Sermon on Isaiah 25:6-9 and John 2:1-11 for Epiphany +2 C, January 17, 2016, the weekend of Martin Luther King jr.
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.
I was listening to the podcast that Dr. Roger Ray puts out each week. He told of a time, in a moment of tension, even danger that he faced on a trip to Jerusalem several years ago. In that context, their group leader said something simple, but profound. If you squeeze a lemon, you will get lemon juice, because that’s all that is inside a lemon. If you squeeze an orange you will get orange juice, because that’s all that is inside and orange.
Then he asked the question: when you are squeezed, when you are put into a difficult situation, what comes out of you?
He pointed out that the easy days do not reveal what is inside of us. You find out what is inside, when you are scared, or threatened, or under pressure; when the world is squeezing you.
These are not easy days. I think the world is squeezing us now. Maybe more than it has in a long time. There are all kinds of things to fear, from Isis to domestic terrorists. From the unstable plans of a newly aggressive Russia to the threat posed by the huge Sunni—Shi’a stand-off between Saudi Arabia and Iran. There is massive climate change and environmental degradation.
Domestically we are all now aware on this weekend of the anniversary of his birth, that the racial divide in this country was not healed, despite Dr. King’s speeches and achievements. Now that we have videos everywhere, we see what happens in the dark; things that were formerly hidden, and it horrifies us.
Then there are the pressures of modern life – the pace of it, the economics, the problems families face, and the totally inappropriate and destructive ways so many people choose to self-sooth and self-medicate, and to deal with their problems. This list could go on all day. The pressure is on, and we all feel squeezed. So what is coming out of us?
Here to Re-Calibrate our Hearts
This is why we are here today. We are here to withdraw for a moment from the craziness of the cable news cycle, from the fear mongering and political posturing, and to engage in the practices of a Christian community; practices whose purpose is to re-calibrate our hearts, so that the Spirit of Christ will be formed within us. So that, when squeezed by the pressures of life, what comes out is not anger, blaming, division and violence, but rather peace, understanding, forgiveness and a hopeful vision of a just world.
So let the re-calibration begin. It starts with the vision we embrace of the end-game. Where is all of this going? What do we want the future to be? What is the meaning of the part our small lives will play in getting us there?
An End-Game Vision
In this community, our vision, the future we seek, is given in our ancient wisdom texts. We dipped into one today: the prophet Isaiah.
The prophets were poets. So, in a beautiful poetic image, Isaiah shows us the vision of the end-game; the future we seek. It is an image of a banquet. He sings:
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”
Rich food and well-aged wines; excellence and abundance. The mouth waters, the stomach growls; hunger is present, but satisfaction is at hand.
And who is there at this feast of abundance? “All peoples.” No one is neglected. No one is left out. No one is passed over. Everyone is together, gathered around one table in common. That is our vision.
So, we re-calibrate our hearts by coming here to learn from prophets like Isaiah. We also re-calibrate our hearts by listening to and watching Jesus. We, baptized Christians, have committed ourselves to following the Jesus path. The practices we engage, on that path Jesus marked out for us, produce in us, we believe, what will come out of us when squeezed.
Our text today is from the gospel of John. John, like Isaiah, writes in images. John does not write in poetry, exactly, but rather in what we may think of as parables. Tightly constructed stories in which he embeds symbols and allusions to other texts and other stories in a richly complex way.
John loves to sound echoes and let them bounce around his creative canyon as he tells his stories. This one begins with words that are famous for Israelites, “On the third day.” In the most famous of all Jewish stories, the exodus from slavery, every Jewish person knows what happened at Mt. Sinai “on the third day.” That was the day, after the days of preparation and anticipation, God thundered from the mountain.
In that story, God’s glory was revealed in a terrifying display of power. Only Moses could stand to be on the mountain. And after that terrifying display of glory, on the third day, Moses comes down the mountain with Torah. God’s instructions; God’s guidance for the community. (The story is told in Exodus 19)
The guidance of Torah covered all of life, from the rules of religious practice, to the morality of family life, and included concepts of justice for the whole community. Torah, along with Temple became the pillars of Israelite identity.
So, similarly, “on the third” day, Jesus shows up; not on a mountain of the glory of God, but at a common peasant wedding. It is a time of scarcity. It is a wedding feast that has run out of wine.
By the end of that a third day, God’s glory will be revealed in this story as it was in Moses’s story, but with some significant differences. There will be no thunder and lightening. No one will be terrified. And neither will there be a new law produced.
Rather the glory of God is displayed by an abundance of excellent wine. If it sounds like an echo of Isaiah’s future feast at the common table, it should.
John concludes his parable with these words:
“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
Six Stone Jars of Purification Water
One of the layers of symbolism that John builds into this story is the place where the water, that becomes wine, is stored. John cryptically tells us that it comes from the filling of 6 stone water jars. Exactly 6, not seven. Seven is the perfect number, the number of completion, like a completed creation; on the seventh day, God rested. Is there something almost, but not yet complete about those purification water jars?
The 6 stone jars are there to store the waters needed for the Jewish purification practices. Why would that detail matter?
Because Torah, the law of Moses, had a number of concerns. It was concerned with both religious practice and with the life of the community. It was concerned to create a just society of fairness and compassion, but it was also concerned with purity.
In fact, a wall of separation was needed to keep the Torah-observant Israelite pure, free of contamination. Some things could make you impure, simply by touching them, like corpses or blood. Some practices made things impure, like mixing of seeds in a common field, or fabrics in a common cloth. Certain foods were not to be eaten. People who ate impure food became impure themselves. They were not welcome at the table.
And when an Israelite became impure, there were directions in the law of Moses for what to do. Sometimes a sacrifice was required. Sometimes ritual washing was required.
Purity vs. Justice
But sometimes, the quest for personal purity created a conflict with the practice of compassion and the quest for justice.
What do you do, for example, if someone is impure due to leprosy? Avoid them? Certainly. Do not let them touch you. They are excluded.
What do you do if an animal falls into a pit on the Sabbath? Help it out, in the name of compassion, or wait all day, so as not to violate the purity of the Sabbath?
What if a person falls prey to robbers who beat him bloody, and leave him half-dead, or worse, on the side of the road? Touching him will make you impure, so perhaps you walk by on the other side of the road.
In fact, a person might ask: Is the quest for purity really at the heart of what God wants? Will the purity quest lead to God’s hopeful future of a feast for all people at a common table? Will there be wine and joy in a purity-obsessed community?
Or, is there something deeper that God desires? Are there “weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith” as Jesus once said (Matt 23:23)
The Glory on the Third Day
Perhaps the glory of God, on the third day, could best be experienced as the waters of purification being replaced by the wine of the kingdom; excellent wine, of such abundance, that it could never be exhausted.
And perhaps this is the wine that could be served at an open table, where all people, not just the ones who pass the purity test, can come and find community.
Baptism and Purity
The community of people who follow the Jesus path do practice a purity ritual, but it is interesting to reflect on it. Our purity ritual is baptism. In baptism, we experience a bath that signifies cleansing from sin. It is not an achievement we earn for ourselves; baptism is simply something we receive. It is a sign of grace; a gift.
And once received, we never need to repeat it. We are not on a purity quest. We believe that we are forgiven. In baptism we are cleansed and claimed as God’s own people. In baptism we are called to embrace the vision of Jesus, the vision of a common table. In baptism, we are given a seat at the table, and a glass for the abundant wine of the kingdom. “Well aged wine, strained clear.”
And at this common table, we consume a food that becomes part of us. We break a common loaf of bread, and become one body; the body of Christ.
This is a body that is able to accept that pressures will come. This is a body that is destined to be squeezed, even crushed, as Jesus was. The juice that flows out from inside will be the wine of forgiveness, the wine of justice, and the wine of compassion, because that is what was inside.
Cryptically Jesus told his mother that his hour had not yet come, that day, at the wedding in Cana. John is preparing us for a plot that will unfold steadily until it reaches Jerusalem. And there, the hour of Jesus’ glory will finally arrive. It is the hour of his crucifixion. And blood will flow.
It will not be blood of contamination, but the wine of the kingdom; the wine of mercy, the wine of non-retaliation. The wine that eschews self-protection in favor of self-sacrifice. This is the wine that we hold up to our lips as we gather at table, recalibrating our hearts to an alternative standard, an alternative vision.
The Squeeze is On
We live in days of great squeezing pressure. All these years after Dr. King’s work towards reconciliation, many people have cause to wonder still, “Do black lives matter?” They matter to us, on this weekend of his birthday. Squeeze us on racial issues, and we will stand in solidarity with them in front of any gun.
In these days of religious intolerance, is it a squeezing moment when a Muslim woman stands up at a political rally in peaceful silence, simply proclaiming the presence of diversity in our nation?
If so, what comes out of the inside of us as she stands? For those of us who have been named and claimed in baptism, who follow the Jesus path of an open table, who live into the vision of the prophets, we will stand with her, and invite her to join us at the common table.
With re-calibrated hearts, we will leave this place, renewed and nourished, ready to play our part in making God’s dream, Dr. King’s dream, and our dream, one day closer to reality.