Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Great Agitator

Trinity Lutheran Church, Moorhead
January 20, 2012 (Global Mission Sunday)
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
John 2:1-11

Two weeks ago today I worshiped at Iglesia Luterana Santissima Trinidad (Lutheran Church of the Most Holy Trinity) on the island of Puerto Rico.   It was a big deal, because it was a major holiday—Tres Reyes Day, “Three Kings Day.”

Our Spanish-speaking friends treat the coming of the Magi on January 6th like a second Christmas—complete with gift-giving, special sweets, and a fiesta where everybody gets just a little carried away.

And during the worship services, three kings actually show up, process down the center aisle, help lead the worship, distribute the gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood….and then—like rock stars!—have their pictures taken with any worshipers who want to pose with them.

That’s because on Puerto Rico and throughout Latin America, these are not your ordinary Three Kings.  

They look nothing like our pale imitation Wise Men here in the Midwest—three young boys or three embarrassed men who got talked into putting on their bathrobes and donning “crowns” that look suspiciously like giveaways from  Burger King.

No, but in Latin America the kings are decked out like royalty in the flesh…with rich, flowing robes:  deep purple, royal blue, scarlet red robes….gaudy, jewel-bestudded crowns, and ZZ-Top-length beards that really make the Tres Reyes look like potentates from half a world away!

Seeing them took my breath away and moved me to tears as I beheld this part of the biblical story unfolding as I had never experienced it before. 

Because as I witnessed these exotic travelers in worship on January 6th, it dawned on me how during the season of Epiphany, God is forever agitating God’s people, shaking us loose from all our assumptions about who’s in and who’s out….and reminding us that God and God alone decides who “our kind of people” will be.

Left to our own devices we will always circle the wagons and draw the lines between “us” and “them” more sharply, more defensively…..while God is forever flinging wide the doors to let in all the wrong crowd.

God the Great Agitator is always mixing it up and mixing us up, so that God can reveal once again how Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son, our Savior, is for everybody, that Christmas spells good news of great joy to all people, and that God consistently expands the circle wider and wider than we would normally allow it to be.

The season of Epiphany used to seem like “filler material” to me…..a way to survive the frigid wintry Sundays between Christmas and Ash Wednesday.

But now, later in life Epiphany has become one of my most treasured seasons in the church year, because during the Epiphany season God just keeps sharpening the image of what happened when the Word became flesh.   God simply  continues to surprise us, week by week, during Epiphany…unfolding revelations that all seem to say: “You thought I was this way, but I’m not….I’m more, I’m up to more, and I’m accomplishing more in your presence than you could ever imagine.”

THAT’s what’s going on in the Epiphany season.

First, on the Day of Epiphany, the magi barge into the domestic tranquility of Mary, Joseph and little Jesus….bearing over-the-top gifts of wealth (gold!) and wonder (frankincense!) and foreboding (myrrh, a spice used in burials).

Then, we shift to the Jordan River (in last Sunday’s gospel reading) where a fully-grown Jesus turns up in the last place anyone might expect him….with sinners coming out in droves to be washed clean in the water by John the Baptist….and Jesus joins them, hobnobs with the unworthy, shows himself to be the sinners’ best friend.

And now today, in our gospel lesson from John 2, Jesus and his disciples show up at a wedding of all things.  In the ordinariness of a first-century Jewish marriage feast….the unexpected plenitude of God’s lavish grace overflows—quite literally!—in the form of an abundance of exquisite wine.

God the Great Agitator, Jesus the surprising Disrupter of Business as Usual shines through, comes to the rescue, and reveals that God is up to something huge.

That’s what Epiphany is all about….which is why faithful churches like Trinity view the Epiphany season as “prime time” to step back and look beyond the four walls of this magnificent edifice, in order to behold the global reach of the Good News… celebrate all the ways that God is forever redefining “our kind of people” through the life, death and resurrection of God’s beloved Son, Jesus.

And as we do that, taking our cures this morning from the Wedding at Cana story, we will notice at least three things:

First we will notice, and be overwhelmed by the sheer abundance of God’s lavish grace, shed upon the whole world.   Abundance breaks out at Cana’s wedding feast when Jesus offers an over-the-top solution to a simple problem.   The wine has run out early and the guests are about to turn surly, when all at once there’s plenty of wine, too much wine really, perhaps 180 gallons of wine which may have transformed a feast on the verge of petering out prematurely into a party that just might never end.

The Good News of Jesus Christ, spread around the globe over 20 centuries is like that.   God never gives us just enough for here and now.   God always overdoes it, grace so overflowing like the old Sherwin Williams paint logo—that it literally “covers the earth.”  

This past November, traveling with a group of 19 from our synod in India, I heard again why the story of Jesus Christ is so captivating to the Dalits, the untouchables in India who make up 95% of the Lutherans of India.  In the dominant faith story told in India, you see, the Dalits don’t even register—they have no place in their own national faith story.   But the Good News of Jesus has changed all that, washing over them abundantly with the astonishing message that in Christ, you have a place in the story from the very beginning and all the way through to the final ending.

Second, taking the Wedding at Cana story as our cue, we will taste the richness of this wine.   John’s gospel reveals the confusion of the wedding steward—you usually start the celebration with the good wine (when everyone ‘s taste buds are wide awake) and then you taper off, as the guests get a little sloshed, bringing out the rot-gut later when no one will notice.  

But not when Jesus is the wine steward!   No:  “You have saved the good wine until now”—in this end of all ages, the Good Stuff shows up, the Word made flesh for the life of the world.

Celebrating the global span of the Good News of Jesus Christ we can’t help but taste the richness of the global church.   I love our congregations here in Minnesota, the land of God’s frozen chosen; this is and always will be my spiritual home.  

But I also love visiting our exotic, far-flung cousins in the Body of Christ, as I’ve done over the past year...from the soaring arches of Durham Cathedral with its magnificent organ and choirs….to the toe-tapping Dixieland jazz of New Orleans….to the fireworks and flamenco dancers of Nicaraguan rural churches….to the haunting, soulful Telegu chanting of the psalms in our companion synod, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church of southern India.   This is rich, rich wine!

Third, as we drink the abundant rich wine of the gospel, we realize afresh how God is making all things new, all across the globe.  

Here in John 2 those six stone water jars each hold 20 to 30 gallons of water for the old purification rituals of traditional Judaism.  But then Jesus comes along and retrofits these huge water jars.  Without even asking permission Jesus fills these old jars with fresh, exhilarating wine—the wine of God’s Kingdom. 

So also, celebrating the global church, we behold the every-day-newness of God’s grace.   God is still reclaiming tired old stone jars and retrofitting them for God’s new creation in Jesus Christ.   Jesus, and the Jesus way of life, you see, is infinitely “translate-able” into every fresh context, every dawning era.  

So Indian Christianity looks both Christian and Indian, and Latin American faith has a Gospel tune with a salsa beat, and Tanzanian believers revere Jesus while depicting him as a very brown Tanzanian.   And rather than degrading the gospel, such “translation” enhances, adds value to the Good News for us and for all people.

Please join me in prayer:   “Stir us up, O God.  Agitate us with a fresh revelation of your all-encompassing mercy in Jesus Christ.   Open our eyes to behold the abundance, the richness and the newness of your divine life, poured out for the sake of the whole world.   In Jesus’ name.  Amen.”