A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 17, 2016
The mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”
The Gospel of John is punctuated by a series of stories that make their point through humor. People encounter Jesus, talk with him and misunderstand altogether what he’s saying. In the story of the wedding at Cana, it may not be that Jesus’ mother completely misunderstood him, but I think that what happened can be understood pretty humorously.
If we read through the story of the Gospel in John to get to today’s Gospel, here’s where we are. John the Baptist predicted the One who was to come. Then he sees Jesus, and says “Behold the Lamb of God.” Next, two of John’s disciples go and talk with Jesus and become his disciples. Then they go and find Peter and Nathanael and they become his disciples, too. Immediately after that, Jesus and his disciples (it’s not clear whether there were four disciples, Andrew, Philip, Peter and Nathanael, or whether there were more) Jesus and his disciples start walking from Judea to Galilee. After three days they show up at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.
I’m sure they were welcome at the wedding. But it is not clear whether they had received invitations and sent their RSVP and a gift. At least one reliable scholar has pointed out that at Jewish weddings at that time, the amount of wine available was directly related to the amount of gifts that were received. In other words, gifts were a form of RSVP in ancient Israel. Like us, they didn’t want to make too many reservations with the caterer, which in their case, meant having enough wine. Weddings were probably even a bigger percentage of people’s income in those days.
So in this passage, at least five, young, vigorous, healthy men show up unexpected. And probably thirsty from the journey. And the party ensues. After a while Jesus’ mother walks up to him and says, “Jesus. … They. Are. Running. Out. Of. Wine.” And Jesus response was basically, “Eh.” But then he says, “My hour has not yet come.” Somehow, Mary understood that something was going to happen, even if she didn’t know exactly what. She said to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.”
The water goes into the jars, and when they draw out a cup, it is wine. Very good wine. Wine is a sign and symbol of life and abundance. It wasn’t an every day beverage—it marked celebrations and feasts. The Gospel of John emphasizes that this was Jesus’ first sign, at this wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. Jesus’ sign was bringing life in abundance—the wine was gone, the party was near to falling apart, and Jesus performed his sign—the glory of God was manifested and the feast continued. Jesus’ mother had not expected this sign—even she did not know what to expect of Jesus. The glory of God is always a surprise, and frequently the surprise is funny—the joke is on us—the religious types who take ourselves so seriously. Our psalm today says it well, “How priceless is your love, O God! Your people take refuge under the shadow of your wings. They feast upon the abundance of your house; you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the well of life, and in your light we see light.”
No one was expecting this unannounced traveler to produce over a hundred gallons of choice wine for them. The abundance of God always comes from sources unpredicted. This week, we observe the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Who would have predicted the effects his life would have all over the world? Most of his life was struggle, and he stood for justice against great opposition, but out of his struggle emerged a spirit of healing for all people. Martin is among the saints from whom we see the hope of God.
The British religion journalist Ruth Gledhill remarked on another person this week, “The saint emerging from this sad hour is not the Archbishop of Canterbury, nor any leader of the Global South churches. It is the Primate of The Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.” She was referring to the difficult meeting that took place this week of the Primates—that is to say the senior archbishops—of all the national churches of the Anglican Communion. The results of that were disappointing, and indeed, distressing for many. The Primates recommended that representatives of the Episcopal Church not vote on committees that make doctrinal and ecumenical decisions for the Anglican Communion for the next three years. This is not removal from the Anglican Communion—most of the real activities of the Anglican Communion, which are relationships between churches and programs like the Carpenter’s Kids—will continue unchanged. The Primates objected to the actions of General Convention that allow same gender persons to be married. Before they voted, Bishop Curry spoke to them:
Many of us have committed ourselves and our church to being ‘a house of prayer for all people,’ as the Bible says, when all are truly welcome … Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: “All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.”
Curry went on to tell the primates: “I stand before you as your brother. I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society. And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.
The pain for many will be real. But God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, as we have said in this meeting, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow primates in the Anglican family.
Bishop Michael Curry lives in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King. He knows and teaches that abundant life is possible, but it is only possible through the struggle for justice, through insisting that God’s love is for all of God’s people. Is he a saint? We are all God’s saints, because that word saint, means a holy person of God. When we see clearly that a person is living and witnessing to the holy calling of our Holy God, it shines out in God’s splendor and glory that they are saints. Does that make them more than human? It does not. Bishop Michael was reflecting Christ’s light this week, even if next week he makes all the same missteps we all do. The same could be said for the life of Dr. King. The same could be said for any of us.
Dr. King and Bishop Curry know about that party with Jesus, they receive abundant life along with all those other wedding guests. We are invited to that party, to rejoice along with them, to celebrate the Kingdom of God, which emerges unexpectedly, even humorously. And we are invited to serve Jesus—as Mary, his mother, said to the other servants: “Do whatever he tells you.”