Sunday, January 20, 2013

Second Sunday after Epiphany

John 2
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

It seems some of you are retiring, and you need my help.

Every few months I get the same phone call, from someone married at Central, who has it in their mind to retire. Apparently you need some kind of proof that you are married, and apparently some have failed to keep track of whatever certificate ministers handed out back in the day.

Of course, most of the callers were married in the early seventies, and the call initiates a multi-step process that begins with a trip to the vault. Yes, we have a vault, but before you start thinking Ocean’s Eleven, I must warn you that it only contains old documents. So unless you are a frustrated genealogist, there is little point getting a team together to rob the vault.

Where was I? Yes, off to the vault I go, and begin the search for the appropriate marriage book. Each page of each book records a wedding, and the book in question is somewhere in the middle of the pile, in the heady days when you could fill a marriage register in two or three years. Now, just to put this in context, the current marriage register that we use has been going since 1996, and we’ve only filled half the book.

In other words, while I have done less weddings than you can count on one hand in my time here, my colleagues, like the late Paul Field, were doing more weddings in a month than I have done in nearly five years. And it’s not from a lack of trying. Our prices are competitive, staff are friendly, we have a centre aisle, and sometimes there is parking in the neighbourhood.

Sadly, none of this helps. The world has changed, and those who decide to tie the knot are more likely to go to the Old Mill or the Golf and Country Club where one-stop-shopping is the rule. So we wait patiently here, with a book that will be filled some time in the next century, and a long centre aisle.

Now, if you happen to meet someone from the about-to-retire-and-where-did-I-put-that-wedding-thingy group, they will wax nostalgic about coming to Central, week after week, to attend their friend’s weddings, doing whatever people did at weddings back then, including—no doubt—meeting someone to facilitate another wedding.

And so, for them, I give you an updated Wedding at Cana:

It was a Saturday, back in the summer of ’73, that the third wedding of the day took place at Central in Galilee. Mary, the mother of Jesus, who I think was living on Rosemount at the time, was there, along with Jesus and his disciples. They all had long hair, by-the-way, and looked pretty much how they looked in that musical set in Israel that came out the same year.

“There is no wine in this church,” Mary said, not really knowing the local crowd, and her son replied, “what business of that of mine, my time has not come,” and “are you sure? I saw some paper bags being carried rather carefully.” Mary gave him a look somewhere between affection and scorn, then said to the others “do whatever he tells you to do.”

Near the back of the stage, where CKSR now stands, there were several washtubs filled with ice and water, and whatever else was in them was now gone. Jesus said, “Draw some ice water out of the tubs, and take it to Lang or Bob or whoever is chaperone for the evening.”

The chaperone was shocked. “Usually it’s Champagne first, then Baby Duck, but you have waited to serve the good wine until now.” This was Jesus first sign, at Central in Galilee, and it revealed his glory, and his happy disciples believed in him.

It’s a challenging story to preach, I must say, and it was even more challenging in the days when ministers and church members were expected to cherish the virtues of temperance and sobriety. What do you do with this partying Saviour, often accused of being a glutton and a drunkard? Clearly you try to spiritualize the whole thing, and declare each element symbolic.

And that might be fair, not in the sense that it denies Jesus essentially social nature, but in the sense that anytime we encounter an extended story in scripture it usually has a deeper meaning. And as interesting as this look at first-century wedding customs in the Second Temple period is, John had something else in mind when he related this story of Cana in Galilee.

So, to begin to construct some background that might reveal the deeper meaning of this story, a quote from Pliny the Elder. Pliny was nearly a contemporary of Jesus, and sadly died when Mt. Vesuvius had other plans for Pompeii. Anyway, Pliny said “In wine, there is truth,” meaning that by the time you get to the Baby Duck in the story, people are generally more candid. This isn’t always a good thing, but may have some bearing on the Wedding at Cana.

The other bit of background is a delightful quote for Plato, giving you a window on the world of Greek philosophy, and the way these timeless ideas developed:

Socrates took his seat...and had his meal. When dinner was over, they poured a libation to the god, sang a hymn, and—in short—followed the whole ritual. Then they turned their attention to drinking. At that point, Pausanias addressed the group:

“Well gentlemen, how can we arrange to drink less tonight? To be honest, I still have a terrible hangover from yesterday, and I could really use a break. I dare say most of you could, too, since you were also part of the celebration. So let’s try not to overdo it.” [Plato (427–347 BCE), Symposium]

This wasn’t covered when we looked at Greek thought in grade nine, at least not in Newmarket anyway. It shows us, however, that whenever you tackle the fundamental problems of reality and existence, wine was considered a aid, something that might facilitate the apprehension of truth. Remember Pliny the Elder, “In wine, there is truth.”

Back to John, the link between wine and truth would have present in the construction of the story, with the added element of a parable that Jesus enjoyed telling, and also seems to have some bearing on Cana:

“No one,” Jesus said, “pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins.”

The good wine is served first, then the inferior, and you never put new wine in old wineskins. The good wine from John was the new wine, because it was stronger, and had the desired effect of making the guests oblivious of the quality of what followed, presumably the old wine.

I should say, that the tradition interpretation of both the “good wine” of Cana and the “new wine” of the parable is that Christianity has superseded Judaism, an idea that we now reject. And in rejecting the idea, we are then free to see that perhaps good wine and new wine mean far more than two competing religions, and may cast light on Jesus himself.

In this approach, Jesus is the good wine, not the religion he has come to represent. And he is the new wine that is new to every generation. The good wine is the best source of truth, the new wine that will allow us to overcome the old ways of being, the ways of sin and sorrow. God has waited to serve the good wine until now, because now is the moment that reconciliation with God is possible.

If Jesus is the new wine, then it remains a story about a relationship, between you and me and Jesus, where we can see God in a new way, and become guests at this great wedding called new life. No longer shall we fear God, or live with the inferior wine of being distant from God, because God is as close as the bread and wine that we break and drink each time Jesus draws near. May it always be so. Amen.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Baptism of Jesus

Luke 3
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with[a] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Having a teenager is like taking a master class in sarcasm.  I sometimes wonder if it would be possible to discover the first teen who said who "oh yeah, that's just great" when, in fact, they meant the opposite.  Did they need to explain?  Did they persist in such sarcasm until other teenagers picked it up?  And how is sarcasm passed on?  I wondered the same thing in my previous career as a daycare cook.  Who was the first kid to say "you're not the boss of me"?  Did they know they had altered daycare history, and maybe the history of parenting?

And who first introduced the idea that sarcasm could be dripping?  As metaphors go, 'dripping with sarcasm' is a good one, conveying what we already know about sarcasm: handled right, say by someone between 12 and 14, you truly feel like you're covered in it.

I also wondered about people learning English for the first time, having to struggle with someone saying 'that's just great' when the circumstances suggest just the opposite.  Then it occurred to me that sarcasm must be universal, just as the experience of parenting young teens is universal.  I assume you drip sarcasm in any language, and my proof is John the Baptist.

To the crowds who followed him out to the desert he said, "who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (3.7).  The meaning changes when you say it in 14 language, doesn't it?  But the meaning is clear: no one warned them, and if there was any doubt in their minds about the wrath to come, our sarcastic friend John the Baptism made sure they took it seriously.

In many ways, John the Baptism proves the adage 'you are what you wish for.'  He was ready for the coming judgment—he yearned for it—and it somehow made him a very popular fellow.  More on that in a minute.  First, his other words, this time less sarcastic:

“His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

As a convinced 'end of days' guy, John was convinced that things were about as bad as they could get.  I'm sure if we could get a few minutes of his time, he might give us the usual list of 'couldn't be worse' topics like disrespectful children, a world gone mad, and the rising cost of honey (and locusts too).  He would tell us that the downward spiral had to end soon, and when it did we ought to get ready.

Now, without belabouring the theme of the end of the world, I'm certain John would be equally at home in our century as his own.  If you have ever caught yourself saying 'back in my day' then you and John are simpatico.  We live in a time of some uncertainty, and massive change, so the allure of BIMD is pretty strong.

And this is precisely why he was such a popular fellow.  He was able to speak to the longing that said everything used to be better and the possibility that everything might suddenly come to an end.  And this is not a form of resignation or defeat, since most people who are looking forward to the final judgment assume they will make out just fine.

The other gift we receive from the 12 to 14 crowd is the constant and unyielding search for hypocrites. Of course, playing ‘spot the hypocrite’ can be a lifelong exercise, but the real search begins in those tender years when you first grasp the disconnect between what people say and what people do.

And once again, John the Baptist leads the way in exposing the hypocrites that have followed him into the desert:

“Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

It’s an interesting argument, saying ‘we have Abraham as our father,’ one that Jesus takes up in John and one that Paul mentions in his letter to the Romans. In a nutshell, the argument is that since the people believed that they inherited the promises God made to Abraham, that was pretty much all they had to do to be considered faithful. In other words, faithfulness and personal behavior were not really linked so long as your lineage was clear and you continued to name Abraham as your spiritual father.

Clearly John the Baptist was not impressed with this line of thinking, a line of thinking common enough that it was actively discussed in three places within the New Testament. There is a caution here, of course, that this may be a case of early Christian anti-Judaism—creating a biblical theme to cast Jews in a particularly bad light. But in the case of Luke, and the words spoken by John the Baptist, I think we can be assured that this is little more than an attempt to name the hypocrisy that surrounded him. Behaving badly and then naming Abraham’s covenant as proof of your goodness makes you, well, a hypocrite. The same goes for hiding behind Jesus or The Prophet, or any other religious founder while keeping on with whatever behaviour that disappoints the God of all religions.

One of my favourite stories related to this happened in the classroom while I was studying in Chicago. With 30 pastors in the room, we would have lengthy, free-wheeling discussions on a variety of topics, with more than a little Bush-bashing which would always make the lone Republican pastor in the room unhappy. The six of us from north of the border would taunt them with our free healthcare, or quiz them on their broken political system, or just sit back and watch as ‘only-in-America’ conversations would unfold.

A day I remember vividly, and one that had me playing ‘spot the hypocrite,’ was watching these left-leaning pastors who loved ending every sentence with ‘it’s a justice issue’ become very silence when the topic of reparation for slavery came up. Suddenly the classroom became divided between white pastors and African-American pastors, while the Canadian pastors felt uncomfortable or maybe a little smug that we don’t have such a complex historical question to solve.

Or do we? A quick thinking American pastor might point to the Canadians and say ‘yes, but what are you doing about your First Nations,’ and then it would our turn to get defensive. The Idle No More protests may be just the beginning of a long series of actions to highlight the troubled relationship between our government and First Nations. And each of us may need to ponder the mixed emotions we feel, both in terms of tactics but also in terms of the shared legacy of failing to live up to the promises made to First Nations.

Maybe the way forward might be to take a page out of the ‘Abraham is our Father’ idea and flip it on its head to say ‘the earth is our mother.’ She is literally the common ground that we need to stand on to appreciate the source of the protests: The waters, the rivers and lakes that suffer and die in the production of petrochemicals (as just one example) is really a great debt we all live with, aboriginals and non-aboriginals, and it should draw us together as one.

It seems all too ironic that the heart of our story today is a river, a river that provides the cleansing water of baptism, the water that purifies and sets the stage for a ministry of baptism and repentance. Jesus submits to baptism, not to remove sin, but to stand in a common place with us as his journey begins. He receives the title ‘beloved,’ a title that Jesus extends to each of us who choose to stand with him the the purifying waters of the River Jordan.

We would do well to safeguard the purifying waters that surround us, not just as a religious symbol, but as a gift to future generations who will only understand the action of baptism if water remains pure and clear and fit for human consumption.

John the Baptist is calling to us once more, always the unhappy figure, seeing human potential but struck by the ways we continue to fail. Thank goodness he is there to remind us, both in Advent and as the ministry of Jesus begins, that we can gather by the river, and be purified once more. Amen.

Sunday, January 06, 2013


Matthew 2
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Time for a quiz, mostly to test the choir’s legendary cleverness, but everyone can join in. The question: What is it?

Those who don’t have it, want it, and those who have it, want more.
Wikipedia describes it as “dense, soft, shiny, malleable and ductile.”
A rather famous brand of cinnamon schnapps contains some, and it’s perfectly safe to drink.
Imagine a cube 20 metres by 20 metres by 20 metres, and that is how much has been mined in human history.
The chemical symbol is Au.
It closed at US$1657 an ounce on Friday.

If you are as clever as the choir and answered ‘gold’ you are correct. It is the most sought after substance in history, recorded in many ancient sources, perhaps most famously in Matthew’s Gospel. If you read your email blast this week you will recall that only Matthew mentions the gift of gold, and Magi that brought the gold. There were three items, perhaps the best known birthday gifts of all time, and at some stage in the early church someone decided that there were three gift-givers, although the gospel is silent on this question.

Nevertheless, wise men have followed a rather auspicious star from their homes in the east, a star that they understood to declare the birth of a new king—the King of the Jews. Now, old King Herod was still very much alive, and didn’t take kindly to the idea that a new king was set to be born. The first objection would be that with three sons already set to inherit the throne in some form or another, a baby might complicate things And the second objection would be important semantics: “Born the King of the Jews would indicate Herod’s death (he did die that same year) or a palace coup. If a coup was coming, it was unlikely to be at the hands of a newborn.

Before I go on, though, I want to take a brief look at the man known to history as “Herod the Great.” Now, to achieve the epithet ‘great’ you have to be, well, great. Alexander the Great conquered the known world. Alfred the Great made it possible for me to preach this sermon in English this morning, rather than Danish. Peter the Great created an empire and brought Russia into the modern world. But Herod, what did he do to earn one of history’s highest honours?

Quite a lot, actually. The Western Wall, the place that is synonymous with Jerusalem and Israel, was constructed by Herod, along with the rest of the Second Temple. He built Masada, the famous palace and fortress, along with another one called Herodium, and also Ceasarea Maritima, and lots of waterworks, a very Roman thing to do. He managed to rule for 33 years, and expanded trade and increased prosperity, the very things he promised to do when the Roman Senate gave him the title “King of the Jews.” So you see, he felt he had a pretty good claim on the title and a secure place in the throne: he earned it, in his view, and also in the view of everyone who had a healthy respect for Roman power.

Except the wise men. What were they thinking, getting all dolled up like a Christmas pageant, crossing the border into someone else’s kingdom, and declaring ‘regime change’ without so much as Predator Drone or CIA operatives spreading misinformation? Instead, they marched right up to the palace, made their troublesome and unwelcome suggestions, then headed right out again. Herod might have dismissed them altogether in their presumptuousness and bad timing (Herod being alive and all) but he got mad instead. And now the whole outcome of the story was in danger.

And it gets worse. Remember the three gifts? Gold, frankincense and myrrh? Well let’s just examine these three gifts before we decide on the wisdom or the propriety of these three so-called wise men. First gold: always a great gift idea, and not just to enhance your cinnamon schnapps. Gold has averaged an 18% increased every year for the last dozen, so those wise men are looking wise indeed based on the ever growing spot price of the first gift.

And frankincense? It’s used in aromatherapy, for heaven’s sake, so it has to be good. You remember burning incense, right? I know there are a few hippies here about, many behind me, that burned incense in their tender years as a way to relax and never to mask the smell of other burning substances. What I’m trying to say is that frankincense is both thoughtful and practical. The child was born in a barn, so what better gift than a little aromatherapy.

And myrrh. Let’s ponder the myrrh for a moment. Which wise guy—literally—which wise guy though it would be a good idea to give the baby Jesus a substance used primarily in embalming? Seriously, embalming oil as a baby gift? What were they thinking? Not even gold or aromatherapy could make up for this one. First they offend the king, then they give the worst gift ever. I can’t imagine who things could get worse for these three.

Except it does. When they appeared at the palace with bad news for old Herod, they were actually tipping him off, something that became very real when they had a dream that followed the disturbed sleep that followed that last inappropriate gift. In the dream, they were told that something very bad was about to happen (and maybe they were reminded that it was all their fault) and that they should flee. So flee it is, back home by another way, to ponder all the foolishness accomplished by the ones that history has decided to give the title ‘wise.’

But was it foolishness? Or was there method in their madness, or did they at least have the best intentions? Let’s take a look: First, warning Herod might have been a good move, diplomatically speaking. Herod was a great builder, but also a tyrant, as his near future would demonstrate, and warning him of the coming ‘regime change’ would give him the opportunity to mend his ways, and live in a way that might allow him to sleep more peacefully, even of it was the sleep of eternity.

Next, suggesting that another may lay claim to the title “King of the Jews” may have been religious commentary, entering in a debate that needed to move forward. Herod suggested he was a good Jew, and a good king, something that the religious leaders disputed. By entering the debate, they were throwing their support behind those who believed that Herod was Jewish in name only, and needed to do more than maintain power in Jerusalem to be considered a faithful Jew.

Finally, the biggest gaff of all, giving embalming oil to a baby, seems pretty hard to redeem. It might seem overly dramatic and even inappropriate to suggest that this baby was born to die, even if his death would mean the end of death and the salvation of us all, but it’s true. And the wisdom of God, displayed in the wisdom of the wise men, was best described by St. Paul:

Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6.3-5)

Baptism and death are forever linked in the wisdom of Paul, which is, of course, God’s wisdom, the wisdom that links both sacraments, baptism and communion. Jesus said, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood:” a new covenant that means that “there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life everlasting.”

Describing this link, and the debt we own as a result, is a task best left to the poets. Paul was a poet-theologian, and framed it well for the others that followed. But the real poetic gift fell on Charles Wesley, who wrote the lines that expressed this connection best, in what may be his very finest hymn (he wrote 8,000):

Mild He lay His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Maybe their timing wasn’t the best, and they gave too much information to Herod, and they threatened the title he loved so much, and they gave at least one seemingly unhelpful gift. But their hearts were in the right place, since the connection between birth and death and salvation remains: Christ the King, ‘born that we no more may die.’ Amen.