“Recognizing the Signs”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
January 27, 2019
University Baptist Church
Way back in 1995, UBC Pastor Nadean Bishop convinced UBC to enter into a sister church relationship with a church in Nicaragua. Tai Shigaki had been part of the delegation that attended the 1992 Global Baptist Peace Conference in Nicaragua. Minneapolis had a sister-city relationship with Leon, the second largest city in the country and Baptists had a large presence there. Judson church had established a relationship with First Baptist Church of Leon, so we established a relationship with a smaller mission church called second Baptist Church. This was before the internet and while their country was in turmoil and in need of solidarity.
We started off sending letters back and forth. We heard of a school they had started that needed support. We started a godparent program where we would help underwrite the cost of tuition for poor students. Soon the school grew. We continued to send letters, lovingly translated by Harriet Johnson, Salome Abungu, John Medeiros and Jean Lubke. I even tried my hand at translating. This was way before Google translate.
I came here in 2001 already a veteran of several visits to Nicaragua. Each time, I came back energized by the resourcefulness and joy of my Nicaraguan friends. They held up a mirror to my relative wealth. They held up a mirror to how I conceived of and did church. They made me reconsider what Jesus might do or say in a context like theirs—or a context like ours. One ABC missionary friend of mine told me that they didn’t need US people to come down to build churches, clinics or dig latrines. They needed us to come down, hear their stories and then go back and change US policy. And while you’re at it, never settle for complacent business as usual when your sisters and brothers are dying to live.
In 2003, six of us finally visited our sister church: Denise Roy, Betty Shaw, Claire Mavity, Ron Blackmore, Don Dresser and myself. We worshipped with them, stayed in their homes, walked the streets, danced, and vowed to bring some of them up to the US. It took another 5 years, but we did it and now we have welcomed 20 friends from Nicaragua to Minnesota and over 40 of us have travelled there.
We have sung “Santo, Santo, Santo” here and there, almost as the theme music to our visits, our longing to set aside our normal way of life for a deeper connection with someone who will show us who God wants us to be.
Our theology is different. They are heavily influenced by televangelists whose worldview is very different than ours. Their congregation is busting at the seems with children and they use their resourced better than any congregation I have ever seen. They see their mission to save children, not just their souls, but their minds, their bodies, their spirits. That’s the core of their educational philosophy. We don’t have to agree theologically in order to make a change in each other’s lives.
On one delegation’s visit up here, they tentatively asked us about our inclusiveness policy alongside the LGBT community. Such a thing is not done so much in Leon, but they wanted to explore how they could be more welcoming. We in turn wanted to know how to be more unabashed in our desire to serve people and spread the Gospel of peace across our city.
We have been changed by this relationship. We’ve learned Spanish. We’ve experienced long and loud worship services. We’ve enjoyed delicious food. We’ve been welcomed in to homes and hearts. We have truly become sisters and brothers. We’re Facebook friends and share videos and pictures with each other in real time.
While the financial assistance we send them helps, both congregations agree that the personal visits and relationships are the most important piece of the puzzle. We no longer think of issues but people. The struggle for justice is humanized. The economic and military situation that causes people to flee for a better life, safety and survival have faces.
These past several years, it’s been difficult for people to travel here. In 2017, we had nine visa attempts denied by our sister church. Our planned visit that was supposed to be happening now had to be cancelled because of the turmoil in their country. Is there a connection?
I’m sure if you spoke to people who have been to visit our sister church, there is a piece of them that has been changed. We look at wonder with a bit of a wider eye. We think of ways that we can extend hospitality as much as it has been extended to us. As we have met people from our sister church over the years, who have come up here, they tell us of how this relationship has changed them. It’s no accident that the fireplace in our lounge is festooned with some of the gifts given to us. But the real gift is the change that they have made in our hearts and our lives. I give thanks today for our friends at Second Baptist Church of Leon, Nicaragua and the way that have influenced our collective lives and ministry.
Lord, I know I’ve been changed. What has changed you? What needs to change in your life?
Change is why Jesus walked this earth. He wanted us to change. Changing from a me-focused world to a we-focused world.
Changed from a judgmental posture to a posture that welcomes complexity.
Changed from a “gotta protect my own” to a “gotta share the bounty God has given to me.”
When Jesus turned water into wine in the second chapter of John’s gospel, it was said to be the first of the signs. Signs. Signs of change. What signs of change do we see? I’m not talking about political changes or indictments, or even the reo-opening of the government. Those are signs that things are changing.
Bob Dylan sang the times they are a changin’. Are they? Are they changing for the good?
I want us to explore what signs we might see around us, how we interpret those signs and how we use our voices because of those signs.
In John’s gospel, Jesus performs seven signs throughout the book. There is the changing of the water into wine, the healing of a son of a royal official, the healing on the Sabbath, the feeding of the multitude, walking on water, healing of a blind man, and raising Lazarus from the dead. Each sign is said to symbolically point us toward a larger truth. They explain who Jesus is and they remind us of who we are. They help us to make sense of the world. So let’s take a look at the first sign in John’s Gospel. It happened at a wedding feast in a town called Cana. It’s the beginning of the second chapter of John and it goes like this:
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Jesus is at a week-long wedding feast. The wine runs out after many days of consumption. Jesus reluctantly changes some water into wine and everyone is happy, except for the father of the bride who would have preferred that the replacement wine with the cheap stuff instead of the good stuff. That’s the surface story. But let’s look deeper at the symbolism. What signs does this story give us?
Traditional wedding liturgies state that Jesus’ presence at this wedding confirms his blessing of marriage. That’s certainly not explicit in the scripture. In fact, do you notice that not even the gender of the couple is mentioned? While we have long forgotten who was getting married in that wedding in Cana, we can imagine that Jesus was a good friend of the couple. Jesus was there with his mother after all.
Weddings back then and their parties were long affairs. They started out with a procession in which the bridegroom’s friends brought the bride to the groom’s house and then a wedding supper. The festivities would then last seven says. Today’s scripture says that Jesus arrived on the third day, so the party was either half over or just beginning depending upon whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.
Either they didn’t buy enough wine or they thought there would be more tea-tottlers amongst the guests.
What to do? Buy more wine? If so, who would pay for it? I can just imagine the indebted families arguing over that one.
Well, we all know what happened, Jesus turned water into wine and it was very good wine to say the least.
But it was no ordinary water to begin with. It was holy water. It was water that was reserved for the Jewish rites of purification. There are all sorts of restrictive laws in the Hebrew Bible stating who can be clean and who can’t.
A woman is unclean if she is in her menstrual cycle.
A man is unclean if he touches one who is unclean.
You are unclean if you are wearing mixed fabrics.
Food is unclean if it has a mixture of dairy and meat products and so forth.
And many of the cleanliness laws require washing with holy water and then being declared clean by a Rabbi. They probably had this purification water hanging around so that their guests could become and stay clean. They must have also had a Rabbi nearby, as well, to perform the rituals. So for Jesus to take this water, which was reserved for the Rabbis and change it into wine meant that Jesus was beginning to turn the way of looking at the world upside down.
In the typical manner of John’s gospel, the sign has a number of meanings. Does the wine refer to the new wine of a new life in Christ? Is it a snub of the Jewish practice of purification? Does it refer to communion? Is Jesus’ concern about it not being his “time” referring to his crucifixion? Whose wedding is it and why does that matter? Amidst all of these questions, Jesus begins his ministry and begins to perform his signs.
Buddhist scholar Jack Kornfield tells the following story:
A century ago, a young student at the great Oxford University in England was taking an important examination in religious studies. The examination question for this day was to write about the religious and spiritual meaning in the miracle of Christ turning water into wine. For two hours he sat in the crowded classroom while other students filled their pages with long essays, to show their understanding. The exam time was almost over and this one student had not written a single word. The proctor came over to him and insisted that he commit something to paper before turning it in. The young Lord Byron simply picked up his hand and penned the following line: “The water met its Master, and blushed”
The signs of John’s Gospel point us toward larger realities that demand our attention. We have plenty of signs these days, don’t we?
The stock market is going haywire as posturing about tariffs and taxes cloud predictable markets.
Trials of government officials are rampant while news media is shunned in favor of instant nonfilitered tweets become the way we hear about the President’s policy changes.
Look at the impending polar vortex. Extreme weather events are the norm, not the exception.
Look at the people taking to the streets.
Look at the signs of unrest around the world.
What is it going to take to bring us toward peace?
Look at the fact that racism is alive and well across this country and sanctioned in the White House.
Look at the fact that a growing number of evangelicals are rediscovering that Jesus said a whole lot more about poverty than he did about human sexuality.
The signs of our time are plentiful.
But what do they mean for us who are supposedly changed by the Gospel?
I’m reminded of an episode of The West Wing episodes. Jed Bartlett is agonizing over whether to grant an 11th-hour pardon to a convict about to be executed. He has been lobbied by a Quaker anti-death-penalty activist. One of his top advisors, Toby, was sermonized by a rabbi.
Jed is a devout Catholic deeply opposed to the death penalty, but he feels that his duty to a pro-death penalty public outweighs those beliefs. He even takes a phone call from the Pope, and deflects the Pontiff's entreaties. Jed will let the execution go forward.
At the end of the episode, he unburdens his conscience to his priest, Father Cavanaugh, who has been flown in from Jed's New Hampshire hometown. He admits to Father Cavanaugh that he feels morally lost. Father Cavanaugh replies:
“You know, you remind me of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town. And that all the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, 'I'm religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.' The waters rose up. A guy in a rowboat came along and he shouted, 'Hey, hey you! You in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.' But the man shouted back, 'I'm religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.' A helicopter was hovering overhead. And a guy with a megaphone shouted, 'Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I'll take you to safety.' But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety. Well... the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter, he demanded an audience with God. 'Lord,' he said, 'I'm a religious man, I pray. I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?' God said, 'I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?'
Jed... Mr. President, God sent you a Rabbi, a Quaker and the Pope, and you are still looking for a sign?” (Thanks to the Oscar Madison Blogspot entitled "The Columnist Manifesto")
Do we recognize the signs that are happening in our day and time?
Think about our world with all of its wars and disputes about wars. Is this a sign?
If so, of what?
What is God’s perspective on all of this?
What would God have us recognize as the signs of our times?
Jesus came and performed a miracle—doing the impossible, changing water into wine. It was a miracle not so much because of the act of changing the water, but because when it happened, the people changed the way they looked at the world. They changed the way they looked at Jesus. But most importantly, they changed the way they looked at themselves.
I think of the salty water of tears which so many people shed in our day and age. What if those tears are the purification waters we need? What if we joined Jesus in changing those watery tears into the wine of hope,
The wine of possibility,
The wine of justice
The wine of mercy
The wine of compassion
The wine of accountability and inspiration to live as God intends, spurring us on to building a beloved community instead of a fear-filled and fear-driven encampment?
What signs do you see?
Remember, Jesus came in large part to set you free, and each day, Christ changes water into wine, if we only recognize it. Maybe we can join in that miraculous work and do some of our own water and wine transformation. What a sign that would be!
We come here to UBC either because we have been changed, we are looking to change, or we are expecting God to continue to challenge and change us again. If that’s not why you’re here, then maybe you have come to the wrong place. The good news is that God wants our lot in life to change and God wants everyone who has become complacent with the sorry state of the world to wake up and to be part of a movement to make it better—and not just for us, but for those we touch near and far. It takes recognizing the signs.
We recognize the signs and they make us see things more clearly. But it’s more than recognizing a sign, it’s being changed because of it.
Jesus changed water into wine and it could have been dismissed as a parlor trick. But it’s not about the water or the wine. It’s about us being changed into a people of purpose. It began a ministry that people left behind their old ways of life and dared to step out in faith.
Faith that there was a better way to be in this world.
Faith that you could find companions for the journey.
Faith that the wine was so good that it made us inspired to seek newness and surprise and wonder.
Let me close with a poem by Ann Weems. It’s entitled, “God’s Holy People.”