The Hour Has Come: A Sermon for NEXT Church

Cross-posted at the NEXT Church website. By MaryAnn McKibben Dana

I was honored to preach at the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley at their stated meeting on May 9, 2013. It was a bit of an introduction to NEXT Church. I share it here in hopes that others will find it a helpful taste of what we're about: 


The Hour Has Come

John 2:1-11 

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."

Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward." So they took it.

When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, "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." Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

medium_475424169Many preachers I know have a love-hate relationship with the gospel of John. The Jesus in John is just so muscular. I don’t mean that in the sense of brawny, I mean… he’s so capable. Confident. Free of angst. Every move he makes is deliberate. There is no sweating blood in the garden in John, no cry of anguish on the cross, no “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” (Yes, he does say “I’m thirsty,” but John is quick to assure us: He didn’t really need a drink; he just said that to fulfill the scriptures.)

This is a man who knows what he’s doing at every moment. And that’s a comforting thing. But it’s also what makes John’s Jesus really hard to relate to. Jesus is never, ever caught off guard.

Except… here. Here, in this story, we get a little bit of a different picture than the Jesus we meet in most of John. He seems caught a bit off guard. Plus, this is Jesus’ first sign, and it feels different from the others. There are seven in all, and in case you need a review, here they are in no particular order:

-       Walking on water.

-       Three healings.

-       Feeding 5,000 people with the contents of a child’s picnic.

-       Raising a guy from the dead.

-       And… restocking the bar at a wedding.

One of these signs is not like the other.

*          *          *

Jesus’ mother comes to him: “They have no more wine.” It’s a statement… that’s really a question. A request. And Jesus gets that, because he responds to what remains unsaid: No mother, that is not my concern. This is not mine to do.

Mary is saying to him, Look… here is an opportunity.

And Jesus responds: Really? Beverage service? For my inaugural sign? I don’t think so. Anyway, my hour has not yet come.

And she turns toward everyone else: Do what he tells you. And again there is a subtext: Yes, your hour has come. You are needed, right now, right here.

I love that Jesus’ first sign is one he never intended to make.

Jesus, it seems, had a plan. He had something in mind for his first sign. I’m not sure what he hoped his first sign would be, but water into wine wasn’t it. I bet it was something great. Maybe he was planning to heal an entire household in one fell swoop. Maybe a nice juicy exorcism. Later he would walk on water; maybe he was going to kick things off by flying through the air like Superman.

But instead he realizes that when it comes to sign #1… mother does know best. And of course, it’s not just about the wine—it’s about hospitality, it’s about providing something amazing for a whole village of people. It’s about God’s abundance. So yes, he’s in.

He looks around: What’s here that I can use? He scopes out his provisions like some kind of Palestinian MacGyver, and he finds 6 water jars.

Uh-oh. Six.

You remember the number 7 as a holy number in scripture. It is a number of perfection, completion. The seven days of creation. Seventh day as the day of rest. Seven signs in the gospel of John, seven churches in the book of Revelation.

But there are only 6 jars. Not good. In the ancient world, 6 was not a holy number. Far from it. Six was seen as a deficient number, imperfect, lacking. So we can see why Jesus would be reluctant to act—wine from seven jars would be a fabulously meaningful sign, dripping with significance. But the tools aren’t right. Things aren’t quite right. Six jars is somehow not enough.

I serve a small congregation in Northern Virginia that has grown from about 70 to about 85 in the last few years. We rejoice at this growth. And we are grateful to have a number of things going for us. We own our building; it’s not too big for us, not too overwhelming for the budget. We have a small endowment. We have great people and an excitement about the future.

And yet… and yet… even with all of those gifts, it is still hard to move forward. It’s difficult to find the money to do what we want and need to do. It’s tough to find the people power to move forward on projects and ministries that we feel passionate about. It’s nearly impossible to figure out how to cut through the noise of the DC area so that our neighbors will know who we are and what we believe and why we’d like them to be a part of it.

It feels sometimes like a six jar situation.

And I wonder if you, too, look around your congregation, or your presbytery, and see six jars. If we could just catch a break, if we could just finish that camp, if we could just get a few more young people to join our church, if we could just hire a pastor—then, then, we could be the sign that we really want to be, the sign we’ve always dreamed of being.

Maybe you, like Jesus, feel like the timing is off. Jesus says his hour has not come, but for many of us, we feel like our hour is past. The statistics about membership decline in the PC(USA) are repeated so often that they have become a cliché. So many churches, here and around the country, are doing faithful ministry but without the means to call a pastor. Our buildings need maintenance. Meanwhile, a recent Barna survey of pastors and found that 90% of pastors said the ministry was completely different than what they thought it would be like before they entered the ministry.  And an astounding 70% say they have a lower self-image now than when they first started.

We’re discouraged.

We’re a day late and a jar short.

Unless. Unless it’s not up to us to perform a sign, but simply to be the sign. Unless we worship a God of possibility. Unless John’s Jesus, our Jesus, can take our jars and look at the clock on the wall and say, “Forget what time it is. I can work with this.”

For the last couple of years I’ve been honored to be a part of the leadership of the NEXT Church. This is a movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA) that has been working to celebrate the places of health in the church and to support those places and help them propagate. The premise of NEXT Church is that the church is not dying. The church is changing, and changing quickly. And we are capable of change, but we can’t wait for Louisville or presbytery or our pastors to do it for us. We are the church.

Last year we hosted half a dozen regional events around the country where ruling elders and teaching elders came together not to transact business or kvetch about presbytery, or argue about ordination standards or gay marriage. They came together to share resources and inspiration. They formed relationships and partnerships.

NEXT Church recently had our national gathering in Charlotte, and we heard about churches that were on life support who turned their worship life around through improv and storytelling. We heard about a large church partnering with a small church through an adminstrative commission. We heard about congregations coming together through community organizing to transform entire neighborhoods.

You can hear these stories and many more on our website. What’s interesting is that many of these folks were reluctant to speak at the conference because they felt like what they had to offer wasn’t all that radical. I’m no expert, they would shrug. They might as well have said, “Eh, I’ve only got six jars.” But their testimonies set the place on fire.

When we offer up those jars… when we fill them to the brim, like those servants did… well, that’s when the good wine starts to flow.

*          *          *

We’ll never know what Jesus had in mind for his inaugural sign. But it’s significant to me that his first sign wasn’t a healing… it wasn’t an exorcism or a sermon or feeding 5,000 people. It wasn’t a life or death situation at all. The first sign of Jesus helped the hosts of the wedding save face, but otherwise it had very little utility. It was just an act of pure beauty. The party needs to go on, says Jesus. The love and fellowship should continue.

Water into wine is such a small sign. But maybe this sign is just the sign we need. Jean Varnier, founder of the L’Arche Community, reminds us: “A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes. Community is only being created when they have recognized that the greatness of man is to accept his insignificance, his human condition and his earth, and to thank God for having put in a finite body the seeds of eternity which are visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness.”

We get mixed up sometimes. We want to save the church. We want to save the world! But maybe it’s enough to keep the feast going for as long as we can—not cautiously, not fearfully, but brimming over with hope and trust that the wine will flow as long as God means it to.

Maybe God is preparing us for something really, really—small:

Beauty, joy, community, friendship, hospitality.

I will drink to that. How about you?


MamdMaryAnn McKibben is co-chair of NEXT Church. She is a frequent speaker and workshop leader and author of Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family's Experiment with Holy Time. She blogs at The Blue Room.


photo credit: Paco CT via photopin cc

Sometimes It Just Comes to You

One of my father's favorite expressions was "nature abhors a vacuum." Apparently this comes from Aristotle, and I am not scientifically literate enough to know whether that categorical statement is still correct. But it's a useful idea spiritually, that things often come to us more effortlessly if we create space for them. Or perhaps the corollary is more helpful for me: that when I fill my life up with too much activity, too much distraction, too much stuff, then there is no space to receive the unexpected gift, the bit of grace, or even the opportunity to serve. I was reminded of my dad's expression last year when my brother quit his job without another one lined up. That's a risky thing to do in any economy, and sensible people will say you should look while you're still drawing a paycheck. But in Luke's case, it worked---the empty space that was created by his resigning was filled up, and quite quickly, by another great opportunity.

Would that have happened anyway if he'd looked before he resigned? Sure, perhaps---but that empty space gave him a sense of urgency and, I would say, a MacGyver-ish creativity to use everything he had to fashion a new career opportunity for himself. Don't we all know people who do jobs they hate for months and years, all the while dreaming of something else? Don't you wonder what would happen if they just up and quit?

[Please note that I am not giving employment advice.]

Some time ago I read a book about simplicity and getting by with less. The author suggested that when you find yourself in need of something, to wait and see if it might come to you another way before going out and buying it. The person even suggested telling folks, "Hey, I'm really in need of this---do you have one to spare, or do you have any ideas?"

Something about the way the author presented this smacked of begging, so I dismissed it at the time. On the other hand, if it's done in the right way, why not put a need out there in the universe and see what happens?

Several times in the last three weeks, something I needed or wanted has come to me without my having to go out and buy it. In no case did I ask someone for the item, but in every case, I made a decision to wait before buying it... just to see. Just to open up some space for... who knows?

One of them was small. After our trip to NYC we really needed some groceries, but I was procrastinating, mainly because I hate shopping, but also to see how far we could get on freezer and pantry miscellany. Two days later a friend gave me two quarts of fresh berries that were being thrown out by the high-end chocolate shop where her daughter works. The berries were no longer pristine but still perfectly good. They lasted for several meals.

I have wanted some additional winter clothes for James, but I've been putting off buying any, because again, I hate shopping. While doing yet another quick load of laundry so he'd have long pants to wear the next day I thought, "I would love to be the recipient of someone's hand-me-downs... but I have no idea who to ask."

Several days later my friend L offered to give us her son's clothes after he outgrows them. I've gotten several bags full so far, and she's thrilled to have a destination for this stuff.

The third happened just this morning. Both girls want American Girl dolls, and that's just not something we're going to do. But thanks to a Facebook post about gift ideas for eight year olds, we have not one, but two hand-me-down AG dolls coming our way for Christmas. Compliments of a friend and her college-age daughter.

As I ponder Thanksgiving and gratitude, this is what I am thinking about. Gratitude is about appreciating what one has, but maybe it's also about trusting that things can come unexpectedly from others, not just our own resources, time, and money.

I wonder what needs or desires you have that you could put out into the world... just to see what happens. Or how this idea has worked for you.

Blue Room Miscellany

1. I decided to decline the invitation. I composed the same note that I did yesterday, and for whatever reason, today it felt right to hit 'send.' I passed along some names of folks who I thought would be good for the project, which felt like a small way of living more abundantly. Also, I have realized in this process and not articulated adequately, what a 'quality problem' this is to have. It's very humbling to have people solicit your ideas on a project. I'm always a bit flummoxed by it. I mean, I'm just this gal...

2. The Writing Revs met today at Starbucks, and in case I had time to kill before or after, I brought the book Stealing Jesus, which our church book group is reading this month. While in line I began thinking about how with Kindle, we won't be able to see what one another is reading, in coffee shops, on the Metro, etc. Kindle and other e-readers will give us some privacy, but will it come at the expense of the serendipitous encounter?

I have a friend who is always meeting interesting people simply by bringing her Bible or other religious books to the local coffee shop---people are curious and will strike up a conversation. I admire this friend for her ability to collect stories and interactions---she is a magnet for quirkiness. I am not, for whatever reason---temperament, a more reserved vibe---but sometimes I'd like to be. I feel like I'm shutting myself off from some cool stuff by projecting an "in my own little world" vibe. (Other times, I rationalize that I live an accessible life as a pastor and a mother of young children, so I'm entitled to be left alone at Starbucks.)

Not more than two minutes after having this thought, a woman came up to me, curious about my book. She's a clergywoman in the UCC who does a lot at Washington National Cathedral. We struck up a short conversation and she gave me her card. How about that! A small bit of succulence in the stodgy old 'burbs of DC.

3. Just as I admire my friend the story magnet, I also admire those neighborhood mothers who leave enough margin in their schedules that they can let their kids linger at the playground following preschool, or collect random neighborhood kids at their house. I aspire to be one of those women with the open door and the sauntering gait, who give their children an unhurried childhood. The best I can do is to try not to shoo and nudge them too much as we chuff along from place to place.

Today I got a glimpse of a different way. I picked up Margaret and her friend A from preschool and arrived at A's house per my carpool duties... but his mother had been detained and was 20 minutes away. "Whatever works for you," she said apologetically when I called her, "You can wait there, or go to your house, whatever." I'd been in meetings all day and was feeling pressed, but I made a decision not to be bothered. I wish I could say that mental adjustment was easy. But we came back to our house for an impromptu play date, and by the time she arrived, we were playing on the porch with the bubble machine.

Each of these small events gave me a frisson of energy. Have you experienced delight in something small, today or recently? Share in the comments.