A sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Wilton, Connecticut on Epiphany 2, January 20, 2013.
We have finally, fully entered the season of Epiphany. With the change of color to green, we have an outward symbol of the ongoing life of the church. While the ground may be frozen outside, it is a green, growing season signifying growth in discipleship and new life as we come to know Jesus through signs and symbols. We’ve heard how the magi and then John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus’ presence in the world. Epiphany is a time of transformation as we walk along with the disciples traveling with Jesus throughout the Judean countryside.
Later in the Gospel of John it says that Jesus did “many miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples” (John 20:31). Miracles are about transformation, and today we heard the story of the very first one – at Cana in Galilee, about nine miles northwest of his home in Nazareth (John 2:1–11).
Through Jesus’ action, ordinary water was transformed so the abundance of a wedding could continue to be celebrated. Water turned to wine – the best wine.
Transformation occurs all around us all the time. We often talk about change – for good or for bad – but do we ever focus on the actual transformations that happens in our every day lives?
I learned of a transformation of a totally different nature two weeks ago. A colleague of mine from Pittsburg took her Girl Scout troop to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for the annual Farm Show. She shared a picture of the girls on Facebook in front of one of the main attractions – a giant sculpture of agricultural products grown in Pennsylvania made with 1,000 pounds of butter. What does one do with that much butter afterwards?
According to an NPR story that aired on January 11th, the sculpture was taken to a farm inMifflintown, PA where it was mixed and ground up with rotting fruits, vegetables and other food waste. It was put into a “methane digester” where the mixture was heated as bacteria were added to break down the molecules. The methane gas produced is then piped to a generator that powers the farm and creates enough energy for about 80 houses. It is sustainable transformation.
A few weeks ago I got to see a different kind of transformation. On December 30th, John and I were privileged to attend the wedding of Jill and Joe. Jill’s a woman we’ve known for over 25 years. She was one of 21 Brownies, six of whom continued through high school with me as their Girl Scout Leader. It has been such a joy to watch them grow into remarkable women. Over time they have tapped into the gifts I saw growing within them as young girls – as artists, actresses, teachers, and advocates. Keeping in contact with them through the years has shown me how important it is to mentor and simply be present with our young people – their transformation has been a gift of joy to me, watching from the sidelines.
Jill’s wedding was filled with the abundance of love and joy that her family wanted to share with many. It was one of transformation as I watched so many of “my” former Brownies gathered together as adults.
Transformation and abundance. They seem to go hand in hand.
These stories of food, wine and personal transformations remind me of one more story, a movie, which I highly recommend you check out. The Danish film Babette’s Feast, which won a 1988 Academy Award for the best foreign film, is a story that unfolds in the late nineteenth century in a small fishing village on the dank and dreary Jutland coast of Denmark.
Within the first minutes of the film, the viewer is treated to a vision of a Puritan-type sect at worship, a dozen voices raised in song, longing for the coming of God’s kingdom, led by a stern pastor who is cared for by his two maiden daughters. These earnest believers, inhabiting a stony, barren land where their every meal is unappetizing ale-bread and split cod (which has been visually presented to us hanging up to dry in the opening shots in shades of gray bleakness and cold) sit around a stark, wooden table to pray. As they share this meager meal, they beg to be fed at a banquet table of unsurpassed bounty. They sing and pray that they will be welcomed into the New Jerusalem where all suffering and hardship will be gone, all sorrow turned to joy, all that is estranged shall be reconciled, all that is lost, found. The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap for joy. All will be reconciled. Living in bleakness and scarcity, they live in anticipation of something yet to come.
Years pass and the two sisters, who had given up their own ambitions to care for their now deceased father, continue to gather with the shrinking, aging sect of Christians. They are somber, joy-less, and life-less, thinking that to become close to God they must forsake all pleasures in life. Suddenly a French refugee named Babette invades their small world seeking shelter. And in unexpected ways, these dour villagers who do not allow themselves to enjoy any sense of extravagance are transformed. You see, Babette was a celebrated Parisian chef who chooses to give them the gift of a celebratory banquet.
Any viewer could enjoy Babette’s Feast as a simple narrative in which religious characters come to some sort of awakening. It could be experienced as a story about a group of rather stuffy, old-fashioned folks with a glum otherworldly view of things who, in a wondrous meal, are initiated into the delights of enjoying the pleasures of life. Babette’s gifts break down their distrust and superstitions, elevating them physically and spiritually. Old wrongs are forgotten, ancient loves are rekindled, and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles over the table. The color palette of the movie changes to warmer hues as the taste pallet of these grace-starved people are transformed into a new community.
I believe Babette’s Feast is a story in which we are shown the extravagance and abundance that God gives us. If we only just paid attention and allowed ourselves to accept the gifts we are given. It is Jesus answering his mother’s request to save the party with a taste of better things to come.
Water into wine. Butter into energy. Childhood to adulthood. Barrenness to abundance. They are all miraculous transformations that happen every day. Everything is the same, only changed and made new. The God that Jesus revealed is a God of lavish liberality, generosity and extravagance. He calls us from emptiness to excess, from the least to the best.
Turning water into wine is the revealing of abundant grace in this season of Epiphany. And what does abundant grace taste like? Like the best wine when you are expecting the cheap stuff. It’s tasting an award-winning Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley that came out of the Gallo jug of Chablis you bought at BevMax.
What if in this season of Epiphany ….
- We commit to creating experiences of Jesus so that there can be no doubt that Christmas was real?
- We rededicated ourselves to our own ministries and our missionary task – to embrace the abundance that God gives us?
- To take the butter we have been given and transform it into new energy?
- To allow the bread and wine that we will soon share around this table to transform us into instruments of God’s love and abundance in a world that can only see scarcity and violence but seeks hope and healing?
We have all that we need – we just need to be open to the signs, the symbols, the gift of transformation that Jesus offers us with every breath we take. And then share it abundantly.