The Best Wine

The following is only an excerpt of this sermon. The full sermon can be heard by clicking the audio link below.

John 2.1-11

It was all set for my sermon for today. I love this text from John’s gospel, I’ve used it at weddings, more than once. I was all set this morning to talk about parties, about not being so serious that we miss out on the good wine of joy. It is no mistake that Jesus’ first sign in John’s gospel takes place at a party. Jesus, I believe, wants us to enjoy life, to enjoy it to its fullest. One theologian puts it this way, I was going to preach, “Christians ought to be celebrating constantly. We ought to be preoccupied with parties and banquets, feasts and merriment. We ought to give ourselves over to veritable orgies of joy, because we have been liberated from the fear of life and from the fear of death. We ought to attract people to the church quite literally by the fun there is in being a Christian.”

That was my sermon until Tuesday. The earthquake in Haiti made that sermon a message for another day. Instead, as we gather here this morning, we have other questions before us. We have a different context for reading and interpreting this text from John’s gospel. The brokenness of creation has intruded. And we can’t be preoccupied with parties, banquets, feasts and merriment. It is not the time for orgies of joy.

Tens of thousands dead and survivors clinging to life, and all of the other poverty that this tragedy has exposed once more, have reminded us that we are not completely free from the fear of life and the fear of death.

Well, if that is the case, then what does this party in John’s gospel say to us? What does this celebration in a nondescript, ancient village offer us this moment when our life is not like a party?

John tells us that this is the first of Jesus’ signs. If it is a sign, then to what truth, what reality, to what good news does it point? Where is the overflowing grace? Where is the abundant blessing in a world where earthquakes rock and cities fall?

As I watched the news with all of the suffering and hardship, as I am reminded of the poverty long standing there, I wonder where is God in all of this? Some would speak for us. I think of that ridiculous from once-prominent Christian leader Pat Robertson, who said that the earthquake was God’s judgment for a pact made with the devil long ago. Such statements need to be called out. That’s not the God that I know.

When we hear and see all of this, we might be tempted to agree with Richard Dawkins who believes that “God, though not technically disprovable is very, very improbable indeed.” These are the questions that dog us at moments like this.

I think that Jesus, bold as he was when he walked the earth, would not have us run away from such questions. He didn’t run away from such theological struggles, he embraced them. Him himself, the son of God, the beloved with whom I am well pleased, struggled profoundly with God’s absence on the cross. “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani? My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

We cannot run away from such questions of theodicy or the divine goodness in the face of evil, we grow through our wrestling and our struggle. But we confess that it is unlikely that we will ever be able to satisfactorily answer such questions, at least until that time when all questions are answered. And you know what, besides that, my faith tells me that this is not the time for theological wrestling. This is not the moment for theological partisanship or religious judgment. This is a time for action. For response.

(To listen to the sermon in full, please click below)

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  • Breakfast Encounter

    Last Friday morning, I stopped by my GP’s office to let them draw some blood for a test and to get my flu vaccine for the year. Because of the blood test, I had to ‘fast,’ arriving for the blood draw without having any food that morning. When the phlebotomist had drawn the blood and given me the shot, I went to a nearby diner to get some breakfast. Little did I know I was about to witness something extraordinary.

    While I was eating my pancake, egg, and piece of sausage and reading a book about Oscar Romero, a young man went up to the counter to pay. I didn’t notice any of this, of course (occupied as I was with not only Oscar Romero’s life and ministry to the poor of El Salvador, but also all that butter and syrup…) until the young man started yelling at the woman behind the counter.

    “Swipe it again!” is what drew my attention.

    She did, and the card must have been denied a second time. She ran it again, and the look on her face told me the same thing happened. Denied.

    The young man was getting more agitated and saying things to her under his breath. I was paying more attention now, and she asked if he had another card she could try.

    “No! I don’t have another bleeping card!” he yelled at her. Except he didn’t say bleeping.

    Now I’m not a stranger to harsh words. I’ve said them myself. Usually when I’m trying to get a rusted bolt off an old machine and it finally comes loose, taking some of my knuckle skin with it. And I think I quietly swore under my breath in January of 1988 when the Washington football team beat my beloved Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, 42-10. There have been other times too. But never, ever at a person.

    Upon being sworn at, the young woman stared at the man like she didn’t know what to do (how could she?). Tears were about to appear. And the air in the room went real still. Like in the movies. I’m sure the background music was still playing, but it seemed deathly quiet at that moment.

    I was about to get up and walk over to the counter—not exactly sure what I was going to do once I got there—when another man who had been eating nearby wandered up real slow, eyes staring at the young man. He was a tall guy, with white hair under his old IFA ball cap, probably in his sixties. He asked the young woman, “What seems to be the problem here?”

    And that’s when the young man made what I thought was a fatal mistake: he answered when he hadn’t been spoken to. “It’s nothin’. My card won’t work,” he spat back.

    I thought a fight was about to break out, but the older man, his eyes searing into the young disgruntled one’s face, reached for his wallet and said to the cashier, “Aubrey, I’d like to pay for this young man’s meal, if that’s okay with him.” And after getting out some cash, he put his hand on the young man’s shoulder, not one of those friendly pats on the shoulder, but one of those firm grips that, well, made me think he was making sure the lesson was going to stick.

    I’ve had those kinds of hands on my shoulders a few times over the years. Perhaps from a coach, maybe from my dad once or twice; they happen when a boy or young man really needs to start paying attention.

    And after staring at him for what seemed like an eternity, the old guy said, “Be kind.” And then walked away.

    The young man left the restaurant and climbed into an oversize truck that was parked right out front, cranked up the volume on his radio, and left some rubber on the road as he departed.

    I went into the church office sometime later to finish my sermon, but I kept thinking about angry people and hurt people and kind people and people who teach lessons to those who could use them. I also thought about people who have a head full of kind words who refuse to tolerate ugliness.

    I hope I can be someone like that.

    I have a feeling Aubrey earned a whole lot of tips that morning. She deserved them.

    Be kind.

    That’s all for now.

    —Pastor Derek

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