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Sermon for Sunday 17 January 2016

FIRST READING Isaiah 62:1-5

1 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. 2 The nations shall see your vindication,   and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. 3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. 4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. 5 For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.
PSALM Psalm 128

1 Happy is the one whose quiver is full of them! Such a one will not be put to shame when contending with enemies in the gate. 2 Happy are they all who fear the Lord, and who follow in God’s ways! 3 You shall eat the fruit of your labor; happiness and prosperity shall be yours. 4 Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house, your children like olive shoots round about your table. 5 The one who fears the Lord shall thus indeed be blessed. 6 The Lord bless you from Zion, and may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life.
SECOND READING 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. 3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. 4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

GOSPEL John 2:1-11

1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 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 10and 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.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Today, I’d like to bring up a topic that is a bit more practical than it is theological. We live in a fast paced society that demands a great deal from us both mentally and physically. As technology advances, it seems that we’re able to accomplish more with less resources in a shorter amount of time and instead of having more time for leisure, the demands keep increasing. This of course puts a heavier and heavier burden on our capabilities which leads to a higher and higher level of stress and also the higher probability of burnout.
As your pastor, one of the things that I’m always concerned about is people becoming burned out here at the church. While I have no control over the secular side of your life, I do my best to mitigate what happens here at church. Burnout, as you know, is an ailment that many have experienced or are experiencing now and manifests itself in general stress, tension between family members, illness, depression and in a host of other negative ways. Churches, by the nature of them being mainly volunteer run, ask a lot of their members and statistically speaking, most of the volunteer work done around the church is accomplished by a small percentage of the members. Of course the way to prevent burnout in the church is simple, everyone pitch in, but that requires us to give of our most treasured resource…time.
Time is something we value highly because it’s a gift that we cannot control. There are only 24 hours in the day no matter if we’re swamped or bored. And from our waking to our falling asleep at night, every aspect of our lives competes for this gift. And how we use our gift of time, in most cases, is up to us. So we guard and use our time judiciously. However, no matter how judiciously we use our time, external and internal demands compete for our time and often times this creates stress. And when this stress becomes too much, we burnout as a result and do our best to find a way to escape the pressure. But burnout is a word we don’t like to use because of its perceived negative connotations so, in light of our gospel lesson for this morning, maybe a better way to ponder this topic is to ask, is your life “running out of wine.”
One of the regular occurrences in the military is retirements. Because one can only serve a set number of years, depending on rank, no matter how badly a person might want to continue their career, they must, at one point or another, retire. Even a 4-star General must retire after 40 years of service. There are no exceptions. As an Air Force Senior Master Sergeant, that meant retiring after 28 years of service. Retirements, both military and civilian, are celebrated in many ways; some involve lavish parties, others are less grandiose. But no matter the size of the celebration, one constant is a reflection on the person’s career and accomplishments.
Not long before I retired, I was asked to be part of a planning committee for the Maintenance Chief’s retirement. Our Squadron Maintenance Chief had served for 28 years with distinction having been assigned to several bases both stateside and overseas and was a veteran of both Vietnam and Desert Storm. Because he’d been assigned to McGuire AFB a good part of his career, he knew a lot of people, so the celebration was going to be big. At the very first meeting, I made the mistake of suggesting we produce a slideshow highlighting not only the boss’ years as a Maintenance Chief but highlight as well the changes in the bases mission over the years. I call it a mistake because the very next day I received a call from the commander to put together that slideshow.
I pleaded with the commander that I didn’t have the time to do it nor did I even own an SLR camera. The commander, of course, wouldn’t take no for an answer and neutralized my one plea by volunteering another airman to take the pictures. I had no recourse but to proceed with the project. One of the first things I did was set up interviews with some of the former leadership of the base, including one who had long since become a recluse. The recluse was, for me, the most interesting interview.
I say that because when I started asking him about the earlier missions of McGuire, I saw him literally light up. You could actually hear the change in his voice. This otherwise sullen and depressed individual became filled with excitement. It was quite the transformation. Sadly, however, at the end of the interview, all the flash and fire quickly vanished and he looked as sullen and depressed as he did at the start of the interview.
As I understand it, the individual I’m referring to use to epitomize flash and fire. He was a dynamic and outgoing mover and shaker back during the earlier missions of McGuire. But then, something happened. You could say that the air was let out of his balloon. The vim and vigor and enthusiasm vanished and with it his idealism. In essence, he burned out. And he wasn’t the only retired airman I’ve seen this happen to.
What happened to that former leader at McGuire is something that I’ve also seen happen to lawyers, doctors, pastors, nurses, and a good number of professionals. At the start of their professional life, they couldn’t wait to practice their skills, they couldn’t wait to take on the challenges and possibilities that awaited them. Then something happened and burnout set in and they no longer exhibited the enthusiasm and the idealism they once had. And as I mentioned earlier, this can also happen to the lay leadership and other volunteers of the church.
Burnout is something that we periodically need to address because of the serious consequences it can have. And in light of our gospel reading, it seems that today is a good day to entertain the subject. Mary came to Jesus because the people ran out of wine. I believe that it could be said that, figuratively speaking, the people I’ve just referred to have run out of wine; they’re empty of what fueled their vitality. And just as Jesus addressed the problem at Cana with the turning of water into wine; so did He address their problem as well.
In Jesus’ teachings, there are several varieties of bottled truths which, if consumed, could provide what might be needed to rekindle the fire which may once have burned inside them. If you peruse the Gospels, you’ll discover that Jesus furnished a wine cellar filled with all sorts of truths or figuratively speaking, water turned to wine. That cellar has been stocked for the benefit of those whose lives either are running short of wine or they’re out of wine completely. One of the bottles in that cellar contains the truth of our being an imperfect people in an imperfect world.
In the Book of Numbers chapter 19, we read of the ritual of the red heifer. A heifer of extremely red skin, one that doesn’t have a single discolored hair nor has it even had a yoke placed upon it, is sacrificed and its ashes are gathered up. People who have failed, people who have made a mistake, people who are frustrated and disenchanted with their work are sprinkled with the ashes. A few prayers are said and the ritual is over.
The red heifer is actually so rare that, in all of Jewish history, only 6 times has an animal of such perfection been found and sacrificed. This animal, without a single blemish, represents perfection. The point of the ritual is to drive home the truth that perfection is very rare and almost impossible to find in this world. Those sprinkled with the ashes are led to understand that perfect creatures belong in heaven and not on earth. One of the feeders of burnout is this wrongful notion that perfection lies within our grasp, that an ideal and perfect world is just beyond our reach.
This notion usually leads to our growing disillusioned and despondent when what we hoped to accomplish fails to get accomplished. If that’s the reason we’re running out of wine, then we need to get our hands on that bottle in the wine cellar containing within it the truth, that perfection lies with God, that we are an imperfect people in an imperfect world. But despite our short comings, God can give us the strength and resources, the wine we need to continue to serve both in the left and right hand kingdoms of God. Also in that wine cellar, Jesus placed a bottle that contains the truth of the Cross, the truth that the bleakest and darkest of times can be the breeding ground for some wonderful fruit.
The great philosopher John Ruskin was one-day walking along the streets of an English manufacturing town. The weather had been very wet and the mud was both abundant and tenacious. The thought occurred to him to have the mud analyzed to discover its organic elements. This was done and the black and ugly mud was found to consist of sand, clay, soot, and water.
Musing about those elements, the thought occurred to Ruskin that these are the very substances from which precious gems are formed. From the sand are formed chrysolite and jasper, from the clay are formed sapphires and emeralds, from the soot is formed the diamond, and the water is the same as that which, in the form of a dew drop, sparkles in the heart of a rose. Ruskin came to realize that, in wading through the ugly mud, he had really been splashing through a garden of jewels. Besides this being an imperfect world, it’s also a muddy world.
It’s not unusual to find one’s best laid plans, one’s high ideals, getting mired in the mud of resistance and cynicism and outright hostility. This can sap the enthusiasm and the excitement out of the best of us. What needs to be kept uppermost in one’s mind is that sapphires can be had from the mud, that Easter sits on the other side of Good Friday. Although the invitation to discouragement and burnout sits out there with flashing lights, perseverance may yield jewels and victories yet unseen. If that isn’t enough wine to replenish a defeated spirit, Jesus has also placed in that wine cellar a bottle of wine containing the truth that the good we do is never wasted. Even if we never see the jewels or the victories, what we’re doing isn’t being done in vain.
Chai Ling was the Chinese student leader in Tiananmen Square. When things looked ominous and the Chinese troops started moving in for the kill, she told her comrades the following story. “A billion ants,” she said, “lived on a mountain. A fire was set at the base. It appeared that all billion of them would die. So they made themselves into a ball and they rolled down the mountain and through the fire into safety. The sad thing was that those on the surface died. My comrades, we’re like those ants on the surface. Though we may die, our cause will not die.” Historians predict that one day Tiananmen Square will be seen by the world not as the end of democracy in China, but as the beginning.
I’m reminded of something a mother said to her son. He was scolding her for working so hard planting a tree. “Oh, Mother,” he said, “why do you work so hard? You’re never going to see that tree bloom!” “No!” she said, “you’re right. I won’t see it bloom. But I know that someone will!” We may never see the mud yield to sapphires. We may never see Good Friday yield to Easter. But that’s not to say our work has been done in vain. That’s not to say that the good we’re doing is all for naught. Burnout and discouragement are very inviting because it may seem clear that we’re never going to see the fruits of our labor. But what we have to keep uppermost in our minds is that although we may not see it, someone will.
Yet another bottle Jesus placed in the wine cellar is the one that has as its main ingredient, a triumphant spirit. The story goes that a man sought out the great Phillips Brooks for help with a problem that had long plagued him. With careful thought he put together the finest of descriptions he could devise to explain the problem properly to Brooks. When the long anticipated day arrived for their meeting, he walked into Brooks’ office and he was awestruck. For the next hour they talked. The man came out of the session transformed. His life was glorious again. He was filled with a vigor and vitality he hadn’t felt in years.
When he got halfway home, it dawned on him that he had forgotten to tell Phillips Brooks about the problem that had prompted the meeting in the first place. It then dawned on him that he didn’t have to, that what he really needed was not the solution to a special problem but an association with a special person. He needed to be in the presence of someone who exuded confidence and nobility and high energy. He needed to be with someone who was like minded. He needed to be with someone whose excitement about life proved contagious, who transmitted a spirit that captivated his soul.
One of the main causes of burnout is a run on one’s batteries by people who fail to share the same idealism, who fail to share the theological views and the same outlook on life. This is one of the reasons gathering here at church is so important. Being unable to express one views freely and respectfully to another for fear of ridicule, rejection or ostracization can also drain a person’s resources. Constantly being around people who fail to share a similar view or even outright reject our beliefs, will often hammer home the point that what we’re doing is a waste of time or worse yet wrong. They usually pepper us with both criticism and cynicism. If we hope to keep burnout at bay, we desperately need to seek out and enjoy the company of people of the ilk of a Phillips Brooks, people who exude a spirit similar to our own, people who provide a much needed charge to a battery drained by the cynic, the doubter, and the defeatist who so often command our attention. Lastly in that wine cellar, Jesus placed a bottle that has God’s name written all over it.
A young sailor was told during a terrific storm to climb the mast and trim the sails. As he got halfway up the mast, he made the mistake of looking down. The roll of the ship combined with the tossing of the waves made the task difficult and fear gripped the young sailor. The young man started to lose his balance and was about to fall when an older sailor started to shout: “Look up, Son, look up!” The young sailor did so and regained his balance. To keep ourselves from falling into burnout and discouragement, it’s important that we hold our heads high, that we keep our eyes pointed in the direction of God, for it’s God who is “our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble”, (Psalm 46:1) a stronghold that gives us safety, an anchor for keeping our spirits high.
Truth be told, there are a lot of people in life similar to that former McGuire leader whom I interviewed several years back. They’re burned out. They’ve run out of wine. The good news is that, just as Jesus helped those in Cana, He can help us. He’s furnished a cellar filled with His wine. There’s the red heifer wine letting us know we’re an imperfect people in an imperfect world. There’s the mud wine letting us know that the mud we’re mired in is the stuff of rubies and emeralds and diamonds. There’s the future-based wine letting us know that although we might not enjoy the fruits of our labor, there will be someone who will. There’s the wine with a Phillips Brooks label letting us know our need to be with like-minded and high-spirited people. There’s the wine with a God label reminding us to look to God when the sea of life gets rough and discouragement is near.
Jesus has provided us with a wine cellar so that in the event that we seem to be running out of wine, there’s a place to go where our supply may be replenished. Anytime we feel as if we’re burned out or close to it, we need to find that wine cellar. And as for letting one another become burned out here at church, there is a solution. We need to be willing to give some of our very valuable time and share in the burdens of ministry. Remember, even from the Cross, Jesus took the time to welcome the repentant thief into the kingdom of God.

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