January 18, 2004
The gospel shows us that abundance can occur in the midst of scarcity. In the midst of the wedding, the wine runs out. But because Jesus is there, not only is there wine, but a better wine than there was before. The gospel is challenging us to believe that if we consciously claim the presence of Christ in our lives, we can have abundance, even where scarcity exists. To illustrate this challenge, I would like to offer you three examples of scarcity that are often perceived in our society: scarcity of meaning, scarcity of clergy, scarcity of security.
Gregg Easterbrook has written a new book entitled: “The Paradox of Progress: How Things Are Getting Better and People Are Feeling Worse”. In this book Easterbrook presents extensive data showing that we are better off today than any previous generation. We live longer and better, the average American has twice the buying power that it did in 1960, our air is cleaner, our roads are safer, and on and on. And yet every survey shows that the average American is less happy than 50 years ago. There seems to be a disconnect between prosperity and happiness. Like the old saying goes, “what good is money, it can’t buy you happiness,” or as Henny Youngman’s parody: “what good is happiness, it can’t buy you money”. Progress and happiness do not necessarily connect with each other.
If there is scarcity of meaning in our society, our faith can make a difference. If we claim the presence of Christ, we accept our status as daughters and sons of God. We can engage in the kind of service that gives us satisfaction and build relationships that give us joy. Meaning is not found necessarily in prosperity, but faith can deepen our lives, and we can have happiness even in a society that is looking for meaning.
Scarcity of clergy. There are fewer and fewer priests in our church. Right now there are 350 active priests in the diocese of Cleveland. Our projection is that by the year 2030 there will be 49 active priests. That will radically shift our understanding of what church is. And yet, if we are to claim Christ’s promise to us to be with us, if we are to claim the scriptural truth that we are the church, we can begin a discussion and re-imagine what church life might become. We can begin to draw upon the gifts of all the baptized. A new church can emerge. Instead of scarcity of priests, we can have abundance of life.
Scarcity of security. Since 9/11 we are all very conscious of our vulnerability. Despite increased efforts in controlling immigration and travel, we know that we remain vulnerable. That fear can paralyze us. But again, the presence of our faith can make a difference. For the foundation of faith is trust, the recognition that we are not in control, that so many parts of our life are in God’s hands. So while we admit the real presence of danger, we can at the same time trust that God will care for us. Even in danger we can choose to live.
Scarcity of meaning, scarcity of clergy, scarcity of security: three real scarcities that can change if we claim Christ’s presence among us. We can see things differently with the eyes of faith. If two lepers can find abundance of love in war torn Iraq, abundance can be found in desolate places. When we accept Christ, there is wine, there is abundance, there is enough.
Looking for the Best Wine
January 14, 2007
John 2: 1 – 11
There is more than one way to answer a question. There is more then one perspective through which we can view life. A young psychologist was given a task of administering a new psychological test that was meant to show mental flexibility of elderly people. His first patient was a 91-year-old man. When the man came in, the psychologist carefully explained that this would be a verbal test and that some of the questions were very easy where others were rather difficult. He asked the man whether he was ready to begin. “Let’s go,” the elderly gentleman said. “Ok,” said the psychologist, “this is the first question. Can you name two days of the week that begin with ‘T’? “That’s easy,” said the man, “today and tomorrow.” The psychologist paused for a few moments, wrote a few notes, shuffled his papers, and said, “Well let’s go on to the second question. Now this one is much more difficult, can you tell me how many seconds there are in a year?” Without batting an eye, the man responded, “twelve.” “Twelve!” said the psychologist. “Yes,” said the elderly man with confidence, “the 2nd of January, the 2nd of February, the 2nd of March and so on.”
There is more than one way to answer a question and there is more than one perspective through which we can live life. This is an important insight because it means that since there is more than one way, we must choose which answer will be our answer and which perspective we will adopt.
Now in today’s Gospel Jesus gives us a perspective through which we can view life—a very optimistic one. The gospel of course is the story of the wedding feast at Cana and the key line is the one uttered by the chief steward, “You have kept the best wine until now.” The good wine was not served first; the good wine was served last. The pattern of this gospel therefore tells us that we are moving forward, that things are getting better.
This gospel reminds us that we as Christians believe in an optimistic view of the world. That because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we do not feel that we are falling backwards but that we are moving forward. We are moving forward to what is the best possible thing: the establishment of the kingdom of God. We believe that God is leading us not to something inferior but to something wonderful, that the best wine is not behind us but before us. Jesus presents this optimistic message to us today. The question is do we believe it. Can we buy into such a positive view, or will we insist on a more pessimistic approach?
In this light I would like to suggest to you two questions for you to reflect upon this week. The first question is this – Do you believe that the world is moving forward or backward? Do you believe that human civilization is becoming better or worse? There are different ways to answer that question. Certainly if you center in on some of the horrors of recent times such as the Holocaust, Hiroshima, or genocide in Africa, a pessimistic answer seems appropriate. But is that pessimism the only perspective which is possible?
There is a French theologian by the name of René Gérard who has made it his life’s work to chronicle the positive developments in history. In Gérard’s view such forward movement is a sign of God acting in our world. Gérard would argue that we who live in the world today have more potential for a good life than any other generation before us—that it is better living in the 21st century than in the 12th century or the 2nd century. This is certainly because we have electricity, air conditioning, medical advancements, and education. But Gérard points out that the progress is not simply in science and material things. He asserts that there are more people living in the world today who respect the rights of others then at any other time in human history. That there are more people living in the world today who believe that every human being has a value, even if that human being is not of my family, or of my tribe, or of my country.
Now is that attitude universal? Not at all. It might not even be the majority of the people in the world would not accept it. Nevertheless, there are more people believing in human dignity today than at any time before this. Gérard would point to such an advancement as a sign that we are coming closer to the kingdom of God.
Gérard’s perspective is worldwide. But we can also look in a more personal direction. This leads to the second question which I would like you to consider this week: Is my life-getting better or worse? Do I see myself moving forward or backward? Again there are many ways to answer that question. If you happen to be in the midst of some terrible tragedy or loss then your life can certainly seem to be falling apart. Yet there can be another way to answer the question. For example, many of us deal with the diminishment which comes from age as we move to our 40’s to our 60’s to our 80’s. We have less energy, less health, our friends die. How are we to interpret that movement? Is the only viewpoint that we are caught in a downward spiral? Must we believe that with each day there is less and less of life? Not necessarily. It is possible to recognize that even as life diminishes in all these ways, other things are increasing. Moreover, the things which are increasing might be more important things—experience, wisdom, patience, generosity, and thankfulness. If we find that those gifts are increasing, then—even as other gifts diminish—we can claim that the best wine is now.
So those are the two questions which I would like you to reflect on this week. Is the world at large and is my personal life-becoming better or worse, moving forward or falling backward? Jesus tells us that the best things are in the future, the best wine has not yet to be drunk. We have to choose whether to believe him. I suggest that we make that choice carefully. Because the choice we make will shape our world. It will determine whether we think that we are moving forward into darkness or into light, whether we are moving forward to death or to life.
God as Spouse
January 16, 2010
Isaiah 62:1-5; John 2:1-12
In the early eighteen hundreds an English clergyman by the name of William Paley, came up with an interesting argument for the existence of God. Paley said if you were walking through an empty field and you looked down and found a watch, you would be able to conclude by its intricacy of design and practical purpose, that someone had made it. If there was a watch, there had to be a watch maker. So Paley concluded that if you look at the intricacy of the world and the beauty of nature, in a similar way, you would have to conclude that there was someone who made the world, a Creator. Now Paley’s argument has a good deal of merit. It is a rational approach that points to the existence of a creator. But it must also be said that Paley’s understanding of God is woefully inadequate as a basis of faith. In Paley’s description there is no requirement for a personal relationship with God. God could have made the world, wound it up, left it in the field to tick or not to tick on its own.
The image that we carry in our minds of who God is shapes our understanding of God and of the relationship that we have with God. If we imagine God as the watchmaker who creates all things and sets them in motion, then we can also imagine that the world and we ourselves can go on without any further involvement with God. This is the God in which many people believe. In this image of God there is not much commitment or involvement required. God just gets things started and leaves us on our own.
What then is your image of God? Do you see God as a bookkeeper? If you do, then your relationship to God is going to be based on keeping track of the good things that you do and the sins that you commit. Do you see God as a coach? If you do, then your relationship to God is going to be shaped towards training you to live in a particular way. Do you see God as a referee? Then God will be the one who keeping things running fairly, calling the fouls and the fairs and asserting the penalties if they are required. There is probably a certain amount of truth to all of these images. None of them, however, is as challenging or as deep as the image of God that we receive in today’s scriptures.
We believe, of course, that Jesus is the full revelation of God. So it is not by chance that the author of the fourth gospel says that Jesus’ first miracle took place at a wedding. By telling the story in this way, the author of the gospel is connecting Jesus to a certain image of God. It’s a Jewish image, and we hear it today in the first reading from Isaiah. I hope you noticed it as it was read. Isaiah says, “As a young man marries a young woman, so will your builder, (your maker, your creator) marry you. As the bridegroom rejoices in the bride, so does your God rejoice in you.”
The scriptures today present us with the image of God as our spouse. They draw upon the most intimate and the most personal of all human relationships and asks us to use that experience as a way of understanding who God is and what our relationship to God is like. Unlike the image of God as the watchmaker, God as spouse is thoroughly personal. Inter-personal connection is at the heart of marriage. Unlike the image of the bookkeeper or the referee, here is an image where no one is keeping score. Unlike the image of the coach, this relationship is not directing us how to live, but is calling us into a shared union of love.
Now, of course, it must be said that no human marriage is perfect and some human marriages are dysfunctional. But if we were to think of the best marriage that we knew or try to imagine the most ideal marriage we could conceive, the scriptures invite us to apply that understanding to who we think God is and what our relationship to God should be like.
If we were to do this, we would find ourselves in a relationship of intimacy, mutuality and life. God as spouse calls us to an intimate relationship with God. We believe that God is near to us and that God wants to be close to us. We believe that as we face challenges or difficulties in life, God is the first one to whom we turn to because God is committed to us, committed to share life with us. God cares. The image of God as spouse also calls us to mutuality. Now in the strict sense, there can be no mutuality with God because we are not equal to God. But the image of God as spouse reminds us that even though God is greater than us, God takes our part of the relationship seriously. Unlike the image of the parent, the mother or the father who does everything for children, this image of the spouse says that we are partners with God. We believe that our response to God’s love is important and together with God we are called to build the kingdom. The image of God as spouse also calls us to life because when we enter this kind of a relationship, we grow. We become better people, not because we are afraid we are going to be punished, but because we know we are responding to a love. God’s spousal love calls out the best in us and makes us to be the best people we can be.
So what is your image of God? Do you see God as creator? Do you see God as coach, as bookkeeper, as referee? Why not see God as your spouse, as someone who is committed to you in love forever. If you see God that way, you will live with God in a relationship of intimacy, mutuality, and life.
The Arc of Life
January 20, 2013
John 2: 1-11
There is an arc to human life. It begins with our birth and ends with our death. In every period of that arc there are blessings and struggles. But the gifts and challenges of one period differ from that of the next. The first couple decades of life are a time of beginnings. It is then that we discover who we are, what we will do, who we will love. Although this period, like every period, has its shortfalls and disappointments, the beginning period of life is largely characterized by the excitement of the new, the joy of discovery, and limitless potential that gives rise to hope.
The middle period of our life, if we are fortunate, is a time of success and productivity. It is in that period that we use our talents and our resources to impact the life of others and possibly even our world. This is the period when we can enjoy the results of our labor and the circle of family and friends that surrounds us.
The last decades of life are a time of conclusions and farewells. If we are fortunate, we are surrounded by even more family and friends who support and respect us. We have the wisdom of decades of experience and, because of lessening work responsibility, we have more time to ourselves for the enjoyment of life. Yet in these decades of life there are significant challenges. We must become accustomed to letting go of people who are dear to us through death. Our health fails. Our energy lessens. So even though there are consistent blessings, in the arc of life these last decades place us in a downward direction. When this realization is compounded by our culture which revels in the value of youth and beauty, those in the latter years of life can begin to feel excluded and perhaps forgotten. This is why today’s Gospel is so important.
Today we hear the story of Jesus’ first miracle at Cana in Galilee. The message of this miracle runs contrary to the grain. If we see the wedding celebration as a metaphor for our life, this story tells us that the good wine is served at the end. It is not what we expect, and the story does not hold back from asserting it. The headwaiter tells the bridegroom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, but you have saved the good wine until last.”
Now the point of this miracle is not to say that being old is better than being young or that any one period of life is better than the other. But by pulling against the grain this miracle reminds us that in every period of our lives God is committed to us and intends to bless us. Our God is not only the God of the young, the hopeful, and the strong. Our God is also the God of the elderly and the wise and the frail. Because God is committed to us at every time and place, we can expect God to bless us even in our advancing years. This miracle is not asking us to pretend that it is always wonderful being old. When we’re dealing with arthritis, when we are ready for bed at 9:30, when we have to let go of companions with whom we have shared a lifetime, who would not wish to turn back the clock?
But the point is this: at every age and at every time of our life we should get up in the morning and say to ourselves in faith, “God loves me and God will bless me today.” What this miracle story teaches is that we should not stop saying that or believing that as we advance in years. God is with us always. The danger of aging is that we might start to believe that the Gospel no longer applies to us. It applies to us then more than ever. Even as the arc of life says that we are on the decline, God’s commitment to us is as high as ever. Even though our hearing fails, God is still speaking. If we commit ourselves to listen, we can find blessings in unexpected places. We can discover that the wine God gives us in the last decades of life is no substandard vintage. The wine that God gives us then is—as always—the best wine that God has to offer.
When God Says No
January 17, 2016
One of the ways to read today’s gospel of the wedding at Cana is to see it as a model for prayer. We often ask God in prayer for what we need, and in today’s gospel, Mary asks Jesus for what she needs. Therefore, I believe it would be wise for us to follow the way that Mary’s request plays out.
But to do this, we must start at the beginning. The first line of today’s gospel is, “There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.” This opening of the gospel implies that Mary was at the wedding before Jesus and his disciples arrived and perhaps before any of the guests arrived. It is possible that the young couple to be married had asked Mary to coordinate the celebration of their wedding, to serve as a kind of wedding planner so that all the bases were covered. And all the bases were covered until the wine ran out.
Now, the story doesn’t tell us why the wine ran out, although some have suggested that the twelve thirsty fishermen that Jesus brought with him drank a lot more than anyone had expected. But when the wine did run out, it was possible that Mary saw it as her responsibility, as her need to make things right. So she turns to Jesus and says, “They have no wine.” Just as we ask what we need from God, in this story Mary asks what she needs from Jesus.
Two surprises flow from Mary’s request. The first surprise is Jesus’ response. We would expect that Jesus would be deferential and helpful towards his mother, but this is not the case. Jesus says to her, “Woman, how does this concern of yours affect me?” There is no indication in Jesus’ response that he has any intention of helping his mother. That is the first surprise. The second surprise comes from Mary. She moves ahead as if Jesus is going to help. She tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” So the pattern of this story is this: Mary asks Jesus for help. He says no. And Mary moves ahead as if he said yes. Why would she do this? Mary understands what is in Jesus’ heart. She understands that he loves her and loves the young married couple. Therefore, although it seems that he has said no, Mary is confident that he will say yes.
This experience of Mary is a helpful model for us as we turn to God for what we need. There are a lot of things we need in our life. Maybe we need a job. Maybe we need a cure for a sickness or peace in our family. So we turn to God and ask God to help us. But sometimes it seems that God is not interested in helping us. Sometimes things stay the same or get worse. Instead of an encouraging answer, we are faced with a deafening silence. Sometimes when we ask God for help, it seems that God says, “No.”
It is then that we should follow the example of Mary. It is then that we should look beyond what seems like a negative response and move forward, confident that God will act. Like Mary, we should remember what is in God’s heart. We should remind ourselves that God loves us and loves all the people in our lives who we love. Because of God’s love we move forward, convinced that God will do something, and that something will be for our good.
Jesus, of course, did do something at Cana, and there was wine for everyone. But that would not have happened had not Mary moved forward in faith and told the servants to do whatever he told them. So pray. And when God says “No,” move forward in the confidence that God will say, “Yes.”
Water and Wine
January 20, 2019
John 2: 1–11
The miracles of Jesus were not just intended for people of his own time. They have been recorded for our benefit. Therefore, if we examine a miracle story closely, it often yields to us an insight about our own lives or our relationship to God. This is certainly true of today’s miracle at the wedding feast of Cana. When Jesus was at Cana, he saved a young couple from serious embarrassment during their wedding celebration. But what does this miracle mean for us? What can we draw from this story that has relevance to our own lives?
To answer this question, we should go to the heart of the miracle story. Water was changed into wine. What is the significance of water and wine? Wine is easy. Wine is a requirement for every wedding banquet or other festivity. Wine indicates celebration and joy. But what does water signify? A clue can be found in the gospel itself. Water was poured into six stone water jars used for Jewish ceremonial washings. The water, then, was used to meet a religious obligation. Washing the body properly was a requirement before Jewish worship. So, it would be valid for us to say that in this story water represents duty and obligation. If wine is an indication of celebration, water is an indication of responsibility. If wine is used in joyous festivities, water indicates necessary work. Responsibility and celebration are both a part of life, both are necessary. But here is where the action of the gospel miracle comes into play. Jesus’s action at Cana indicates that there are times when responsibility must give way to celebration, when water should be turned into wine.
This is an important message for many of us. Most of us are responsible people. We take our obligations seriously. This story tells us that as responsible as we are, we must not forget to make room for joy.
Some of us have the responsibility to care for a special-needs child or for an aging parent. The responsibility is real, and we feel the obligation. But this miracle story reminds us that life cannot be all about duty. There must be times when we stop to rejoice in the blessings that are ours. Unless we do, our obligation will turn us sad and bitter. Parents always try to be responsible towards their children. They strive to see that their children grow and excel. This miracle reminds us that as responsible as we are as parents, celebrating with our children is also a part of their growth. The fun times that we share as families are often the times children will remember thirty and forty years from now. Most of us worry about family members who are struggling or who have gone astray. We feel the responsibility to let them know what we believe. We attempt to give them guidance in making better decisions. But this gospel story reminds us that there is a value in accepting the people in our family as they are and in celebrating with them the life that binds us together.
Responsibility and celebration are both necessary parts of life. But the miracle at Cana reveals that Jesus prefers celebration. Jesus knows that when we celebrate with family and friends, we come as close as we can to understanding how deep God’s love is for us and how God’s ultimate promise to us is one of joy. So, of course, we should continue to be responsible people. But the wedding at Cana reminds us that we must make room for celebration. It tells us that there are times when the best choice is to change some of the water of our lives into wine.