God’s Hour, This One Life

Isaiah 62:1-5 | Psalm 36:5-10 | 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 | John 2:1-11

Last week we heard the story of Simon the magician-turned-believer. Witnessing what the people did after they received the power of the Holy Spirit, he brought his silver to the apostles so that he, too, could get some of that power. But remember what Peter told him? “Your heart is not right before God.” Peter chastised him for thinking he could buy the power. Peter had the wisdom, knowledge, and discernment to know this person Simon (maybe Philip had advised him) and Simon’s intent to use the power of the Spirit for his own grandeur. We can hope that Simon’s repentance is sincere, that he truly changed the course of his way, and that he finally did get his heart right before God.

In the frenzy of the moment and not at his best, don’t you know that Simon would have loved to have been at the wedding at Cana in Galilee, to have been the one who changed the water into wine? Wouldn’t he have thrilled to tell Mary, the mother of God, not to worry, that he’s got it taken care of, to go up to the steward with a sly, knowing look and ask what he thinks of the wine, only to take full credit (after trying to play the humble one first) for the best wine in the house. Maybe he would even mention to the bride, groom, and family that he had saved them from humiliation but not to worry because he did it out of the goodness of his heart.

All this is exactly what Jesus didn’t do.

Sometimes we take for granted that our tradition is full of rich poetry and well-written stories. This vignette about Jesus and the water-turned-wine whisks us behind the scenes of a wedding banquet, reveals to us the wisdom of a mother, the gifts of her son, and the obedience of the servants. While the party carries on seamlessly, Jesus performs a grand miracle, surrounded by silent witnesses whose lives are forever changed, having encountered the glory of God. Those at the head of the table don’t even know what’s happened, happy they are to enjoy the richness and abundance of the newly found wine. This, the first of Jesus’s signs in the gospel according to John, revealed God’s glory and led disciples to believe.

That’s the beauty of someone whose heart is right with God: there’s no false humility or piety, extravagant showmanship or self-aggrandizing mannerisms. For one who lives out of right relationship with God, there’s godly revelation. We witness the attributes that Psalm 36 enumerates, characteristics like love and faithfulness, righteousness, justice, refuge, loving-kindness, and abundance. People who experience and/or know the love of God as the source of life are a beacon of the eternal light. But it doesn’t mean they’re always perfect.

The churches Paul writes to are a good example. Our epistle today shares part of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, and he’s talking about spiritual gifts. They’re believers and gifted with the power of the holy spirit in various ways. Paul, however, is as tactfully as possible trying to present them with a teachable moment. He’s trying to emphasize the value of wisdom and knowledge to help prevent the squabbles or the competition that can wreak havoc on any community.

There are many gifts (and Paul lists several of them), and no one person is going to have all of them. We learn from Simon and Peter’s exchange that we can’t buy the gifts. Paul’s main point is that these gifts are chosen by the Spirit and meant for the common good. Many gifts, one Spirit. Many services/ministries, one Lord. Many activities/deeds, one God, who activates all in all. Again, we get the lesson that the true end is not ultimately about us–it’s not about “our hour” but about giving God the glory.

Yet our lives are intimately connected to each of us, and that we have free will means that we play a vital role in how much attribution God gets, for better or for worse. Maybe that’s why Simon’s story is open-ended. Like him, we get to choose what to do in the error of our ways. At best, we repent and return to the Lord, returning to ways that are loving, life-giving, and liberating not only for ourselves but for everyone. I’m reading Michelle Obama’s biography, and I’m at the part where she’s encountered the deaths of loved ones and is realizing that pursuing her legal career through a traditional trajectory isn’t as fulfilling as she thought it would be. She’s also become engaged to someone who is encouraging her to see things from a different perspective and with a less fixed course of direction.

That’s what happens when we are in truly loving relationships–we are no less who we are, but we become open to being more fully who we are as God created us to be. It makes sense that Love would be an activation key, doesn’t it? When we love God, we realize the value in truly knowing ourselves and valuing our gifts, whatever they may be. There’s great joy in celebrating our gifts, especially when we get to use them for the greater good, like when Lily can use her Spanish to speak with the refugees, help them find their home, all the while reminding them that they are “mi amor.” Even our adversities, hurts, and struggles teach us more about who we are, and in overcoming them, we garner skills that make us that much more adept at navigating difficult situations in the future.

This loving relationship between God and ourselves and for ourselves takes work and faith and belief and trust and courage–all that. Where I think the Holy Spirit really gets energized, though, is in our loving relationships with each other. Where two or three are gathered, right? When we join our efforts to build community, to work for the greater good, to manifest some aspect of the kingdom of heaven, there is something amazing at work, something recognizable yet out of our reach of control. To me, that’s Spirit at work. It’s nearly electric. It’s bright, a beacon of what is at work.

It’s also vulnerable. When we break down barriers to love, we’re at risk for letting things like hurt, shame, doubt, fear, pride, greed, etc., in. Maybe that’s why our baptismal covenant asks us about when we sin and not if. Because if we’re living a Christian life, chances are we’re gonna get hurt and fall and get off course. The important thing, though, is that we get back up and turn again to Lord, remembering that we have important work to do, important work that only we can do.

On January 17th, beloved poet Mary Oliver died at the age of 83. While she spent time honing her skills and practicing her art, she undoubtedly had a gift for written art, for poetry. I say written art because the poems that she wrote take you out into the natural world she loved so dearly, that she spent countless hours wandering in and observing. And a good poet describes the obvious in such a way that it can depict not only the thing that is but also look deeper into it or beyond it to a greater truth, asking without asking about our own experience or encounter.

As Christians, we believe in God, are empowered by the Holy Spirit, and strive to fulfill our lives in service to God through many and varied ministries. We know we are to give glory to God, but each of us needs to ask ourselves how we’re going to do that . . . or maybe how we’re already doing that. The question that comes to my mind is one I see oft-quoted from Mary Oliver from the end of her popular poem “The Summer Day.” If we haven’t before, we need to be asked now, as Oliver does, “What is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” The good of all depends on us.

 

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Power for Purpose

 

Isaiah 62:1-5 | 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 | John 2:1-11

We pass signs all day long, often reading them without thinking. One of my kids’ kindergarten teachers showed me that children, even before they can read, can tell what company, store, or restaurant a sign–or well-branded logo–represent. Looking at the exercise sheet, I realized at a glance that I could, too. I mean, it’s hard to miss the Golden Arches or the Coca-Cola script. How often is it that when we see something, we know exactly what it means, what it represents? Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding feast, and this is the first of his signs. Honestly, we’re a little clearer on the cross and what it means and choose that for our corporate branding–and it works well, don’t get me wrong. But there’s something to this little water to wine miracle that saved a celebratory feast, something about Jesus doing what only he could do: using his power for a purpose.

I wonder what made Mary think that Jesus could do something about the situation. We’ve probably all been at parties that are starting to turn south–it could be that the d.j. is bad or the food or drink runs out too soon. It gets embarrassing, really; at a wedding it can be truly humiliating. I read in a commentary that perhaps Jesus and his buddies didn’t bring their contribution to the wedding and could have been part of the reason for the early shortage–a good reason for a mother to call out her son. But maybe Mary’s reasoning came from the hunch of a mother who had faced difficult times before and had been comforted by this special child, now a man. Maybe in years before, Jesus has showed her hands that could soothe a tired and weary mind, eyes that could console the sorrowful, and laughter that brought joy to the surface. Maybe those were some of Mary’s experiences that made her, in this situation, look to her beloved son to make things right.

And he could.

And he did.

The act was performed. Witnesses beheld the miracle. A feast was redeemed, made even better than before. Surely the guests were enlivened by the freely flowing spirit around them. (I think there’s some foreshadowing here of what will be when Jesus’s true hour has come.)

Even though he says his hour hasn’t yet come, when called upon, Jesus performs the task at hand. Like us, Mary sees what is before her and can foresee the disaster about to unfold. Jesus, however, with the mind of God, probably thought on a different scale. On a scale both large and small, Jesus makes the world a better place. Jesus brings light into the world by the very nature of who he is, both God and man. Yes, Jesus, the bridal party is out of wine; make these jars full of wine through the power of Spirit, as you will, in time, fill our cups with promise of life everlasting. We see what you’re doing here.

This wedding miracle is not itself a simple sign, a mere advertising gimmick branding Jesus as miracle worker, though a miracle worker he is. He who is wisdom and light bears this gift . . . and all the other gifts of Spirit, too, because that’s his nature. Jesus is the Son of God. His very nature is his power, and he chooses to use it for a purpose, drawing us ever closer into relationship as a bridegroom does his bride.

At our baptisms, we are bestowed with gifts of the Spirit.

Each of us has gifts.

Each of us has power.

A few years ago at the Choir Camp Festival Day at Subiaco Abbey, I saw a friend whom I hadn’t seen in years. It was quiet, of course, prior to the service, so I couldn’t squeal in delight as some of us are prone to do, but I did sort of leap up and outstretch my arms, greeting her with a huge smile and an all-embracing hug. We stepped apart, still holding arms, and smiled some more, not saying a word. It was just a moment. Joyful, beautiful, and heartwarming.

As she turned toward her seat, I heard a man’s voice say, “Sara, be careful how you use that power.” In the pew behind me sat my liaison to the Commission on Ministry. I hadn’t yet left for seminary but was already deep in the discernment process. I still haven’t forgotten what he said or the way he looked at me with wise eyes and a knowing smile.

I have come to see my smile as a gift, one I freely share with others, but it is only a sign of the greater gift that is joy. Though I thank my parents for getting me braces when I was younger, you can’t buy joy that a genuine smile conveys. A true gift is precious and priceless, which is part of the reason why we feel such loss when those who share their gifts with us die. There’s a collective grieving this week with the loss of David Bowie and Alan Rickman. And if we think of others whom we have loved and lost, their gifts, too, often come to mind because when they shared those gifts, we knew we were witnessing something special if not miraculous.

Paul says,

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

Our gifts aren’t ours alone. What greater service than to share our gifts with others? What greater good than sharing our gift as a sign of Christ’s presence in the world, shining light into what can often be a dismal scene?

I hope that we are all aware of some of our gifts. Sometimes we need someone to point them out to us. It’s completely normal to take what comes naturally for granted. That doesn’t make it a good thing, but it happens. Moms can be great people to call out our gifts. A friend who knows you well or even a complete stranger can also recognize a gift if they’re paying attention. Just this week at the elementary school where I mentor, while I was signing out of the computer, a man told the others in the office, “You know, if everyone had a smile like that woman, the world would be a better place.”

Maybe it’s your smile. Maybe it’s your music. Maybe it’s your sportsmanship or prowess with numbers; your ability to operate on bodies or manage corporations or build bridges, towers, or spacecraft. Maybe it’s your intuition, your understanding, your ability to be present. Whatever your gifts–because we do have more than one–I urge you to recognize it and nurture it. Give thanks to God for it and pray for guidance in how and when to use it for the common good, especially if it fosters faith, hope, and love. We can’t count on someone else to be or do something better because God needs each of us to shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory in the world as only we can.

Like the servants ladling out the wine from the jars that they were just sure held water, there are going to be times when we are amazed at what we can bring to those in our midst by the power of the Spirit. We do our work to the best of our ability, rising to the occasion when we are called. We, too, can use our power for a purpose. We ourselves are walking billboards, signs of all shapes, colors, and sizes, pointing to the glory of God.

 

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