Archives For Cana

Punch Drunk Love

Jason Micheli —  April 15, 2018 — Leave a comment

We’re doing a sermon series through John for April. Here’s my sermon on John 2.1-11.

Ali had texted me, asking me to stop on the way home and pick up a package of necessaries.

So naturally, I did what any mature, poised, self-confident man would do. I texted back: “Sure honey, no problem at all. Need anything else while I’m there?”

And then I drove to the grocery store, driving past the little Soviet Safeway just down the street, driving an extra 4 miles and through 1 cellphone dead zone and 2 red lights, in order to get to the BIG SAFEWAY at Belle View because the BIG SAFEWAY HAS SELF-CHECKOUT.

What am I, an idiot? I’m not going to risk some checkout clerk announcing into that little microphone “We need a price check…..” I’ve seen Mr. Mom. No thank you. the self-checkout was designed for the expressed purpose to spare husbands like me exactly that sort of shame.

Is it any coincidence that the increase in protected, safe-sex among young people coincides with the creation of self-checkout by Howard Schneider in 1992 for Price Chopper Supermarket in NYC?

     You think Magic Johnson made a difference in the fight against AIDS?

He’s got nothing on Howard Schneider whose invention gifted the world with a less awkward way to buy prophylactics.

So there I was at the BIG SAFEWAY, standing in the self-checkout queue, like a dutiful knight securing his queen what she requires, the feminine hygiene products discreetly hidden in my basket underneath a 6-pack, the latest issue of Garden and Gun, and a bag of potato chips.

Sure enough, as if to prove my hypothesis about Howard Schneider and the purpose of the self-checkout, I watched as the guy at the front of the line scanned and beeped from his basket the following items:

1 jar of kosher pickles

1 bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos

2 boxes of “Protection” and

1 package of Vermont Maple Syrup-Flavored Breakfast Sausages.

 “If you can do that after eating that more power to you,” I said, not as quietly as I’d intended judging from the look he shot me. 

As he did, the cart behind me hit me in the ankles for the third time. The cart belonged to that lady who dresses as Martha Washington at Mt. Vernon.

I know it was her because she was dressed like Martha Washington, her hoop skirt that would make Sir. Mix-A-Lot salivate knocking into the candy bar rack.

I turned around and glared at her again and then looked down into her cart. She had berries and sugar and flour and butter. She’s making a pie, I thought to myself, of course she’s making a pie.

What else would Martha Washington being doing besides white-washing indentured genocide?

Baking a pie- how wholesome is that?

And then I noticed that underneath the berries and the flour and the sugar and the butter, Martha Washington was also buying a copy of the National Enquirer. And, Star Magazine.

Martha caught me looking into her cart, like a Peeping Tom.

“It’s bad manners to be nosy.”

“Lady, people who live in glass houses with slaves shouldn’t throw stones.”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

The guy in front me had started to scan and beep the items from his basket. He was wearing khakis and a distressed blue blazer. Standing out against his ruddy complexion was a neatly trimmed white beard.

Sunglasses were perched on top of his curved orange Orvis cap, and his feet inside his boat shoes were bare.

Basically he looked like someone who stills shells out money for Jimmy Buffet concerts.

He had a sticker stuck to the end of his finger.

It caught my eye, and I watched him. He pulled a package of steaks out of his basket, stuck the sticker on it over the one that was already on it, and scanned the steaks, a package of 4.

$4 and change appeared on the screen.

Next, he took out a can of off brand coffee, scanned it, and set it not in the bag but on top of the candy bars and instead from his basket he drew out a bottle of red wine and put it immediately, unscanned, into his shopping bag.

I looked over at the self-checkout clerk who appeared to have the mental acuity of R.P. McMurphy at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

He was oblivious; meanwhile, I was transfixed, staring like you do at a car accident or the Trump White House.

Next, he took out a package of shrimp, a couple of pounds it looked like, and he didn’t scan it. He set it down it on the scale instead and then he entered the code for bananas. He did like that for a number of other items too- let’s just say he bought a lot of bananas. Then he clicked “Finish and Pay.”

And, as he pulled out his wallet, he looked sideways at me and he winked: “Surf-and- Turf.”

“That’s the most affordable surf-and-turf I’ve ever seen,” I replied.

He shrugged his shoulders and gestured at the self-checkout machine: “If they’re going to make me work at their store, then I deserve to get paid, right?”

And no joke, my first reaction, my immediate reaction (I’m not proud; I’m a sinner) was: “Huh, that’s a good point.”

———————-

     This happened several months ago. I’d forgotten all about it until I read an article entitled “The Banana Trick: And Other Dark Arts of Self-Checkout Theft.” Apparently using the code for bananas or a bunch of grapes and then socking a more expensive item of similar weight into your shopping bag- apparently that’s a thing, people.

Apparently that’s such a thing, so common a thing, the entire supermarket industry has a name for it: The Banana Trick.

The industry has other names for other ways customers con the self-checkout. There’s the “Pass-Around,” the “Switcheroo,” and the “Illy” (named for the expensive brand of expresso…basically a version of the Banana Trick).

According to the article: “Beneath the bland veneer of your friendly neighborhood supermarket lurks something dark and ugly.”

It’s you.

The industry estimate is that over 20% of all self-checkout customers shop-lift. Steal.

Actually, the supermarket industry prefers to call it “External Shrinkage,” which sounds like what happens to me after I go swimming in a chilly pool but never mind.

20% steal. 1/5 of you all.

And of those 20% over 50% do so because it’s unlikely they’ll get caught.

What’s revealing is that most of these people aren’t thieves (ordinarily) nor are they so much thrill seekers. They’re just ordinary people like you. Says Barbara Staib, the Director of Communications at the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, most self-checkout shoplifters:

“are in fact law-abiding citizens. They would chase behind you to return the $20 bill you dropped, because you’re a person and you would miss that $20. A robot-cashier, though, changes the equation. It gives the false impression of anonymity.”

In other words, the anonymity afforded by the self-checkout reveals our true selves. Without the threat of consequence (or the promise of reward- being thanked for returning that $20) even the best of us do not reliably obey the law.

For this very reason, police departments, such as the Dallas Police Department, now refuse to respond to self-checkout shoplifting calls.

“Of course people steal when they think no one is watching,” one cop commented.

“The Law,” the cop said- pay attention now, “doesn’t change us. The Law can’t change our human nature. The Law can keep us from doing bad, but it doesn’t make us good.”

———————-

And that brings me to my first point. See, you were starting to worry I didn’t have any point. I’ve actually got 3.

What the cop says in that article is what John wants you to see in this sign at Cana: that the Law cannot change us. This wedding shows us what the Apostle Paul tells us about distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel. Jesus in John’s Gospel doesn’t do miracles. Jesus in John’s Gospel performs signs- only 7 of them.

Each of these 7 signs serves to foreshadow what Jesus will do fully in what John calls Christ’s “hour of glory.”

And in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ hour of glory is paradoxically his humiliation, hanging naked and accursed on the cross.

This is why John decorates this first sign, the wedding at Cana, with so many on-the-nose allusions to the cross and resurrection:

  • Jesus and the disciples arrive to the wedding party on the third day just like Mary Magdalene will arrive at the empty grave on the third day.
  • When Marry worries: “They have no wine” Jesus responds “My hour has not yet come,” which basically means: It’s not time for me to die.
  • Jesus calls his Mother “Woman” just like he will- the only other time he will- from the cross: “Woman, behold your Son.”
  • Even the abundance of wine: Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the Psalms- all of them prophesy that the arrival of God’s salvation will be occasioned by an abundance of the best wine.

All 7 signs in John’s Gospel, then, point to the Gospel, to what God does in Christ through the cross, and this first sign is intended for you to see how the Gospel Christ brings is distinct from the Law.

Right before the wedding at Cana, John tells you- he telegraphs it- “The Law indeed was given through Moses, but Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ.”

And then immediately after this wedding at Cana, Jesus cleanses the Temple in Jerusalem, hollering to all who can hear that his crucified body will be the New Temple. In other words, the truth that was thought to reside in the Temple has arrived in Christ, and the wedding which comes before his Temple tantrum shows how grace has come in Christ. And grace, the Gospel, is not the Law.

That’s why John gives you this seemingly random detail about the 6 stone water jars.

There amidst the wedding finery and the china and everyone dressed to the nines and filled with dreams of happily ever afters, the water jars are a reminder of the “dark and ugly truth” about us.

According to the Law, the water in the stone jars was used for washing away sin. The jars were made of stone not clay because clay is porous and the water would get dirty in clay jars and the whole purpose of these jars is to remove impurity. As the wedding guests would arrive, the servants would cleanse the guests’ hands with the water from the stone jars; so that, the wedding festival would not be sullied by sin or shame.

The water in the stone jars was for the washing away of sin and shame, but it didn’t work.

And you know it didn’t work because John tells you there were 6 stone jars, and 6 (being 1 less than 7) is the Jewish number for imperfection.

On top of that little detail, John tells you that the wine at the wedding feast has run out, and, in an honor-based culture like first century Judaism, running out of wine was more than a party foul. It brought great shame upon the bridegroom and his family.

So what John shows you with these six stone jars and this one family in shame is that the Law (commandment-keeping, the rituals of religion) is powerless to produce what it prescribes.

The Law might give you clean hands.

The Law might compel you to charity.

The Law might keep you from stealing.

But the Law cannot free you from sin and shame nor can it make your heart glad.

And the problem, St. Paul says, isn’t with the Law. The Law, Paul says, is holy, righteous, and good. Love thy enemies, do not steal, forgive those who trespass against you. Those are holy and good commands. The problem isn’t the Law. It’s us. The dark and ugly truth about us, our sin, is deeper than where water can wash it away.

What John shows you here is what the New Testament Book of Hebrews tells you: that all our religion and rituals, all the ways we try to be all we can be for God, “can never make perfect those who practice them, and, as such, they only remind you of your sin.”

Just as Jesus announces in the second half of chapter 2 that he fulfills and replaces the Temple, here in the first half of chapter 2 he signals that he fulfills and replaces the Torah, the Law.

He answers his Mother’s urging by telling the servants to take these stone jars, symbols of the Law, and then, the One who a few chapters later will call himself Living Water, he tells them to fill the jars with it.

To fill them to overflowing.

In other words:

     Jesus fills and fulfills all the commands and demands of the Law by his own perfect faith and life.

When they draw out the wine that had been water, it’s no 3 buck chuck. It’s top shelf and it’s already aged. And there’s an abundance of it. I did the math. At a minimum, it’s 2160 glasses of wine- that’s more ridiculously extravagant than a Scott Pruitt pool party.

See what John wants you to see in this sign:

Out of these stone jars

Out of the means by which we attempt to cleanse ourselves of sin and make ourselves right and good and acceptable before God

Out of the Law is drawn the Gospel: the wine of salvation.

Wine, which Jesus says in an Upper Room, is his blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

     He transforms what we do for God into a sign of what God does for us.

This sign shows what that cop says.

The Law doesn’t change us because the Law cannot take away our sins. Only the Lamb of God can take away our sins, as John the Baptist declares at the very beginning of John’s Gospel.

     ———————-

You’d never know it from the prodigal way he doles out salvation that Jesus is about the only person NOT drunk at this party.

And that’s my second point-

Just as Jesus distinguishes the Gospel from the Law, so too his grace, his gift of salvation, is not karma.

Grace is not karma.

According to the Mishna, Jewish weddings in Jesus’ day lasted 7 days. And under the Law, it was the obligation of the bridegroom and his family to provide a week-long feast for the wedding guests.

This wedding is only on day 3. They’ve got 4 more days to go. Unless Steve Larkin was at the party, there’s no reason they should’ve run out of booze so soon.

The bridegroom and his family simply failed to do their duty under the Law. They deserve the shame in which they stand under the Law. They do not deserve what Christ does for them.

And notice, not only do they not deserve what Christ has done for them. They get the credit for what Christ has done. As though, they had done it themselves.

The party planner tastes the wine that had been water, John says, and he chalks it up to the bridegroom’s extravagance.

Grace is not karma.

Karma says that what you put in is what you get out. Karma says that as you give so shall you receive. Karma says that what goes around is what will come back around. Karma says that what God does for you is based on what you do for God.

     Karma is how most of you try to speak Christian.

It’s karma not grace that says this horrible nightmare in my life must be happening to me for a reason.

It’s karma not grace that says God must be doing this to me- this diagnosis, this disease- because of that sin I did.

It’s karma not grace that says if I just do my part (pray, serve the poor, go to church, give to the church) then God will do his part and bless me.

Karma is not Christianity.

When all is said and done, there’s really only been 2 religions in the history of the world.

On the one hand, there’s all the religions that tell you what you must do for God and for your neighbor (or else). That’s Karma.

And on the other hand, there’s the Gospel of grace, the news of what God has done for you and your neighbor despite your failures to love him or them.

You can’t speak Christian with Karma because God doesn’t give you what you deserve. God gives you infinitely more than what you deserve. God gives you the credit Christ alone deserves. Or, as John puts it here in this sign: “The master of the feast said to the groom- not to Jesus- you have saved the best wine for last.”

———————-

     And that brings me to my final point-

     This grace

This gift of salvation is true for you

It’s true about you whether you appreciate it or not.

Jesus responds to Mary’s alarm that the already drunk guests have run out wine by making more wine. And he makes not Boone’s Farm but he makes the best wine for drunk people to drink.

    He makes the best wine for people already too drunk to appreciate drinking it.

As the master of feast says to the groom: “Everyone brings out the best wine first and then the cheap wine after the guests have gotten drunk, but you have saved the best wine for now when they’re drunk.”

In other words, he’s saying: “It’s a waste.” Their taste buds are shot. They’ll probably just spill it all over themselves. And you can be sure they won’t even remember drinking it come morning.

    His punch-drunk love is such that he sheds his wine for people too far gone to appreciate it.

If this at Cana is the first sign of his hour of glory, and if his hour of glory is when we behold him bleeding and dying on his cross, then his grace, his one-way love, his gift of salvation it’s yours.

     Whether you appreciate it or not.

Whether you give him thanks and praise for it or not.

Whether you know about it or not.

Whether you change your ways because of it or not.

None of that changes what he has done: He has drunk from the cup he prayed would pass him. He has poured himself out to give you the wine of salvation.

     He’s served salvation up for a world too far gone to give two rips about it.

But whether you do or whether you don’t, what he has done- it’s as real and undoable as a hangover.

All is forgiven. Salvation is served. You don’t need to come up here in an altar call for it to be true for you. And you can’t backslide your way out of it either.

We forget-

The rich, young ruler who asked Jesus “What must I do to be saved?” asked him that question before his hour had come.

But the hour has long since passed.

And now, thanks to his punch drunk love, the answer to that question (“What must I do to be saved?”)…the answer is “Nothing.”

You don’t have to do anything.

Because everything has already been done.

The wine’s been served.

The party’s already started.

And the music has been raging since the first third day.

The only thing there is for you to do is what those disciples in Cana do.

Trust and believe.

———————-

     According to the article, “The Banana Trick: And Other Dark Arts of Self-Checkout Theft,” the Criminology Department at the University of Leicester audited self-checkout cameras where, over a year, the transactions totaled $21 million, a million of which, they found, left the store without being scanned or paid for.

As a result, the article noted how many stores, such as Albertsons and Big Y Supermarkets, are cancelling out their self-checkout programs.

They just can’t afford the loss, the article says.

The economy of Easter, though, is different.

As Frances Spufford says, grace, the gift of God to us in Jesus Christ, is “love without cost-controls engaged.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because I didn’t “write” it, I’m unabashed in calling this the best sermon I’ve ever preached.

For All Saints Sunday my text was John 2.1-11, Jesus turning water to wine at Cana of Galilee. If, as I believe, the whole point of All Saints is, as Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, sanctification is salvation then the witness of a saint’s life should be the text and proclamation on All Saints.

Shirley was the closest thing I’ll ever have to a Flannery O’Connor character in my congregation. She sent thousands of emails to me over the years. I miss her and have a little less fun in my ministry without her in it. I got the idea of this sermon from a recent podcast I recorded with Father James Martin.

July 5, 2005

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Communion Etc. 

Dear Jason,

Welcome to Aldersgate! We met on Sunday morning. I was the “good-looking lady” with the Arkansas accent who, leaving church, asked you: “You’re not a Republican are you?!” I whispered it pretty quietly so I don’t why you didn’t answer me.

You probably noticed I didn’t “take communion” Sunday. The reason I didn’t was because I nearly choked on the piece of bread  you gave me. It was large and had a lot of crust on it.  I should have gone ahead and dipped it in the wine and just kept it in my hand until I got to the pew, but then my hand would’ve been all sticky and who wants sticky hands? I might’ve had to shake a visitor’s hand after worship and then they would’ve thought I’m one of those terrible, disgusting people who have sweaty hands all the time. Gross.

I can’t helping wondering: do they not teach you in seminary how to break off smaller pieces for communion? Probably not, I guess. They obviously don’t teach you how to slow down and not talk so fast either. You’ll learn. Dennis is very good at breaking off just the right sized pieces of bread, and sometimes he talks so slow I’d swear he’s making up his sermon as he goes. Anyway, I’m sorry I didn’t take communion.

On another subject, I heard a minister yesterday on TV who I think was just great.  The reason I was so impressed with him was because his message was about Religiosity vs. Spirituality.  He quoted Joel 2:28 and emphasized the noun everyone and how God wants everyone to have an alive spirit. His name was Joel Ostein, I think. You should look him up. I haven’t heard you preach yet but I bet you preach just like him.

Your new friend,

Shirley Pitts

PS: Did your last church not have a problem with your earring?

October 13, 2005

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Coffee with the Pastor 

Jason,

To follow up from last night’s Meet the Pastors Coffee- I most certainly did not purposely spill coffee on your “crotch” just because you told everyone how John Wesley (supposedly) was a terrible husband. I told you. It was an accident but, I will say, if I had done it on purpose you would’ve deserved it.

You’re supposed to be proud to be a United Methodist and there you were last night bad-mouthing the founder of United Methodism. I couldn’t believe it. I got so angry I could’ve…well, never mind.

And another thing, I did not roll my eyes at that new member when he said he worked for the House Republicans. Maybe I was a little rude to him but not rude enough that anyone would notice. You’ve got a lot of nerve accusing me of such things! Keep it up and I’ll bet you don’t last at Aldersgate more than a couple years.

Shirley Pitts

Longtime Member

May 22, 2006

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Fall Commitment Campaign 

Jason,

I have decided to withdraw from the commitment campaign committee. I was so disappointed that the last meeting wasn’t more civil. It’s a shame that even in a church setting among Christians that people can’t value another’s opinions. I just hate how some Christians gripe and gossip about other Christians.

I could tell you a thing or two about some of those complainers at the meeting. They’re the reason we’re in the mess we’re in with our debt and I heard one of them hardly even speaks to his wife.

Don’t worry I’ll still be in charge of the Meet the Pastor Coffee. Lord knows if I’m not you’ll never tell our new members about John Wesley or what it means to be a Methodist and then where would we be.

Shirley

September 6, 2007

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Communion Bread

Dear Jason,

Like I told you Sunday, I heard a lot of comments about the bread we had on Sunday for communion.  It was sour dough and it just didn’t taste well with the wine. Think about it for gosh sakes: it’s called sour dough. Who wants to eat that?

I bet Jesus refuses to even make himself present in bread so disgusting. I hope you were joking when you said we could switch to wafers. Aldersgate will never go for wafers- we’re not Catholics! Next, you’ll be telling us to worship Mary and not read our bibles like Catholics.

Blessings,

Shirley

September 9, 2008

From: shirleympitts@cox.net

Subject: Babies

Jason,

When I was a social worker for Child Welfare in Little Rock, one day I came into to the office to bring a baby for adoption.  My boss looked at the way I was holding the baby and “got all over me” because she said that I should “cradle” a new born baby in my arms. She said a young baby can not hold up their head when they are so young and they could hurt their hearing if it tumbles over.

I thought of what my boss said yesterday watching you juggle that poor baby all over the place during the baptism.

Maybe you should practice a little using a doll baby.

Maybe I could find one at the Goodwill for you to use for practice. Not that I shop at the Goodwill myself but I’d go there for you if you’d like me to look. Hope this is helpful.

In Service,

Shirley

November 11, 2009 

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Paul

Jason,

I wish you had known my husband Paul. I still have people coming up to me and saying how they miss him. He held about every position you could have in the church.  He was fun and caring and a wonderful husband and father. He was a commander in the navy and was on 3 submarines.

Mostly though, I wish you’d known him because he was such a good Christian man. He was a better man than I deserved. You would’ve enjoyed him, I think, and maybe you would think better of me if you could see how he thought I was better than I am.

Shirley

August 10, 2011 

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Muslims

Jason,

I told my niece this weekend how proud I was of our church for welcoming those Muslims from our neighborhood to worship in our fellowship hall. It’s a shame so many people left the church over the issue, and I’m sad that hardly any of them even bothered to talk with you or Dennis before they decided to leave.

Here’s something you didn’t know about me. A couple years ago, when we studied the Jesus Creed for the Church Wide Study, I started praying the Jesus Creed every morning and every night. Every day, twice a day, sometimes more, I prayed to love God with all my mind, heart, soul, and strength and to love my neighbor as much as I love God.

I don’t think I would’ve been open to hosting the Muslims here if I hadn’t been praying the Jesus Creed. I think before I’d always prayed mostly for myself and my family. I wish more people had tried praying the Jesus Creed. If they had, then maybe they’d be more hospitable and open-minded.

While we’re on the subject of broadmindedness, I am a Democrat. You’ve never told me what you are. I don’t know why but a lot of young people these days are Republicans.  If you are a Republican I will still write to you.  See, I told you the Jesus Creed had changed me!

Shirley

December 11, 2011 

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Directory 

Jason,

You probably know- I’m working with Amy on the Pictorial Directory for the church. How are you doing? Are you okay? The reason I ask is because I was looking at your picture in the old directory and your picture for the new directory and you look like you’ve gained a lot of weight. Especially in your face. Like a little baby angel. Ha!

You know who else looks different? Dennis. He looks tired in his new picture. No wonder he takes so many sabbaticals. I’m still mad at Dennis because of the time he told us in his sermon that Bill Perry was his father. I should’ve told him that Bill Perry looks younger than him!

There was a time when I probably would’ve told him that without even thinking about how mean it would sound. I like to think I’m different than I was.

Shirley

December 14, 2011

From: shirleympitts@cox.net

Subject: Jews

Jason,

Where is it in Romans that Paul tells about how the Gentiles were “let in” to be loved by God even though they didn’t deserve it?  I have down here that you told me Romans 9-11 but that doesn’t jive. My daughter-in-law doesn’t think the Jews will be saved and I told her you said they were saved. Of course, the bigger point seems to be that we’re just grateful that God has adopted us Gentiles.

I don’t know why but lately, more and more, I think about how I don’t deserve God’s grace. I’ve not always been a good or kind person. I’ve often been mean. I guess that’s why they call it Amazing Grace huh?

By the way, I hate it when you all make us sing all the verses of hymns like that. Good Lord, who can stand up for that long or huff and puff through 7 verses!?

Love,

Shirley

January 14, 2012

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Christmas 

Jason,

I teared up when I read your Christmas sermon thinking about how unconditional God’s love is for us. My love for my boys has always been unconditional, for sure, but for other people? For other people I think my love has always been very much conditional.

I know my love for you certainly wasn’t unconditional. Remember that time years ago when I got furious with you because you wouldn’t teach the Meet the Pastor folks about John Wesley and I stormed out of your office and slammed the door so hard that picture of Karl Barth fell off your wall?

Of course, you have a picture of Karl Barth on your wall and not John Wesley but never mind that now.

See you Sunday,

Shirley

January 23, 2012

From: shirleympitts@cox.net

Subject: No Subject

Jason,

After church, I went out to eat at Ruby Tuesdays with a bunch of women that usually goes over there after church  They started talking about the election.  After a while, I told them that I was a Democrat. Marguerite Blackwelder said, “Are you a liberal?” I said I wasn’t but I think I am.

Then, someone- I won’t say who but she used to work at the church, I think you know who I mean- said, “All Democrats are liberals!”

I forgave her.

I really did forgive her too. It used to be that I wouldn’t have. You know what I thought about it afterwards? That life is too short to waste it on petty grudges. I don’t know if I thought that because I’m getting older or because I’m getting more Christian. What do you think, I wonder?

I just wish we had more Democrats in our church!  If you ask me, the Republicans need to be in the Baptist Church.

Shirley

February 6, 2012

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: New Members

Jason,

A couple named Kelly and Joe Garr put down that they would like to join the church.  I called her and come to find out she went to middle school, high school, and college with you! I asked her if you’re the same now as you were back then and she said no. She said you were nice back then but that you’re different too.

It got me thinking about what people who knew me way back when would say about me today? Would they say I’m no different than I was?

It makes me really sad to think that maybe they would.

I can’t think of anything worse than to have gone to church your whole life and not end up a different person, can you? If you liked John Wesley I’d ask you if that’s what Wesley meant by sanctification.

I hope my faith has changed me. I suppose I’m about the last person who could judge such a thing.

Shirley

April 6, 2012

From: shirleympitts@cox.net

Subject: Jesus 

Jason,

I know you are busy with Easter things but this has been on my mind. When I’ve prayed before, I’ve always prayed to God not Jesus. I love Jesus and know he did so much for so many but I’ve always thought I needed to pray to God.

I’ve started to pray to Jesus lately like you do in church sometimes and you know what? Praying to Jesus, like I’m talking directly to him, makes me a lot more conscious about being more like him. Thought you’d be interested.

Shirley

August 13, 2012

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Naked

Jason,

About an hour ago as I was driving down Ft. Hunt Rd. I saw a man I thought was “naked” like that man in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus is arrested- what an odd detail.

Anyways, I thought this man was naked but when I got closer I saw he just had a shirt off and some terrifically short shorts. When I saw that it was you, I whistled out my window. Did you know it was me? You should be careful going around like that half-naked. There’s a lot of older women in our congregation who’ve been missing their men for a long time. Ha!

Lord, I hope you never mention that in a sermon!

My real point was to say that years ago seeing you like that, running around like a Chip n’ Dale would’ve irritated me something awful but instead I just laughed because I’ve grown to appreciate you. I guess that’s God’s grace.

Lovingly,

Shirley

March 15, 2013

From: shirleympitts@cox.net

Subject: Collars

Jason,

I read your blog post about wearing your clergy collar out and about and how it helps you stay accountable to Jesus being a visible Christian.

It made me wonder what people see when they see me and how often, or how infrequently I should say, they’ve seen Jesus when they’ve seen me.

 

Shirley

April 3, 2013

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Wedding 

Jason,

About two weeks ago, Alan and Steve got a marriage license in D. C.  They have to wait until this coming weekend to have the ceremony.  They’ve lived together as a married couple for 10 years but they want to celebrate it publicly like any other couple gets to do, and they want to do it for legal protection.

I wish you were allowed to perform their wedding. If God’s love is unconditional for someone like me, then I believe it’s unconditional for a couple like them- they’re both better Christians than I’ve been in my life.

I’ve been a church person my whole life, but I feel like I’ve only been a Christian for the late part of my life.

I wish you were allowed to perform their wedding, but I also care about you too much to want you to get into trouble with the bishop. Lord knows you manage to do that plenty on your own. Maybe you can just come to the ceremony as a guest?

Shirley

April 7, 2013

From: shirleympitts@cox.net

Subject: Minister

Jason,

I was just thinking. I bet it’s good to be a minister because you get to see for yourself how God really does change people and work in their lives. You get a front row seat. It must give you a pretty strong argument for the existence of God.

Shirley

May 22, 2013

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Les’s Funeral 

Jason,

You did a wonderful job with Les Norton’s funeral yesterday. In fact, I left praying that you’ll be the one to do my service. Funerals should be honest about how every Christian is a mixture of sinner and saint. You know better than most my ratio of those two qualities.

I think funerals can afford to be honest too because of how you put the Gospel one time in your sermon on the prodigal son. You said God says to us: “Nothing you do can make me love you more, and nothing you do can make me love you less.” 

I’ve done plenty, I confess. Your precious boys make me regret every ignorant thing I ever said about Hispanics. I’ve never been racist, I don’t think, but ignorant? Probably. In ways you can’t even notice when you’ve grown when I did in a place like Arkansas. I wonder if that’s what is meant by original sin. You’re just born into sins like racism and you need God’s help to exorcise it from you.

Shirley

February 10, 2015

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Love You

Jason,

I don’t know if you’re checking your email or not. Dennis told me about your surgery and how it’s likely cancer.

I just left a message on your voicemail. I called the nurses station at the hospital too but they said they couldn’t connect me since I’m not family. I thought about telling them a thing or two about church family, the communion of saints, but I worried if I was too pushy they’d take it out on you. I’m sure you’re hard enough to handle as a patient as it is.

Anyways, I wanted you to know I love you. I prayed for you tonight, and for Ali, and your beautiful boys.

Love,

Shirley

February 5, 2016

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Cancer Buddies

Jason,

Who would’ve guessed that we’d end up getting cancer together at the same time? I’m down in Richmond now in a facility. It’s nice and near Alan and Steve, but I miss my church. I hope that before I die (and I know I’m dying) you can come visit me. In the past I would’ve been too vain to have anyone see me like this but I don’t care now. I guess that sounds like bragging doesn’t it? And that’s a sort of vanity too. Being Christian never really gets easier does it?

I’d like to see you one last time when you’re able. To see you, but also I’d like to confess my sins to you too before I go and even more I’d like to hear you tell me how God forgives me for all of them. Not because I don’t believe it but because believing it is what Christians share in common.

You think that’s why John Wesley said the “communion of saints” was his favorite part of the creed?

Have you seen those bumper stickers that say “God’s Not a Republican?”

Lord, I hope they’re not wrong.

In Christ,

Shirley

“Jesus did this in Cana of Galilee, the first of his signs, and revealed his glory.”

     We moderns- we find miracles like water into wine problematic. Superstitious even believers secretly say.

But-

Why is it that we find it difficult to believe that Jesus suddenly and immediately turned ordinary water into exceptional wine when Jesus works slow, lifetime-long miracles all around us?

Why is it hard for us to believe that back then Jesus transformed water into wine when, even now, Jesus transforms entire lives?

People like Shirley-

They’re the only proof we have for God. The argument is as simple as this:

There exists a sanctified person- a person changed by Christ, a saint.

Therefore, the Risen Christ exists.

IMG_1680 (2)

My wife complains that I have too many mistresses.

At the beginning of Holy Week this year, Ali and I snuck away to Quebec City for a romantic getaway at the Frontenac, overlooking the icy St. Lawrence river. Just the two of us…and Karl Barth.

…and Brian Zahnd’s new theological memoir, Water to Wine: Some of My Story

Ali says she’s tired of sharing our bed with Barth.

I could be watching Tiny House Hunters instead, I tell her. She was watching Jessica Jones.

In Water to Wine, full-time pastor, sometime author, and frequent voice in my earbuds, Brian Zahnd, describes three dreams God gave him during his mid-life theological crisis. Each dream, Zahnd believes, revealed a further step along his theological journey out of the shallow, ‘cotton-candy’ Christianity of his upbringing and success and into the rich, robust vintage of the ancient Church fathers and mothers.

Like the patriarchs of scripture, Zahnd received a dream communique from the Almighty, not of ladders traveled angels but of shoe shopping- yes- in Zurich with the late Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. Zahnd takes the dream to mean that God encourages him to try on the different shoes available to him in the Zurich marketplace; that is, God blesses his quest to move beyond the thin choices of his American pop-evangelical tradition to taste and see (and try-on) the living tradition of the global faith.

This dream of shoe-shopping with Karl Barth piqued my interest, for, as it happened, during our romantic getaway, I had returned to Karl Barth’s Dogmatics even while reading Water to Wine.

Hearing of Zahnd’s dream I wondered, for the first time, how Barth, on whom I cut my theological teeth, might respond to Zahnd, the preacher most often in my head while I exercise.

No doubt Barth would approve heartily of Zahnd’s emphatic insistence that ours is a God who speaks. In the present. For Barth and Zahnd, the God of Israel is not the moribund god of modernity but a Living God who reveals himself.  On the loquaciousness of this God, I expect Barth would fist bump Zahnd against the settled nature of so much Christianity in the West. Indeed I suspect both share more in common than either do with my own Methodist, mainline tribe where God is most often either a character in an ancient text, from whom we can by our own light and volition derive practicable principles for daily living or is the object of our own subjective, emotional feelings. In neither case is God a living, active subject of verbs that work on, move on, and sometimes include you and me.

On the talkativeness of God, I think Karl Barth would commend Brian Zahnd for retrieving wine where so many Christians are sated by the water of mission trip ‘cry nights’ and 3-point sermonic slides.

Still, reading some of Zahnd’s story I couldn’t help wonder how Karl Barth would respond to the quote most often attributed to Brian Zahnd, and truly it’s a frame of reference, a precis, for all of Zahnd’s theology. I’m not judging. I’ve cribbed from it myself in plenty of posts and preachments:

“God is like Jesus.
God has always been like Jesus.
There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.
We have not always known what God is like—
But now we do.”

On the one hand, I’d wager that Karl Barth would find much to affirm in this slight but bold assertion. Barth, I’m sure, would raise his pipe or brandy in approval at the conviction that God is revealed most decisively in Jesus Christ, that in Jesus we discover all of God there is find. Jesus Christ, as Barth says, is the one Word God speaks. Even on Zahnd’s suggestion that ‘God has always been like Jesus’ Barth would concur, for Barth went further than Zahnd, positing that the very ontological nature of God was/is determined by the incarnation such that Barth could speak of the ‘humanity of God’ and argue, accordingly, that Jesus Christ is the only sacrament of God, the absolutely singular visible, material sign of God.

On the other hand, I suspect Barth would pushback that Zahnd’s thesis statement is not sufficiently dialectical. Barth would caution Zahnd against any easy or obvious correspondence between God the Father and Jesus, God made flesh. Perhaps, the word ‘obvious’ is most important in reflecting upon the correlation between the Father and the Son.

For Karl Barth, our ability as (sinful) creatures to apprehend or know God is not available by any innate aptitude in human nature nor is derived from anything in the created world. Quite the opposite, our ability to know God is always- always and everywhere, as we say at the Table- a gift of God. This isn’t only a past gift given, as in the incarnation happened 2,000 years ago, but it’s always a present and future gift. We literally cannot know God apart from God revealing himself. Any God discovered apart from present revelation is a god not God and belongs to what Barth derides with a prophet’s anger as ‘religion.’

Because knowledge of God depends upon present, ongoing revelation by God, belief in the incarnation for Barth is not as simple as supposing that “God is like Jesus.”

For Barth, incarnation names not the obvious 1-1 correspondence between the Father and the Son but the mystery that God is both unveiled and veiled in Jesus Christ.

Even in the act of revealing himself most decisively in Jesus Christ, Barth says, God simultaneously conceals himself.

While affirming the identification of Jesus with God all the way down- the humanity of God, as Barth puts it, we cannot say that there is no God to be known behind the Jesus of the Gospels because, as Christ, God was never self-evidently God.

As Jesus, God was never in any obvious way, to any one anticipating his advent, the Messiah. And God still is today this God-for-us; therefore, God comes to us yet in the selfsame counterintuitive, revealed-but-concealed ways. God was always veiled in Jesus and, as Will Willimon admonishes, we ought not tear away this veil in our preaching or theologizing lest we imply there’s any way to approach this God other than by God’s gracious gesture towards us. Even in the Gospel scripture itself, says Barth, we can only know this God who comes to us as Jesus not by the text itself by the present day proclamation of it, and then only if such preaching is ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit.’

I suspect Barth would rebut Zahnd’s summary statement that “God is like Jesus.” Such a clear equation obscures how, for Barth, the unveiling but veiling of God in Christ is the revelation we call incarnation. God is absolutely vulnerable before us in the incarnation; God’s absolute otherness, as in the burning bush, remains. For Barth, the pattern of revelation revealed in the passion abides today. God’s unveiled yes to us in the incarnation is at the same time God’s no. As Barth says: ‘The Yes itself means a No, that in the very closeness to God our distance from him is disclosed.’

Barth’s dialectic of veiled/unveiled secures a continuity to the Old Testament’s depiction of God that I think Zahnd’s thesis statement at best elides and at worst supersedes but also I believe it allows a place, where Zahnd doesn’t, for those moments in the Gospels when Jesus comes across more like the angry God of Hosea than we like to countenance.

The very point at which I think Barth and Zahnd would agree provides their point of departure: God speaks still. For Barth, this means that revelation is always a gift. It’s always God’s act. As in the incarnation, God’s revelation remains opaque to us, unveiled but veiled still, far off from our expectations. Only by grace do we apprehend.

What held true at Calvary holds true today, even in revelation:

God comes to us but, as the spiritual sings, ‘we didn’t- we don’t- know who you was.’

Knowing God is like Jesus, we still don’t know who God is.

It has to be that way, Barth might say to Brian.

Otherwise, we no longer require God to know God.