for the Sunday before MLK, Jr. Day, 2013
John 2:1 On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”3 “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”They did so, 9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Every so often on TV commercials we see these crazy Vikings, or Vandals or Visigoths running around smashing things up and asking us, “What’s in your wallet?” Right, as though I would take it out and show them. But by his two even more provocative actions in today’s gospel passage, Jesus is asking us, “What’s in your head?” or “What’s in your heart?” Is it anything like the party that he blesses, and all the hospitality, generosity, joy and love that it celebrates, or is it something more like the party that comes after it, the one that he crashes? Is what’s in our hearts more like the water that went into those six giant jugs that the servants filled, or are they more like the wonderful new wine that came out of them?
Let’s start with the water that went into those giant stone jars, and then the wine. Now, if Jesus was just looking for any old water, from any old vessels to turn into wine, there were all sorts of containers of stone, pottery, leather or wood lying around that held water for drinking or washing dishes, clothes and children. But Jesus chose the big stone vessels for religiously consecrated water to turn into wine for celebration. Water in those jars was used for ritual purification from all manner of sins and uncleanness, like touching a dead animal. The sheer size of those water jars tells us how great and constant our need for purification is. Each one held more than enough water to fill up a normal bathtub.
Turning that water of ritual purification into festal wine might have struck some people as unnecessarily irreverent and provocative, like playing frisbee with silver communion trays. Jesus was indeed doing something provocative with those jars of purification water, but not anything irreverent. On the contrary, he was making a powerful statement about God, himself and his ministry, a statement to the effect that God really has “saved the best for last,” like the maitre d’ said to the bridegroom. Or like what John’s Gospel says in the previous chapter, verse 14: “the law came through Moses, but grace and truth came with Jesus.” The stone water jars and their contents symbolize Moses and the Law. The wine at the wedding feast speaks of what comes after: grace and truth, by which Jesus is pushing the cosmic reset button and recreating the world.
For all that the rites and rituals, rules and regulations of purification in the law of Moses could do was to wash away sins and ritual impurities, and so set the account balance back to zero, neutral, until the next sin, the next act of contamination. That’s a legitimate human need. But such ritual purification only treats the symptoms of the disease; Jesus and the New Creation restore full health. Jesus is here not just to undo the contamination of sin, but to restore the original health and blessing of Creation.
That this happened at a wedding points us back to the original innocence, intimacy and unity of Adam and Eve, the first marriage in the Bible. That’s what Jesus has come to restore in all of creation. This Wedding Feast also looks ahead to the recreation and the reconciliation that are to come, in the New Creation, with the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Those who knew where this wonderful new wine had come from would likely have thought of Bible passages like this one from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 25: “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines. 7 On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth.” (Is. 25: 6-8)
That this happened at a wedding feast should also make us think of what God said in Hosea, chapter 2: “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord.” (Hos. 2: 19-20)
So in line with all that the prophets promised, Jesus and his ministry then are redeeming and restoring us from all that oppresses, divides and diminishes us, even death. That’s what the miracle of wine at the wedding tells us.
Which again poses the question: What’s in our hearts? What’s in our heads? Simply fear of the contamination in the world, and just the desire to keep ourselves safe and un-spotted from the world, like what the water jugs speak of? Or the courage and faith to engage the world with the hospitality, generosity, love and joy that the best wine speaks of?
That’s like the challenge that Dr. King posed to his fellow clergymen from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, in his famous, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, when he wrote, “In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”
Dr. King’s lament was about Christians being content to just protect their personal purity from worldly contamination, rather than taking the risks of engaging the world with the generous, hospitable and joyous love of Jesus. Again, its the difference between water for personal purification, and wine shared for fellowship and celebration.
That contrast comes out even more strongly when we compare the wedding feast at Cana, with what follows it. I’m convinced that the wedding feast is only half of one very powerful story with two parts. The other half begins immediately afterward, in verse 13 of the same chapter: 13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
Now you have to wonder, What’s that story doing there in John, chapter 2? The other three gospels place the cleansing of the temple at the end, during Jesus’ passion week. Did Jesus cleanse the temple twice, at the beginning of his ministry, and again at the end?
Or did John place that Dr. King-like direct action event here, right after the miracle at the wedding of Cana, so that we would do some comparing and contrasting between the two events? I lean about 55-45 in favor of that interpretation, that John is suspending the chronology for a moment so that we might think about what the wedding in Cana, and the cleansing of the temple, have in common.
So, what do the two events have in common? They’re both parties, celebrations of something. And….and, well, that’s about it. There the similarity ends. The wedding party Jesus blesses; the Temple market party he crashes. The wedding party is a party of love, community and commitment. The temple racket is a party of greed and exploitation. One is about giving to each other and receiving, mutually; the other is just about taking. Priests taking from the people. Buy a sacrificial lamb from the priest and you get fleeced. The wedding party builds community; the temple market party destroys it.
So, this wedding party in John 2 is about more than just a couple getting married, as wonderful as that is. Because of all the Bible images linking weddings and marriage to new life, a new creation, we’re not only talking about a new family here, we’re talking a new creation. Dr. King had a name for the new creation that the wedding party at Cana symbolized. Many times King called it, “The Beloved Community.” In an essay he wrote in 1957, King said, “… the end [of nonviolent direct action] is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends…. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.”
(from “The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma,” 1957 )
King’s inspiration for that “beloved community” comes right out of the call to worship at the beginning of today’s service, from Isaiah 65, about a community, a city free from weeping and wailing, in which all can grow up secure and live to their full potential, in which relationships and business are peaceful and just, not predatory and exploitative. In some ways, it sounds like heaven. But in other ways, it sounds like here and now. It is the meeting place of heaven and earth in the here and now in God’s Beloved Community. That’s the kind of community that our vision statement calls us to, when it says that we follow Christ by “nurturing community.”
Ask anyone you meet what Dr. King was about, and most people will say, “fighting racial segregation and promoting integration.” And that’s right. But King saw racism and segregation as part of something much bigger that he called, “the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism.” In a speech he said, “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” In other words, racism pays. Or it pays one person while it impoverishes another. Its just one of the ways that the strong dominate and exploit the weak, whether by the overt, organized violence of war, or the covert violence of economic injustice and exploitation. Then we have a community that is more like the temple market racket, than the wedding in Cana. We could call it, by contrast, “The Bedeviled Community.” Bedeviled by the unholy trinity of racism, militarism and materialism, the love of things over people, the worship of things over God.
The Beloved Community is a refuge for the needy, and a rebuke to the greedy. The bedeviled community, by contrast, is a playground for the greedy and a slaughterhouse for the needy. Dr. King reflected on this when he and his family lived one summer in the slums of Chicago. He learned how much more expensive it is to be poor, than to be middle class. Sometimes you end up paying more in rent per square foot, yet you get less in terms of quality. Food in food deserts like West Phillips here can cost you more per ounce, and still provide you less nutrition and health. If you can’t afford reliable wheels, then you can’t get a job. No job, no wheels. Yet taxis and buses could cost you more in the long run. And if you can’t afford health insurance, then you often pay much more out-of-pocket for doctor visits and medicine than do the insured. When you’re poor, lots of people know what’s in your wallet. You can’t get their hands out of it. That’s life in the bedeviled community.
Compare Jesus blessing the wedding party with new wine, and Jesus flipping tables in the temple market, and we see that he is all about constructing “the Beloved Community,” while confronting “the bedeviled community.” Dr. King was right then to hope that the world might see in the church of Jesus Christ the pilot project of the Beloved Community, the demonstration plot of the New Jerusalem, the foretastes of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.
So again, “What’s in our heads and hearts?” To answer those crazy Vikings or Vandals running around with sharp and pointy things in the credit card commercials, we already know what’s in our wallets: hopefully some wealth, in the form of paper or plastic. Nothing wrong with that. Markets and money are tools with which we can do all sorts of good to build the Beloved Community.
But what if that paper or plastic gets into our heads and hearts, as happened to the marketers and racketeers in the temple? What if those tools go from being goods to becoming gods? Then we end up being the slaves and soldiers of those giant terrible triplets, the unholy trinity of racism, militarism and materialism. Then we become the bedeviled community, rather than the beloved community. Then Jesus may need to overturn some of our tables and liberate our captive sacrificial victims.
So, what do we do then to be more the beloved community of the wedding feast, than the bedeviled community of the temple trade? What’s our take home exercise?
First action point: Reflect some time on our own, on this question: What’s in our heads and hearts? Is it fear, the fear of contamination that would drive us only to seek purification and protection from the world? Or is it love and faith, by which we would engage the world with generosity, hospitality and compassion? That’s another part of our vision statement: “extending hospitality.”
The second action point: Reflect again–What’s in our hearts and heads? Are money and the markets just goods in our wallet or gods in our heads? That’s a temptation of living in a professional, corporate, market-driven world such as ours: to evaluate everything and everyone just according to their proficiency, their productivity and their profitability. Or can we see beyond the bottom line and value things and people through the love with which God sees us and them?
Third: if we should find in our heads and hearts the water of fear, and the gods of greed, then we must allow Jesus to transform the water of fear into the wine of love; we must invite and allow Jesus to turn over the altars of money in the markets of our hearts, and replace them with the generosity and joy of his great cosmic wedding feast.
Now I’m a great believer in practical steps to achieve spiritual results. I know from experience that the heart follows wherever our treasure is stored. So let’s find practical ways to dethrone the unholy trinity, King’s giant triplets ,of racism, militarism and materialism, through concrete acts of generosity and community-building. Like the four other volunteers I know of in this congregation who are serving and fellowshipping with our neighbors at Urban Ventures. Or when people give generously to our deacon fund, for mutual aid. Or those among us who gather with other parents or teachers to pray for children at their schools. Those who go the extra mile on behalf of the vulnerable, the immigrant and the refugee among us. Now that sounds like a party. The kind of party that Jesus blesses.