An important thought today on Martin Luther King Jr. Day:
A few weeks ago I broke my new vacuum cleaner. Well not quite broke it entirely, as much as I just rendered it unusable. With a living room full of pine needles from a now absent Christmas tree, I called the Hoover help center. The woman on the phone walked me through the trouble-shooting steps. With her guidance I affirmed that yes, it was plugged in, and yes, it was getting power, and yes, the brush was spinning, but still it would not actually pick things up. Then she talked me through taking apart the hoses and using a broom handle to clear out the hose, which was indeed filled with pine needles. I felt triumphant and useful, but still the vacuum would not work.
So I took the vacuum cleaner to a repair shop and after the technician went through some of the same steps I had taken, discovered that while I had indeed cleared out the hose of pine needles, in doing so the grip of the broom handle had become lodged in the hose, letting through just enough air to make a different sort of noise, but not enough to actually vacuum. I paid him the requisite “user error” repair fee and went about my day.
Since I posted a message on Facebook requesting help in finding a repair place, I received a string of comments about how things weren’t made like they used to be, a vacuum cleaner joke, and some advice on what to do. When I posted that it was now fixed, a friend of mine wrote a declaration: “You may now visit your minister. She will have a clean house!”
As I looked at the pine needles still on my floor and my vacuum cleaner in the corner I thought about this comment: “She will have a clean house!” As someone who can sometimes have a quick wit, and other times thinks about calculated responses and intentional word choices, my brain mulled over this one for a while. “She will have a clean house!”
Since I did not in fact have a clean house, this made me think: having the ability to have a clean house is not the same thing as actually cleaning a house.
Which then, being a theologically minded person, made me think about the many ways in our world where capacity and realization stand in stark contrast. There are many who are homeless and many who live in mansions. There are many who go hungry and many who have far more food than they could ever eat. How do we bridge these gaps?
In our New Testament lesson today we heard a Biblical message of our interconnectivity and our capacity for action.
12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
We are equipped for ministry, but when we do not fully live into being the body, we will not have a “clean house.” God’s Kingdom will not be fully realized. Christ’s body will no longer be living and breathing and moving about in this world.
In order to move forward we must first acknowledge our capacity for action, our gifts for service. This passage in 1 Corinthians has always challenged me to think about what part of the body that is the church I might be at any given moment. When I really feel like I have it all together, I feel that I just may be the brain, leading the other parts of the church body in the way they should go, reacting to the pain felt by any given part, and making decisions to move things forward. Other times, I feel like I might be the hand, doing the work of the church in the world, reaching out, planting, building. And sometimes, perhaps I’m simply a fingernail, providing some support, some comfort, but largely going unnoticed. As this scripture passage tells us, each and every part of the body of the church is important, not in and of itself, but in the way we all work together as a functioning whole.
So what part do you think you may be? Are you gifted with the ability to speak God’s word, a word of truth, a word of encouragement? Are you gifted with the ability to fix things with your hands, to create new things, play an instruments? I know that many of you in this congregation have arms that extend God’s love through hugs of fellowship and compassion.
You are not going to be gifted in the same way the person next to you is gifted. You are not the same part of the body as everyone else. You are called to be your own individual, uniquely gifted self. Your task is to recognize how you are gifted, and serve God from the place of joyful capability.
You are gifted as your very own self, in your very own body, and called to live out Christ’s body through your own. You may not be called to climb a tree, you may not be called to swim, but you are called to serve God. You are still very gifted, very whole, and very useful to God’s kingdom.
Ephesians 4:8 says that Christ gave gifts to his people… In verse 11-12 it continues saying: “11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” In verse 16, “16from Christ the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
When we each are “working properly,” we are able to go forward, to grow as a community, to grow the Church universal. Notice, each working properly, does not mean each working the same. We each have different gifts and take different roles. When we use these gifts to work together towards a communal vision of service to God, we become “the body” of the church.
Once we have discovered this place of ability, this unique strength we are called, as members of the body of Christ, to use that ability for God’s Kingdom.
In a few minutes we will sing Casting Crowns’ “If We Are the Body,” but for now I would like to lift up to you a poem with a similar message that was written around 400 years before, by St. Teresa of Avila called “Christ Has No Body”:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
God was once incarnate on this earth, born by his mother, Mary lived within the skin of a human, sweat, cried, healed, and built. But when Christ died, he transcended human embodiment. He created a path for eternal life and left an example for how to compassionately lead and serve others. Christ lived within human skin so that we might experience God in human terms. In doing so, Christ showed us how to be incarnate in Christ’s body. How we might serve this world as the body of Christ.
Presbyterian theologian, Frederick Buechner wrote, “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too. ”
In closing I will share with you a video clip from a beautiful movie that came out last year, “Hugo.” If you haven’t seen this yet, you’re missing out. This is a beautifully crafted film with complex characters and a very original plot. The book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” by Brian Selznick, is also very worth a read, particularly because though it is about 500 pages, most of them are pictures. The story follows Hugo, a young orphan who spends his time maintaining the clocks at a train station in Paris, and is searching for his place in the world.
“I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with exact amount they need. So I figured if the entire world was one big machine… I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here some reason, too.”
Know that Christ has placed a call on your life, and gifted you with unique function and purpose. You are not an extra part, you are here for a reason and God is ever longing to reveal that purpose to you in the service of God’s Kingdom. May we live into the fullness of God’s creative power in our lives so that all may experience the love of Christ. Amen.
I am delighted to share with you a sermon by my cousin, Nick Hentges who preached at Hope Lutheran of Toledo on January 6, 2013. Nick is a sophomore at Kent State University.
Have you ever read the Bible and felt like this? Like you’re being pointed in all sorts of directions and you’re not sure where to go? Or maybe you felt that it might mean something for your life, but your not sure which? And when you read more about scripture it you might hear even more of a confusing message?
Signs are really only helpful if we’re able to read them, and able to understand what the mean, and what we’re supposed to do in response.
This is also true when it comes to Jesus’ actions in the gospels. His miracles, including this one in Cana, are called “signs.” A sign points to something beyond itself. There needs to be a certain sort of understanding to be able to interpret a sign.
The thing about a sign is that it points to something beyond itself. If you’re driving along and you see this sign you know that this line with the triangle at the end means that the road is curving right.
When Jesus does a miracle, more is going on that just what we can take in at first glance. Which is important to know, especially when we see a sign like his miracle in Cana. In a first read through it seems like all Jesus is doing is making some people happy at a party. The signs of Jesus tell us about who Jesus is, His mission on earth, and the new age He brings about by his coming. The signs of Jesus are truly “significant.” They point to who Jesus is and what he came to do. So, let’s unpack this story a bit and figure out what making wine at a party has to do with the mission of Jesus Christ and what it has to do with us.
Any parent or teacher who has asked a child to do a chore, go to sleep at bedtime, or learn a math problem might hear a familiar voice here: “Why me?” “Why should I care about this?” “Can’t I do it later?” “Ten more minutes?” When we know that this is Jesus’ very first miracle, it’s a strange thing to hear that he seemed reluctant, and even a bit petulant at his mother’s request.
Mary’s appeal brings images of a proud mother. She had confidence that in this situation Jesus could do something to turn it around. But really, making wine at a party? This is Jesus’s first act of ministry? This is what gets the ball rolling on a career as savior of the world? Winemaking?
However, when we look at this one strange seeming inconsequential act in the scope of Jesus’ entire ministry, it makes a great deal of sense. Jesus is the bringer of living water and that water is transformed by His death, which we remember by sharing in the wine of communion. This one act, at the beginning of His ministry provides bookends to his life’s ministry. Christ gives living water and is transformed into wine.
Scripture is filled with imagery of water as challenging, saving, confronting, and life giving. As our students learned in WOW this past Fall, water is woven throughout the Moses narrative: carrying Moses to a new life, saving the Israelites from the Egyptians at the Red Sea, and flowing from a rock as a sign of God’s provision to the Israelites in the wilderness.
In our Old Testament passage today we hear the claim God places on us, which we commemorate in baptism: “I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”
In John 1:29-34 we hear of Jesus’ baptism: “[John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
This passage of Christ’s baptism comes right before the story of his first miracle. This is no accident. When Christ is turning water into wine, He Himself has already taken his place as the living water. In His baptism the Holy Spirit descends upon Him. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism it says that, God’s voice was heard saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Though always connected, the trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all cited a specifically present during Christ’s baptism. Though Jesus was claiming God as father as early as when he was twelve in the temple, this claim by God that Jesus is God’s own son was the first public action by God that set Jesus apart as God’s son. And in this ministry Jesus does not go it alone, but goes in the company of the Holy Spirit, who is in and through all things.
On Christmas we celebrated Jesus’ birth, last week on Epiphany Sunday we celebrated Christ’s manifestation. These two scriptures Jesus’ baptism and Jesus’ miracle at Cana, bring us to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. A time when the living water came to life, living a ministry that would give live to all people.
Though this first miracle happens in the context of a party, this transformation from water into wine points to a future much more bitter than that of living water. Christ did not come simply to wash the world clean, but to transform the world through His life.
Though we use grape juice in our communion as we remember Jesus, there are reasons why Jesus’s death is remembered through wine and not grape juice. Sure there’s the cultural context of a community of disciples that would’ve been more likely to dine with wine than with water, but there are also chemical reasons. While both are bitter and sweet, wine can be abused. Wine can lift the spirits, but too much can cause personal harm and ruin relationships. Wine is in remembrance of Jesus’ death, in remembrance of the pain of crucifixion, and the horrors of Christ’s descent into Hell. We sample just a taste of this bitterness in communion, but we are not meant to intoxicate ourselves with the grief of Christ’s death.
This is not to say that we are powerless in this transformation as Christ moves the world from living water to eternal life giving wine. We have a role in bringing about the Kingdom of God, a role demonstrated by Mary in this story. Jesus is reluctant, but Mary prods Jesus towards this new ministry. Divine action and human initiative are linked. God does not need us to point to what is wrong with the world, but when we pray we are lifting up the concerns of God, making them manifest in our own lives, and we await an answer. We open ourselves to God’s action in the world. When we hear “my time has not yet come,” we are frustrated, we are annoyed, but we are also attentive to what will come next Mary, mother of Jesus, gives us an example of her own prodding at God, but also an example of how God’s will is to be enacted. “They have no wine,” Mary says. Jesus replies, “my time has not yet come.” She does not say, “ oh yes it does!” She does not rail against her literally holier than thou son, but she leaves space for divinity to be enacted, instructing the servants of the house, “do whatever He asks of you.”
Here is the blueprint to divine transformation: When God’s concerns become our own, and we lift them up to God, faithful obedience leads to the transformation of our hearts and the world. God’s will can be enacted through us, but only if we are open to be changed by asking for that change, and discovering our role in transforming God’s Kingdom.
In our baptism Christ claims us as His own, as children of the Kingdom of God. We drink of the living water. We are cleansed of our sins and given new life. In Christ’s death Christ claims our sins as His own, giving us the ability to live eternally in God’s Kingdom and God’s grace. The good news is as Jesus transforms water into wine, Christ also transforms our lives through claiming us in baptism and redeeming us through his crucifixion.
This is a message of hope that poet, Tom Lane writes of this in his poem, “If Jesus Could”: If Jesus could transform common water into wedding wine spit and dirt into new sight troubled sea into a pathway well water into living water Could Christ transform the waters of my life? shallow murky polluted stagnant sour into a shower of blessing?
May we be open to Christ’s transforming power in our lives and in this world, and open to how God is calling us to help transform the world for His kingdom. Amen.
 Matthew 3:17
by Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.
After the reading of scripture, five women read “Anna,” by Mary Lou Sleevi from “Sisters and Prophets,” accompanied by the following slides
Epiphany! Have you ever heard someone say, “I have had an epiphany!”? In our culture the word “epiphany” has become synonymous with “brilliant idea” or “life changing thought.” The word may give us visions of someone with a light bulb floating above their head. It’s an unexpected sort of occurrence: a lighting flash, a stumbling upon. Epiphanies enter our lives before we even know we needed them, but once they occur, are not soon forgotten.
In the church calendar and in Biblical Greek, this word takes on a different depth. In the Greek: ἐπιφάνεια (epiphaneia) means “manifestation,” or “striking appearance.” The root of the word is close the word for “shine upon” or “to give light.” On the liturgical calendar, today is this day of Epiphany, this celebration of the manifestation of God through Jesus Christ. The celebration of when God became incarnate; when God took on human form and walked around.
As John 1: 4 describes Jesus’ incarnation: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
It seems strange that Christ’s birth date and manifestation date are separate occurrences. Didn’t we already celebrate Christmas?
But those two dates are different for a reason: the Epiphany is the commemoration of when Christ was visited by the Magi or the three wise men. This particular visit changes the meaning of Christ’s birth. As Christian tradition goes, up until that point, only fellow Jews had commemorated Jesus’s birth. Jesus was still contained within his own cultural context. But the visit of the magi changes things. This was the first time he was visited by Gentiles. This was the first step towards Christ’s bringing about of a Kingdom that would unite all people to God, both Jews and Gentiles.
This is an important lesson for our own lives: Christ is only truly manifest in this world when we introduce him to those outside these walls. Christmas is only realized, when we live our lives in response to it, far beyond its allotted time on the calendar.
Contemporary hymn writer, Jim Strathdee writes of the importance of the mission of manifestation in his “Christmas Poem”:
Whenever there’s a major life change in a family there’s an initial few weeks where people are lined up to hold the new baby, casseroles lining the refrigerator form an edible memorial to a life lost, and the mailbox is flooded with cards. But then time passes and the life change becomes a part of the regular rhythm of things, a new family dynamic is adopted, a new social calendar is established. Things return to normal.
It’s tempting to do the same after Christmas. We have celebrated the birth of this new baby, Jesus of Nazareth. We have sung the carols, read the scriptures, hung the greens, and lit all the candles on the Advent wreath. We’re now ready for the “long winter’s nap,” prescribed in “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Now we get on with the rest of our lives, right?
In the wake of Epiphany, we are summoned into a new reality, beyond the pre-Christmas normal and into the post-Epiphany exceptional. This great happening is something to be shared.
In our reading today we heard of the story of a woman who understood the significance of the incarnation. I love this telling of the story of Anna. Though scripture only gives us a couple of verses about this woman, this reading expands on the story and imagines all the hope and expectation that went into her Epiphany experience. She had waited at the temple for many, many years in the hope of Christ’s coming. Her eyes were opened to receiving Christ in their midst.
There is a beautiful story about Anna’s sort of waiting by minister Daniel Evans. He writes of performing the sacrament of baptism saying:
“Gently, as if passing treasured, fragile china dolls, they hand their babies to me there across the words that make the time. I splash the water and look down for recognition. I try to read those eyes to see if something’s there in innocence that none yet has taken note of, something special from that other side of being, birth; a message for us sinners gathered round a bowl of water and some ancient words. “I baptize . . .” I begin and think of Anna or old Simeon, lifting up a blushing Mary’s baby, all awash in wonder to be holding God in hand. The God who never tires of birthing love in this tired world came once, a child. I hold above the holy water these same new promises that same God makes to my world and wonder if God’s come again.”
Both Anna and Rev. Evans wait expectantly for God to come incarnate into this world. Waiting so that they may recognize and worship our Savior. Anna, is waiting for Jesus and Rev. Evans is waiting for Christ to come again. Wait a minute. Did you get that? Christ is coming again.
In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 13, we meet Jesus in conversation with His disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. Right before breaking bread and sharing the cup, as we will do later in this service, He speaks of when He will come again. Mark 13:32-37 says:
“About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
This echoes the prophet Isaiah’s call. Once we witness the light of Christ, once we have risen and are shining Christ’s light into the world, we must continue to stay awake in anticipation of Christ coming again. Which that leads to a more important question: Do you really believe that Christ is coming again? Have you ever looked at a newborn baby and thought: could it be? Or have the best parts of our Christian story already played out? The script has been written, the play is done, and now we can just celebrate the birth of a child and the redemption by our savior. Right?
I know that this is a struggle for me. Like the religious scholar’s of Jesus’ time, I know what is the right answer. I know with every academic fiber of my brain that when someone asks me the line in the Apostle’s creed that follows “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” I know that the answer is: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” I know that, but is that something I eagerly anticipate? Or is it something I just think might happen someday, but doesn’t really have much to do with me. If I’m honest with myself I’ve done a lot more to prepare to celebrate Christ’s birthday that happened 2000 years ago, than I’ve done anything at all to prepare for Christ coming again. “Keep Awake,” the Gospel of Mark tells us. “Keep awake.” Christ’s coming again is not the sort of event in which we must go to sleep in order to receive presents under our tree. Rather, we are to stay alert with eyes open to meet our Savior. As Disciples of Christ Jesus, we are those very servants charged to take care of this world until Christ comes again, and then we will be judged for what has been done and not done.
John’s Revelation previews what we can expect from the return of Christ:
“Then 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.”
And what of Christmas? Today’s Epiphany reminds us that while Christ has already come into this world to save us from our sins, Christ will come again to judge the world. This is our yearly reminder to “rise, shine,” “keep awake.” We don’t know what God has chosen as the next “fullness of time,” by which Christ will come again. But this yearly, heavenly birthday celebration serves as a bit of a wake up call, part of a larger advent. This Epiphany day may we arise with the joy that Christ has come into this world and shine with the hope that Christ will come again and make all things new. Amen.
 “Christmas Poem,” Jim Strathdee
A favorite song of mine for the new year:
“Snow,” by Sleeping at Last
The branches have traded their leaves for white sleeves
All warm-blooded creatures make ghosts as they breathe
Scarves are wrapped tightly like gifts under trees
Christmas lights tangle in knots annually
Our families huddle closely
Betting warmth against the cold
But our bruises seem to surface
Like mud beneath the snow
So we sing carols softly, as sweet as we know
A prayer that our burdens will lift as we go
Like young love still waiting under mistletoe
We’ll welcome December with tireless hope
Let our bells keep on ringing
Making angels in the snow
May the melody disarm us
When the cracks begin to show
Like the petals in our pockets
May we remember who we are
Unconditionally cared for
By those who share our broken hearts
The table is set and our glasses are full
Though pieces go missing, may we still feel whole
We’ll build new traditions in place of the old
’cause life without revision will silence our souls
So let the bells keep on ringing
Making angels in the snow
May the melody surround us
When the cracks begin to show
Like the petals in our pockets
May we remember who we are
Unconditionally cared for
By those who share our broken hearts
As gentle as feathers, the snow piles high
Our world gets rewritten and retraced every time
Like fresh plates and clean slates, our future is white
New year’s resolutions will reset tonight