January 28, 2022
A Fifth Sunday
This is one of those months that includes a Fifth Sunday, and I always look toward doing something different and perhaps unique on such days. When I wrote my book about Fifth Sundays (information about it is available on the “Books” tab, if you aren’t aware of it), I spoke of such Sundays being an opportunity through which to introduce changes to worship in a non-threatening way, since everything could go back to normal the following Sunday. At this point, my congregation is open to changes on any Sunday, since we used Fifth Sundays well in the past, but I still like to take advantage of the extra Sunday to encourage further exploration.
As I plan for this Sunday, I am hoping to explore the theme of how people often long for past times, remembering them as being better times, or desire future times that they imagine will be better than the present. But, in truth, what we have is the present, and therefore we need to discover the blessing and the joy of these moments.
There is a Woody Allen movie entitled, “Midnight in Paris,” that explores this theme. A guy named Gil, played by Owen Wilson, is a Hollywood screenwriter and aspiring novelist who longs to connect with the Paris of the 1920s. One night he is transported to the 1920s, and this happens on several successive nights, and through this he meets such people as Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and more. He also meets a young woman who entrances him, but she is Picasso’s mistress. Well, as time moves on, she and Pablo part, and Gil imagines that he might now be in a relationship with her. Yet, one night, as they are together, they are suddenly no longer in the 1920s, but in the 1890s, and this is the time frame she is entranced by. Gil thinks the 1920s are so great, but she loves the 1890s, and the people in the 1890s long for the golden age of the Renaissance. And, now here’s the spoiler alert, but…well…this movie came out ten years ago, so if you haven’t seen it yet then I won’t worry about spoiling it…so, Gil starts to drift into reflection, and realizes that while every age may long for a previous time, that they are missing the point, as he has been missing the point, about the power of the present moment, about living in the present.
Well, there is a lot more to the movie, and I suggest it as a fun and interesting one, but I will leave my synopsis at that. But this movie got me to thinking about how the Bible addresses similar themes. There are the Hebrews, who as they are on their way out of Egypt, when faced with challenges, long to return to Egypt and the relative security of their slavery. There are those people whom John and Jesus address, seeking to free them from the past, that they might flourish in the present and move into the future.
Then, there are people like us, who sometimes long for the past, or yearn for the future. And so, I want to ask people in my congregation to name times that they perhaps long for, and also to identify things in the present for which they are thankful. I will either use this information to create a couple of readings, or perhaps to create two PowerPoint presentations for use in the worship gathering. In either case, I am involving people in the planning process, and also inviting them to experience the theme in more ways than just through the morning message. I am anxious to see how it will all go.
January 21, 2022
The Wedding at Cana
The story of the wedding at Cana, and Jesus’ changing of the water into wine, is one of my favorite Gospel stories, in part because it is such a rich source of images, symbols and messages.
I find it fascinating to note the ways in which artists depict this story. Two of my favorite paintings of this scene are, “Marriage at Cana,” by Jan Steen, from 1676, and “The Marriage at Cana,” by The Master of the Retable of the Reyes Catolicos, from the late 15th century. The details of each are different, but their portrayals of the story provide insights that we might miss if we only read the story, which is a fairly familiar one at that.
While it is fairly easy to identify the participants in the scenes, it is fascinating to note their placement, and the expressions on people’s faces and the actions they are embodying. Taking the two works I have mentioned, both of them show people dressed in the garb of the artist’s time, and, both of them depict Jesus in a somewhat minor way.
Such a portrayal of Jesus would seem to be neglectful of the text. After all, as John tells us at the end of the story, this was the first of Jesus’ miraculous signs. That’s a big thing, wouldn’t you say. And yet, in one of these paintings we have to search a little for Jesus, for he is a ways from the main action at the front and center of the painting, and in the other painting Jesus is in the front, but to the side, and one’s attention is really drawn either to the wedding couple or to the steward of the banquet. Now why would the artists make such choices?
If we look carefully at the text, Jesus himself tries to make as little of his presence as possible. It is Mary who sort of forces his hand. But these artists, in their careful reading of the text, and their attention to detail, show us his reluctance to intervene, and his respect for the joy of the wedding celebration itself. It is then the more notable that when he does come forward, it is to provide fine wine in order for the celebration to continue. Even in this, the first of his miracles, his attention is on how he can impact the lives of others. These artists help us to see beyond the spectacular, beyond the miracle, to a sense of the essence of Jesus. They provide us with a gift in this way.
January 14, 2022
The Book of Revelation
Our church Bible study group has been delving into the books of Daniel and Revelation for some time now. These are books which are fascinating, confusing, and often used in ways that are not as helpful as they could be.
When group members asked to study the book of Revelation, I suggested that we first study the book of Daniel, for two reasons. The first is that Daniel, because it is focused first upon story, gives an easier introduction to the genre of Apocalyptic literature. The second reason is that some of the images and timeframes of Daniel are also employed by the author of Revelation. As we moved finally into Revelation, people expressed an appreciation for having taken the time to work our way through Daniel first.
Revelation is of course filled not only with strange events, but also with remarkable images. It was during my first quarter of seminary that one of the professors directed a play about the book of Revelation. Not being too familiar with Revelation at the time, I was nonetheless astonished by the visual presentation of the story that Revelation tells. The vividness of those images stuck with me.
There are of course many works of art that depict the artists’ views of what John describes in his writing. I think that these are fascinating, and they are helpful to a point. I say that because most of the images in Revelation are not meant to be taken literally, but are rather attempts to create visual symbols of the reality that John is trying to communicate. In truth, most experiences of the spirit are really beyond description.
This is where we tend to see a divergence of opinions as to the import of the book. For those who take the images literally, which is certainly a valid approach, and who equate the timeframes mentioned with specific events, they settle into an interpretation that is focused on how and when all of these events will manifest themselves. This approach has fascinated people in every century since the book was written.
For me, the greater impact of the book, which I don’t take literally (after all, even Jesus said that we would never know when such events might take place), is the message of perseverance to the persecuted, of hope for those who struggle amidst the powers of the world, of the promise that even though the body may die, we will be together with God forever. The central message for me is that God will be with us, walk with us, care for us, always, and that nothing in life can finally separate us from God.
January 7, 2022
The Power of Rituals
The Sunday after Christmas is usually one of those days in the life of churches when attendance hits a low point. This year, with that Sunday being the day after Christmas, meant that it was set up to be especially challenging. And, in fact, I heard that one of the churches near ours, a vibrant church with faithful members, had a total attendance of eight people on that day, including the pastor. It tends to just be one of those Sundays.
In our case, however, we celebrated a baptism on the 26th, a date chosen by the person who came to be baptized. That being the case, there were actually the usual number of people present in the church itself, plus a few others who came especially to be present for the baptism, in addition to those who tune in through Zoom. It was a testament to the love for the person who was baptized, as well as to the power of ritual to engage us in special ways.
Whether it is baptism, a child dedication, first communion, or other significant markers in a person’s spiritual journey, these are occasions which evoke both a desire to support and celebrate those engaging in the rituals, as well as an opportunity to reflect back upon the significance of similar experiences in people’s lives in years past.
In our Disciples of Christ tradition, we celebrate communion at every worship gathering. While some might think that such a practice would make it less important to people than for those in churches who observe the Lord’s Supper monthly or quarterly, it is actually the opposite for us. We not only offer communion at each gathering, we make it the central act in our worship experiences. Yes, people certainly come to hear the sermons, to sing the songs, to pray, but the experience of taking communion, that personal encounter with the invitation of Jesus to come and break bread, is the experience that everything else points toward.
The word “ritual” sometimes takes on a negative connotation, implying for people that it is something done without much thought, as though it is routine and therefore of less importance. And, of course, rituals can become something less than moving for us. But if we take them seriously, if our words of preparation for them are fresh and personal, if we come to those rituals with our whole being, then rituals serve to touch our spirits at deep places within us.
I have done many baptisms over the years, but the experience of going into the water with each individual, the privilege of sharing in that special moment of their lives, means that the power of the ritual is never lost on me. And apparently it wasn’t lost on those too who came to share in that experience on the Sunday after Christmas.
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