Sunday, January 17, 2016

"An Epiphany of Abundance," a sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on John 2:1-11. Preached January 17, 2016, on the Sunday before the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"An Epiphany of Abundance"
John 2:1-11

Jesus and his mother and his disciples are attending a wedding.  Anyone who’s ever officiated or planned a wedding can tell you that things can go wrong. 
            In those days a wedding was a great occasion, and most everybody in the village, plus some people from neighboring villages, would have been invited.   Weddings were hosted by the groom’s family, and the celebrations lasted for up to a week. 
            This is one of only two occasions we meet Jesus’ mother in John’s gospel.  The other time is at the foot of the cross. 
            This celebration is in trouble, because on the third day, they’re running out of wine.  This is a crisis for the family responsible for hospitality. 
            David Lose explains why this was such a disaster:  “Wine isn’t merely a social lubricant…it’s a sign of the harvest, of God’s abundance, of joy and gladness and hospitality.  And so when they run short on wine they run short on blessing.  And that’s a tragedy.”[1]
            Jesus’ mother goes to him and identifies the problem. 
But Jesus says, “That’s really not our concern.  And my hour has not come.”  In the theology of John’s Gospel, “the hour” is the hour when Jesus goes to the cross. 
            His mother tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
            There were six stone water-jars there, ready to be used in the Jewish purification rituals.  Each held about twenty or thirty gallons.   “Fill the jars with water,” Jesus says to the servants, and they do.   “Now draw some out,” he says, “and take it to the chief steward.” 
            When the chief steward tasted the water that had turned into wine, he didn’t know where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew.   He called the bridegroom and said, “Normally people serve the good wine first, and then the cheap stuff when people have already had plenty to drink.  But you’ve kept the really good wine for now.”
            John tells us that Jesus did this as the first of his “signs” and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.
            Tom Wright suggests that what John calls “signs” are clues.  In the previous chapter, Jesus has promised Nathanael, “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”  These signs are moments when-- to people who are paying attention with at least a little faith--  the angels of God are going up and coming down at the place where Jesus is… moments “when heaven is opened, when the transforming  power of God’s love bursts in to the present world.”[2]   Whatever we believe happened that day, John wants us to know that this is a clue that with these events the life of heaven came down to earth. 
            Prompted by his mother, Jesus turned water into wine to point us to his heavenly Father—a God who loves to hear the laughter of people celebrating.     The joyous feast at Cana is still a sign that God wants us to rejoice in the amazing good news of grace and abundance. 
            No matter how hard we may try to “spiritualize” today’s gospel lesson, we have 150 gallons of really good wine at a wedding party that had been experiencing scarcity. 
            Today’s gospel text is about the very nature of God… and about the very purpose of being human.  The nature of God is pure grace-- abundant… surprising grace.  Grace overflowing to the brim, in times and places we least expect it.
            We need to pay attention to the details in this story.  The water-jars  were there to be used for Jewish purification rituals--   When Jesus turned the water into wine, it was a sign that God was doing a new thing.
            What I wonder:  What if Jesus had stuck with his original feeling?  It is not my problem, it is not my time.  What if all of his life Jesus had said, "That’s not my problem and it is not my time"?
            That’s unimaginable, isn’t it?
            Closer to our own time, in the mid 1950s, Martin Luther King wrapped up his course work for his Ph.D. and took his first call to a church.  His dissertation wasn’t done yet when Martin Luther King left graduate school and took a job as a pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama. 
            Not long after he went to Montgomery, Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus.  A meeting was held in the African-American community in Montgomery, and they asked who was going to lead the boycott.  
            All the other pastors and all the other influential leaders of the African-American community were smart enough to know that this looked like a risky business.  They decided to get the new pastor in town to lead the boycott.  
            Rev. Martin Luther King had every reason in the world to say, "It is not the right time for me. I have a young family.  I have a dissertation to finish writing.  I have a congregation that doesn’t know me or trust me yet.   If I start out at the head of this enterprise, what will that do to my relationship to my congregation?  It just isn’t a good time.   I have all these reasons why.  This isn’t the time for me to do something like this.” 
            But, as we all know, this very human being was moved from “not my time”-- to yes.
            More than 60 years have passed since the Montgomery bus boycott.   More than 50 years have passed since the March on Washington when Dr. King gave his “I have a dream” speech, and since he wrote his last book before he was assassinated:  “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”
            Have we made progress since that time?  Undoubtedly.  But we need to be honest with ourselves about where we the people of the United States are   and about our history.
            Later in the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus saying, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”[3]
            I believe the gospel has the power to set us free-- as individuals, as a community, as a society-- if we have ears to hear the good news… if we have faith to trust in God’s power to transform us and bind us together in Beloved Community… if we trust in the gospel’s truth to make us free.
            I like the way Jim Wallis talks about the power of the truth in his latest book:[4]
            “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.  I truly believe that would be the best thing for all of us.
            To become more free because of the truth.  To become more honest because of the truth.  To become more responsible because of the truth.  To become better neighbors because of the truth.   To become more productive and contributing citizens because of the truth.  To become better Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, people of other faiths, or people of conscience with no religion—all better because of the truth.  To become a better and freer country for all of us because of the truth….To become better and freer human beings because of the truth.
            I agree with Jim Wallis when he says, “We can no longer be afraid of the truth about race in this country—past, present, and future—because our fears will keep us captive to all kinds of untruths.
            Wallis says when he crossed the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on the fiftieth anniversary of the historic march that helped bring voting rights to all our fellow citizens, he realized that we can find answers in crossing another bridge—“the bridge to a new America that will soon be a majority of minorities.”[5]
            He’s talking about a new America that is coming into being due to demographic changes.  By the year 2040 or 2045, the majority of U.S.  citizens will be descended from African, Asian, and Latin American ancestors, according to the US Census Bureau projections.[6]   “We will have become a majority of minorities—with no one race being in the majority.  The United States will be no longer a predominantly white nation--  but a multiracial nation, which will make the assumptions of white privilege…increasingly less assumed.  That multiracial reality is already the case in many major cities around the country….” and for several whole states.[7]
            Truth be told, many white Americans—especially older white Americans—find that kind of demographic shift troubling.  Some commentators have been pointing to this uneasiness about shifting demographics as something that’s fueling the fears and suspicion of immigrants and people who are different that we hear voiced by some of the candidates. 
            It seems to me that we can choose how we will face the changes that are happening.   We could approach them fearfully…grudgingly… and imagine all the worst possible scenarios about how terrible things will be.  Or we could trust in God to be with us as we cross over a bridge to becoming a more diverse and inclusive nation.  We could imagine how God could use us as people of faith to model what it means to live as Beloved Community and to be part of a transformation of our country that is more and more fully a nation of abundance, where there is truly liberty and justice for all. 
            Jim Wallis tells about the time he was invited to talk to his son’s fifth-grade class about immigration.  They went through the long history of immigration in this country.  All the children in the class learned that they were part of our national history—people who had chosen to come to America or were forced to by the chains of slavery.  Then he told the students about our current problem of 11 million undocumented people living in uncertainty and fear for years and even decades, being unable to safely obtain medical care, being exploited without protection by unscrupulous employers… and being separated from family members. 
            The students asked the obvious question:  “Why don’t we fix that?  Why doesn’t Congress change the system?”
            Jim said, “They say they’re afraid.” 
            The students looked even more confused and asked, “What are they afraid of?”
            Jim said he paused to think…and looked around the room—a classroom of a public-school fifth grade class in Washington, DC.  He looked at their quizzical and concerned faces, a group of African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American, and European American children.  Then it hit him.
            “They’re afraid of you,” he replied.
            “Why would they be afraid of us?” the students asked.
            “They’re afraid you are the future of America.  They’re afraid their country will someday look this class—that you represent what our nation is becoming.”
            This group of 11-year-olds looked even more confused.
            “They’re afraid this won’t work,” Jim said.  “Does it work?”
            The children looked at one another.  Then they responded with many voices, saying, “Yeah…Sure…Of course it works…It works great…It’s really cool!”
            Together they decided that their job was to show the rest of the country that this new America coming into being is, in fact, really cool.[8]
            Some of the stories we heard during Advent remind us that sometimes people have a failure of imagination,  like Zechariah, when the angel Gabriel told him Elizabeth was going to have a baby:   “How can this be?” [9]
            In our time and place, God calls us to be the people who come to know God, to experience the grace and abundance of Jesus Christ,  to embody that love and live together in Beloved Community with all of God’s children.  
            Whenever we think we don’t have enough—enough money or power or privilege or security--  whenever we think the party’s over because things are changing, God will keep doing new things and surprising us with new wine that is sweeter and tastier than ever before… and give us dreams and visions to help us live more fully into the life of abundance and grace into which God calls us.  Can we imagine it?   Is anything impossible for God?      
            In a world threatened by ethnic, racial, and religious conflict, the consequences of trying to defend the status quo   or of wallowing in the valley of despair and fear and negativity are enormous.   But the rewards of inclusive justice and healing are too important not to try.           
            The prophets and the gospel call us to dream, to imagine an alternative reality of Beloved Community for all God’s people.  They challenge us to embody it in our daily lives, trusting that God will provide abundant new wine  and better things than we ever tasted or seen or imagined   and a life overflowing with joy and blessing in God’s presence.
            Thanks be to God! 

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
January 17, 2016

[1] David Lose, “Epiphany 2B: What Grace Looks Like!” 

[2] Wright, John for Everyone, Chapters 1-10 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), Kindle Edition, Loc 472.
[3] John 8:32

[4] Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin:  Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.  (Brazos Press, 2016), Kindle Edition, Location 388.
[5] Wallis, location 407.
[6] Marcie Bianco, “The Year White People Will Become a Minority in America Has Been Declared,”, December 11, 2014, cited in Wallis’ book.
[7] Wallis, Location 4396.
[8] Wallis, Location 4388.
[9] Luke 1:5-25, 57-66.

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