Today marks the one year anniversary of closing the building of St. Mark’s due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two days before the Third Sunday in Lent last year, the vestry met in an emergency capacity and made the heart-wrenching decision to close the church building for two weeks. At the time, the two-week closure was designed to help public health officials get a handle on where the virus was so they could begin tracking it. But two weeks became four, then a season, and now we mark a year. I went back and found the letter I sent to the parish about closing. It is clear in the letter that I had no conception that our building closure would last as long as it has. I could only comprehend two weeks at a time. I nursed a hope that we would be together by Easter. In March 2020 I would never have been able to conceive that we would still be apart the following Easter. But our building closure will last at least that long and most likely longer.
Sermon for Sunday, March 4, 2018 || Lent 3B || John 2:13-22
One of the great joys of parenthood is getting to go back and watch movies with your children that you yourself loved as a child. We’ve done this a little bit with the twins, and there are many, many more to come as they get older. When you watch a children’s movie as an adult, you realize the filmmakers have an incredibly difficult job to do. They have to make a movie that appeals to children and that keeps parents from tearing their hair out while watching it. They do this by adding into their movies a layer of humor that sails right over kids’ heads and makes parents laugh out loud. And if not humor than deep meaning; and sometimes, in those rare movies, both humor and depth.
Disney’s Zootopia is a great example. Little kids love watching all the anthropomorphized animals walking around and talking to one another. Perhaps they might understand a little of the message of the movie, which celebrates stepping outside of one’s comfort zone and living in harmony in a diverse society. But there’s no way they’re going to get the joke about the mob boss Godfather character being a tiny rodent. Or the joke about sloths being employed by the DMV. Or any of a hundred other jokes that make Zootopia one of my favorite Disney movies. I watched it a few weeks ago without my kids.
Sermon for Sunday, January 17, 2016 || Epiphany 2C || John 2:1-11
I love my mother with all my heart. For thirty-three years and five days, she has never wavered in her steadfast love for me, support of me, and delight in me. She delivered me in the middle of a Maine snowstorm; she endured through my advanced childhood self-centeredness; and she never let her own demons keep her from being my nurturer, advocate, mentor, and friend. I get my love of reading from her. I get my precociousness from her. And I get my ability to be quiet and listen from her. When I had my first ever bona fide moment with God, it was my mother who held me and rocked me – her seventeen-year-old baby boy – while I bawled my eyes out, overwhelmed by the immensity and clarity of it all.
As I said, I love my mother with all my heart. I’m saying this aloud today for two reasons. The first is to say “thank you” to my mother, who will be reading this tomorrow, I have no doubt. If she were here right now, I’d give her a big hug, and my chin would rest snugly on top of her head. The second reason is to locate myself on the continuum of relationships between mothers and sons. I am an unabashed “momma’s boy,” and proud of it. I would never think to call my mother by her first name, Edna. It just wouldn’t feel right. And while I now tend to call her “Amma” (her chosen grandmother name), I will always cherish the way my heart feels when I address her as “Mom.”
So when I read the story of the wedding in Cana of Galilee, I tend to focus on the relationship between Jesus and his mother. If you were paying attention, you might have noticed that the Gospel writer does not name her. She is not called “Mary” in this story. She is simply known as “the mother of Jesus.” In her only other appearance in the Gospel of John – at the foot of the cross – she is also only identified as Jesus’ mother. No name, just a relationship. This isn’t a fluke, as another recurring character in the Gospel of John is given the same treatment, someone mysteriously known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Tradition tells us this disciple is “John,” but the story never names him. The relationship to Jesus is what matters.
Identifying people by their relationships to us is commonplace. Who’s that? “Oh, that’s my boss. Oh, that’s my best friend from high school. Oh, that’s my first cousin once removed.” (By the way, if you ever want to confuse my mom, try to explain the difference between first cousins once removed and second cousins. It’s really funny.)
When you were a kid, you more than likely fell victim to this tendency to identify via relationship. You were behaving badly and one of your parents identified you as the child of the other parent, right? “Tell your daughter to pick up her shoes.” “Tell your son to eat his zucchini.” (It’s possible that second example is personal – I do eat zucchini now, as long as it’s in soup.) In our language we stress our relationships. If a stranger asked me who is the vertically challenged woman with the beautiful smile and the heart of gold, I wouldn’t just say, “Edna.” I would surely add, “My mother.”
Yes, in our language we stress our relationships. We use possessive grammatical constructions quite a lot. My mother. Jesus’ mother. “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.’” Now, he sasses her here, calling her, “Woman.” I’ve read that in Jesus’ day such an appellation was not considered rude, but I’m not sure I buy that. Jesus seems a mite petulant here; perhaps a bit of childhood regression for the Son of God. I know that I would never get away with it if I called my mother “Woman,” so I’ve never tried.
By calling her “Woman” instead of “Mom,” Jesus plays down the relationship. He doesn’t really want to be bothered. He just wants to keep a low profile and enjoy himself. But his mother is having none of that. She pushes him to help the wedding planners retain their hospitality. She pushes him to be his best, to reveal his glory. Just like a mother, right? – wanting her kid to shine. And, of course, Jesus gets over his momentary petulance and does what she says. So their mother-son relationship remains intact: she coaxes him to be brilliant, to be extraordinary. And he is.
By never calling her by name, the Gospel writer tacitly tells us to focus on this relationship. She is the mother of Jesus. Focusing on this relationship begs the question: Who are we? Yes, we have our names, which later on in the Gospel the Good Shepherd will speak as he leads us out of the sheepfold. Yes, we have our names, but who are we?
Well, to answer that question, we must quote the famous Christian axiom, “It’s not who you are that matters. It’s whose you are.” So whose are we? Last week, we spent the whole sermon answering this question. We are God’s beloved children. If we believe that, we have the starting point for every relationship that matters in our lives.
Who are you? I’m a child of God. Each of us is “child of God.” That’s the beginning. That’s the spark. That’s the soul. Every other meaningful relationship springs from this one. That’s why the marriage vows begin, “In the name of God.” That’s why the solemn, scrunched up faces of our infant children make us fall to our knees in gratitude to the Giver of all life. That’s why every difficult or inconvenient encounter can be transformed by remembering the other person is a child of God, too.
Indeed, the good news of Jesus Christ resounds with the beauty of relationships based in God’s own connective tissue. Today’s story happens at a wedding, after all! Over and over again in the Gospel, Jesus invites people into deep and abiding relationships with him. “I am the vine,” he says, “and you are the branches.” And just to make sure we get the point of all this, when Jesus’ mother appears for the second time, at the foot of the cross, in the moments before Jesus’ death, do you know what he does? With his last few ragged breaths, he stitches together a new family. He gives the two people who have no names into the other’s care: his mother and the disciple whom he loved. “Here is your son. Here is your mother.”
That’s what God’s story is all about: stitching us and all people and all creation more deeply into the fabric of God’s love. So the next time you see someone with whom you have a deep and abiding relationship – perhaps your own mother or your spouse or your child or your friend – give thanks to God for that relationship. And notice how the love of God strengthens that relationship. And notice how that relationship strengthens your love for God.
Image: Groom and Mother of the Groom dancing at mine and Leah’s wedding. A lovely memory, dancing with my mom.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know I never pass up a chance to talk about the Gospel according to John. This past Sunday’s Gospel text was John 2:1-11, which spurred this article published in the local paper.
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On my wall, I have a collage of pictures from a college choir trip to England in 2005. In one picture, 15 friends and I are standing in front of the Tor of Glastonbury, a ruined tower on the top of a hill in Southern England. It’s a great picture—the four men and eleven women are all smiles because the late-spring sun is shining and because even the dullest blade of English grass is greener than the greenest blade of American grass. Recently, I looked at the picture and realized that fifty percent of the people in it have gotten married or engaged in the last four years. Whenever I get a new invitation or see wedding pictures on Facebook, a special kind of happiness grips me, a happiness reserved for such outward signs of God’s love as marriage.
In a Christian context, a marriage displays to the world the best attempt human beings can make at emulating the love of God. Marriage unites two people in a commitment (a better word may be “covenant”) to love and cherish one another so that the world is enriched by their love. Indeed, a couple truly meant to commit themselves to each other shows their love for God by loving one another. Because God’s love is so intimately involved, marriage is a calling, just like any other action taken on behalf of God. The celebration of this love, upon which the marriage is founded, is the wedding.
The wedding celebrates the union of two people in the love of God. How wonderfully appropriate, then, is it that Jesus first reveals his glory at a wedding feast. The location of this revelation reminds me that Jesus brings people back into union with God. This is one way to characterize his mission—he reunites me with every good thing I have lost through years of indifference and antipathy. By accepting the love of God in Jesus Christ, I find cause to celebrate the fact that, while I may have broken my relationship with God, God has never broken God’s covenant with me. The commitment God made to Abraham and his descendants finds new life in me when I discover the possibility of reunion with God through the love of Christ. Just like the wedding feast, this discovery necessitates celebration. But just like a marriage, this celebration can last a lifetime.
Imagine the beauty of a life lived in the full knowledge that God is committed to loving you. What would you do in response to that commitment? How would your life change? Jesus changes the water in the jars to wine, and not just any wine, but wine that is superior to what was originally served. In the same way, living into the covenant God has made with you brings change. You will be changed. You will become better wine than before. You will be a sign of the glory of God in the world. If this is not cause for celebration, nothing is.
When I attend the wedding of a friend, I always remember this story of Jesus at the wedding of Cana. His appearance at the wedding and the sign he performs to reveal his glory attune me to feeling the joy that spills over from the celebration in heaven when people on earth find the love of God in one another. When Jesus calls us into union with himself, we can share in the lifelong celebration of being Jesus’ disciples, the lifelong knowledge that we are becoming better wine than we were before, and the lifelong commitment to experience the love of God that continues to be present and active in the world.