United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds January 20, 2019

Second Sunday after Epiphany Year C
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Lectionary citations:
Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

Worship resources for the Second Sunday after Epiphany Year C, Second Sunday in Ordinary Time are at Worship Ways


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
John 2:1-11

Focus Theme:
Witnessing God's New Way in the World

Reflection:
by Kathryn M. Matthews

Timing and abundance: these themes intertwine in this story from the beginning of Jesus' ministry. Jesus has not yet begun teaching or working wonders among the people, yet his mother has confidence that he can help when a crisis arises at the wedding of a friend. This short but beautiful text provides a glimpse of Jesus and his mother as human beings who had friends, who "partied," who fretted when something went wrong, and who balked at leaving the party to solve another's problem.

The exchange between Mary and Jesus feels particularly familiar to any parent who has mentioned a need to her child, from a bicycle left in the driveway to a young relative who needs companionship at a family function. Not now, Mom, not me. And yet Jesus does indeed respond to the need at hand, with an act of "ordinary," earthy compassion for the hosts who are in a terrible predicament. Jesus' response, however, is actually anything but ordinary.

Is this really any of my business?

The first part of Jesus' response to Mary's observation that the wine has run out sounds almost modern in its detachment: "What's it to you and me?" (Did Jesus shrug when he said this?) But the second part of his answer sounds rather solemn and theological: "My hour has not yet come" (v. 4b). Don't we wonder if Mary wondered what he meant by that?

Whatever, she may have thought, I have no earthly idea what you're talking about, but just make sure there's wine for these poor folks, for everyone's sake. And then she set about the task at hand, unconcerned, it seems, about what the "hour" was.

However much we appreciate hospitality today, the people of Jesus' time and culture practiced it as a survival skill, a way of looking after one another in a hostile and perilous environment, and an assurance of being looked after in turn. No wonder it became a matter of honor, as well.

Learning from Mary

Mary doesn't often appear in the Gospels, but women (and men) in every age search these stories for hints of her importance to the larger arc of the narrative about God at work in this world. Chung Hyun Kyung and other Asian women theologians suggest that Mary is more important to this story than we usually think, and we shouldn't hurry past this "Mary factor" in the story.

According to Chung, Mary's actions express a "compassionate sensitiveness to other people's needs" that is often found in women, perhaps because women have an acute sense of need and vulnerability that can nurture a compassionate approach to life. Raised by a woman like Mary to practice "compassionate justice," Jesus, Chung notes, "did not grow up in a vacuum" (Struggle to Be the Sun Again: Introducing Asian Women's Theology).

We recall, for example, that song of Mary on the doorstep of Elizabeth, about a God who hears the cry of the humble and the poor. It's not hard to imagine that Mary did a lot of singing while Jesus was growing up in her home.

If our God is a God of mercy, which we proclaim with Mary, then she is embodying that very gift in this high-pressure situation, and handling it all with remarkable sensitivity and tact.

The importance of timing

So timing, and the plan, no matter how important, take a back seat to human need at that moment, as they often would throughout Jesus' ministry. We recall how the pleas of another woman, the Syrophoenician mother, also messed with the timing and plan Jesus had in mind.

How fitting that the "hour" of Jesus is indeed arrived in that moment when the reign of God breaks in, as it does in every wonder worked by Jesus and indeed, by his entire life, death, and resurrection - and it arrives not in an hour of triumph but in a moment of need.

Saving the best for last

In more than one way, there is irony in this story: oh, yes, your hour is, too, here, as it turns out, but who could have realized that the truly good and abundant "wine" is Jesus himself?

Richard Bauckham notes the importance of the role of the steward, or headwaiter, whose "punch line" in the story may reveal more than the headwaiter himself understood, a favorite device used by John. Saving the best wine for last is unusual, the steward says, and Bauckham writes that God hasn't just saved the best wine for last but, more significantly, God's "very best gift to Israel and the world" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

Still, we don't do much better than the steward ourselves, Ernest Hess observes, when we enjoy God's good gifts but fail to "[recognize] their source in the Creator's love" (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1).

Abundance is always there

Abundance is quietly in the background of this scene, as it will be in the story of the multiplication of loaves and fishes, another response to the everyday but immediate, pressing human need of the people. This overflowing gift, six stone jars of wine when just one might have been enough, is a sign, too.

First, the jars are "special," because they hold the water used in the religious purification rituals. They are large, too, each one holding 15-25 gallons, and they're "filled to the brim," Ann M. Svennungsen writes: "And from these big and special and brim-filled jars came the best-tasting wine served at the wedding."

This wine, like overflowing grain and oil, are "signs of a golden age," again, highlighting the importance of timing, and the guests, Svennungsen says, know something important is happening when such wonderful wine flows at the end, not the beginning, of the celebration. But she also observes that the real human thirst, like our deepest hunger, is for the life God offers us, the close, living relationship with the One who loves us (New Proclamation Year C 2007).

What do we thirst for?

It seems that, in our own day, our spiritual hunger and thirst are so great that we fill our lives with material things in a futile attempt to satisfy those needs. We have even shaped a distorted gospel, a so-called prosperity gospel that reassures us that God actually wants us to have lots of stuff. (I have a book on my shelf with a title that says that God wants me to be rich. I'm almost afraid to read it.)

Over-consumption is not the same thing as the abundance that Jesus shares or that God gave us at creation, and it invariably leaves us sitting hungry in the midst of excess, and longing for the abundance of God, thirsting for God's grace.

It makes sense, then, that Ernest Hess sees "drunkenness" as more than just a temporary state of having drunk too much wine, but as a way to describe our (perhaps chronic) inclination to "dull our physical and spiritual perceptions" (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1). There are myriad forms of "wine" in our world, and they all have the power to hinder us on our spiritual path.

Is this a story about marriage?

Not surprisingly, scholars take several approaches to this somewhat puzzling though simple story. While I grew up hearing about the miracle of Cana only in the context of "the institution of the sacrament of marriage," most scholars focus on the "sign" (that's what John calls miracles; think of them as signs pointing to something else, beyond themselves) of God's reign breaking through, and marriage itself is not of central importance for the larger meaning of the text.

However, Renita Weems see a connection between the spiritual journey and marriage, with its "highs and lows," its "seasons of ecstasy and ennui, and you find yourself wondering whether it's possible to regain the passion, the conviction, the spiritual momentum you once enjoyed."

Encountering Christ in ordinary joy

The good news, Weems says, is that the answer is yes: "Take those empty stone jars, fill them to the brim with the water of hope, prayer, and persistence, and draw from them."

We encounter Christ, Weems writes, not only in mountain-top experiences, but also "in the simple day-to-day activities of drawing water from wells, preparing food, tending sheep, and trying to figure out what to do when the wine runs out at a wedding celebration" (New Proclamation Year C 2000-2001).

Indeed, several commentators on this story about a special celebration turn our attention to the ordinary but deep joy of living, and our habit of letting it slip by. For example, Robert Brearley observes that this story reminds the church that Jesus knew how to celebrate: "God does not want our religion to be too holy to be happy in" (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1).

"Too holy to be happy in"?

"Too holy to be happy in": there's a sermon in that phrase! It seems that we in the church may need to examine our role in suppressing or at least neglecting the joy of a life lived in and by grace, a life lived fully, abundantly, vibrantly.

It occurs to me that a dour attitude in the church might shed light on why so many people look elsewhere for sources and stories of joy in their lives, some of those sources better than others, of course, but many of them able to connect people with God's own joy and goodness in ways that are meaningful and even transformative in people's lives.

Where are the seekers?

I spent a lot of time during the Advent season, for example, with a group of people we in the church might call "seekers," except they aren't seeking anything in or from the church. They are looking to poetry (including the poetry of the Bible), to "good works," and to nature in particular, for a deep sense of connection with God, with the spiritual, and even with community.

After all, they wanted to share their thoughts and experiences in community, not by themselves, which is why we gathered. I tried to listen and learn as they shared deep longing, and deep and surprising wisdom. There was joy, too, surprising joy, and respectful questioning as well. Indeed, it was a quiet and loving celebration, with "water turned to wine" in unexpected and new ways.

Love through social media?

The notions of "paying it forward" and of crowd-funding for people (strangers!) in need, and even the sharing of stories, memes and inspiring words on social media all suggest a hunger and thirst for meaning that includes at least some joy and happiness, not just repentance for sin and sorrow about the suffering of the world. Aren't we nourished by joy so that we can respond wholeheartedly to suffering? And by the way, aren't generosity and joy closely connected?

(The film, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, illustrates the beautiful, radiant joy of Francis of Assisi even as he responded to the terrible suffering around him, and might explain why the current, beloved pope chose his name.)

What is life abundant without joy?

No doubt God is at work in unexpected places and in surprising ways, but shouldn't we lament when the church lacks a vital and deep sense of joy in the gospel? (The paradox in that sentence has not escaped me.) Bauckham reminds us that Jesus was about bringing life abundant, "life invigorated and intensified." Jesus does this "by connecting people with the divine springs of life from which the vitality of life is constantly sustained and replenished" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

What is the source of your church's vitality? What is the source of your own spiritual vitality? What would "life abundant" look like not just for our congregations, within our own walls, but in the communities where we are set, where we are called to be a blessing in God's world?

Listening from another's perspective

Sometimes the most refreshing insights are gained by experiencing a story from the perspective of one of the unnamed, marginal characters whose actions are nevertheless key to what happens. Kim Beckmann shares the responses of Bible study participants who read the text through the eyes of the workers who had to lug those giant stone jars full of either water or wine and were, in the process, "brought into the miracle."

One participant says, "When I think about what this means in terms of the heavy lifting of my work, my relationships, and even, frankly, my church life, I'm so blown away by this glimpse of Jesus, and so mindful of how drably dutiful I've felt about such a gift." (Wouldn't "drably dutiful" be a helpful phrase in a sermon about "too holy to be happy in"?)

Another Bible study participant reflects on Mary's role in the story, and wonders if we have a share in "bringing God's intent for new life to birth" (New Proclamation Year C 2010).

Was Jesus reluctant to help?

There is another question that nags at our hearts and minds when reading this story, and several commentators struggle with it. Carol Lakey Hess calls it "the scandal of divine reluctance" when Jesus seems to balk at helping people in need.

Lakey Hess sees a tension between that hesitation, followed by an extravagant gift of the finest wine, and God's seeming absence or inaction in the face of human suffering and need in any age or place: "In a world where for so many there is not clean water – let alone fine wine – where is the extravagance of God? In a world where children play in bomb craters the size of thirty-gallon wine jugs, why the divine reluctance?" (I'm reminded of the children for whom a "snow day" means no breakfast or lunch.)

Where are we in the story?

Like Mary, we have a role in the story, if we truly believe in God's goodness and generosity, for we can, as Hess writes, "nudge God with our observation: they have no wine" (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1). I loved the film, Les Misérables, but I'm still haunted by the scene of the people in their suffering, desperately praying for help from God.

Of course, the compassion and mercy that wind through the story in the person of one character or another suggest that we bear the responsibility to embody God's own compassion and mercy for one another; that's what Jean Valjean ultimately learned to do.

Still troubled by theodicy

Today, we're no more able to answer the troubling questions of theodicy in our generation than any that came before us, but Renita Weems urges us to "keep going the conversation between heaven and earth" (New Proclamation Year C 2000-2001).

Note: I do wonder, sometimes, if we pastor-preachers are "answering" the wrong questions - points of doctrine that do not often touch lives in ways that change hearts and minds. I wonder if the people in the pews - and perhaps even more significantly, those who are not there - aren't troubled by those same ancient questions, like the one I was recently asked by a friend: "Why is God so mean?"

What is the hour?

It is still very early in a new year. What is "the hour" for you and your congregation? What call has come, what need has arisen, what unforeseen opportunities lie before you, that might lead to a re-arrangement in your plans so that the reign of God might break in, here and now?

What surprises, like that of the wine steward, might await you? When have you felt "brought into" a miracle, most unexpectedly?

Time on our minds

Every time we turn the page on the calendar, it seems, time is very much on our minds. Still in the first quarter of a new century, we evaluate where we are today and where we want to go in the years ahead, and we reflect on the challenges and possibilities before us, in "our "own hour.

Polls show that the first ten years of this century were experienced by many as the worst decade in their lifetime, and we continue the struggle to recover from war, terrorism, economic devastation, damage to the environment and destructive acts of "Mother Nature," violence not just in our streets but in our public places - our movie theaters and malls, the streets we live or drive on, our workplaces and our first-grade classrooms. (Speaking of lament.)

Will things turn around?

No matter which side of our divided nation we may find ourselves on, most of us agree that our life together has deteriorated in the past few years, surprisingly perhaps, or maybe the underlying divisions and disagreements are simply being aired more roughly, more unkindly, than ever before.

Some say the economy is better, while others find themselves languishing, and problems loom over us even if we're told "the numbers" have improved. Where is the abundance, the celebration, the hope? Where is the wondrous sharing, the joy of need being met and even more than met, of anxiety relieved and care extended?

Toward a future unknown

We don't know what changes, for better or worse, lie ahead. Of course, that can be said of our ancestors long ago, too, and we're grateful for and inspired by their courage and foresight, and their generosity in thinking of us long before we were born. How will the times change the ways we serve and witness, too?

What hidden abundance lies within our sacred traditions, ready to be transformed, in this hour, like the water in the great stone jars? Is your church looking, in its own day, for ways to share that abundance with generations yet to come?

Faith and surprises

When Mary went to Jesus about the wine shortage at the wedding feast, he said that his hour had not yet come, yet he provided the wine that was needed, and it was considered "the first of his signs." When have you been surprised by a change in timing in your life, especially when beginning something new? When has your church had to change its plans and adjust its timing? What did you learn about yourself in the process?

Why do you think the disciples "believed" in Jesus after this work of great wonder? How did their faith apparently change? Do you need to see miracles in order to believe? If so, what is a miracle to you? What is a work of great wonder, a sign?

Gifts for the common good

In the First Corinthians reading (12:1-11), Paul reminds us that "each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." What works of wonder can we accomplish as individuals and as local churches that turn despair into hope, hatred into love, and violence into healing? Do you feel equal to the task? If not, what do you need?

What unseen power lies within us that we do not recognize? What are your gifts? What gifts do you discern within your congregation, and how is God calling you to transform the world around you?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

This reading falls at the same time of year as the observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King is a hero, an icon, really, a name that comes to mind when someone asks, "Does God still send us prophets?" His martyrdom only strengthens our confidence that this indeed was a man sent from God, showered with gifts, who will be remembered for his eloquent words, his courageous deeds, and his deep and abiding commitment to non-violence as the ultimate form of Christian resistance to injustice.

Dr. King was faithful to the ideal, the commitment to non-violent resistance (the way of Jesus), even in the face of police dogs with snarling teeth and the taunts of "nice, Christian" Americans — twentieth-century Americans who reacted angrily and self-righteously when a people demanded justice too long delayed. Justice too long delayed, Dr. King said, is justice denied.

Renewing our own commitment

Still, as each year goes by and we remember Dr. King with our programs and sermons and singing and even our renewed commitment to justice for all of God's children, it seems to me that it's rather tempting to lift up this prophet, high above us, and make him so singular or special that we miss the whole point. I see the timing of Dr. King's birthday and our communal observance as very fortunate: what better way to begin a new year that to renew our own commitment to the vision of Jesus, who practiced compassion and justice throughout his life?

As we noted, our Gospel text tells us about an everyday, earthy but extraordinary deed of Jesus — and his mother — responding to ordinary human need. And what Paul says in his letter to the church at Corinth in our first reading today is true not just for the early church, not just for great prophets but for us, as well.

Everyday works of wonder

I want to believe that Dr. King, while he was a great and gifted man, a prophet even, did things that we can do, too, with the gifts that God has given us. I do believe that there are everyday gifted people who are responding to human need, using the gifts God has given them — because everything we have, Paul says earlier in his letter, is something we have received—using those gifts to meet human need, to work for a better and more beautiful and more just world, to speak for those who have no voice or, better, to make sure the voiceless are heard, to stand with those who are stepped on and pushed out, to walk with those who are making their way to a better day.

Works of wonder, yes, and yet I cannot emphasize enough how ordinary and everyday these efforts are. Whether we are called to offer up our lives for the gospel, or to live that gospel day in or day out, year in and year out, in everyday acts of compassion and justice, we are using those abundant gifts, just as God intended, and on God’s own timetable, for the building up of the reign of God.

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The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

C.S. Lewis, 20th century
"Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see."

Sören Kierkegaard, 19th century
"Christ turned water into wine, but the church has succeeded in doing something even more difficult: it has turned wine into water."

Richard Cizik, National Association of Evangelicals, 21st century
"When I die, God isn't going to ask me 'Did I create the Earth in six days or five days?' but 'What did you do with what I gave you?'"

Carl Lewis, 20th century
"Life is about timing."

Rumi, 13th century
"When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy."

Mark Twain, 19th century
"To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with."

Albert Einstein, 20th century
"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."

Jesse Browner, 20th century
"Eating, and hospitality in general, is a communion, and any meal worth attending by yourself is improved by the multiples of those with whom it is shared."

Jean Vanier, Community And Growth, 20th century
"At the heart of the celebration, there are the poor. If [they] are excluded, it is not longer a celebration. [...] A celebration must always be a festival of the poor."

Abraham Joshua Heschel, 20th century
"People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state--it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle....Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one's actions."


Lectionary texts

Isaiah 62:1-5

For Zion's sake I will not keep silent,
   and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
   and her salvation like a burning torch.

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,
   and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
   so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
   so shall your God rejoice over you.

Psalm 36:5-10

Your steadfast love, O God,
   extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness
   to the clouds.

Your righteousness is like
   the mighty mountains,
your judgments are like
   the great deep;
you save humans and animals alike,
   O God.

How precious is your steadfast love,
   O God!
All people may take refuge
   in the shadow of your wings.

They feast on the abundance
   of your house,
and you give them drink
   from the river of your delights.

For with you is
   the fountain of life;
in your light
   we see light.

O continue your steadfast love
   to those who know you,
and your salvation
   to the upright of heart!

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says "Let Jesus be cursed!" and no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

John 2:1-11

On the third day 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. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward." So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now." Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.

Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday" — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."