United by the Sacred

June 19, 2016 by Emily Rowell Brown

Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39
One of the opinions almost universally held by the people of St. Mary’s–which I encountered the first time I visited the campus and which was expressed again and again during the discernment period–is how special this place is. From the sky blue ceilings, to the white wood, to the cemetery, to the simple country feel, the physical space contributes to this church’s sacredness. As much as we know that the church is about the people of God more than it is about buildings, we cannot deny that spaces matter.

And that is the realization I found myself returning to over and over this week as I listened to gay friends and strangers alike speak about the devastating Orlando terrorist attack. The gay club Pulse was a sacred space for the LGBTQ (lesbian gay bisexual transgender queer) community, a place where, as my friend Cara says, “we can be totally and completely who we are. There’s no worry about how someone will react if you are holding your partner’s hand. You can dance how and with whom you’d like. You can wear whatever you want. You can be yourself. All of that ends the second you step outside.” As many have recognized, such sacred space has been lost. Last year, it was the African American church Emanuel in South Carolina; this year it was Pulse; and many times in recent history, it has been schools. Are there safe holy places any more?

Drawing these parallels and connecting these tragedies reminds us of our connection as the human family–God’s family. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Today’s counsel from Paul is not quite bumper sticker or tattoo famous like, say, John 3:16 or Psalm 23, but it ranks up there in popularity and favorites. It’s one of the quotables, isn’t it? “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” Paul has a way of cutting to the chase, not wasting time with the unimportant, and such holds especially true here.

Divisions have no place in the kingdom, for baptism into Christ supersedes all differences. What is now constitutive of and definitive for every Christian’s identity is their relationship to Jesus and their relationship to one another made possible through Jesus. The Torah’s role in the Christian life is not a chief bone of contention for us today, as it was for Paul’s community, but whether we are talking about skin color, sexual identity, or political party, we can easily fall prey to the same fate as the Galatians and miss the forest for the trees.

As we all wade through the week’s confusion and grief, may we not find ourselves caught up in the trappings and distractions which pull us away from our common bond in Jesus. Rather than identifying the reasons the other side is wrong let us hold one another as we bear and process Orlando’s sadness. Diversity may serve to inform us rather than divide us. Because while we are united ultimately in working with God for justice and beauty and peace, our distinctions and unique perspectives also have their role in witnessing to God’s breadth and complexity (and insights come not only from variations within Christianity but also from other faith traditions) .

Friends and peers and neighbors and strangers have inspired me over the past few days. They have given blood, encouraged others to give blood, organized prayer vigils, written thoughtful, reflective posts on social media, called fellow friends who live in Orlando or identify as queer, wept, and held firm in their resolve to love deeply and boldly. The responses have varied widely, as everyone has been touched differently: some imagine that they, or their brother or sister, or best friend, or grandchild, could have been in that club, and their hearts break for those who were unlucky enough to be there on Sunday but at the same time thank God for sparing their own; some feel profoundly wounded because their community was specifically targeted, and they grapple with the hate that still persists in this world; some search for people or organizations or systems to blame, because pointing a finger is reassuring; some worry for their Muslim neighbors and how Islam may be misunderstood; some keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and ask, “What next?”

These reactions help keep the memories of the attack victims and their loved ones alive. They shed light on the incredibly multifaceted nature of this act of terrorism, and give witness to the many injustices prevalent in our society and the opportunities we have for learning from those not like us. They compel us to keep working to build a better world.

What can we do?

One: Pray. With prayer, we cry out to God and open ourselves up to change. Pray that the demons of hate and fear and prejudice be expelled from ourselves and our neighbors. Pray for courage to challenge complacency and complicity.

Two: Listen. Almost all of us love hearing the sound of our voice (I know we preachers are the worst!), but spend some time with perspectives of those who follow Islam or identify as queer or hold an opposite position on second amendment rights. Let us take special care with the most vulnerable among us, and listen to their experiences, if they want to share, whether that looks like sitting next to a co-worker at the watercooler or intentionally seeking out articles written by voices very different from ourselves. Ask God for help in keeping an open mind, wisdom to discern, and humility to change opinions.

Three: Love. Loving looks like getting involved with the making of public policy, texting your gay friend to see how he is doing after the attack, giving your child an extra big hug when she stands up for the classmate who is being bullied. It looks like recognizing and calling out the flaws in our neighbors but also the gifts. It looks like holding grief and hope in tension with each other.

Yes, we now live in what many would call a post-Christian world where most of us do not take seriously exorcisms or other supernatural events, nor do we fear for our lives or worry too much about being persecuted on account of our faith, as did Jesus’ first followers. But as Christians, we still have the same charge: to manifest God on this earth. That is proclaiming Jesus–being the body of Christ in this world, the hands and feet and hearts and lips which work together to create–and protect–the sacred here on earth.

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” — for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Who calls for Jesus?

Who calls for Jesus A Sermon for Pentecost 2 2016.5.29

Galatians 1:1-12

Luke 7:1-10


Before I die I want to write a novel and eat an entire pound of candy in one sitting.  

I’m scared I’ll die alone.  

I sold heroin to a friend and it ruined his life.

Who would reveal these sorts of thoughts?  Many more people than you might think, thanks to public art projects.  A number of public art exhibits exist throughout the world, but some of the most famous are those conceived by Candy Chang.  The convictions I cited come from her two recent displays: “Before I die,” which is a chalkboard wall in New Orleans and “Confessions,” which is a room filled with confessions in the Las Vegas strip.  These pieces drew from anyone and everyone.  If you wanted to write your bucket list on the chalkboard wall, or scribble a confession on a post-it, you could.  The power of these exhibits comes from seeing all of our “private” matter in a public setting.  We are much more alike than we think.


Besides these exhibits making a thoughtful statement to their viewers, the participants experienced a sort of catharsis and absolution.  They let out their fears and longings and regrets, trusting them to be absorbed–and in a sense, affirmed or released–by the public.  Although these were secular endeavors, we might say that the community appropriated the role of God here.  Healing and recognition came by way of the dignity and respect given to the participants’ vulnerabilities, even if anonymously and from a distance.


In the church year, we are entering the long, long season of Ordinary Time, not defined by extraordinary events of God’s life but by familiar miracles and messages that touch our lives.  We become farther removed from the excitement of Jesus’ birth, earthly trials and tribulations, death, and resurrection, and begin tracking the less thrill-laden events: healings, teachings, unlikely gatherings–all revolutionary in their own way, but in creeps an undeniable distance from the mystery that defines our faith.


Such is the situation that Paul addresses in Galatia.  While we see from his letter that he feels fully in touch with God because of his conversion experience, the community in Galatia is uncertain of their way forward.  They do not have Jesus with them but teachers and missionaries who speak in Jesus’ name, all of whom present the gospel differently.  Paul introduced Christ’s message one way, and when he left the Galatians for his next mission, others told the Galatians that they must become Jews before becoming Christians.  The fervor and frustration in Paul’s letter makes clear that he believes this community has lost its way, that they have muddied the message of the gospel.


That diversity and reckoning with difference we saw a couple weeks ago on Pentecost?  Here we find similar struggles but not yet harmony.  What does it mean to follow Jesus?  Who can claim to speak in God’s name, and on what authority?  What proves essential to faith–and what is superfluous?  Our New Testament poses and engages these questions, and we still wrestle with them today.


Our other text for this morning also riffs on the theme of distance from Jesus, although this distance is not temporal but spatial.  First and foremost, this story strikes us because it disrupts so many boundaries: Jesus heals not one of his own, a Jew, but a Gentile, and not simply a Gentile, but a slave–talk about an upsetting of typical first century Roman social arrangements!  The centurion feels persuaded to reach out to Jesus in the first place, which is peculiar that a Roman soldier would place that much trust and confidence in a lowly Jewish tradesman.  And not only are those who see Jesus’ work amazed, but Jesus himself is humbled by the centurion’s display of faith in coming to him.  Let’s just say the details of this story are not exactly commonplace or predictable.


Besides challenging notions of who constitutes the faithful, this healing makes the point that Jesus reaches us not always directly but through others, throught the ordinary hands which clasp together in prayer, through the lips which speak of hardship and ask for help, through the eyes which recognize need.  Instead of healing through touch, which is the case in most of the miracles, Jesus responds to a spoken request.  


This passage is not without its troubles, to be sure.  We know nothing of the slave’s perspective–whether he (or she) found the centurion’s request generous and caring or self-serving and paternalistic–because the slave, in this telling, does not have agency.  But that the healing happens through the centurion who reaches out to two Jewish elders who contact Jesus who then cures the slave shows a gigantic complex of relationships.  It demonstrates civility and cooperation and trust between those with different belief systems and allegiances, an accountability on all sides to the taking care of one another.


I bet many of us are thinking about the frought environment of our country right now in the wake of this election year, and these readings certainly have something to teach us.  Difference and disagreement is inevitable because we all are somewhat removed from God by virtue of not being God.  One of the best ways we can find God, however, is by working together for the sakes of one another.


St. Mary’s has been doing this.  The discernment process has been winding down, and we are entering our own season of ordinary time in the life of this parish, but by engaging in such deep listening, we all have been searching for God in one another.  As we move forward in imagining the future of this church, Jesus, we pray, will show up in the relationships we forge over the little stuff (that is actually big stuff) like Morning Prayer or Eucharist on Sundays and over the mind-bogglingly complex matters like how we grow and distribute food so all have enough to eat.


When we need Jesus, sometimes we ask, and he comes.  But our communities and the church sometimes beat us to the punch, or ask when we cannot ask, in those moments–or seasons–when we do not have faith and have fallen into despair.  Together, with God’s help, we can lift each other up, whether in healings made possible by unlikely partnerships, chalkboard walls which bring us to tears, or in church services like this one, where we know our neighbors and the many who came before us enable us to say to God, in the words of acclaimed writer Anne Lamott: help, thanks, wow.

It’s Not All Good, But It Will Be

April 24, 2016
by Emily Rowell Brown

Revelation 21:1-6

John 13:31-35

Most of us probably think of this text from the Revelation to John as a funeral text. We often hear it as we remember the dead. This is the part of Revelation that we do not mind reading, that we skip all of the other chapters about burning flames and crazy symbols, to exhale a sigh of relief. There is something comforting and fitting about the idea that just as our scriptures begin with the creation of the earth, so do they end with a re-creation, a transformation of that earth.

That this text comes to us immediately following Earth Day, which was on Friday, may attune us more to the passage’s creational elements. The distinction between heaven and earth is collapsed, and God resides permanently among the people. The picture that we had received earlier in Revelation of a God far away and removed from the world up in heaven, is replaced. But we receive a vision not of a rotten, wretched world and people that ascends to heaven but a heaven that comes down here, to us. It is earthy and material, like something we already know, and yet infinitely better. This gives us every reason to take care with this life and this planet because it sets the foundation for what awaits. Heaven as a place in the clouds with pearly white gates? That idea certainly does not come from this scripture.

But to get at today’s text, I mostly just would like to share two remarkable humans’ stories. Would that be okay?

First, I want to tell you about Jackson,[1] a fifteen-year-old with cerebral palsy who recently completed a half marathon and will compete in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington this October. He writes a blog by typing on an iPad keyboard with his toes because his fingers lack such nimbleness. He does Crossfit, and I could go on and on. But I knew Jackson, you see, when he was still in his mother’s womb. When he was born, doctors and specialists told his parents that their child would probably never walk, never graduate high school, never have a “normal” childhood, never have a future.

Jackson’s parents did not accept this bleak fate predicted for their son, but they sometimes carried with them exhaustion and discouragement. How could they not? To watch Jackson’s siblings, however, was both humbling and inspiring. Jackson’s siblings adored Jackson, and they knew what their youngest brother was capable of, even if none of the grown-ups and purported experts did. Eight-year-old Matt and six-year-old Taylor sat with Jackson for hours cheering for him as he struggled to do a puzzle. “He’s getting it, he’s getting it!” Matt said excitedly, when three-year-old Jackson moved the puzzle piece two inches forward from the carpet closer to the puzzle board. Still now, they proudly post updates about their brother on their Facebook pages.

They have faith that God is making all things new.

Now I want to tell you about Anna. Anna is in my book club, and she and her husband Don lost their baby last month. While in Tunis for Don’s doctoral research, they learned that their eleven-month-old had cancer, and that same day, sweet Ella died. Ella’s funeral was the day after Easter.

Our book club sat with Anna last week and she told her story. She told us how she felt guilt for not being a good enough mother, for taking her baby to Tunis, for not knowing–she is a nurse!–what was wrong with her child sooner. She told us how she felt rage at the hospital in Tunis, who sent her and her husband home for the night when they admitted Ella to the hospital. She told us how she believed that Ella was in God’s hands but that she had never more palpably longed for heaven.

But she also told us how she saw God working in the midst of her grief. With extraordinary perspective and grace, she spoke about how God had given her patience to bear the well meaning but so not helpful comments from people trying to comfort her. She spoke about how grateful she was to be able to say goodbye to Ella, even though she did not know it at the time, not amidst IVs and monitors, but by playing with toys and going for a walk and reading favorite books, before taking Ella to the hospital. She spoke about how she and Don bathed Ella a few hours after Ella died for the very last time, stroking their child’s delicate, cool skin, and remembering.

They have faith that God is making all things new.

But God is not finished. That’s the rub of the beautiful message from Revelation. It conveys hope and promise, but we realize how much our world is not there.   Beauty can emerge from pain and brokenness–and arguably, sometimes even more so as a result–and that is where God is. God shows up in redemption, in transformation. But is that enough for us?

Heaven and the end times are tricky to speak about. Suffice it to say that the Christian tradition holds a wide variety of beliefs about both topics, but we just do not know. What we do know about heaven from our scriptures is that the heaven that Jesus brings is anticipatory and already realized, which is not the way popular culture thinks about heaven at all. We find slices of heaven here in this life–in Jackson’s blog posts about Crossfit, in Anna and Don’s final bath with Ella–even if incomplete. They are incomplete. Right now there is still death and mourning and crying and pain.

John may have written the story in code language two thousand years earlier in the wake of the Roman Empire’s oppressive rule to provide his earliest audience with affirmation of their struggle, but the truth of the message persists. We may not be worked to death or bone poor like those in John’s community, and we do not even experience the hardships of many of our contemporaries at other places on this globe–or down the street here in Richmond–but we all know that sense of things not being quite right.

The root of our faith, where the rubber hits the road, so to speak, is the promise not only that God is with us but that God is for us. Sometimes it is simply not enough to know that God is present alongside us in tragedy and evil–no, we need God to express outrage and anger, to not only wipe away every tear but to stop them once and for all.

The Christian faith is a faith of resurrection; we are an Easter people. We put our trust in Jesus not merely because he came to be with us, even unto death, but because he came to conquer. We cling not to a glib assertion that all is well because we believe but we believe because all is not well, and we have the audacity to hope that God is up to–is still up to–making all things new.

Revelation 21:1-6

I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”

[1] All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals included here, but their stories and details are true.

He’s got our back

Third Sunday of Easter

John 21:1-19

By Emily Rowell Brown


If you’re anything like me, today’s gospel sounded curiously familiar, but you couldn’t place quite why it set off such déjà-vu.  Jesus feeding the disciples fish on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias seems similar to Jesus’ feeding of five thousand people with five loaves and two fish in that same place.[1]  Cana, the hometown of one disciple, recalls the site of Jesus’ very first sign, turning water into wine, at the wedding.  That the disciples do not initially recognize Jesus hardly surprises us, since the disciples are always slow to catch on, but this instance is a subtly altered repeat of the resurrected Jesus’ other appearances to a confused Mary, who mistakes him for a gardener, and to Thomas, who demanded proof that the Jesus who had been raised was the Jesus who had been crucified.  And John never tires of likening God’s people to sheep, and Jesus’ commission to Peter to tend the sheep sounds like Jesus’ Good Shepherd teaching.[2]

But what may be most resonant of all is the exchange between Jesus and Peter, which again happens in “threes.”  We recall how Peter denied that he was Jesus’ disciple before the cock’s crow preceding Jesus’ crucifixion, just as Jesus had predicted.[3]   Three times accusers asked whether Peter followed Jesus, and three times Peter protested.  This was not the answer Jesus wanted, but Jesus refuses to give up on Peter.  Here, post-resurrection, he questions whether Peter loves him, and this time, Peter answers affirmatively.  But Jesus does not merely ask once.  He asks again.  And again.  (If we’re counting, that makes three.)  And every single time, Jesus’ response is not a “good” or “that’s the right answer” or “thank you” but a charge.  “If you love me,” Jesus says, “then you will feed my sheep.”

In other words, loving Jesus is about discipleship.  Jesus’ repetition of the instruction to tend the flock hammers home the implication that faith in Jesus requires not merely a profession of words but action.  We’ve heard it before: Love God by loving others.

While Peter may feel reticent to accept Jesus’ vote of confidence in him, Jesus does not send him off aimlessly or without provision.  Notice what happens before Peter and Jesus’ conversation: Jesus feeds him.  Even at their final meeting with Jesus, the disciples still cannot catch fish on their own.  In one sense, the reality is discouraging: have they made no progress, have they learned nothing, over the course of their time with Jesus and one another?  Yet the deeper point rests in their utter reliance on Jesus.  They need Jesus–they show up confused, broken, hungry, not always even sure why or of what they have need–and Jesus provides.  Always.

This story is an apt metaphor for what happens to us when we come together as church or seek Jesus in our own lives.  We show up here– some of us Sunday after Sunday, some of us on those occasions we can manage to get everyone’s hair and teeth brushed on time without murdering a fellow family member in the process–and Jesus feeds us: in the bread and wine of communion, in the caring faces of our community, in the inspiring examples of those we feel privileged to call brothers and sisters in faith.

Jesus takes the fear of those like Simon Peter, who retreats to his work in avoidance of Jesus, afraid to look his friend in the eye again after failing him; the fear of those like our fellow citizens, who worry about the security and political stability of our country and world; and the fear of those perhaps like you or me, who question whether they are measuring up and succeeding in their work and relationships, and Jesus absorbs it.  He alleviates fear by feeding us, by directing us to an abundant supply of all that which will nourish us, by calmly inviting us to come sit down by the fire with him and have breakfast.  It will all be okay, he whispers into our ears.  I’ve got you.

This image of Jesus as a parent teaching a child to ride a bike readily comes to mind.  The child so wants to ride the two-wheeled bicycle and seize the freedom that it offers: the ability to explore the greater neighborhood, to meet friends, and to develop independence and claim agency.  Yet the child is nonetheless scared.  It is not a question of whether she will fall but when, and she tentatively climbs and shuffles on the bike with a sense of impending doom.  The parent holds on to the back seat and helps her to gain balance and confidence, and offers guidance and advice, but the time comes when the parent must let go.  And the child pedals and pedals and glides, almost as though floating on the road, until she falls.  She cries and yells, and her parent embraces her, holding her close, until the child feels safe again and not so afraid.  But the child cannot stay in the parent’s arms forever; she must go out again.

So is true for us.  We cannot stay in the warmth and security of Jesus’ outstretched arms (or, for that matter, in the beauty and comfort of our churches) forever, cocooned off from the challenges and adventures and sometimes threats of the world.  It is telling that John’s gospel–all the gospels, for that matter–ends not with Jesus but with Jesus’ followers.  If the climax of our faith is Jesus’ glorification through his crucifixion and resurrection, the resolution is Jesus’ commission to the followers to carry on the mission, to keep on building the kingdom.  We are nearing John’s final words to us (only six verses follow today’s gospel text), and he leaves us with momentum, a push to go out and to ride that bike, to be disciples.

One of my professors in divinity school is a scholar of John’s gospel, and the book she wrote about the Fourth Evangelist’s characters she entitled Imperfect Believers, which says everything we need to know.  Jesus’ followers then–the disciples–and followers now–among which we include ourselves–serve Jesus imperfectly.  We will stumble, we will fail to see and understand how and when and where God is working, we will shut Jesus out.  But this is the body of people whom Jesus has chosen–imperfect believers.  He believes quite perfectly in us.

It is because he has poured such love into feeding and sustaining us that we can go out, strengthened, encouraged, endorsed, knowing that Jesus has always got our back.


[1] John 6:1-14

[2] John 10:14

[3] John 18:27

God of Joy

A Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

By Emily Rowell Brown

1 Cor. 12:1-11

John 2:1-11


I pray in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. : “Eternal God, we bless you. Help us to seek that which is high, noble and good…Amen.”


On my wedding day, my dress didn’t fit, rain poured down from the sky, and our newly pregnant event planner kept sneaking off to the restroom to toss her cookies.  Fortunately, all ended well: once we figured out how to arrange the corset correctly, my gown fit perfectly; our photographer made the best of the weather and captured artsy, romantic shots of Dan and me walking outside under a large umbrella; and the event planner recruited her assistant to take over and proceeded to deliver a healthy baby girl seven months later.


Anyone here who has planned a wedding has likely, at some point during the big day, felt a similar sense of disaster looming, and I wonder if it was not so different at the wedding in Cana.  You can almost imagine the parents of the bride frantically soliciting Jesus’ mother for help while attempting to remain unruffled amidst the other guests.  They perhaps instructed the servants to lessen their pours, meanwhile hoping that they would find dozens of bottles hidden in a corner of another room or that somebody would come to the rescue.  That somebody turned out to be Jesus.  


Despite how relatable the premise of this story is, there are some strange things about the ensuing response.  The hosts know to go to Mary and Jesus for help–how is that so?  What made them confident that Jesus could solve their problem?  Jesus calls his mother woman–why distance himself from her in that way?  The first miracle John reports in his gospel is the turning of water into wine.  Why testify to a miracle about saving face at a wedding party and not something more significant?  Miracles, after all, are the signs by which the disciples–and we–learn of Jesus’ identity.  Is this miracle supposed to convince us that Jesus is divine, that God has come to save us?


These idiosyncrasies all serve a larger symbolic purpose.  John never misses an opportunity to layer on meaning, and this very first sign foreshadows what is to come at the end.  The six stone jars used for Jewish rites of purification are filled with new wine, showing us that Jesus creates something new within the midst of his heritage.  To his mother, Jesus acknowledges his fate with the remark “My hour has not yet come.” And we cannot miss that it is water that also pours out of Jesus’ sides when he is later nailed to the cross.  The transformed wine invokes the depths to which Jesus goes rescue us, his love spilling out on the cross as he endures and triumphs over suffering and death.  


While the symbolic overtones of this miracle invite contemplation, at face value, the water-to-wine conversion seems magical yet incidental.  God shows up to a celebration, a feast, of all things.  God lavishes the guests with gallons and gallons of wine, and at the very end of the event, when everyone expects to be drinking the cheap stuff.  We expect God to raise the dead and heal the sick but not so much to salvage a party…and in our modern context, examples like this prompt concerns about the dangers of excess, particularly when it comes to alcohol.


Nonetheless, God’s providing abundantly reveals a God who enjoys fun, who delights in at times spoiling her children.  Part of the challenge here is to believe that God is in the small things and wants to be invited into celebration and joy.  We give the obligatory reverence and thanks to a faraway God for the birth of a child or a new job or recovery from illness, and we readily call unto God to help us when we are in pain.  C. S. Lewis has an all-too-apt observation about how we seek God only when there seem to be no other options.  As he puts it, “We regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.”  Yet on the whole, we are reluctant to seek God in less weighty matters–perhaps because we think we have them handled on our own, or perhaps because we think God is too busy with other, more important stuff.


Our lectionary readings today call us to experience a God bigger than our preconceptions and expectations.  The words Paul offers to the Corinthians (who are all fighting about who has the most important spiritual gift) have an almost ho-hum quality to them.  Of course God creates and equips us differently, and of course the Holy Spirit will work through us uniquely.  It is logical that some of us will be good at some things, and others better at other things.  A church is a perfect example of how many different people and gifts our world needs.  What would St. Mary’s do without our numbers people and our construction experts and our teachers and our gardeners and our talented home cooks?  We would not eat nearly as well or have such beautiful grounds, for one, and we might not be around at all.  


What Paul’s words also tell us, however, is that God appears in a number of ways, that God does not confine himself to particular personalities or scenarios or activities.  We are currently in the season of Epiphany, which has everything to do with illumination, or knowledge of who God is, attained especially by looking at Jesus.  This season helps deepen–and sometimes blows up–what we think we know about how God works.  It is not up to us to say where God will and will not show up.  Sometimes it is through miracles and signs, or through speaking in tongues, or prophetic words; sometimes at weddings, births, church services, or soup kitchens; sometimes in laughter, tears, or joy.


If God is in such profane experiences as parties and events, food and drink, then we must expand what we count as holy.  Holy is the good wine at the end of the party, the hospitality of wanting your guests to enjoy the best even at their final sip.  Holy is the bowling alley which sometimes hosts deep youth group discussions about faith and spirituality but more often simply provides a cell signal-free zone to enjoy being human together.  Holy is the knock-knock joke you hear from your grandson, which always ends with the same punchline that he delivers as though it is the first time.  Holy is the lipstick you put on before church because you want to look nice for your pewmate, and nice for God, and God notices and delights in it.  Holy is the good time had around the coffee table with friends and popcorn during the Super Bowl or premiere of the new season of The Bachelor.


Because God is celebration and pleasure just as much as God is mercy and forgiveness, and that is reason to rejoice in a world that can be all too weighty, all to solemn.