the cup.  This is the place where Jesus does his first sign.  It’s not to people who are desperately looking for a savior, it’s done in the midst of people trying to decide what to do with their half empty cup.

“Is this all there is?”

“Can I make this last?”

“Do I have enough?”

“Where can I get some more?”

Those are the questions being raised when Mary takes things up with Jesus, when she says, “they have no wine.”  The first of Jesus’ signs comes not to people with empty cups, but to people with cups ½ full who are trying to decide what to do next.

Point # 2 – Follow the cup.   You know, we say this is the story where Jesus turns the water into wine, but follow the cup.  Jesus never lays a finger on anything connected to this miracle.  It happens because there are people who are willing to listen to him and to do what he tells them to do.

Follow the cup.  He never touches the six stone jars, he tells the servants to fill them with water.

Follow the cup, he doesn’t dip the cup in to take it to the steward of the feast, he has one of the servants who filled the jars do that.

Follow the cup, Jesus doesn’t put the water turned to wine to his own lips, the steward of the feast does that , and it is the steward who compliments, not Jesus, but the bridegroom.  “Hey, you have saved the best stuff for last!”

In this story Jesus is nearly invisible, you don’t see him taking center stage at all.  The signs that POINT to him, are the actions of those who listen to him, who do what he tells them to do, or who become unaware recipients of Jesus’ blessing.

The Chief Steward doesn’t know where this good stuff came from.

The Bridegroom sure isn’t aware of what Jesus has done for him.

The only folks who know that Jesus is behind all of this are the servants and the disciples.  Even Mary doesn’t get the satisfaction of bragging about what her boy has done.

The only sign of what Jesus has done, is that the party keeps going, and that now no one is focusing on their ½ empty cups anymore.

Follow the cup.  The first of Jesus’ signs has very little to do with people seeing or recognizing Jesus on their own!

What they see are his servants attending to them.

What they receive are Jesus’ blessings poured out through others hands.

Imagine how this party unfolds now, as the servants begin pouring that abundant new wine into the ½ empty cups of all those present.

Imagine how the party changes, from a sense of dis-ease and tentativeness to a full celebration of life and love and all the blessings found in this world.

Is this the way it is to be for us, as Jesus’ followers?   Should our concern first and foremost be to take people’s minds off their ½ empty cups?

What would the party of this world look like if we were to attend to that?

What if, as servants of Jesus we were to say to those who are trying to grab all they can get before it is gone, “Listen, you don’t have to do that, it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom!”  God provides, all you need, and abundantly, so there is no need to store up things here on earth or worry about things running out.  Open up your hand and share the blessings Jesus has already given to you with your neighbor!

Pour the blessings you have received out to others so that your cup can be re-filled with the good stuff!

What if, as servants of Jesus we were to say to those who are nursing their half empty cups, “You know, there is a lot more to life than this, than trying to protect what little you have, and focusing on how there may not be enough, and comparing what you’ve got to what someone else has.”

Drink deep, and be ready for a refill!

For the God who gives all good gifts has promised that the party of this life will not fail, look at the abundance!

For the servants in this story, it is the stone jars they can point to.

For us, well, just take a look around at what we have here, and what is available in our society, and let me tell you about the guy who made it all possible!

No one at this wedding really knows that Jesus is behind it all.  That is for his servants, his disciples to make known as they do the pouring and the celebrating, the sharing with others and the filling of cups.

In our world, in our country, the story is the same.

So few people know seem to know that Jesus is behind it all, that it is God who creates and who gives every blessing.   It’s up to us, his servants, to make that known to them as we do the pouring and celebrating in life.

How is your cup doing?

Did you come here today thinking it was ½ full, and with your mind fully set upon that?

Get your mind off your ½ empty cup.  Jesus is making something out of nothing every day in our very midst.

Open your eyes to see him at work, and then extend that cup of your life to receive what God longs to pour into it.

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“Expectations Both Ways” Luke 3:15-21

It is not easy living in a time of expectation.

I’m not sure I ever thought about that quite the way I do now, for I have always looked at times of expectation from a somewhat “safe distance.”

What I mean by that is that when we think about living in times of expectation, we most usually do that as a memory exercise.

We remember (for instance) living in expectation of that big test in college or waiting for the grades to come out.

We remember living in the expectation of the wedding, or of the birth of a child.

We remember living in the expectation of the needed surgery, or the treatment schedule, what it was like.

But those are all memories, and memories are tricky things.   We tend to hold on to the good in a memory and let the bad fade away.   We compare what we think it would be like to live in a time of expectation with our memory of what it was like.

We already know what the outcome will be for that memory.   More often than not we remember those times of expectations as being somewhat exciting to live in.  The memories we hold on to help us imagine them as more pleasant than they really were.

It’s harder to remember what it was like to actually LIVE in the moment, the anxieties as well has the hopes and the strong emotions.

We forget how times of expectation could often run in both directions at the same time, and all the uncertainty that we felt in the midst of all of those events.

So, when we read in the Gospel today “As the people were filled with expectation, and all of them questioning in their hearts…”   We are first tempted to “fill in the blank” of what that experience must have been like by supplying our own memories of times of expectation that we’ve lived through, and in doing so risk reading in memories instead of connecting with the actual experience of expectation.

“It must have been wonderful.”   We think, to have been there, seen that, experienced that.

“My faith would be so much stronger if I had been baptized by John, or heard his words, or seen Jesus.”

To get a feel for this Gospel, it might actually be more useful to read in an expectation experience that we have now in the present.

What do you think will the President get his wall or not?

Yes, I know that is bringing up politics in the pulpit, but these are the “expectant times” in which we live, are they not?

What is useful about that example is how much less clarity there is to be living this than when we rely on our memories of past events to consider what it is like in in a time of expectation.

What is also useful is the recognition of the level of division and emotion that expectant times bring with them.

Just as we could no doubt raise a heated argument right now about the wall and the shut-down with people lining up on both sides, so it was that when John appeared in the wilderness baptizing.

There were no apparent simple answers.   We often key in on the “living in expectation” part of this Gospel and underestimate the “and all were questioning in their hearts.”

Expectations run in all directions.

Some are excited by what John is doing.

Others are fearful about what his actions are bringing up, how the Roman authorities will react.  The Pharisees are clearly nervous.

Still others don’t know what to think but only know that this moment and all this talk about fulfillment and the Messiah and separating wheat from chaff is turning the world upside down for an awful lot of people.

That’s what living in times of expectation will do.  There will be confusion over what course of action to take, what to look for, who to follow, and what to do.

That’s why John speaks out into the expectation.

Everyone is wondering if he might be the Messiah, and to that he speaks what must have been a disappointing word for some.

“It’s not me, I’m not worthy, but another one is coming…”

That must have been terribly disappointing for John’s followers to hear, for they had pinned such hopes on him.

In times of expectation it is sometimes what you don’t want to hear that leaves the strongest impression.

It is sometimes what you don’t want to hear that tells you what needs to hear.

I doubt that few wanted to hear the talk about about winnowing forks and chaff, about things being sorted out and what is found worthless being consumed in eternal fire.

We know that later on in the Gospel Jesus will begin to talk about suffering and going the way of the Cross.  This too will prove to be unpopular for even Jesus’ closest followers.

And yet, these are the messages that are given and needed by those living in times of expectation. They are messages that point to more at work in the world than human eye can see. They are messages that turn one’s attention to the unexpected and the source of hope.

God is breaking in.

That is the message that intrudes upon this time of expectation and questioning, the voice from the heavens proclaiming, “you are my Son, the beloved, and with you I am well pleased.”

It is a voice that speaks to Jesus.

It is a voice that is overheard (depending upon the Gospel) by either the crowd, or by John, or only by Jesus, but in any case it is a voice that speaks of three things.

It speaks a word of belonging.

It speaks a word of being loved.

It speaks a word of God being pleased.

“You are my Son…”   Words of belonging and being claimed are good news to those who live in expectation and questioning because in such times we so often feel so very alone, or on our own, or cut off from help.

          Isn’t that the feeling we have right now in our own time of expectation?

We don’t have a sense that anyone is paying attention to our concerns.  We feel like pawns in a chess game, exposed and disposable, of little value to the forces at work around us.

That was the feeling in Judea when John began to baptize.   No one cares about us out here along the Jordan.

No one in Jerusalem.

No one in Rome.

Maybe not even God.

It is to that sense of being on your own or forgotten or abandoned that John’s baptism speaks a word of re-connecting.   Water baptism for repentance, for restoration of relationship, and now as if to confirm the power of that restoration the voice booms from the heavens.

“I see you!   You ARE my beloved!”

What good news to those who live in the confusion of expectation to hear that God is bridging the gap, opening the heavens, removing the veil to claim us as God’s own.

You belong.

You belong to God, and you belong to one another, and you belong in the presence of John and of Jesus.

Wheat and chaff are being separated, that is true, but the voice from the heavens proclaims that you are not disposable, but rather are being claimed.

Beloved –My Son–My Child.

The voice from the heavens assures us of our value, as being loved and seen as precious.  Precious enough for God to send prophets like John to call and baptize, and to even send his own son, Jesus.

You are beloved.

That’s a word those living in times of expectation long to hear, a word that assures you that you won’t be lost in the shuffle of history or left on the floor, or scattered to the wind.

You are beloved, and you know that because you have been baptized.

And finally, God is pleased with you.

For people who live in times of expectation, there is always this question about whether or not we’ve pleased the ones that we need to, isn’t there?

In the run up to the test, or the announcement of the grades… am I pleasing my teacher?  Have I learned what I was expected to?  Prepared myself for this test?

In the run up to the wedding, in the call to be parent… am I pleasing my spouse, doing right by my child?  Am I loveable?  Worthy of this?

In the wake of the surgery, the recovery, the treatment…am I doing the right things to bring healing, recovery, to care for and attend to my future?

People who live in times of expectation are always trying to decide who they need to please, and how to do it.

Therefore, to hear the voice from heaven proclaim that God is pleased with you is an immense relief.

It allows you to relax into doing the daily again. It lets you not be so caught up in the “what I ought to do” so much that we forget what you are “able to do.”

“With you I am well pleased…” God says, and it is like a sigh of relief.   I’m not being asked to do the impossible, just to do what I am able, what seems right at this moment, and it will be enough.

Just let the water run over you, fill you, feel its coolness, wetness, baptism is about letting something happen to us and just being content with what washes over us, and the promise it will bring.

“I am well pleased…” God says in the voice that breaks in on those living in expectation.

If I am pleasing to God, I need not worry so much about pleasing everyone else who vies for my attention, or my allegiance, or who demands from me, or pushes my buttons or frightens me.

In this time of expectation when there are so many questions in our own hearts about what to do, who to follow, who to stand against and who to support, it is exceedingly good news to hear the assurance from God who breaks in upon troubled worlds in troubled times.

“You are beloved.”  That’s what God says to those baptized.

“You are my child.”  God says to the baptized.

“With you I am well pleased.”  God says.

Maybe that’s enough for this day.

Maybe that’s all we really need in this moment of living in expectation.

“Subversive Star Following” Matthew 2:1-12

epiphany

We have largely tamed this story by embellishing it, or by not paying attention to the intrigue in the story.

We give the Wise Men names, (Melchair, Balthazar, and Caspar)  place them to the side of the manger scene, speculate on their number by assigning one for each gift and then spend ink speculating on the meaning of those gifts, but there is a point of the story is something quite different.

These people are following a star.  They have their eyes set on something outside of this world.

We use that language from time to time, the language of “following a star.”

We use it to describe dreamers.

We use it to describe the non-compliant in society.  “Oh, he or she is just following their own star.”

We use it to describe ill fated things, like star-crossed lovers, or star-struck individuals.

To be following a star is quite often a subversive act.  It sets you on a track that is quite apart from the usual forces and authorities at work in this world.

This is why Herod is concerned.

We know from histories written from that time that Herod worked diligently to consolidate his own power base.

He was ruthless in his dealings.

He bribed the right officials, curried favor with Rome, provided the High Priests with the Temple building projects and the necessary autonomy over their own affairs that they craved.  It was enough to make them look important, all the while consolidating his own position, power and authority as he worked to set up his own dynasty.

Herod had worked out everything to assure that his descendants would occupy the throne of Judah for generations to come.

So, now when these Viziers, these Zoroastrian astrologers arrive talking about signs they have seen in the stars and that a new king is born, Herod perceives the threat.

The one thing Herod didn’t count on was God showing up again.

No wonder he is frightened.

But notice that Herod is not alone in his fear.  “All of Jerusalem with him.”  Matthew says.  Everyone is frightened because of this word about a King that is foretold in the stars.  They are all afraid because this sign and event point to something else that is disheveling and disquieting.

We are not left to our own devices, and there are more things at work in the universe than our own schemes.

God is entering the arena of this world.

It appears that all of Jerusalem thought that was pretty much a thing of the past.  God didn’t do that anymore.  We were on our own.

Herod surely believed that, for one cannot undertake a grand scheme of grabbing political and religious control of things unless deep down inside you figure God is pretty much a non-player.

Oh sure, you can invoke the name of the almighty to advance your cause.

You can use religion and religious leaders and people as your tools to manipulate people and players, but you can’t wholesale launch into a program of usurping power and setting up your own dynasty unless you pretty much believe God isn’t going to interfere in things.

All of Jerusalem had bought into Herod’s program, into his line of thinking, which means they too, had written off any direct intervention by God into human events.   There was no sense in looking to the heavens for one’s help.   Herod had the Emperor’s ear and was in good favor right now, so if you really want something done, it would be more expedient to cozy up to Herod than it would be to pray.

That is the situation in Jerusalem.

A star appearing in the heavens, and astrologers perceiving events far above human schemes and machinations is a threat to those who believe they can get by with anything because of their own cleverness or calculation.

A star appearing in the heavens, and more importantly, people following that star signals to Herod a narrative intruding on his own well-crafted story.

It’s not just that these visitors from the East are following a star.  It is also that they are telling a compelling story about what this star means.

That makes other people inquire about it, listening to it, and craving to hear more about the old narrative of God entering the human arena.

Herod has invested a lot of time and effort into re-writing the narrative of Judah’s King.   He’s heralded himself as the true leader.  He’s undertaken massive construction efforts.  He’s been re-writing the story about who should be destined to rule the people, and who the people should be looking to.

Herod’s reign is threatened if an heir of David exists.

But much more than that, the whole endeavor he has planned will be undone, not just because a child is born, but rather because people believe the star portends something greater than Herod is at work!   It hearkens them back to an older narrative that includes God active in this world!

That’s how it is with narratives, the stories we tell or that are told to us.

If a story is compelling enough, we will latch on to it, make it our own, work to see it become a reality.

So it is that the appearance of the star.

These visitors from the East have prompted a new look at the scriptures, at the promises made by God long ago.  Those who once might have been satisfied with what Herod had to offer are now inquiring as to what God might have to offer.

Herod inquires of the priests and scribes to find out what the scriptures say about the Messiah, the king to be born.

“In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:  “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ “

Herod has no such pedigree, so if this story of star followers gets out and ignites the hopes among the people of God entering in, all of his schemes and dreams will be for naught!

And in the end, scheming is all Herod has to fall back on.   That’s why the meeting in secret with the Wise men.

That’s the reason for the “cloak and dagger” of sending them to Bethlehem, to do his bidding and to find the child.

That’s the reason for the frustrated story later on of Herod slaughtering the innocents.  If Herod cannot locate with precision the child, then blunt force elimination will have to be employed, all to squelch any threat from outside to the schemes that he has put in place.

A star, and those who will follow a star, becomes a threat of immense proportion, because following a star taps into the narrative of God, and of one’s conscience, and of listening to and following dreams, and looking forward in hope as opposed to settling with what you have in front of you and making do with the “way things are right now.”

Following a star, and followers of stars, are dangerous people to those who work with earthly plans and schemes.

This is what Herod knows.

I wonder if we see that?

Maybe this story is here to help us recognize the Herod that resides in us all.

There resides in each of us the practical person who settles for things.

There is in each of us a bit of a schemer who thinks he or she has planned for every contingency and who expects the world to simply unfold in a certain way, the way he or she has scripted it so to do.

We often leave very little room in our lives for the following of stars.

We leave very little opportunity for God to intrude in our plans in any major ways, or to enter into the narrative that we have constructed for our lives, how things are supposed to go.\

But star followers, they are the ones who inspire, and who remind, and who look to the future with hope.

Or maybe this story is told by Matthew to help us remember what it was like under Herod, who presented himself as an alternative to the narrative of God’s vision.

Maybe, Matthew wants us to remember that there have always been those who have tried to substitute their own vision of things for God’s narrative of old.

The story is a reminder that there are those out there still who can spin a narrative that sounds compelling at first, but whose end is not God’s vision for how we are to live with one another.

Those who live in the world of schemes, deals struck, and the consolidation of earthly power hate the star followers, for they instinctively know that once star followers enter the picture, it will be their undoing.

God has always employed the dreamers, the star followers, the prophets and those who listen to the voice of God as means of revealing that God is interested in and always coming back into the human arena.

To be a star follower is a subversive act, for it means that you will not be satisfied with human explanations of how things “simply are.”

Star followers look for God to be doing new things in the world.

Star followers remind us that there are old narratives yet to be completed.   Swords to be beaten into plowshares.   A lamb to sit upon his throne.   A Lion and a lamb to be laying down together, a creation redeemed and living at peace.

Star followers look for God to enter into this world and point out where and when they see it happening, and then they bring their gifts to bear.  Whatever it is that they bring with them, to present to this God who comes.

“Star followers” are what we become in baptism, when God pours God’s Holy Spirit into us and makes us lift our eyes up to the light.

“Star Followers” are what we are called by God.  In the words of the baptismal service we are reminded to “let your life so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.”

It is a moment when God shines a light into a darkened world still, a beacon sent to draw you to himself, and draw others to God as well.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

This is what Herod cannot stand.

This is what the Herod’s of this world fear.

“Star followers,” — and you are one of them because God has first shown God’s own light into you.

We look still, and proclaim still, a God who is not yet done intervening in daily life, and who calls us all to be more than what others would have us “settle for.”

That is what makes the Herod’s of this world shake in their boots.