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I threw a party once – a big one – where I made a special pie requested by the guests. A banana cream pie entirely from scratch. I had made it before, from an Emiril Lagasse recipe, with perfect crust, a firm and flavorful pudding and towering, fluffy mounds of whipped cream. The praise, if I do say so myself, was lavish. Unfortunately, I am the roulette wheel of chefs. I rarely do the same thing twice and use the directions as more of a guideline. So this time the pudding never quite set, and the whipped cream was good, but not great. Most ended up eating their pie out of bowls. As banana cream pies go, it was a decent pudding.
Despite our best laid plans, things go awry. This wedding party is supposed to deliver, but fails in multiple categories, not the least of which is the major social faux-pas of running out of wine. But no worries when you have invited the Son of God, right? Important reminder as you assemble your next guest list – always invite Jesus.
A miracle ensues and the guests are soon back to getting sloshed as they toast the happy couple.
Here is the point in the story when I usually say – wait a second! This is one of John’s seven miracle stories in his Gospel, more than any other gospel. The others include several accounts of healing, the feeding of the 5000 with a meager amount of food, walking on water and raising a man from the dead. Now, I don’t know about you, but getting some more wine for a party kind of pales in comparison. Is he just starting off slowly, kind of getting his feet wet with this whole miracle thing? Like, don’t start with raising the dead, it’s all downhill from there…
The wedding at Cana story resonates with some of the cultural practices of first century Judea, showing how Jesus fits into the natural flow of his day and age, and it serves, for John, as a backdrop for the many ways that his miracles not only “save the day,” but also alter the flow of the status quo. John, above all else, wants us to know that Jesus is special, like really, truly, differently special – sent among us as god with us, the Word made flesh, and his presence alone is holiness made real. This is decidedly John’s take on Jesus. When we ask who Jesus is, each Gospel fills in the blank differently. Take, for instance, the foundational public act of Jesus. For Matthew it is the Sermon on the Mount. For Mark, it is an exorcism. Luke has a return visit to his hometown and John has this – a miracle to start the ball rolling. This is why we have four gospels, because people couldn’t decide who Jesus was…just as we can’t seem to decide today who he is. Is he ransom paid for the sins of each of us in a cosmic bargain with an angry God? Is he teacher, Lord, savior and king? Is he just another in a long list of really good people, like Gandhi or Mother Teresa, or the man for whom this holiday was born – Dr. King?
Who we say Jesus was and how we shape the stories we read matters a great deal to who we think Jesus is now. Do we read the miracle stories in John’s gospel, for instance, as a sign of Jesus’ divinity, or as a way that Jesus interrupts the regular flow of life? Is Jesus just God in a human costume, or does Jesus encounter and struggle with life’s polarities the way that we all do? Is Jesus only here for the show, to make an impression and then be sacrificed? Or is his example actually something for us to emulate, not just admire?
Which Jesus you choose, or which Jesus is chosen for you, has a profound impact on what it means to you to be a Christian. And one of the reasons we have multiple gospels is that the different answers about Jesus help us to ask different questions and to balance our approach. If you are a Jesus with “no supernatural” stuff, these miracles are a challenge to your vision. Likewise if you are a Jesus’ sole purpose was to die on the cross as payment for our sins person, then the Sermon on the Mount asks for some reformulation. I’m not sure, frankly, that we ever find the “answer” for Jesus. In fact, I don’t think that is helpful, maybe not even possible. But continuing to search, to question and to wrestle is critical to fully lived lives of faith.
It is proper this morning to receive some enlightenment on this matter from one of the great poets of our time, maybe all times. Mary Oliver died this week and her legacy as purveyor of simple and profound wisdom will linger for a long time. She will be deeply missed. She once wrote:
You might see an angel anytime
and anywhere. Of course you have
to open your eyes to a kind of
second level, but it’s not really
hard. The whole business of
what’s reality and what isn’t has
never been solved and probably
never will be. So I don’t care to
be too definite about anything.
I have a lot of edges called Perhaps
and almost nothing you can call
Certainty. For myself, but not
for other people. That’s a place
you just can’t get into,
not entirely anyway,
other people’s heads.
I’ll just leave you with this.
I don’t care how many angels can
dance on the head of a pin. It’s
enough to know that for some people
they exist, and that they dance.
When we wonder which Jesus to hold onto as we survey the myriad of answers from our gospels, I offer a humble suggestion. Why not all of them? Don’t we think that the fundamentalist side of our religious tradition needs to embrace the loving, grace-filled, border-busting Jesus that we find in story after story? Don’t we think that “they” need to read the stories about Jesus condemning LGBTQ people and disempowering women because, we say glibly, there aren’t any? And, my friends, might we also need to read about miracles and the cross and the tomb and wonder what Jesus means beyond a great guy who taught us to be nice?
We need all the versions of Jesus to paint a complete picture. Yes, we also need nuance and definition, detail and substance so we can talk about Jesus as more than just a token. It’s when we think that we have it all figured out and we know exactly who he was and what he stood for that we lose the complexities that make our faith lives pliable, functional and meaningful.
Tomorrow we march again in the memory of Dr. King and the same issue applies to him. Which Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. do we honor? The “I Have a Dream” MLK? The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” MLK? Is it the MLK who doubted his cause in his dining room after a threatening phone call? Is it the one who surely wept thinking of his family after numerous bomb attempts on his home, or after he was stabbed at a crowded speaking engagement? Is it the MLK constantly hauled into court for the most trivial of complaints, or the one filing his own lawsuits against the injustices of his time? Is it the one who said, “I have a dream,” or the one who said, “Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad?”
As we do every year, King gets sanitized as the holiday rolls around. The same could be said of Jesus, who is kept as a tiny, 8 pound, 4 ounce baby sleeping peacefully in a manger rather than announced as the end of empire and evil…he is celebrated as King Jesus on an Easter Sunday (in April this year) without also acknowledging that this must then mean all our other kings– political party, economic system, war and profit, racial and gender hierarchies – would be subject to him. The baby and the lower case king are easier, friends, as isthe Dr. King who tells us with a gentle smile to love, while we leave out the sacrificial, privilege-eliminating, hierarchy-leveling costs of the very love he proclaimed.
We need all of the components, my friends, the Jesus of the Beatitudes and the Jesus of Calvary, the King who said, “the time is always right to do the right thing,” and the one who declared that there were “two Americas,” one which worked for some people and another a legacy of racism, slavery and poverty. You can’t hold up the Martin Luther King of tolerance and “get along” without also lifting up the Dr. King who denounced a military industrial complex and called for a guaranteed minimum income for all people, just as you cannot hold up a Jesus who “died for our sins” without reflecting on the number of times he pointed those sins out in parable and action.
May we learn in these complicated and troubling times, to find the comfort and the challenge from our prophets. May we breathe them deeply in, trusting that that Holy Spirit is guiding us. We have a long way to go. We still have food deserts and broken economic systems lingering from one of the worst race massacres in our nation’s history just a few miles from this sanctuary, almost 100 years ago. We have racial bias in our policing, our courts, our voting systems and our culture. We have a lot of work to do. What I hope we might do in this new year is re-pledge ourselves to this work, not as a race looking at some far distant finish line and trying to dredge up the stamina to keep running. No, my friends, rather as a way of life, as a mantra, as a matter of faithful living in this world, driven by our examples of people who lived and worked and even died for something that they would not see come to fruition. So work, rest when you need to, understand that you cannot – you ARE NOT – fixing the world, and focus instead on finding ways to participate. “If you can’t fly,” Dr. King encouraged us, “then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”
We thank you, O God, for the gift of Christ Jesus, the whole of the gift,
come to set us all free.
And we ask you this morning to bless the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – ALL of it.