Sunday, January 24, 2010

Signs on the Journey

Given at Emmaus UCC, in Vienna, VA, January 17, 2010

I can't believe it's been three years since we moved! When we were preparing to leave for Lancaster, Rev Bill said, "See you in three years, visit when you can!" So here's your visit, three years later! For those of you who don't know me, my name is Luke Lindon, and I am in my last year at Lancaster Theological Seminary. My wife and I joined here in 2004. We thank you for your support, your gifts when Eve was born, and for still sending us the Happenings newsletter. Thank you for keeping me in care, and allowing me to speak today.

I want to start today by quoting that old song… "Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs." For a large part of my life I've been looking for signs. Now I'm training to be a minister and interpret them for a living. All sorts of signs; spiritual, cultural, and more.

The wedding at Cana where Jesus turning water into wine is one of the 7 miracle stories found in John, and it is unique only to John. Before seminary I would have said, it never happened. I would have led with "How did Jesus turn that water into wine?" and then spent the whole sermon talking about how it can't be done. I love science. I like to think of myself as rational. Or what our fellow UCCer Rienhold Niebuhr coined, a "Christian Realist."

That would mean that all miracle stories are just metaphors for something else. Like the calming of the sea and walking on water is just showing how a non-anxious presence can calm people down and how purity of purpose guides a group. Nothing more. I mean, the bible was written by a pre-scientific people. Sure they had their own science and technology, but not like ours. They didn't have germ theory –they thought disease was caused by "demons." They didn't have any concept of gravity or a round earth, or that we orbit the sun and not vice versa. Let's be rational here… right?

So what's the meaning of this story then? Did Jesus spike the punch to appease his nagging mother? Or was Jesus a party animal? Or did he pull a fast one and actually serve water to people who had been drinking for three days… I mean… after all, weddings back in the day were a community event lasting 3 to 5 days. The whole town came out and celebrated and if you ran out of food or drink then you lost status with the community. So what Jesus helping them save face? What type of image of Jesus does this present?

All of this doesn't seem to satisfy. It is missing something. The image of Jesus we get is at best something out of the movie Talladega Nights where a character states that he likes "to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T-Shirt because it says I want to be formal, but I'm here to party."

Now, I'm not so much concerned with "how" Jesus did what he did. I'm more interested in "why?" Asking how questions miss the story, obscure the story. The HOW question look for the nugget of truth in the form of facts and verifiable data … this analytical approach loses the story by focusing on the bits and pieces and the narrative disappears.

Let's start with what we're given. There was a wedding, Mary asks Jesus to help out, he states his time has not yet come, Mary gathers up some servants and says "Just do whatever he tells you to" and Jesus tells them to collect water in six stone jars and when tasted by the party planner, he claims that it's the best wine yet. Only a few people know what Jesus did, his disciples and those who got the water. It's also good to note that the word Miracle isn't used for this story… "signs" is.

Signs are what the author of John calls them. Signs… We moderate and progressive Christians tend to shy away from the term miracles. It's too subjective… not rational enough… they are just random and meaningless supernatural violations of the laws of nature. But, the word "miracle" can be reclaimed in terms of our experiences of God's transforming presence in our lives. These unexpected quantum leaps of divine energy can change our bodies, minds, spirits, and even natural processes. Signs can change a life...

Take for example how Kate and I even arrived at Emmaus.

We had moved to VA in the winter of 2004 after I had graduated college early. Kate was working in Gaithersburg, I was in Springfield and we were living by the Capitol One building, about halfway between both. My company had a location here in Vienna as well and I passed Emmaus countless of times. I always noticed the sign. It had messages that were funny… relevant… memorable. But I never stopped in.

It was Kate who had the idea to start going to church. I was content just reading about the various world religions and learning how to sell, emphasis on the sell stuff. I really wanted nothing to do with church because we all know that Christians are anti-evolution, homophobic, "global-warming-is-a-myth" nut jobs. Yet I trudged along checking out various churches, you name it, we tried it. I knew deep-down, we needed a community. A local community to volunteer with and make friends in, and get to know this area better. None of these churches seemed right, something was off at each one.

I was somewhat relieved at this, it confirmed what I thought I knew about church. But Kate is persistent. She somehow found "Flock" and we both answered a survey and it suggested to come here… We took it as a sign that we should visit the church with the Sign. We visited on children's Sunday and they did my favorite parable at the time, the parable of the sower. At the end, we got ice cream sandwiches. They weren't too pushy and seemed happy to have us. On our way out the door, like in every other church we had gone to, someone presumably pressing for membership stopped us. Skip Wolfe asked how we liked the children's play and said that not all Sundays were like this. We thanked him for the ice cream and said we'd enjoyed ourselves, and then we braced for the part where Skip would guilt us into returning or put us in charge of something so we would have to come back. Skip said simply, "We hope you come back. Finding a church is like a relationship, you'll just know when it's right." Then he walked away. We were floored. In the car on the way home Kate said, "That's exactly what my church would say." And we've returned as much as possible after joining in the summer of 2004. We've been hooked ever since.

At that moment, Skip unknowingly performed a sign. He transformed me into a church goer. Emmaus, over the course of the next 3 years performed another sign. You transformed for me what it means to be Christian. You transformed me from a church goer to a church minister who wants to further this type of church. I want to plant other Emmauses.

The signs we saw at Emmaus were like the sign Jesus performed at Cana. It was very low profile. Very few people knew about it. It was at the wedding, in very insignificant town, in front of the servants. Jesus welcomes the outcast, the insignificant. Just as Emmaus welcomed us, newcomers, entry-level folk, people likely to leave the area in 3 to 5 years as is common around these parts. Yet we were welcomed here.

You have renewed my faith and taught me that there are other types of Christians out there. You have taught me that the Christian life is about following this radical spirit-filled person, this Jesus of Nazareth. We now follow with great joy this subversive sage who draws people into an inclusive community where compassion is the key component, not reason, not purity, not entertainment. Compassion is beautiful and you can find it in the poems of Hafiz, Rumi, Mary Oliver, or in the Tibetan Singing bowl, or Jazz music, or in pop culture, or at Starbucks or an Airport waiting line.

While we cannot describe the mechanics of Jesus' transforming water into wine, just as I can't fully articulate what Emmaus has done to and for me and my family. We can, however, let our imaginations wander as we imagine an interdependent world of lively and creative energies. Our task as Christians then is to be "living signs" that enable other people to experience the miracle of their giftedness and empower them to "let their light shine" in blessing the world.

Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs! Can't you read the signs?


chris said...

Wish I could find a church like yours!

sher said...

Great message!

Al said...

Thanks for sharing this, Luke. It certainly gives a quick look at your personal story, as well as pointing to some strengths of your church.
I suppose no church can be perfect or hit on all the right stuff. But it sounds like yours is right up there.

Sarah said...

Thanks for posting this - good message!

Anonymous said...

Constance said:
Luke, good message. Who would have thought when you chose Emmaus where it would lead you!

Papa Bob said...

Good sermon, Luke. I loved the development of "signs," and the way you stuck to "signs." Shows us how one person going out of their way to talk to a young couple can change their lives.
Papa Bob

Sabio Lantz said...

I agree that using a narrative hermeneutic can help preserve inspiration.

But if the "how?" question is analytic and thus loses the narrative in its dissective approach, does that mean we have to accept the story as historically true? If so, then you must approach my story about the elephant-headed boy-god the same way. When is it OK to say, "OK, cute, but not true. I get the moral, but that is all."

You said, "let's start with the given..." but why does this have to be given. The whole story could have been made up or at least large parts of it. Heck, I know some of my stories of my childhood were and not intentionally but I can't tell truth from fiction on some of those. And heck, I was not trying to make myself into a god (though my wife would say otherwise, smile!).

If you are going to call clicking with Skip's church and joining it a "sign", that is great, I get that. But then people who join Zen temples, Jewish synagogues or Hunting and Fishing clubs who had similar experiences of you ( where they felt they found "home" and the grouup filled huge parts missing in their lives) must be getting signs too.

Though the beginning of your essay you hint that the analytic approach to decided truth now appears more dirty to your newly trained post-modern mind (see what seminary did to you -- smile!), you never concluded for us if it is still OK to realize that this wine-changing miracle did not happen and was just a literary device to inspire listeners -- which it obviously can do for you more easily now that you have another hermeneutic tool in your chest.

Can't we be inspired, without throwing away analytic analysis and understand that something is enriching without being true. I know that doesn't sell well. But it is true.

Hope your Sermon went well !

Luke said...


you're absolutely right in your questions yet i ask you to consider the source. i'm all about the allegory! if the story happened exactly this way, okay, if the story never happened at all, okay. we'll never really know one way or another. it is my hunch that something happened but not exactly like this. just as something happened at Emmaus but not exactly as i portray it. Skip and my wife Kate both have their own versions as well.

"t is still OK to realize that this wine-changing miracle did not happen and was just a literary device to inspire listeners " is absolutely okay! this usually inspires analytic analysis and a general 'digging deeper' which i think is great. yet many get disillusioned and want to throw the whole thing out. this whole sermon is "don't. the truth is out there." there are signs everywhere and they lead to many places, Zen temples, scientific research trips, halls of seminary and even to "Jesus Camps" yet these signs are not the total truth but our experience of it (which is really cool in and of itself!). hope that helps. thanks for your time and thoughts on this, i think i agree with you and hope i provided enough clarification for the vice versa... if not, i'll try again ;-)

Sabio Lantz said...

Yes, I understand your emphasis. This time you phrased it with more room for not being historically true. But I get that you want to allow its metaphorical power to still be available to transform.
Thanx your your time !

Luke said...

"This time you phrased it with more room for not being historically true"


glad you picked up on that!

Tit for Tat said...


I am glad you found a church that fills you and Kate. Hope it continues to meet your needs for community. I thought Denise and I had found the same but alas the last part of the song fits our experience in many ways.

And the sign said, "Everybody welcome. Come in, kneel down and pray"
But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all, I didn't have a
penny to pay
So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign
I said, "Thank you, Lord, for thinkin' 'bout me. I'm alive and doin' fine."

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?

Luke said...


man that church really missed out on two amazing people. that sucks for them... and in some ways you as well.......... maybe?

i just love that song, one of my favorites! esp. the "sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?"

we often read the phrase "blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind" as a bad thing and it is often, esp. in the case where the author is talking about advertising. but there are other signs as well that i see that literally block out everything else and "break my mind" and make me think new and scary thoughts. just when i think i have life, theology, philosophy, and all that jazz figured out, i get a new epiphany and have to start all over again! and i LOVE those moments!