Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Abundant Now: Sermon for the 2nd Sunday After Epiphany C

My mother is a church- hopper. I would imagine that in her life she has been a member of probably 30– some churches, in at least eight denominations with a couple of non-denominational ones thrown in just for fun. I am not exaggerating. As a child, I and my siblings then experienced and joined with her until we got old enough to make our own choices. I have attended, in my lifetime, as I recall, United Methodist, non-denominational charismatic, Church of Christ, Free Will Baptist, Free Methodist, Church of Christ again, non-denominational again, Southern Baptist, and, finally, I formally became an Episcopalian at age 17, thanks be to God and also with y’all.

And then, I’ve been a member of three and a half Episcopal churches in my time as a layperson: St Luke’s in Tulsa, where I was confirmed; then St. Timothy’s in Creve Coeur; then Holy Communion in U City, where I was lifted up for ordination.

During my seminary training I served at Good Shepherd in Town and Country, and after my ordination I did supply work in eight different parishes in this diocese --including this one-- while assisting for a year at Christ Church Cathedral, which makes nine.

At various times our family has visited three other parishes in this diocese: one where not one single person said hello to us and we heard someone mutter about our college-student attire; one where the people behind me insisted that I send my child out of worship with a bunch of people she didn’t know even though she was making not a single sound, and kept insisting until we almost left; 

and one where people were friendly at the peace, but at coffee hour they all huddled in circles that were as impenetrable to a newcomer as the conversations in the country dance scenes in Pride and Prejudice

The time I spent at each one of these parishes and congregations was varied. Sometimes, as a child, I was forced to go to churches that made me uncomfortable with their theology or customs—yes even as a child, I thought a LOT about theologies that sought to silence groups of people, and by “thought a lot about” I mean “resented the hell about,” since I was a member of at least one of those groups attempting to be silenced.

Yet, and only in retrospect, because we are meaning making people by nature, looking back I can see various benefits I received from each one of these places. I learned a LOT about scripture in the fundamentalist places, and about how scripture can be used-- or misused. I learned that I don’t like a lot of shouting or other surprising behavior in the charismatic places, which is great if you do, though. I learned from its supposed lack how much I love liturgy, how it opens up spaces for worship rather than being restrictive or limiting.

 I learned about being told I was “less-than” simply by accident of birth and how much I am not by nature the kind of person who takes that kind of malarkey well, whether I’m the intended target or not. I learned a master's course about how to not do hospitality well; how it felt being told that there wasn’t as much grace for me as there were for some others.

That’s why the failure of hospitality that Jesus encounters while he and his mother are guests at a wedding jumps out at me every time I read our passage from John today. I have always found it fascinating that this miracle, which only occurs in John’s gospel, is the first of the seven signs in that gospel. It’s rather a small miracle, after all.

Hospitality back then was a much bigger deal than it is nowadays. The notions of hospitality in the culture of first century Palestine often required people to take in strangers into their own homes, and to give those same strangers whatever they requested, even if that meant that the host had to do without.

When you read carefully, probably the only people who knew that a miracle had taken place at all were Jesus, his mother Mary, a handful of servants whose arms were probably aching from toting perhaps 180 gallons of water around, and some of his newly-called disciples. The people hosting the wedding apparently had no idea what happened. And yet, if the wine had actually run out, especially in that culture, it would have brought shame down upon the hosts. After all, wine was a symbol of the blessing of God, of the abundance of God’s gifts. It was also a matter of practicality, being safer to drink than water at that time.

So Jesus’s mother notices that the wine was running out, and she knows her son can do something about it. Even though Jesus initially resists, Mary acts as though she knows all along that he will do as she asks. Just like many of us, Jesus has one of “those” mothers—the kind who believe their children can do anything, and don’t mind getting behind their kids and pushing a bit.

We also can tell that Jesus might get away with calling his mother “woman”---which I would recommend against especially if you have a mother like mine--but in the end, he does what his mother wants. It’s a surprisingly human portrayal of Jesus, especially for John’s gospel. And in the end, the wedding feast is saved, because they have more than enough wine for another three days of celebration—the equivalent of a thousand modern bottles of wine, and not just any wine, but the good stuff. The Chateau Lafite 1869, in fact.

And here’s where our gospel speaks to our time today. We live in a time in which cries of “There’s not enough!” pervade nearly every single second of our lives. We live in a consumer society, one that only functions if people are led to believe that the way to happiness is through how much they can accumulate. “He who dies with the most toys, wins” say the bumper stickers. And so people toil away, so that they can spend, so that maybe they cannot feel the emptiness inside that is the foundational cause of our discontent to begin with.

But then it goes deeper. Society tells too many of us that we ourselves are "not enough." Not skinny enough. Not smart enough. Not tech-savvy enough. Not pretty enough. Not young enough. Not old enough. Not talented enough. Not rich enough.

And that extends outward. We are told that there is not enough to go around. We have to ruthlessly, zealously guard what little we have, because the scarcity mindset that runs our culture has convinced us that there is never enough.

But that’s where the miracle is. Jesus comes to us in our common struggles, and assures us that, no, there IS enough. Here at this table, we participate in the banquet table of God, where there is always enough, and more besides. Where the best stuff is just as available at the end as it was in the beginning.

Just as Jesus turns water into wine, Jesus works within ordinary people, like you and me, because he knows we have the potential to be transformed by his gospel into the good stuff- the best- by God’s transforming love and call to each of us. The first step is being willing to admit that the time of transformation is now.

Now, at first, even Jesus questions whether it was yet time to reveal the wonders of God’s abundance. But his mother, who isn’t just some pale waxwork figure but a woman who has risked and loved and raised Jesus for thirty years by this time, knows better.

And so John’s gospel symbolically reminds us of the mystery of God’s abundant love. If you pay attention, here in this story, the entire arc of salvation is encapsulated. What were the very first words we heard this morning? We heard that the wedding feast is on its third day. We’ve heard those words “on the third day” before, right? Remember, Jesus is crucified and buried, but on the third day he rises again to new life as the Christ. On that third day, the sheer mind-boggling abundance of God’s kingdom, of God’s love for us that holds nothing back, is revealed for the entire universe to see.

On the third day of the wedding, Jesus’s glory is revealed for at least a handful of witnesses, despite his protestations that his “hour” has not yet come. Just like all of us, Jesus knows that the revelation of his glory will bring about change, and he first protests that the time has not yet come.

Change is hard. We often cling to what we know, even if it’s not very good, really, because at least it’s KNOWN and reliable. We unfortunately grasp the not so great because it’s here than let go and open out hands and our hearts to be able to grab something better. It’s easier for us to resist changing ourselves, too, for the same reasons.

I am reminded of that tendency to resist recognizing the time and need for change in all of us, when considering that, just a couple of days ago, one of the great prophets of the 20th century, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., would have turned 90 years old, were he still alive. And a large part of Dr. King’s prophetic work was in recognizing the time, and pushing for change. Of insisting that there was more than enough for everyone.

At the heart of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in August of 1863, he spoke stirringly about the urgency of now, when it came to changing our acceptance of injustice, and America’s obligation by its own founding principles to ensure abundant freedom and justice for everyone, no matter what their race or religion or origin.

At the time he spoke, civil rights legislation had finally been proposed by the Kennedy Administration seeking to guarantee civil rights and voting rights to African Americans, rights which were routinely denied. As he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, recalling that exactly 100 years previously in 1863 Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in Confederate territory, he proclaimed this:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

And here we are, 55 years later, with much of the dream he then described still partially unfulfilled, with too much resistance against the proclamation of welcome and embrace to all, no matter what their race or nationality, with too much resistance to trusting in the abundance of generosity and compassion as we are called to practice it, especially as followers of Jesus.

Dr. King, as a profound disciple and witness of Jesus’s values of justice, especially for the oppressed, knew that there was enough good wine for all to share. He knew that the life of witness to Jesus is a life in which we try to emulate God’s abundant table here on earth. He knew that was so when he proclaimed, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” 

And we have a table like that, right here, but we have to carry that same sense of welcome and abundance out into the world. He spoke of the abundance of God’s grace pushing through even the civic life of this country, and every country that struggles against the poisons of racism and discrimination. He knew that the result of inviting everyone to the banquet would be a true and lasting peace in which America as an ideal ascended to ever greater glory.

Jesus’s first miracle at Cana is a proclamation of the importance of fellowship, of hospitality, of brotherhood—the same dream that Dr. King spoke so vibrantly of over a half a century ago. It is a call to proclaim God’s presence in our lives by holding nothing back. May we all be inspired to embody Jesus’s abundant healing, abundant reconciliation, abundant grace in our own lives as well. 

It’s time.

The hour is now.


Preached at the 505 on January 19, and at 8:00 and 10:15 am on January 20, 2019 at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.

John 2:1-12

Links/ Citations:
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream," August 28, 1963.

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