I See You: Sermon by Laura, 1.19.14 Epiphany 2A

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 49:1-7, John 1:29-42

To get us in the spirit of this morning’s gospel reading, we’re going to try out a greeting I recently heard about,one that comes to us from the Zulu people of South Africa. Say you are coming down a road or a hallway, and you encounter someone; you say, Sawubona, which means “I see you.” One might respond to this greeting with the word Ngikhona, which means “I am here.”[i] Here’s what it might look like—we’ll use the English. (Ask Lay Leader to help me demonstrate). Got it? Now, please try this greeting exchange with some folks nearbyturn to someone, look them in the eye, and say, “I see you.” And if someone says it to you, you respond, “I am here.” Please use no other words, and try to say the words slowly, with a sense of intention. Pay attention to how they make you feel. Got your assignment? Okay, Go! …

So, what was that like for you? How simple the words of the greeting seem on the surface, yet how deeply moving they can be!

Author Robert Holden suggests four aspects that make this greeting powerful. First, there is the eye contact, which establishes connection. “Eye contact is akin to soul contact,” Holden writes. Second, “I see you” conveys more than a bland hello. It tells the other that you notice them, that you recognize and honor their unique presence. “I see you” affirms that you exist, you are equal to me, and you are worthy of my respect. Third, “I am here” is an acceptance that you have been seen and honored, just as you are in this moment, as well as an affirmation that you are willing to be present to the other person.

Holden notes that this greeting represents the Zulu way of ubuntu, of “humanity toward all.” He writes, “To practice ubuntu is to help your brothers and sistersremember their true identity, recognize their true value, and participate fully. Ubuntu teaches that our purpose is to be a true friend to one another.”[ii]

In our scripture today, there is an interchange that is both as simple and as profound as this Zulu greeting. The story begins with John the Baptist, pointing at Jesus. Interestingly, we don’t see him baptize Jesus in this gospel; we only get his second-hand testimony proclaiming Jesus’ identity: Jesus is the Lamb of God, God’s Son, here among us to baptize with the Holy Spirit.

Two disciples who hear John’s testimony follow Jesus. Jesus turns toward them and sees them. I imagine him looking carefully into their eyes, like we just did with the Zulu greeting. “I see you,” his actions tell them. And then he asks them, “What are you looking for?”

In typical Fourth Gospel fashion, simple words carry fathomless meaning below the surface.  The obvious response to Jesus’ question might have gone something like this, “Well, what do you think? We are looking for you! We just heard John the Baptist talking about you, and we want to see for ourselves.”  But even as the obvious is ringing out, my mind imagines Jesus repeating the question: “Yes, and what are you looking for?”

“Well okay, we are looking for the Messiah, God’s Anointed, promised to us for so long.”

“Yes, and what are you looking for?”

“(Deep sigh) Oh, Jesus, sometimes it seems like God is absent. There are so many places of hurt and hunger in our world. We want signs, that God is alive among us, really active and really doing things.”

“Yes. And what are you looking for?”

What sounds like a simple question, seeking basic information, invites the disciples to really discern their intentions, and even further, to ponder seeing in itself. For there is looking, and there is looking. There is the sequence of iris and pupil, optic nerve and brain receptors, and there is the inner call and response of the Holy Spirit, alerting us to God’s presence in our midst.

Systematic theologians call these two kinds of seeing general and special revelation. The first kind of seeing shows us the grandeur of the mountains, what one author calls our “brutiful” world (beautiful and brutal).[iii] “There must be a God,” we might say, as we try to take in the unfathomable intricacies of creation. The experience of awe and wonder is often the beginning of faith.

But God created us for more than wondering awareness. God created us for relationship. The God who created the cosmos, the God whose being is utterly beyond human comprehension and imagination, desires to be known to us and enter into a relationship with us. So God “comes down” to our reality and is revealed to us in a specific person, a specific human being, a man who is born and lives and dies and is raised again at a specific moment in history.

That’s what we celebrated at Christmas: in Jesus Christ, the unknowable God comes down to us, to be with and for us right here in our earthly reality. There is an amazing moment of recognition, when we go with the shepherds and wise men to the manger, to see with our own eyes the One of whose birth the angel chorus sings. It is a dazzling moment of special revelation.

But our faith is full of paradoxes. And even as God “comes down” to be with us, the unknowable fullness of God must necessarily become “hidden” in our earthly, worldly reality.[iv] God is revealed and concealed at the same time! Many who gaze on that baby in the manger see just that—a baby in a manger.

For us Christians, sometime the trouble begins when Christmas is over, and the shimmer and shine are put away for another year. There can be a flatness that comes upon us, and we may begin to doubt previous perceptions. Was God really there? Where is God now that we’ve returned to ordinary days?

It takes a special kind of “seeing” to perceive God’s presence, hidden in, with, and under seemingly ordinary people and things, and it does not come ‘naturally’ to us. It is a gift of grace. John the Baptist points this out repeatedly. Jesus’ identity as God’s Son was by no means immediately obvious. “I myself did not know him,” he says, even as he goes on to tell us how he comes to see.

John recognizes Jesus, not by spiritual extra-sensory perception, but because the God who sent him to baptize with water showed him the Spirit like a dove remaining on Jesus. Only then could John fulfill his calling and reveal Jesus the Christ to Israel. And then John’s testimony itself becomes a gift of special revelation for the disciples who hear it.   The disciples may have seen Jesus with their eyes before, but John’s testimony wakes up them up to look again. So they look, and this time, they begin to see Jesus, not only with their eyes but also with their hearts. They begin to recognize they are encountering a Person unlike any other they’ve ever met.

But I’ve always it odd how they respond to Jesus’ question. “What are you looking for,” he asks, and they reply, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” It sounds like they want basic information, an address; Jesus could give them a business card and be done. But we know now to look for another layer of meaning.

And indeed, the verb meno, here translated “staying,” is a key-word in the gospel of John. In John 15:4, this word is translated “abide,” as in “Abide in me as I abide in you.” One author explains this word “refers to the source of one’s life and meaning…[T]hese two disciples…are asking, “What is it that sustains you? What power do you have?  Where do you remain?  Where do you live?  How do you live?  Who are you really?”[v]

So it turns out, the two disciples are actually onto something. They recognize that a brief look at Jesus will not be enough. To perceive and receive the revelation of God in Jesus Christ requires “staying power,” a lifetime of tarrying, abiding, and dwelling with Christ where he’s found.

For his part, when Jesus looks so carefully at them, I think he sees these men are seeking more than fact-sheets or formulas; they long for a dwelling place, a home, a whole way of life. So Jesus gives them a wonderful invitation: “Come and see.” And the gospel of John tells us, “They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.”

My friends, this is what discipleship is all about. By a gift of grace, we catch a glimpse of the Living God present in our very midst, a Person who greets us, sees us face-to-face, invites us into a relationship.

“I see you,” says God in Jesus Christ. “I see what you are looking for. I see the longings of your heart, your deepest hopes and fears, you frustrations and anxiety, your broken heart.  Come and see where I dwell, come and stay with me, that you may find what you seek.”

How will we respond to Christ’s invitation? He is longing to hear our reply: “I am here. I will come and see, I will stay with you, and I will learn to look ever deeper into the hidden places and faces of this world, seeing anew with the eyes of a graced and gracious heart.” May we notice the Living God active and alive in our midst, and may we share what we see with all those in need of a good Word, inviting each one to the transforming life in Jesus Christ: Come and see.  Amen.

P.S. The blessing I used as a benediction can be found here.
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“Drinking In God’s Delight”: Sermon by Laura, Epiphany 3C,1.20.13

 

Texts: John 2:1-11, Isaiah 62:1-4, Psalm 36: 5-10

 

Today we are invited to a wedding with Jesus. The archetypical wedding of my imagination has a bride in a white, flowing dress, her groom anticipating her walk down the aisle. But let me tell you, the attire they are wearing would never do in the weather we’ve been having this January! In my mind, weddings are warm events, meant for the season when the earth’s creative possibilities come into growth, movement, and flow.   And so, trying to get myself to the wedding of Cana in the coldest cold snap I’ve experienced lately has been a stretch. This story seems to clash with the season of winter, when all life seems to be covered over with a snowy shroud.

 

But winter freezes can take hold inside of us whatever the weather outside. There have been times when my walk of faith has felt like a cold, hard, and icy path, my steps paralyzed by the fear and anxiety of falling. Have you ever felt that way?

 

Communities can get stuck in winter woes as well. Now, forgive me for bringing up that tired quip that we Presbyterians are God’s “frozen chosen.” But it has been my experience that those who are drawn to our worship and polity might be just a teeny-tiny bit more interested in orderly conduct and self-control than, say, our charismatic brothers and sisters. We tend to be capable people of careful judgment, but we can get pretty caught up in trying to properly manage what we perceive to be the “the right thing.” Sometimes we lose our awareness of the joyous delight of the presence of that uncontrollable Spirit of God, as we knuckle down to carry the serious and burdensome duties of proper faith.

 

So maybe a little summer in winter is just what we all need. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to the word “delight” in today’s readings. We heard it first in Isaiah. Picking up on the biblical tradition which imagines the covenant relationship between God and God’s people as a marriage, Isaiah encourages a weary community, returning to the land of promise after years of captivity and exile in Babylon. Promising restoration, God says, “You shall no more be named Forsaken, and your land shall no more be named Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.” Isaiah’s words are like a renewal of wedding vows, for a new chapter in the covenant relationship.

 

The lectionary sets Isaiah next to Psalm 36, where beautiful imagery helps us envision such a “married life.” God’s steadfast love gives the people refuge; and even more, extravagant hospitality, in which the people feast on abundance and drink from the river of God’s delights. “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light,” says the Psalmist.

 

“I love the word ‘delight,’ with light embedded in it,” writes MaryAnn McKibben Dana, in Sabbath in the Suburbs. “Deeeee-light. Your mouth may decide to rebel and say “Deeeee-licious,’ and that would be all right, too. Or you can morph it into an adjective and say…‘delightful.’ Delight-full. Full, saturated, plump with goodness and joy.”[1]Adding to this wordplay, I’d note the lightness of delight. Delight is light, like a summer’s breeze, an effervescent gift lifting heavy spirits.

 

Now, the word “delight” does not appear in the Cana wedding story. But guests who have drunk up all the wine must surely feel delightful! Even Jesus seems reluctant to leave the festivities when his mother comes to him with the problem that threatens to disrupt the joyous occasion. Though he initially protests, Mary tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you,” and Jesus gives instructions. Seeing some large water jars, Jesus says, “Fill the jars with water.” The servants fill them to the brim. Following further direction, they bring a taste of the jars’ contents to the chief steward, and is it discovered that the water has miraculously become wine.

 

Some of you, people of excellent, scientific minds, struggle with this story because you can’t quite buy the miracle of water turning into wine. I hope you can set that aside for just a minute and hear the story in a deeper way. Beyond “fact,” the details of this story are symbols, pointing beyond themselves to spiritual truth.

 

Those stone jars were not just any old containers for water—they were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification. That water they held would have been used for the ritual hand-washing before eating that faithful Jews practiced. Maybe the party-ers had already used up the water, but their emptiness is also symbolic.

 

But wine soon fills those pots. In the biblical tradition, wine is a symbol of prosperity, abundance, and good times. In the Old Testament, the flowing of new wine is a sign of the ‘joyous arrival of God’s new age.’[2] So when John says that the wine is the first sign revealing Jesus’ glory, he is telling us that Jesus is much more than a miracle worker doing liquid alchemy. Jesus is the Messiah who ushers in God’s new age. One scholar writes, “…the old religion lacks hospitality and vigor. The six ritual pots of water signify the old order. Jesus, however, provides overflowing vats of wine that never run dry.”[3]

 

Now, this is where I want us to stop and take inventory: if the Cana wedding wine symbolizes all the “good stuff” we can experience in covenant relationship with God—vitality, vigor, the abundantly and extravagantly deee-licious and deeee-lightful new life in Christ—what do your wine cellars look like? Are they full or empty? Is there enough to sample regularly, even more than enough so that you feel free to share? Or maybe it seems that the wine has all run out, and the party is almost over. Maybe you’re trying to carefully steward the few drops left to avoid a party disaster.

 

We don’t hear much about him until later, but the chief steward at that wedding must have been panicked perceiving the lack of good stuff to go around. All the delights of the wedding faded for him in his responsibility for keeping the party going in a world of lack. He must have felt frozen, unable to imagine a way to avert a disaster.

 

Then, out of nowhere, the servants show up with new wine, better than any that’s been previously served. The irony is that the steward has no idea where it has come from. In his fear of lack, he all-but-misses the sign which reveals the extravagant abundance of God in Jesus Christ.

 

As a congregation, it seems to me that we can identify with the steward in this story. Over the years, we have been blessed with a great measure of good stuff, for the saints of this church have given generously. You have worked hard to steward well the buildings, budgets, and programs entrusted to you. It is right to want to use those gifts well.

 

But now we face a world of rapid changes and monstrous needs. It is a time when scarcity seems to press anxiously upon us. The good stuff, whether it be money, time, talent, or simply the energy to take a measure of responsibility for our part in the work of Christ’s in-breaking kingdom, sometimes seem to be used up to the last drops.  It is so difficult to figure out how to do the “right thing” that we can freeze up while we discern the best uses of God’s joyous gifts. Bound up in our concerns, have we forgotten that the extravagant abundance of new life God give is constantly overflowing in Jesus Christ?

 

Now, if you were read along with me in John 2, you might have noticed a curious little parenthetical note. “When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, mand did not know where it came from, (though the servants who had drawn the water knew)…”I wonder if there’s a cue here for us to follow in enjoying the delights of life in Jesus Christ.

 

What the steward could not imagine, the servants witnessed first-hand. What they do is pretty simple. They hear and carry out Jesus’ instructions: “Fill the jars with water.” At the same it was probably hard work. 20 to 30 gallon stone jars would be heavy when they are empty! To carry and fill them required teamwork. And it seems to me the servants were enthusiastic, maybe anticipating what Jesus might do: they didn’t fill the jars halfway—we’re told they filled those jars to the brim! The text doesn’t say it, but that curious note might hint that those servants found delight in knowing they had participated with Jesus in a miracle.

 

Friends, Jesus wants to give you just such delight. There is certainly a place for careful stewarding; but maybe this story is inviting us to the joy of servants close to the source who know first-hand where the good stuff comes from, as we listen and follow the direction of our Lord. Servants who are a little closer to ground level, aware of the deep needs of the people in our neighborhoods, who present those needs to Jesus and do just what he tells us.

 

Fill the jars with water. It might the water of our sweat, and even sometimes, our tears. In the mystery of the Spirit, in the miracle of grace, Jesus makes it become wine, overflowing, which cannot be hoarded but only shared to a world, so desperately longing for the good stuff, so deeply desiring to drink in the delights only God offers. We get to participate and delight in that miracle of transformation. Amen.


[1] MaryAnn McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs.St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2012, 31.

[2] Gail O’Day, quoted in Ernest Hess, Homiletical Perspective, Feasting on the Word, 265.

[3] Linda McKinnish Bridges, Exegetical Perspective on John 2:1-11, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol.1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, 263.