Sunday, January 17, 2016

God of Change and Transformation

(A sermon for the people of Christ Lutheran Church in Prattville, Alabama)

It’s good to be back with you.  Most of you know that I spent the last 10 days in St. Paul, Minnesota, attending class at Luther Seminary.  It is supremely cold in St. Paul. -12 with a “real feel” of -33 when I checked this morning.  Brr!
I love going to campus.  Much of the time, I attend coursework online, which is a blessing.  I wouldn’t be able to make school happen otherwise.  But being present and in person for a couple of weeks at a time feeds my relationships with classmates, fuels my relationships with faculty and staff, and rejuvenates my faith.  It’s the toughest, working hard-est “vacation” ever.  At school we attend lectures for hours, read more than one would think humanly possible, and write more words than I ever think I could possibly pull from my brain.  We worship daily, attend informal lectures by faculty during our “downtime” at venues off campus in events called “Pubs and Profs”, and are exposed to a variety of opportunities for interacting with a purpose, and we get up in the mornings and do it all over again.  They don’t call them “intensives” for nothing.
But normally, the best, most life-giving time at school happens in the dorms after hours in a time of holy recreation, when we can gather with our friends and classmates and sing folk songs, or dye psyanky eggs, or play a card game, or enjoy a glass of wine and the pleasure of one another’s conversation as we share our deepest joys and lamentations.  After all the events of the day are past, we gather together, folks from different communities, different economic backgrounds, different nations, and different races to dwell in the best time of the whole day.  We save the best for last…and though it may look like nothing special is happening, this is, arguably, the most important time of the whole seminary experience.
This is the time when stories are shared, when we can talk with one another about our prides and our pleasures and our successes, our hurts and our wounds and our shortcomings….about the ways we’ve damaged ourselves or others.  In other words, it is a time of communion with our brothers and sisters with whom we are bound through baptism into the body of Christ.  A time when relationships are strengthened, when lives are changed as we bear witness to the power of God to change us.  A time to welcome God into our midst and to ask God to make something new of us.  To extend to us through the relationships in that place grace upon grace.
The gospel lesson today takes us to the very first public act of Jesus’s ministry in the Gospel according to St. John.  Mary has been invited to a wedding, another place of holy rejoicing and recreation…and since Jesus and the disciples are in town, they are invited along, too.  And it is here that Jesus performs his first act as a public leader, some of the gospels would call this a “miracle”.  But the gospel writer calls it a “sign”.  This is significant, because John does everything deliberately, with great purpose, and so to call these kinds of incredible doings of Jesus “signs” rather than “miracles” means something.  A miracle might suggest divinity and call attention to the person of Jesus, but a sign points to something in particular.  And so as we read or listen to this story, we have to pay attention to what the sign is pointing as Jesus points away from himself and toward something else.
As we read through the gospels, we see more and more stories of Jesus doing something really cool, more miracles and more signs, and in each other instance, the sign seems to be for a purpose.  But in the wedding text, there seems to be no discernable purpose.  We can wrap our heads around feeding the hungry as in the loaves and fishes or showing a particular object lesson to a doubting disciple…but here, what is the lesson?  What is the point?  A lesson on wine distribution?  A lesson on grocery shopping?  Jesus as party planner?  “Always buy more than you think you’ll need…don’t want that party to end on a downer”
Nah.  The overarching theme of John’s gospel is the “dawning of a new age.  To John, the coming of Jesus as the Messiah has changed the world from what it used to be into something totally new and different.”[1]  And the overarching theme of this story is the illustration of “grace upon grace” as Jesus saves this couple and their families from certain social casting out (a serious deal in that time when livelihood depended on the support of the family and of the neighbor).  Jesus provides wine which will save them from ostracizing by providing that which they need beyond “enough” into “abundance”.
What is our water that Jesus has come to turn into wine?  Where is God fully present in abundance in ways we don’t deserve or understand?  What system or old way of thinking is Jesus changing from what it used to be into something totally different?  Or is Jesus changing us from “enough” into “abundance”?
One the classes I took this intensive is called “Dismantling Racism”.  With seminary students, faculty, 60’s era civil rights leaders, and elders in the Black Lives Matter movement, in this course we learned from and with one another and were confronted with not only the history of racial division in this country, but also its continuity…as racism has changed over time to become less overt.  Less individual prejudice (though, as any person of color in this country will tell you, those prejudices still exist) and more about systemic or structural racism.  The ways in which people of color are still oppressed in the country by virtue of the color of their skin.  The ways in which white America still holds the power in this nation.  The ways in which that death grip on power by people who look an awful lot like me is actually still a death grip around the necks of our Black and Brown brothers and sisters. 
Blacks are still a significant racial minority in this country, yet nearly 50% of the prison population is composed of Black bodies. 
Black and Brown actors are still not celebrated (or even recognized much) in Hollywood.  The Oscar nominations are overwhelmingly white this year…even though the Black film “Straight Outta Compton” has been nominated for Academy Awards, the only nominees for that film are the white screenwriters.
If you are Black or Brown in the United States, you are less likely to be granted a loan, a scholarship, or a rental agreement for an apartment.  You are less likely to be given a job.  You are more likely to be killed by the police, the very folks who are supposed to “serve and protect” you.
White supremacy, or the belief consciously or unconsciously, that white folks are better, smarter, prettier, more polite, less brutal or impulsive, shows up even in our art and our depictions of God.  We know that Jesus was a person of color, and yet our imagery of him in this country is overwhelmingly white.  What does that say to a Black person?  What does that say to a Brown person?  Heck, what does that say to a white person?  That God identifies with the racial majority?  That blue eyes are Godly?  That in the eyes of our God my life is worth more than my neighbor’s?
And we don’t have to look too far to visually see the division.  How many people of color are present in this space?  Why do you think that is?
Not too long ago in this nation’s history, racial division and white oppression were the law of the land.  Nowhere did this play out more than here in the South.  We host the site(s) of over 4,000 lynchings[2] in this nation.  The Montgomery Slave Market is just minutes from where we are sitting.  The site of the first Confederate white house is just down the road.  Even Prattville High School, here in town and constructed in 1976, bears the name of George Wallace, governor of this state who famously said, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever[3].  And what is more treacherous than his legacy inscribed in stone is the fact that we do not talk about it.  Every kid who walks through the front doors of that building is taught a lesson of acceptance of the ways things were and the way things are by our lack of conversation about all of this. 
It is far easier and much more comfortable for us white folks to say, “that was a long time ago,” than it is for us to relive our national shame or for us to admit that we are still benefitting from a system designed to lift us up and to push down those who don’t “look like us”.
But as Martin Luther King, Jr. would remind us, “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  I don’t know about you, but I want to LIVE.  And I believe with my whole heart that God wants us, all of us, to live, too.
Hear the good news:  God is a god of change and renewal and grace upon grace.
By God’s mercy and grace we are able to change ourselves, our language, and our systems.  We invited to become the wine and to point beyond ourselves to the dawning of a new age.  An age where all people are equally valued and beloved not just by God but by all of society, and I believe that we are called to public ministry, to work in this direction until that day comes.
Soon, beloved, we will be hosting a conversation on racism with the goal of working toward dismantling it in this place.  I urge you to come.  This will not be a time of shaming or a time for wallowing in guilt for the way things were or even for the way things are.  This will be an opportunity to share with one another and with those whom we encounter how a system of racism and white supremacy has damaged all of us and what we can do about it.  To share our hurts and sorrows and joys and stories of redemption.  To welcome God to immerse Godself into our midst and to make something new of us.  To extend to us through the relationships in this place grace upon grace upon grace.  This conversation will give us new ways to speak with one another. And we will invite others in the community to join us here as we do this work. 
And we are not doing this all alone.  On Thursday night, Bishop Eaton and others hosted a “Confronting Racism” podcast in which we have all been invited to engage the work of confronting and dismantling racism.  Our national church body is being called to work together for the sake of our Black and Brown brothers and sisters…and thereby for our own sakes as well.
This Monday we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King.  And I can think of no better way to honor him and the life he lived for Jesus and for his and our brothers and sisters than by committing to continue the work he began just down the road in Montgomery, Alabama.  We have been freed by a God of abundant grace and called to extend that grace and relationship to our neighbors.  We are called to walk together and to cry out for justice for the whole world.  And we do not do this alone.  We walk together.  And Jesus walks with us along this pilgrim journey toward the dawn of a new day.  Transforming us from water into wine.


[1] Lectionary Lab
[3] Wikipedia