Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mincing No Words

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday in Lent includes Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

On June 2, 2012, the same day when we in Western Massachusetts elected a new bishop, the people of the Diocese of Atlanta elected as their new bishop another priest from the Diocese of New York, Rob Wright.

On Wednesday, Bishop Wright appeared under the gold dome of the Georgia State House, to give the prayer opening a session of the Georgia legislature. Handlers of clergy invited to that honored task warn each cleric not to delve into issues that may be under consideration by lawmakers, but to stay above the fray and keep it in neutral.

Bishop Wright doesn’t handle well. He offered a prayer, but not until he had also offered a message to legislators. In his warm-up, he urged lawmakers to “hold on to your souls and your most generous selves in the face of the insidious temptation to care narrowly for your own constituency. Inspire us by your boldness,” he urged.

The real task of representatives, he said, is not “to mummify the Constitution with our fear but to revive its best hopes with our courage and compassion.” Arriving at the heart of his message, he called upon legislators to provide “greater safety for her citizens—greater safety for her children” by enacting universal background checks for gun purchases.

“It is hollow,” he said, “to respond to parents who have lost children to gun violence that their dead child is somehow just the price of keeping the Second Amendment intact. And it is unseemly to bury our law enforcement men and women knowing we didn’t give them every advantage over the criminals they face…. I urge this body: Lead the South again from this gold dome, provide for the law-abiding gun owner and sportsman while at the same time making Georgia more safe.”

According to Episcopal News Service, Bishop Wright also called upon legislators to pass laws providing for “the ignorant, the indigent and the immigrants of our state. Step over your fears,” he said, “and do what is right on behalf of the elderly, the poor, the orphan, the veteran, the prisoner and those who love differently. The time is always right to do right. This is what Jesus of Nazareth invites us to do.”

Atlanta television did not miss this moment. Interviewed afterward, the state representative who invited Bishop Wright said she found his remarks refreshing: time to nerve up!”, she quipped. Another lawmaker, with a sheepish grin, said that this was a no-no… but refreshing. Members of one party issued a statement to the effect that the Bishop’s comments were completely inappropriate. I imagine they drew a sharp distinction between his exhortation and his prayer (which, by the way, I found less inspiring than his exhortation). They wanted him to stick to praying, but I would say that he prayed throughout; only it was through them rather than above them or around them, and I suspect they just weren’t used to piercing prayer.

I do wonder what it will be like to be the next clergyperson to offer prayer under that gold dome… I hope he or she will rise to the challenge and the opportunity.

Our New Testament readings today come in the voices of two men who also minced no words, Paul and Jesus.

Paul reminds the Christians at Philippi that their citizenship is in heaven. The Greek word that is translated citizenship (politeuma, a word that shares its root with our word “political”) is used both of the commonwealth or state to which people belong and the citizenship (the privileges and duties) given to them. How did the Philippians take to this message that they had privileges and duties beyond those that pertained to Philippi?

They understood. Philippi was a Roman colony, so its citizens held citizenship also in the distant city of Rome—and they may well have been proud of it. It was in Philippi that Paul, after being publicly beaten and thrown in jail because of his public ministry, declared himself a Roman citizen, and therefore entitled to due process of Roman law (this to prevent the police and local magistrates from covering up their illegal man-handling of Paul and his fellow believers). Paul’s faith committed him to speak truth to power, and while he might have lived a longer apostolic life if he had kept his mouth shut, he would fulfill his apostolate only by seeking justice for his vulnerable community of believers. He chose to take his case to the supreme court, the emperor’s court in Rome, where, instead of vindication, he would meet his death.

To Philippians hearing that they were citizens of another commonwealth, that claim would have made sense. But no, he insists: another commonwealth beyond the Roman empire, is what I mean. In fact, another commonwealth diametrically opposed to the violent, destructive, terror-dominated, belly-driven, humiliating values of Rome is what I mean, what I point you to. The kingdom of God is that higher power that shapes Christians’ choices, forms believers’ faith, and commands the church’s allegiance.

And each Christian’s choices, faith, and allegiance play their part in the coming of that kingdom on earth. For us, kingdom is a time-encrusted metaphor, isn’t it? Perhaps different language--the rule of God, the reign of God makes the point better in the 21st century. Here is how New Zealand Anglicans express the heart of their Lord’s Prayer:

“The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.”

Paul’s passion for justice comes from the passion of his savior, Jesus. Paul is the apple falling not far from its tree: Jesus won’t hide from imperial authority, but willingly stands in the cross-hairs of the very system he wishes to confront and change.

Apparently sympathetic Pharisees approach Jesus. Perhaps they’re just devious, tempting him, like Satan in the wilderness, to let anxiety govern his choices. “Run!” they urge Jesus, “Run for your life. Herod’s after you.”

Jesus brushes off this warning as if it were an annoying housefly. He calls King Herod a fox—sly, cunning, evasive, voracious. Go tell that fox, says Jesus, that I am here today, will be here tomorrow, and the day after that as well. If he wants an appointment, let him call. What I’ll be doing is what I do: freeing people from their demons, healing people, repairing the damage done to people’s souls and bodies. What he didn’t need to say hung overhead like a rainbow: All these actions of his demonstrate the nearness of the kingdom of God, the commonwealth of peace and freedom.

He knows where it will lead. To Jerusalem, the capital, the gold dome, the temple parapet, the corridors of power. There his truth must be spoken, and he will not back down from doing that hard work. Nor will Paul in Rome. Nor will Aslan in Narnia. Or Bishop Wright in Atlanta.

Who will do that in Boston? In Washington? Could we get Bishop Wright invited to open a joint session of the United States Congress?

Washington, Washington, the city that strangles leaders and silences prophets, and turns to stone those who are sent to it!

It’s no abuse of the Torah to lift language from our Hebrew Bible reading today and say that a deep and terrifying darkness has descended in Washington. Visibility is so bad, transparency so clouded and initiative so blocked that we’d do well to pray for a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch to pass through and focus us all on what the covenant of citizenship requires: courage, compassion, cooperation, and a willingness to be gathered under the wings of Lady Wisdom, who teaches a precious balance between privilege and responsibility.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Helping Our Lenten Listening

Scripture for the First Sunday in Lent includes Deuteronomy 26:5-11; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

Our liturgy this morning has four fresh features. First, a poem following the prelude has invited us to Lenten listening. Madeline chose this first poem, Mary Oliver’s “Mysteries, Yes”. I’m eager to know if you have a poem you think may fit this Lenten season.

We have already experienced a second special feature: hearing the Ten Commandments revoiced, not reinvented but aimed more deliberately into our own language and categories. The source is our Prayer Book catechism, hardly a hotbed of iconoclastic revolt—more a laboratory for relevance. I find the strength of these updated commandments their offering a tool for self-examination, and that is one of the missionary marks of Lent. On Ash Wednesday morning, between the early service and the noontime worship, our organ tuners arrived to tune the organ. Their work, from church to church, is re-voicing pipes to sound as they should, to better resemble the instrument they imitate, and to be true in pitch. That’s not a bad image to express why, by custom on the first Sunday in Lent, we return to the Ten Commandments.

Second among our liturgical experiments today will be the Prayers of the People. In Washington, D.C., this weekend, thousands of people will have gathered to protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project, linking Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas and the Gulf Coast, delivering oil derived from tar sands through a new pipeline constructed largely in the United States . The issue is about to be determined by the US Secretary of State and the Obama administration. Phil McKnight will speak about this complex subject at next Saturday morning’s breakfast here, which is open to all. He observes that the environmental challenges and the economic opportunities wrapped up in the Keystone XL project are quite simply enormous.

This morning, we are short one tenor in our choir because Ben is there in Washington, as a protestor. I promised him we would be thinking of him and praying with him, this morning. To make good on that, we’ll use a litany that I found online and gently adapted, written originally by Thabo Makgoba, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town.

While I was prospecting online, I came across a collect which I could hear as a post-communion prayer, so we’ll find that moment in worship also recalling us to treat the world as God’s gift.

And our third different dance step today will be the Lord’s Prayer. “Not again?” I imagine someone asking, assuming I mean a return to the contemporary form that our Book of Common Prayer places in our toolkit. But no, I want you to meet a form that is new to me, so I’ll guess it will be a debut for you as well, though its source, “A New Zealand Prayer Book”, dates to 1989.

Why now? We’ve begun a Confirmation preparation group for teenagers, with Laurie Glover and me as leaders. We decided to acquire the curriculum “Confirm, Not Conform”, and one of its sessions on prayer includes a comparison of several versions of the central foundational prayer Jesus taught his disciples. The very fact that the Church knows several versions dispels the notion that Jesus’s prayer is a talisman, a formula whose every word must be said in a certain order, for the charm to work. Rather, his prayer is a digest of his central teachings, a wonderfully memorable way to remember all that matters most.

I know, I know: mucking about with various forms deprives us of that one wonderfully memorable way to remember. So we are justly attached to the form we call traditional, dating back to the 1662 English Book of Common Prayer. It’s worth mentioning that the 1552 Prayer Book directed the priest to say the prayer (though not quite the way we know it) verse by verse, the people repeating each petition after him in call-and-response—which may have been a way to honor that sense of the prayer being a collection of teachings, an outline of the faith, a little catechism.

Taken that way, the Lord’s Prayer is a set of six summonses. A single word reminds us of each.

Hallowed: Find holiness, help God make holy all of life through your life.

Kingdom: Let what matters most matter most.

Bread: Receive life as gift; share the food security you have.

Forgive: Imitate God, let grudges go, and be forgiven.

Temptation: Open your heart to courage and your mind to wisdom.

Power: Let God be God.

How central these summonses are is seen in how well they bind us to Christ in the desert, where his forty days are intimately about hallowing, kingdom, bread, temptation, power.

Whether you’re eager to encounter what is new, or fearing a wilderness experience, let’s meet this new form, on page 5 of your leaflet. This time, let me read it aloud.

Eternal Spirit,
Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:
The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and for ever. Amen.

There’s a lot to notice. Let me recall what our Foundations group members said they noticed. Its length. Its use of “commonwealth” as a term for social and spiritual unity, heard also in the Iona Community Creed. Its several names for God, one of which—Pain-bearer—felt particularly surprising, until two lines later “Mother” reminds us of childbirth.

I notice the series of exclamation marks, stressing the summons nature of the prayer, markers for how this prayer is to be prayed: with longing, zeal, urgency, determination.

I notice how this prayer sets us in the stunning, diverse, amazing place we occupy: in a universe, among peoples of the world, and in a created order whose creatures, all of them, are capable of doing God’s will-- much like Narnia, C. S. Lewis’s realm we’re exploring, this Lent, where the arrogance of the human spirit is chastened by the revelation that, in Narnia, you may be on precisely the same spiritual level as a badger or a mouse. So writes former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. This awareness of our place in the cosmos, among the nations, and nestled among species is so New Zealand, so expressive of that culture; and, I hope, conducive to helping us weave together our faith and our responsibility to care for the earth.

Will this form of the Lord’s Prayer vie with the traditional version? Probably not. But it deserves to be heard and received as a gift from another continent within our Anglican Communion, a fresh voice that may help us with our Lenten listening.

Transfiguration, a Central Paradigm

Scripture for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany includes Exodus 34:29-35; II Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-43a

The season of Epiphany always ends with our hearing the story of the mountaintop transfiguration of Jesus. This has its own symmetry, that Epiphany opens with the light of a brilliant star, and reaches completion in the illumination of Jesus our star. God’s radiant energy streams from heaven to earth and takes up residence in the heart and mind of Jesus. Then, watch out: its next stop, this enlightenment from God, is to ignite you and me and make us light-bearers.

No, it’s not enough that Jesus should shine alone on Mount Tabor like a Christmas tree. We’re next. That’s what Peter, James, and John sensed when they developed a containment plan: let’s take this under advisement, they say, put it under wraps until we can figure out what’s to be done with this energy, this disturbance, this power that we don’t know how to harness and appears to want to harness us.

To their credit, the three disciples correctly read the iconography of this moment: they interpret the vision of Moses and Elijah to mean that the light emanating from Jesus is Godly light, intimately related to the law and the prophets. Hasn’t Jesus taught them that the whole of the law and the message of the prophets hang on, depend upon, loving God wholeheartedly and loving their neighbors as themselves? Love is the brilliant piercing light hanging like a pendant on his breast. They get it. They get that what’s happening here is a profound getting and giving, transmission, transition, transfiguration. All that light is evidence of all this movement, this crossing-over of Spirit and truth. It’s not just about him: it’s so much about us.

St. Paul agrees. We have been freed, says Paul, and the bright torch of freedom lets us see clearly in a darkened world, if we will pull off the wraps from our faith, dig out from our bunkers of fear and let hope and love have their way with us. Then, “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”

Wow! Transfiguration isn’t a quirky moment in the life of Jesus: it’s a central paradigm for describing the relationship of God’s Spirit and our human spirit. The word “indwelling” is often used to describe this relationship, but how sedentary that sounds, in the light of these scripture readings! Far better to think “igniting” , “incendiary”, “energizing”.

And “strengthening”, according to our collect today: “…that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” Wow! There is church. Embers on the hearth, not left to burn out where they fall, but swept in together to where they’ll reignite one another, burn bright again, and pass their flame to the new wood.

In the language of our collect we learn why Transfiguration enters the narrative of our Lord’s life. He is being strengthened to bear his cross. He has set his face to Jerusalem, knowing that he must bring his yearning for justice into the judgment hall of the imperial governor, and his clear-eyed truth into the sanctuary of the established church. Moses and Elijah are all over him with encouragement. “We have your back”, they promise; though hearing a pledge like that, from beyond the grave, doesn’t provide secure answers (like, how do I do this?) as much as it promises that grace will show the way, and the way is right because it is that radiant pulsing way of love.

So I wonder what bearings of our own crosses may be asked of us? What listenings to God will cause our faces to shine, prompt us to renounce shameful things, make us insist that our leaders refuse to practice cunning, inspire us to openly state the truth, and convey the best that our consciences have to offer?

Transforming our culture of violence, in particular violence involving guns, is the crucial need now urgent enough that we dare not wait for it to become more urgent. Pressing for reform in our national delivery of mental health care also demands to be carried on our minds and hearts into political action.

In one of his great speeches, Martin Luther King said that the people of this nation may prefer gradual change, but that the campaign for civil rights for all Americans required recognizing what he called “the fierce urgency of now.”

The fierce urgency of now is upon us, squarely and sure, on the subject of controlling gun violence in this country.

Today’s collect tells us that when faith frees and clears our sight to recognize where and how we see God’s love radiant in Jesus, we will be made strong to press our case and bear our cross. According to the collect, bearing the cross plays a big part in transforming us from what passes as glory to what really constitutes glory. We might even expect this activism to help change us, transfigure us, into the likeness of Jesus. There is church, drawing together bright embers of hope and conviction to burn bright enough to help cauterize the open wounds of a nation.

Meeting a Scrappy Jesus

Scripture for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany includes Jeremiah 1:4-10; I Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

We meet a scrappy Jesus in Luke’s ongoing story of the Master’s inaugural visit to his hometown congregation. A scrappy Jesus doesn’t square with a typical stained-glass impression of a beatific messiah, does it? But we’re not making it up: here it is, this morning, a pugnacious Savior steps out from Luke’s Gospel, unafraid to stir up a hornet’s nest with a series of verbal jabs worthy of Questions to the Prime Minister in the House of Commons. And, as in that antagonistic setting, restoring order after Jesus had spoken was easier said than done.

The Nazareth crowd wants Jesus to show them his stuff. They’ve heard that he did wonders at Capernaum, and they think charity ought to begin at home.

Jesus, however, has a transferable outlook regarding home-- and family, for that matter. Perhaps it came from being born in a feeding trough in someone else’s hometown, but once Jesus begins this public ministry, this itinerant preaching, this missionary journey from village to village, the only home he knows is the safe house belonging to Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary, where he occasionally crashes. And as for family? “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” he announces, promoting his disciples to real kinship, and giving notice to his biological family that their claim on him is not what it once was.

And to his Nazareth townsfolk he lays it out that they as Israelites cannot presume to have a special claim upon the lovingkindness of God. Driving home that point, he reminds them of two storie that for patriotic Israelites may have been among the least popular and most irritating in all the Hebrew Bible. One is the prophet Elijah’s mission to go and help a widow in the Phoenician town of Zarephath, an assignment pitting Elijah against death as he must call the widow’s only son back from the brink of death-- a story important enough that it is remembered in one of our windows in the back, the lower set, the one closest to the font, remembered, I expect, for its message that God’s love enfolds all people, all nations, all religions… and if we’re honest about it, that’s still a hotbutton issue around this fractured globe of ours.

Jesus’s second allusion is to another Hebrew prophet, Elisha, who played a role in the healing of a Syrian general named Naaman, the scourge of Israel in his day.

Do you hear what Jesus is doing? He’s baiting an already xenophobic audience, flashing the toreador’s cape in the face of a very bullish crowd of homeland supremacists who had no doubt that they were God’s favorites. As much as Jesus might understand how this bunch of unprosperous scratch farmers and fishermen needed to bolster their egos in order to face their hardscrabble lives, he simply would not condone what their belief said about God, who is not exclusivist, not narrow-minded, and not the property of one nation or one religion. It’s this championing of who God is that Jesus gets scrappy about. He challenges their belief so they may know the truth that will make them free.

So this episode stands alongside the day he overturned the tables of money-changers in the temple, driving them out with a whip of cords. And this story stands alongside those times when, exasperated by his unimaginative, self-absorbed, and sometimes vindictive disciples, he would rebuke them—not a gentle word, rebuke.

As we meet him today, Jesus has some sharp edges and knows how to use them. His story has another edginess about it: a dramatic, ominous, threatening cliff is at the far edge of this story.

Do you suppose that there might be a message here for any of us who feel like we’re right on the edge… on the edge of being overwhelmed by opposition, or by fear, or by narrow-minded, unimaginative, self-absorbed, and sometimes vindictive people in our lives?

What Jesus does when he’s right on this edge is to require that the people around him pay attention to the biggest picture about God: God’s universal compassion and lovingkindness, the resulting truth of the radical equality of all people in God’s sight, and the unity of all people that will be found in that truth. In short, on the edge of petty demands, narrow thinking, and hard feelings, Jesus opens minds to what he calls the kingdom of God, the big picture, the doing of God’s will on earth as in heaven.

St. Paul follows this pattern when he gets right to the edge with those messy Christians in Corinth. They’re a fractious bunch, good-hearted but strong willed and given to divisiveness. No prophet may be accepted in the prophet’s hometown, but it was equally true that no itinerant apostle trying to confront a local church from a distance would be acceptable, either. Paul has to do what Jesus did, draw with clear bright lines the biggest picture of what God is doing in this world; and so we get this sublime soliloquy, this hymn to the love of God which has come to us all in Jesus Christ. Listen to the gist of the lyrics of this love song.

More valuable than impressive speaking, more lasting than prophecy, more constructive than knowledge, more powerful than faith, and more important than material generosity is the having and giving of love. All the skills and talents that people may boast about having are incomplete and are small matters by comparison to the central and comprehensive reign and rule of love which God has released into the world by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All else than love is child’s play, smoke and mirrors. The real thing, the big picture, what frees life and fulfills it: receive this, have this, give this.

Both of these readings come to us today from the edge. Both show how a scrappy spirit may take hold of life at that edge and redirect attention to what matters most, saving life from going over the edge into waste and futility, raising life to fulfillment.

The Inauguration of Fulfilment

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany includes Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; I Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

Did you watch the inauguration, last Monday? Do you find yourself occasionally replaying a moment or memory of that event?

For me, it was seeing that vast ocean of people on the national mall. Stretching as far as the eye could see, that countless teeming mass of Americans standing in the chill of winter to see in person what they could have stayed at home and watched on the screen. I felt a real movement of spirit come over me as I saw so many tens of thousands (and more) small American flags whipping in the breeze, signs of such enthusiastic approval of what those crowds heard from the Capitol steps. I felt awe seeing this shoulder to shoulder solidarity, and I loved that moment when President Obama halted his exiting, turning around to catch one more glimpse of a panorama that may have refreshed the hope and the heart of this man as he starts his second term.

How long has it been since we last felt so moved by anything coming out of Washington? We’ve grown accustomed to a diet of frequent disillusionment and old boys behaving badly, young ones too disappointing our hopes for functional government. Times are tough, when the one unifying element among us is cynicism.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
--Emily Dickinson

Except, of course, when it comes to our hope for this nation, it will be more than a crumb that will be asked of us.

I used last Sunday a prayer from our Book of Common Prayer, a thanksgiving for heroic service, easy to adapt for Martin Luther King,Jr. In it this petition: “Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines.”

The scripture readings we have today resonate with this message that true freedom requires disciplines—skills, abilities, commitments. From Nehemiah in the Hebrew scriptures we listen in on that day when the long-neglected Law of Moses was heard again, not to scold or restrict but to inspire and enlighten the people, to reveal their God-given freedom and rekindle their sensing of spiritual joy, themes that we hear echoed in Psalm 19.

Paul writing to the Corinthian Christians trains us also to recognize and welcome the chief work of the Holy Spirit, the uniting of evidently different people in mutual regard and commitment to the common good.

The Gospel writer Luke narrates the inauguration of Jesus’s public ministry, at our Lord’s hometown synagogue where he had returned after his baptism, “filled with the power of the Spirit of God.” When someone out of the ordinary appeared in the assembly on the Sabbath, a distinguished visitor or, in Jesus’s case, a hometown boy returning to the fold, the scroll of sacred scripture would be handed to him to read, giving the assembly a fresh voice to hear. Was it the assigned reading of that day, or did Jesus use his freedom to select the portion of the prophet Isaiah that we heard today?

He filled ancient words with burning, glowing, energizing power. At the heart of any inauguration, the people need to experience a revitalizing of connection of the present moment to both their founding vision from the past, and their opportunity to fulfill that mission in the future. American presidents do this by drawing upon iconic language—from Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King. Jesus does this by lifting up the great servant oracle in the Book of Isaiah. It is a passage that for centuries shaped Israel’s hope for a Messiah, the anointed agent of God who would inaugurate the reign of God on earth as in heaven.

And here is where Jesus delivers a speech that has been remembered only by the headline it got in the Nazareth Daily Post: “Carpenter’s son tells hometown congregation, ‘Isaiah’s vision fulfilled’!”

That is for sure what the first Christians believed about Jesus. And it was for sure what his Nazareth contemporaries, classmates, and former neighbors never expected him to say, especially about himself (as he appears to do). They thought he gave a marvelous speech, but the more they chewed on it, the more it left a bitter taste, as if he were distancing himself from them, leaving them with an abrupt sense of disconnect. When they push him on this, he pushes back. They want him to be their regional Messiah, the kind that brings pork barrel funding home to the district. In sharp contrast, he knows he is called to “bring good news to the poor… release to the captives… recovery of sight to the blind… to let the oppressed go free…” and the more he spoke, the more examples he gave, the more they fretted that if he had his way Nazareth would become a dumping ground for all Israel’s disabled and disenfranchised. Not in their backyard, thank you. And then, says Luke, his townspeople led him to the brow of a hill, to hurl him off the cliff. This story, told early in Luke’s Gospel, feels like a forecasting of what will happen in the capital city, Jerusalem, on Good Friday.

Today’s Gospel is the story that completes the inaugural ceremony started at the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized. The purpose of this inaugural story is to make clear the disciplines required by the freedom that God gives.

First and always, our primary discipline is to be open to the power of the Spirit of God. This is why, and how, and for what we pray. God’s will be done on earth as in heaven, not by our passive acquiescence but by our commitment to stand (and kneel and dance and work and play) where inspiration may reach us and move us.

And “us” is such an important and powerful word. The inspiring poet we heard on Monday, Richard Blanco, spoke about unity, the one sun that shines on the one land, embracing all sorts and conditions of people and their work and their hopes. One body, says the poet Paul, one Spirit has made us that way; keep drinking of that one Spirit. This imperative of becoming one is crucial to the Church, equally crucial to the nation.

In both cases, becoming one is not setting out on a new course to change into what we are not; Richard Blanco reminded us, as St. Paul does, that we are one—diverse as can be, but “e pluribus unum” by virtue of citizenship, “One Lord, One faith, One baptism” by virtue of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. The requisite discipline is learning to behave, learning to communicate, learning to decide as members of the one body who are called to have the same care for one another—across the aisle in Congress, across denominations, across the gulf between the 1% and the 99, across the separations of what labels us as progressive and conservative. Becoming one is really being what we essentially are, but emptied or stripped of all the partial and partisan so we may be filled with the power of Spirit and truth.

Jesus’s inaugural message is that fulfillment comes as we accept disciplines of care: bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, setting free the oppressed, announcing the immediacy of God. It’s no accident that these should remind us of our baptismal vows. They too express the disciplines—the skills, the carings, the commitments, the abilities—by which people are fulfilled, and the reign of God on earth fulfilled.

Filling Our Cisterns

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany includes Isaiah 62:1-5; I Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

These have to be among the most upbeat and jubilant readings we’ll ever hear in our three-year cycle of romping through the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

Isaiah’s oracular words are on fire with evidence of the burning passion God has for people who hitch their wagon to the star of God’s covenant love. “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” What kind of religion rises from this? Jubilee!

Paul’s lesson about God’s Spirit shows how faithful to us God is, pouring out on us varieties of gifts by that Spirit, activating varieties of service throughout the covenant community. All these manifestations, showings, epiphanies of the Spirit are for the common good, for us, for our wellbeing. Not the us we see when the Church huddles around the fire to keep warm, but the us the Church sees and reaches out to when we leave this table where we’ve been fed and go into the world to collaborate with the Spirit who dances in the world and draws together all who care for the common good.

In case we’re not yet giddy from inhaling all this amazing grace, John draws us into that wedding in Cana of Galilee. Now, I want to spend some time with you on the dance floor there in a village that exists no longer but is thought to lie beneath an unexcavated hilltop at a spot nine miles from Nazareth, a spot where there are stone cisterns and the remains of buildings, a spot where sherds and coins from the first century have been found. But you will have to use your imagination, to get the most from this visit. And to that end, I’m bringing three poets into the pulpit this morning, to help us catch the dance step.

You’ve already gotten your invitation to attend, but let me read it to you again, the opening verses this time from a different New Testament version.

“There was a wedding in the village of Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there. Jesus and his disciples were guests also. When they started running low on wine at the wedding banquet, Jesus’ mother told him, ‘They’re just about out of wine.’

“Jesus said, ‘Is that any of our business, Mother—yours or mine? This isn’t my time. Don’t push me.’

“She went ahead anyway, telling the servants, ‘Whatever he tells you, do it.’”

Notice, in this version Mother Mary does not wait long to address the problem. She notices, she speaks up, while there is still wine in the pipeline, still enough for one more toast. She intervenes, she presses Jesus to intervene, while there is still some juice in the system. This heightens the drama, suggests that Jesus is standing at a pivotal moment, now, right now.

Jesus doesn’t see that, not at first. He says it’s not their business to change the course of events. Demand exceeds supply? Let others worry about that. Besides, perhaps he thinks they’ve had enough to drink, as it is. Getting involved in the conventions of wedding receptions isn’t in his mission statement.

Mary, on the other hand, is ready to see the shattering of conventions. She knows what’s in him, as only a mother can. Thirty years before, she had her own season of shattered explanations and expectations, and back then she staked her life on the radical covenant faithfulness of God. She knows what’s in that love of God. William Butler Yeats caught that knowing in his poem “The Mother of God”:

The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.

Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?

What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?

“Don’t push me,” Jesus tells his mother. Mary pushes, anyway. She whose mother’s milk and heart’s blood had filled the cisterns of his infancy now pushes him to cross the membrane between the expected and the unexpected and utilize common wine to dramatize the Spirit’s ability to occupy and transform common human experience—thirst, hospitality, celebration, marriage, community, having, not having.

What is this wedding story about? It was, we heard earlier, “the first of his signs… and revealed his glory.” Or, as our alternate version puts it, this was “the first glimpse of his glory.”

It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.

Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That the world’s fullness is not made but found.
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for such as you.

Those are Richard Wilbur’s words in his poem “A Wedding Toast,” on the occasion of his son’s marriage.

Now let’s have one last poem as we circle the meaning and the mystery of this wedding story. This is Edgar Lee Masters’ “The Wedding Feast”:

Said the chief of the marriage feast to the groom,
Whence is this blood of the vine?
Men serve at first the best, he said,
And at the last, poor wine.

Said the chief of the marriage feast to the groom,
When the guests have drunk their fill
They drink whatever wine you serve,
Nor know the good from the ill.

How have you kept the good till now
When our hearts nor care nor see?
Said the chief of the marriage feast to the groom,
Whence may this good wine be?

Said the chief of the marriage feast, this wine
Is the best of all by far.
Said the groom, there stand six jars without
And the wine fills up each jar.

Said the chief of the marriage feast, we lacked
Wine for the wedding feast.
How comes it now one jar of wine
To six jars is increased?

Who makes our cup to overflow?
And who has the wedding blessed?
Said the groom to the chief of the feast, a stranger
Is here as a wedding guest.

Said the groom to the chief of the wedding feast,
Moses by power divine
Smote water at Meribah from the rock,
But this man makes us wine.

Said the groom to the chief of the wedding feast,
Elisha by power divine
Made oil for the widow to sell for bread,
But this man, wedding wine.

He changed the use of the jars, he said,
From an outward rite and sign:
Where water stood for the washing of feet,
For heart’s delight there’s wine.

So then ‘tis he, said the chief of the feast,
Who the wedding feast has blessed?
Said the groom to the chief of the feast, the stranger
Is the merriest wedding guest,

He laughs and jests with the wedding guests,
He drinks with the happy bride.
Said the chief of the wedding feast to the groom
Go bring him to my side.

Jesus of Nazareth came up,
And his body was fair and slim.
Jesus of Nazareth came up,
And his mother came with him.

Jesus of Nazareth stands with the dancers
And his mother by him stands.
The bride kneels down to Jesus of Nazareth
And kisses his rosy hands.

The bridegroom kneels to Jesus of Nazareth
And Jesus blesses the twain.
I go a way, said Jesus of Nazareth,
Of darkness, sorrow and pain.

After the wedding feast is labor,
Suffering, sickness, death,
And so I make you wine for the wedding,
Said Jesus of Nazareth.

My heart is with you, said Jesus of Nazareth,
As the grape is one with the vine.
Your bliss is mine, said Jesus of Nazareth,
And so I make you wine.

Youth and love I bless, said Jesus,
Song and the cup that cheers.
The rosy hands of Jesus of Nazareth
Are wet with the young bride’s tears.

Love one another, said Jesus of Nazareth,
Ere cometh the evil of years.
The rosy hands of Jesus of Nazareth
Are wet with the bridegroom’s tears.

Jesus of Nazareth goes with his mother,
The dancers are dancing again.
There’s a woman who pauses without to listen,
‘Tis Mary Magdalen.

Forth to the street a Scribe from the wedding
Goes with a Sadducee.
Said the Scribe, this shows how loose a fellow
Can come out of Galilee!

Our scripture today should get us asking questions about conventional religion. These readings are about jubilant religion, religion that shatters conventions that constrict the human spirit, conventions that would even try to confine the Spirit of God. Isaiah, Paul, and John in their writings bear witness, and blessed Martin joins them in showing us, that it takes jubilant religion to fill our cisterns with the abundance of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.