Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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John 12:1-11 


January 20, 2013 


A woman was going through customs returning to the US from a trip to Scotland. When the customs officials asked her to open a particularly heavy bag she was carrying, she did so very reluctantly, revealing several large bottles. “What’s in the bottles, ma’am?” they asked. “Well, it’s, uhhh, water,” she said uncomfortably. Opening one of the bottles and sniffing it, the official’s eyes lit up. “Ma’am this isn’t water. It’s Scottish whiskey.” Recovering herself, the woman fell to her knees and exclaimed, “It’s a miracle!” 


Though funny, this joke points to one of the problems with the story of the wedding at Cana: that Jesus provides an enormous amount of alcohol for a party that sounds like it’s had plenty already. It’s a tough story for old-fashioned, tea-totaling Methodists. The Methodist movement has a long history of working against alcohol abuse. Welch’s Grape Juice Company was founded by a Methodist specifically to produce a non-alcoholic drink for Holy Communion. This building is host to five AA meetings every week. This story does suggest that Jesus was okay with 2 drinking alcohol, but we want to be careful not to give the wrong impression about the dangers and risks of alcohol. 


That’s one problem with this story. Another is the way Jesus talks to his mother. When she points out to him that the wine has run out, he says, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?” Now the commentaries are filled with explanations of why that was not as rude as it sounds. And in the end Jesus goes ahead and does what his mother wanted. But I’m just saying, I wouldn’t want one of my kids talking to their mother that way. 


And finally, this is a rather odd miracle, isn’t it? No one is healed, or has their sight restored, or gets rescued from a storm at sea. The wine running out seems like a trivial problem compared to these things. I mean, there doesn’t seem to be any real point to this miracle. Except . . . 

except . . . right at the end, John says this about the turning of water into wine: “Jesus did this,” he says, “the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.” Yeah, that might be a big enough point, I guess. 


It raises the question of what miracles are. What are Jesus’ miracles for? In the other gospels—in Matthew, Mark and Luke—Jesus heals the sick and casts out demons at least in part out of compassion for the 3 suffering he saw around him. He saw people who were hurting and wounded, he had the power to do something about it, and he did it. Wouldn’t you? 


But in John’s gospel something bigger, or at least something different, is going. Not that Jesus is uncompassionate, but in John compassion is not the reason he does miracles. For John, Jesus’ miracles always do what I just read to you: they reveal his glory and they help people believe in him. Here’s the difference: if miracles are done out of compassion, people get healed, yes. Some people who are blind or deaf have their senses restored, sure. A few isolated individuals even have loved ones restored to them from the dead. But there will always be more lame people, always someone else who has lost their sight, loved ones continue to pass away and they don’t come back. But as Fred Craddock points out, Jesus’ power and grace reach to all persons, not just to the few who are recipients of miracles. Compassion would have provided more wine to avoid embarrassment for the father of the bride and that’s about it; but what Jesus offers is a revelation of the power of God, a sign that life is eternal and new, and that’s for everyone, for all time.i Miracles reveal God’s glory and help people believe. 4 


So if that’s what miracles are for, what does turning water into wine show us about God? What does it help us believe in? Abundance, I think. When the wine of life runs dry, Jesus makes more—lots more. Scholars have figured that Jesus made something like 120-150 gallons of wine—not bottles of wine or even jugs of wine, but bathtubs full of wine. One preacher says that if Jesus provided just 90 gallons of wine, it still comes to over 2,160 glasses full.ii And it wasn’t 2000 glasses of ordinary wine; it was 2000 glasses of the very finest vintage. 


Now, I can’t tell you if Jesus literally turned bathtubs full of water into wine. What I know is that he was remembered to have provided abundantly. He kept the celebration going; he showed that God can provide more and better than we can even imagine, which probably isn’t all that surprising to you if you’ve read the rest of the Bible. God created the whole world and everything in it, and it was very good. When the Israelites were starving in the desert, God sent manna from heaven every day for forty years. When the disciples wanted to send 5000 people away because there wasn’t enough to eat, Jesus fed them all and then some. And Acts says the believers shared with each other so generously that none of them was ever in need. 5 


What Jesus did at Cana of Galilee revealed his glory; it was a sign of the abundance of God, and at least twelve people—the disciples--believed in him that day. Yet abundance is not the way we experience God’s world, at least not all the time. So many of our national debates are about things we’d like to do but can’t figure out how. Sure, we think, it would be great if every kid received a high-quality education. Of course everyone should have access to the kind of health care I want for my own family. But we can’t do it. Conservatives says there just isn’t any more money. And liberals say, well, we can’t do any more with what we’ve got. We get stuck over and over again. But Jesus turns water into wine; God’s vision is abundant life. And I, for one, believe more is possible. 


Our own lives can feel equally stuck, just as fruitless. Back in the 60s, Peggy Lee sang it this way: Is that all there is? Her song tells about a fire that destroys their house—the whole world going up in flames. It tells of entertainment that leaves her feeling empty and love that doesn’t work out. Is that all there is? Surely we all experience life that way at some time: I thought this would be my dream job, but now it’s just another day at work. I thought my family was on top of the world, but look at the way things have turned out. I thought going to church would feed my soul, but it’s just going through the motions. 6 


Is that all there is? Well, here’s the answer. No, it’s not. When the wine of life runs out, Jesus makes more—lots more. When the well goes dry, Jesus is living water bubbling up to eternal life. When all is gloom and darkness, Jesus is the light of the world. There’s always more going on than meets the eye. And I, for one, believe. 


But here’s what I have learned—that the miracle stories in the Bible that once helped people believe in Jesus have become hard for a lot of people to accept. For many of today’s highly rational, skeptical, scientifically-oriented people, saying that Jesus turned water into wine doesn’t make them say, “Oh really! That’s cool!” It makes them say, “Do I really have to believe that to be a Christian?” 


Well, sort of, maybe. But it’s important to remember the purpose of miracles—to reveal God’s glory and to help people believe. What are our miracles today? Where do you see God’s glory revealed and what helps you believe? I asked the question at Administrative Council last Wednesday: What is a miracle? And someone said, “Whenever someone recovers from an addiction. That’s a miracle.” And I say, “Amen.” It’s too hard for most of us to do ourselves—God must be in it, with all God’s power and possibility and abundance. 7 


A few months ago I had to get up extremely early to be with someone at OSU Hospital. That particular morning it was unusually hard for me to get up and get going. I grumbled as I spilled the coffee and tripped over the cat. I felt sorry for myself for having to get up so early. I got on 315 in the dark and headed south. I exited onto Olentangy River Road—still dark. But when I turned and headed east on King Avenue, there opened up in front of me the most stunning sunrise I’d seen in years. And I thought, “Oh, my God.” No, I was not swearing. I thought, really, “Oh, my God. Thank you for sending me to the hospital this morning. And I prayed with that person like never before. I don’t know if you’d call that a miracle—after all, the sun comes up every morning. But it was the glory of God to me and I, for one, believed. 


Here’s a report Dawn Nauman sent after last Sunday: “During Project Sunday school for kids, we sat down to make a snack imagined as Manna. The kids were fussing a little bit. The honey was sticky, the peanut butter was sticky, the crumbs "looked gross," and powdered milk? Eeeeewwwww. And then we had the finished product . . . which was delicious. The kids ate and ate and ate. One child wanted to take the recipe home. Grumbling and then Manna? It felt like there was a definite hand in that message.” What had seemed gross was delicious. They ate 8 and ate and ate, and still it didn’t run out. I don’t know if you want to call it a miracle, but I, for one, believe. 

Miracles reveal God’s glory and help us to believe. And surely miracles happen all around us, all the time, if only we could see. My favorite poet, William Stafford wrote a poem about approaching death called “Toward the End.” It ends like this: 


Suddenly this moment is worth all the rest. 

Never has the sweetness arched so near 

And overwhelming. They say a green flash 

Comes if you are lucky right at the end. 

Now you see it was always there.iii 

Miracles reveal, if only for a moment, what’s always there—the glory and the power and the love of God. Did Jesus really turn water into wine? You bet he did! And he still does. All the time. And everywhere. And I, for one, believe. 


i Fred B. Craddock, John, Knox Preaching Guides (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983), 24-25 

ii Fleming Rutledge, The Bible and the New York Times (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), 71. 

iii William Stafford, “Toward the End,” The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1998) 12-13. 

 Luke 3:21-22 


January 13, 2013 


One of my favorite preachers is Barbara Brown Taylor and some of what I’m going to say today is borrowed from her—probably all the best parts. In one of her sermons, she tells about the novel Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett. It’s the story of Rose Clinton and her daughter Cecelia, who live at Saint Elizabeth’s Home for Unwed Mothers. Rose is the cook so Cecelia grew up spending her days there and being the darling of the place, petted and mothered by all the young women who will give up their own babies for adoption. One day when she is fifteen years old, Cecelia meets one of the new girls, Lorraine, who has come to Saint Elizabeth’s. Lorraine is having a hard time adjusting and Cecelia decides to help by giving her some advice. 


“The guy who got you pregnant,” she tells Lorraine. “Don’t say he’s dead. Everybody says that. It makes the nuns crazy.” 


Lorraine is quiet for a minute. “I was going to say that,” she says. 




“So what do I tell her?”


“I don’t know,” Cecelia says. “Tell her the truth. Or tell her you don’t know.” 


“What did you tell her?” Lorraine asks and Cecelia is speechless. “I sat there absolutely frozen,” she wrote later. “I felt like I was going to be sick, but that would only have proved her assumption. No one had ever, ever mistaken me for one of them.” It was not that Cecelia was judgmental towards people in trouble. She had grown up with them. She was friendly and helpful and gave them good advice. She just never expected to be mistaken for one of them.


Something like that happened to me once. I’d taken my girls for ice cream to the UDF at Indianola and Hudson which attracts a rather, well, diverse clientele. As the girls finished their cones, I struck up a conversation with a young man who told me he was nervous because he was on his way to the police station, which at that time was around the corner on Arcadia. “I get that,” I told him. “I’ve got to go to the jail this afternoon.” 


“Oh,” he said, curious, “What did you do?”


“No, no, no,” I corrected him, “I’m just visiting someone in jail, for my church.” He had mistaken me for one of them and my instinct was to make sure he understood that I’m not one of them. I’m different from them. 


Jesus took a different approach. Jesus showed up at the Jordan River one day to be baptized by John. The place, Barbara Taylor points out, was teeming with troubled, faulty, guilty people. We’ve read about the kind of people who came to see John the Baptist—sinners, BIG sinners, tax collectors who got rich by fleecing the people, Roman soldiers who bullied helpless citizens. But somehow all these people knew they needed to be changed. They had come to confess, to repent, to set down their burden of sin and turn their lives around. 

Then Jesus came and got in line with them. No one knew anything about him yet. He just came and took his place in line, waited his turn to be baptized. But later, after the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descended and a voice from heaven proclaimed who he was, there were lots of questions. What was he doing in that crowd of sinners? Why was God’s Son doing standing in line for baptism with everyone else?


You see, we like multiple lines. At the grocery store there are the regular checkout lines and the express lines where you can sail through. (Unless cheaters sneak into the express line with 25 items. You feel like ratting them out—12 items and under, buddy! 12 items and under!) 


At the airport there’s the regular boarding line and then there’s the first class line: you 150 people stand over there like cattle and wait in line; you eight dear souls, no you don’t have to wait in that line. Come on aboard. Can I get you a drink? Of course, you only like that line if you’re in it, but if you’re in that line, you love it. 


There’s one line for people who have health insurance, and another line for those who don’t. There’s one line for students with great ACT scores, and another line for the not-so-great. It’s the way the world is. 


So you might expect the same for baptism. Okay, one line for garden-variety sinners and another line for those who’ve really messed up. Or one line for those who signed up for at least three ministry teams and another line for the rest of you. One line for those who were raised in church and know the lingo, and another line for those who always wonder what’s going on. Multiple lines. That’s the way the world is, right?


Well, not for baptism, it’s not. For baptism there’s only one line. And Jesus came and got in it. 


Theologians have often been a little confused and embarrassed about Jesus’ baptism. Even the writers of the gospels struggle with it. Matthew has John try to talk Jesus out of being baptized. Luke mentions it almost in passing. John can’t even bring himself to say that Jesus was baptized at all. 


So why did Jesus get baptized when unlike the rest of us, he didn’t need to have his sins washed away? Why did he submit to baptism like us when, as John the Baptist pointed out, we’re not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals? Why did he do it? Well, partly because as people pointed out on Facebook in response to the Weekly Word Challenge—baptism isn’t all about washing away sins. But most of all, I think, Jesus got in line with us because he likes us. Loves us, in fact. Jesus wants to be in line with us. There’s nowhere he’d rather be than standing in line next to you. 


The truth is, we are all initiated into Christ’s holy church exactly the same way, and it’s called baptism. Oh, some of us are brought when we’re just a few days old and some of us some to the waters well into adulthood.


Some of us have a little representative water sprinkled on our brows and some are dunked three times in a muddy river. And some of us go on to be respected and looked up to by everyone in the church and others of us—well, we make full use of God’s mercy and forgiveness. 


But we all get here the same way, including those of us who get to baptize others in Jesus’ name. On the wall in my office is only one certificate. It’s not my seminary diploma or my ordination certificate, as important as those are to me. The one certificate on my wall says that I was baptized at First United Methodist Church in Bushton, Kansas on May 19, 1963. That’s where I stood in the line, or rather, my parents held me in that line. And I know for sure that Jesus was in it too. 


There’s only one line for baptism. And here’s why that line’s okay with me: Jesus came and got in it. 


Think with me for a moment about all the people who have been in that line: Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa and Billy Graham, the founders and all the pastors and leaders of this church, possibly your mama and your daddy—they all stood in the one line and Jesus stood right there with them. But then, also in that line were plenty of people who got in trouble or wound up in jail, not to mention that person


i Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1999), 32-36. 


two pews over that you just can’t stand—they all stood in the very same line and Jesus stood right there with them too. None of us has our act together all that much. As Barbara Taylor puts it, there’s no chance that we’ll be mistaken for one of them. Because we are them, thanks be to God, as they are us. 


When it comes to baptism, there’s only one line. And here’s why that line’s just fine with me—because Jesus comes and gets in line with us. In fact, there he is, right next to you . . . 

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