The touch of God’s mercy

File:Woman praying at the Western Wall.jpg

Sunday Evening

Psalm 71:1-6

2In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;
incline your ear to me and save me.
3Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me,
for you are my rock and my fortress.

There was a woman at the altar rail deep in prayer as I came with the bread of Holy Communion. We are set up so that the altar rail surrounds three sides of the altar and the servers can walk in a continuous circle around the altar, serving each person – with the spaces emptying and filling again by the time we come around again.

We have kneeling pads so people can kneel if they wish. And occasionally someone is in prayer when I come with the bread. But the prayers are usually brief – or they become aware of my presence and open their hands. Today this woman didn’t look up.

Open hands are a symbol that a person wishes to receive. Hands closed together are a sign that a person wishes only to receive the blessing. But were these closed hands or folded hands? Was she awaiting a blessing or deep in prayer and not yet ready for the bread?

I have asked people before whether they wished to receive – especially on those times when their hands were not really open but not completely closed. These are often visitors not aware of the routine we follow in this place. And I have waited for people to finish praying. But this person was deep in prayer.

Part of my brain was trying to decide what to do. But my heart was with this woman’s cry to God. And before my brain made up its mind what to do, my hand reached out to give her a blessing. Whether she wanted to receive communion or not, she seemed to need the touch of a human hand making the sign of the cross on her forehead, reminding her that she belonged to a gracious God.

The bread does that too, and more. Much more. But there is something about the touch of another and the sign of the cross that has great power.

We need more than words in worship. We need to hear music. We need to taste the bread and smell the wine. We need the handshake that goes with the word of peace. We need to stand and sit and kneel. We need even to dance – though Lutherans don’t do that much, you can occasionally catch them swaying. It is more than our minds that need to feel the touch of God’s mercy.

 

Woman praying at the Western Wall.  Photo: By Shoshanah (Flickr: 2008-06-25 00212) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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“I am only a boy!”

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Malachi, Jonah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah. Christ the King Church, Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico

Saturday

Jeremiah 1:4-10

6Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

We have history with certain texts. When an angel greets Gideon with the familiar words “The LORD is with you,” Gideon responds, “Pray, sir, if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us?” I remember that text from when I was eighteen and the pastor read it at my brother’s funeral. The text never quite escapes that moment in time. And the promise lingers: though we do not see it, God is with us.

There is a text from the Gospel of Mark that my high school youth group advisors wrote in a small Bible they gave me as I went off to college. It had a profound, almost haunting, influence on my life. There is a text in Psalm 11 that prompted me to risk accepting a call to inner city ministry in Detroit. There is a text in Romans 8 with which I struggled mightily for a paper for my Romans class in Seminary. In that struggle the secret of understanding the scriptures was revealed to me. And then there is this text in Sunday’s reading that was given to me as I headed off to a summer mission in Taiwan after my senior year in High School.

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.

All through the scriptures people try to avoid the task God lays before them. Moses claims he cannot speak. Isaiah is “a man of unclean lips.” Saul demurs that he is from the least clan of the smallest tribe. Gideon is the youngest in his family. Jonah simply refuses and flees. Jeremiah claims no one will listen to a mere youth.

But it is the message that matters, not the messenger. It is about the word God speaks, not the vessel God chooses. God’s words can irritate us like a shutter banging in the wind, or haunt us like the wind through a poorly sealed window. They can sustain us like foundation stones or connect us like a bridge over troubled water. They can be a polished mirror of self-discovery or a whispered shame. They can raise up and cast down nations. And they will do these things no matter who speaks the words. It was a sermon from the most inept preacher I have ever heard that had the greatest impact on my life. It is the message that matters, not the messenger.

The word that Jeremiah speaks is not his own. It lives in him and through him but it is not his own. These are not the words of his passion or rage at corruption of his time. These are not the hopes and desires of his own spirit – there are others who are skilled in speaking in God’s name exactly what their audience wants to hear. The word Jeremiah is commissioned to speak is from beyond him. It is rooted in the tradition and springs forth from the Spirit. His task is to hear and to speak what he hears.

Such words are routinely dismissed – sometimes for some defect we find in the messenger – or simply because we don’t like what we hear. King Jehoiakim takes a knife, calmly slices every few columns from the scroll of God’s words through Jeremiah that is being read to him, and tosses it into the fire. But there is power in those words. They will do their work. They judge and condemn. They will also heal and forgive.

Jeremiah’s age matters not. What matters is hearing truly and speaking faithfully. For the power is not in the speaker; it is in the Word God sends us to speak.

 

Image: By Enrique López-Tamayo Biosca (www.flickr.com/photos/eltb/6221310983) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.  Page: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChrist_the_King_Church%2C_Monterrey%2C_Nuevo_Leon%2C_Mexico00.jpg

Lynching: A hometown response to Jesus

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Watching for the Morning of January 31, 2016

Year C

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 4:21-30

28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

Jesus has dared to suggest that the grace and mercy of God are not the possession of God’s people but are God’s gift to all. It nearly gets him killed. We take our religion pretty seriously. We want to hear that God is on our side, that God’s wants us to be happy, healthy and wise, that God will protect us in the day of famine or disease and not someone from our hated enemies.

Jesus’ problem is twofold. First, he acts like a prophet when he is just a construction worker. He’s too big for his britches. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” is just a snarky way to say “Who does he think he is?!” and to begin the process of cutting him down to size. This is what leads to the second accusation: “What does he think he’s doing spreading God’s gifts around! Charity begins at home. He should be doing his healing here among his own people, not wasting them on people from other towns and villages.” And so we are into the argument and Jesus is confronting them with reminders about Elijah and the widow of Zarephath and Elisha healing Namaan the Syrian.

Jesus seems pretty rude in this exchange. But he is exposing the poison in their hearts. He is lancing the boil. He is provoking them to reveal their hardness of heart. And they oblige – wanting to throw him from the brow of the hill.

This story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry foreshadows the end – the cross and resurrection. For they will indeed kill Jesus, but he will “pass through their midst.”

So Sunday we hear of corrupt religion and the violence it can engender. And we hear that God’s work is not stopped by it. And we will hear of Jeremiah’s call to preach God’s message – for which he will be afflicted, but God’s word will do its work. And we hear the psalmist cry out for protection against enemies. And in the background of all this embattled preaching is Paul singing about faith, hope and love enduring forever – and the greatest of these is love. This is the life to which these followers of Christ have been brought. Here we are invited into the dawning of that new age that Jesus has told us is fulfilled in himself.

The Prayer for January 31, 2016

Almighty God,
through your Son Jesus you revealed your gracious rule
to bind up the wounded and set free the captive.
Let us not fail to understand your will and your way,
but grant us willing hearts to receive your word and live your kingdom;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for January 31, 2016

First Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-10
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” – God calls Jeremiah to his prophetic ministry.

Psalmody: Psalm 71:1-6
“In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.”
– The psalm writer cries out to God for protection “from the hand of the wicked.”

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” – Paul continues to teach his conflicted congregation in Corinth about the gifts of God’s Spirit and their life together as a community. All gifts serve the community and the greatest gift is love – concern for and fidelity to one another

Gospel: Luke 4:21-30
“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
– The message Jesus announces in Nazareth that the age to come is dawning even as Jesus speaks is met with hostility and a murderous attempt on his life.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Angry_mob_of_four.jpg by Robert Couse-Baker (Flickr: angry mob) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Like a bridegroom

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Friday

Psalm 19

4 In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
5 which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.

The image of the bridegroom bursting forth from his tent may not speak as easily to us as the strong man running his course in joy. We have all seen the victors in an Olympic race grab their national flag and lap the field in exultation and joy, or our favorite team charge onto the field of battle amidst thundering music and fireworks, gesturing to the crowd to get them roaring louder.

The bridegroom coming out “from his wedding canopy” – is this image the canopy held over the bridal couple during their vows? Is the equivalent modern image the bridal couple beaming as they come down the aisle? Or is it the groom coming forth from the bridal chamber, fresh and triumphant from the arms of his beloved? Ancient mythology imagined the sun-god spending the night with his lover and rising vigorous to run his race across the heavens.

It’s a far cry from our usual groan as the alarm goes off on Monday morning and we rise to face the day. We who are wearied by the changes and chances of life do not normally bound out of bed. If the news media and pharmaceutical industry ads are to be believed, we are perennially tired, depressed, or afflicted.

It is refreshing to imagine the sun bursting into the day like an athlete onto the field, a celestial celebration with arms raised in joy and exaltation. The Biblical writers see the trees clapping, the mountains singing, the waves resounding in praise. We are diminished when the song of the meadowlark is not heard as a song of praise but merely a territorial claim and an attempted intimidation of rivals. We are diminished when the whisper of the Aspen is just wind and not the forest asong or in prayer.   We are diminished when the sun is just a nearby star and not a bridegroom filled with love and joy.

Life is hard. But it is made harder when we do not see the beauty around us – and when we do not understand that all the beauty and song of the natural world praises the life-giving, merciful, and steadfast love at the heart of all existence.

Perhaps we would greet the day more kindly if we remembered that “the heavens are telling the glory of God…”

 

Image: By Bartosz Kosiorek [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Words we do not mean

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Thursday

Psalm 19

7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;

I asked the question yesterday whether we will mean it on Sunday when we say, while reading this psalm, that God’s Word, God’s commands, are “more to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold.” But we don’t have to mean it on Sunday; we have to say it.

We don’t have to mean these words and others like them; we have to say them. We have to say them again and again. We have to say these words so they can nestle down into some corner of our souls so that, in the day when wealth fails us – for surely it will. Wealth is fickle, and frail, and cannot sustain us in the face of life’s sorrows. No one yearns on their death beds to be reconciled with neglected bank accounts or visited by lost possessions – we say these words so that, in the day that wealth fails us, these words will be there, ready to fill the empty space left by our failed hope in money’s power to bless.

The church is routinely criticized for saying words we do not live. Those criticisms are fair; they just don’t understand the nature of the words we speak. None of us are saints yet (in the common understanding of that term). We are all far from the fullness of the kingdom. We do not love as we ought to love. We do not trust in God as we ought to trust. We are frail human beings limping toward the promised land. So we say words we do not mean, or do not mean perfectly, because we are planting those words in our souls that they may sprout and grow and – in the days when all the other things in which we hope and trust fail us – carry us into the presence of God.

Our parents made us practice saying “Thank you” when we received a gift from Aunt Sarah for which we were not thankful, and to say “I’m sorry” to a sibling we have punched when we were not at all sorry. They were not teaching us to practice insincerity. They were teaching us such words in hopes that thankfulness and compassion would find root and grow in us.

A day will come when God’s promise to me will be more important than the largest lottery prize, but I am not ready for that test yet. There is a reason the devil offered Jesus all the wealth and power of the world. Thankfully, Jesus chose God’s word.

So Sunday we will read aloud the words of Psalm 19, we will sing songs of praise we may not feel, we will pray prayers and hear stories we may not believe in. Not yet. Or not completely. But we will come that the word may be planted in us and bear its fruit in its season.

 

Image: By Dbxsoul (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

More than much fine gold

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Wednesday

Psalm 19

10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;

The country went crazy last week because the lottery jackpot had grown to over a billion dollars. People stood in line for hours, the news media told us, as they added their voice to the hype. It says something about our culture when the millionaire broadcasters are buying tickets. We believe in money. Despite all our disavowals that “money doesn’t buy happiness,” we have a deep and abiding faith in the power of wealth to bless us.

Sunday we will read together Psalm 19 that speaks of God’s wondrous ordering of the natural world around us – and then testifies to God’s wondrous ordering of what we might call the spiritual and moral universe:

7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.

And then comes the verse above: “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold.”

God’s word, God’s instruction, God’s wisdom and guidance for life, God’s promise and our loyalty to that promise, is worth more than the lottery prize.

And the interesting question as we recite these words on Sunday is whether we will regard them as true or as a pious fiction.

 

Image: By Ian and Wendy Sewell [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The dawn of a new world

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Watching for the Morning of January 24, 2016

Year C

The Third Sunday after Epiphany

All that has happened in Luke’s Gospel – the angelic visitations, the remarkable birth, the backdrop of the rulers of this earth and the promise of a new king, the outpouring of God’s Spirit and the voice from heaven declaring that Jesus is God’s beloved son (a royal title) – all this now crashes upon the shores of Galilee in the village of Nazareth, among Jesus’ own people. This Sunday we watch the majestic wave sweep across the beach. Next Sunday we will hear how the people receive this news.

It’s unfortunate that the lectionary committee decided to split this story. Much is lost by watching Act One this week and waiting a week for the second act – especially since we have as our first reading on Sunday the reading of the Law to the people by Ezra and their tearful response. We shouldn’t separate the proclamation that Jesus is the Christ from the response that proclamation evokes.

But we linger here, in the sweetness of the dawning light of the world’s new morning. The work of this Jesus, declared the royal son, empowered by the Holy Spirit, triumphant over all the temptations of the devil, and acclaimed by the people, is to bring the setting right of the world:

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus is burning the mortgage. God is releasing the world from its debtor’s prison. This is the Emancipation Proclamation for the whole world.

He is freeing the slaves.

Paul will speak about what this means for us in the new community of those who are gathered into Christ and have received the Spirit’s gifts. We are one body. And the Psalmist speaks of the wondrous order of the world visible in creation and in God’s Law. And there is Ezra, reading and teaching the word, comforting the people with the words: “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength,” and summoning them to the feast that marks the beginning of a new year and the dawn of a new world.

The Prayer for January 24, 2016

Gracious God
who has drawn near to us in your Son, Jesus,
to open eyes that do not see and release all that is bound.
Grant us clear eyes, open ears and free hearts
that we may serve you truly;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for January 24, 2016

First Reading: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-12
“The priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding… and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.” – The Torah reaches its final form in Babylon during the exile. After some have returned to begin to rebuild Jerusalem, Ezra brings the Torah from Babylon and reads it before all the people.

Psalmody: Psalm 19
“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.”
– The psalm sings of God’s wondrous ordering of the world, beginning with the majesty of creation, and then the gift of God’s law.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
“Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” – Paul continues to teach his conflicted congregation in Corinth about the gifts of God’s Spirit and their life together as a community.

Gospel: Luke 4:14-21
“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.”
– Jesus returns to his own people in Nazareth and, reading Isaiah’s words “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” announces that Isaiah’s promise is now fulfilled.

 

Image: By Henry Mühlpfordt (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The wedding has begun

Dessert Table at Megan's Wedding

Monday

John 2:1-11

1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee.

I am not ready to move on to next Sunday’s texts. The story of the wedding at Cana still lingers in my mind.

During the sermon yesterday I commented in passing on the difficulty of preaching from the Gospel of John. The reason is that the Gospel is so wonderfully rich. No story is a single story; they all interconnect. No image stands alone; there are layers upon layers of meaning. It is a single collage of a hundred images, not a photo album of a hundred pictures. And while I recognize the difficulty that creates for preaching, it is wonderful for abiding in a text.

If John only wanted to tell us that Jesus had magic hands and could turn water into wine, it would have been a much shorter story. But that is not his purpose. The message is not that God can do wondrous things – that is something we all know. The message is that God has done the wondrous thing above all wondrous things in this Jesus; God has brought the wedding feast to us.

We are not told to go gather grapes to make wine. We are not told to plan and hope. We are not told to create the wedding for ourselves. The wedding has come. The union of heaven and earth; the reconciliation of two realms long divided is at hand. In the midst of our sorry world, there is wine beyond compare. In the midst of our regrets there is grace. In the midst of our tired bones there is dancing. In the midst of our sorrows there is song. In the midst of our rubble there is new creation.

All that is good – eternally good – has come among us in this Word-made-flesh incarnation of all God’s creating, life-giving, self-revealing speech. The Word that brought forth light shines in Christ. The Word that blessed all creation, blesses us in Christ. The Word that spoke freedom to those in bondage, speaks freedom to us in Christ. Let all creation sing and dance; the wedding has begun. The new wine is poured out in overflowing abundance.

I love the kinds of movies that capture your thoughts for days and insist on being talked about. This story of the wedding in Cana is such a vision.

My daughter married last year in Sonoma, and through the process of the planning I had to learn what was meant by a destination wedding that took place over days rather than an hour in church and a few hours after at a reception. This was a time of picnics and dinner with friends and breakfast with other friends and lunch with new friends and a dessert table of many goodies rather than a single wedding cake.

And so it is with John’s Gospel and this story of the wedding at Cana. It requires far more than one fifteen-minute sermon. And so it is with the wedding feast that has begun in Christ. It is not one Easter day, but an Easter life.

“In the shadow of your wings”

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Saturday

Psalm 36:5-10

7How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

I don’t know why our translator chooses the subjunctive to describe what might be. I don’t see it in the Hebrew, and other translations do not do so. It is a simple statement: “All people take refuge in the shadow of your wings.”

Perhaps our translator wanted to convey that the arms of God are big enough to embrace us all. And yes, the psalmist is not suggesting as a fact that all people do take refuge in God. He has begun this psalm with an excoriating review of the wicked who “flatter themselves in their own eyes” and think “their iniquity cannot be found out.” But once the author has begun to sing of God’s faithfulness, he can use only superlatives:

5 Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
6 Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
your judgments are like the great deep;
you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.

The wicked become little more than a foil against which to compare the majesty of God’s faithfulness.

So, yes, all people may take refuge in God – but, in fact, we all do. Whether we recognize it or not, whether we trust it or not, we live and move and have our being in the steadfast love of God who sends rain on the just and the unjust. But those with eyes to see recognize a world radiant with love, rather than a world contesting for table scraps. And we find both comfort and joy in the shelter of such wings.

 

Photo: Christopher Michel [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Beulah

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Paolo Veronese, The Wedding at Cana

Watching for the Morning of January 17, 2016

Year C

The Second Sunday after Epiphany

Isaiah 62:1-5

4You shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married.”

The King James transliterated the Hebrew words that mean ‘My Delight Is in Her’ and ‘Married’ and gave us the names Hephzibah and Beulah. They are not used much anymore as personal names, but they contain a wonderful message. A nation that had been desolated by war, and seemed to have been forsaken by God, hears the voice of the prophet declare that God cannot keep silence at the sorrows of his people and will not rest until they become “a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,” and he rejoices over them “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride.”

The joy of the wedding feast governs our readings this Sunday. The prophet speaks the promise of God. Jesus embodies that promise at the wedding in Cana. And the psalmist sings of God’s faithfulness declaring:

7How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
8They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.

The wedding feast in Cana is a weeklong affair, a festivity that involves the whole village and the two clans being joined. But the honor of the families and the joy of the community is threatened by a shortage of wine. In the moment when shame and disaster looms, Jesus graces the wedding with an abundance of fine wine. Tears are turned to joy, and the first glimpse of the kingdom, the first sign of the dawning reign of God, is seen. The joy of the eternal wedding feast is come. The new wine of the Spirit of God is poured out. The first taste of the great banquet of all nations on Mt. Zion is granted. And it is the finest of wines.

The Prayer for January 17, 2016

Gracious God, source of all life and joy,
as you graced the wedding at Cana with an abundance of the finest wine,
grace us with your Spirit,
turning the water of our tears into the joys that are eternal.

The Texts for January 17, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 62:1-5
“You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate.” – To a people in the dismal aftermath of war and reconstruction, the prophetic promise comes that God shall restore the nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 36:5-10
“How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.” – In a psalm that exposes the deceits and delusions of the grasping “wicked”, the poet sings of the wondrous faithfulness and righteousness of God.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:1-11
“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.” – Paul teaches his conflicted congregation in Corinth about the true nature of the gifts of God’s Spirit. The gifts of the Spirit all witness to Christ as Lord and are given to each for the sake of the community.

Gospel: John 2:1-11
“On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee.”
– Jesus turns water into wine, the first of the ‘signs’ that points to the truth of God’s work in Christ Jesus.

 

Image: Paolo Veronese, The Wedding at Cana, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons