January 13, 2013
A number of years ago, when we were living in SC, Corrie was invited to participate in an appreciation Sunday for one of her students. Gloria, I believe her name was, was soon to graduate from college and go off to seminary in Atlanta. She was in her forties, a mother, and for several years had pastured a CME church in a small town in the mountains of western NC. It was down a country road several miles off the main highway and when we got there, we found a typical mill village. At some point in the late 19th or early 20th century, an entrepeneur had built a factory, built houses for the workers, and milled cotton of some sort or another. When we visited, the mill was long closed, there were a couple of churches, the CME which was our destination, a United Methodist church, a school, a convenience store, and houses, some of them well kept, others rundown.
We appreciated Gloria for hours. There were choirs from out of town, speakers, black and white, a CME bishop, the local white UM pastor, Corrie. One of the songs that was sung included the line—I can’t wait to get to heaven, it’ll always be Sunday there.” I was struck by that, by the idea of an eternal Sabbath, of course, but also by the idea that the people gathered here were looking forward to eternal Sundays, when they could get dressed up in their finest clothes, come to church, and sing and preach all day long. There was a dinner at the end of the service of course. We didn’t stay, because it was 9:00 pm by the time the service ended, and we had a 2-hour drive home, and 8:00 classes in the morning. But I’m sure it was a great feast. In the midst of poverty, despairing lives, Gloria’s congregation celebrated with gusto and looked forward to an eternal Sabbath of celebration. Episcopalians just don’t celebrate like that.
But Jesus did, and he made sure others did as well. OK. Let’s do the math. 6 jars for purification, each holding between 20-30 gallons of water. That’s between 120 and 180 gallons of water. That’s how much wine Jesus made. And in case you can’t get a clear sense of just how much wine that is, let’s do some more math. A bottle of wine is 750 milliliters; that’s roughly five bottles of wine in a gallon. So we’re talking between 600 and 900 bottles of wine, between 50 and 75 cases. That’s a lot of wine. That must have been quite a party. Now remember, Jesus made the wine because they had run out. In other words, like any good party, the wine had been f lowing for quite some time, and either the guests were drank more than was expected or the hosts had not planned very well.
600 to 900 bottles of wine. Given that the wine had been flowing, assuming the guests were a little tipsy already, what was Jesus thinking? After all, how much wine does it take for your average person to get, well, pretty drunk? That must have been quite a party!
Before we explore the meaning of all this, there’s a little more math in the story that I would like to talk about. John 2 begins, “On the third day …” Now when you hear that phrase, what pops into your mind? Of course, the resurrection. And I have no doubt that the gospel writer is making an allusion to the resurrection. But there’s more to it than that. If we go back to Chapter 1, we see something very interesting. The gospel of John begins “In the beginning was the Word” so quite literally, it begins at creation. But very quickly it moves down to the present day of Jesus. After the gospel begins describing the ministry of John the Baptizer, three times it begins an episode with the phrase “the next day.” So if you add those three, actually four, days to the three days mentioned in John 2:1, you get seven days—seven days from “In the beginning was the word,” to the wedding at Cana.
In other words, for the Gospel of John everything converges on this point, on a wedding, in Cana of Galilee—it is the point to which all creation has been moving, the moment at which the disciples, and we, see the glory of God. It is also, to hearken back to Genesis, the completion, the fulfillment of creation. On the seventh day, God finished the work that he had done… God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it. On the third day, there was a wedding at Cana.
In the Judaism of Jesus’ day, well, really, going back to the prophets and even before, there was the idea that God would one day play host to a magnificent banquet. We hear something of that in the familiar 23rd Psalm, “you prepare a table for me in the middle of my enemies.” In Isaiah 26, the prophet speaks of
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
The messianic banquet, the eternal Sabbath, when joy reigns and God’s abundance flows unceasingly, that hope is being fulfilled, according to the gospel writer, in Jesus. That hope is made clear when Jesus turns water into wine and makes an ordinary wedding reception, as wonderful as that might be, the occasion for seeing the glory of God.
All of that is well and good. I’ve given you a bit of humor, for some of you, a completely new way to think about the wedding at Cana, but still you might be wondering what the point is, what it all means for us, this weekend, the third weekend of January 2013. I’m mindful as we gather today that tomorrow is both the Inauguration of President Obama and our nation’s commemoration of Martin Luther King. MLK Day is often used to celebrate how far we have come as a nation in overcoming past racism. More recently, and yesterday, it has also become an opportunity for us to come together as a nation in a day of service and volunteerism. King’s martyrdom has tended to overshadow some of the changes that were occurring in his own thinking and activism; the move toward a more inclusive and more radical focus on poverty, that affected and still affects all races in our society, and his growing vocal opposition to the Viet Nam War.
MLK day should also be a time when we focus on what needs to be done and here there is little to celebrate. The rate of incarceration of African Americans far exceeds the percentage of African Americans in the general population. One only need look at the line waiting this evening to enter the men’s shelter, or indeed the lines of those waiting outside our food pantry to know that poverty and homelessness are not racially neutral. We’ve heard a great deal over the last several years about racial disparities in Madison’s schools. Yes, there remains much to be done. There has been very little progress in recent decades. Indeed in many respects, the decline in economic equality over the last years—did you know that the economic downturn, the housing crisis of the recent past disproportionately affected people of color?
When confronted by these grim statistics, and even more by the grim reality of those men and women waiting in line at the shelter or food pantry, lives crushed under the accumulated burden of poor education, broken families, violence, and racism, we often despair, throw up our hands in helplessness, or even worse, avert our gaze so our own complacency isn’t challenged.
But here we are in Epiphany, when we celebrate God’s presence and inbreaking into our world, when we encounter Jesus Christ in different ways, and celebrate those various encounters. We see God’s glory in many ways and many places, and for the gospel of John, while we see Christ’s glory in the miracle of the wine, we also see Christ’s glory on the cross. In fact, in the midst of this miracle, the gospel writer also foreshadows the cross—not only with the introductory phrase of “on the third day” but also with the seemingly minor detail that here and at the cross are the only times Jesus’ mother appears in the whole of the gospel of John.
As you know, the day before his assassination, Dr. King spoke of his epiphany; having been to the mountaintop. Like King, we see God’s glory, in the miracle of wine, in the miracle of a movement like King’s that transformed a nation, in the little miracles of transformation when people reach out in faith and love to help their brothers and sisters. We see God’s glory, in bread and wine, in cross and resurrection, in the body of Christ gathered, and in the body of Christ at work in the world. Thanks be to God.