On Sunday January 27th, 2013, we have just one worship service at 9:00 annual report 2012am followed immediately at 10:00 by our parish annual business meeting.
Child care will be provided.
This is an important part of our life together. If you can’t be with us in person, there is still something you can do: please pray for guidance and wisdom from the Holy Spirit in the way we work together to govern our parish.
You can read our parish annual report for 2012 here (this edition doesn’t include the financial information).
“Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”
Not the response any parent wants to hear from an offspring, when publicly asking that offspring for assistance. There they were at a wedding feast, we are told, in Cana of Galilee, and the wine had run out. So Mary turns to Jesus, her son for help. Why did she do that? What was it that made her believe that Jesus could do something about the wine drying up before the party was over?
John’s Gospel does not give us much material to work with when searching for answers to these sorts of questions. The fourth Gospel provides us with no stories about Jesus and his mother previous to this. In Chapter one we are told that Jesus, the Word that was with God from the beginning, was made flesh and came to dwell among us full of grace and truth… then boom, Jesus the man, baptized by John, gathering disciples, and now at a wedding feast in Cana. Here in John we get none of the nativity stories, or scant references to Jesus’ boyhood and adolescence that we find in Matthew and Luke. And not background at all on Mary his mother. In fact it is an interesting piece of Bible trivia that the author of this fourth Gospel never mentions Mary by name, preferring to refer to her only as the mother of Jesus. And she does not appear again in this Gospel until the time of his crucifixion. So what is going on here, in this early chapter of this Gospel between Jesus and his mother?
It seems safe to assume that the one, who carried the Word of God within herself for 9 months, gave birth to him and raised him, knew better than any other, the power that resided in him. She had watched him blossom and grow into manhood. She must have known the immensity of his potential to do good, to bring order out of chaos, to bring life out of death. And perhaps something stirred within her that day, at that wedding feast in Cana that told her it was time to push him to get started. What better place to start than by the simple act of bringing the wine of celebration from plain water. She was not afraid to nudge him with this simple request. And, as the story shows, she was not put off by the fact that he put up some initial resistance.
And so she is the perfect model for those of us who still ask his assistance today. She is a powerful example for our petitions and intercessions. Haven’t we all been in her shoes? The celebration of our life is in full swing, like a well planned wedding feast, and then boom, the wine runs out because life in some way throws us a curve we did not see coming. We lose someone we love, or our employment shifts, or a child of ours is in peril, or… you fill in the blank. And sometimes these uninvited events just keep coming, piling up beyond what seems at all fair and right. And the party comes to a screeching halt and celebration is suffocated. So we, like Mary, turn to Jesus and we ask his help and thanks be to God, sometimes that help comes swiftly and we blessedly find immediate relief -but what about those times in which we find no immediate relief? Is he speaking to us as he spoke to his mother that day at the wedding? Is he answering our pleas as he did hers – what concern is that to me? Sometimes, even to people with deep and abiding faith, it can really feel that way.
Madeleine L’Engle, one of my favorite writers, wrote about a dream she had one night. In the dream she was a fish, swimming in warm bright ocean waters. She quickly realized in the dream that she was not swimming alone. There was a fish swimming beside her, shadowing her every move – schooling with her as fish do – never leaving her side. After a while of swimming together Madeleine fish asked the other fish its name. It responded, “Why Madeleine, don’t you recognize me? I am Christ and I will never leave you.” They swam on and then suddenly out of nowhere came a huge shark and all went black as Madeleine felt herself being sucked deep into its belly. In the pitch black she called out “Christ, I thought you would keep me safe!”
Even people of deep faith can be shaken by the twists and turns of this mortal existence. Next time we are in that dark spot, crying out from the belly of the darkness of life – or maybe some of us are there now? Whenever we find ourselves in the belly of darkness this gospel has something to say to us. If we can quell our panic and give up our resistance to what is happening for even a moment, this Gospel can rise up as hope in the darkness. In this Gospel we find that though Jesus questioned his mother’s request for help, that was not his final word to her that day, and it is never his final word to us either. He didn’t just say “Woman what concern is that to me?” He went on to say, “My hour has not yet come.”
In the Gospel of our lives he may sometimes be saying the same. If we don’t get immediate relief and solace that we long for and so often pray for in such situations, this Gospel passage hints that we may have to do the hard work of hanging in there. This Gospel passage suggests that we may need to trust that the lack of immediate relief may not mean that the answer to our prayers is no, rather that the answer is not yet. Not yet, because Christ’s hour has not yet come in the situation. Not yet because not all the pieces are in place for his grace to flow.
Who at the wedding that day, other than Jesus’ Mother, would have thought that water could be turned into wine? While Christ is about the work of answering our pleas in equally wondrous ways that we cannot imagine – we who don’t see any of the behind the scenes action may be tempted to despair. And it is the plain truth that even the wondrous answers to prayer that do eventually come, often do not come in the specific ways or forms that we had hoped and ardently prayed for. Our lived Gospels in this world are not happily ever after stories. Answers to prayer do not always save us from pain and suffering in this life. Paradoxically, life and grace often come to us in and through our experiences of pain and suffering.
In the darkness of the belly, Madeleine fish had cried out, “Christ I thought you would keep me safe.” After just a moment, from next to her in the darkness Christ spoke, “Madeleine, I did not say I would keep you safe, I said I would never leave you and I will not.”
It is when we are in the dark, awaiting light, awaiting grace that we can put into action the advice of the Mother of Jesus. Just as she said to the servants at the wedding feast that day, so she says to us, “Do whatever he tells you.” As we await Christ’s grace and the day of his coming, what my friends has he told us to do? Here are a few things that come to my mind:
Love one another as he has loved us; respect the dignity of every human being; to love God with our whole heart and soul and mind… What else?
And he has called us to remember. To remember that in the midst of his own suffering, on the eve of his own death, he raised bread and wine and said, “Take eat, this is my body, this is my blood, given for you, do this in remembrance of me.”
He never abandons us to any darkness – for darkness is not dark to him, the night is as bright as the day. Even as his mysterious workings of grace are unseen to us, he offers us sustenance from his very self. He feeds us with the bread of angels. Then we are strengthened in spirit to await his answer to our pleas that in his good time and his good ways he will make known to us.
Here, around his table, may we time and again encourage each other to trust – trust that by his very presence with us, he is able to make the troubled waters of our lives flow like sweet wine. Let us be his living reminders as we witness the day of his coming – even here, now in this very day. In his name and for his sake. Amen+
In one of her exquisite sermons, Barbara Brown Taylor describes and experiment in perception that shows how expectations can keep us from seeing:
“Here’s how it goes. The experimenter sits you down at a table in front of an ordinary deck of cards and they flash six of them at you, asking you to identify them as fast as you can- nine of diamonds, three of hearts, jack of clubs- woops! What was that one? Then they repeat the exercise, slowing it down a little so you can get the ones you missed the first time.
The third time is so slow that you think you must be an idiot because there is one card you simply cannot identify. You think you know what it is, but you are not sure, and it is not until the cards are laid on the table in front of you that you can see what the problem is. The mystery card is a six of spades, only it is red, not black. The deck has been fixed. Someone has changed the rules, rules that prevented you from seeing what was there. You could not see a red spade because spades are supposed to be black.
Our expectations, however faithful, may prevent us from seeing what is there.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, p.157)
Expectations are tricky things. I have a friend who tries to live by the saying, Expect nothing; hope in everything. But he admits that even on his best days he can only maintain that psycho-spiritual stance for an hour or so before slipping back into expectations. It is kind of like trying to breath by willing it. You may be able to focus on your breathing for a while – consciously controlling the ins and outs of it, but sooner or later you have to put your focus elsewhere and you let the hard wired, automatic responses of your brain take over. It seems we are hard wired also to have expectations, which are important to give our lives shape and direction. The trick is to find a way to have them without clinging to them. A wise member of a parish I served used to quote her mother to me, who was very fond of saying, Hold tight to live with open palms!
In this morning’s Gospel, a group of people with a spiritual hunger went out to a river bank and found what they expected – or did they? John appeared to them to fit the bill for the Messiah – wild hair, rough clothing, a prophetic voice crying in the wilderness for people to repent and be washed clean. That is what they expected a Messiah to be like, so that is what they saw. Their expectations led them to overlook Jesus. He was a red six of spades – he was overlooked because the people expected something else. But John protested, don’t look at me look past me to the One whose sandal thong I am not even worthy to undo.
Then John dunked that red six of spades under the surface of the river and when he surfaced again the heavens opened and he was declared God’s beloved son. It was God busting human expectations again – as if to say, Hold tight to expectations with open palms. God in the interplay between John and Jesus is signaling to those who came out to that deserted place on the Jordon to be baptized, that baptism is just the start of the journey. If they (or we) expect that the washing is the whole package, the red six of spades jumps in to show us something different. The washing shows us that the end of the road is guaranteed – victory is won over our brokenness – abundant life for all! But there is more! The beloved of God arises out of the waters before us to lead us in a way of life that is about much more than a single washing. He shows us the path of metamorphosis that results in conversion of our lives to fit us for his service. Expectation busting – you better believe it. Instruction number one after coming up from the waters of baptism – strap on your crash helmet, it is going to be an interesting ride!
The most fascinating part of it all to me is that God in Christ uses the stuff or our ordinary lives to accomplish this extraordinary transformation, and God is not impatient as we often are – it takes years and God has the time. And God works; it seems, most readily through the people we are closely connected to.
I will give you an example from my own life. A good number of years ago now, when I was serving St. Mark’s Church in Penn Yan, NY, part of my job as Rector there was to direct a one week summer arts and spirituality camp that we called Creation Week Camp. One particular year, a 6th grader from our parish named Paige invited her best friend from school, named Katie, to attend camp with her. All Katie was expecting when she agreed to go to camp was a fun week with her friend, and that expectation fulfilled. But that week at camp lead to Paige inviting Katie to come to St. Mark’s youth group. Since camp had been so much fun Katie decided to check it out. Soon Katie was in church every Sunday morning with Paige also. This was not what she had expected to have happen when she agreed to attend Creation Week.
And those of us who met Katie at camp did not expect that she would soon be bringing to our parish her own special gift – her special brand of enthusiasm and joy. She had a big compassionate heart and at the same time possessed a bit of the impish spirit. She was never scared to ask a question or speak her mind, and since she had no church background prior to coming to St. Mark’s, she had lots of questions that helped all of us more churchy types to think again about why we do things the way we do them at church. Katie turned out to be a lovely surprise to us, reminding us time and again to hold tight to our expectations about what church should be like with open palms.
But there was a very personal transformation of expectations that Katie helped me with that I will never forget and always be grateful for. At about the time Katie began attending St. Mark’s, I had been part of several clergy gatherings where the topic of “open communion” – that is the practice of not restricting the giving on communion to just those who are baptized – was being hotly debated. Those who argued against open communion seemed so scholarly and theological, and their warnings that open communion would bring further decline to the Episcopal Church so dire. And since it was still the formal teaching of our church that only the baptized receive the communion, I decided I should follow that line.
Then came the day that Katie came to the altar rail for the first time, knelt down next to her friend Paige, and put her open palms up to receive the bread. Now I knew from my many conversations with her that she was not baptized, so I found myself pausing there at the rail to explain to her that I would be giving her a blessing instead of the bread. After the service we talked about preparing her for baptism, and we put that process in motion. But each Sunday thereafter, for the several months between that time and her baptism, as I gave her a blessing instead of the bread I had a growing discomfort in the pit of my stomach that signaled to me that something was wrong.
The transformative moment came for me in the last several weeks before her baptism, as I gave Katie a blessing at the rail with the words, The blessing of God Almighty be with you always, she would look me straight in the eye and respond, And also with you! Each time as she said those words to me, I felt the tables turn, and I felt her ministering to me. In those moments I felt I was receiving something very important and blessed from her that chipped away at the traditional expectation about who should receive communion and who should not. My perspective was being transformed.
Finally on Katie’s baptism day I was able to climb into the pulpit and tell the story that I have just told you, and let that traditional expectation go. As a priest I will always encourage and lead those among us who are not baptized to claim that sacrament for themselves, and be born of water and the Spirit at the font of Christ. But no more do I expect that I should take the role of gate keeper at the altar rail. I know there are those who will disagree with me on this and I always welcome discussion on the matter. I do not mean to make this a final pronouncement on the topic.
But walking with Katie the way that I did led me to an epiphany in which our red six of spades working through her showed me that as a priest I stand at the altar not as judge and distributor of heavenly food. Rather I stand there as the pair of hands that have been set apart to bless, break and see that the body and blood of Christ is given in the name of Christ to any of God’s beloved children who are drawn in to receive it. I no longer feel called to get in the way of what God is up to in other people’s souls.
That is why we say that this is the table not of the church but of the Lord. That is why each week we affirm that all are welcome at God’s table. And as each of you comes forward, with all the expectations of your lives, and lift up your open palms to receive the grace that God has provided, I give thanks for the privilege of meeting you in that moment. And I give thanks for Katie and her transforming presence in my life.
Who is your Katie? What people and situations is the red six of spades working through to deepen the transformation of your life to his service and most gracious purposes?
In the name of Christ, our red six of spades. Amen+