A touchstone is defined as a piece of fine-grained stone formerly used to test alloys of gold by observing the color of the mark from the alloy. It was a way for people to know if a metal contained gold and how much. Many of us have literal and figurative touchstones in our lives. Plumblines, for example, are a great way to see if you’re are building at right angles. Drafter or architects, in the old days before computers used a straight edge or a t-square. Musically, often I find myself humming a tune and want to plunk it out on the piano, only to walk over and find out that what I thought was an “A” is really a “G.” Unless we are especially gifted we need help orienting to truth. Likewise, this First Corinthians passage from today’s reading is a great touchstone on love. Commonly used at weddings, it can be a wonderful reminder of what love means in marriage, but that was not part of its original context.
Paul’s First letter to the Corinthians was believed to have been written around the year 50 after he had founded the church in Corinth, and moved on to Ephesus which is in our modern-day Turkey, about a 200-mile sea voyage away. Last week in our readings, just prior to today’s First Corinthians reading, we heard Paul talk about the various gifts that God gives to each of us: tongues, prophecy, teaching, and miracle working, among others. Then Paul instructs the Corinthians to strive for the greater gifts and “I will show you a more excellent way.” This week we hear about “the more excellent way,” in which Paul unfolds this beautiful chapter about spiritual gifts in the context of love. The reason for this letter is Paul’s concern for division and strife among members of the Corinthian Church. Presumably, they were not embodying “the more excellent way.”
The first time I remember hearing this passage, I was probably in my early teens at a weekend church youth group retreat. A friend had brought her bible along and was sharing with me her favorite passages including this one. I hadn’t read scripture much on my own and I was deeply moved by this passage. So, when couple of days later, my sister was sobbing about her boyfriend problems - especially his demands and manipulation of her, often dictating what she should do or what friends she should have, a lightbulb went off for me. 1 Corinthians chapter 13 might be a way to show whether my sister’s boyfriend really loved her. So, I started reading this chapter to her. At this point, I had no idea who the Corinthians were or that I was reading a nearly 2000-year-old piece of their mail. I do remember that my sister’s eyes kind of widened in the process of our conversation, especially hearing “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way.” This was the beginning of the end of her relationship with her boyfriend. Granted, from what I know now, I Corinthians was written for the church and not romantic relationships, it is powerful enough to speak into other situations.
Maybe for some it may go without saying, but there are reasons that love is a “more excellent way.” For one thing, as Paul says. Love never ends. In other words, the love that comes from God is unconditional. We gain a glimpse of conditional love, the kind in which we humans often engage, in today’s Gospel reading. Luke tells the story of Jesus reading the scroll of Isaiah in his hometown synagogue. At first everyone speaks well of him, according to Luke. Then Jesus says some things that make him unpopular by indicating that prophets are often best understood and accepted by foreigners and that God’s message therefore is more likely to be accepted by foreigners than by insiders. He offers the example of Naaman and Elisha or the widow at Zarapheth and Elijah. This prompts his hearers into a murderous rage. What is going on here? One minute they come close to accepting him, almost fawning over him. They speak well of his gracious words. The next minute he casts them in an unfavorable light and they want to throw him off a cliff. Hearing this story through the lens of the I Corinthians love chapter, we can see that what was initial acceptance, was not love. This is the trouble with a lot of our hero worship and why I think it is so hard for child stars to survive as healthy adults. They receive this adulation which feels like love, it is received like love, but it isn’t because it is based on performance. It comes with the message, we approve, we “love” you as long if you perform for us. For Jesus’ hometown folk, the unspoken message was that we approve of you as long as you are not critical and perform miracles for us.
But what does Paul say? “Love bears all things.” This “bearing all things” is another way to distinguish love from other emotions, much like how we can tell Gold from other metals with a touchstone. There is a nineteenth century prayer for priests called the Southwell Litany. It wonderfully prays through the painful challenges that many Christians suffer. One of the prayers states, “from building our systems to exclude all challenges, save us and help us O Lord.” We are not existing in a state of love if we cannot bear to be challenged. One of the things that has been very difficult for me personally is learning that those who praise me are not necessarily my friends and those who criticize me are not necessarily enemies. I am in the process of learning to thank people who challenge, confront, and correct me. At first I found this spiritual practice very difficult. It became easier when I considered how hard it can be for me to speak up to people with whom I disagree, especially when they are an authority figure. So, even if I disagree with someone’s criticism, I am learning to credit them with the courage to voice their concerns.
Another characteristic of love is that it does not demand its own way. This kind of love resists forcing its will on others even in such areas as parenting. Arun Ghandi, grandson of Mahatma Ghandi, tells a story of a father’s love that does not demand its own way. One day, Arun’s father asked him to chauffer him to town, run some errands - including auto maintenance - and pick him up at 5 p.m. from a conference.
Figuring he had some wiggle room before picking up his father, Arun went to a John Wayne double-feature, only to realize at 5:30 p.m. that he was late. When his father asked him why he was an hour late picking him up, Arun lied, telling him that the car wasn’t ready.
Unbeknownst to Arun, his father had already called the garage about the status of the car. His father, rather that berating his son for lying insisted that he personally should suffer the consequences for his parenting failure and chose to walk 18 miles home in the dark while Arun drove home without him. There was nothing Arun could say that would change his mind.
For six hours, Arun Gandhi crept along in the family car after his dad, tires crunching on gravel roads at three-miles-an-hour, through city streets, dirt roads, and sugarcane fields, vowing never to lie again. This is a love that does not insist on its own way and is a kind of death of ego.
In fact, despite the painfulness of death there are gifts that accompany literal and figurative dying. As the noise of life subsides the undying nature of love perseveres. Near death we begin to understand the veracity of Paul’s words. Truly, knowledge and language fade in the end. Even our money can’t save us. All of the prophecy and preaching in the world, even today’s, will not be remembered in the end. As we near death, we begin to see that the only things that last are faith hope and love, and especially love.The part of us that loves never ends, even when our bodies fail.
We may resist the call to love, which often includes the call to share God’s good news. Like Jeremiah in today’s Hebrew scripture reading, we may feel too small, too limited. At times like this God reminds us that the power to love is not ours, but comes from beyond us. We are at our best when we stand out of the way of that love. You may have heard the phrase, “You make a better door than a window.” May God make us all better windows.
The world tries to sell us the idea that love is like that the admiration of movie stars as if love wore sequins, and was accompanied by applause, accolades, and golden globe awards. In reality - love wears an apron, changes diapers, cleans toilets, welcomes foreigners, challenges us to change, and is even willing to make us angry if necessary. True love often goes unrecognized or even makes us unpopular like Jesus with his fellow townspeople. Real love, and the process of learning to love is hard. It is as though this life we are living is a training ground, a bootcamp of sorts, for learning to love our neighbors.
This passage from 1 Corinthians is a touchstone for the more excellent way. In it we compare the love we experience and express with God’s love for us. Our challenge is not only to see the difference between our love and God’s love, but to walk it. Our challenge is to welcome challenges, welcome criticism, and to be willing to walk 18 miles home in the dark if necessary. Our challenge is to die to ourselves and become windows of divine light. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
Today is an interesting day liturgically, analogous to a partial lunar eclipse, because it is only in year C that we get to read this story of the miracle at Cana during the season after Epiphany. Epiphany, which means manifestation, historically has included the star and the magi, Jesus’ baptism, and the miracle at Cana. These are the ways that Jesus as the Christ was manifest to humanity.
The miracle at Cana has importance for many reasons. Foremost among those is that the wine in the story is not just wine, kind of like wine in our Eucharist is not just wine. In Jesus’ day weddings sometimes lasted up to seven days, so having enough wine to provide party goers was imperative. Likewise, the host’s failure to have enough wine was a social faux pas from which one might never recover. Those poorly supplied might forever be marked as “the one who ran out.” So wine, or the lack of it, in Jesus’ context could maintain or break community. Wine with its often blood red color also symbolized life and strength.
John calls the transformation of water into wine at Cana a “sign” because it manifested Christ’s “glory” and we are told after that “his disciples believed in him.” It is for this reason that the signs in John’s gospel are not considered mere miracle stories. They are intended to lead to belief.
There is this really weird discourse between Mary (who is not actually named in this passage) and Jesus. She makes a statement and he replies, “Woman, what is that to you and to me?” It sounds really rude, but in the original language was more of a common expression. But key to us, key to our situation and political climate and really messy situation that we are in right now, is what Mary says first. What does she say?
“They have no wine.” Why is she saying this? Why is she coming to Jesus with this? I love that she never actually asks him to do anything, but just states the problem. It sounds like she really does know her son better than anyone else. She knows who Jesus is and what he can do. It’s like she is training him to be the messiah. In his humanity he doesn’t feel ready, but she is effectively saying, “It’s time.” Mary does this because she trusts that Jesus will live out the fundamental divine attribute of extravagant love and providence. She then tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you,” as if she knows, even before Jesus does, what will happen. Jesus then makes a ridiculous amount of wine, about 120-180 gallons, more than the wedding party could possibly consume.
We therefore see in this story, the sign that God’s love is like a wedding banquet in which divine connection to us is much deeper than we can fathom, like the wine was much more than the guests could consume. It is of a totally different sort than the, often transactional, love in the world. I do a favor for you and you do a favor for me. What we often mistake for love is really commerce. Transactional relationships often focus on scarcity, the notion that the world’s resources are like a giant pie, and there is only so much to go around. If the story we live by is scarcity, we have to hurry and get our slice of pie before it’s gone.
In contrast, not only is God’s grace and love free to us, it is also unbounded like the copious gallons of wine overflowing our expectations. We can see that sentiment, not only in our Gospel passage but in the reading from Isaiah, which likens Israel united with God as a couple at a marriage feast. The Psalmist relates that, “They feast upon the abundance of your house; *[God gives] them drink from the river of [God’s] delights. Our passage from 1 Corinthians likewise relates the profundity and diversity of God’s spiritual gifts to the children of God.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to remain focused on God’s extravagant love. I don’t know about you, but lately I have been caught a bit in scarcity mode especially during the partial government shut down. I have felt out of sorts in this increasingly acrimonious political climate. Abby has mentioned schoolmates belittling one another because of perceived political stances. Workers are calling in sick because they can’t afford to go to work. In the coast guard men and women are risking their lives to save people without remuneration. The atmosphere of our country is highly charged.
It’s like we have been invited to a wedding feast. This is the feast where all humanity is invited, and the wine has run out. What are the ways in which the unbounded love of the Holy Trinity can change our meager fare of water into wine? One, is something Wade mentioned yesterday morning. “He said I feel like Fred Rogers when he talked about people coming together to help one another in an emergency.” Our family is seeing that personally and we see it around the country as well. God has made this difficulty into an opportunity for goodness to shine. Even our own outreach ministry at St. Bede has stepped up to increase food donation efforts for those in need especially now.
Besides being the one who changes our water into wine, where is the extravagant love of God in the acrimony and challenges that the American people are facing right now? Our Gospel lesson teaches that in Christ we have a God of abundance. There is no one who is shut out of the gifts of God. Abundance directs that we open our hearts to our neighbors, whether they have a different political view from ours or come from a different country. Salvation is not something that happens to us after we die, but begins here and now, and salvation is not a competitive sport. In God’s economy the wine of salvation serves to hold people together and there is more than enough for everyone. In God’s economy my neighbor’s salvation, which is really to say my neighbor’s highest good, is also mine.
Speaking of loving our neighbors, tomorrow we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This is a good time to remember his teachings and apply them to our present crises. King understood that both oppressor and oppressed were caught in an evil system. He knew that system could not be changed without recognizing that people who discriminated against African Americans were also oppressed by system that held them captive as perpetrators. You see, the extravagant love of God means that we all receive grace, both we and our enemies.
MLK Jr. was known to receive many death threats, but rather than cussing out callers who threatened him and his family, he would regularly engage with them listening to their concerns and fears. On at least one occasion, King ended this call having won over the caller through his kindness and listening efforts. King also recognized the importance of preparing his fellow workers for social justice. He did this largely through bible study and prayer. Who would have thought that studying scripture and prayer might become the ultimate act to subvert the social order?
I invite us to come like Mary to the Lord presenting the concerns of the world, trusting in the extravagant providence of God. One opportunity will be Thursday at 5 pm, our normal time for Evening Prayer, we will have a special vigil to pray for our country. We invite you to bring your concerns, whatever they are, to the chapel here at St. Bede where we can pray together.
And whether you can make it to our vigil on Thursday or not, I invite us to pray for our country, for our leaders, for immigrants and refugees everywhere, for all sorts and conditions of people. When we do that, I invite us to hold the heart of Mary when she came to our Lord and said, “They have no wine.” I hope we can trust like Mary when she relied in the divine love of God working through Jesus. We might say “Lord, this country has run dry,” knowing that is enough to spur God to act, and pray that God’s will is done. I hope we remember to bring everyone in this system before God, trusting in the abundance of God’s providence.
I pray that like Martin, in our conversations and interactions with those who differ from us, we will also reflect this overflowing love. It is a vulnerable thing to love our enemies. It can be very costly, which should be no surprise to us because eventually this outpouring of grace cost Jesus everything.
If we offer our concerns to God, even water can be changed to wine. Scarcity can turn into abundance. Like the writer John says, this miracle of changing water into wine is a sign, and it is meant to help us believe, to trust that the story of our lives is abundance not scarcity because we follow a God who desires deeply to provide for us.
Jesus as the Christ is manifest to us in the sign of changing water to wine. It is a sign of God’s extravagant love given freely that will never run out. Let us remember like Martin Luther King Jr. God’s extravagant love toward all. Let us pray like Mary who came to the Lord, saying “They have no wine,” trusting that the Lord will provide.
ST. BEDE EPISCOPAL CHURCH
1609 Elm St. Forest Grove, OR
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Sunday February 3rd, 2019
By The Rev'd Marlene Mutchler
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Sunday January 20th, 2019
By The Rev'd Marlene Mutchler
Sunday January 6th, 2019
By The Rev'd Marlene Mutchler
We thank God for all our adult helpers: Margaret Musgnung, Linda Jackson and Jeannine Jordan. We are especially thankful for our children and youth who participated today in our pageant.
Epiphany is in many ways a reminder about coming to God as a child. We have a God who directs us in scripture to come as children and actually does that. In this way God, the sovereign of the universe, is manifest to us in the vulnerability of a baby.
Besides “manifestation” epiphany can also mean an “aha moment” when we suddenly grasp a deeper truth or sacred reality. An important theme of Epiphany as a holy day is the universality of the gospel. The magi who came today set the stage for this as foreigners who come to see Jesus. I wonder what those learned men expected to gain from coming to see the baby messiah. It is amazing what being around children can teach us, much as we have been taught by our young people today.
An epiphany, or aha moment, taught by a child came to my friend LouAnn while she was chaplain at Oregon Episcopal School. During one of daily chapel sessions, she was teaching the lower grades about Epiphany and what it meant. Her son Jimmy was also in her class, and she told them all about how Jesus came for everyone and that was one of the important themes of Epiphany. LouAnn noticed Jimmy was kind of fidgety and didn’t seem to be paying attention, and she chalked it up to the difficulty of being a child whose teacher was also his parent, which sometimes was challenging for Jimmy. When LouAnn got home that night she noticed her Christmas creche had been scrambled up a little bit, and there were some changes made to it. One change in particular was the addition of a 3 1/2 inches tall Star Wars character named Chewbacca standing with the three wise men. A little frustrated, she asked Jimmy what happened to the creche? Why was Chewbacca in it? Jimmy protested, with tears flowing down his face, “But mommy, you said Jesus was for everyone.” Needless to say after that, they had a new tradition. Every year since then, Chewbacca has been an important member of their Christmas Creche, reminding them that the gift of the Christ child is for everyone, even for those in a galaxy far, far away. It turns out that God came into the world as a child like we did. God calls us like the magi to honor the baby that was born in the stable and the along with the children around and within us, while remembering that Christ’s message of hope and salvation is for all the world.
Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Sunday January 27th, 2019
By Linda Jackson
Let us love, and listen, and learn to be your hands in the world.
Please be seated.
When I was a kid, I was a nerdy bookworm. Braces, glasses, the whole bit. Which was fine with me, because In my family, reading and education were top priorities. I looked the part. Since I was the eldest, I wanted to--and got to work hard to--be able to be the first of the kids come to the dinner table and say, “I did it. I got into the college I wanted.” I really, really wanted to come into my own like that.
It didn’t quite happen that way.
I did get into my backup school—the closest UC campus to where we lived at the time, UC Santa Barbara. I probably would have gotten a great education there—they even had a junior year abroad, in Valencia, Spain, that I had already gotten my parents’ permission to do … but it wasn’t where I wanted to go. Their English Department—where I was going to learn to write better, and teach—wasn’t that campus’ strong suit—or so I thought. But the truth was, really, that it wasn’t far enough away from home for me to feel that that school experience was really going to be Mine.
And as a writer, where I had really wanted to finish my degree, ever since I was a kid and learned the history there, was Berkeley. The riots! The Beat poets! Allen Ginsberg! Northern Lights bookstore! I didn’t take the rejection letter from Berkeley well, because it wasn’t a rejection letter: It was an impersonal, “Sorry, we’re full.”
Three weeks before the start of Spring semester, I made some calls, got some different advice from my academic advisors at the Community College I was attending, and sent my packet of paperwork back in to Berkeley. Two weeks before the start of the semester, I got a different letter back.
It was the proudest moment of my teenage life. I got to the dinner table, letter in hand—I remember my sister grinning at me—to announce that I’d gotten in.
There was, however, a problem.
The relative who held our family’s money—and the check that was going to get me to where I needed to go—was having an alcoholic episode.
This relative calmly announced that the letter must be a fake, and that my moving to that school was not going to happen, and that was that. Time for dinner.
I remember being stunned.
I was used to navigating this dynamic in my family—we all were experts at managing around this addiction of a family member—but this time this affecting me in an entirely different way. This was THE REST OF MY LIFE!
I was 19 years old. I had no money of my own. And I needed to send in housing deposits, tuition deposits, right now. I needed to fill my tiny Nissan pickup and relocate myself 8 hours away less than two weeks’ time.
But despite this huge shock, and the family moving through the motions of a meal like nothing had happened, I knew that I was going to be OK.
I knew I was going to be OK because what I caught from the right side of the table was my mother’s calculating glance. I knew that instant that she had a Plan B. She didn’t share it then—but she made it happen. And I was at school in the dorms, bills paid, by orientation day.
It was my first adult experience of a rescue. Of feeling—literally—God scooping me up, and working through my mother to move this mess forward somehow, and make it right. All these years later, it is one of my strongest experiences of, what I soon came to learn over and over as time and life experiences went by: We all need a rescue.
It wasn’t just God in my mother—a strong a courageous woman—making this incredible opportunity happen for me—it was me knowing that my job was to accept it.
With the Government shutdown in full swing, this has been a few weeks of increasing need, of people who were hoping to not have to ask for help learning that they are going to have to ask for help—and accept it. God is in all sides of this conversation.
For these past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about people’s Plan Bs, and rescuing
We, as the various parts of the Body of Christ, we are his love and his hands in the world.
We are empowered to ask for, and give help. We are called to love our neighbours as ourselves.
And in these deeply polarized times I believe we are also called to look again and again at what that might look like.
Before the government shutdown, a statistic I often heard was that despite how hard most of us try to hide it, that 80% of people in this country live paycheck to paycheck. With the government shutdown—and its consequences—being so widely publicized—the employees, contractors, and all the business their working days support—are being hit hard. And I’m sure that 80% is rising higher and higher.
And with that, there is this new wave of empathy for what living without is like, for what a “Plan B” might look like.
It’s uncomfortable. And it’s beautiful.
Over these past few weeks, I’ve seen so many examples of what I began calling a kind of fierce kindness.
The restaurant owners who post to Facebook, saying, “Government workers affected by the shut down, bring your family in for a meal. You are welcome here, no questions asked.” The owner of my old yoga studio in Hillsboro sent out an email weeks ago, when this all started, that said, “Employees and contractors affected by this shutdown, you are my guest here, no questions asked.” That one really struck me—it’s not like his business is swimming in profit, it’s a beautiful, tiny, humble place. Fierce kindness.
I don’t think most of us are used to being welcome, no questions asked. And in the secular world we are trained since childhood to be afraid of strangers, afraid of accepting them, and helping them, no questions asked. And we struggle in the church world about how best to help those we don’t know. It’s so much easier to stay safe and not help at all.
I was walking to my new jobsite Thursday—I’m six blocks away from where I used to work, so, new coffee shop, new Street Roots vendor. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Street Roots is a weekly newspaper whose model is, “sell our paper, and you’re allowed to keep half of the proceeds for your expenses.”
When a vendor new to me named Adam asked if I’d buy one that morning, I felt embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t have any cash on me. Maybe tomorrow.”
He gave me a huge smile. “I’ve had a really good morning,” he said. “Here, take one.”
Fierce kindness. It totally took me by surprise.
I took the paper.
In all this chaos, such kindness happens. Such teaching happens.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus comes into his own as a great teacher.
“He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone …” it says.
“The Sprit of the Lord,” he said, “has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” [Luke 4]
That morning, Adam on the street corner, there, was my great teacher. He took me out of myself and taught me, in that quick conversation how to see things differently. To step into, “I have enough to give” without wanting anything in return. Agape love. And the rest of my Thursday was different.
How many things that we do reach further than we think?
And what does great teaching look like?
In our Psalm today,
“One day tells its tale to another
And one night imparts its knowledge to another
Although they have no words or language
And their voices are not heard
Their sound has gone out in all the lands
And their message to the end of the world.” [Ps. 19:1-2]
I hear this as, that day and night teach each other And pass along what they see nature—and us—do. Teaching and knowledge are more than words: They are actions. We have so many great teachers in many quiet ways. In this divisive time when so many of us are looking at Plan B, who are your great, quiet teachers?