Calling is one of the more mysterious things we talk about in Christianity.
I’ve always envied people who say they know their callings with absolute certainty. For me – and I suspect for a lot of people – calling is a much murkier subject.
Although there have been times in my life when I thought I knew my calling, those moments never last. Before long, I find myself wandering in a spiritual fog, full of doubt and struggling to discern who I am or what God wants me to do with my life.
In this week’s lectionary reading (John 1.43-51), we have a front-row seat to the callings of two people: Philip and Nathanael. When Jesus calls Philip, Philip follows. There are no questions. No whys or what ifs. No doubt.
But when Philip extends the same call to Nathanael, Nathanael hesitates. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nathanael asks. It’s only after Nathanael receives answers to his questions that he accepts the calling to follow Christ.
In the traditional interpretation of this passage, Philip shines as an example of virtue and faith, while Nathanael is portrayed as wishy-washy — a waffler who doesn’t have the spiritual wherewithal to recognize a good thing when he sees it.
But Nathanael’s story is comforting for misfits like me. It also raises important questions about the concept of calling: Is it wrong to question our calling? How does doubt figure into the discernment process? And maybe most importantly, what is a “calling” in the first place?
Calling is invitation
The concept of calling appears throughout scripture. Abram was called to travel to an unknown land. Moses was called to free the Israelites. Saul was called to stop persecuting Christians and become Paul the apostle.
These days, calling is usually connected to vocation. When we talk about discerning our calling, we’re actually talking about discerning our career path or our role in the church. But biblically and theologically, calling and career aren’t necessarily connected.
At its most basic level, a calling is just a divine invitation. Although it might involve an invitation to pursue a vocation, it frequently doesn’t. When Jesus called Philip and Nathanael, he didn’t provide job offers. Instead, he extended a simple invitation: Follow me.
When we re-imagine calling as invitation, we quickly realize that the process of our discerning our calling never ends. Every day, we’re faced with the same choice: Will we accept the invitation (calling) to follow Jesus and all that it entails or will we choose a different path?
Doubt and calling go hand in hand
Doubt gets a bad rap in Christianity. It’s typically seen as a sign of weakness or spiritual defect. But if you think about it, doubt is the flip side of faith. Without uncertainty, we wouldn’t need or value the gift of faith because our spiritual lives would be filled with facts and absolutes.
If we can learn anything from Nathanael’s story, it’s that doubt and calling go hand in hand. Since calling is an invitation, we need to ask questions before we decide whether to refuse or accept. If we don’t thoughtfully consider the invitation, our acceptance rings hollow. It lacks depth and meaning.
The relationship between doubt and calling is biblical. In the gospel of Luke, it’s called “counting the cost.” People who blindly accept divine invitations without considering the consequences are destined to fail. Whether you’re building a tower or deciding whether or not to accept God’s latest invitation, doubting the inevitably of the outcome isn’t a lack of faith – it’s a prerequisite for faith.
The takeaway from this week’s lectionary is to doubt your calling every single day. Ask questions. Consider consequences. Express uncertainty. And when you finally discern God’s invitation, accept it and rely on faith to carry you the rest of the way.
This Week’s Lectionary Reading: The Parable of the Talents
People have used the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) to justify everything from the prosperity gospel to an image of God as a vengeful despot. In many cases, preachers and homilists have misunderstood the word “talent” to mean actual talents or skills, and used the parable to recruit deacons or Sunday School teachers.
Make no mistake: The Parable of the Talents isn’t about your ability to organize church projects or manage a room full of hyperactive third graders. It’s about money. More accurately, it’s about what you do with the resources God has given you.
From Hoarders to Healers
The Parable of the Talents is about money.
A “talent” was a unit of weight and value, a way to measure precious metals like gold and silver. It’s derived from the Greek word talanton andalthough the translation of the word is identical to the English word meaning skill or aptitude, it always refers to money in the New Testament world. In fact, a talent was the largest unit for measuring weight — in today’s dollars, a single talent of gold would be worth as much as $1 million.
When we read the word “talent” through a modern, English-speaking lens, we water down the message of the Parable of the Talents. A lot of us apply our skills and natural talents to generously serve God and other people. But when it comes to cold, hard cash, we’re not nearly as generous.
Fear and hoarding in Jerusalem
It’s important to recognize that in the context of the parable, the investors aren’t free — they’re slaves who have been commanded to safeguard their master’s wealth. This raises the stakes big time. If a friend asked you to safeguard his property and you messed up, you could probably get away with a sincere apology. For a slave, the consequences of failure would undoubtedly be more severe.
Yet the slave who had the most to lose took the biggest risk and used his five talents to make multiple trades in the marketplace. The slave entrusted with two talents did the same. However the slave with the least to lose (one talent) took a different approach. Gripped by fear, he buried his talent in the ground and waited for his master to return.
We all know how the story ends. When the master returns, he rewards the first two servants and punishes the third. There’s talk of weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s not a pretty scene. But the master’s displeasure wasn’t based on the fact that the third slave failed to double his money. You hire accountants or bankers to make good investments — not slaves. In fact, I suspect the master would have been satisfied if the third slave lost his talent in the marketplace. So what was the master’s problem?
The third slave allowed his fear to make him a hoarder.
You and I face a similar dilemma when it comes to the way we spend our money. We don’t earn the same incomes and our bank balances don’t have the same number of zeroes. But we make financial decisions every day. In countless ways, we have to choose whether to embrace fear and hoard resources for our personal enrichment, or risk our relative security and act generously on behalf of those who are less fortunate.
Tax reform legislation and the Parable of the Talents
Over the next few weeks, Congress will make important decisions about the financial futures of millions of Americans. Most experts and analysts agree that the current proposals for tax reform will enrich the wealthy and large corporations at the expense of the poor and the middle class. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, over the next 10 years, families making $75,000 or less will see their after-tax incomes decrease as a direct result of the bill currently making its way through the Senate. This legislation will also handicap future generations by increasing the national debt by $1.5 trillion over the same time period, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Many members of Congress and the White House continue to promise that the legislation will be a boon to everyday Americans, when in truth it’s designed to provide tax savings for large corporations and the rich. To make these tax breaks palatable, they are preying on the financial insecurities of the masses. Unfortunately, that’s not new. It’s what politicians do — they use fear to divert our focus to our own well being so we don’t see the big picture. Over and over, they push the hoarding mentality on the middle class to satisfy the demands of special interests.
The Parable of the Talents is dangerous to politicians because it empowers us to opt out of the hoarding mentality. Instead of incentivizing us to accumulate and protect personal wealth, the Parable of the Talents encourages us to take risks, to be generous, to reject those who peddle in fear and to courageously partner with God so everyone has enough.
Ultimately, the Parable of the Talents transforms us from hoarders to healers. By setting aside our self interest to risk generosity on behalf of others (and encouraging our elected officials to do the same), we stem the tide of income inequality and exercise our belief that in God’s world, everyone has value.
If you think about it, there really isn’t a choice. Because if we don’t risk generosity, the Parable of the Talents tells us that there are consequences. Weeping and gnashing of teeth consequences. So be smart. Be wise. Risk generosity.
For those of us who have the nerve to think that Jesus might have been serious when he told us to serve the poor, this week’s gospel passage is disturbing, to say the least. At first glance, Jesus seems reckless and more than a little self indulgent. When he’s forced to choose between meeting the needs of the poor and enjoying a high-priced pedicure, Jesus opts for personal luxury.
Wait a minute … that doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know. So what are we missing?
The Passage: John 12:1-8 (NRSV)
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped themwith her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denariiand the money given to the poor?”6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought itso that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
This Is What Generosity Looks Like
In John 12:1-8, we find Mary, the sister of Lazarus, applying expensive perfume to Jesus’ feet. And she’s doing it with her hair. A strange and scandalous thing to do, even by today’s standards.
In response, Judas (yes, that Judas), takes Jesus on a guilt trip. Although the passage implies that Judas planned to steal the money from the sale of the perfume, he raises a valid question. If Jesus is so committed to the poor, how could he tolerate the squandering of resources — resources that could be used to feed and clothe and care for the needy?
In Sand and Foam, Khalil Gibran said,
“Generosity is giving more than you can, and pride is taking less than you need.”
Unfortunately, I think we find it a lot easier to swallow the part about pride than we do the part about generosity. But Gibran’s definition of generosity gets to the heart of this week’s gospel passage.
When it comes to generosity, Jesus makes it clear that the ends never justify the means. Despite the ever-present need to provide material support to the less fortunate, the act of generosity cannot be constrained or limited.
There can be no half measures. Why?
Because real generosity — the kind of generosity that the gospel invites us to practice — is an all or nothing proposition.
Judas’ concept of generosity wasn’t very generous at all. Notice how quick he was to sell someone else’s perfume. It required nothing from him. There was no sacrifice, no selflessness, no giving.
Mary, on the other hand, held nothing back. Without shame, she gave more than a jar of perfume. She sacrificed her very essence, laying down her dignity and social standing in an act that transformed generosity into worship.
And at the end of the day, isn’t that what generosity is supposed to look like? Not a calculated and measured response to the guilt of our own affluence, but a radical and all-consuming way of living that transcends charity and becomes worship.
Monica Lewinsky recently gave a TED Talk that cast her story in a whole new light. Lewinsky revisited the aftermath of her affair with President Bill Clinton and the personal toll that our collective judgment had on her. In her words she was nearly “humiliated to death” — literally — as she considered suicide.
She recounted the cruel jokes, media images, soundbites and labels. She says she was “branded” (think about the violence of that word) as a “tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, and of course that woman.” Hearing Lewinsky recall the way she was personally attacked made me think deeply about judgment, shame and human nature.
This week’s New Testament lectionary reading addresses judgment and cautions us not to do it. For the sake of others and for the sake of our own souls, we need to substitute judgment with loving compassion.
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say,“We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.
Judgment, Shame and The Church
Fear of judgment may be the single biggest reason that people avoid church.
I recently had a conversation with several friends who echoed that very sentiment. They stayed away from the church for years because they felt like they weren’t worthy enough to attend. They believed that “churchgoers” would judge their unworthiness, so it was better to just stay away.
I wish I could say that they were wrong. But more than forty years of church attendance has shown me the best and the worst examples of Christian behavior. Although good examples outnumber the bad, the damage done by a few, judgmental hypocrites is astonishing. That kind of judgment reinforces the shame that individuals already feel and pushes them away from the church.
More than 150 years ago Nathaniel Hawthorne wroteThe Scarlet Letter to expose the hypocrisy of the church and 17th century “slut shaming.” Hester Prynne is not the only participant in the affair, but as the woman who bears a child out of wedlock, she alone was forced to wear the scarlet letter “A” for adultery.
Unfortunately, I witnessed 20th century “slut shaming” as a teen when young pregnant women were brought in front of our entire congregation to confess their sin under the guise of preventing gossip. What did that do to prevent judgment and shame? What did that do to show love and compassion? Nothing. People still judged and the women (who already felt shame) were humiliated.
What if Christians abandoned judgmentalism in favor of compassion? What if we truly took the words of this passage to heart? What if we loved more than we judged?
Across denominations, people are looking for a new wave of revival in the church. How about this: Let it be a revival that is marked with compassion instead of judgment — and let our compassion reform our hearts, our minds, and ultimately the church.
Image: Monica LewinskyMural by Erica Zebowski at Flickr
One of my favorite childhood books was a classic collection of fairy tales illustrated in Old World style. Unlike the sanitized Disney versions that we see today, these stories included mice who were scalded and men who fell off ladders and broke their necks. Good wholesome stories to read before bed. (No wonder I was afraid the dark.)
If your childhood was like mine, you’ll remember that many of these stories included a clever and conniving fox — the character who could not be trusted. The frequent antagonist was a gentle hen that could be counted on to outsmart the fox in the end.
In this week’s passage (Luke 13:31-35), Jesus also uses the characterizations of a fox and a hen in the most surprising of ways. But the archetypes remain the same, so we know that in the end the fox won’t succeed and the hen will save the day.
The Passage: Luke 13:31-35
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”
He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'”
The Fox and the Hen
In the beginning of the passage it appears that the Pharisees are trying to help Jesus. But that doesn’t really make sense, does it? At what point in any of the other gospel stories do we see the Pharisees trying to help Jesus? They’re the ones who are always trying to test him and trip him up. They look for ways to discredit him, not save him.
Their “warning” is just another pharisaical attempt to shut down Jesus’ ministry. They can save face with the people if they use the fear of Herod and death to encourage Jesus to stop his ministry and leave. But Jesus won’t let the threat of Herod — “the fox” — deter him from his ministry. He presses on, continuing the journey towards Jerusalem.
And when he speaks of Jerusalem, we get a rare glimpse of God as mother. He likens himself to a hen who longs to gather her disobedient chicks. This is God as loving and longing to protect even when it isn’t wanted or appreciated. The hen who sacrificially covers her children with her wings to endure whatever attack may come — from a fox or whatever would destroy them.
And we know how the story ends. Jesus continues his ministry all the way to Jerusalem. Like the gentle hen who sacrificially covers her brood, Jesus’ ultimate death and resurrection sacrificially covered our sin. Anna’s prophecy in Luke 2:36-38 was fulfilled — Jerusalem was redeemed.
As we continue on our Lenten journey, what fears or threats of scheming foxes are preventing you from fulfilling God’s call on your life? We need to learn to be like the gentle, but courageous hen, and beat the foxes at their own games.
Whenever I read the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, I find myself identifying with Peter. Peter was not one to be very mindful of the moment. He was more of a doer than an observer. Someone who spoke too quickly and acted too rashly.
The gospels are filled with examples of Peter’s impulsiveness and unbridled tongue. Here are just a few examples;
He was the first to leave everything to follow Jesus (Mark 1:16)
Peter was the one who dared to jump out of the boat and walk on water (Matthew 14;29)
He was the first to draw his sword in defense of Jesus (John 18:10)
He was bold enough to rebuke Jesus (Matthew 16:22).
Peter was not a quiet, contemplative type. He was quick to talk and quick to act. Being mindful wasn’t in his nature, which often caused him to miss what was really happening. And so in this passage he is true to his reputation. Peter speaks without thinking when he should be more mindful of the moment.
The Passage: Luke 9:28-36
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said.
While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
Learning to be Mindful of The Moment
By this time in Jesus’ ministry, I’m sure the disciples were used to Jesus’ need to get away and pray. They had escaped crowds by sailing away from shore, sought out quiet gardens and lefts towns just to find space to pray. But this mountaintop moment wasn’t like anything the disciples had experienced before.
God spoke once again to be clear about who Jesus was. There was no question that Jesus was the son of God, and his communion with Moses and Elijah revealed that he was the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.
Imagine seeing Jesus in dazzling white and transformed before your very eyes. As tired as the disciples were, they stayed awake to see heaven touching earth. They were privileged to stand in the presence of those who had seen God’s face. But instead of being truly present, Peter the doer suggests that they set up camp on the mountaintop. He attempts to control the situation and its outcome rather than experiencing the moment.
I can relate to Peter. My analytical mind frequently causes me to focus on plans and tasks rather than people and present moments. I have a hard time just sitting and allowing myself to fully experience where I am and the people that I am with. I’m the doer who keeps the party moving and is already cleaning up before it is over.
Like Peter, I often miss the present moment because I’m planning for what might happen next. But I recognize that this is a part of me that needs to change. I need to slow down and be more mindful of the moment. For the sake of my relationships, my walk with God and my peace of mind I need to take time to be more mindful and fully present to the people I’m with now.
Maybe you’re like me and Peter. If you are, then I would encourage you to consider what you need to give up this Lenten season. Is it control? Your schedule? Your agenda? Use Lent to give up the things that distract you so that you can be more mindful of the moment.
In the verses leading up to Luke 4:21-30, Jesus opens the scroll in the synagogue, reads from the prophet Isaiah and proclaims the “acceptable year of the Lord.” To his listeners, this would have been synonymous with announcing a “Year of Jubilee” — a time when slaves and prisoners were freed, debts were forgiven and the mercies of God were poured out in tangible ways.
In an ironic twist (given the current political climate here in the U.S.), Pope Francis has named this year as a Jubilee Year of Mercy and called for a “Revolution of Tenderness.” But what does that really mean? And how does it relate to this week’s gospel reading from Luke 4?
The Passage: Luke 4:21-30 (NRSV)
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'”And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
A Revolution of Tenderness
All seems well at the beginning of the passage. People “spoke well of Jesus” and were amazed at his teaching. But when Jesus adds a twist to the teaching by proclaiming that it has been “fulfilled in their hearing,” their opinion of him changes dramatically.
Jesus challenges their assumptions about what the “acceptable year of the Lord” looks like. He says that God’s mercy is available to people they didn’t think deserved it. He’s a hometown hero, but Jesus makes it clear that his work will extend well beyond the boundaries of friends and neighbors.
He starts by pointing out that although there were many widows in Israel, it was not an Israelite woman who received Elijah’s help. It was a Sidonian who received a miracle from God. A Sidonian! Jezebel was a Sidonian. They were outsiders associated with idol worship. Not the kind of insider Israelite that was “deserving” of God’s blessing.
Then Jesus reminds them that there were many Israelite lepers in Elisha’s time, but Namaan the Syrian was the only one who was healed. Again an outsider was the recipient of God’s healing grace and mercy. In the same way, Jesus makes clear that his ministry wasn’t reserved just for the Israelites. His healing grace and mercy is also available to those who are marginalized or perceived as undeserving.
In the current year of Jubilee, we can’t forget that Jesus’ grace and mercy isn’t exclusively reserved for the people we deem to be deserving. The point of a year of mercy, or “a revolution of tenderness,” is that we reach beyond our divisions — and that means we can’t view people who are different from us as undeserving of blessing.
When we start second guessing who should and shouldn’t receive God’s mercy, we become like the angry Galileans who wanted to throw Jesus over a cliff. Now more than ever, it’s time to listen to Jesus’ words and broaden our view of who is acceptable or deserving of God’s mercy. Let the “revolution of tenderness” be birthed in our hearts and in our world, this year and always.
Luke 4:14-21 is one of those passages that reminds me why Jesus was such a rock star. Standing center stage in the local synagogue, Jesus intentionally misquotes a passage from Isaiah — a passage that his listeners were likely familiar with because they used it as a hammer to beat down anyone who didn’t subscribe to their version of the truth.
The Passage: Luke 4:14-21 (NRSV)
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
It’s All Good News: Jesus Shames the Haters
Does the passage Jesus read sound familiar? Maybe. Maybe not. But it would have definitely sounded familiar to the Pharisees and everyone else in the synagogue that day. The original version of Luke 4:14-21 is found in Isaiah 61 and Jesus read it word for word. Almost.
Here’s the difference: The Isaiah passage ends with the words, “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.”
By omitting the “day of vengeance” phrase, Jesus confronted the Pharisees’ flavor of religion, a variation of faith that used Isaiah 61 and similar snippets of scripture to paint an angry, vindictive and violent picture of God.
With a simple scripture reading, Jesus reframed the conversation and sent a powerful message about God’s relationship with humankind:
The kingdom of God isn’t about retribution, revenge or exclusion. It’s about hope, healing and freedom.
Pharisees are alive and well in the 21st century Church. A bit harder to identify, but they’re around. Sitting in pews. Sharing their twisted versions of the gospel on Facebook feeds. Staring back at us in the mirror.
When we use faith to separate “us” from “them” …
When we use religion to justify a politics of exclusion …
When we preach a gospel that is anything but good news …
Then we become Pharisees. We become haters. We become the very people that Jesus was attempting to confront and convert in this passage.
It’s interesting to note that at the end of Luke 4:14-21, Jesus pours salt in the Pharisees’ wounded egos by claiming his place as the embodiment of God’s good news.
In a nutshell, Jesus says that if you want to follow him, you had better be prepared to preach all good news, all the time.
There’s just no place for anything else in the kingdom of God.
Who doesn’t enjoy a romantic wedding with a festive celebration? Although the wedding at Cana took place thousands of years ago, 21st century people can still relate to the hard work and money that go into creating the perfect wedding day.
In the U.S., it’s estimated that the average couple spends $26,444 on their wedding and reception. While this may seem exorbitant, much of the cost of the wedding is in providing a nice meal and maybe even an open bar. It’s the cost of providing hospitality to the special people and honored guests who attend the wedding.
Hospitality is important in our culture. But if we mess it up, it doesn’t come with the same social stigma and shame that it would have brought at the wedding at Cana. Ancient Middle Eastern cultures held hospitality in extremely high regard. In an “honor-shame” culture where one’s honor could be “lost,” poor hospitality would have been devastating and shameful.
Fortunately for the bridegroom in this passage, Jesus saves the day.
The Passage: John 2:1-11 (NRSV)
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.
The Wedding at Cana: Jesus Covers Our Shame
Understanding the shamefulness of poor hospitality in the ancient Middle East is the key to unpacking the significance of the wedding at Cana.
Mary must have been close enough to the family to realize the impending disaster of dry wine barrels. She uses her motherly influence to ask Jesus to help the family preserve its honor and avoid a scandal. There’s nothing in the passage to indicate that the bridegroom was aware of the problem, but Jesus covers their shame and discreetly preserves their honor.
Not only did he provide wine, he provided the best quality wine — and a lot of it! If there were six jars of 20-30 gallons each, then Jesus created between 120-180 gallons of wine. Think about that. That would be the equivalent of 302 and 470 bottles of wine. He covered their shame and even brought a little extra honor by helping them provide extravagant hospitality.
The passage refers to this miracle as the “first of his signs.” Signs point us towards what is to come. Jesus’ first miracle covered the shame of the bride and the bridegroom — gifting them with honor that they didn’t necessarily deserve.
The wedding at Cana and the miracle of turning water into wine was a sign that pointed to what Jesus would later do for all of humankind. His death and resurrection was the final miracle of his earthly ministry — one that covered our shame and gave us the honor of being called daughters and sons of God.
In this week’s gospel reading, we see the ministry of John the Baptist. He prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry by filling people’s hearts and minds with expectation — giving them a taste of God’s goodness, while making them hungry for something more substantial. John’s baptism by water was a good thing, but he was clear that his ministry didn’t compare to the work of Jesus. John brought water, but Jesus brought baptism by fire.
The Passage: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 (NRSV)
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved;with you I am well pleased.”
Baptism By Fire
How often have you heard someone describe a difficult experience or a challenge as baptism by fire? In everyday usage, the phrase doesn’t sound very appealing. But in this passage, John tells us that Jesus’ ministry is superior to his own because Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
The references to fire in this passage have often been used to depict Jesus as the ultimate judge — the one who will separate the “wheat” (a.k.a. good people) from the “chaff” (a.k.a. evildoers). In this scenario, the chaff will be judged and consumed by fire. That’s one interpretation. But I think that the pairing of the Holy Spirit with fire changes its meaning and its use.
When the Holy Spirit is present, fire isn’t ominous or judgmental. Instead, it becomes a positive element that purifies us, tempers us and makes us vessels of the Spirit. We aren’t just washed on the outside with water. Baptism by fire changes us and makes us new. It transforms our being. The useless chaff in our lives — worries, distractions, hatred, bitterness, and more — is consumed by the work of the Holy Spirit.
In this context, baptism by fire isn’t something to fear, even though it will likely be painful as we surrender our lives to God’s transforming work. But once the chaff is burned and blown away, we find ourselves cleansed and prepared to serve as seeds of hope in the world.
There’s a strong connection between light and life. Plants require light to grow. Winter comes and seasons change with the fading of light. We measure the length of our lives in periods of daylight. Even our bodies and minds require sunlight to be healthy and happy.
But not all kinds of light bring or sustain life. We know that too much light can burn our eyes and our skin. Concentrated light can be used as lasers. And too many outdoor Christmas lights can drive your neighbors crazy.
We have such a neighbor. He spends thousands of dollars on holiday light displays. There was a Halloween display in October that soon morphed into a “Christmas” light display that includes everything from Snoopy to Star Wars and several Christmas movies in between. It’s entertaining and choreographed to music that you can listen to on a radio station dedicated to the show. The kids love it — and a fair number of adults do too, based on the amount of traffic that it draws. But when it comes to Christmas and the symbolism of light, I think it misses the point.
Entertaining lights have a time and a place, but in this Christmas season they do not bring or sustain life. Only Christ can do that. In this week’s passage we are reminded that Christ’s incarnation was more than a sweet nativity scene full of shepherds and angels. His incarnation brought light and life that would drive out the darkness.
The Passage: John 1:1-18 (NRSV)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,who is close to the Father’s heart,who has made him known.
Jesus Brings Light and Life
As 2015 comes to a close, it’s clear that the world is still in need of Christ’s light and life. Violence and hatred in many forms fill our news feeds and remind us how much our world needs God. But none of us have seen God, and we seem to have such a hard time understanding how God wants us to live.
This problem is acknowledged in today’s passage. But we are also told that the problem was solved in the miracle of the incarnation. Jesus is not just a prophet, or even just the son of God. Jesus is God. He was here on earth where people could see how he lived and hear his teachings. The mysteries of God and how God wants us to live were revealed and illuminated in Christ.
Just as a lamp lights a pathway and shows us the way to go, Jesus serves as a light to the world showing us how to live in a way that brings life instead of darkness and death.
So, how can we live in the light and life of Christ? When I look at the whole of the gospels and the life of Jesus I see a perfect example of one who loved people and was committed to reducing human suffering.
At the very start of his public ministry, Jesus proclaims his commitment to bring good news to the poor, healing to the blind, and freedom to people who are captive or oppressed (Luke 4:18). As we start this new year, in what ways can we live in this kind of light? How can we work to drive out the darkness in our hearts and in our world?
We can follow the path illuminated by Christ and bring life — caring for the poor, serving as instruments of healing instead of violence, and working to free ourselves and others from systems that oppress.
In the gospel passage from this week’s lectionary (Luke 2:41-52), we find an adolescent Jesus traveling to Jerusalem with Mary and Joseph — an impressive growth spurt since we saw him in a manger just a few days ago. But unlike the cherubic babe in Bethlehem, here we see the first glimpse of Jesus’ iconoclastic tendencies. For the first time, we see Jesus the rebel.
The Passage: Luke 2:41-52 (NRSV)
41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49 He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? 50 But they did not understand what he said to them. 51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
Jesus the Rebel
On my twelfth birthday, I received my first legitimate rock record. It was “Centerfold” by the J. Geils Band — a titillating tune describing the singer’s discovery that his high school crush had become the playmate of the month.
They may have been suspicious, but my parents had no idea what the song was really about when I put it on my birthday wish list. And that was the point. The song was juvenile and misogynistic. But at the time, I didn’t care. I was making a statement. I was a rebel. Hear me roar.
In Luke 2:41-52, the twelve-year-old Jesus is also making a statement, albeit a far more important one than the misguided statement I made when I was his age.
This wasn’t the family’s first trip to Jerusalem. The passage tells us that they made this trip every year, so Jesus knew the routine. In fact, I think he was counting on the routine. He understood it would take time for Mary and Joseph to discover that he wasn’t among the large group of travelers and he took advantage of the situation.
“The boy Jesus stayed in Jerusalem.” He didn’t miss his bus or get lost. He stayed in Jerusalem. On purpose. Why?
Because Jesus understood that the kingdom of God isn’t about following the rules or coloring between the lines. It’s about pulling out all the stops to speak life to the lifeless, freedom to the captives and God’s good news to the world.
It’s a theme that we see over and over again in his later ministry. Jesus the rebel. Jesus the iconoclast. Jesus the prophet. When the systems and expectations of the world conflict with God’s agenda, Jesus chooses God’s work every single time.
It’s a lesson all of us need to constantly relearn. As a Church, we can become so blinded by the rules and expectations we’ve set for ourselves (and for the world) that we lose sight of God’s agenda. We forget that above all else, we’re called to speak life and freedom and good news.
Jesus the boy and Jesus the rebel show us that sometimes the rules need to be broken and sometimes they need to discarded altogether. Especially when they stop us from doing God’s work.
In the lectionary this week, the gospel reading is one of my favorite passages of scripture – the Magnificat. Mary, the pregnant mother of Jesus, goes to the home of her cousin Elizabeth. It’s a noteworthy passage because we hear so little of Mary’s voice in scripture. Aside from this week’s reading, Mary’s actual words are confined to just three other passages:
The bewildered, yet willing, response of a young virgin to an angel at the annunciation (Luke 1:34-38)
Chastising young Jesus who left his family during the Passover festival (Luke 2:48)
Encouraging her son’s first public miracle at the wedding at Cana (John 2:3-5)
But this passage is different. In Luke 1:39-55, the Magnificat (or “Mary’s Song”), we hear the prophetic voice of Mary proclaiming God’s great reversal — justice for the poor.
The Passage: Luke 1:39-55 (NRSV)
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
The Magnificat: God’s Great Reversal
The Magnificat is a hymn of justice. The mother of Jesus — the theotokos or “God bearer” — reveals what God will do through her son. Her words are a prophecy of what is to come, proclaiming a series of reversals that go against the established order and wisdom.
Mary redefines the winners. It’s not the 1% that ultimately win, but the poor. In Mary’s words, the powerful will be made low, while the lowly will be lifted up. The rich will be made empty, while the hungry will be filled. Essentially, God will turn the world on its end and bring justice where there is corruption and greed. The last will be first and the first will be last.
The Magnificat reminds us that Jesus didn’t come exclusively for the salvation of individuals, but to redeem the whole world — including the systems, powers and economic structures that stand in the way of justice for the poor and marginalized.
Who are the hungry that need to be filled? Who are the low that need to be lifted up? The Magnificat says that if we want to see where God is at work and if we want to partner with God in that work, we need to start looking in the right places.
In the gospel passage from the lectionary this week, we find John the Baptist exhorting the crowds to repent and bear good fruit. But like Jesus, John cautions that the fruit of repentance isn’t found in dogma or religious expressions — it’s found in the way we treat other people.
The Passage: Luke 3:7-18 (NRSV)
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with 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 granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Repent With Justice
The lectionary this week shines a spotlight on a connection that many of us would rather ignore – the direct link between repentance and the practice of social justice.
Over the past several months, we’ve been bombarded by a series of insane proposals from the Trump campaign, culminating with this week’s call for a total ban on any Muslims entering the U.S. Even Dick Cheney has labeled Trump as someone whose ideas go “against everything we stand for and believe in.”
Let that sink in for a minute. If Dick Cheney has condemned your conservative Republican agenda, then your presidential campaign has clearly gone off the rails.
Trump is nothing less than a privileged lunatic with a microphone. I get it. What should bother us more than Trump are the crowds of people who attend his campaign rallies and cheer wildly when he suggests policies and actions that are blatantly illegal, unjust and oppressive.
It’s fair to say that a high percentage of those who attend Trump rallies identify themselves as Christians. Decent, hardworking people who have repented and been baptized. People who profess to having an up-close-and-personal relationship with Jesus.
The lectionary this week reminds us that the fruit of repentance isn’t found in words or beliefs. Real repentance – the repentance that bears fruit – must be lived. And one of the ways we live it is by treating others with justice, compassion and respect.
That’s something Trump can’t understand. But as Jesus followers, it’s something we’re called to not only understand, but to practice in our everyday lives.