On average, Death Valley gets two inches of rain a year. Two inches. There are two major mountain ranges—the Panamint Range, pictured here, and the Sierra Nevadas beyond them to the West that trap weather systems that would otherwise drop precipitation from the Pacific, making it one of the driest places on earth.
Yet it is fair to say that Death Valley, one of the driest places on earth, has been shaped by water.
Well, water and tectonics.
Isaiah 62:1-5 † Psalm 36:5-10 † 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 † John 2:1-11
So what is going on here?
Is this a story about a wedding that hasn’t been planned very well, a potential social disaster, a mother and son bickering because they don’t want their friends to be embarrassed? It could be. “Woman”--mother, why are you asking me. It’s not my time. And yet, apparently it is. Jesus’ objection seems to drown in the flow of the story as water jars are quickly filled, as an oblivious steward is astounded, and as a wedding is saved with about 400 bottles of really good wine no one accounted for.
Or maybe it’s not that at all. Maybe the party wasn’t about to collapse. Maybe this wasn’t about poor planning. It could have been even worse: a story about a poor, struggling family doing their best to pull off a celebration demanded by social customs that they could not afford. Suddenly this gift not only saves the day, but delivers them from shame.
Or, it could be that this was a celebration that was simply winding down: “When the wine had run out,” the story goes, as if this was the expectation, as if there was an understanding that all good celebrations have a closing time.
If we read it that way, this becomes gratuitous. A story about abundance for the sake of abundance—unnecessary, saving nothing, a sign, as John tells us, the “first of his signs” of a story and a savior that is so full of life that nothing will be able to hold it back—not powers or principalities, armies or political leaders. Gratuitousness, generosity, an onslaught of extravagance. There are many ways we could read this. The story does not seem to tip its hand.
This is a sign—the first of his signs, says the text. But a sign of what? What do the disciples see that makes them believe in him and sets this greater story in motion?
Isaiah 60:1-6 • Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 • Ephesians 3:1-12 • Matthew 2:1-12
I’m currently reading two books side-by-side. I don’t say that to impress you. In fact, I wouldn’t say that I planned it. Mostly, I fell into it. If I were more honest, I’d tell you that I can’t bear to read the one alone, so it is, as much as anything, a matter of survival.
The one—the hard one, the devastating one—is a book by Chris Hedges called America: The Farewell Tour. Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, formerly a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. I’ve talked about him before and about at least two of his numerous previous books. One is called War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. The self-evident title reflected on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another, Losing Moses on the Freeway, was an examination of the ten commandments as they relate to American culture. I recommend them both.
In addition to his years in the Balkans, the Americas and the Middle East, Hedges’ writing is informed by his religious education as a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School—thus the reflection he did on the commandments.
Hedges is a devastating writer. He writes in excruciating detail about the state of things, creating a provocative and difficult-to-deny indictment on where we are currently—the decay of American democracy, and perhaps even civilization itself as the common good has been sacrificed at the altar of greed. “We cannot battle racism, bigotry, and hate crimes, often stoked by the ruling elites,” he contends, “without first battling for economic justice.”[I]
1 Kings 19:4-8 † Psalm 34:1-8 † Ephesians 4:25-5:2 † John 6:35, 41-51
No-one gets to move through this life Scot-free. No, not even the Scots. We are a charmed people it’s true, but even we, must at some point, reckon with what ours to face, ours to do.
Did you know that scot in “scot-free” refers to a tax? No, I didn’t either, until I looked it up – bless you: credible sources on the internet! Here in this country we sometimes associate scot-free with the important story of Dred Scott. An 19th century American held as a slave in Virginia who first sued for his freedom in 1847 and after ten years of appeals finally ended up in the Supreme Court, but was denied the right to a trial in a federal court because of his status as a slave. His case influenced Lincoln’s nomination and of course, our country’s history.
2 Kings 4:42-44 † Psalm 145:10-18 † Ephesians 3:14-21 † John 6:1-21
In the fall of 2014 IHNFA, the Honduran Childcare services were restructured by a Honduran government that was under pressure from UNICEF and in a season of reform. It had been an open secret for some time that the majority of the IHNFA budget was enriching administrators and bureaucrats rather than serving the vulnerable and abandoned children it was charged to protect.
Many services were cut, including the government-run children’s homes and some of its foster programs. This created its own challenges in a country of 8.5 million people in which 138,000 are already without a home and more than 1 million are housing insecure.
Numbers 21:4-9 † Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 † Ephesians 2:1-10 † John 23:14-21
I wonder if today’s unique selection of lectionary texts don’t illustrate at least a part of the challenge of finding our way on this ancient path of faith. Think of it this way: Where we start has a lot to do with where we end, and it can have everything to do with how long we might choose to stick it out, and what and who we might meet along the way.
Surely, we are all familiar with this verse from John that, for a time, made it on more posters in more stadiums than we care to count. John 3:16: “For God so loved the world…”
Many who have never set foot in a church could recite the rest of it in their sleep. And for good reason, it speaks in concise language what we hold onto as the heart of the gospel—the love of God that pre-empts all else. The light of God that fills our way with light. And the next verse may be even better. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
2 Kings 2:1-12 + Psalm 50:1-6 + 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 + Mark 9:2-9
“When I was six or seven years old,” writes Annie Dillard in her luminous book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,
I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.[i]
Annie Dillard is thinking here about seeing, about being aware of what is around us. She is making the point that “free surprises” and “unwrapped gifts” lay all about us in the world, in the same kind of way as does the poet Mary Oliver who asks what we plan to do with our “one wild and precious life.”[ii]
I think Dillard’s childhood memory may be helpful for us today as we take a look at this story of Jesus’ transfiguration—as we follow the arrows written in the dirt up the side of the mountain. SURPRISE AHEAD. A free gift from the universe. COME AND SEE. It makes me wonder if God in this story isn’t a bit like Dillard’s giddy six or seven-year-old self: SURPRISE AHEAD. Follow the path! LOOKIE HERE: my son, my son. Listen to him! Do you see what you’ve got here?
Isaiah 40:21-31 † Psalm 147:1-11, 20c † 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 † Mark 1:29-39
It was a shot of darkness that I encountered this week. A blog referenced by an old friend, a single voice attempting to name what we have lost. It began with a familiar refrain, noting that in the past 23 days the United States has seen 11 school shootings.[i] According to Everytown for Gun Safety, which seems to be the source of these numbers, we would need to add nine days to the total and only one more shooting for 12 shooting in about 32 days, which lowers the frequency a bit, but frankly doesn’t feel much like good news.
The point of the blog, though, wasn’t the frequency of shootings or even gun violence in general, but what has happened to us as events like this continue to occur. Umair Haque, the blogs author, is suggesting that American culture is in decline, that this American experiment and with it, our notion of American exceptionalism, seems to be on the way out.
Haque’s diagnosis is sobering. He names five destructive tendencies, five social pathologies he observes in American culture that signal this decline. The first is signaled by this statistic about school shootings—that our kids are killing each other. Haque puts the number of shootings and its frequency in perspective in order to make his point. 11 school shootings in 23 days, or 12 shootings in 32 days, if you wish. It is more than anywhere else in the world, even Afghanistan, even Iraq. In fact, this just doesn’t happen in any other country in the world. It is, he suggests, a “new, bizarre, terrible disease striking society.”[ii]
Revelation 7:9-17 † Psalm 34:1-10, 22 † 1 John 3:1-3 † Matthew 5:1-12
“We have to stop and get Gran some ice cream.”
That was the memory that pressed in most strongly as I looked down at the rough map of my family that I had drawn. It was for a class, this map, and I wasn’t at all happy that I had to do it. We were to draw out the relational and emotional map of our families 3 generations back so that we could examine together the dynamics and the forces that are at play; so we could see what had formed us, and what has power over us.
I looked down at my map, all colored boxes and tiny dates and squiggly lines. “We have to stop and get Gran some Ice cream”, I heard my mom say, and my dad, and my uncle Hugh, my Uncle Ralph, my cousin James, my cousin Helen.
You see, when we gathered at my Gran’s house with family, everyone knew that someone had to stop at the corner shop right below her apartment and grab a little tub of the soft serve ice cream they sold there.
Now all these years later, it is this thing that I remember, so fondly. So much more happened in my family as shown by the rough contours of my map. Rough times, and happier times. People, regular, complex people trying to do the best they could, struggling with hurt passed down over the generations. Family gatherings could get difficult, old patterns kicked in. But she would always look forward to ice cream, and she would laugh when we brought it, and she would sit with her grandkids, while the other adults did their thing, she would sit and share a little ice cream.
Exodus 12:1-14 † Psalm 149:1-9 † Romans 13:8-14 † Matthew 18:15-20
Do you remember the Somali pirates? They made news about 5 years ago with a spate of ship hijackings off the horn of East Africa. The story gained some traction in the news and lots of mixed reaction, even inspiring the 2013 movie “Captain Phillips” played by Tom Hanks. The movie tells of a 2009 Somali hijacking—the first of an American cargo ship in 200 years.
I remember because it was one of those stories that seemed to appear in the news out of nowhere, and then disappear almost as quickly. Piracy in the modern world? Where did this come from? And why? And why now?
It turns out political instability—essentially a decades-long civil war had resulted in a missing-in-action Somali government. In the vacuum of leadership and the dismantling of the local navy, foreign ships began to exploit the coast, invading local fishing grounds and poisoning the waters with illegal waste that further decimated the fishing population. It effectively ended the fishing trade that had provided a living for these Somalis and their families.
They turned to piracy out of desperation, holding crews hostage for ransom.
St. Andrew Sermons