Monday, January 25, 2010

Sermon for Second Sunday after the Epiphany, "Filled: To the Brim"

Sermon 1/17/10, John 2:1-11, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Filled: To the Brim

You might have noticed that last week and this week our sermons have had the theme of: filled. We’ll continue on with that for the next couple of weeks as well, and I chose this focus because I suddenly noticed, as I was preparing my preaching schedule, that the gospel lessons for several weeks in a row contained the word “filled.” And I think “filled” is a perfect word to describe how God wants our lives to be. My very favorite Bible verse is from John 10:10b – “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” Jesus is all about giving us life – but not just any life. Full life. Abundant life. We live in a culture that is so full – of sounds and sights, of must-haves, of things an stuff – and yet people feel amazingly empty, always trying to fill up with the wrong things. The message of Jesus, though, is pretty clear. God is supposed to be the one filling us.

Things certainly have seemed quite full to me this week, as I prepared for worship today. On Tuesday, the world heard of a devastating earthquake in Haiti, and the news from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere just seems to get worse as the number of casualties climbs. And yet, there are stories, too, of amazing hope and sacrifice, stories of people singing in the streets, hymns and Halleluiahs. We mourn the passing of one of our church members, Emily Brundidge, who died this week. My mind is with my mother, as she continues to heal from her ankle fusion surgery. Tomorrow I meet with a group of Presbyterian youth, who will be travelling to visit the United Nations next month in New York City. Yesterday I met with Communicators from four United Methodist conferences, to plan for our merger in July. Today you received the first formal announcement of our Annual Meeting, which take place two weeks from today. Things are feeling pretty filled up. No doubt a quick review of your week would bring up similar results.

And our themes in worship are full too – today we celebrate the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as we consider his work for racial justice. And beyond that special designation, our scripture lessons have weight and fullness in their own right today. Our reading from the epistle to the Corinthians talks about spiritual gifts, the variety of ways in which God gives to us unique qualities which enable us to serve and to help one another in faith. Our gospel lesson talks about Jesus changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Both these texts offer so many possibilities, but I keep returning to that word – filled. We are indeed filled to the brim, with our lives, with our need for God, with directions God can lead us in worship today. Where do we begin?

First things first. Jesus' changing the water into wine is generally considered his 'first' miracle recorded in the gospels. Well, it may be his first miracle, but other than chronological uniqueness, it doesn't seem to me particularly remarkable. Don't get me wrong - I haven't mastered changing water into wine just yet. It's more that the type of miracle Jesus chooses as his first public display of God-given powers seems a bit odd in choice. How does this miracle really help anyone? It saves the host of a wedding reception a bit of embarrassment from running out of wine, true. But no one is healed, no one's leprosy vanishes. No one's sight is restored. No raging storms are calmed. It doesn’t seem to be a life-changing event. Jesus simply changes water into wine, enabling a party to continue on for more hours, and boosting the host's status in the eyes of the guests who are impressed with the new wine's quality. What a strange way to make his mark in the world of miracles!

So if the particulars are not so impressive, as far as miracles go, anyway, what's so special about this event? Why is this the first? Why bother to include it in the stories of Jesus, when there are so many other things we wish we could know about the life of this Christ? Chances are, as usual, there's something more than meets the eye. We read that Jesus used 6 jars that were used for purification rites, 20-30 gallon jars, about the size of our street-side garbage cans. These jars he ordered "filled to the brim" by the stewards - you can just picture them, almost ready to spill over from fullness, like the commercial images of soda at fast-food restaurants, appealing in their abundance. Jesus changed these water jars into jars of wine. And when another tasted the wine, he called the groom 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."

For me, these empty vessels represent our own lives - we are these jars, creations of God, ready to be filled up. Often we try to fill ourselves up with things we desire, things we think will bring us meaning. But others aren't fooled, realizing inferior wine, so to speak, when they see it. But God offers to fill us up, and to the very brim - first with the waters that would cleanse and purify us, as we remembered last Sunday, but then with the good wine, the best-for-last wine, the filled-to-the-brim-its-so-good wine that causes others to remark about our quality - that something-special substance in us. We can choose: the watered-down life of our own design, or the abundant brim-filled life that God offers.

Our quick response is to say that of course we want the full version - we want the real thing, we want to have the best wine to fill our vessels. But unfortunately, it's not as simple as that. If we don't want the watered-down version of possibilities for our lives, it also means we can't accept watered down versions of who God is, who Jesus is, or how Jesus calls us to live. Too often we want to skirt the issues Jesus confronts us with by watering them down, turning Jesus into a nice man with great ideals but not much realism about how to get along in the world. When he warns us about money we think he's exaggerating, when he tells us to drop everything and follow him, we're sure he forgot to take our jobs and our families into consideration. When he talks about loving neighbors, we are sure he wouldn’t have said it if he’s met our neighbors. When he tells us to turn the other cheek, we're convinced he never had a good look at the size of our opponent. When he asks us not to judge others, we can't help but point out anyway a few who don't meet God's standards, and when he talks about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick, we're finally sure he's speaking metaphorically and not literally. We have to ask ourselves: are we ready for the good wine? Do we really want to be filled to the brim with such potent stuff? Isn't the watered down version actually a little easier to swallow?

On this special Sunday, we celebrate the birthday – and life – of Martin Luther King, Jr. Just as we often try to 'water down' the message of Jesus, we have also tried to water down the message of this radical man as well, making him more acceptable to our ears and our consciences. In recent years, for instance, clips of King have been used in commercials for the YMCA, for soda companies, insurance companies, Apple computers, a communications company, and even Cingular cell phone company, to promote their products. Is this his legacy? The poet Carl Wendell Himes, Jr., aptly and eloquently put into words this dilemma of watering down, writing: "Now that he is safely dead / Let us praise him / build monuments to his glory / sing hosannas to his name. / Dead men make / such convenient heroes: They cannot rise / to challenge the images / we would fashion from their lives. / And besides, / it is easier to build monuments / than to make a better world." (1)

Civil Rights activist Vincent Harding speaks similarly, "We must reclaim Martin precisely because the times demand it. As the bombs fall, as the poor cry out in greater numbers, as the earth convulses beneath the weight of global economic power, we must attend to the words and the life of this prophet among us. If we are content with little more than a vision of Black and White children holding hands . . . If we settle for a tamed version of Martin King as a moderate integrationist, we will fall prey to cynicism and despair, and we'll lack the imagination and social inventiveness necessary in genuine social struggle." (2) If you really examine the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., you hardly find someone who everyone liked, someone who everyone agreed with, who didn't ruffle any feathers. He talked the talk, and walked the walk. His dream wasn't just words for the future - it was a plan of action he followed right then. He wrote, "I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity. I choose to live for and with those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign. This is the way I'm going. If it means suffering a little bit, I'm going that way. If it means sacrificing, I'm going that way. If it means dying for them, I'm going that way, because I heard a voice saying, 'Do something for others.'" (1)

On this day that we read about Christ changing water into wine, and on this day that we remember the man Martin Luther King, Jr., let us not settle for something less than the gospel demands of us. Let us not reduce the gospel to a gift book of cute phrases to live by - perhaps another collection of heart-warming Chicken Soup for the Soul stories. Jesus’ teachings are so much more than that - they demand much more of us, and they reward us much more deeply, in more long-lasting ways. If we allow it, God fills us with good wine – Paul's letter to the Corinthians talks about the contents of our vessels - the gifts that each of us has, of wisdom, knowledge, prophecy, healing, faith, and much more. What's next is to pour ourselves out for others, pour ourselves out in service and sacrifice, pour ourselves out with boldness, knowing that God is filling us up as fast as we’re pouring ourselves out. The choice is ours: water or wine, empty, or filled to the brim, cheap substitutes, or the demanding and rewarding gospel of Jesus Christ. Do you want to be filled? Amen.

(1) As quoted by Vincent Harding, in The Other Side, http://www.theotherside.org/archive/jan-feb03/harding_print.html

(2) Vincent Harding, in The Other Side, http://www.theotherside.org/archive/jan-feb03/harding_print.html

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