Witnessing God’s New Way in the World

Sunday, January 20, 2019
Second Sunday after Epiphany Year C
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

Focus Prayer:
O God of steadfast love, at the wedding in Cana your Son Jesus turned water into wine, delighting all who were there. Transform our hearts by your Spirit, that we may use our varied gifts to show forth the light of your love as one body in Christ. Amen.

Focus Scripture:
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.

All readings for this Sunday:
Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

Focus Questions:

1. Shining a light on Mary’s role in this story, what do you read between the lines about her words and actions in Cana?

2. What hidden abundance lies within our sacred traditions, ready to be transformed, in this hour, like the water in the great stone jars?

3. How is your church looking for ways to share God’s abundance with generations yet to come?

4. Why do you think the disciples “believed” in Jesus after this work of great wonder? What sort of faith do you think is rooted in miracles?

5. Do you need to see miracles in order to believe? If so, what is a miracle to you? What’s an example of a work of great wonder, a sign, in your own life?

by Kate 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?) The second part of his answer, though, 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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

What do we thirst for?

It often 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 and ironically leaves us sitting hungry in the midst of excess, 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 metaphor for all the ways we dull our physical and spiritual perceptions.” There are myriad forms of “wine” in our world, and they all hold 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.” 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.”

Encountering Christ in ordinary joy

Indeed, several scholars note that this story about a big celebration of an important life passage turns our attention to the ordinary but deep joy of living, and our habit of letting it slip by: “Sometimes, the church has forgotten that our Lord once attended a wedding feast and said yes to gladness and joy,” Robert Brearley writes. “God does not want our religion to be too holy to be happy in.”

What a phrase for our reflection: “Too holy to be happy in”! Perhaps we in the church need to examine our role in suppressing the joy of a life lived in and by grace, a life lived fully, abundantly, vibrantly.

Sometimes I wonder if 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.

In the end, 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.)

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.” (I suspect that “drably dutiful” and “too holy to be happy in” are related in the life of faith.) Another participant in Beckmann’s Bible study 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.”

Was Jesus reluctant to help?

There is another question that nags at our hearts and minds when reading this story, and several scholars 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.” This is a powerful way to approach prayer: putting the needs of others first. 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.

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.”

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?

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?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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.”

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