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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Like Water to Wine: A Sermon

Like Water to Wine
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
January 17, 2010
Martin Luther King

Isaiah 62:1-5
John 2:1-11
Excerpt from Letter from Birmingham Jail

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist....But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.


I am reading the new book by evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. I am reading it in anticipation for Evolution Sunday coming up in February. He isn’t writing this book without a context and a reason. On the cover panel of his book, the publisher wrote:
In 2008, a Gallup poll showed that 44 percent of Americans believed God had created man in his present form within the last 10,000 years. In a Pew Forum poll in the same year, 42 percent believed that all life on earth has existed in its present form since the beginning of time.
Dawkins writes how frustrating it is to teach when you are constantly fighting this backlash of superstition. His book is great. It shows evidence for evolution. He says evolution is a fact. He writes:
Our present beliefs about many things may be disproved, but we can with complete confidence make a list of certain facts that will never be disproved. Evolution and the heliocentric theory [the theory that Earth goes around the sun] weren’t always among them, but they are now. p. 17
He goes on to say:
In the rest of this book, I shall determine that evolution is an inescapable fact, and celebrate its astonishing power, simplicity and beauty. P.18
Which is the point. It is the greatest show on Earth. Perhaps the greatest story ever told. We should be teaching it and celebrating it in school and in church with religious fervor. We need to sing hymns to the glory of natural selection. I am serious.

Dawkins and number of scientists and theologians wrote a letter to the Prime Minister regarding teaching evolution in school. Apparently, Great Britain is being hounded by the superstitious as is America. If 44 % of Americans believe that God created Earth as it is 10,000 years ago, this should be a problem for church as well as science. While he is happy that enlightened bishops and theologians are writing letters, they need to do more. He writes:
To return to the enlightened bishops and theologians, it would be nice if they’d put a bit more effort into combating the anti-scientific nonsense that they deplore. All too many preachers, while agreeing that evolution is true and Adam and Eve never existed, will then blithely go into the pulpit and make some moral or theological point about Adam and Eve in their sermons without once mentioning that, of course, Adam and Eve never actually existed! If challenged, they will protest that they intended a purely ‘symbolic’ meaning, perhaps something to do with ‘original sin’, or the virtues of innocence. They may add witheringly that, obviously, nobody would be so foolish as to take their words literally. But do their congregations know that? How is the person in the pew, or on the prayer-mat, supposed to know which bits of scripture to take literally, which symbolically? Is it really so easy for an uneducated churchgoer to guess? In all too many cases the answer is clearly no, and anybody could be forgiven for feeling confused.
Dawkins isn’t finished. He pushes his point:
Think about it, Bishop. Be careful, Vicar. You are playing with dynamite, fooling around with a misunderstanding that’s waiting to happen—one might even say almost bound to happen if not forestalled. Shouldn’t you take greater care, when speaking in public, to let your yea be yea and your nay be nay? Lest ye fall into condemnation, shouldn’t you be going out of your way to counter that already extremely widespread popular misunderstanding and lend active and enthusiastic support to scientists and science teachers? Pp. 7-8
That is Richard Dawkins in his book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. I hope you will all read it.

I agree with Dawkins and I thank natural selection for him. I am also thankful for religious scholars like Bishop Spong, Robert Funk, Marcus Borg (who by the way is going to be at Lees McRae College in February) and the Jesus Seminar for bringing religious literacy to the public. Superstition is not good for a nation.

I am thankful for Uta Ranke-Heinemann. She was the first woman professor of Catholic theology in Germany; she taught in the theology faculty at the University of Essen. In 1987, the Catholic Church declared her ineligible to teach theology after she pronounced the virgin birth a theological belief and not a biological fact.

You can’t make this stuff up. This is where we are.

She transferred to history of religion and continued to teach until her retirement at the College of Essen. This is what is says on the back of her book, Putting Away Childish Things:
When Uta Ranke-Heinemann’s Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven was published a few years ago, it was immediately condemned by New York’s Cardinal O’Connor, who likened it to “scrawling dirty words about the Church on bathroom walls.” The uproar that ensued made Ranke-Heinemann’s devastating critique, in which she accused the Church “of degrading women and undermining the sexuality of believers”, the most controversial religious bestseller of the 90s.

In this comprehensive new book she goes much further and dismantles virtually all of the Church’s doctrines as a distortion of Jesus’ real message and of authentic Christian faith. She shows how the Church requires its members to remain lifelong children and to believe without questioning that mythic tales about Jesus are literal historical facts.
Her book is Putting Away Childish Things, how the myths behind the Church’s key doctrines--such as the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, the empty tomb--distort Jesus’ real message.

So...energized by a good dose of rationalism by Dawkins and Ranke-Heinemann, what do we make of Jesus’ first miracle, turning water into wine?

The author of John’s gospel says it was the first sign that Jesus performed. There are a number of these signs in John that are numbered. They probably come from an earlier collection of miracle stories attributed to Jesus from which the author draws.

David Friedrich Strauss called this a luxury miracle. It didn’t really help people in need unless as Heinemann put it: “it’s genuine human distress when people who are already drunk have nothing left to wet their whistle with.” P. 80.

Although theologians have spent much time and spilled much ink over the meaning of this story, it really means little more than the story in the infancy gospel of Thomas where the child Jesus turns clay pigeons into real ones. Both are amusing fables.

Turning water to wine is a miracle story that was invented and attributed to Jesus. Heinemann writes:
Incidentally, some people are disturbed that Jesus snapped so rudely at his mother in this episode and even refused to call her Mother: “O woman, what have you to do with me?” But anyone fretting about this can rest assured that Jesus never did anything of the sort.” P. 81
The Jesus Seminar colored nearly all of the Gospel of John black in terms of whether or not the historical Jesus said or did the things attributed to him. Red meaning definite yes, black meaning definite no. This story is representative of the Gospel of John—complete fiction.

Where did it come from? This story appears in the lectionary around the time of Epiphany which means appearance. On the feast of Epiphany, the church has used three stories to celebrate the divine revealing—the arrival of the wise men, Jesus’ baptism, and the wedding at Cana. The common lectionary spreads these stories out over successive Sundays.

Epiphany is January 6th. Another god celebrated his divine epiphany on the 6th of January, the god of wine, Dionysus or Bacchus for the Romans.

The feast of Dionysus to whom legends of turning water into wine are also attributed celebrated his epiphany to the world. According to Heinemann:
On his feast day, Dionysus made empty jars fill up with wine in his temple in Elis; and on the island of Andros, wine flowed instead of water from a spring in his temple. P. 82
The religion of Dionysus would have been popular when the Christians decided that January 6th would be a good day to read the story of Jesus turning water into wine.

What we have here is an ancient one upmanship or one upgodship. Our god is better than your god. Jesus is better than Dionysus. To put it simply, in the words of the great New Testament scholar, Rudolph Bultmann:
“No doubt the story [of the marriage feast at Cana] has been borrowed from pagan legends and transferred to Jesus.” P. 82 Heinemann
Now we might say even if it is fiction that it still can have value. We can still have fun, right? Well sure, I don’t doubt that. Let your imagination run as wild as the wine. Jesus is a party god. Celebration, joy, marriage, love, all are blessed by the Cosmic Christ. Instead of ‘our god is better than your god’ we can celebrate that our religions are all inter-related and they all have roots and common symbols. The symbol of wine, the fruit of the vine, is a reminder to take notice of the pleasures of life and to enjoy what we can when we can.

On another day I might have left it there. To reflect on that story today seems rather shallow. We can’t read the scriptures without also reading the news. Haiti is in the news. The people of Haiti need a real miracle of real water and real food and real medicine and real shelter and real healing. They need it quickly and they will need it for a long time to come. Are we up for participating in that kind of miracle?

I don’t take much stock in miracle fables attributed to Jesus. Those who argue for their reality, I say, so what then is the miracle-working Jesus doing for the people of Haiti? Or did he just do all those tricks in the past that we are supposed to believe and then call it a day? Then you get all kinds of theological backtracking and often bizarre and callous comments like those that come from the lips of televangelist, Pat Robertson.

However, if Jesus whether the historical person or the divine legend that humans created, can inspire compassionate action, then I am all for him. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we honor this weekend, was inspired by Jesus. King’s letter from Birmingham Jail was a piece of genius in the way he showed his hypocritical colleagues what Jesus was about. King took the stories about Jesus as models for ethics and action. The hatred of prejudice needed a miracle to overcome. King’s creative extremism was exactly that miracle. Like Jesus, King wrote, we need to be extremists for love.

Maybe water to wine can be a symbol for creative extremism.

Probably more than anything right now, the people of Haiti need the help that comes from relief agencies. You know as well as I do the agencies that are out there. I personally vouch for the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. It doesn’t just help church people. It doesn’t stop helping once the news organizations have stopped reporting. PDA has already been working in Haiti in response to the hurricanes. If you would like to give to them, instructions are in the bulletin.

To inspire your giving, in addition to the plethora of Jesus stories, I offer this story from the Buddhist tradition. This story to my mind captures the true spirit of religion. This is from a wonderful little book called Zen Flesh, Zen Bones:
Tetsugen, a devotee of Zen in Japan, decided to publish the Sutras, which at that time were only available in Chinese. The books were to be printed with wood blocks in an edition of seven thousand copies, a tremendous undertaking.

Tetsugen began by traveling and collecting donations for this purpose. A few sympathizers would give him a hundred pieces of gold, but most of the time he received only small coins. He thanked each donor with equal gratitude. After ten years Tetsugen had enough money to begin his task.

It happened that at the time the Uji River overflowed. Famine followed. Tetsugen took the funds he had collected for the books and spent them to save the others from starvation. Then he began again his work of collecting.

Several years afterwards an epidemic spread over the country. Tetsugen again gave away what he had collected, to help his people.

For a third time he started his work, and after twenty years his wish was fulfilled. The printing block which produced the first edition of sutras can be seen today in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto.

The Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen made three sets of sutras, and the first two invisible sets surpass even the last. p. 35
Amen.
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