Parlor Tricks

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One of the gifts of having two young children is that I end up watching television shows I might not otherwise watch.  Well, its a gift sometimes.  Our third go ’round of the Thundermans isn’t really a gift at this point.  Anyway, one of the shows we like to watch as a family is America’s Got Talent.  You probably know the premise, but it is basically a variety show in which acts of all kinds compete for a million dollar prize and a show in Las Vegas.  I think it is safe to say that our favorite acts in AGT are the close up magic acts.  What those people can do right in front of your eyes, and how it can be conveyed both to the judges, mere inches away, and in my living room thousands of miles and a DVR time-hop away, is nothing short of amazing.

As I re-read the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday, the well-worn story of Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana, I couldn’t help but wonder how quickly he would have gotten X’d off by Simon.

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In John’s Gospel, there are seven signs, or miracles, highlighted in Jesus’ ministry: 1) water into wine, 2) healing the boy in Capernaum, 3) healing the paralytic in Bethesda, 4) feeding the 5,000, 5) walking on water, 6) healing the man born blind, and 7) raising Lazarus from the dead.  When compared with the other six, this first sign of turning 180 gallons of water into the finest of wines seems like nothing more than a silly parlor trick.  It is the kind of close of magic that my daughters perform with a deck of cards and their ability to count to 10.

My severe eye-roll at this miracle notwithstanding, the response to it by the disciples is pretty astonishing.  Somehow, in the wave of his hand, turning water into wine, Jesus revealed his glory.  Despite the fact that it was not yet his time, and that like his baptism, it seems he only did it to make his mama happy, in this first sign, Jesus revealed to the world his glory – his magnificence, grace, and majesty – the same Greek word used to describe his Second Coming with “power and glory.”  Somehow, in John’s Gospel, by way of what I would deem to be a cheap trick, it seems Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God, and in so doing, his disciples came to believe in him.

That’s the funny thing about faith.  I doesn’t come to us all in the same way.  I might roll my eyes at the wedding miracle and prefer to look at Mark’s first miracle of healing a demoniac in Capernaum as more revelatory, but that’s me.  For others, this miracle of water turning into wine shows Jesus power of the nature, it affirms his status as the pre-existent Word from John’s prologue, and sets up the other six miracles that will follow.  No matter how we get to it, each of these signs are meant to point us to the truth that Jesus really is the Son of God.  Each, in its own unique way, shows us the authority given by the Father to the Son.  Each calls us to answer the question the disciples had to reckon in the middle of that wedding banquet.  Do you believe?

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When giftedness fails

Sunday’s New Testament lesson from 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 is a wildly underrated text, in my opinion.  Due to a weak understanding of the Holy Spirit in the Western Church, very few denominations, outside of those myopically focused on the gift of tongues, pay enough attention to the gifts of the spirit that are bestowed upon every believer in baptism.  Clergy across the spectrum scratch their heads and wonder where a good Treasurer, Sunday School Teacher, or Buildings and Grounds Chair might come from, ignoring the Scriptural reality that every baptized disciple of Jesus has special gifts, given by God, for the upbuilding of the Church.

I have probably taken close to a dozen spiritual gifts inventories over the years.  I’ve taught classes on spiritual gifts for more than 15 years.  I’ve prayed with folks who are struggling to understand where God is calling them.  In all those years, every time I even give a sniff at the idea of spiritual gifts, at the top of my list comes the gift of administration.  It, and a solid helping of hubris, are the reason I’ve never met a board meeting that I didn’t want to chair.  It is part of the reason that I felt called to parish ministry.  It is why I gain life from a good Excel spreadsheet.  And, it is how I keep my ministry from going off the rails and deep into a rabbit hole of administrivia.  Because of my ability to organize my life, I create the space to do those things I’m not as gifted in, like pastoral care, contemplative prayer practices, and the like.

So, it was with much chagrin that yesterday I realized that, of late, I have been failing to utilize my giftedness.  Instead of a nicely organized to-do list, my desk looks more like this cartoon.

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This CartoonChurch.com cartoon by Dave Walker originally appeared in the Church Times.

As a result, I can see where I’ve been less than effective and efficient in my ministry as head cheerleader and encourager here at Christ Church, Bowling Green.

I know that I’m not alone in falling into the occasional period of failed giftedness.  Each of us will experience those times when something else take priority, when we feel like we are running from one smoldering fire to the next, and when the things that give us life fall by the wayside.  All of a sudden, you look around and realize that the everything else of life has been sucking you dry, and you need to, if only for a moment or two, tap back into that gift, drink from the well of the Holy Spirit, and find refreshment and renewal.  The Tempter would tell you this need to use your gifts is selfish, but the truth of the matter is that these gifts are given, as Paul writes, “for the common good.”  When we don’t use them, it isn’t only to our detriment, but it can cause the wider church to miss its calling as the agent of God’s reconciling love.

Where are you gifted?  How is God calling you to use those gifts?  What gives you life?  Occasionally, we all need to ask ourselves these questions in order to ensure that each one of us is fulfilling our God-given role in the Kingdom.

Our Epiphany of the Spirit

Continuing on the Pray, Worship, Serve, Share theme from a few weeks ago, our vestry will gather this Saturday for a half-day retreat.  We will try to use these four gifts to God to model our time together while also looking to see how the elected leadership might help lift up these four practices in the congregation.  One of the ways we can get about this, in a healthy and effective way, is to find out which of these four areas has the strongest pull on our lives.  It is true that every Christian should be engaging in each of these four practices: praying daily, worshiping weekly, serving regularly, and sharing for the up-building of the Kingdom, each of us is also better suited for one over the rest.  Some find it easy to sit for an hour in contemplative prayer, while others find it easy to share the Good News with

In Sunday’s New Testament lesson, Paul calls these various skills and abilities, spiritual gifts.  Many are familiar with the idea of spiritual gifts, especially the miraculous ones that seem to cause fear, trepidation, and the occasional fit of envy like healing and speaking in tongues.  Paul’s list, at least the version found in 1 Corinthians, is fairly innocuous: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, and tongues and their interpretation; however it seems clear that there has been some struggle in the community regarding these gifts.  Paul seems to need to tell the Christians in Corinth that no gift is better than another and that nobody has all the gifts.  He is very clear in saying, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  Let’s break that down a bit.

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To each – that means everyone. Every. Single. Person. Has received gifts from the spirit.  No one should be excluded for what seems like a lack of spiritual gifts.

The manifestation of the Spirit – this one is interesting. Thanks to the Sermon Brainwave crew at WorkingPreacher.org, I know that the word translated as “manifestation” is from the same root as Epiphany.  It literally means that the Spirit discloses herself by way of the gifts.  Our using the gifts given to us in baptism is the means by which the epiphany of the Spirit happens in the world.  The flip side of that is that when we refuse our gifts, when we sit on our hands and don’t exercise our God given talents, then we are holding back the work of the Spirit in the world, which sounds awfully close to the unforgivable sin to me.

For the common good – These gifts aren’t given to make us famous (contra Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, etc.).  These gifts aren’t given to make us seem like better Christians (contra some Pentecostal teachings on tongues).  These gifts aren’t given to make us jealous, what seems to be a part of the struggle in Corinth.  No, these gifts are given for the common good to build the Kingdom of God.  When each of us is exercising our gifts, the Spirit is made manifest in the world, and the Kingdom of God comes one step closer to being on earth as it is in heaven.

The Extravagance of God

I received this birthday card from my parents this year.  That such a card exists is pretty amusing, that it came to me the week of Epiphany 2c, when we hear the story of Jesus turning water into wine, is downright awesome sauce.

We can debate the humor of this card in a post-Heather Cook Episcopal Church, but that isn’t really my point this morning.  Instead, what I find interesting in the story of Jesus’ first sign is how it points not only to the power of Jesus and solidifies his disciples understanding of who he is and what he has come to do, but that it also serves as a sacramental sign of the extravagance of God.

Preachers who have done their homework will know that wedding feasts in ancient Israel were serious affairs: often lasting days on end.  Jesus and his disciples have been enjoying the party when Mary (who goes unnamed in John’s Gospel) informs him that the wine has run out.  Having attended a few events where the line lasted longer than the food or drink, I’ve seen what kind of embarrassment this can be.  Nobody wants to be known as the party thrower who didn’t have enough to serve his guests.

At first, Jesus is reluctant to do anything.  “It’s not my time,” he says to his mother, but I suspect he’s thinking, “these powers aren’t for parlor tricks.  The Second Person of the Trinity didn’t come to do magic and keep people drunk.”  And yet, seemingly motivated by his mother’s faith in him, Jesus performs his first sign by turning upwards of 180 gallons of water into wine.  That’s roughly 908 and a half bottles of wine!  As if that wasn’t extravagant enough, Jesus didn’t turn the water into Charles Shaw’s Four Buck Chuck, but the best wine that the party goers had tasted all night.

Do you want to know how much God loves you?  908.5 bottles of the finest wine worth.  And then some.  The extravagant love of God is poured out as a never-ending stream.  In his first miracle, Jesus shows to lengths to which God will go to make that love known to us.  May you come to experience the over-flowing, over-whelming love of God.

 

Act as if…

Back when I was in college and the main motivating factor in my life was getting money and buying stuff (when I made my first million, I was going to buy a Mercedes with the vanity plate MILTKT) one of my favorite movies was Boiler Room.  This 2000 movie about the excesses of the tech bubble is very much NSFW, but it was the debaucherous days of the new millennium, and I was 20 years old.

Anyway, there is a scene in the movie when all the new sales agents are called in for a pep talk given by a senior broker played by Ben Affleck.  The five minute long, expletive heavy monologue covers everything from sales technique to Series 7 exam requirements to my favorite topic at the time, what kind of suit to buy.  I’ve always remembered that part of his rant for the line “Act as if.”  “Act as if you are the [expletive] president of this firm… Act as if, and to do that properly you have to at least look the part.”

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As we enter a very brief season after the Epiphany (I know, last Sunday was the First Sunday of the season, but the Baptism of our Lord is a Feast unto itself, so don’t bother me), we find out that Jesus’ disciples have been acting as if.  This Sunday, we’ll hear the ever familiar story of Jesus changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana.  I’ll deal with that story more later in the week, but for now, I’m interested in how it ends.

“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”  Did you catch that?  Jesus’ disciples believed in him after this first sign.  The verb is in the aorist tense, it is something that begins at a moment but lasts forever.  We can reasonably assume that the beginning moment of their belief is here, after the water is turned into fine wine.  Note what has already happened, however.  Half a chapter ago, John the Baptist saw Jesus, and told his disciples, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes a way the sin of the world.”  Andrew and the unnamed disciple of John the Baptist spent the day with him.  Peter was convinced by Andrew that Jesus is the Messiah.  Philip dropped everything when Jesus said “follow me” and though his friend Nathanael took some convincing, he declares Jesus the “Son of God” and the “King of Israel.”

These are the guys who join Jesus at the wedding feast.  They’ve already come to know him, already had most of their suspicions confirmed, and yet they still seem to need to “act as if” for a little while more.  It is only once they see him perform this great miracle that they truly come to believe.

All this to say that I get that faith in Jesus can be difficult.  Sometimes, it takes a while to really get it.  Sometimes, even for the most faithful disciples, there comes a time when doubt creeps in and we only manage to go through the motions for a while.  When those times come, I encourage you to “act as if.”  Continue to engage in the habits of faith.  God has not left you even when he feels far away, but it might take you a bit of time to find him again.  Stick with it.  Act as if, and you’ll find him again.