Friday, January 19, 2007

Sermon: Ministering from Abundance

This is the sermon I preached on Wednesday, January 17 at St. George's Church, Lee, Massachusetts in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. The occaision was the institution of the Rev. Donna Trebilcox as Rector of that parish. She was previously the Assistant at Trinity, Easton. The text is John 2:1-11.

May only God's word be spoken.
May only God's word be heard and believed.

Funny. This doesn't look like a wedding. It doesn't seem like a coronation, either. And I was told to leave my tool kit at home because we are not installing anything here tonight. Not hot water heaters or wheelchair ramps and not rectors, either.

We are continuing ministries that God has gathered in this place. God brought you here from far and wide and long ago to be the people of God for and in this community of St. George’s and Lee, Massachusetts.

The Bible has several images for this kind of gathering and one of them, the one in this week’s Gospel, looks an awful lot like a wedding.

I must admit that I am allergic to wedding imagery when it comes to talking about Rectors and parishes. The last time, fifteen years ago, someone stood in a pulpit like this and spoke to a gathering like this to tell me that I and my parish were like a married couple...well, let's just say that we should have signed a pre-nup.

But that is an whole other kettle of fish.

The story of the miracle of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana is less about the marriage and much more about the feast. And the feast requires not just family but community as well. Nothing is said about the couple who were married, but everything is around the community that came to celebrate the joining of these two unknown households and these two unknown people.

Remember all those wedding images in those other, less poetic, Gospels? You know, the Kingdom of God is like a wedding feast or bridesmaids or a bridegroom? Well, John does not tell a parable. He tells a story. He shows us in the story who Jesus is, what he is up to and what the people of God are like. He paints a picture that tells us what Jesus is about and what it means to be the Church.

Jesus told the servants to take empty stone jars and fill them with water. These jars were special because they were made and set for aside for purification rituals. These rituals would cover everything from the ritual impurities that come with menstrual cycles and childbirth to working in the fields and with animals. These rituals depended on pure water that would not be dyed by other more common terracotta or ceramic jars. The point is that these jars weren't just handy, they were chosen to tell us that purification is only the beginning. Jesus, when he is glorified, will do that and so much more. And so will we.

John’s Gospel teaches us Jesus' incarnation will draw people into a joyful, abundant relationship with God. That's right joyful. Jesus says elsewhere in this Gospel that “I came that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

So often Christians tend to start and stop solely around the question of sin and forgiveness. There is plenty of sin to be forgiven, but what come next?

Jesus died for our sins—but ask yourself why was that important to God? Was it only that God hates unbalanced books or is it that perhaps that God delights in us? God wants us to live in the way we are created to live: joyful abundant, thriving, whole, congruent lives. God wants us to be at home with ourselves and with God and creation. God wants us to delight in God as much as God delights in us.

So to get there, we would do well to listen to Mary's instruction to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.” The unsaid part is “no matter how crazy it sounds.” The party has run out of wine. Jesus’ solution? Fill up jars with water. Think about this. Jesus is asking them to fill six thirty gallon stone jars with three-quarters of a ton of water. And there were no spigots. This is no ordinary heres-mud-in-your-eye-go-your-faith-has-made-you-well kind of miracle. No, as miracles go, this one was a back-breaker! I sure hope the servants got a taste of the good wine, because they earned it!

You are all are used to hard work. So you have probably learned by now that this will only take you so far. The key to being a joyful, abundant community is to listen to what Jesus says and then do it. To participate in the miracle and enjoy results.

Jesus tells us to love one another as he loves us. We are called to love one another and this community of Lee sacrificially. To reach out to those who are without hope, without purpose or direction, who are without food, shelter or an advocate and care for them as Jesus cares for us. We, who are the face of the Risen Christ in a callous and indifferent world, are called to be the life of the party through our compassion, our joy and our vision. We are called to demonstrate that being a follower, friend and apprentice of Jesus makes some earthly difference for God right now.

Being a joyful, abundant community that makes a difference in the world will come out of the gifts that God has given us.

Everything God needs to bring the Gospel of Life meaningfully into this community is right here in this place right now. Just as Paul said to the Corinthian Christians, the organizers, the skeptics, the visionaries, the worker bees, the observers and the participants are all right here in this parish right now. Now that may sound crazy to say to a small congregation. I hear you saying to yourselves “there are so few of us!” and “There is so much that we wish we could do!” and “We are not like we used to be!” There are surely moments when the tasks seem greater than the resources. To say that God has big things in mind for you sounds crazy. But Jesus telling servants to fill up stone jars with water sounded crazy too.

But unlike the Gospel story, you are more than empty jars, but you are filled with the finest water...and getting to this point took a lot of work. The miracle is that through our baptisms and sacramental lives we are being changed into something more! And here is the mystery of the spiritual life; we never know how much God has changed us until others share in our gifts. We are participants in the miracle of God's grace come alive in ordinary lives.

God is activating our gifts for the common good in each of the places where we all minister. Our choice is whether we want to hold on to these gifts or do we want to use them for God?

I believe that in your choice to call Donna to be your Rector, you have chosen to use your gifts for God. You may have noticed that Donna loves to teach. I can tell you that she loves it much more when people learn—and that means not just having head knowledge or passing tests, but learning that activates curiosity and a sense of adventure and wonder. I did not know her when she taught High School English, but I have heard that she was not the kind of high school teacher that thought an orderly classroom was the sign of a good day; instead, she was the kind of teacher that was delighted when students delighted in learning. She is that kind of priest, too. The kind of priest who delights in people delighting in God as much as God delights in us.

I believe that you are a community that is ready to turn away from survival to abundance, from simply getting by to living a life of blessing. But it will not be easy or always apparent that you are making progress. And I know for a fact that you will have set backs and do-overs. There will be days that it will feel as if the party has run out of wine. But remember the abundance that Jesus brings. God has already given us everything we need, and the more gifts that are activated the more gifts you will receive! The miracle is taking place right there in front of us, if we have the eyes to see.

Donna tells me that this is a community that has experienced set-backs, and that you are not where you want to be. That's okay, as long as you are not discouraged. Dissatisfaction can be a motivator for good as long as it does not become resentment and thinking like a victim. Hunger not for filling up scarcity, instead hunger for how to spend abundance.

Learn from the past without being a slave to it. Honor the history that brought you here, remembering that God is taking you somewhere new.

The experts tell us that the congregations that grow are the ones that are clear about their mission, message and purpose: in other words, God has put you here in Lee to be the life of God's party. So remember when it feels as if you are lugging a ton of water and that perhaps this feels a little crazy, to stop, and taste the water. It may taste different than you expected and be more than you hoped for.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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