Sunday, January 20, 2013

How Can This Be?

 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. – John 2:11
Jesus turns water into wine. Not just wine, but “good wine” – no Boone’s Farm or Cold Duck here in Cana of Galilee. Nothing but the best. The wine steward, the host of the reception, no doubt even the bride and groom must have wondered, “What in the world is going on here?”

We read these stories and say, “The Word of the Lord,” “Thanks be to God.” And then we too wonder, “How can this be? There must be a rational explanation.” Yet, it was good enough for a group of people to “believe in him.” What does it take for us to believe in him?

Just the other day  we were reading Exodus chapter 3 in class,  you know, where a bush begins to burn, and begins to talk, and instructs Moses to take off his shoes and come closer – and lo and behold, Moses does what the bush commands! One of the girls timidly raises her hand. “Chaplain K, if a bush started talking to me I think I would be somewhat skeptical…this just seems too strange.”

And it is strange, isn’t it? And yet….

Epiphanies come in a variety of experiences. Some are extremely flamboyant, like the burning bush, or Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal. And some are more subtle, like a man with a charcoal fire on the shore of Galilee calling out to some tired and confused fishermen, “Come, and have breakfast.”

How the divine, how the holy, chooses to find us, touch us, make contact with us is as varied as there are stars in the sky and grains of sand on the seashore. Some of us recognize it right away. Others of us ignore it, brush it off, write it off as simply impossible, or, another annoyance in a life seemingly filled with annoyances. It is a curious thing to ponder why in a particular time in a particular place in a particular frame of mind suddenly, without warning, we recognize the presence of the holy – a message from the divine realm, however we might know or define that to be – even if we only acknowledge that it has without a doubt come from someone or somewhere beyond our self.

I heard the student’s concern. With earnestness she wanted to know, “How can this be?” Let’s face it, all through the Bible people say just that, “How can this be?” So here was an opportunity – a moment of question and wonder that could too easily pass us by – too easily be overlooked by a need to “get through the material” that needed to be covered in that day’s class.

I stopped, looked out at the thirteen girls all seeking some sort of answer to what was not exactly a question, but that they all were thinking along with her.

“Once while shopping for Christmas presents long ago,” I began. I was in a book store in Oak Park, Illinois – Kroch’s and Brentano’s. I had picked up a volume off the shelf by Thomas Merton: Love and Living. It was a slim volume of essays, and I opened to one titled “Love and Solitude.” I stood in the aisle amidst dozens of other holiday shoppers and began to read the first paragraph: “No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and the peace that is “heard” when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests. But what can the wind say where there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.”

All of a sudden I found myself on a beach. A wave washed over me, awakening me to a voice that seemed to be saying, “It is time for you to go to seminary and become an Episcopal priest.” I was surprised, and somewhat skeptical myself, but could not manage to utter anything much more than, “What?” Another wave crashed over me, and the voice said again, “It is time for you to go to seminary and become an Episcopal priest…” How long I stood there on the beach I will never know. It seemed like a very long time, until the cash register rang up another sale at Kroch’s and Brentano’s. I looked around, and there were the shoppers crowding the aisles, the volume of Thomas Merton still in my hands, and today, here I am, Chaplain in an Episcopal Girls Boarding School teaching World Religions and English. So, is it really so strange that a bush burns and is not consumed, and that the bush talks to Moses and convinces him to challenge Pharaoh to let God’s people go? Or, that Jesus somehow manages to turn water into wine?

We all may need to ponder that for a while. I know I did. It would be another two years before I was actually cleared by Bishop George N. Hunt to attend The General Theological Seminary in NYC. But I was in good company. After all, Jesus took time out in the wilderness to try to take-in just what the words he heard at his baptism in the River Jordan might mean, “You are my Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” This and things like burning bushes are what in theological terms we call epiphanies – something of the holy appears to us, from we know not where and we know not how.

We are in the season of Epiphany – a season of epiphanies in what can be a lifetime of epiphanies. My dear friend Katerina Whitley writes, “This is not magic. This is the true connection to the Creator. Every Epiphany is a moment of creation, even for us. Let us allow the Light to shine for us and through us to lead us to reveal God’s power to the weak, God’s love for the neglected, God’s mercy for all us, sinners.” [Sermons That Work]

Jesus changed water into wine, people believed in him, and lives were and continue to be changed. Moses listened to a burning bush, people believed in him, and thousands of people were delivered from slavery into freedom. It is important for us to believe not only in Jesus and Moses, but to believe that like them we too can experience the holy in deep and liberating ways.

In another book, Thoughts In Solitude, Merton asserts that society depends on people who are attentive to their inherent interior solitude. “To be a person implies responsibility and freedom, and both these imply a certain interior solitude, a sense of personal integrity, a sense of one’s own reality and one’s ability to give him or herself to society – or to refuse that gift….No amount of technological progress will cure the hatred that eats away the vitals of materialistic society like a spiritual cancer. The only cure is, and must always be, spiritual. There is not much use talking to people about God and love if they are not able to listen. The ears with which one hears the message of the Gospel are hidden in one’s heart, and these ears do not hear anything unless they are favored with a certain interior solitude and silence.”

Solitude can be accessed in Centering Prayer, in a quiet moment on a mountain top, at a wedding reception, or standing in the aisle of a bustling and busy bookstore. Epiphany is a bracketed season between Christmas and Lent given to us as a time to ponder such things as solitude, listening for God’s voice, attending to our interior “hearing,” love, and living. For those who accept this gift of time to reflect, the rewards are unlimited – and are necessary for us to make our individual and collective contributions to the common good, the community, and world in which we live. At the end of the day I am convinced that The Bible, that much maligned and misunderstood collection of books and eternal wisdom, means for us all to know that each of us has the capacity to make a difference in the world just as did Jesus and Moses and so many before us. In the fourteenth chapter of John Jesus even promises that those who follow in his way will do the things that he did, “and greater things than these will you do.” Amen.

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