Once Upon a Time ...

By: Candace Chellew-Hodge

Preached January 9, 2010 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, SC

Readings:
Isaiah 62:1-5: "for the Lord delights in you"
John 2:1-11: "You have kept the good wine until now."
  Hear this sermon at the Jubilee! Circle Web site.

Peter Mayer is a singer-songwriter from Minnesota. He is not to be confused with another musician named Peter Mayer, who played guitar for Jimmy Buffet. This Peter Mayer began playing the guitar and writing songs when he was in high school. He studied Theology and music in college, and then spent two years in seminary. After deciding that the priesthood wasn't for him, he took a part-time job as a church music director for 8 years, while performing at clubs and colleges, and writing and recording his music. In 1995, he quit his job and started touring full-time. Since then, Peter has gradually gained a dedicated, word-of-mouth following, selling out shows from Minnesota to Texas, New England to California. He has eight CDs to his credit, and has sold more 50,000 of them independently - some of them to me!

We'll begin this morning with one of his songs called "Magic Beans" that re-imagines the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. Instead of planting the seeds - Jack has hidden them for years out of fear, not daring to see what would happen if he planted those magic beans.

That's not how the story goes,
When do heroes play it safe?
You've got a job and a family-o,
But not a single golden egg
And a pocket full of possibilities,
Hey ho Jack, when will you plant them, Magic beans?

I started playing guitar when I was a teenager. I have had some lessons, but I am mostly self-taught. I started out by getting a big book of songs by my favorite band The Who. I followed the chord diagrams and carefully placed my fingers where they were supposed to go. Want to hear what I sounded like when I started? (play awful)

Yeah, it was pretty terrible. Anyone who has learned an instrument can tell you, for the first few weeks or months, you're going to make dogs howl or scare small children every time you sit down to practice. But, if you stick to it, you eventually get the hang of it - and if you really stick to it, you might even be able to do like Peter Mayer and quit your job and go on the road making your own music.

But, beginnings are scary things and often we don't even pick up the instrument or attempt something new simply because it can be scary. Think, though, if babies thought this way. Babies are always trying something new - poking their fingers into dangerous places, putting everything they can pick up into their mouths. They're full of new beginnings - new sights, smells, feels, and tastes. What if babies were afraid of new stuff though? What if, when they first attempted walking, after falling down a few times they thought, "Well, I gave it a shot, but that walking thing obviously isn't for me." So, they decide to go through life sitting down and crawling, because, hey, walking is scary and hard to learn, so forget it!

Let's face it though, as much as beginning scare us, we really do love them. The words "Once upon a time ..." are words we love to hear, because we know we're at the beginning of a story that will enthrall us, a story that will carry us away into a world of damsels in distress, dashing princes, magic bean stalks, talking monsters, and much adventure. "Once upon a time ..." are words that beckon to us and invite us to step into a new world of possibilities, a new world of creativity, a new world of hope and joy.

So today, we begin. Once upon a time there was a group called "Jubilee Circle ..." What happens next? How many monsters will encounter? How many foes will we have to slay before we reach the castle where the princess is held hostage? How many chimneys will we have to slide down now that the Burger Meister Meister Burger has locked all the windows and doors?

That's the excitement of new beginnings - that delight in turning the page, in learning the next chapter, in encountering the next challenge, in finding the foot that fits the shoe, in realizing our dreams coming true despite the obstacles.

Jack, Oh Jack, what scared you so?
Made you hide those beans and run
Did you hear the rumors-o, Of the fee, fi, fo, and fum?
Were you frightened of the things you,
Just might see
Hey ho Jack-o If you plant those, Magic beans?

The Ancient Hebrews knew all about fairy tales. Their lives certainly read like one - they began as the chosen people of God, blessed by all measures, freed from slavery, led out of Egypt into the Promised Land. Things went downhill from there. Throughout their history, the Hebrew people spent their time not reveling in their chosen status, but dissing God - going after other gods, creating idols, neglecting God's commands and generally ignoring the Big Cahuna. Time after time, God calls them back from their wanderings, wooing the people from time to time, but more often threatening them.

In today's reading, God is wooing her children back, promising to vindicate them in front of all of those who have bullied them in the past.

The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you,

For the Lord delights in you. This is our fairy tale ending, where our lover, the one who has liberated us from bondage and saved us from the dragons, delights in us - calls us by a new name.

No matter how many big bad wolves blow our houses down, no matter how many dragons breathe fire and threaten to burn us up, no matter how many evil witches poison our apples, we are delivered because the Lord delights in you. As long as the Lord delights in us, we will always have our fairy tale ending - the slipper will fit, the dragon will fall, the monster will vanish.

The Lord delights in us.

Breathe deeply.

Jack, it's not too late you know,
To sow those seeds of faith
So throw them out your wind-o,
Go to sleep, and when you wake
Things will happen,
Things you never dared to dream
But they won't happen,
Unless you plant them, Magic beans

Back in 1966, there was a hit TV show that featured four hippy looking guys, a cutie named Davy Jones, a not so cutie named Mickey Dolenz, a toboggan wearing one named Michael Nesmith, and a goofy one named Pete Tork. Together they comprised what group? The Monkees, right. They had a big hit in '66 with the song we're singing today. Written by Neil Diamond it's called "I'm a Believer."

I thought love was only true in fairy tales
Meant for someone else but not for me.
Love was out to get me,
That's the way it seemed.
Disappointment haunted all my dreams.
Then I saw her face, now I'm a believer
Not a trace of doubt in my mind.
I'm in love, Ooooh, I'm a believer!
I couldn't leave her if I tried.

What, do you think, is the main theme in just about every fairy tale out there, whether it's Aesop's classics or the modern fairy tales currently playing at the multiplex? I'll tell you - it's LOVE. Fairy tales are rife with love - the prince falls in love with the damsel in distress, Shrek marries his true love, the boy gets the girl, and in some more modern movies the boy gets the boy, and the girl gets the girl. It's all about love - it's all about finally taking delight in each other.

Our scripture readings, both from the Hebrew text and the Jesus story, have something in common - weddings. These are festivals of love. In Isaiah, the wedding is between a chosen people and God. In the Jesus story, we find our boy attending a wedding - we don't know whose wedding it was, could have been a cousin, a sister, or a brother, or just some friend of the family.

What makes this wedding important, especially in the book of John, is that this is the beginning of Jesus' ministry. We could start this scene by saying, "Once upon a time ... there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding." This is where it all starts for Jesus, sitting at this wedding, minding his own business. Before he knows it, the host has run out of wine. Now, in Jesus' time there was no corner package store. Nobody could make a wine run before anyone noticed their glasses were empty. No, this is a time when you made wine the hard way - by pressing it yourself or buying it from someone who did.

Jesus' mother asks her son to help out, but Jesus is a bit put out that she wants him to use his power to make a mystical wine run: "Jesus said to her, 'Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.'"

Mary, though, knows her son - in a moment of, "Yeah, whatever," she turns to the servants and says, "Do whatever he says." She knew he'd come around. Mary was a believer.

I thought love was more or less a givin' thing,
Seems the more I gave the less I got.
What's the use in tryin'? All you get is pain.
When I needed sunshine I got rain.
Then I saw her face, now I'm a believer
Not a trace of doubt in my mind.
I'm in love, Ooooh, I'm a believer!
I couldn't leave her if I tried.

As with all fairy tales, the story isn't really the one we read on paper or hear as we're drifting off to sleep. There's always something more to the story - something deeper - a moral we're supposed to take with us after the dragons are slain and the prince and princess live happily ever after. Any good story teller knows, the truth of a story is somewhere just under the surface of the action. It's the reader, or the listener's job, to uncover that hidden truth.

It's the same way with our scripture reading. It's not random that there were six hug vats before Jesus at that wedding. In numerology, six means that something is incomplete. The John credited with writing the book of Revelation went even further, putting three sixes together to symbolize evil! The six vats here were meant to show that the old Judaism was incomplete. It wasn't corrupt or evil, however, just wasn't working that well any longer.

Those vats were filled to the brim with water, but when Jesus got done, it was filled with wine that tasted better than first wine served by the host.

David Albert Farmer, pastor of Silverside Church in Wilmington, Delaware, writes that this "powerful story in John's Gospel can teach us many lessons. For one, the necessity of reinterpreting and reframing foundational facts of faith is an ongoing responsibility and requirement; it simply isn't optional.

The religious ways of yesterday and even how we envisioned our faith lives in the context of religion are old hat and old news; eventually, whether we like it or not - and we rarely do - the old ways simply run dry; they just flat don't work for us anymore. They don't need to be renounced, but they do need to be freshened or tweaked."

Here at Jubilee! Circle, we seek to freshen and tweak that old time religion, but we're not tossing out the vats of tradition, either. Instead, the Creation Spirituality of Matthew Fox that we'll be exploring together is much older than the vats of religion we've been drawing from. Most of the Christian theology today is drawn from a story of fall and redemption - where we've fallen from God's grace and are originally cursed with sin. Instead, Jubilee! Circle focuses on a theology of Original Blessing, which Fox tells us is older than the fall and redemption story which traces its roots to the fourth century and Thomas Aquinas.

Creation-centered spirituality traces its roots back to the ninth century B.C. "with the very first author of the Bible, the Yahwist or J source, to the psalms, to wisdom books of the Bible, to much of the prophets, to Jesus and much of the New Testament."

We begin in a place of delight - where God created the heavens, the earth, the animals, the plants, and yes, the humans, and proclaimed them all good. God still delights in all of it and invites us to delight in it, too. Love is not just the stuff of fairy tales, it's the stuff of all creation, from the smallest atom to the tallest tree - God's love and delight is in, through, and around it all.

What are you afraid of, Jubilants? Why haven't you planted your magic beans? Are you frightened of the things you just might see? What keeps us locked in fear, unable to sow our seeds of faith? I offer you tonight, some magic beans. They may not look like anything special, but they are. Take them with you and when you are overcome by fear and doubt, pull one out of your pocket or your purse and remind yourself that God delights in you and wants you to sow your seeds of faith, your seeds of love, your seeds of compassion, your seeds of forgiveness.

God delights in us, but the work God calls us to is not easy. The big bad wolves of this world may receive our gifts of love, compassion, and forgiveness with scorn, or worse yet, indifference. Love is not just for fairy tales, it's for us all, right here, right now - but sometimes it seems the more we give the less we get and we think, what's the use in trying? All you get is pain. But when we encounter the holy - the beautiful face of our living, still speaking God - we can become believers, without a trace of doubt in our minds.

The most important thing is that we begin - that we take that first step out into the unknown, carrying with us no weapons, no hatred, no animosity, and no fear, because we know God delights in us. We have faith that God's delight will sustain us - that love will carry us through.

I challenged you tonight, Jubilants, sow your seeds, plant your magic beans of love, compassion, and forgiveness - and let's delight in what grows.

Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.

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