Traditions of Celebration

Published by Trevor Bechtel on

Scripture Reading and Reflections – Max Eckard

As we planned today’s service, Trevor and I thought that the model Jodie and Nelson offered last week of diving into the lectionary text with scripture readings, reflections, and a message seemed to work relatively well, and so we’re repeating it today. I’ll read scripture, offer some of my own brief reflections prompted by the text, and Trevor will conclude with a message related to a recent celebration he and Susan attended.

  • Isaiah 62:1-5

Isaiah’s words, here and elsewhere, are among the best known, and most stirring, of the Hebrew Bible. And here, in the latter part of the Book of Isaiah, all of the harshness and condemnation and reproach of the various enemies of Israel that characterizes much the earlier part of the book–portions of which might make us cringe–seems to have been forgotten. The tone is one of comfort and reconciliation; judgment has taken place and restoration is at hand.

So, a couple of things that I found interesting…

We’re told that Zion/Jerusalem will be delivered and vindicated. And through this vindication, the “nations” and the “rulers” are not only going to see God’s “integrity” and “splendor,” but the integrity and splendor of Zion itself. As I understand it, this is a theme that runs through this part of Isaiah: the things that are glorious about God are the same things that are shared by God with God’s people, which seems important. 

God will bestow on Zion a “new name,” and there is power in naming things… it helps make them real for us. And, so, it is significant that Zion/Jerusalem is going from being named–or “identified,” or “marked”–as something negative, i.e., “Forsaken,” and “Desolate,” to something positive, if reflective of the culture at the time, i.e., “My Delight is in Her,” and “Married.”  

And this leads into this beautiful picture of God’s joy and delight in being joined together with God’s people. Just as a newly married couple “rejoice over each other, so will” God rejoice over God’s people. 

And so, as I reflect on the passage as a whole, I see this overwhelming picture of celebration, praise, and delight. These are familiar, even if I’m not always ready, as Isaiah indicates, to see them as God’s own posture towards me, or us, the community of God’s people. Because yes, we praise God–we’re doing that right now!–but it’s also true that God celebrates and delights in us, too.

  • Psalm 36:5-10

Again, there’s a theme of celebration, and there’s this movement from the earlier part of the Psalm–not included in this week’s Lectionary text–that decries the “sinfulness of sin,” to this latter part which lauds God’s goodness toward all people and creatures, whether human or animal. God shows personal attention and care for all creatures, however small and strange they may be, an inclusive hope for the whole earth and for the restoration of the whole creation.

The Psalm also makes a connection between love and faithfulness, the kind of steady devotion to people (i.e., to piling in the car together to see the Star of Bethlehem, literally or metaphorically!)–or things or concepts–that Jodie talked about last week. By attending to this kind of faithfulness, or to our traditions, we open ourselves up to new possibilities of life, and celebration, and abundance. 

It also connects love and faithfulness to justice, a theme Trevor will pick up on later, and which is appropriate for the eve of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a man who 

lifted up a dream and confirmed it as God’s, 

who quickened the conscience of this country 

and the human family around the globe, 

whose courage and commitments, vision and enthusiasm and joy(!) 

brace our spirits and fire our wills.

Finally, there’s a verse in there, verse 9: “In you is the wellspring of Life, and in your light we become enlightened.” There’s a reference to this verse in the hymn, “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing,” which we’re about to play (granted the translation from the Inclusive Bible is different). This was a song that was played at Ashley and my wedding, which was also a celebration “to last throughout the years.” So it has personal significance, as well!

  • 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

The church in Corinth, one that Paul had established, appears not to have been a happy place. Paul saw a community that was divided against itself, and one can sense his concern over the disunity in the church. And it’s in this context that we get one of the classic “spiritual gifts” passages. Paul wants to remind people where their gifts come from and get them to use them well.

I was really taken by verses 4-7. There are a variety of gifts, ministries, and outcomes, but the same Spirit, the same One, and the Same God is working in all of them. It’s almost as if the diversity is what we can see with our eyes, but the unity bit… it’s unknown, it requires an act of faith. It requires us to trust God and to trust each other. 

I do know that there is this danger of treating “unity” as a kind of club to get minority voices to quiet down and get along, so we–especially those of us who land on the dominant side of culture and identity–need to make space for the different ways God is revealed. While these gifts need to be discerned in all circumstances, Paul tells us that it’s the same God who activates all of them. This same Spirit is trying to lead us to new places and this diversity helps us get there.

It also offers a hope that, in community life, one oriented toward cooperation and responsibility rather than competition and exploitation, these gifts can not only sustain us individually, but also lure us towards the “common good,” as Paul puts it, as we, with the help of the Spirit, discern divinity in process. 

  • John 2:1-11

Finally, the Wedding at Cana! One of my favorite stories in all of the Bible. While John seems to use it as one of seven signs to prove the divinity of Jesus, and while the standard interpretation seems to be that Jesus, himself, is the “good wine” from water in stone jars for Jewish ceremonial washings, my own take is that Jesus being invited to a wedding, attending, and using his divine power to save celebrations from disaster, as well as God’s lavish provision, God’s concern over a host’s embarrassment about a poorly planned wedding party, and the importance of bounteous celebrations of life and love, also has a lot to say about what it means to be human. 

However, since Trevor actually went to a wedding celebration yesterday, I’ll pass things over to him!

I married my father in law this weekend. It was a lovely small gathering. Susan’s Father Arlin and his new bride Pat Massanari brought together their close family about 10 people in total at Greencroft, the Mennonite retirement facility here and we have a lovely meal afterwards in the private dining room of an Elkhart Italian restaurant. People had wine, but happily since it was a group of Mennonites gathered in each other’s company, we didn’t run out. The most miraculous thing about the day was that Susan’s brother, sister in law and niece who live in New Zealand were able to participate in the day via Zoom.

And so the events of this week and what I’ve been looking forward to this weekend, have been bouncing around in my head along with both these lectionary texts, as well as a selection from Psalm 16 which we used at the wedding, and the question of what can we hope for in our lives, still fresh from Nelson and Jo’s reflection last week and their idea that doing the things we are meant to do, day in and day out, week in and week out, year in and year out, might dispose us to receive God’s grace in sudden mysterious ways. The texts this week though are less about the sudden and mysterious and more about the expected. The miracle that happens through the regular functioning of a world moving through its paces in the way we have set it up to work. This predictability is a miracle, as we have so many opportunities to recognize during a surge of covid, when everything stops functioning, and we wonder, just how close to the brink we actually are. 

Mary is the expert in knowing what to hope for. I love how she balances scarcity and abundance, wants and needs, with an absoutely razor sharp wit in her statement, “They have no wine”

Jesus reply shows how cunning Mary is, because it’s definitely one of those moments where Jesus the jerk shines through his regular demeanor. Who talks back to their mother with a line like, “Mother, what does that have to do with me?” I mean we all do, right. We all bristle at least to some extent under the expectation of our parents. It’s part of the messy, chaotic passing down of traditions from one generation to another. 

Anyways, back to Mary’s request, because it is a request. She names that the wedding has run out of wine, and tells Jesus that “they” have run out. They could be anyone here, the marrying couple, their families who are hosting, the waiters, the gathered community. Mary is smart in not specifying who needs more wine. And of course the question of whether anyone ever needs more wine jumps in, and we realize this is a request about abundance. No-one ever needs more wine; but we might want it sometimes when we are celebrating, and it is that want that Mary magnifies for Jesus. And she just names it, but it comes off as a minor injustice when I listen to her say it. It’s something for Jesus to fix. 

Jesus hears it, but there is a good possibility that he already knows that they are out of wine. He’s observant and he would notice the waiter pouring a bit less into people’s glass over time. He’d certainly notice them pouring a bit less into his glass. And the implication for him is not just about this wedding here and now. It is about the heavenly feast at the end of time. Jesus gets that Mary is putting in front of him the the entirety of human expectation that God work in the world to get things put right. Not just what we need, but what we want. When Jesus makes the connection between the wedding at Cana and the heavenly feast Mary must have known that Jesus was going to fulfill her request and so like anyone interested in the good functioning of an event she communicates to the waiters that any request, no matter how unexpected from Jesus should be fulfilled. Jesus deftly works with multiple traditions at this point, exceeding the request in every director: Ceremonial Washing supplies the vessel, and the practice of serving the best wine first provides one other tradition of scarcity to transform into abundance. Jesus creates a minimum of 90 gallons of wine none of which can be reasonably saved for the next day. 

Jesus exceeds these traditions but Jesus also shows Gods interest in the shape of human life. This, the first of his miracles, is set deeply inside the context of human connection. 

Yesterdays wedding in Goshen was a different affair but it followed some of the same patterns. One of the things that happens when elders marry is that a tradition that is often about the beginning of stability in young lives, the expectation of a new generation, and a certain kind of physical release has different valences. 

Arlin and Pat have been friends for a long time. And when they began to connect recently they did so as friends, doing the things you had always done, connecting in the ways you have always connected. And out of this everyday connection they decided you wanted to spend more time connecting together. 

There wedding was a good working out of the scripture they chose which has many echoes with our Psalm for this morning. 

Theirs was from Psalm 16:

A miktam of David

Yahweh is my chosen portion and my cup;

    you hold my lot.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;

    I have a goodly heritage.

I keep Yahweh always before me;

    because God is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

I’m a different kind of jerk that Jesus but in working out their wedding sermon I chose to focus the type of psalm 16 is, a miktam. 

Because we have no idea what a miktam is. There are six miktam’s in the Psalms, but our only context for the word is that it appears in the Psalms.

Maybe a miktam is a musical style, like the beautiful solo guitar we heard Mike play at the beginning of this service, or a type of poetic meter that we no longer know how to count, but it could just as easily be a soup recipe that is good for meditation and commonly accompanied these prayers. We don’t know what it is but these things do all have something in common. You don’t get a musical or poetic genre or a recipe without a lot of repetition. People play songs or cook food in similar or the same ways and over time with lots of daily effort and practice a tradition arises. This rule is just as true for sports as it is for science. And it is also the grammar of faith. The things we practice day by day become skills, these skills become habits that we can do without noticing and these habits become personalities for individuals and traditions for families or communities. In this way traditions are meaningful, especially when we are able to be reflective about them and how they have shaped us.

A miktam related to other words that mean covering, and in modern Hebrew it has come to mean an epigram, but this word is an example of a tradition that has become separated from the contexts that originally gave it meaning and now it exists as a cipher floating through our culture. Traditions can be like this. We don’t know why we are doing something, other than that we have always done it. Traditions can also be dangerous when they force us into boxes replicating the bad behavior of previous generations as we see throughout our society today. 

It does strike me that assessing how we live into our traditions is a bit more complicated that 1 Corinthians suggests. I do hear many people who say “Jesus Christ reigns supreme” who I would say are NOT under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Actually, I hear almost no one who says, “Jesus Christ reigns supreme” … People say “Jesus Christ is Lord” which is how most translations render this phrase. Perhaps the Inclusive Bible which excises Lord from its text does the work of narrowing the trajectory to the acceptable outcomes, but I do think we do well to struggle with the fact that there are many people in our country who claim “Jesus Christ is Lord” but who mean something very different that we do. These different phrasing are not like miktam something lost to the sands of time, but how we bring words into the present is open to a variety of meaning which we need to attend to. 

The meaning of the juxtaposition of passages here is clear. God honors many gifts through the inspiration of the spirit. We should expect that our communal life is characterized by growth and change and newness like a set of ceremonial washing jars now filled with wine. God attends to the shape of our lives and expects to bring out good things from the things that we are interested in. 

There are still challenges for us here, but our passages do also give us a clear focus on justice which does bring out a necessary additional shape to the other things that we may be invested in as humans. The day before Martin Luther King day reminds me of how contested justice as a concept is, but also how important it is that we celebrate it. 

King was right about a lot of things, more than the 10 people charged with sedition this week, or Mark Schlissel president of the University of Michigan, fired yesterday for impropriety, or Novak Djokovic, turned out of Australia for refusing to get vaccinated and lying about the particulars. But like Schlissel King was also guilty of improper sexual relationships.  King was a the center of a movement for justice that was so powerful that we are still benefiting form its vision. We need King and the witness of his disciples, but we don’t need to make him into a hero in order to recognize out debt to him. 

The work of forming ourselves together into communities where we expect justice, like Mary, and figure out what it means is difficult. But like Jo suggested last week, it is the work of coming together and expecting that we will have epiphanies some sudden and mysterious and some expected about how we move forward. 

The last thread I need to draw on here is that of joy. These lectionary passages, even when they recognize the need of justice all push us towards joy. 

The joy of abundance

The joy of diverse gifts, 

The joy of God’s constancy

The joy of justice.

I’m struck that these diverging emotions of celebration and justice are mostly unresolved here, but in many ways that’s very appropriate to our celebration of communion; something that we aren’t necessary sure we know about. One thing we do know about communion is that it is a time of gathering us together.

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