READINGS: 01/16/2021 ~ Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Known in Some Traditions as the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11 ~ The Weekend of the Federal Holiday Known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day ~ VIDEO OF THE COMPLETE SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTGIkH_5RlE
NOTE: There are issues sound with the sound quality.
“Jesus did this, performed the first of signs, at Cana in Galilee; in this way Jesus revealed glory; and the disciples believed.” — John 2:11.
Charisma is an interesting word since it has multiple definitions. If someone is charismatic it can mean a person has divinely conferred power but it can also mean someone who has compelling attractiveness, charm, can inspire devotion in others.
I, personally, try to avoid using charisma or charismatic. Why? People who sell snake oil are often charismatic. That does not mean you should buy snake oil from them.
I have, myself, been afforded the privilege to be in the presence of and learn from teachers who have charisma in the positive sense— no snake oil. Let me offer two examples from my experience.
The well known writer of musicals, the late Stephen Sondheim— the lyrics for West Side Story, music and lyrics for Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd among many, many shows, would come by the A.S.C.A.P. Musical Comedy Workshop, a Master Class for aspiring writers of musicals, when I was a member. He came to offer advice and support.
I want to address how Sondheim worked as a teacher, as he had a distinct presence— charisma. There are YOUTUBE videos out there of Sondheim you can look at, see him working with acting students on his songs, videos that display him teaching.
In one video a song he wrote is sung by three people who intone three different parts of the song. Two of the three students are very good. The third struggles.
How does this composer respond? Gently— Sondheim does not berate the person of lesser ability but works with this individual. How is that accomplished?
Sondheim knows songs are not just ink blots on paper, not just sounds. Words have meaning. Notes don’t just go up and down. Both lyrics and notes express emotion.
So Sondheim enters into a dialogue based not on what the words and notes say or sound, but what they mean. He invites each student to bring what they can to the table, encourages each student to give their own interpretation. Sondheim does this with the one who struggles and with all the students at each one’s own level.  (Slight pause.)
Another wonderful teacher I had is the late Dr. Ann Johnston, my Hebrew Scriptures professor at Bangor Theological Seminary. Ann was a Roman Catholic nun who had a PhD. in Hebrew Scriptures— an interesting combination to say the least.
She would assign at least four papers a semester. But for one paper Ann would always offer the option of writing a creative paper as opposed to an academic paper.
You could write an academic paper but alternatively you could draw, paint or sculpt something, write a play, a poem, a short story as a paper. If you created a piece of visual art you needed to offer a short explanation but that was simply for clarity.
One student once said to me Ann wants you to re-write the Bible. “Of course,” said I. “That’s because she wants you to be emotionally engaged with it so you are able to convey to others what the Bible says but use your own words.” (Slight pause.)
These words are found in the Gospel According to the School of John: “Jesus did this, performed the first of signs, at Cana in Galilee; in this way Jesus revealed glory; and the disciples believed.” (Slight pause.)
This is something I said at Bible Study last Monday. Any story about a miracle in the Bible is not about the miracle. To explore that idea I need to say something which is obvious. Jesus and the disciples were Jewish.
Given that, what does it mean that Jesus revealed glory? Modern culture totally misuses and/or fails to understand the meaning of the word Glory as it is used in Scripture. In Scripture the word Glory means the real presence of God.
Indeed, people use, often sing a prayer called Gloria. The Latin words in the liturgy and hymns used in the church for millennia were Gloria in Excelsus Deo. These are often translated as Glory to God in the highest.
But the words Excelsus Deo can also mean Highest God. And a title of God used in Scripture is Highest God. Hence, Gloria in Excelsus Deo can mean this Highest God displays Glory, presence. In short Gloria in Excelsus Deo can mean is present, this highest God is present.
And what does this passage which contains a miracle say about Jesus? It says Jesus reveals Glory, reveals God is present.
Please note and as I said, the point of the story is not the miracle. It’s not about turning water into wine. The point of the story is the presence of God is revealed.
And the result of this is the disciples believed. Indeed, nowhere does it say the disciples knew about the water/wine transformation. So if Glory does not refer to the presence of God, that the disciples believed is a non sequitur; it makes no sense.
As you may realize, in the Gospel of John Jesus seems more God-like than in any other Gospel. Hence, when John tells us the disciples believed what we need to hear is the disciples believed that the presence of God is revealed in Jesus.
All that brings me back to the word charisma and its definition. Charisma can mean a person who has compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion. Charisma can also mean a person who has divinely conferred power or talent.
Here, in this story, those two definitions to come together, merge. Jesus is not just a person who has compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others, although some would have you believe that’s all Jesus is or does.
Jesus is not just a person with divinely conferred power or talent, although some would have you believe that’s all Jesus is or does. Jesus is both compelling and divine.
Coming back to my experience, Stephen Sondheim and Ann Johnston were good teachers because they realized people learn when they become emotionally engaged. And so they engaged their students and encouraged their students to engage on an emotional level.
So let me say this: we all have charisma, the ability to share in different ways. Therefore, we all can teach. You see, teaching is about sharing your passion and we share our passion, emotionally engage, every time we set an example by performing acts of unconditional love with that emotional engagement. Indeed, I think Dr. King taught as much by example as by rhetoric— he did write the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, did he not?
So to reiterate, the miracle stories in Scripture are not meant to encourage us to go “ooh” or “aah” and wonder about miracles. Miracle stories are in Scripture to encourage us to engage our emotions, become emotionally engaged about the reality of God.
In short, the words we find in Scripture are not just ink blots on paper, something to simply recite, especially not something to recite by rote. We are called to understand Scripture for ourselves, and thereby to become emotionally engaged by what we find there. And I will speak for myself but I hope I am speaking for everyone. What I find there is the peace, the hope, the joy, the freedom, the equity and the love of God. Amen.
South Freeport Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Freeport, Maine
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “This is, of course, the weekend of National Holiday known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Dr. King wanted us to be emotionally engaged. This is a quote from Dr. King: ‘We need leaders not in love with money but in love with justice, leaders not in love with publicity but in love with humanity, leaders who can subject their particular egos to the pressing urgencies of the great cause of freedom…. a time like this demands great leaders.’”
BENEDICTION: The love of God must be lived and shared. So, let us go forth with the praise of God on our lips for the steadfast love of God will light our paths as God keeps us open to new ways of doing and learning. And may the love of God guide us, the word of the Christ empower us and the gifts of the Spirit dwell in us, this day and forever more. Amen.