John 2: 1-11
October 13, 2019
Frances Taylor-Gench was my New Testament professor. She advised us to pay close attention to the first thing Jesus does in public in each of the Gospels. It will tell you something of who Jesus is in the eyes of that Gospel writer.
In Matthew – he pulls up a stool and teaches the crowds…and for the rest of that Gospel, the story checks out. Jesus is primarily a teacher.
In Mark – the first thing is this dramatic exorcism – an invasion that puts the powers of evil on notice, almost like it’s some kind of superhero movie.
In Luke he takes a strong social justice stance – pronouncing in the synagogue “The spirit of the Lord…has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”
In John, however…what you might need to do is picture John Belushi in his College Sweatshirt, because in John the first thing Jesus does is he keeps the party going!
A reading from John, chapter 2:
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.
So if you’re a Church – it’s Stewardship season.
If you live in Chapel Hill it’s evidently football season …but from where I stand it might be more accurate to say that its tailgate season. Right in the church parking lot – I never thought I’d see the day.
But let’s also remember that in some distant lands where they care more about such things – it’s also the tail end of Baseball season.
(Nobody ever talks about Baseball around here but the World Series is upon us).
Cards on the table – I am no great follower of Baseball so if you try to talk to me about the sport after worship and I give you a blank expression – now you know why. And yet every October my mind does go back to the season that made a New York Mets fan out of me.
Fall of 1986 – I’m just a couple months shy of my 9th birthday and living in New Jersey. Mets fever was in full swing. Apologies in advance to any Red Sox fans out there – this is about to get painful.
It’s Game 6 of the World Series – 10th inning. Red Sox lead by one. Mets are at bat. Runners are on First and Third. Two outs. The Sox are one strike out away from breaking the curse of the Bambino…and breaking my eight year old heart. Mookie Wilson steps into the batter box.
I watched it again on youtube this week.
I know exactly what’s going to happen but it still makes me nervous.
Mookie hits like 47 foul balls it seems. But then – Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley throws a wild pitch right past the catcher – runner on third scores the tying run. At the very least we’ve got even more extra innings.
Mookie steps back into the batter’s box foul tips it another 23 times – and then hits a routine bouncer down the first base line.
Enter – Bill Buckner. Fantastic first basemen, great player. He’d scooped up balls like that thousands of times. But this time – the time when it counted a little more than usual – it goes right through his legs.
Mets score again to win game 6 and then two days later they go on to win game 7.
My friends and I floated on a cloud for at least a week.
It was amazing – if you were a Mets fan.
For the Sox, not so much.
To this day the Buckner error is one of the most famous moments in Baseball. For years it was offered as irrefutable proof that the curse of the Bambino was real and that perhaps even God himself hated the Red Sox.
I always felt sad for Buckner. There’s that human tendency to heap all of our blame and anger on a single person or thing – well Bill received that from Bostonians in spades.
Heck – he even became a verb. “To Buckner” became a byword for making a critical, catastrophic mistake. How do you ever recover from that?
In John, Jesus all but begins his ministry in the middle of a critical, catastrophic mistake, a major “Buckner” if you will.
He’s at a wedding where they run out of wine. Wine – that biblical symbol for joy – they had not one drop left. If you run out of wine at a wedding in the time of Jesus – well, that is a failure of epic proportions.
How are the guests to celebrate – really celebrate – if the wine runs out?
But the problem isn’t simply a matter of what they do NOT have – the problem is as much if not more what they do have at this wedding. You see, the raw material for this first miracle is described with great specificity – John tells us that they had six water jars for the rites of purification…each one holding 20-30 gallons. I don’t need help with this math! They had a staggering 120 – 180 gallons of water set aside for matters of purification…and yet they somehow managed to run out of wine.
The good people of Cana tremendously failed because they were focused on the wrong thing. As far as purity was concerned they were set, but they let all the joy drain right out.
It’s difficult for me to read this text and not think of what will likely go down as my all-time best worst communion experience.
Summer of 2017 – it was a full service. Great worship.
Everything was clicking in to place.
We had seamlessly moved from commissioning a mission team to Kenya straight to the Table for Communion.
Meg offered a beautiful Prayer of Thanksgiving.
We blessed and broke the bread and poured the cup.
Brothers and sisters in Christ came forward to receive the sacrament – we looked each of them in the eye saying “The Body of Christ given for you” and “the cup of God’s salvation poured out for you.”
My first hint that something wasn’t right should have been the face that 9 year old Elise made when she took the elements – the way her eyes bugged out of her head should have registered more.
About half way through I did start to notice a certain buzz building in the room – an uncharacteristic chattiness that started low at first but by the end it was downright loud in the sanctuary. ‘Oh well,” I thought, “it is the joyful feast.”
I turned and served the Elder next to me who then in turn served me.
I ripped a piece of bread from the loaf, dipped it into the cup and ate and immediately took the elements to return them to the Table – but as I was traveling it occurred to me – something isn’t quite right.
That’s when Meg whispered to me “Was your’s juice?”
I was still rolling that half-chewed communion morsel around in my mouth – I looked out at the still chatty congregation.
The entire Kenya team was on the edge of their seat looking at me – wide-eyed and expectant. Dave was sitting there in his Red Kenya t-shirt gesturing like this as I continued to chew and then he turned to the folks behind him and rather audibly said “I think he’s about to get it.”
And that’s when the words came tumbling out of my mouth – right into my microphone that was still very live – “THAT’S COFFEE!”
The chalices were not filled with Welch’s Grape juice.
They were filled with last Sunday’s cold, stale coffee instead.
I’m all about Jesus turning water into wine, but who turns perfectly good grape juice into stale coffee – That is an anti-miracle.
How did this happen you ask? It was not a prank and it certainly was no miracle. We later learned that somebody was saving old coffee and storing it in a grape juice bottle in the refrigerator…so when it came time to prepare communion – dear, sweet 91 year old Elma on the sacristy guild understandably reached for the bottle of dark liquid that said Welch’s on it. It was a catastrophe.
But what happened in worship that day was something of a miracle – we laughed. All of us – laughed. We didn’t become indignant or embarrassed or overly concerned about the sanctity of the sacrament. We laughed.
…And when I say laughed I mean bent over, head on the pine in front of you, slapping the communion table laughing. It gushed out of us – 180 gallons of pure joy. It may not have been the feast we expected. It certainly is not a feast I care to repeat. But it was a joyful feast nonetheless – a table of grace set in the very midst of failure.
Of course, that kind of failure is really quite pedestrian. What do we do when we experience other kinds of failures – the kind that are near impossible to recover from – the kind that threaten to drain the joy right out of you for good.
In 2016 Douglas Abrams authored The Book of Joy – it’s an interview with two old friends and spiritual giants – Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his Holiness the Dalai Lama. To thumb through the pages is to immerse yourself in a beautiful friendship. But this book is really an exercise in mapping what the two friends call the “complex topography of Joy.”
At the age of fifteen, the Dalai Lama found himself ruler of 6 million people in Tibet just as Communist China was moving to annex the territory. For nine years he tried to find a political solution, but in 1959 an uprising threatened to turn into a massacre of his people – and so with a heavy heart the Dalai Lama decided to go in to exile.
He left in the night disguised as a palace guard. He endured both sand storms and snowstorms as he and his companions summited 19,000 foot mountain peaks during their three week escape. I’m sure it was a heroic escape story – but let’s call this what it was – it was a failure.
I want us to imagine for a moment the sense of defeat he must have felt during that escape and perhaps every day since – unable to protect his country and his people – that goes way beyond botching up communion.
I can scarcely fathom it.
The Archbishop asks his friend “you’ve been in exile fifty-six years…Fifty-six years from a country you love more than anything else…Why,” Tutu asks “why are you not morose?”
“Morose” the Dalai Lama asks, not understanding the word
“Why are you not sad?”
The Dalai Lama pondered a moment and then answered
“One of my practices comes from the ancient Indian Teacher Shantideva (Shan-tee-day-vuh). He taught that when you experience something tragic, you must think about it. “If something can be done about the situation, what need is there for dejection? And if nothing can be done about it, what use is there for being dejected?”
To this the archbishop cackled, perhaps because it seemed almost too incredible that someone could stop worrying just because it was pointless.
But The Dalai Lama continued “the same events that made me a refugee also gave me new opportunities to shape the world in useful ways, and to meet with different people…people like you, Desmond. That’s the main reason that I’m not morose. There’s a Tibetan saying ‘Wherever you have friends, that’s your country, and wherever you receive love, that’s your home.”
I don’t know about you but I could stand to learn that lesson – to invite that kind of grace deeper into my soul.
I would like to trust that joy can be found in the very midst of failure.
We are a Church and it is Stewardship season.
Some folks say they just can’t give to the Church –
That the Church is so fallible – so human – so prone to making Bill Buckner-sized errors.
I would love to argue against that –
I would love to mount a defense on behalf of the Church
But the truth is I can’t.
We do get it wrong.
We fail all the time.
We are every bit as human as every other collection of human beings out there.
This past week Meg and I were invited to eat dinner with the UPC members who live at Carol Woods, one of the Senior Care Living Centers in our community.
Over meatloaf and mashed potatoes we talked about this Church that they love so much.
Thad Monroe talked about how he had been charged with writing a history of the Church and how weighty a task that was, sorting out all the stories – deciding what to keep and what to omit.
Toby Savage chimed in “Well, it is a complicated history.”
And everyone nodded – I suspect for very different reasons.
I might be wrong, but I think I know what they were saying.
They were saying that this church that they love –
This Church that is like every other church in the history of Churches – we’ve had some moments when we got it right.
And We’ve had some moments when perhaps we got it wrong.
When we messed it up or maybe focused on the wrong thing.
The good news is that the Church is not called to be faultless.
The Church is called to be faithful to Jesus.
And according to John, Jesus all but begins his ministry in the middle of a critical, catastrophic failure. But his first miracle – the first sign that reveals his glory, the first thing that makes his disciples believe in him – is that he pours an obscene, 180 gallons-worth of joy into the middle of that same failure.
He’s not interested in us getting it right all the time.
He’s not saddling us with obligations.
He’s not heaping a bunch of “shoulds” on top of us
You should do more.
You should give more.
You should be more than you are.
No – Jesus instead comes to us in our deepest failures – the moments when we get it completely wrong – and he invites us to let go and lose it for a moment in laughter and joy.
That wine steward in Cana could swear that Jesus’ wine was better than the schlock they served first. Maybe it was. Or maybe it was just the surprise of actually having wine at all when it seemed like all the joy had drained out of the wedding feast.
But it is an embarrassingly large amount of joy that Jesus offers – 180 gallons of finest wine. It’s more than enough to fill up the deepest sinkholes of all our failures.
I’ll raise a glass to that no matter what season it is. Amen.