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Archive for January, 2010

Reluctant Prophets

Michelangelo's JeremiahIn considering the text for this Sunday (Jeremiah 1: 4-10) I wondered to myself, “Why are prophets so reluctant?”

Well, perhaps it’s the big scary job description.  Here God tells Jeremiah that his job will be to “to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Who wouldn’t feel intimidated by such a job?

Perhaps prophets are also reluctant because so few are willing to travel down that prophetic road with them.  More than once I have heard a pastor tell me that God has never called upon them to preach a prophetic word….that he or she has been called to be “pastoral” not “prophetic.”  Wow!  I am always struck by such statements.  Because if we pastors are not willing to proclaim God’s prophetic Word how can we expect others to do so?  It can’t always be someone else’s calling to be the prophet.

I believe the root of the reluctance, though, stems from our feelings of insecurity and inadequacy.  “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy,” says Jeremiah.  To this excuse we probably would want to add:

I just don’t know enough, I’m not educated enough for this task.

I don’t have the time or the energy right now.

There are more qualified people to ask.

And perhaps the biggest, most honest excuse…I’m afraid, afraid, afraid.

But in spite of our reluctance, our excuses, our feelings of inadequacy, God still calls us, all of us, to a prophetic ministry in some way shape or form.  It’s okay to be reluctant.  That’s just honest.  It’s not okay, though, to allow our reluctance to rule our life of faith.

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Haiti and Jesus’ Mission Statement

The Spirit led me to a lot of learning this week.  This sermon is a result of that learning.  I am grateful for the writing of Julie Clawson, through her blog at http://julieclawson.com/ and her book Everyday Justice, that greatly resourced my studies this week.

“A Poverty Story”

Luke 4: 14-21

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

January 24th, 2010

It took an earthquake that killed approximately 50,000 people for me to turn my attention to Haiti.  Lost in the midst of sick children, pressing church needs, and stacks and stacks of laundry, I was completely unaware of what was happening outside of Moore County, let alone Haiti.  This earthquake woke me up, though.  It woke me up and led me to today’s sermon.

I read an unsettling editorial in the New York Times last Friday and its words have been haunting me all week.  Last Friday David Brooks wrote, “On October 17, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck the Bay Area in Northern California.  Sixty-three people were killed.  This week, a major earthquake, also measuring a magnitude of 7.0, struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died.  This is not a natural disaster story.  This is a poverty story.”[1]

This is not a natural disaster story.  This is a poverty story.  Wow.  Those words really hit me this week.  Then, adding to my international wake-up call, this week’s gospel text from Luke seemed to whisper Haiti’s story between every line.

In today’s text Luke has Jesus begin his public ministry with a quick, yet meaningful trip to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.  During worship Jesus volunteers to do a reading and asks for the scroll of Isaiah.  Then in front of all those folks who know him best as “Joseph’s little boy” Jesus begins to read,  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” After reading these words, Jesus then, very matter-of-factly, rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the attendant, sits down, and then confidently declares, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The people are shocked and amazed.  They can do nothing else but stare at Jesus during what must have been a very long and awkward pause in the middle of worship.

Luke rearranges the events of Mark’s gospel in order to place this synagogue scene at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  Luke does this because, for him, the words Jesus chooses to read here from the prophet Isaiah best represent the core of Jesus’ mission and ministry.  This is Jesus’ mission statement, if you will.  And so Luke wants it to be front and center.

And just what is Jesus’ mission?  In this text we are reminded that Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, to release the captives, to open the eyes of the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

This is not a natural disaster story, wrote David Brooks.  This is a poverty story.  So with these words, as well as Jesus’ mission statement rolling around in my head, I decided I needed to learn more about Haiti.  I decided I needed to learn more about Haiti because while many of us have been asking “Why, God?” in the midst of this terrible tragedy, I realized that a more appropriate question is, “Why is Haiti so poor?” Why didn’t Haiti have the infrastructure or the public services that could have saved thousands of lives?  Why is Haiti’s land stripped of all its trees?  Why are Haiti’s people so hungry that they eat mud to survive?  Why is Haiti so poor?

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I realize now that these are pretty scary questions to ask.  They are scary because once I started delving into Haiti’s history I came to realize that this country is so poor because it has been so abused, so terrorized, so enslaved, so oppressed, and so neglected by the rest of the world.  Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.  Its people have suffered terribly from colonization and mass killings by the Spanish, by decades of slavery and brutal oppression by the French, by years of political instability, corrupt governments, and occupation by us Americans.  Haiti, this tiny island shared by the Dominican Republic, this beautiful “land of mountains” and this predominantly Catholic people, are the poor, the captive, and the oppressed for whom Jesus has come.

This earthquake has been a terrible, terrible tragedy.  But this earthquake has also highlighted the tragedy of global poverty. It has brought to our awareness things of which we were not aware.  It has opened our blind eyes.  It has helped us to see.  And, I pray, it has motivated us to be more aware, to ask the tough (even scary) questions, and to seek justice and just-living for all of God’s children,

But what can we do?  We might all ask here.  The problems are so huge?  It is certainly easy to feel overwhelmed and useless in the face of such terrible global poverty.  But there are things we can do.  There are lots of ways we can help.  Certainly we can help Haitians meet their immediate, emergency needs by sending our money and by supporting the work of trusted organizations such as Church World Service.  But there are also other ways that we, ordinary citizens, can affect change.

For instance, one of the reasons why many Third World countries cannot escape the cycle of poverty is because they are so in debt to the wealthier Western nations and banks.  “To give a very basic introduction, Third World debt describes the millions of dollars in debt that countries have incurred from loans from other countries, from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and from the World Bank.  These loans were (at least theoretically) intended to help the country.  The problem is that many of these loans were either irresponsibly given, acquired (and squandered) illegally by dictators, or are the remains of colonialism and the Cold War.  These are debts that the people of these countries didn’t ask for or approve of (like, for instance, South Africans having to pay back the loans that the apartheid government took and used to fight anti-apartheid efforts), and now some countries, such as Haiti, have to use up to 80 percent of their national budgets to repay these debts and their insane interest rates.

To repay their debts these countries have had to cut public education and health services, and stopped hiring doctors, nurses and teachers.  And the interest rates on the loans are so extreme that many countries see no end to giving away all their money to wealthy Western nations and banks.  For example, Nigeria has borrowed five billion dollars, and to date, it has paid back sixteen billion dollars, but it still owes thirty-two billion dollars.  So the ultimate effect of these debts is that they are keeping the poorest countries in this world in cycles of extreme poverty.”[2]

Now before you think I’ve gone and gotten all political on you, let’s head back to today’s text because Jesus has something to say to us about all this debt.  In today’s text we hear that part of Jesus’ mission is to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This is a reference to a biblical law in Leviticus 25 that states that every fiftieth year the people of God were to proclaim a year of jubilee where they acknowledged that ultimately all of our resources belong to God.  Therefore, during this year of jubilee the people were to return family property to its original owners, set free their slaves and indentured servants, and forgive each other’s debts.  In this way, the biblical law ensured that all of God’s people would have equal economic opportunity and that they would escape the trap where the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.[3]

Jesus was particularly interested in emphasizing this biblical law, or this year of jubilee, because the Herodians had found a way to get around it and were forcing Jesus’ poor, Galilean neighbors deeper and deeper into debt and poverty.

Today a worldwide jubilee movement has grown among people of faith.  Back in the mid-1990’s concerned people of faith, people just like you and me, supported a campaign to declare the year 2000 as a year of jubilee when political and economic powers were asked to forgive the debts of those in the Third World.  The campaign gained clout with 24 million signatures on its petitions, and endorsements from Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, and U2 lead singer, Bono.  In response to this campaign world leaders made promises to partially cancel many debts.  And even these partial cancellations resulted in significant change.  “After the relief of their debt, Tanzania was able to eliminate school fees, and 1.5 million children returned to school almost overnight.  And in Mozambique, nearly 500,000 children received vaccinations.”[4]

Through this modern day jubilee movement, ordinary people have helped spur some extraordinary change.  “Pat Pelham and Elaine Van Cleave were simply two soccer moms from Birmingham, Alabama when they first heard about the Third World’s need for debt relief at a church Bible study.  Amazed that such conditions existed in the world today, they became actively involved in local awareness and relief projects.  Wanting to spread the word about these issues, they invited their congressional representative, Spencer Bachus, to attend a hunger-awareness fundraising banquet, where they encouraged him to support legislation to fight the causes of hunger around the world.  The two women, overwhelmed by the thought of ‘ordinary moms’ speaking to a politician, were even more shocked when Representative Bachus contacted them after the event.  Moved by what he had heard, he told them, ‘I doubt that this will win me any votes, but I don’t want to be responsible for even one child going hungry.’ So he began to speak out for justice and worked to introduce bipartisan legislation such as the Jubilee Act that seeks to help end suffering in the world.”[5]

This modern day jubilee movement is still going strong today and we can see its effects in Haiti.  Just last week the International Monetary Fund announced its intention to cancel Haiti’s debt, including canceling the debt that they would have had to incur for accepting loans for emergency assistance after the earthquake.[6] This is good news.  This is news we should celebrate.

I have learned a lot this past week.  I have learned a lot about Haiti, about the needs of the Third World, about international debt relief.  I have learned a lot and I am thankful for what I now know.  I am thankful, because I don’t want to walk through this world blind to the needs of others.  I don’t want to miss opportunities to help because I was so unaware.  I don’t want to live as if I am the only one who matters.  Instead, I want to follow Jesus.  And I want to do whatever I can to help Jesus bring good news to the poor, release the captives, open the eyes of the blind, work for the oppressed, and proclaim the forgiveness of debts.  I am excited about the ways this church has already responded to the needs of our brothers and sisters all across this globe.  I pray that we will continue to seek ways to keep Jesus’ mission statement front and center.

Now to the One who gave us this Jesus and calls upon us to follow him, be all honor, and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

Helpful Resources:

Julie Clawson, Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2009 – this was the book that informed most of this sermon.  Excellent book.  Lots of practical information and tips.  Easy to read.

www.jubileeusa.org — a resource site providing educational materials and activism suggestions related to international debt issues

www.usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml — Information about how to contact your elected representatives


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/15/opinion/15brooks.html

[2] Julie Clawson, Everyday Justice, Chapter 7: Proclaiming Jubilee to the Nations

[3] Ibid, Everyday Justice.

[4] Ibid, Everyday Justice.

[5] Ibid, Everyday Justice

[6] www.jubileeusa.org

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A Poverty Story

“On Oct. 17, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck the Bay Area in Northern California. Sixty-three people were killed. This week, a major earthquake, also measuring a magnitude of 7.0, struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died.  This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story.”[1]

This editorial from the New York Times has been haunting me all week.  A lot of us have been asking the question, “Why, God?” in response to the terrible earthquake in Haiti when perhaps the more important question(s) should be, Why is Haiti so poor?  Why didn’t Haiti have the infrastructure or the public services that could have saved thousands of lives?

These are pretty scary questions to ask.  They are scary because once you start delving into Haiti’s history you come to realize that this country is so poor because it has been so abused, terrorized, enslaved, oppressed, and neglected by the rest of the world.

Why is Haiti only coming to our attention now?  Why are we only forgiving Haiti’s national debt now, a debt that has required them to send 80% of their nation’s budget to other countries, a debt that has required them to make desperate cuts in health care services and education, a debt that has left them so desperate that the people are stripping the land of its trees and literally eating mud?

These are scary questions to ask.  I’m scared to ask them of myself.  I’m scared to ask them in front of my congregation.  But, scary or not, Jesus leads us to ask them.  Check out these timely words from this week’s Gospel text.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

Luke rearranges Mark’s chronology in order to place this text at the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry.  By doing this, Luke instructs readers to place this text as the central mission of Jesus’ teaching.  This is Jesus’ mission statement.  We learn here what Jesus expected of himself and his ministry.  He came to offer liberation to the poor and the oppressed.  He came to open our eyes to the needs of others.  He came preaching forgiveness of debts (proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor) and establishing a just society.

I am celebrating the fact that we are helping Haiti now.  I am celebrating the fact that the International Monetary Fund recently announced its intention to secure debt cancellation for Haiti, including cancellation of the IMF’s proposed $100 million loan for emergency assistance to the country.[2] I am celebrating the acts of compassion pouring out to Haiti during this time of tremendous need.  But I am also very aware of how unaware I was before this earthquake.  And I am also very aware (thanks to Jesus’ reminder this week) of my mission, my calling, to bring good news to the poor, to release the captives, to open the eyes of the blind, to work for the oppressed, and to proclaim the forgiveness of debts.

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/15/opinion/15brooks.html

[2] http://www.jubileeusa.org

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The Bible and the Newspaper

This was a week when I needed to practice Karl Barth’s old advice of preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  Haiti changed everything.  I was headed toward a sermon about extravagant grace this week but couldn’t keep going in that direction after the earthquake in Haiti.  It just didn’t work.  So I ended up preaching about grace in general.  It’s really hard to respond to such terrible tragedies from the pulpit because just what, exactly, can you say from a theological perspective?  So I ended up quoting some of the most comforting, most grace-filled passages I know.  When I don’t have the words, I am thankful for the beauty of God’s Word and how it can speak to us during very troubling times.

“Extravagant Grace”

John 2: 1-11

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

January 17th, 2010

Some people have trouble with this story in the Gospel of John where Jesus turns the water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  Some don’t like how Jesus comes off looking like a “magician-type” who saves the day with a supernatural miracle.  Others don’t like all the alcohol flowing through this text so they make up stuff like Jesus’ wine wasn’t really wine, instead it was a “new wine” that was more of a purified, non-alcoholic kind of beverage.  Others just don’t see any theological significance in beginning Jesus’ ministry with a story of how he saves the party.

I like this story, though.  I like it, first of all, because it’s a good story.  Jesus and his disciples are at a wedding, everyone’s enjoying the party, and then the wine starts to run out.  This is a total social disaster for the hosts of the party.  The bride and groom will be embarrassed by their inability to provide for their guests.  Then Jesus’ mother, recognizing the dilemma, not-so-subtly suggests to Jesus that he do something about the problem.  Jesus is reluctant at first, but then he decides to come to the rescue by turning approximately 120 to 180 gallons of water into wine….really good wine, nonetheless.  So the party rocks on.  Quite a story!

So I like this story.  I like it not only because it is good, but also because I believe it speaks to us about the grace of God and how God’s grace oftentimes feels very extravagant.

Grace is a gift, an unmerited gift from God, that can often transform difficult situations and give us hope.  Jesus’ miracle was an act of grace because it was an unmerited gift that transformed a bad situation.  Jesus’ miracle was also an act of grace because he didn’t have to save the party.  No harm would come to him if the wine ran out at this wedding.  Jesus’ miracle was also an act of grace because he didn’t even want to do it.  “What concern is that to you and me?” he says to Mother Mary when she suggests that he save the party.  Jesus’ miracle was also an act of grace because it really wasn’t worth his time and his talent.  He really did have more important things to be doing, more important things like teaching, and preaching, healing, and forgiving.  But, in spite of all these good reasons not to save the party, Jesus did it anyways.  Grace.

The grace received in this passage really doesn’t make much sense when you stop to think about it.  But then does grace ever really make sense?  It isn’t fairly or rationally distributed.  Remember the parable of the laborers in the vineyard?  The landowner hires laborers at nine o’clock, and at noon, at three o’clock, and then finally at five o’clock and then he pays them all the same?  Grace isn’t fairly or rationally distributed.  No one really deserves grace, yet we all benefit from it.  And oftentimes it is quite extravagant meaning lavish, expensive, and even wasteful.  120 to 180 gallons of wine, Jesus?  Now that’s lavish, expensive, and yes, even wasteful (a couple of wedding parties couldn’t even drink all of that wine!)  So grace oftentimes doesn’t make much sense.  This is perhaps why it feels so darn amazing when we recognize that we have received it.

I hope and pray that you have had times in your life when you recognized receiving God’s gift of grace.  Perhaps you have even recognized moments when you have been given extravagant grace…or grace that was so overwhelming, so inspiring, so mind-blowing that it just made you stop in your tracks.  I’ve recognized moments of extravagant grace in my life…moments when I felt like I made it through a really difficult time only by the grace of God.  Or moments when things worked out for the good when I was convinced that I was headed for a bad ending.  Or moments that made me go, “Ah, ha!!” so that’s how God is working in my life and in the world.  Moments such as these are extraordinary because the extravagance of God’s grace hits us like a knock in the head that wakes us up to a whole new understanding of God.

Moments such as these, when we recognize that we have received God’s extravagant grace, help us appreciate God like we should.  All of a sudden God is alive and well.  All of a sudden the world seems a little brighter and our burdens a little less heavy.  All of a sudden we realize (or remember) that we aren’t alone, that we are loved, that we really do matter.  All of a sudden God gets big.

I think this is what happened at that wedding party.  The party was saved and God got big.  Jesus did this, the scripture says, the first of his signs, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him. The people recognized what Jesus had done.  His glory was revealed and God got big.  Now not everyone recognized it…the chief steward seemed oblivious about what had just happened…but then there are always those who are a little oblivious….perhaps he indulged in too much wine!  But for the most part, it seems that the people recognized God’s extravagant grace.   This is a big deal…because we don’t always recognize God’s grace at work in our lives and in our world.

It would be hard for me to preach on extravagant grace this morning and not stop to consider the events of this past week when an earthquake devastated Haiti.  They’re estimating that well over 100,000 are dead.  The people of Haiti are in our thoughts and our prayers and we are left to wonder where is God in all of this?  In light of these world events, as well as the illness of our dear friend FM, today’s scripture passage expounding God’s extravagant grace loses quite a bit of its luster.  Because this past week all signs seem to suggest that God has not been working in our world in such an extravagant, or even noticeable, way.

But does this mean that God is not at work?  Does this mean that God is not alive and well in Haiti?  Does this mean that God is not present with F and the M’s during this difficult time? No, that’s not what this means.  A couple of other scripture passages come to my mind that shed more light on how God has been at work this week.

God is our refuge and strength, says Psalm 46, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.

And from Isaiah 40, Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God.  Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

And from John 14, [My] peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

I could go on.  But I think you get the point.  I think you get the point that our scriptures reveal how God works in our world not only in extravagant ways, but also in subtle ways.  God works in our world by blessing us with grace in the form of God’s comforting presence, with grace in the form of strength renewed and hope instilled, with grace in the form of peace and resurrection joy and a love that knows no bounds…even the bounds of life and death. God is at work in our world.  God is at work in Haiti.  God is at work within grieving families.  God is at work in your life and in my life when things really aren’t going that well and don’t end well.  God is at work in ways that might be less mind-blowing, less “Ah Ha!”-producing, than say Jesus turning water into wine.  But God is working, nonetheless.  God is blessing us, all of us, with grace.  With a grace that is sometimes extravagant….but more often simply and subtly present.

I don’t know what kind of a week you’ve had.  But this past week certainly has held a lot of sorrow, tragedy, and chaos for people all over the world.  So as our thoughts and prayers go out to those who are suffering, to those who have lost so much this past week, let us turn to our God for comfort, for strength, for a vision of hope, and for a love that knows no bounds.  Let us turn to our God to receive grace so we too can believe, and heal and help, all in the name of the one whose signs, both extravagant and subtle, reveal God’s glory.

Now to the God of all grace, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

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Extravagant Grace

I have been the beneficiary of God’s extravagant grace this week.  I’ve pondered many different angles from which I could write this week’s sermon.  But ultimately (and especially during this tiring week) I have to preach from where I am and from what is going on in my life.  That’s the only way I’m going to pull this off with my son still home sick.  It’s also the most genuine, honest approach I can take to a task that so often calls upon me to tear myself open from the pulpit and reveal my own struggles, my own darkness, my own life of faith.

So this week I’m going to focus on Jesus’ act of changing the water into wine at the wedding in Cana as an act of extravagant grace.  Jesus’ miracle was an act of grace because he didn’t have to do it.  No harm would come to Jesus if the wine ran out at this wedding.  Jesus’ miracle was an act of grace because he didn’t even want to do it.  “What concern is that to you and me?” he says to Mother Mary who not-so-subtly suggests that he save the party.  Jesus’ miracle was an act of grace because it really wasn’t worth his time and his talent.  He really did have more important things to be doing…more important signs and miracles to be performing.  But, in spite of all these good reasons not to save the party…and save the hosts from social shame and embarrassment….Jesus did it anyways.  Grace.

Grace really doesn’t make much sense when you stop to think about it.  It isn’t fairly or rationally distributed.  Remember the laborers in the field?  We receive it some times (miraculously) when we absolutely need it.  But other times God and God’s grace seem to pass us right on by.  And it really is quite extravagant…meaning lavish, expensive, and even wasteful…as my online thesaurus says.  120 – 180 gallons of wine, Jesus?  Now that’s lavish, expensive, and yes, even wasteful (a couple of wedding parties would be needed to drink all of that wine!)  So grace doesn’t really make much sense.  Which is perhaps why it feels so darn amazing when we receive it.

This week I was the recipient of extravagant grace.  I don’t want to go into all the details….but let’s just say it was a bad week.  Certainly, there are others who are having worse weeks.  Certainly, there are others who are more deserving of God’s grace than me.  (Again, grace doesn’t make sense.)  But I received it this week.  And I can’t thank God enough.

The tragedy (in my mind) of John’s story is that the bride and the bridegroom and the chief steward don’t ever seem to realize how Jesus saved them and their party.  How often we don’t recognize God’s extravagant grace when we receive it.  Or how often we recognize it but don’t appreciate it like we should….appreciate it for all its extravagance…appreciate it for the way it fills us and frees us like 120 gallons of really, really good wine.

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

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One of Those Weeks

This is going to be one of those weeks.  One of those weeks when being a pastor while being a mommy doesn’t mesh too well.  My son is home sick this week and I am hoping the lure of Curious George, Sesame Street, and whatever else PBS has to offer is strong enough to keep him interested while I get some work done.

A pastor friend invited me to preach on the Isaiah text this week so we could collaborate.  I was really tempted to do this.  But because I preached on Isaiah last week, I felt like I needed something new for this week.  I needed something new not only to keep my congregation interested, but also for the sake of my own inspiration and creativity.  I can’t do the same kind of scripture text for too long before it starts to feel tired and overdone.  So I try to vary it up.

This week, then, I am fairly certain of my decision to focus on the text from John where Jesus turns the water to wine at the wedding in Cana. (See footnote for link to John 2:1-11)[1] I use the words “fairly certain” because with the way this week is already going I want to give myself some freedom to change my mind.

I like the story of this text.  Jesus and his disciples are at a wedding, everyone’s enjoying the party, and then the wine starts to run out.  Total social disaster!  The bride and groom will be embarrassed by their inability to provide for their guests.  Jesus’ mother (who was also at the party) recognizes the dilemma and not so subtly suggests to Jesus that he do something about it.  Jesus is reluctant at first, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?”  But then he decides to come to the rescue by turning 120 – 180 gallons of water into wine….really good wine, nonetheless.  So the party rocks on.

Lot’s of people have trouble with this story.  Some don’t like how Jesus comes off as this “magician-type” who saves the day with his miracles.  Others don’t like all the alcohol flowing through this text so they make up stuff like Jesus’ wine wasn’t really wine…it was a “new wine” that was more of a purified, non-alcoholic kind of beverage.  Others just don’t see any theological significance in beginning Jesus’ ministry with a story of how he saves the party.

So where’s my angle here? What is so important about this party and Jesus’ participation during it?  Is there any theology here or did John just throw this story in for kicks?

My first thought on this sermon is to follow the question; doesn’t Jesus have better things to be doing than partying?  Shouldn’t Jesus be off healing people, or teaching people, or raising the dead, or something?  Something a little more serious?  But, then, who ever said Jesus couldn’t have any fun?  Who ever said Christians couldn’t celebrate?  And with good wine for that matter?

If I follow this theme I might use Dan’s recent posts on body vs. spirit and how historically we Christians have considered the body, or any feelings of pleasure….food, drink, sex…impure and unrighteous.  This makes me remember the movie, Babette’s Feast, where the Puritan villagers were so determined not to enjoy Babette’s delicious French dinner.  They would eat the food, but they would not enjoy it.  Of course, the food turned out to be too good not to enjoy.  The food turned out to be grace wrapped up in French cuisine.  It wore down all their inhibitions.  It opened them up.  It set them free.  And in the end they celebrated.  They communed.

With a message such as this there is always the fear of people taking it as a license to celebrate and enjoy excessively. Alcohol freely flowing turns into a fear of enabling alcoholism.  Too much partying turns into a fear of neglecting our responsibilities and serious Christian work.  Too much fun leads to us not taking anything seriously.  These are our fears with this text.  But does the text support such fears?  I mean isn’t Jesus excessive in the amount of wine he makes?  120-180 gallons!!  That certainly seems excessive to me!  Or perhaps the word I should use is extravagant. Jesus blesses the partygoers with an extravagant amount of wine.  This is another thread I could follow in my sermon.  How God gives to us extravagantly…and in abundance….and we are to celebrate it and recognize it.  But if I follow this train of thought then I most certainly have to address the issue of the poor, and those who have to make do on so little.  How has God blessed them extravagantly?  What miracle is Jesus working among them?

Well, I’m certainly feeling a little more lost this week in terms of my direction.  Looking ahead to a week with very little sermon prep time, I’m praying that clarity comes sooner rather than later.

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.


[1] http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=130312375

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Precious, Honored, and Loved

Well, in spite of the pottery pitcher being SO heavy that my hand and arm shook as I poured the water into the font.  And in spite of the pottery plates of glass beads being so awkward that many beads were spilled leaving our poor new elders scrambling on the floor to catch and retrieve them.  I thought today’s renewal of baptism service went pretty well.  I had fun with the liturgy today.  I used the baptismal font more and played with the water.  I wish I had the time and energy to memorize more of the liturgy.  I think it would make worship more powerful if I did.  But I’m not there just yet.  I am thankful for our new elders…all five of them this year.  And I am thankful for another chance to remember that I (we) are precious in God’s sight, and honored and loved.  Here’s the final version of this week’s sermon.

“You are Precious in My Sight, and Honored, and I Love You”

Isaiah 43: 1-7

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

January 10th, 2010 – Baptism of the Lord

“You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” This past week I’ve been sneaking into my children’s rooms after they have gone to sleep in order to whisper these words over their heads.  “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” These words are perfect for a mother to whisper over her children’s heads. They are words that just seem meant to be whispered, in a dark room, after everyone is all tucked in and all the good night kisses have been given.  Stroking the soft fine hair of my baby’s head, saying these words felt like a blessing and a prayer, as if I was anointing my children with love.

The prophet Isaiah gives us some beautiful, poetic words today that seem most appropriately spoken between parents and children, husbands and wives, friends or partners.  Words this intimate seem meant to be passed from one human being to another.  But it is not our mother, or our spouse, or our best friend whispering these words to us today.  Instead, it is our God through the prophet Isaiah.

In a way, it is hard to imagine God whispering to us these words,“You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” I don’t know if it is just because God is so abstract or if it is my own lack of imagination, but it’s just hard to picture God leaning over my bed, stroking my hair and whispering these words of love.  I can picture my mother saying these words to me, and my husband, even a good friend.  But God?  Does God really love me this much?  Is God’s love for me as real as my mother’s love and my husband’s love and my children’s love?

One scholar writes, “These comforting and hopeful words of Isaiah 43:1-7 are easier to read and write about than they are truly to hear and believe.  [So] this is a passage we need to return to over and over. Words this good—love this uncommon—take time to be believed and absorbed.”[1]

This reminds me of a story I heard Maya Angelou tell once during an interview with a newspaper.  In the interview, Ms. Angelou described how, as a little girl, her Sunday School teacher made her say over and over, “God loves me, God loves me, God loves me.”  And then, when she was finished, her teacher would say, “Now try to know it.”

Now try to know it.  It really is hard to imagine, hard to know, that God loves us this much.  We must return to these words, saying them over and over again, in order to believe them and absorb them…in order to make them feel real.  We must repeat God’s words of love in our heads and in our hearts.  We must enact God’s love through our rituals in worship.  We must remind ourselves of God’s love through the waters of baptism.  God’s love is possessive and protective.  I am yours, God says through the prophet Isaiah and, You are mine, God says through the waters of baptism.

Such a love is uncommon and unreal in the sense of being hard to believe.  It is hard to fathom a God who loves us this much.  It is hard to fathom a God who loves all of us this much.  And it is a love for all of us, for all of creation in fact.  Isaiah stresses the inclusiveness of God’s love.  But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel; Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. God’s words of love are for everyone (even every thing) that God has created, and formed, named and claimed.  I am yours, God says, and you are mine.  Such inclusive love is hard to believe, it’s hard to get our heads around a love so grand and so amazing.  But perhaps harder still is following through on God’s command for us to embody this inclusive love and share it with all the world.

As the church of Jesus Christ we are to embody God’s inclusive love. As we begin this new year together, as we renew our baptismal vows today, and as we ordain and install our new elders, it seems appropriate to remind ourselves of our demanding, yet vital task, to embody God’s inclusive love as the church of Jesus Christ.

This week I read about a pastor who goes to a funky restaurant in her neighborhood in order to write and reflect on her sermons.  She goes to this restaurant because as she says, “the music is soulful and the ambience is warm.  The coffee and tea are offered in wide mugs by friendly but not pushy servers.  The art on the wall is provocative.  The feeling is inclusive.”  She gathers there with other strangers who all become temporary colleagues while working on their laptops and sipping their coffee.  They suggest to each other what salads to try on the menu and watch each other’s computers if someone needs to slip off to the restroom.  Then, as she is sitting and working, she overhears one of these strangers say something out loud, sort of to herself.  And the pastor replies, “What did you just say?”  And the woman says it again: “I wish my church was like this.”[2]

I wish my church was like this.  It’s hard to know what the woman meant by this comment.  But the comment did seem to be inspired by an atmosphere of warmth and tangible hospitality.  By music that was soulful and art that was provocative.  By a sense of community in which she was immediately included, even though she was a stranger.  I wish my church was like this.  Well, of course she does.  Of course we do.

Because this is the ideal for which we strive as the body of Christ.  We strive to be a place of warmth, of tangible hospitality, and of inclusive love.  We strive to be a place where all are made to feel invited and inspired.  We strive to be a place where all are made to feel precious, and honored, and loved.  We strive to be a place that embodies God’s inclusive love.

But so often the church falls short of this ideal.  So often we fall short of this ideal.  We get annoyed with each other or offended.  We hurt each other and play silly games.  We take sides and we fan the flames of controversy and conflict.  And we do all this all to the detriment of embodying God’s inclusive love.  We do all of this to the detriment of the body of Christ, the church.

It’s not easy being the church.  It’s not easy living up to this calling.  But we are not here because it is easy.  We are here because it is right, and because it is good.  We can’t be the church all by ourselves.  We need each other.  And God needs us…to be Christ’s body in a hungry and hurting world, to be God’s light in a time of great darkness, to be the bearers of God’s inclusive love sharing the words that are so hard to believe, but so life-giving to hear, “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

Today we will renew our baptismal vows. Even if you have not been baptized you are welcome to join us in professing your faith in Jesus Christ and promising to live as his disciple.  In a very real, very tangible way, renewing our baptism reminds us of God’s great love for us.  Renewing our baptism reminds us that we are precious in God’s sight, and honored, and loved.  But, also in a very real, very tangible way, renewing our baptism reminds us that we are sent, and challenged, and called to glorify God by embodying God’s inclusive love and sharing it with all the world.

May we all be filled by God’s love today.  So we can then, as instruments of God’s love, go and fill others.

Now to our God who calls us and claims us in the waters of baptism, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] W. Carter Lester, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, “Pastoral Perspective,” pg. 222.

[2] http://www.achurchforstarvingartists.com/2010/01/this-is-what-church-could-look-like.html

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