Roll Out the Barrel

Sermon preached on January 17, 2010

Text: John 2:1-11

I have spoken of the transforming power of God’s Spirit and Christian faith. Here is some evidence. (Play the first part of “Beer Barrel Polka”).

The Andrews Sisters “Beer Barrel Polka”

You see, until this week, I had absolutely no polka music in my personal music library. None. Zip. Nada. Then I came up with this sermon title and I was just going to use it as a title, but during the course of the week I have had enough people ask me about the song that I sought it out to play it. But now my whole self-understanding is in the midst of transformation. I am now a guy who owns polka music – “Polka Till You Drop.” Could colorful suspenders and funny little hats be far behind?
Now to say I had no polka music in my library is not to say that I had never heard the music before. My growing up years had more than their share of polka music. As a kid I attended a lot of weddings of my dad’s cousins – he was the oldest of fifty some. Most were Catholic weddings, about ninety minutes long, I think – where you had the wedding followed by a mass. The service seemed kind of long, but that was only part of the day – later in the afternoon, family and friends gathered, often in the church school gym, for a meal, and in the evening there was dancing – – – and yes, we danced the polka. It was a lot of fun, though I never bought any polka music until just this week!
Thinking back on all this, you know, there seemed to have been a disconnect between the church and the school gym – serious stuff here, fun stuff there. But I think that in our lives and in our faith, we need to see the two intertwined, we need to seek joy, to welcome joy, in the midst of our deep and serious work.
The challenges in our world are many, deep, painful and we take them seriously. We grapple within with wounds from our past, with patterns of behavior that don’t serve us well but are hard to break, with patterns of thought that create in us more stress and heartache than is necessary. A few weeks ago I confessed to my struggles with “awfulizing” – taking a minor disappointment or setback and making it a sign of the apocalypse. After church, many others confessed to that same struggle.
We grapple in our world with challenges that can leave us breathless. On the weekend when we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. we need to acknowledge the on-going struggle in our society with racial reconciliation. The evidence that we are not where we need to be is all around: Harry Reid, Senate Majority leader quoted in a recently published book as remarking that President Obama was more electable because he was a light-skinned black and spoke well; former governor of Illinois, Rob Blagoavich saying in an interview that he was “blacker than Obama.” What does that mean? We are still trying to figure out how to live together amidst our difference. Then, of course, there is Haiti – – – 50 plus thousand dead from an earthquake, bodies being bulldozed into mass graves because that it all that is possible, the entire thing almost too devastating to comprehend.
Still joy – that’s one of the issues our gospel reading puts before us – extravagant, overflowing joy, joy rooted in trust in God – trust being the essence of faith. As I was thinking about the development of this sermon earlier in the week, here it was that I was going to fly into joy, yet I must confess my heart is heavy today, my heart and soul are not quite at the “taking flight” stage. This week we celebrated the lives and mourned the losses of Nath Beck and Barbara Ballou. Since December 1, I have led such times of celebration and grieving (funerals/memorial services) seven times. The depth of the tragedy in Haiti has hit close to home. Since they moved to Duluth, I have had the pleasure of getting to know April and Judd Larson, she the pastor at First Lutheran and he the interim pastor at Our Savior’s Lutheran. Thursday it was announced that their son, Benjamin, a seminary student who was in Haiti to work with a Lutheran Church there, lost his life in the earthquake. I can only dimly imagine their grief and sorrow.
Still, this is the text for today, and still I think joy has something powerful to say. Because of Jesus, there was joy in Cana at a wedding feast. The dancing continued. Because of Jesus in our lives, there can be joy even in a tragic world; there can be joy even as we seek to be healers in a wounded world. Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) was an Orthodox priest , teacher and writer. In his journals, Schmemann wrote: I think God will forgive everything except lack of joy…. Joy is not one of the “components” of Christianity, it’s the tonality of Christianity that penetrates everything. Hyperbole? Yes, but the point is well taken – the basic tone of Christian faith is not dour determination, it is not passive piety, it is joy – – – joy even in a tragic world. John 2 invites us to say “yes” to gladness and joy, even as Jesus said “yes” to Mary when she asked his help in keeping the party going. We can find joy because we trust that the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus is still at work in the world working toward healing, reconciliation, compassion, care, beauty, justice, and love. Jesus is still at work in the world and no earthquake, however devastating, no action however hurtful, no injustice however widespread, can finally defeat this tenacious gracious Spirit of God. We say “yes” to gladness and joy, when that joy is flying and dancing. When our hearts are aching we say “yes” to a joy that soothes and sustains us. And we need joy for that. Joy sustains us in difficult times. Joy helps us get through. Joy awaits us on the other side of disappointment and sorrow and joy can be part of the healing process.
Always, always, always we need to connect the church which takes God’s call to healing and hope seriously with the dance in the gym that celebrates life and nurtures joy.
Let me quickly suggest three possibilities for keeping that connection strong – the connection between the seriousness of our faith and the joy of our faith.
Pay attention. Take time. Notice. Life is often hard. Tragedy strikes. We will be disappointed in life often. Psychoanalyst Michael Eigen writes, “it is not possible to live without injury” (Conversations, 55). He also writes, “we live from wound to wound and joy to joy” (Coming Through the Whirlwind, 179). Joy is there. There is beauty in the world. We need to slow down and take the time to notice, and to celebrate it. We don’t deny the tragedy and pain in the world. I never related well with the Christians I would sometimes see on television who would say something like, “Since I met Jesus my life has been just wonderful.” Life is sometimes painful and difficult for people of faith, but what our faith gives us is an assurance that God is still at work for good in the world and we can see that if we pay attention – take time to notice beauty and goodness and generosity and kindness and caring. Such noticing is a form of prayer
Create small joys. Sustaining joy is fed by the small joys we can create in our lives. You may have noticed that I talk about music, maybe too much, but music is a source of small joy for me. Sometimes it does my soul good to “get lost in rock and roll and drift away” (Dobie Gray). The music that creates joy for me can be mellow: Springsteen, “Lonesome Day;” Dylan, “Shelter from the Storm;” The Beatles, “In My Life,” Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Dear Prudence;” Miles Davis, “Blue in Green,” “My Ship,” “Miles Ahead;’ John Coltrane, “Naima,” “After the Rain.” It can be raucous: Louis Armstrong, “West End Blues;” Brubeck, “Take Five;” The Who, “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Pinball Wizard.” No polka music yet on this list that almost always guarantees me joy. Poetry, too, functions as a source of joy for me. We can create small joys for others. Think of the small joy that comes with a kind word, a gentle smile, a warm embrace, giving a helping hand. Creating small joys is also a form of prayer.
And when we are trying to tackle significant issues like poverty, racism, injustice, violence, may joy be our tonality. I have always liked the quote attributed to the anarchist Emma Goldman, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” God invites us to work with God in transforming the world. It is serious stuff, but it can be done with joy – connecting the sanctuary with the dancing in the gym.
So Jesus shows up at a wedding and creates more joy – wildly extravagant joy. Jesus shows up in our lives and lets us know the importance of joy, and give us the ground for it – the on-going work of his Spirit in the world. We trust that. As followers of Jesus, we know its gonna be all right, even when it is hard. Roll out the barrel. Amen.