Sunday, January 20, 2019

"An Epiphany of Abundance." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on John 2:1-11.

"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 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.  The miracles Jesus performs in the Fourth Gospel are never called miracles—but “signs.”  These “signs” are about revealing a deeper reality about Jesus.
In the first verses of his gospel—the prologue, which we heard on Christmas Eve--John identifies the major themes of his message.  We hear that the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth…. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. Turning water into wine is revealing abundant grace. And what does abundant grace taste like? Like the really good wine, when you were expecting the cheap stuff.            
            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.

            Karoline Lewis has suggested that we have so modified and codified abundance that it’s hard to recognize it anymore.  Some have monopolized abundance…hoarded it…thinking that it is theirs to control, theirs to possess, and theirs to take away. “Theirs to keep for themselves, because those without it? Well, clearly they have not merited God’s attention, earned God’s graces.”[1]
            The gospels teach us that abundance is never about you or me and Jesus alone, as much as we might want it to be—but about bringing us into life—true life, abundant life, for all. In God’s life of abundance, abundance is not ours to grasp individually, but in beloved community, in the world God so loves.

            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.
            And 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.   Fifty-six years have passed since the March on Washington when Dr. King gave his “I have a dream” speech. More than 50 years have passed 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.
            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?”
            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’re afraid we won’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 to keep most of the money and resources and power in the hands of a a few…  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 20, 2019

[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.

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