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Archive for January 17th, 2010

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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