I’ve been reading Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. She wrote about an All Saints Day Celebration that included an acknowledgment of the work of a woman named Alma White. Alma White had founded the Pillar of Fire Church in Denver, Colorado, way back in 1901. Bolz-Weber was astounded. “Did a woman plant a church in Denver in 1901?” In researching she found out that Alma White became the first female bishop in the United States – back in 1918. This, truly, was a woman to be remembered – to be counted among the saints!
Then she read further. Alma White was noted for her feminism (yay!) and her association with – the Klu Klux Klan. She was noted for her anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, anti-Pentecostalism, racism, and her hostility to immigrants.
She told a friend about Alma White, expecting the same anger that the woman’s biography had generated in her. The friend responded, “E-mail me her name. I’ll add her to the Litany of Saints along with all the other broken people of God.”
Today’s gospel story is one of my favorites. John shows the beginning of Jesus’ ministry not as some dry lecture, but as a celebration – a party. Jesus didn’t go to point out everything that was wrong. He went to participate in a joyous ritual – a ritual that provided a break from everyday life. And, when the harsh realities of scarcity threatened the celebration, he provided the wine needed for the party to continue. He not only provided wine, he provided the finest wine. “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,” the steward said to the bridegroom.
The gospel writer tells us that this is the first of Jesus’ signs. Jesus’ glory was revealed. His disciples believed in him. We are invited to marvel at the abundance – six stone water jars each holding twenty or thirty gallons – suddenly hold wine. The party could continue. There was an abundance of grace – evident in the finest wine!
Last week, as I was thinking about Jesus’ baptism, I was struck by John’s distinction between the baptism he offered and the baptism that the Messiah would offer. “I baptize you with water, but One who is more powerful than I is coming. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John’s baptism was a cleansing. Although the setting was different – the Jordan River -- It would have reminded people of the rites of purification. The baptism by Holy Spirit is something more than a mere cleansing. It is being baptized into the ways, the agenda, into the call of God. Here, Jesus took the stone water jars – meant to hold the water for the rites of purification – and turned the water in them into wine. No longer were they filled with water to cleanse – but with wine to fill, to satisfy, to intoxicate with the joy of God’s presence. This sign points to Jesus’ ministry which invites people to be transformed. He takes the water, placed in the jars used for an external ritual, and offers the finest of wine – something to be tasted and something to be enjoyed. It is a foretaste of his ministry which will offer God’s presence within.
Paul wrote: Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. I pulled the book Healing the Purpose of Your Life off the shelf. The authors, Dennis, Matthew, and Sheila Fabricant Linn, write about finding what it is God calls us each to do. They call it discovering our “sealed orders” from God. The question they use is: What is the unique way I was created to give and receive love in this world? They use Jean Houston’s observation that it is about finding our essence. “By essence,” she said, “I mean that part of our nature we recognize as the god in hiding, the source quality or soul quality that links us to our highest becoming, that transcends time and space, life and death.”
I thought of this gospel story, the story of fine wine hidden, in a sense, in water jugs. God, through Christ, invites us to be transformed – to become the fine wine that delights the world, that offers hope and healing, that offers true sustenance and joy. Perhaps we are like the stone jars. Sometimes, as God’s people, we look at the rituals, the traditions, and the everyday practices that have shaped our faith lives. We’re satisfied with being the water that cleanses, but doesn’t really change us or the world. “I go to church every Sunday. I do what God expects.” The wonder of Jesus’ ministry is that he invites us to something deeper, something more profound – something more satisfying and meaningful.
Coming back to Bolz-Weber’s story. She was, at first, astounded by the story of Alma White. Then she became angry – because Alma White was a mixed bag of faithfulness. But, she mused, after her friend had said that Alma White would be added to the list of the saints who are the broken people of God, isn’t that always true?
Time has given a new perspective on aspects of that woman’s faith. We see the shortcomings born of the time in which she lived, born of age-old traditions and assumptions. A century after she lived, some of her contributions can be celebrated. Some can be recognized as a misinterpretation of God’s good news.
On our way back to the airport after Mark’s family gathering, we drove by the first church I served – a little country church. It is where Mark and I got married and where our daughter was baptized. My sister-in-law had sent me messages recently that the congregation was leaving the denomination and the building. Then she sent a message that the presbytery was closing the church with a service – to which I was invited – in Advent! She thought the building had been sold. We drove by on a snowy day. I was reminded of when I moved there – also a snowy day, a very snowy icy day. I drove right into a ditch! I was reminded of my installation service on a cold, snowy January evening. I had some difficult memories –some related to the housing they had provided – less than adequate, and others that grew out the conflicts between an outsider coming into a community that was wary of strangers and traditions and expectations that had been handed down through the generations.
Bolz-Weber’s struggles with seeing Alma White as a saint – one of the broken people of God – made me look back at the time in that church in a new way. I needed to remember the “wine” that flowed from them. I asked the women of the church to cater our wedding reception. I asked for something extremely simple – a picnic style luncheon with cold cuts and bread to make sandwiches. We arrived and found an astonishing spread, beautifully laid out. Everyone had contributed. During the time I served that church, they agreed to set up a food cupboard that served the neighborhood. They took care of each other.
So, with joy I remember Muriel who arranged flowers every Sunday and who taught the women’s Bible study. I remembered my daughter’s church grandmas – the women who welcomed her into their pews on Sundays when Mark worked. I remember the crib loaned to us by Jim and Helen – a crib that every child care book would have disallowed, but was lovingly hand made. I remember Pete and Clarence who puttered around the church, making sure things worked. I remember Lucille – organist and treasurer who loved her church. I also remember the racism, the pain of the sexism that tainted our relationship, the unwillingness or inability to try new things and welcome new people. They were, like me, like all of us, the broken people of God. Yet, at times the wine of God’s presence flowed freely through them and from them. They were a testament and witness to the God of hope and love.
We are all called. We all have gifts. That’s Paul’s message. Those different gifts become the fine wine that brings the joys of God’s new creation to the world around us. The Linns ask, “What are you most grateful for today? What are you least grateful for? If you were to ask yourself these questions every day, what pattern would you see?” I might add that God’s call always moves us and those around us to reconciliation, justice, mercy, acceptance, healing and love. Jesus didn’t judge the bridegroom for having run out of wine. He didn’t judge those who gathered to celebrate. He gave the wine – a sign of God’s presence, mercy, and glory. He gave it to all God’s broken people.
Christmas Eve Service
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