A Story About Ordinary Things

Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto, c.1560

Second Sunday after the Epiphany | John 2:1-11

A Story About Ordinary Things

It was only wine and water, nothing unexpected at a wedding, nothing to grab your attention. The first great sign, the first astounding miracle Jesus performs, at least according to the gospel story as John tells it, is done with such ordinary things, changing water into wine, and for an audience who have already drunk enough to make their testimony unreliable.

Of course, nothing is ordinary. And ask any good defense attorney whether party people make good witnesses, or whether a jury will believe a mother testifying for her son.

The Marriage at Cana by Gerard David c.1450/1460
The Marriage at Cana by Gerard David c.1450/1460

Still, in telling the simple story of a wedding, this Gospel opens our minds to the idea of God — the God of “Let there be light”— at work in the lives of ordinary people like ourselves. Thought about long enough, it is a little odd, a little unsettling. And none of us is ordinary.

Why do we get this story? Why all these stories at all, instead of just a list of assertions, ideas about God, rules about living, that sort of thing — believe these things, do these things? What is it about telling stories, even all these short stories stitched together, that makes the gospels so compelling?

If you tell people what you think, they can agree, or disagree, or perhaps ignore you altogether and forget about it. On the other hand, if you tell them a story, the story gets into their heads, and they are stuck with it.

Stories we hear, whether we believe them or not, have a way of getting past the firewalls of our minds. It’s what we’re hardwired for — ever since the first fires in the first caves, we’ve listened to stories, and we’ve retold them over and over, sometimes to other people, sometimes to ourselves.

So for this week, I’m going to cheat. Instead of writing a post, I’m going to tell you a story. In fact, I’m going to tell you the same story, just tell it a little differently from the way it comes out in the Gospel of John.

Here it is, from my novel I,John. I hope you enjoy it.


I did not know the family, but we had been invited. We were gathered in the courtyard, a group within the group, although Peter was going around talking and laughing, his great shaggy head easy to spot. I was sitting near Jesus in the shade of a fig bush just tall enough to offer a screen from the sun, and I saw Mary making her way toward him before he saw her, although I was never sure what Jesus knew about his surroundings. He picked people from the crowd when I had not seen them, ignored others who were standing in front of him.

Mary could not be ignored. She waved at people across the courtyard and smiled at them, then came and knelt beside Jesus. She reached up and rubbed his shoulder, and I supposed she was happy to see her son. That’s when I noticed two servants had followed her from within the house.

“They are running out of wine,” she said.

Jesus sighed.

“What do you want me to do about that?” he said. “It is not my party, and it is not my time. This is their day. Their party.”

Mary ignored him and waved the servants over.

“Do what he tells you,” she said. Jesus just sighed again, looking around the courtyard. It was only a little theatrical, enough to say, ‘See how much I love her, even when she annoys me.’

He pointed at some large stone jars standing at the wall of the house.

“Go and fill them with water,” he told them. It was not a small task. Each jar would hold a number of buckets of water, and the process would be tiresome in the heat. The servants looked at him, then at Mary. She nodded and shooed them with her hand.

“Go ahead,” she said. “Do what he told you.”

They did not look happy, but they hurried over to a well and began pulling up buckets of water and carrying them to the stone jars. It was warm enough in the courtyard that the sound of the water was welcome. When they had filled all of the jars, they stood waiting to see what idiotic task they would have next. I knew that if this ended badly, we would be leaving quickly, but things never ended badly around Jesus, at least not until that very last thing. I sat still and quiet, waiting like the servants.

Jesus appeared to be lost in thought. Mary nudged him in the side, and he turned to look at the stone jars, wet with the water splashed on the sides and along the tiles near them.

“Draw some out, and take it to your steward,” he said.

They stood with backs straight, looking first at Jesus then across the courtyard at the head servant who already appeared displeased with all the water carrying. Then, dour and resigned, one of them took a dipper and filled it from a jar. Drops fell dark on the ground. With round eyes he stared at the liquid all the while that he walked across the courtyard. The head servant took it and tasted it, the disgust on his face shifting to surprise.

Quickly he sent the man back and told them both to draw more from the jars and to serve it to the guests. Some of them had been watching as well, and the rest certainly noticed when they began to drink the new wine. We would not be leaving quickly after all, it seemed. Mary was enormously pleased and went off to talk to someone, probably to say that she was the mother of the one who had brought the wine they were now tasting.

As I said, things tended not to end badly with Jesus, not until that very bad ending itself. That was a different sort of event anyway, more something that Jesus endured than something he did. This was like the people at the pool, the blind man who stared at my face in amazement. It was a sign, a sign for us, for Mary, and for as many of the people who realized what had happened. At the same time, it was ordinary, just wine being served at a wedding. What was miraculous about that? It was only a miracle if one saw it as a miracle.

Of course, that was always the case, I thought. Maybe those crippled men who got up and walked out of that pool weren’t really crippled, maybe they had been pretending for the sake of being able to beg money from those who worked for a living. It was possible that the blind man was the same, pretending, and when Jesus caught him in his pretense, he had to abandon it. Of course, that would have been a sort of miracle, some would argue, just not one that required the power of God. I think that changing the behavior of men like that would require more power, be the greater miracle. Changing the mind is a greater sign than healing the body.

But I saw that blind man, saw his eyes when he could not see me. And I saw the amazement on his face when he could see me, when I was suddenly the most beautiful thing in his world. I knew things that the people sitting here drinking wine did not know, and even when we told them, some would never believe.

I got up and walked along the row of jars, and I saw my face reflected in the new dark wine.

This post is part of an ongoing three year project based on the Sunday gospel passage from the Revised Common Lectionary. You can find more about the novel I,John here.

Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto, c.1560
Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto, c.1560

We Don’t Know What We’re Asking

Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles

Proper 24 (29) | Mark 10:32-45

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

We Don’t Know What We’re Asking

The sons of Zebedee—you’ve got to keep an eye on them. Here they are wanting to be second and third in the new kingdom, sitting at the left and right hand of Christ, whatever that means, whatever the kingdom is, and whenever it comes. The two brothers, James and John, are putting on airs, assuming themselves to be closer to Jesus than the rest of the disciples. It’s not a good plan for winning friends.

Reliquary of Charlemagne
Reliquary of Charlemagne, Aachen Cathedral Treasury

The other ten members of the inner circle are not happy.

To get the full picture, we’ve got to go back and pick up a few verses. The lectionary, not immune to the modern trend of reading less and talking about it more, suggests we start with verse 35. The writer of this Gospel had a different notion.

Verse 32 is a better starting point. Now we have our passage beginning with Jesus predicting his death, just as in verse 45 our passage also ends with Jesus predicting his death. These are the Markan bookends of our story, and leaving off the beginning makes the ending seem to be nothing more than a footnote. To the contrary, these predictions are central to understanding what is going on. The disciples, Jesus’ closest friends, so badly misunderstand him that two of them are vying for front row seats on the bus to Calgary.

Jesus tells them quite plainly that he will be betrayed and killed. They choose to hear only the bits that match their own expectations: he is bringing the kingdom of God to pass. James and John reach for the gold, presuming on their intimacy with Jesus to demand that he give them whatever they ask, though what they ask is, unrealized to them, suicide.

Jesus tells the brothers that they do not know what they are asking—and they do not. They are thinking of sharing power and dominion. Jesus has just been telling all of them that this adventure does not go as they think, that it will, in fact, appear to end badly, and that there will be no throne they would recognize, no revolution they would comprehend, no kingdom as they understand kingdoms.

So who gets the front row seats? For whom are the honored positions to the left and right of the king reserved? It may be that we do not know, that they have not been named. Of course, it may be that we do know them after all—consider the two thieves crucified, one at Jesus’ left and one at his right.

Imagine the relief mingled with John’s shame as he stood that day watching Jesus die, realizing that these crosses to the left and right could have held different men.

In the novel Paper Towns, John Green writes on the theme of the limits of knowing another person, of how our knowledge of the people around us is skewed and limited by our own notions and perceptions. When we gaze at others, it is always through a glass darkly.

We also see God the same way, through a window that is too small, too dark, paned with old glass that waves and curves, changing the shape and color of what we think we see. All our explanations, our notions, our doctrinal clarity, these are nothing more than the field notes of explorers whose lenses were perhaps a little more polished or (it is sobering to consider) perhaps a little less so.

Our ideas about God are not God, though we are more likely to hold fast to our ideas. Our explanations of the kingdom of God are precious to us, so precious that we would rather repeat them, rather insist that other people agree with our explanations, than to set foot in the real kingdom of God that is all around us.

If we think otherwise, we are fooling ourselves. After all, are we better than James and John? They heard the words of Christ firsthand, and they still listened only to what they wanted to hear.

If we would be first in the kingdom that is God’s, it may be because we don’t know what we’re asking. If we would be first, we must begin by regarding ourselves as last.

Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles
Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles

Hard Words

Proper 16 (21) | John 6:56-69

Hard Words

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Stone pathwayTaking offense has been raised, or lowered, beyond an art to a daily occupation. Each day a staggering number of people find the energy, interest, and time first to half-read or half-hear the words of others, then to take umbrage, and then to attack. The trolls have crawled out from under the bridges and started strolling in the light of social media. So long as people spend their energy and time being outraged on Facebook and Twitter, the poor will always be with us.

It is not a modern day problem. The Internet has simply given us a new venue.

The people of Capernaum, where Jesus was living, were just the same. The lectionary passage from John’s Gospel describes people taking offense at the ongoing metaphor Jesus was using—bread, and his own body, as a symbol for the life of the spirit.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Hard words, indeed. If he meant what he said to be taken literally, Jesus was insane. People wondered: we read that many of Jesus’ own disciples left him.

The Gospel of John lacks the obvious communion passages of Mark, Matthew and Luke. Instead, John takes the metaphors of bread and wine and weaves them throughout the entire narrative as running themes to explore the spiritual aspects of the life of Jesus. Even so, the words are hard. The image is so visceral—eating a man’s flesh, drinking his blood—that they would be more easily accepted as elements of a horror story: The Vampire Cannibals of Capernaum, or something like it.

Stone gargoyle
A stone face at Biltmore House in Asheville, NC. Perhaps he is contemplating a soft word.

In the posts of the past weeks, perhaps enough has been mentioned of the bread metaphor. Still, we might do well to consider the value of hard words.

We often hear them—words spoken in anger, or in ignorance, which is the frequent companion and precursor and cause of anger. Sometimes we ourselves speak or write them, words to condemn others, to screech our indignation, to demonstrate our personal righteousness.

How often we want to be right! Jesus was right, of course, all the more so if Christianity has the truth of it and this man was also somehow God. But oddly enough, Jesus did not appear to be very interested in being right.

What was he interested in? Working from the supposition that what we do demonstrates who we are, we might figure it out. Jesus fed hungry people. He had compassion, and patience, for needy people. He healed the sick ones, paid attention to the marginalized ones, spent hours talking to and teaching anyone who was willing to listen. He was kind to children.

Another stone face from Biltmore House. Perhaps this one is considering a hard word.
Another stone face from Biltmore House. Perhaps this one is considering a hard word.

He was angry with people who claimed to be good. He made a violent scene in the temple itself.

I don’t know whether he would have had a Facebook page or a Twitter account. Maybe. He did sit down in the synagogue to teach, which was the closest thing to public media in his day. I suspect that he would have posted interesting things, and for one post or another, many of his followers would have un-friended him. Following someone two thousand years ago took more energy, but the idea is much the same.

The hardest words are the ones we need, but do not wish, to hear. Give up the French fries and the sugar. Stop the drugs and the drinking. Get over yourself. Put your children first. Be faithful. It’s not all about you.

Hard words may convey the greatest love. Those who care about us the least are also least likely to speak the hard truths we need to hear.

Jesus may have hard words for us all.

Hard stones in waterfall
Hard stones at Linville Falls in North Carolina

Bread and Stone

Proper 15 (20)  |  John 6:51-58

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Bread and Stone

Mt Mitchell 5I wrote this post while visiting the mountains of North Carolina with my daughter. Twice we hiked along trails on Mt Mitchell, the tallest peak east of the Mississippi. The first day was cold, and the mountain was covered in clouds, making the trails quiet and secretive. The second day was warmer, sunlight streaming through the forest, so that the same stones and trees were sometimes hard to recognize as the ones we had found the day before.

Mt Mitchell 2Along the trails I thought about the way Jesus used bread as a metaphor for life. The stones rising around us and the forest growing from them began to take on the same meaning.

The mountains of Appalachia are old. These mountains are not as tall as the Rockies or the Himalayas, and there is none of the astonishing grandeur of those jagged peaks. The Appalachians have been worn down by time, covered by trees and moss, until like Grandfather mountain and Graybeard and Mitchell, one is left gazing at a chain of old men and women, moss ridden, home to birds and squirrels and bears.

Hiking through these hills, there is also the constant reminder of the stone beneath one’s feet. The landscape may be softened by trees, moss and mushrooms, but the stone is always there, just beneath, supporting the life above. These mountains were here when the plants came into being. These stones rose up long before the dinosaur ancestors of ravens clawed and squawked across the rocks.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes the peculiar claim that he is living bread, come down from heaven. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” he tells his neighbors in Capernaum.

They are appalled. Why wouldn’t they be?

Mt Mitchell 3A man they have known for years tells them that eating his flesh and drinking his blood is life itself, and they are supposed to understand that he is anything but insane? They were not a people given to metaphor.

We might restate the idea for them, and for us, something like this–God is in the bread we eat, the stones beneath our feet, the stars across our sky. God is in all that sustains our lives.

There is a popular notion that rational people should reject everything that cannot be expressed or explained in scientific terms. According to this way of thinking, anyone supposing the existence of God is at best ignorant, at worst delusional.

God is not the only such idea. We cannot explain a great deal.

Why do we love? Why do we mourn? Perhaps the long developmental period of humans and apes provides a basis for our devotion to our children. Lizards, in contrast, lay the eggs and walk away from their young, or perhaps eat them. Even granting the power of evolutionary forces to explain our initial bond, how does that explain love?

Anyone not knowing that love is more than biological compulsion and obligation is missing a great deal. No, he is missing everything worth knowing.

Mt MItchell 4Science is wonderful. Through science our lives are better, our scope of thought is widened, our pursuit of our potential is less limited. Science can explain attraction and the biological basis of our compulsions. It has not quite explained our minds, as differing from our brains. And it has failed altogether to explain love, that which the ancients called agape.

Faith is not delusion, nor is it in antipathy to science. The idea that one must either accept science or faith is a false dichotomy. It is the task and joy of science to explain how things are. It is the joy and the task of faith to explore what may be. I suspect that faith and science are a double spiral that one day will join in a point of understanding, transcending our ideas and ways of thinking.

Meanwhile, we have metaphor instead of explanation.

Eat the bread, drink the water. We may find God in the stones beneath our feet.



Proper 13 (18)  |  John 6:24-35

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.


Bread is evil, or so the internet tells us. Never mind that we humans have looked upon bread as our most basic foodstuff for millennia — now we hear that eating bread makes us fat, inclines us to diabetes, and perhaps even to worse things than that.

I do not intend to give it up. I like bread. Any food so central to the human experience as to become a symbol of life itself is worth keeping.

FreshBread_wideBread is the metaphor that Jesus repeatedly uses for himself and for God’s relationship to humanity. “I am the bread of life,” he says in the Gospel of John. Later in the same Gospel, Jesus uses even more vivid language, declaring that his followers must take and consume his broken body. Some Romans — not surprisingly — wondered whether early Christians were cannibals. These words of Jesus, combined with descriptions of the ritual of communion, raised doubts.

None of it was meant literally, of course. Jesus was not urging people to take a bite out of him. He may not even have meant to limit the metaphor to himself. So much attention goes to his claim of being the bread of life that we gloss over the preceding statement: “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

That which comes and gives life — that is a much broader statement. It is no longer just bread, no longer just Jesus. How about light and warmth? How about the air we breathe, the water we drink, the trillions of atoms, molecules, interactions, and energy sustaining us?

What about the touch of a loved one, the smile of a child, the kindness of a stranger? What are they but a trail of breadcrumbs leading to God?

They sustain us as surely as our daily bread.

Daily bread — it is a phrase we have from the prayer Jesus taught his followers. The Greek word is επιούσιος, epiousios, and it is a peculiar one. It is a hapax legomenon, a word or saying found only in one context, in this case the Lord’s prayer. Matthew and Luke each contain versions of the prayer, drawing on the same source and preserving this odd term.

επιούσιος might mean daily, or needed, or necessary. It might mean something else altogether. We have nothing for comparison, no other use of the term.

Perhaps it means “that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”— that kind of bread.

For people of faith, everything that sustains us is the gift of God. Such faith-speak puts off those who are wary of the not-yet-known, and anything dressed in God-language is rejected by the devoutly non-religious. Nevertheless, what we couch in the language of faith does not loose its reality or power.

Knowing that the effusive light bathing our world is flung to us in particles and waves from the star at the center of our planet’s orbit does not harm my faith. Light, energy emitted by the sun, is natural. As the warmth on my child’s face, it is miraculous. The one thing does nothing to lessen the other.

On a hot August day, understanding how ice cream is made does nothing to lessen the wonder of it. Knowing the science of baking bread does not diminish the taste of it.

The ritual of communion has been explained by theologians so many ways. For some, the bread is miraculously, if metaphysically, the actual body of Christ. For others, God is present in some way that is just beyond expression or comprehension, somehow behind or with the bread. For still others, the bread is merely a symbol, a way of imagining the simple and sustaining gift of God’s presence.

No matter how we explain a symbol, the reality behind it remains. No matter how long the trail of crumbs that lead back to the origin of life on this planet, all that sustains us is of God. Explanations of love need not stand in the way of experiencing it.

"The Last Supper" by Leonardo da Vinci
“The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci