Sunday, January 20, 2013
Isaiah 62: 3-5; I Corinthians 12: 4-11; John 2: 1-11
On this inauguration day, the lectionary offers scriptures that remind us of times we figuratively raise our right hands to make promises. Two readings speak of marriage. A third emphasizes the way the church holds diverse people together in a covenant of unity without uniformity. Whether we raise our right hand in reciting an oath of office, or hold another’s hand in speaking vows of love, or utter words of covenantal commitment within a church setting, we are part of what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “an inescapable network of mutuality.”
Our Gospel reading for today will outline our guided meditation. As I read aloud this passage, I’ll interject commentary every few verses—and occasional pauses for silent reflection. But let me set up this familiar story of the wedding at Cana by saying what this story is not about. This is not a story that upholds “traditional” marriage. The Johannine community which passed down this story did not share our values and traditions about marriage. It’s always amusing to hear people calling for a return to biblical family values, which, of course, would include polygamy, incest, sex slaves, temple prostitution, fratricide, patricide, arranged marriages, women as property, execution of disobedient children, and all manner of deceit and dysfunction. This story, sometimes read at weddings to suggest that Jesus endorsed our marriage traditions, actually puts the institution of marriage way in the background. This is not a story specifically about marriage; it is about covenant relationships in general. Listen for the ordinariness within this story, maybe even some humor. Listen for themes of human relatedness and responsibility. And follow with me as I take this passage a few verses at a time:
1On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.
Did you notice that Jesus and his mother are named in separate sentences? The story does not say, “The mother of Jesus, and Jesus, and his disciples attended a wedding.” It says Jesus’s mother was at the wedding. Jesus and his disciples were also invited. That almost sounds as if the bride sent one invitation addressed to “The Mother of Jesus” and sent another invitation addressed to “Jesus—and up to twelve guests.” This story about relationships puts some grammatical distance between mother and son at the start. (By the way, this is the first of only two times Mary will be mentioned in John’s Gospel, the second time being at the foot of the cross. And John never mentions her by name.)
Take a moment to picture Jesus arriving at the wedding feast with his friends. Picture Jesus enjoying the food, the wine, the interactions.
3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”
With what tone do you imagine Mary said this simple sentence? Is she distressed and shaking Jesus by the lapels of his . . . robe? Is she complaining . . . as she lifts her empty wine glass disapprovingly? Is she using the universal mother code to order a child to do something while seeming to make a simple observation? “Son . . . they have no wine . . . . Well?”
After you hear Jesus’s reply, you might agree with me she’s probably telling him to do something.
4And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”
“Mother, why should we get involved?” he says. “It’s my day off.” Indeed, why would wedding guests have to find more wine for the other guests? Besides, isn’t this kind of problem too small for the Son of God? “My hour has not yet come” might even mean that he’s not sure the timing or situation is right for offering what John will term the first of many signs and wonders. But ready or not, Jesus’s hand is forced. He’s about to do something that will make people sit up and take notice. Mary apparently perceived his change of heart because she tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” His mother had faith that her son would help—and now tells the servants they, too, should trust him and thus should do what he tells them to do.
On the surface, Mary may seem to us to be “overfunctioning.” But in that culture, friends of the family often helped host a week-long wedding feast, so maybe Mary did bear responsibility. On the surface, Mary may seem concerned with superficial social approval. But in the ancient Near East culture, failure to extend customary hospitality would bring shame upon the extended family and all associated with them. This is a story about shared responsibility. This is a story about covenant.
The backdrop to the story is the covenant a bride and groom made to one another three days earlier with their wedding vows. But the heart of the story is about the implicit covenant that binds together a family and that family’s network of friends. In that culture, the honor of one extends to all in that group; the shame of one is shared by the others. There are implicit responsibilities one has to one’s group.
Consider what responsibilities you feel toward the network of relationships that is this faith community.
We return to the story:
5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9When 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 10and 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.”
I think there’s more humor here. We’re in on the joke. The water-turned-wine not only passes as wine—it’s better than the wine first served, which customarily is the best. If I were dramatizing this scene, I’d have the servants, who know this wine was water minutes ago, laughing behind their hands to hear the steward’s–a wine connoisseur’s—naive praise.
Lest we think Jesus is launching a ministry to protect social and religious conventions, we note that the water he used was intended for religious purification rites—for ascetic purposes. But it has been converted to wine intended for celebratory purposes. This is Jesus reforming a religious system that had focused on delineating who is in and who is out, who is pure and who is not. Jesus fills the jars that once held purifying waters with celebratory wine, a wine of finest quality and of extravagant abundance. No one will go without.
What Jesus offers is rooted in his culture’s traditions, is consistent with ancient covenants between the God of Israel and the descendants. But John’s Jesus will preach and teach that God’s lavish love extends to the whole world. (He’ll say that explicitly in the next chapter. John 3:16 says God loves the WORLD). The purification jars now hold the best wine. The extravagant covenant that other Gospel writers will have Jesus saying is written his blood, symbolized by wine, is a covenant made for and with all peoples, is for the common good.
Back to the passage in John for the final verse.
11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
The gospel writer says Jesus’s “glory” was revealed in wine-that-once-was-water. Strange to find glory in even the best of wines. But this wine is a foil for the soured wine he’ll be offered as he hangs on the cross. And this wine reminds us that Luke describes the wine Jesus blesses at his last meal as the cup of “the new covenant.”
This story might seem to reveal God at work in silly social obligations. But the writer may be saying God’s glory is revealed in the mundane, especially in the ordinary but powerful web of human relationships—lover and lover, parent and child, neighbor to neighbor. We are most fully human (and thus closest to the divine) when we are responsibly connected, caring for one another, helping out, upholding one another in covenantal love across our many differences and throughout life’s difficulties. As the American hero whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Pause now to give thanks for relationships that connect you to God, that call forth your own selflessness, that support you.
The passage concludes: “And Jesus’s disciples believed in him.” Meaning simply they, like his mother, felt assured that he would be faithful to his commitments.
At our discussion hour today, we talked about the idea of covenant as a way individuals and congregations relate to one another within our denomination. Covenant is the foundation for our way of being the church. Each congregation has “autonomy to discern its own way of being and believing. Yet, because of covenant, we voluntarily bind ourselves to one another” in our congregation and to other churches in our denomination. And those settings covenant with our congregation. The UCC constitution puts it this way: “Each expression of the church listens, hears, and carefully considers the advice, counsel, and requests of others. In this covenant, the various expressions of the United Church of Christ walk together in all God’s ways. This doesn’t mean all churches become alike. Instead UCC churches come together, each with their own distinct gifts and differing beliefs and practices, to more fully express Christ in the world” (http://www.ucc.org/vitality/what-matters/we-are-a-people-of-covenant.html).
We say words of commitment to one another as a faith community from time to time. But what does it really mean to be in covenant relationship with one another, we who are so imperfect? We’ve hurt others in the past—and have been hurt by others in our past who have broken promises to us. We’ve perhaps even felt God has reneged on promises of care of protection. We know that sometimes well-intentioned people of faith can fail us, can behave badly, might not come through for us when we need them most. Can we, like the disciples, trust that the love of Jesus will be there for us? We pause now for reflection:
Can we trust that the love of God as witnessed in the life of Jesus always be there for us?
Words of assurance are found in the song we sing together now:
Nothing in height or in depth which befriends or befalls us,
Nothing in life or in death which forbids or forestalls us,
Nothing can limit the love of our savior, Jesus Christ.
(by John Bell, from There is One Among Us)
- PRAYING AS WE GIVE OUR OFFERINGS
We express our thanks to God and join in God’s work in the world by giving to our congregation’s and denomination’s ministries. Giving is part of our covenantal commitment to care for others. At Open Table we suggest making regular gifts that reflect a percentage of your income and consider this year increasing your giving 1% over whatever percent you gave last year. The early church learned from Jesus and from the Jewish tradition that joy and fulfillment come from giving and serving, and we trust in that same generosity today.
- PRAYING AS WE RECEIVE THE BREAD AND CUP
We root our lives in and deepen our commitments to the compassionate ways of Jesus when we recall his life and death and enduring life in God through this symbolic meal. Jesus began his ministry by turning water into wine at a celebrative wedding feast with his family and disciples. Jesus ended his ministry by blessing wine that would foreshadow the passion of his death. The meals we share in this community bind us together in life’s celebrations and sorrows. The cup Jesus shares with us now holds all of life and blesses all who come.
- WRITING AND SHARING COVENANTAL WORDS
We make explicit and implicit pledges to one another. In your own words, write a brief statement on a card provided that captures at least part of a covenant you have made to God or to this particular faith community.
I covenant with God to . . . .
I covenant with this faith community to . . . .