grace

Water into Wine

            Before we dive into our readings for today, I want pause and appreciate the fact that the bible contains a story where water becomes wine. It’s pretty amazing really. Then you add to it the fact that Jesus is the one who turns the water into wine – mostly because his mother, like mothers of every time and place, says to. Then, perhaps my favourite part of the whole reading, not only does Jesus turn water into wine but it is the best wine of the night. This is a story of the abundance of grace. What could have been a disaster become isn’t. It is generous. It is overwhelming. It is more and better than we could ever have imagined and isn’t that what God’s grace is like. 

            It stands in stark contrast to the world we live in where fear and sacristy seem to be taking hold in every corner of the world. We have school aged children and youth with anxiety and mood disorders – 1 out of 12 are on medication of some form.  (https://www.cihi.ca/en/child-and-youth-mental-health-in-canada-infographic) Turn on the news and we hear about increasing rates of racism, sexism, and homophobia and not just in the United States here in Canada too. People are worried about where their next meal will come from or how they are going to cope from day to day or what bad news a phone call will bring or about their family or having enough money or how their relationship is going to survive or about a loved one who is sick. There seems to be a never-ending list a of reasons to be afraid.  

That’s why we need to lean on that abundance of grace that Jesus offers – when it seems like every possible door is closed and there is no way to move – that’s when we need grace. It seems to me, that all too often in my life, I forget what grace and mercy are like. Our reading today helps us to remember what God’s grace looks like and feels like. 

This reading from John is the first act of Jesus public minister. The wedding at Canna is the first of the “signs” or miracles in John’s gospel. Our reading for today follows Jesus’ baptism and the calling the disciples with the invitation “come and see.” Wedding in Jesus’ day were not like the weddings of today which are a day long affair. A wedding in Jesus’ day lasted a week and was a community celebration. Jesus was there with his whole family, disciples and the entire gathered community. 

Over the course of the celebrations, the hosts ran out of wine. Now this may not sound like a big problem to our modern ears. Today we’d probably think nothing of it. If the wine runs out, we pop up to the store and buy another bottle. Not a big deal. But it was major social faux pas in Jesus’ day. Wine was considered a sign of God’s abundance. If the wine runs out what does that say about God’s love? What does it say about this particular couples future? 

 Upon hearing the news about the wine, Jesus’ mother turns to him, with an expectant look in her eyes. I think it’s the look only a mother can give and says, “They have run out of wine.” Can’t you just hear Jesus saying back to her as he rolls his eyes, “Oh Mother, why are you worried about that. Besides which, this not my time, it is not the hour.”  Do you notice how Mary pays no attention to Jesus’ objection about it not being his hour? Son of God or not, she knows best. She is the one whose watched him learn and grow. She simply turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you to do.”  

            Jesus has no choice and he somewhat reluctantly tells the servants to fill six huge containers – each holding 20 to 30 gallons of water and to take them to the wine steward. The wine steward tastes the wine and is amazed. He calls the bridegroom and compliments him for saving the best wine for the last days of the celebration. 

Letts but the this amazing sign into context. In ways that make sense for us today. Today wine can be mass produced and shipped easily from one place to another. Not so in Jesus day. In today’s measurements it would be like Jesus gave them about 900 bottles of wine. But not just any wine – the good stuff. This surely never happened on the 3rdday of a week long party. That is just like God’s abundant grace. It is unexpected. It is good wine when you are expecting the cheap stuff and it is more wine than we can imagine! Dr. Karoline Lews writes, “The details of abundance cannot be overlooked in this text -- six water jars, each 20-30 gallons, filled to the brim, of the best wine. The amount in and of itself is extraordinary. But the best wine? At this point in a wedding celebration? Unheard of. Back in the day, weddings typically lasted a week, where the host would serve the better wine when the guests could actually taste what they were drinking, a nice Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Chardonnay, perhaps. Only after a few days of drinking and determined levels of inebriation would the guests be served the Franzia box Merlot or Gallo jug Chablis. Where have you experienced this kind of grace?” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1556

In the words of the psalmist, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.” (Psalm 36: 7 – 9) 

I think it makes all the difference in the world when the starting place each of us is that abundance of unexpected grace. Grace doesn’t insulate us from life’s tragedies or cure us from disease or give us jobs or banish depression or give us money. Grace gives a starting place that reminds us that we are deeply loved. 

This week the Pulizer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver died at 83. Her poetry delves into the heart of faith. She writes, “You can have the other words – chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I’ll take grace. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ll take it.” Like Mary Oliver, we may know what exactly what grace is, but every now and then we catch a glimpse of what it’s like – an abundance of the best wine when we least expect it. With grace as our starting place anything and everything becomes possible. Whether we know what it means or not grace is ours. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

God's Infinit Love

Many churches have stained-glass windows just like we do. They are beautiful. Their beauty helps us to remember we are entering a holy place. Many of the windows in churches around the world tell us the gospel stories. Look around us this morning. On my left and you find the Christmas story, baby Jesus at the centre and Shepherds and Magi on either side. After church, come stand in the pulpit or by the rail and you can see the parable of the sower, Jesus healing someone, and the great teaching moment “Knock and the Door Shall be Opened.”  Over to my right, your left we have Jesus as young boy in the Temple, the story of the loaves and fishes and others. Stained glass windows are not only beautiful but they serve a functional purpose. When bibles were few and literacy rates were low, the windows told the stories of our faith. In many ways they acted as cue cards and visual reminds of key gospel messages. There are many different gospel stories told in stained glass windows, but if I were to guess, our gospel reading from this morning would not be one of them. It is challenging. 

On the surface we have two healing stories – the Syrophoenician woman and the man born deaf. Jesus has left his home turf around the sea of Galilee and is traveling in the region of Tyre – a predominately gentile area. We don’t really know why. Marks says that Jesus, entered a house and “did not want anyone to know he was there.” (Mark 7:24) Maybe Jesus was looking for some rest and solitude and hoped to find it in a place surrounded by strangers. Even here, in this place, word about Jesus was spreading. 

One of the women from the community heard about Jesus and came to him to plead her case. Jesus was barely through the door when she arrived. She was desperate. Her daughter was sick. Mark says she has an unclean spirit. She was terrified that her daughter would never recover and was willing to go to any length to ensure her wellbeing. Even taking a chance that the rumours about Jesus are true. Elizabeth Johnson writes, “The woman who approaches Jesus breaks through every traditional barrier that should prevent her from doing so. She is “a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin” (Mark 7:26). In other words, she is implicitly impure, one who lives outside of the land of Israel and outside of the law of Moses, a descendant of the ancient enemies of Israel. She is also a woman, unaccompanied by a husband or male relative, who initiates a conversation with a strange man -- another taboo transgressed. …Any way you look at it, this woman is an outsider.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3761) None of this mattered to the woman. Her daughter’s life was at risk and she knew, she believed that Jesus was the one who could cure her daughter. 

This bold and courageous woman found Jesus, knelt at his feet and begged him to heal her daughter. There is no excuse for what Jesus says next. There is no way to translate the words to soften the harshness of his words. Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27) It is terrible. It is amazing really that there is a record of this event. Somehow it is in two of the four gospels. 

Jesus words are harsh and so different from how Jesus treats people in any other stories throughout the gospels. Not only are Jesus words harsh, but he is dismissing her cry for help simply because she is not one of his people. She is other. In that moment, Jesus believes that God has called him only to bring God’s word to the children of Israel. No one else. He wanted to rest in silence not expand his horizons and share God’s grace with a broader audience. 

But she wouldn’t let him rest. She insisted. She persisted. She pushed back and said, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28) Crumbs, those little bits that we brush away, not big enough to be worth keeping. She demands a scrap of the grace and mercy that Jesus came to deliver for her daughter. Jesus says to her, “For saying that, you go – the demon has left your daughter.” (Mark 7:29) When she returns home, she finds her daughter in her bed and the unclean spirit gone. 

There will be no stained glass windows of this story. It is a hard story. Jesus is dismissive and harsh. I find it hard to accept that Jesus dismiss someone just because of where they are from. It is not in keeping with the Jesus I know and love. But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. 

       Part of being human is making mistakes. Judging took quickly. Having blind spots. Holding on to prejudices. Dismissing people who we deem to be different whether it is because of where they are from or because of the colour of their skin or because of their gender or because of their sexual orientation or because of their income level or because of their disability. None of this is okay. Yet, if I’m honest with myself, I’ve done it and I’m angry with myself for it. Yet I’m guessing I’m not alone. The only thing to do when you make a mistake is ask for forgiveness, learn from it and do better next time. 

       I think that is what Jesus did and maybe the person who was really healed in this gospel story is Jesus and that’s why this story lives on. She stood up and said wait a minute, surely God’s grace and God’s mercy are not limited to one small group of people. Surely God’s grace is for all of us no matter where we come from. Her insistence and persistence changes Jesus. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28)

       In that moment Jesus is changed. He is reminded that God’s grace is infinite and for everyone – no exceptions. In her column, “Dear Working Preacher” Karoline Lewis reflects on this moment when Jesus mission is expanded, “It is a rare moment when we glimpse how much beyond our comprehension God really is and how much beyond our imagination God’s love extends. And in that same moment, we perceive how easy it is to give in to this world’s estimations of God, this world’s propensity to limit what God can do. How quickly we retreat from zealous proclamation and settle for lukewarm confession. How often we shrink in fear from the bold belief.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5216) 

       It says in our reading from Isaiah, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. … He will come and save you." Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;” (Isaiah 35:4 – 6)

       So maybe there needs to be new stained glass added to the repitoire telling this story. Jesus learning from the Syrophoenician woman. She helped Jesus remember that God’s grace, God’s love, God’s mercy is without boundaries and limits. It will be our cue card, reminding us, in a time when our political life is making everything us versus them, that we are one people created in God’s image. No us. No them. Just God’s beloved children living into the promise of God’s kingdom. Amen. 

Baptism of Jesus

            I’ve been a minister for almost 17 years now. There are many things I love about the work I do but there is one thing that is always a joy for me – baptism. I enjoy meeting with the families and hearing about their little miracle and hearing about the challenges and blessings of being parents. But perhaps the part that I love the most is standing with person being baptised, placing water on their heads and reminding them that they are God’s beloved child. Every time I do baptism, I have the privilege of offering blessing in God’s name. It is a reminder to us that each one of us is special in God’s circle of love. We all are beloved children of God. The beautiful thing about baptism whether it is a baby, an older child, a teenager or a senior – is that it pure gift. You don’t have to earn the promise of God’s love. It is yours. It is mine. It is ours. No need to strive, or earn or be a certain way. God’s love is pure gift. And in our world where there is a price attached to everything or people have do or be a certain way to be accepted this is priceless.

            I think this is why Mark in his gospel gets straight to what is important. In Mark’s gospel there is no Christmas story. There are no angels or shepherds or dreams or genealogies because none of that matters to Mark. He says it in the first line of the gospel. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) Then we meet John, clothed in camel hair and eating nothing but locusts and honey. He is a teacher and prophet called to prepare the way for Jesus. In this morning’s reading John is preaching about a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4)

            It sounds daunting doesn’t it? Repentance and sins are words with baggage. But repentance is about turning in a new direction and living in a new way. Sins are all those things that separate us from the love of God. Different perhaps for each one of us. They are the things that prevent us from remembering that we are God’s beloved. John is teaching and preaching to all who will listen about a new way living and a new of drawing closer to God. One day as the crowds are gathered, John says “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptised you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”(Mark 1:7 – 8)

            The very next words of the gospel are, “In those days Jesus of Nazareth of Galilee was baptised by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from haven, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9 – 11) With that, Jesus begins his public ministry of teaching and healing.

            That is the starting place for all of us to. We are God’s beloved children and God is well pleased with us. This past year, we started hearing the hopes and prayers of parents as they bring their children for baptism. Each family offers something different but they are all grounded in a deep love for their children. One family wrote, “Our hopes and prayers for our daughter are that she is healthy in mind, body and spirit. We hope to raise her in a supportive community of family, friends and neighbors - where she feels protected and supported, encouraged and challenged, and treated with respect. We pray that she learns and reflects Christian values in her everyday life: that she has optimistic faith, patience and peace; that she is thoughtful, confident and brave; lives with intention and purpose; gives thanks and finds happiness from within and shares that happiness with the world.”

            David Lose writes, “In Holy Baptism God just chooses us. …God says that we are enough. Already. That we are pleasing to God and deserve to be loved. And that identity of being God’s beloved child – precisely because it is established by God – cannot be taken away from us or, for that matter, lost by us. Rather, God continues to come into our lives to call us beloved and blessed and promise once again to be always both with us and for us. That promise and blessing, in turn, helps us face all the challenges we mentioned earlier. Problems at home or in the community, concerns about the world or our personal lives. We can face whatever might be plaguing us with greater confidence knowing that God is on our side.” (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/01/epiphany-1-b-powerful-words-for-a-new-year/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28...In+the+Meantime%29)

            As each one of us meets the challenges of this day, this week, this month we are reminded that faith is not a magical cure all but the constant reminder that God is with us lightening the burden and providing hope. Any challenges we face we do so with God’s help and the support with support from our community of faith. With the words beloved ringing in our ears each and every new day, we are called to be about God’s work in the world. And there are so many ways to respond but they are all grounded in a new way of living that is rooted in God’s grace. This makes all things possible. Rooted God’s love, Jesus showed us what that new way of living looked like. It was the face of compassion. It was mercy. It was grace. It was life giving. It was healing. It was hope.

We are invited to be about that work of compassion, mercy, grace, living-giving, healing, and hope. When we feed those who are hungry we proclaim the good news that God is with us. When we walk in the shadows with those who are lost and hurting we offer the light of new life. When we support our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our lives proclaim the good news that we are all God’s beloved children. It is the promise that comes with baptism and that has called us and claimed us as Christ’s own everyday since. 

            Baptism is a new way of living. Mark knew that. He knew that there could be no better way to start the story of Jesus’ life than on the day of his baptism. Today, we are God’s beloved and with us God is well pleased. Amen