Sunday, January 20, 2019

2 Epiphany


January 20, 2019

Isaiah 62.1-5; John 2.1-11

+ I know. I joke about it often. I say I don’t like doing them. But…I actually really do. I really do like doing weddings. And I have been really fortunate to do some really great weddings in my career as a priest.

When they’re good, they’re great. When they’re not good…well…let’s just say, they’re not great…

Still, I actually do enjoy weddings that are truly joyful events in which two people express their love and their commitment for each other.  Of course, I have done my fair share of weddings in the fifteen years I’ve been a priest.  And I am grateful that I am now allowed to do same-sex marriages in this diocese.  So, weddings actually are pretty good.

In our gospel reading for today, we find what seems to be one of the really good weddings.   But, it actually might not have been that great after all. There’s a problem at this wedding feast.  The good wine has run out and the wedding feast is about to crash quickly.  But Jesus turns water into wine and when he does, there is a renewed sense of joy and exultation.

That I think is the gist of this experience from our gospel reading.  It is not just some magic trick Jesus performs to wow people.  It is not some action he performs at the whim of his mother.  He performs this miracle and in doing so instills joy in those gathered there.  But more than that, by doing this he does what he always does when he performs a miracle.  He performs miracles not just for the benefit of those at the wedding.  It is for our benefit of us as well.

Because by performing this miracle, he is giving us a glimpse of what awaits us all.  If we look closely at the story and at some of the details contained in it, we will find clues of the deeper meaning behind his actions.

First of all, let’s look at those jars of water.  This is probably the one area we don’t give a lot of thought to.  But those jars are important.  They are not just regular jars of water.  They are jars of water for the purification rites that accompany eating in the Jewish tradition.  That’s important This Jewish sense of purification is important still to us. If we think purity isn’t important to us, we’re wrong. Purity is important to us. Cleanliness and purity are still a part of our lives.

I recently heard this interesting story. Back in the 1990s, Paul Rozin, a social psychologist, did an experiment he called “Hitler’s Sweater.” Dr. Rozin displayed a very old tattered sweater to a group of people, telling them that it was a sweater that belonged to Adolf Hitler. The sweater, he said, was worn by Hitler the week before he committed suicide in April of 1945. The sweater, he said, had not been washed and he even showed them the perspiration stains on the sweater.

He then proceeded to ask people if they would like to try the sweater on.  Most people, as you can imagine, refused. In fact, several people said they were uncomfortable even being in the same room with the sweater.

Richard Beck, a  psychologist, wrote of this experiment:  

“What studies like this reveal is that people tend to think about evil as if it were a virus, a disease, or a contagion.  Evil is an object that can seep out of Hitler, into the sweater, and, by implication, into you if you try the sweater on.  Evil is sticky and contagious.  So we stay away.” 

I think most of us feel this way to some extent.  But I would add, most of us, at least on some base level, think of evil as “unclean,” as well as “sticky” and “contagious.” Sin is “unclean.” There are things in our lives that we simply view as “unclean.”

So, those stone jars of water at the wedding feast  are not just for thirst.  They are about uncleanliness.

Scot McKnight writes in his wonderful book,  The Jesus Creed:

“The water in these stone jars is not for hygiene. This water is sacred. This water is used to purify people and things. People and things are made pure to get them in the proper order before God, to render them fit to enter into God’s presence. Observant Jews wash their hands in this water so they can eat their food in a state of purity.”

Over and over again in the Gospels, if you notice, Jesus seems to have issues with these laws of purity. Or rather, he has issues with people getting too caught up in the rituals of purity.

So, what we find is that Jesus turns these waters of purity into wine.  And not just any wine.  But abundant fine wine that brings about a joy among those gathered. 

In a sense, what Jesus has done is he has taken the party up a notch. What was already a  good party is now an incredible party. It’s a beautiful image and one that I think we can all relate to.

The best part of this view of the wedding at Cana is that Jesus is saying to us that, yes, there is joy here in the midst of us, but a greater joy awaits us.  

A greater joy awaits when the Kingdom of God breaks through into our midst. When it does, it is very much like a wedding feast.  When it does, the waters of purification will be turned into the best-tasting wine because we will no longer have to worry about issues like purity. In God’s Kingdom, there is no impurity, no sin, so racism, no homophobia or transphobia or sexism. There are no arrogant, angry people confident in their privilege.

To some extent, the wedding at Cana is a foretaste of what we do every Sunday (and Wednesday) here at this altar.

It is a foretaste of the Holy Eucharist—the meal we share at this altar.

And the Jesus we encounter at this feast is not a sweet, obedient son, doing whatever his mother says, though I truly believe there is an almost playful attitude between Jesus and Mary in their exchange.  

Both Mary and Jesus know who he is and what he can do. They know he is the Messiah.  They know that is he is this unique Son of the Most High God. They know that because he is, he is able to do things most people cannot.

Now, to be fair to Mary, however, we must realize that at no point does she actually request anything from Jesus, if you notice.  All she does is state the obvious.

“There is no wine,” she says.

She then says to the servants, “Do whatever he asks.”

No one, if you notices, asks Jesus to perform this miracle.  And that is important too.

The great Anglican poet W.H. Auden once wrote:

“Our wishes and desires—to pass an exam, to marry the person we love, to sell our house at a good price—are involuntary and therefore not themselves prayers, even if it is God whom we ask to attend to them. They only become prayers in so far as we believe that God knows better than we whether we should be granted or denied what we ask. A petition does not become a prayer unless it ends with the words, spoken or unspoken, ‘Nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.’”

I will take this one step further. I have a standard message at most of the weddings I do.  It’s adapted to each couple, but the message remains the same. And the message carries within it my own understanding of how love and marriage works. (And granted I’m definitely not the world’s greatest expert in either of those fields—love or marriage)

I say this at weddings:

Love and marriage are a grace from God. But to truly understand that statement we have to understand what “grace” is in this context. My definition of grace is this: Grace is a gift we receive from God that we neither asked for nor even anticipated.  It is something God gives us out God’s own goodness. Love and marriage are often—often, not always—signs of grace. Oftentimes the right person comes into our lives at just the right time. No matter how much we might want to control such situations, the fact is we cannot. That person comes into our lives on God’s terms, not ours. Often it happens when we least expect that person. But when they do come into our lives, our lives change.

That is how grace works. Grace changes our lives. We can’t control God’s grace. We can’t really even petition God and ask God for a particular grace. Grace is just there because God chooses to grant us grace.

That’s how grace works.

It just happens on God’s own terms. Sometimes we might not deserve it. But God—in God’s goodness—just gives us this one right thing in our lives.  And all we can do, in the face of that grace, is say, “Thank you.”

McKnight probably sums up the miracle at Cana most perfectly in this phrase:

“When the water turns to wine and the eye of faith peers into the purification vessels, it does not see sacred water but sacred wine. The eye of faith sees not an image of itself but the image of Jesus floating on the surface of the wine. Jesus is seen in the wine for who he is really: the one who not only provides but is himself the joy of the kingdom.”

I love that!  And that to me only cements the fact that what happens at Cana happens each time we gather together at this altar for the Eucharist.  Here too, at this altar, we see Jesus reflected in this wine. And in each other!

The wedding at Cana, this Eucharist we celebrate is a foretaste of that meal of which we will partake in the Kingdom. In that meal, the words of the prophet Isaiah that we heard earlier this morning will be spoken to us as well:

“for the Lord [will delight] 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.”

God rejoices over you! In God, our truest and deepest joy will come springing forth.

So, as we come forward for Communion this morning, let us do so with that image of the wedding feast of Cana in our hearts and minds.  

Let us look, and see the image of Jesus reflected in the Communion wine. And in one another.  

Let us know that we come forward to not just a magic trick.

We come forward to a miracle. We come forward to a sign of God’s kingdom breaking through into our very midst.  And all we can do, in that holy moment, is say,

“Thank you!”






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