Monday, January 7, 2013
Pondering a Miracle
More liberal types like myself sometimes get tied up in knots over readings such as today's gospel. We're troubled by the miraculous, especially a miracle so blatant as this one. It is so foreign to our scientific worldview, and there is no moral or spiritual lesson to be easily generalized from this episode. And so we have trouble taking this text seriously because to do so feels like fundamentalist literalism to us.
Banquets, wedding banquets in particular, get used in the Bible to speak of the abundance that God will provide, of the plenty and goodness that will mark God's coming reign. Surely today's gospel insists that even though Jesus' "hour has not yet come," God's abundance and provision are fully present in him. The steward in the reading remains blissfully unaware of this, attributing the abundance to some hyper-hospitality on the part of the groom. But the disciples "believed in him." They saw God's abundance in Jesus, and so they could do nothing less.
But do we liberal and progressive Christians actually believe in God's abundance? (The question is probably valid for conservatives as well.) Can God provide in any real and tangible ways, or is God restricted to my interior life, and perhaps to something after death?
In her book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, Kenda Creasy Dean discusses the normative faith of American teens, something a huge national study labeled "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." This notion that there is a God, that we should be "good," that God sometimes bails us out of personal jams, and that we go to heaven when we die, is not something teenagers produced by perverting the teachings they learned at church, says Dean. Rather, this is precisely what they learned at church.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism doesn't know what to do with Jesus changing water into wine, nor with God entering into and transforming history. These sorts of things simply have no place in the benign, innocuous, "Christian-ish" notions that teenagers have learned because that is what many churches have peddled.
Another finding of that national study is that teenagers, by and large, don't have much animosity toward religion. They don't reject church as something bad. They simply cannot fathom why they would invest much energy in it. After all, believing in God, trying to be good, and praying now and then don't require church membership or participation. And why would anyone worship and sing songs to a vague, distant, not-really-involved-involved-in-the-world God?
When people encounter our congregations, do they encounter anything of a God who is bending the arc of history toward God's purposes, whose providence sustains the universe, and whose grace intrudes into human life and history? Or do they find some nice people trying hard to do some good things and enjoying a little spiritual boost from the rhythms of worship, but without much sense that God is there and up to something. (I realize that I'm making an either/or question out of something where there is a huge continuum of possibilities.)
I frequently cite a quote I believe to come from someone at the Alban Institute (Roy Oswald perhaps?). Speaking on the troubles of Mainline churches this person said something to the effect, "People come to us seeking an experience of God, but we give them information about God."
It is very hard to share an experience of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It's a nice enough notion but not the sort of thing you would give yourself over to. And if God cannot intrude into our lives and our world in ways that violate our expectations, that defy our notions of what is possible or plausible, if God cannot turn water to wine, then why are we church folk here?
There's an old joke that goes, "What do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness with a Unitarian?" Answer: "Someone who knocks at your door but isn't sure why he's there." And I sometimes wonder if many church congregations don't operate on a similar principle. We keep doing our thing, but we're not really sure why.
I know from serving three churches as pastor, and from working with a number of other congregations via denominational committees, that we often function as though God was not really part of the equation. We say that we are doing what Jesus calls us to do, but we are no bolder in that work than we are at any other organization, from the workplace to PTA to Scouts to a local charity. We make decisions and undertake projects with absolutely no expectation that God/the Holy Spirit will add anything to the effort. If we have sufficient funding and volunteers and expertise, fine. Otherwise, it's just not possible.
But what if God's abundance and provision and grace really do enter into human experience in the person of Jesus?
I did not start out to write anything of the sort I just did. Strange where you end up when you stop to ponder a miracle.
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