Saturday, January 13, 2007

Sweet Excess: The [Edited] Sermon

Note: I have tightened this up a little bit.
~ Mags, Sunday morning

“Sweet Excess”
John 2:1-11
January 14, 2007

At last it’s over. There are no more Christmas hymns or carols to be sung this morning, nor can you find any on the radio or on the music being piped into Wegman’s. Officially, for this church, there is no more talk of baby Jesus until December 2007. But make no mistake. The church is still in a mood to talk about beginnings, and it’s still interested in sharing stories about the early revelation of Jesus to the world. But this week we are going about it in a slightly different way. Today we are going to a wedding.

There was a period in my life when it seemed all I did was go to weddings. This era commenced with my own wedding. At the age of 21, I was the first of my college friends to tie the knot, and after that it seemed I attended at least two or three weddings each year for about five years. Then there was a lull, and I began attending baptisms and even one bris, for the son of a Jewish friend. Now I have reached the point in my life when the next wave has begun: the funerals, usually of parents. Soon, I have no doubt, these will be interspersed with more weddings, perhaps those of my own children as well as the children of friends.

And that is the fabric of life. Celebrations, markers, rites of passage, hellos and goodbyes. Birth and marriage, sickness and death, or, as clergy like to say when the congregation isn’t listening, “Hatch ‘em, match ‘em, patch ‘em, and dispatch ‘em.” If these markers sound familiar, it’s probably because we often use them to connect our lives with the life of the church. The wonder of birth, the very adult step of committing to a life partner, the trials of illness and injury, the final bittersweet farewells: these are all moments when we reach out to the church, and hopefully, the church reaches out to us. These are moments when we particularly seek God’s blessing, and yearn for a community in which to receive that blessing. Today’s story from John’s gospel, concerning Jesus at a wedding, shows us that God is indeed interested in being with us at these passages in life. The story also gives us just a little taste of what’s to come, the sweet promise of life in faith community.

John’s gospel begins, not with the story of a birth, but with a poem, a lyrical hymn to Christ, pre-existent with God from all eternity. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” If that’s a little too much theology for a drizzly January morning, don’t worry… this is just John being John. The gospel writer is tipping his hand to us. Like a good college student writing a paper, John tells us what he’s going to tell us, then he tells us, then he tells us what he told us. The rest of chapter 1 is devoted to vaguely mysterious stories of Jesus’ encounters with John the Baptist and his newly found disciples. Ready, set, go!

Our story picks up three days later, and it’s worth noting how different it is from the other gospels. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, as the story gets underway, Jesus predictably does two things: he preaches and he heals. He gets right in there, disciples in tow, and he tells the Good News of the coming reign of God while relieving fevers and casting out demons. But John’s Jesus does something entirely unexpected. He is distinctive, unique. It appears that instead of rolling up his sleeves and getting with the people in pain, Jesus goes to a wedding. Why?

Here’s the story: Jesus, his mother and his disciples are all at a wedding together… we don’t know whose. And there is a crisis, of sorts… the wine runs out. Now this may not appear to be a crisis on the same level as, say, a person who has been possessed by demons. But socially, in the 21st century as well as in the 1st. to run out of refreshments for the guests is pretty major embarrassment for a host. And so we find Jesus’ mother perhaps leaning towards her son and whispering: “They have no wine.” Thanks to the miracle of the Internet I was able to look at lots of great art depicting this scene this week. One 14th century Byzantine fresco, from a monastery in what is modern day Kosovo, shows Jesus and his mother, lushly garbed in blues and purples, and his mother bearing that perfect, furrowed brow that I associate with this moment: the look of compassion for her neighbors, the hope that perhaps her son, whom she knows to be… exceptional?… can intervene.

Jesus’ response to his mother comes as a splash of cold water on the face. “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” Years ago I read that “Woman” is a perfectly correct and respectful form of address for a man speaking to a woman in the ancient near east, and throughout the gospels Jesus speaks to women using this very word. Only, between mother and son… it is every bit as distancing and biting as it sounds to our modern ears. One wonders what the son was thinking. I read this week that the culture in which Jesus was raised kept boys exclusively in the company of women and girls until they came of age at puberty. That time spent in the cocoon of home and hearth, in which boys were highly favored and indulged, usually meant that the boy experienced a shock upon moving out of the domestic womanly sphere and into the realm of the men.

This harsh hierarchical world was a contrast to the women's world from which the young man just emerged…As he grew into adulthood, a young man tried to weaken those strong emotional ties with females. In a very public society like the Mediterranean world the young man would seek to demonstrate his independence by rejecting the claims of all women upon him, including his mother.
~John J. Pilch, Georgetown University

So, one possibility is that this gospel, which goes to great lengths to show us a Jesus who is the Son of God, shares with us a little tidbit of a startlingly human moment: the attempt of a young man to separate from his mother. There is another possibility. Jesus, in all the gospels, makes a distinction between natural families and the family of God, the new community of the Good News. It may be that Jesus’ words to his mother here fall within the rubric of a demonstration of his statement, “Who are my mother and my brothers? ... Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother.” (Mark 3:33, 35).

Whatever his reasons, Jesus is clearly saying, “My hour has not yet come.” That’s a very loaded statement. Jesus’ “hour,” according to the gospel of John, is the moment of his crucifixion. Here, unlike the other gospels, Jesus declares at the outset that he knows exactly where his road is leading: to the cross. And he is saying it isn’t time yet. But his mother, in that way that mothers have of knowing the truth about us, sometimes, better than we know it ourselves, simply turns to the servants with a nod and a wink, and says, “Do whatever he tells you.”

And so we have the miracle. The water turned into wine. Jesus’ first public demonstration of his glory, as John tells us. We might ask ourselves, “Is that it?” When I was a teenager I was regularly called upon to sing at weddings in my home church. I heard dozens of homilies on the Wedding at Cana, all saying, essentially, “With this miracle God showed that marriage is good.” I don’t dispute that. I think God does smile on covenant love. But is that really what this story is telling us?

A look at “wine” in scripture gives us a little clue, I think, as to what is really going on here. Listen to this passage from the book of Amos:

The time is surely coming, says the LORD, …[ when] the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. ~ Amos 9:13

Or this, from the prophet Joel:

In that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, the hills shall flow with milk, and all the stream beds of Judah shall flow with water; a fountain shall come forth from the house of the LORD and water the [dry valley]. ~ Joel 3:18

Or this, from the prophet Jeremiah:

They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. ~ Jeremiah 31:12

Wine is used consistently throughout the Hebrew scriptures to connote fullness, bounty, joy, the nurture and nourishment and sweetness given by God to God’s people. So let’s go back. Let’s rethink what the mother of Jesus is saying, when she notes, “They have no wine.” John’s is the gospel of great and grand ideas and themes, symbols, allegories and poetry. “They have no wine.” This could just as easily read, “They are empty, they are sad. They have no hope. They have no life. They have no sweetness. They have no beauty.”

Richard Wilbur was the Poet Laureate of the United States in 1987-1988. When his son Christopher married, Wilbur wrote the following poem, “A Wedding Toast.”

St. John tells how, at Cana's wedding-feast,
The water-pots poured wine in such amount
That by his sober count
there were a hundred gallons at the least.

It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.

Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That the world's fullness is not made but found.
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for such as you.

Now, if your loves will lend an ear to mine,
I toast you both, good son and dear new daughter.
May you not lack for water,
And may that water smack of Cana's wine.

“Whatsoever love elects to bless,” writes Wilbur, “brims to a sweet excess that can without depletion overflow.” Yes, Jesus is blessing a wedding with his miracle of wine. But he is blessing so much more than that. To a people dispirited and disheartened, he is offering spirit and heart. To a people whose life is bitter, he is offering sweetness. To those who are hopeless, he is offering hope… not just in the institution of marriage, but in the new blessed community, the place where people gather who have no community.

Once again, you, the good folks of Struggling Church, find yourselves between pastoral leaders. This can be a time marked by anxiety and fear, loss of spirit and loss of hope. But know this: the new community ushered in by Jesus is one in which our needs will not only be met, but in which sweetness and bounty will overflow. All that is required is the blessing of love. The poet writes,

“What love sees is true;
That the world’s fullness is not made but found.
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for such as you.”

God, life, love, are not made, but found. God, life, love, are longing to be with you at this marker, this transitional moment. God, life, love, are longing to be poured out for such as you. Peace be with you. Amen.


more cows than people said...

lovely and so thoughtful. thanks for posting it.
glad you're feeling much better. love, more cows

ppb said...

Glad you're feeling better. You don't list an email on your page and i have an off-blog question for you. If you're up for it, give me a shout at

Rev Scott said...

this is a beautiful reflection - thanks for this.

steve said...

A joy to read and highly thought provoking. Thanks for sharing it, Mags!

Cynthia said...

What a lovely sermon.

Iris said...

Wonderful! This is a great sermon for an interim time.

Magdalene6127 said...

Thank you all so much for your kind words. It is wonderful to be a part of this unfailingly generous and supportive community.

Blessings, Mags