Reflecting upon the more-than-literal meanings in today’s reading from the Gospel according to John tells the story of the wedding at Cana I was prompted to ask some questions about the eucharist’s ability to continue to nourish us. These questions prompted me to dispense with my usual practice of preaching from a manuscript. Inspired by John Shelby Spong’s work in “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic” to see the characters in this story as symbols of entities much bigger than they first appear, I have begun to see that just as the early followers of Jesus found themselves in a time of transition that gave birth to new practices, we 21st century followers of Jesus find ourselves in the midst of transitions that have the potential to give birth to new ways of being in the world. As always I am indebted to Jack Spong, who has visited Holy Cross three times to share his work with eager learners. Indeed, in the Preface of “The Fourth Gospel” Jack thanks Holy Cross for being a place where his book “first found public expression. Jack’s insights continue to challenge us. You can listen to this morning’s reflection here and Jack lecturing on the symbolism of the characters of the Mother of Jesus and the Disciple who Jesus loved here. This morning’s reflection begins a congregational conversation on our worship together.
Reflections on the Eucharist: Epiphany 2C, John 2:1-11:
As I begin to look at resources for this coming Sunday, this old sermon preached in 2007 reminds me that sometimes the world forgets just who it was that turned water in to wine! The theology about grace in this sermon is from Edward F. Markquart “Sermons from Seattle”, who has saved me from myself on many a late Saturday night!!! The story about my Nannie is best when it is served up with a big dollop of an Irish accent, preferably of the Belfast variety!
Last summer my family my family threw a wedding feast of our own. It was my niece’s wedding and in addition to attending I had the privilege of presiding. Working a family gig, as a pastor is an unusual experience; especially where my family is concerned. These folks knew me back in the day. So seeing me up there in my working duds, doing what we clergy do, well it’s a bit of a stretch for the folks you grew up with.
At the wedding feast, I ran into some folks that my brother and I went to high school with. Every once in a while I would catch him looking at me as if he was trying to figure something out.
Now fortunately, this particular wedding feast had an ample quantity of wine and over the course of the evening, my old classmate eventually sauntered over to my table and sat down. We exchanged a few pleasantries. Je told me a little about his life, reminding me that he had 3 kids, and explaining how he liked his work as a salesman for a manufacturing firm. It was a pretty dull conversation, until we got around to the part where I said, “Do you remember the time when we….” And then he said, “Yeah, but what about the time we…” And then I said, “Yeah, but that was nothing compared to the time we all….
So, we laughed together about those two crazy kids that we used to be all those years ago. And then Je just blurted it out. “How do you stand it?”, he asked. For a moment I thought he was asking me about getting older. It took me a while to figure out that he was truly mystified by my chosen profession. “How can you stand being a minister?”
“Well I….” He didn’t let me answer before he launched forth. “Don’t get me wrong! I don’t mind all that religious stuff. I mean Jesus was a really great guy and all that, but how can you stand to be around all those Christians all the time!”
It wasn’t the first time that someone had asked me such a question. And I really didn’t want to get into all this at my niece’s wedding, so I asked my old class-mate if he would like to dance. To which he replied, “Do they allow you people to dance?”
I didn’t dignify that one with an answer. I just grabbed my old frined’s empty glass and told him we were going to need to fill our glasses and on our way to the bar, my friend said he thought that they frowned on people like me enjoying themselves! To which I replied, “Have you heard the one about Jesus and the wedding party?”
Who was it that turned water into wine in the first place? My old friend wasn’t the first and I expect that he won’t be the last person who thinks that just because I wear a collar that I’m some sort of religious fanatic, whose forgotten how to have fun!
You see my old classmate’s understanding of Christianity is based on a few scattered childhood memories, together with a whole lot of what “they” say. You know, that grand and glorious “they” who seem to frown on everything that even remotely smells like it might be interesting, or fun, or even remotely useful. That ever present, humourless “they” who scream and shout about family values, and the Judeo-Christian tradition that must be maintained at all costs, regardless of what science, or common sense or decency, or kindness, or hospitality, or even Jesus tells us. That ubiquitous “they” whose message about Christianity, sounds more like bad news than the Good News that Christ proclaimed.
“They” who if they did manage to recognize grace because it had the audacity to fall into their laps, would probably make up some sort of rule so that people wouldn’t dare to expect that grace would ever come their way again. The almighty “they” who have managed to reduce the Good News of Jesus’ life death and resurrection to a list of thou shalt nots or else God’s gonna roast your sorry you know what in the fiery pits of hell forever and ever amen! So, wipe that silly smile off your face, and fall down on your knees and never ever forget that you are nothing but a lousy disgusting creature that God would just as soon smite rather than have to listen to. And the only chance you have of escaping the pits of hell, is if you open up your wallets and send a cheque right away so that “they” can send you a copy of the rules, so that you’ll be sure to know who’s in and who’s out, and how to go about making sure that when the end of the world arrives, your on the right and I do mean “right” side of Jeesuus!
Sisters and brothers if you’ll only empty your wallets, Jeesuus will be see to it that what ever you touch will turn to gold. Cause God wants you to be healthy, wealthy and wise, so if you just check your brain at the door and follow “them” you too can be on the path to glory!
Those are the kind of Christians that my old friend was talking about. The kind of Christians who have managed to give Christianity such a bad name. The kind of Christians who seem to be getting all the attention these days. And I’m with my old friend on this one: I can’t for the life of me figure out how people can stand to be around that kind of religious fanatic. If there is a hell, and just for the record, I don’t believe that there is such a place, but if I did believe in hell, hell for me would be to spend eternity with a bunch of religious fanatics. As for me, its just like the song says, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints!” Cause if heaven is full of religious fanatics then I don’t want any part of it. Angels and fluffy clouds simply don’t appeal to me.
I’m with Mark Twain on this one, there’d better be good scotch and amazing conversation or I’m simply not interested. Choirs of angels is one thing, but I’ll be over with the Grateful Dead, and we’ll be jamming and that party will go on forever, cause there’ll have to be numbers from the likes of Louis Armstrong, John Lennon, Elvis, Patsy Cline, Judy Garland, and Chicofsky! Yeah, and when we get around to Vivaldi and the music is sweet and low, I want to have a word with Gandhi, and Einstein, Madam Curie, Bodacia, Simone de Bouveria, Emmerson, Tennison, and I’ve always wanted to find out exactly what Abraham, Jesus and Mohammad, have to say for themselves and what they really think about the mess we’ve made of all that they tried to teach us. And then, I want to hear from Sarah, Hagar, and Mary and I want to know what they think about all sorts of stuff. So, it’s a good thing that eternity goes on forever cause there’s so much to learn, to taste, to experience and to enjoy.
The Good News is that Jesus came so that we might have life and live it abundantly. Abundant life! It boggles the imagination! So, why oh why do so many people try to turn the Good News into bad news? How do we get from I want you to live abundantly to stop, wait, stand over there, don’t do this and definitely don’t do that and wipe that smile off your face cause the end is near?
Is it any wonder that the writer of the Gospel of John, decided to tell the story of Jesus’ turning water into to wine right up front? I mean really, if somebody asked you to tell the story of who Jesus is and why Jesus matters would you begin by telling them the one about the day Jesus turned water into wine. Well, maybe you would if all the religious types around you were so busy making rules and pointing out the rule breakers, worrying about who’s in and who’s out and telling everyone that God is gonna smite them if they don’t behave themselves.
The writer of the Gospel of John describes Jesus efforts at the wedding feast as a sign. He deliberately doesn’t call it a miracle. The writer of the Gospel, the Good News about Jesus Christ, says that this is the first of Jesus signs. A sign does not draw attention to itself but rather points us toward something else. The wonderful thing about this sign is not that Jesus was able to turn water into wine, but that Jesus gave us a sign to point the way.
Jesus took 180 gallons of water and turned it into 180 gallons of wine. 180 gallons of water; but not just any water; water that was used for rites of purification. Purification rites, things dreamed up by religious types to make sure that people who had broken the religious rules could make themselves right with God. Jesus takes these gallons of water that were designed to wash away the guilt of those who had broken the law; water that was designed to wash away guilt and Jesus transforms these gallons of water into the best wine you can imagine. Jesus first sign points to a new way as Jesus transforms gallons of guilt into gallons of grace. Gallons of grace and gallons of forgiveness! This new way of Jesus’ is a way of joy and happiness. It’s gallons of joy! (Edward F. Marquart)
Being a Christian is like going to a party. Have you heard the one about the party; you know the one that Jesus told? It seems that a whole bunch of people were invited to a wedding feast but they couldn’t come. They had all sorts of excuses why they couldn’t come like they had to fix a new house or take care of their stuff. People had excuses about why they couldn’t come to the party so the fellow giving the party had to put the word out and invite all sorts of other people to come. (Edward F. Marquart)Being a Christian is like going to a party. Maybe that’s why we followed Jesus and not John the Baptist. Cause if John was the founder of our religion, then discipleship would be all about rigorous fasting, with no good wines, and only repentance never grace. But we follow the guy who turned water into wine, guilt into grace! Christianity is not for sour pusses. Christianity is not for legalists. Christianity is not for people who love to wallow in their guilt like pigs like to wallow in the mud. Some religious people are like that; God forgive them! They just can’t seem to get enough of wallowing in their guilt. But the new way that Jesus’ signs point to is full to the brim of grace. This new way makes us free to love. (Edward F. Marquart)
This new way helps us to understand that we may indeed be a crummy Christian; we may not be very good at all, but the Gospel of grace insists that despite our tendency to fall short of what God created us to be; God refuses to give up on what God has created. But rather than make it all about the rules God has decided to try and love us into the fullness of life. Grace is God’s solution to the evil in the world. And in spite of our stupidity, our bunglings, our mistakes, our brokenness; God is going to keep on loving us, not because of who we are or what we can accomplish, but because of who God is and what God can accomplish through loving us.
Gallons and gallons of grace, designed to overwhelm us with the sheer magnitude of God’s love so that we can’t help but love in response to all that amazing grace. That’s the Good News!
God is love and God loves us, and you don’t have to look any further than Jesus to understand just how much God loves us and when you look at the life of Jesus and the way in which Jesus embodied that love you can see the way. The way to respond to all that grace with love; love for God and love for the world that God loves.
Jesus came that we might have life and live it abundantly. There’re gallons and gallons of grace to go around. That’s Good News indeed. News that needs to be shared.
But people have all sorts of excuses for not coming to the party. We’ve made such a mess of Christianity, and some of our wine has turned to vinegar! One whiff and people remember that their allergic to what we’re offering. So we’re going to have to do more than simply just invite folks to stop by for a taste of what we have to offer. It’s not enough for us to wait around for folks to drop by for some wine. We’re going to have to pack up some wine and go out into the world where the folks are at and ask them to take a sip to see for themselves. And we’ll need to remember Jesus’ warning not to put new wine in old wine skins. We’re going to have to find some new wine skins.
The News is Good! Abundant life, life beyond our imaginations. Life that defies our limited vision. Life that will not be bound by petty rules; small minds or weak temperaments, life that is abundant, filled with love that is steadfast and sure enough to be in the world active and loving, transforming the sorrows of this world into joy. And as for those sourpuss religious folks, how will we put up with them? Well there’s enough grace for them too. And when their rhetoric gets us down, we can take refuge here at Holy Cross, where the wine is sweet and good.
I’ve told this story before. But incase you’ve forgotten just how amazing the grace is around here, let me remind you. A few years ago my grandmother, Nannie came to visit me for a few months. Now Nannie has had her fill of Christians and so she doesn’t like churches. So, even though I’m the pastor here, no amount of invitations could convince my Nannie to come to church on Sunday morning. But when the Sunday of the Church Picnic rolled around; well back then we used to have our worship service in the park and then party after worship. So, rather than invite Nannie to come to church, we told her that we were going to a church picnic.
Nannie wasn’t sure at first but she loves a picnic and when I assured her that there’d probably be potato salad and that there’d definitely be wine; well Nannie agreed to come. She had a lovely time and that evening my Mother called to talk to her Mother and when I told Mom that Nannie had been to the church picnic my mother was more than a little intrigued. I handed Nannie the phone and Mom must have asked Nannie about you folks cause I heard my Nannie say this: “Auch Joyce, sure they were lovely; auch they were that nice sure you wouldn’t even know they were Christians.”
“They were that nice, sure you wouldn’t even know they were Christians.” It didn’t take you folks long to let my Nannie know that everything she believed about how horrible Christians are is not true about you. There are lots and lots of folk out there who can’t get past their distaste for Christianity and all the horrible things they’ve heard have caused them to assume that we are all about inflicting guilt.
It’s time to pack up some wine in new wine skins and take some of that grace out there into the world that God loves. So that the Good News of God’s grace can be heard, and felt and lived. So that the miracle of Holy Cross can be a sign pointing to the way of Christ; and all may know that Christ came because God wanted to remind us of the gift of abundant life.