Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘Martin Luther King’


Matthew 5:1-12

hatenohomeWhat do I do now?
How can I be a kind, loving, and authentic person in this moment?

Pertinent and difficult questions.

You see, I can only imagine what it was like for the more than half a million people who participated in the women’s march on Washington D.C. last Saturday, January, 21st, 2017. I can only imagine what it was like to have marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and 200,000 others on August 28, 1963, for the rally known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I can only imagine what it was like for people to give up their careers, religious practice, and in some cases, their families—to follow Jesus of Nazareth. I am not being overly dramatic. Sometimes we forget the privileges we have. I have never experienced war. No one has come to my house, telling me that I am now relocated and must leave at that very moment. I have never been told that my gender identification or expression is not acceptable at the workplace or that it is not “right” or not “of god.” And I have never been denied the right to marry a person I love, just because I’m gay. I have not been told that because I’m from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen or Mexico that I’m not welcome here, and that I may be a terrorist or a criminal or a “job stealer.” I have never been told what I can or cannot do with my body, as women are.

What do I do now?
How can I be a kind, loving, and authentic person in this moment?

This is what I am asking right now, today, in this very moment.

I’m not alone and nor are you. Others are asking these questions. So much of what we see, read, and hear is negative, heavy, and divisive. Some of it is even fake. How much is positive, uplifting, and bridge-building? As I reflected on the amazingly under-quoted beatitudes of Jesus of Nazareth in Matthew’s Gospel, I wondered:

What do I do now?
How can I be a kind, loving, and authentic person in this moment?

You see, author Kurt Vonnegut once wrote:

“For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. ‘Blessed are the merciful’ in a courtroom? ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”

It’s true, you know. Where are these “attitudes” of “being” in our lives?

Let’s remove the spiritual veil from them. In Matthew’s story, Jesus goes up a mountain, just like Moses would when he spoke with Yahweh. So what is to follow is big. But it wasn’t really a mountain probably, but a plain–a raised hill, and there were not 200,000 or half a million people as at famous D.C. marches. Those gathered were Jesus’ closest disciples and they needed to hear Jesus’ urgent plea for how they would be in the world.

What were they to do now?
How could they be kind, loving, and authentic people in that moment?

You see, remember that this story in Matthew was written after the fact. Those who wrote this already knew what happened to Jesus of Nazareth. He was arrested, tortured, and killed. They wrote that with this in mind.

What were they to do now?
How could they be kind, loving, and authentic people in that moment?

What follows is beauty, at least I think so. Jesus says that there are certain people who are “blessed” or better yet, “risk-takers and well-traveled, and favored by Yahweh.” But notice that they are not the rich, or the religious, or successful, or the strong, or the full, or the powerful, or the loud voices or the war-seekers and makers. In the beatitudes according to Jesus, you don’t have to be famous, rich, or powerful to be blessed. In fact, no. You don’t have to be born in a prosperous country to be blessed. You don’t have to be considered “normal” or even “American” to be blessed. In God’s eyes, those who are blessed and favored are those who are on the margins.

And those who love those on the margins are following Jesus.

I know it is a critical time. I realize that for many this is a scary and uncertain time. But we cannot give into fear or apathy. Today we must ask:

What do I do now?
How can I be a kind, loving, and authentic person in this moment?

This matters to your family, your school, your church, your community, the world.

Those of us who identify as followers of this Jesus, we are called to BE people who love our neighbors even when our government says they are not welcome; we are called to be with the vulnerable and to welcome the stranger, regardless of which country they come from, what religion they practice, or what is the popular sentiment at the time. As my colleague and mentor, the founder and director of Interfaith Youth Core, Eboo Patel recently wrote:

“It’s the time for us. It’s the moment for us. How we respond to it is how this story turns out.”

 What will we do now? How will be kind, loving, and authentic people in this moment?


Reconciling Light

John 1:29-42

reconciledWe form memories in our heads of events and people—long after the moment passed or the person passed. These memories, uniquely ours and certainly not entirely accurate—become the reality we place on that event or person.

I can tell you plenty of stories about my childhood and adolescence—even a story from a few weeks ago! My story, my memory of what happened, is a creative weaving of thoughts, feelings, images, sounds, smells, and cognitive processes. But my memory isn’t perfect. Sometimes I put two events together and make them one. I combine sensory experiences with other moments in my life, even though they don’t belong together. I remember eating a goat cheese romaine lettuce salad three months ago and actually, it wasn’t a salad that I ate, but in fact sautéed kale with pine nuts. I tell stories about my high school days and how my friend Derrick did this thing or another thing, but actually it wasn’t Derrick, it was my other friend Ralph.

This doesn’t mean that we all just lose our minds as we get older, because kids do it, too. I was reminding my nephew George the other day of a hilarious thing he said a few months ago. We were talking about candy and George said:

Uncle Josh, we don’t get much candy here…we’re vegetarians.

Of course, when I told George this story, he made a face and pointed at me, saying:

No, Uncle Josh, I didn’t say that…you did!

Only time will tell if George will remember my version of the story, or his own.

Now that isn’t to say that all of our memories are just relativism. Yes, we all have our own memories of people and events, but most of us accept particular, well-known facts about experiences and people. For example, someone dies on a certain day. We typically know and accept the date. Someone graduates from school. We also have a date for that. A person lives in a particular city, speaks a certain number of languages, etc. What matters more than the simple, surface facts is how we organize our memories. Do we remember that there was love in a person’s life? And how do we know that for sure? Was something funny or sad? Do we have regret about something or do we think it was all worth it? Did an experience have a purpose or was it just random?

Today is a good day to explore this because we’re going to talk about Jesus of Nazareth again, and boy do we ever enjoy assigning memories to that guy and the stories about him.
coolJesusOverall we remember Jesus and the stories about him according to how we feel about them, who told us the stories, and what meaning we assign to them.

Enter Sarah Polley, a Canadian actor and director.

storieswetellPolley recently made a documentary called ”Stories We Tell.” The basic premise: Sarah sat down with relatives and friends and interviewed them, asking them to talk about her mother Diane Polley, who died in 1990 when Sarah was eleven years old. Here is a trailer to give you a taste:

It’s a documentary worth checking out. I am intrigued by the questions Polley poses:

Why do we have this need to tell stories? Why is it so essential to us? And why do we have this sort of desperate attachment to our versions of the past? And how do we allow for or do we allow for other versions of that past?

I think that this is particularly important as it pertains to religious stories, because sadly, throughout history, there have been too many people who have tried to say that there is only one version of the stories in our sacred books. And their version is promoted, and pushed on you, and shoved down your throat, and if they are rich and powerful enough, their version of the story becomes the version.

Sadly, such domineering storytelling can also lead to awful behavior. Sometimes the way people tell Bible stories can cause great suffering in people—some interpretations can hurt, push down, marginalize, and even bring about violence.

Appropriate now that we are exploring the Gospel of John of the New Testament of the Christian Bible. This Gospel of John has actually been the basis for the dominant view of the story of Western Christianity, actually. Yes, you may remember such passages like: I am the way, the truth and the life; for God so loved the world that God sent his only begotten son…yep. And I’m sure you have heard of such things as the Trinity [Father, Son, Holy Spirit] and the divinity and sinless nature of Jesus? These ideas come from John.

Yes, this 4th Gospel, written after the other three Gospels and not consistent with the others, is a basis for much of the theological and structural thinking of the modern-day Christian church.

I want us all to remember, though, that all the Gospels are not biographies. They are stories told in a certain way to bring about memories of Jesus in a certain way, and they are all storytelling to a particular audience.

This idea is expanded after years of research on the Gospel of John by author John Shelby Spong, in his recent book The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.

the4thgospelSpong argues that John should be read as entirely symbolic and is never meant to be taken literally. Spong, along with many other Biblical scholars, state that no one person wrote John’s Gospel [or a disciple as many think], but at least three people wrote it over a period of 25-30 years. Also, the words attributed to Jesus were most likely not actual things he said. This includes all the “I am” statements. Further, the miracles recorded in John were not meant as historical evidence of actual events. Spong continues: likewise, the characters mentioned by name in John were not real people, but characters in the story, never meant to be thought of as actual persons of the 1st Century. In fact, John’s Gospel itself, argues Spong, seems to laugh at any literal interpretation of its own stories.[1]

That view, of course, challenges the view of many who read John so literally and as a historical book. This perspective also contradicts hundreds of years of institutional church teaching that eventually created the Christian creeds and orthodoxy.

But I present to you this view of the story because it is in fact valid.

It has been a silenced view due to the louder voices who have read John as a history book.

Some have argued [and I agree] that right now, in 2014, in spite of having more archeological evidence and textual study that provides evidence that religious stories are meant to be read symbolically—

Many, many people are interpreting religious books more literally than ever before.

The earliest Christian communities did not take these stories literally. It was their tradition, both oral and written, to tell stories and to interpret events differently. How one person told stories about Jesus did not have to match another person’s story.

 Why does this matter?

Because the Gospel of John [and other Bible stories] have been used over time to push people down, to make people feel guilty, to control, manipulate, and sadly, the stories have been used to justify horrific acts of violence, genocide, slavery, and prejudice. That is why you must recognize your freedom as you read the sacred stories. Do not be limited by what I say or write, or what someone else tells you to believe. John’s story was not meant to be read one way.

And we are not meant to see Jesus in the same way, to form the same memories, and to tell exactly the same story.

Instead, we are meant to see, hear, and experience the symbols in the story and to focus on the way Jesus lived.

But there’s still a white elephant in the room.

Actually, it’s a white lamb.

lambWhat do you think of when you hear lamb of God?

We’re conditioned to think that the lamb is sent to slaughter. We are conditioned to think of Jesus in the same way.
I am a sinner, you are a sinner, so Jesus must die.
Blood must be spilled.

But John’s Gospel writers were shaped by entirely Jewish thought and religious practice. There is a special day in the Jewish liturgical calendar, known as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. [2] During Yom Kippur, you can find the phrases lamb of God, died for our sins, and washed in the blood of the lamb in the religious rites. This idea is Jewish.

But over the centuries, Western Christians applied Yom Kippur symbols to Jesus. This led to the idea that you and I deserve to be punished for our sins. That’s why, some say, that God sent Jesus to take the punishment as the sacrificial lamb.

But Yom Kippur isn’t about this at all. Yom Kippur is about turning around and leaning towards the divine. It is about the human yearning to be one with God, in other words, to discover God’s love fully and honestly, so that this love can live inside you. The John community saw in Jesus a person who fully lived with love and offered love to all people. He was light. This Jesus gave them courage to love God and their neighbor.

This Jesus had shown them that to recognize God in yourself was to recognize your full humanity.

Look, I’ve always been inspired by John’s Gospel, but not because I think the stories are literal. I am inspired by John because Jesus of Nazareth stood with and up for the forgotten, the suffering, the prisoners, the hated, and the pushed down— all those our cultures push to the margins. This Jesus doesn’t make me feel guilty at all, actually, but Jesus’ story moves me to speak up for justice, to walk with someone when no one else will; to never stay silent about injustice, and to love people as they are, above all else.

I am also inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

mlkjrI remember memorizing his speeches in junior high. I remember watching videos of the march and reading his writings from prison. Each year in this country, of course, students and others participate in service projects in observance of MLK day. That’s fine, I guess. But one day out of the year doesn’t tell the story that needs to be told. King’s life and work changed the lives of so many who were suffering horrific discrimination. Violence. Torture. Death. I cannot understand that myself. All I can do is remember something King once said:

But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return…this is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.[3]

Reconciliation is still needed badly in our world [an understatement, I know]. Beloved community is hard to find. An overflowing love that seeks nothing in return? This is rare! No, racism has not been eliminated. Yes, discrimination is alive and well–even if it takes different forms and is called by different names.

So all of us have work to do, and it will take a LOT longer than one weekend! You see, the legacy of MLK is so much more than famous quotes and speeches, service days, and book reports. His life is meant to inspire us to reconcile the broken relationships and communities in our lives. We ought to be inspired to allow our love to overflow out of our comfort zones and into the lives of people who are different than us. We ought  to build bridges of mutual understanding and trust and stand up against racism, prejudice, and oppression anywhere in the world.

And so it is with this Jesus, friends.

Why would it be any different?

Jesus’ life and work were and are so much more than quotable quotes, or names we attach to him, or church dogmas and doctrines. You see, everyone reads his story a bit differently and that’s okay. But the story of Jesus must move us to compassionate action and reconciling love, regardless of how we interpret the story.

So may the story of Jesus move you to treat everyone in your workplace with dignity, respect, and acceptance. If there is injustice, may the story move you to stand up even if it’s dangerous or unpopular.

At school, students may the story inspire you to never stay silent when a kid is being bullied, pushed down, or made fun of. May the story move you to love freely and to accept everyone as they are.

Don’t put up with racism or any kind of prejudice.
Don’t be silent when injustice is loud.
And in life, may the stories remind us of illuminating light, and of flowing waters of justice, and of beloved community, and of reconciling mercy and love.

And then, the story will not just be told, but it will be lived–again and again.



[1] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.

[2] Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious.

[3] The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma,” 1957.

PEACE: What Is It?

Isaiah 11:1-10

I thought that there was no better way to start a message and conversation about peace than to hear from the late Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela who died at the age of 95 this past Thursday, December 5th. His life and work are a testimony to what real peacemaking looks like. And that is why as we ask the difficult question today: what is peace? I wish to include Mandela in our reflection.

Often during this time of year, Advent and Christmas, the word and concept of peace can be quite superficial and abstract. We talk about Jesus as the Prince of Peace, we hear familiar words from prophets like Isaiah, we call the infant Jesus a peace child, and we sing silent night and peace on earth until we’re blue in the face. But what does it all mean really? Does one season and one day out of the year have any real, peaceful impact on our lives and on our world?

That is the question I am holding today. Do our words and beliefs about Jesus as the one who brings peace really mean anything? Or is it just a holiday tradition of hanging up pretty lights and tinsel and singing familiar carols and exchanging gifts? Is peace real? Is Christmas about peace? Do we really live peace in our lives?

I don’t know about you, but I have no interest in being calm and comfortable for a few moments on Sundays in Advent and then on Christmas eve—no interest in entering a church and singing some songs, lighting some candles, doing the same Christmas traditions—when out into the real world all is conflict, tension, and suffering. For me, hiding the tension makes me feel worse. It’s hard to sing Silent Night and Away in a Manger without thinking about kids in Syria, Palestine, Southern Sudan, West Philly, and Camden. Peace? Not so much for them. It’s painful for me to put up lights and exchange gifts when I know for a fact that there are plenty of people who see no light in their lives and don’t want gifts, because they just want food…or a job…or safety….or health.

So what is peace?

I’m coming clean here, being honest with you. This second Advent candle of peace is a tough one for me. I myself am full of tension; I’m full of conflict internally. And the world around me doesn’t seem to be cooperating.

But I do find something that speaks to me in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King:

True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.

I also find encouragement in what Nelson Mandela wrote in A Long Walk to Freedom:

When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.

Peace as the presence of justice; peace as living in such a way that brings freedom to others. This stays right with the prophet Isaiah’s perspective. For Isaiah, the people of Israel had become a stump—dead, nonmoving, apathetic, unjust. So when Isaiah speaks of a plant growing out of this dead stump, it is a hope, a dream—that the people would wake up, be alive, and bring justice and peace to their lands, to their communities—to themselves. Isaiah’s belief about God was that the presence of God [called spirit] would be obvious in people because they would live differently. They would not be dead stumps but alive in this spirit. The spirit would awaken the people as an active agent of wisdom and understanding, counsel and strength, and justice. This spirit, at work, would show itself as the poor would be uplifted [no more injustice for them]; people would be equal and not pushed down, the evil oppressors would hold no more sway.

And only then, with the dynamic action of the spirit in people to bring about justice—only then would there be true peace. The wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion–a little child leads all of them. These images of contrast, of yin and yang, of strength and weakness, hot and cold, opposite things living together in harmony—are the image of the peaceable kingdom. A world in which people recognize the tension of injustice and suffering and do something about it. A world where hurting and destroying is not the norm.

And now to the other questions I received this week about peace:

  1. Did Jesus have one main definition of peace or was he concerned with many different types of peace – inner peace, peace between people, peace between countries? What was most important to him when he spoke about peace?

What we know of Jesus is found in the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Thomas. Each time that Jesus used the word peace he usually meant shalom. This of course is the Hebrew word that expresses God’s desire for all of creation. Shalom means that people are in a good, healthy relationship with God; people are in healthy relationships with each other; they are in healthy relationships with their physical bodies and minds; and people are in healthy relationships with the whole earth [animals, trees, land, etc.]

So for Jesus, peace was about all of us living in balance—recognizing our deep connection to each other and to all living things. Jesus of Nazareth would have been well-versed in the Torah and in the writings of the prophets, like Isaiah. When Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” he was echoing Isaiah’s call for the people to create a peace on earth. It was all about action. One clear example is in the Gospel of Matthew: You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39).

For Jesus, acting out shalom was the whole point. How do we treat others? This was the proof of true peace. Let’s add a cool twist to this. Walter Wink, professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in NY, explores deeper.

When you slap someone on the right cheek, consider that it is a back-handed slap. Why? Because in the time of Jesus, the left hand was not used for greeting or for doing much at all in public. The left hand was used for what we now call toilet paper. Yes, that’s right. So keeping that in mind, the right hand slapping someone’s right cheek would be a back-handed slap. This demonstrates to the other person that you are above them; a back-handed slap is to push someone down or insult them as lower than you. Turning the other cheek then, is not really an act of being passive, but rather an act of showing another that he/she is your equal. It is not responding to violence with more violence. Jesus actually never taught passivity or getting walked over. Shalom/Peace for Jesus was about seeing others as equals. In the end, Jesus was concerned with a holistic peace that was demonstrated in peaceful living with others.

Question #2:

How can you create peace when the other party doesn’t want there to be peace?  Can peace be one-sided?

When we seek peace with another person and that person rejects it—this is a sign of deep hurt and a broken shalom in the other. We often forget that we cannot control the attitude or the behavior of others; we just cannot. Even if you are behaving in a most peaceful and compassionate way, this will not change the person. He/She will ultimately have to make peace with him/herself first before accepting your offering of peace. So in this case, yes—peace can be one-sided.

When we forgive or offer peace to someone, this action is healing for us. We must recognize this. Only then will we be able to see that any person who cannot accept peace or forgiveness is greatly suffering. Of course, this does not excuse bad behavior. But when we offer peace to someone, we do it because it brings peace to us and we hope that the other person will also experience such a peace. But we must accept that we cannot force a person to be at peace; this will enable us to have compassion and to be able to move on.

Good questions.

In conclusion, let’s hear these words from Nelson Mandela, reminding us that peace in ourselves, peace with each other, and peace in the world— this is not a reality for everyone. So we must join with others and be the buds that spring out of the stump—committing ourselves to peaceful, just living and recognizing that all people deserve love, acceptance, and wholeness.

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.

 May we keep walking as agents of peace. Amen.

The Wine of New Realities or….PURA VIDA!

Check out: John 2:1-11


Costa Rica is a beautiful country. I just returned to the icy cold of Philly after 17 days in Central America. Costa Rica shares borders with Nicaragua [on the north] and Panama [on the south].  It’s hard to describe just how beautiful of a place it is. When Maria and I landed in its capital city, San Jose, we were instantly overwhelmed by the natural beauty all around us. San Jose is located in the Central Valley, the most heavily populated region of Costa Rica. The Central Valley is surrounded by volcanoes—some of them still active.

Here is a picture I took of the crater at the Poaz Volcano.
poazNow if you expect it to be hot and humid in CR, think again. In the morning and at night, we wore sweaters or light jackets. During the day, it was sunny with low humidity, never reaching above 83 degrees Fahrenheit. Okay, if you’re dealing with frigid temperatures right now [like in Philly], you may be getting mad. After all, it’s January! But I have to tell you more.

Years ago, Costa Rica’s land was nearly 90% rainforests. Sadly, at the start of the sixteenth century, after Europeans and U.S. nationals pushed indigenous tribes out of their homes and started buying and developing land for commerce, Costa Rica’s tierra madre [mother earth] suffered greatly. Due to massive industrialization and land clearing for coffee, banana, and pineapple fields, the precious rain forests and all the plants and animals that lived there were in danger of extinction.

Consider this: Costa Rica, land-wise, is a small country. And yet, it is home to a mind-boggling 12,000 species of plants;


1239 species of butterflies;


440 species of reptiles & amphibians;


832 species of birds;


and 232 species of mammals.


If you’ve never seen one of these creatures, this is a tree sloth–un oso perezoso. They are amazing. We saw a bunch of them even as we drove down a common road; they were hanging from power lines.
And I assume that I must be related somehow to the tree sloth, because like me, they also spend most of their time sleeping, and even when they are awake, they move very, very slow. My distant cousins, maybe?

Well, actually, I’m probably more closely related to this guy here.
monoHe’s a white-headed capuchin.

I have to say that spending time in the rainforests of Costa Rica changed my perspective about a lot of things. I admit that I previously thought that monkeys only lived in the cages of zoos in the Americas. How wrong I was! Costa Rica not only has the white-faced monkey, but also the spider monkey, the howler, and the squirrel monkey—all native to those forests. Sadly, though, as I mentioned before, after European and U.S. conquest of Costa Rica, the amazing plants and animals were in great danger of extinction. It was not until the 1970’s–years after Costa Rica’s independence–that the government and its people were able to put together a plan for sustainability and the rescuing of the rain forests. Today, though the forests and the plants and animals are still threatened, Costa Rica is back to being about 50% rainforest. In fact, the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a method of quantifying and numerically benchmarking the environmental performance of a country’s policies, rates Costa Rica as the number 5 country in the world for environmental policy and implementation.[1]

My life partner Maria and I were very fortunate to experience the biodiversity of this great country up close.

And we came to adore the Costa Ricans—Ticos–as they affectionately call themselves.
And we learned about a famous phrase they say: Pura Vida.


In English, it doesn’t really translate well. But what pura vida means is full of life or this is living or this is the life. If you tip well at a restaurant, the waiter or waitress may say pura vida! If you try a food or a drink you like and say this is delicious a Tico may say pura vida! If you meet someone in Costa Rica, share a laugh or a joke or a story, see a crocodile, a monkey, a toucan, or a tree sloth–you just might join in and say pura vida! Truthfully, as Maria and I experienced the warm hospitality of Costa Rica’s people, the beauty of its surroundings, the delicious fruits, the foods, and the amazing weather—we started to say, without hesitation, PURA VIDA!

I kind of think pura vida was what Jesus of Nazareth had in mind as he lived and taught people about what it was like to really live. The story of a wedding in Cana and water that becomes wine is precisely about life and living it to the fullest extent. This story has a lot of symbolism in it, so I’d like to start there. And I’d also like to mention that the wedding story is only found in John’s Gospel. That should make sense, though, because the water to wine story is what John’s Gospel calls a signs story. You see, John wrote a lot about the signs that appeared throughout Jesus’ ministry. This Johannine concept of signs is often equated with miracles. But it’s actually more nuanced than that. In John, signs are the better word to describe what Jesus was doing. Jesus didn’t just perform amazing feats of magic [i.e. miracles] to impress people or to make them believe in something. Jesus performed signs, because signs pointed people to something or to someone. And in the majority of cases, the signs of Jesus in John’s Gospel point people to life. Pura vida.

So let’s look closer at the story itself. Right away, our Spidey senses should be tingling as the story starts out with On the third day…What else happened on the third day?

Okay, so we know that this story will be about new life—resurrection, a transformation of the mind, an enlightening; a new perspective. John’s Gospel also likes characters and this story doesn’t disappoint. It’s Jesus and his mom together on stage! The mother of Jesus is never called Mary in John’s Gospel; she only appears here and at the foot of the cross when Jesus dies. So Jesus and mom are at a wedding, and just so you know, weddings of this time and place usually lasted seven days. Notice there is no mention of a wedding ceremony, just the party afterwards. It was customary for guests of the wedding to help contribute to the feast that would last, as I mentioned before, for nearly a week. One would honor the bride and groom [and his/her families] by providing wine and other such things. Wine was important though. Wine was a symbol of abundance. The Hebrew Scriptures talk about that quite a bit. A cup overflows when God blesses. God’s favor pours down from heaven, washing over God’s children. More wine meant more blessing.

Also, wine was [and is] a common, everyday drink, but also a celebratory drink. In Israel and Palestine, people drank wine daily. But they also used different wines [most likely aged, rich, full-bodied wines] to celebrate. So if you’re a guest at a wedding celebration that could last up to seven days, you better have enough wine. Am I right? Well, something happened at this particular wedding. The wine ran out early. This was bad news and would dishonor the couple and perhaps reflect badly on the guests. So Jesus’ mom, clearly a woman of details, told Jesus: They have no wine.

We don’t know why the wine supply ran dry. Were Jesus’ disciples crashing the party? Did Peter have too much to drink? We don’t know, but Jesus responded to his mom. But he didn’t respond in a condescending or scolding way as some people have inferred. When Jesus said to his mom, Woman, this was in fact a common, respectful way to address a female. What concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come. Was it Jesus’ fault that they ran out of wine? Did he forget to bring his share or was the Galilean Wine and Spirits store closed on the Sabbath? Jesus didn’t seem convinced that they should do anything about it. And his hour is of course a reference to his death. Maybe it wasn’t the right time to help out?

Actually, Jesus did care, because his mom then said to the people working at the wedding reception, Do whatever he tells you. Jesus hadn’t expressed any intention to change the wine-less party situation. But his mom already knew that he would. She knew something about him; saw something in him that gave her confidence in his ability to remedy this situation.

Do whatever he tells you.

So there were 6 stone water jars that could hold up to twenty or thirty gallons, all empty. The jars were meant for use in Jewish purification rituals. In other words, they were religious implements used for the cleansing of sins. We would call it baptism in our traditions. Fill the jars with water, Jesus told them. So the helpers filled the jars to the brim [remember that Hebrew Scripture God-Abundance-focus]. Then Jesus told them to pour some out and give it to the head guy in charge of the wedding for a taste test. The steward tasted the water which was now wine, and was clueless as to where it came from. The helpers knew, though. John wants us to know that the helpers saw the sign first.

Well, at this point, the steward is confused. So he found the groom and expressed this head-scratching detail: at a wedding feast, everybody always serves the best wine first, and then once people are getting toasted [drunk], the mediocre, box wine comes out. But you, says the steward, saved the best wine for last. It is a sign, says John’s Gospel, a revelation of God’s work.

A million things to say about this, but I’ll keep it short. I’m drawn to a couple parts of this story: first, Jesus’ mom saying: Do what he tells you to do; and second, the hour has not yet come.

#1: Do what he tells you to do. I really, really wonder what Christianity as a religion would be like if we actually did do what Jesus told us to do. Seriously, think about it. Equality, acceptance, love, and honor for all people—not just some, but ALL people. The so-called servants are the ones who see signs and even participate in the miracle. Jesus’ God is not a punisher, accuser, or lightning bolt-holding terror who waits for us to make mistakes so we can be found guilty. Jesus’ God wants cups and jars to overflow with the best wine which is a symbol of abundant life—pura vida! Jesus lived and taught that such a God cares more for the poor than for the rich, powerful, and esteemed of society. Do what he tells you to do. Love and care for all creation and protect the vulnerable, oppressed, and hurt. Do it.

Second, the hour has not yet come. It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. Hundreds of thousands of kids, youth, and adults will participate worldwide in service projects, community building, education, and interfaith engagement. Much of what we talk about and hear about Rev. King each January focuses on his “I Have a Dream” speech and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom [the Great March], which took place on August 28th, 1963. Though I am certainly a great big fan of the I Have a Dream speech, it is only one sound bite in King’s legacy and the dream that he spoke of was not limited to merely signing civil rights legislation. King desired equality, respect, love, and acceptance for all people of all races, religions, cultures, and countries. If he were with us today, he would most certainly say what Jesus said: the hour has not yet come.

The dream is not fulfilled.

We still hate and hurt, destroy and kill. We still discriminate, push people to the back of the bus, turn a blind eye to prejudice and poverty, and ignore our neighbor’s needs. The hour of the dream has not yet come. The new, fully vibrant wine meant for everyone is still undiscovered.

And so, in a world that can often seem so lifeless, how does this wedding story teach us to live?

Martin Luther King said it: The time is always right to do what’s right.[2]

All the signs point us there.

It doesn’t matter how things are going for us today or tomorrow. We ought to do what is right. We ought to create community where everyone can experience a full life; this means we’ll have to get rid of the things that take away people’s ability to live well. We should stop using religion or a god as a way to separate people or control them; instead, we should point to the signs of God’s love and grace, sharing OUR love and grace with all people, no matter what. The reality of God’s grace is not real unless we share it openly, never keep it for ourselves, nor limit it to only a few.

Jars need to be filled and overflow, and they need to be shared. People need signs that point them to love, community, and acceptance. The routines of religion and habit won’t do; the jars are filled with a new, delicious beverage of wisdom and transformed perspective. So participate. Do. Live. Share grace. Amen.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., Oberlin College, Oberlin College, Assembly Speaker 1963-64.

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