“Wine Anyone?” Based on John 2:1-11

A Word from Our Pastor:

As I re-write what would have been the sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, I am defrosting from digging out my driveway after the first significant winter storm of the season. Shoveling gets the blood circulating. It’s invigorating exercise, just what the doctor ordered. Thanks, doc. The good news for me is that mindless activity like shoveling allows me to think and re-think about other things that are on my mind. Writing for this edition of the newsletter is one of those things. Since we cancelled service yesterday, I have a sermon that will be filed away – probably forever – unless I find some way to adapt it to another use. And the newsletter needs a few words from me. And the annual meeting, with its annual budget, will be coming up on February 3. Let’s see how this goes.

With the lectionary readings this month, we have moved well beyond the season of Christmas and the stories that have grown around its meaning. But even if the ornaments are packed away for another year, there is still a basic message from heaven that should ring in our ears all year long.

My favorite story comes from Charles Dickens and his nineteenth century story of the redemption of a man’s soul in his novella, A Christmas Carol. Who isn’t familiar with the image of Scrooge in his counting house, piling stacks of gold coins like so many, many poker chips? That’s the image of a pinched soul, caring for nothing if it can’t be measured in dollars and cents or, in his case, pounds and shillings. Ebenezer Scrooge viewed all of life in terms of transactions – not only hours at work, not only investments, but things other people would say, “You can’t put a price on that” – things like friendships, love, a hike up on mountain on an autumn day, the first snow of the season – well, maybe. But if the only way to see things is in terms of profit or loss, as transactions – well, most of us would agree that there’s more to life than money and there are things that can’t be valued in monetary terms. But there are those who do approach all of life that way. For people like that, friends are friends as long as they are useful – profitable. The friendship is worth continuing as long as it gets you more than you have to give. Transactional people even marry for money, not for love. Now, close your eyes and try to imagine Jesus as an investment banker – nice suit, pulls up in a Mercedes, and instead of disciples, he has lawyers and stockbrokers and real estate agents alongside, not to mention a trophy wife, probably the latest in a series of such women. Is there a problem if that’s who Jesus turns out to be?

We can think of the story John tells of the wedding at Cana as a sort of pre-career episode, the kind of thing that tells any parent, yes, your kid will do all right, your kid will be just fine. His little tale of a pre-career miracle is loaded with attention-catching details. Here, unlike in Matthew or Luke, there is no hint that Jesus and his mother are ever at odds. (If you missed that part, read Mark 3:31-35 and imagine treating your mother that way.) In John’s story, Mary encourages Jesus to display his power, which she clearly has full confidence in. Jesus sounds like he is being reluctantly dragged into the miracle business. Why would Mary call upon young Jesus to deal with the wine shortage at this wedding? It sounds like he’s been doing extraordinary things around the house for some time now. And despite his, “Oh. Mother,” he more than makes up for her confidence. One hundred fifty gallons of wine. What’s the message here? Jesus really likes to party?

Or is John telling us something deeper? Could it be that John is telling his readers that God’s kingdom is not going to be transactional but relational? God does not simply meet our needs – do the minimum and get out early, giving us a little bonsai tree of concern. No – Jesus and the wine at the wedding at Cana is a story meant to show us God’s kingdom features over-the–top hospitality. From the very start of his career, even when he is not quite ready for prime time, set a very different tone. From his very first intervention in our lives, Jesus shows what it means to do things his way – God’s way. And if Jesus goes all out for us, how are we to respond to each other’s needs? All out. The best we can possibly do. More than anyone could hope for.

As with any story that made its way into the Bible, the question is always, “Why? Why THIS story? There were plenty of Jesus stories that didn’t make the cut, you know. So why did the gospel writers decide this one was important enough to pass on? Here’s what I think was going on.

John’s Gospel was written around the year 90-110 – which makes it roughly the third generation of the church. By that time, the split between Judaism and Christianity had become finalized. How do we know this? In the earlier Gospels and in Paul’s writings, there is no distinction between Jesus and the Jews. In Matthew especially, an effort is made to incorporate Jesus into the ongoing life of Judaism, as though he were the next prophet – another Amos or Micah or Isaiah, or at least the next in that line – greater than all before him, but nevertheless, a good Jewish boy from the start. By the time John was written, if John were the only Gospel you had, and you never heard of the rest, it would seem that Jesus and his followers were anything BUT Jews.

So, John wasn’t telling his version of the Jesus story to show how he fit in with the prophets from the past. Instead, John was writing to Christians who were trying to hang on in a world in which Christianity was finding its own way, making its own traditions, and building its own institution. So, John’s story of Jesus tells, among other things, “This is how to build church – the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.” It starts with over-the-top hospitality. That’s what Jesus showed, even before he actually launched his career, his ministry. Today, we might say John’s message was this: “Go big!” You want to build the kingdom of God? Look around. Find a need. Then meet it – not adequately, not barely, but in as big and over-the-top way as you can possibly pull off. If God has been generous to you, you make sure that’s how generous you are to those you meet. If God has blessed you, you make sure you’re at least as big a blessing to others as God has been to you. Jesus set the bar. “What, Mom? We need a few gallons of wine to get through this weeding feast? How about 150 gallons? And we’re talking the good stuff here.”

All through his career, that’s how Jesus operated. Someone is sick? Let’s do some healing. Someone is hungry? There’ll be a dozen baskets of leftovers before we’re through. Someone has died? Yes, we can do better than a sympathy card here. Over and over, the message is the same. Don’t ignore the need. Don’t just meet the need. God’s love is prodigal. God’s love is extravagant. Make sure your church shows that when you’re meeting someone’s needs. If that’s not in your budget, then you need to go back to the Finance Committee and say, we need a new budget with a LOT more for benevolences. And if your people say, I can’t afford to increase my pledge, let’s go back to the basics – well, what CAN you afford? Do you need that more than the church needs the money that costs to do God’s will in an extravagant, over-the-top manner? Does your giving feel Scrooge-like? Or Jesus-like?

Or suppose someone in your congregation has already cut back to bare bones and still isn’t making it. The church is there to help. Or it should be, if we’re meeting needs in the spirit of Jesus. Of course, people who really needed help were constantly tugging at Jesus’ robe, calling his name, telling him what they needed. There’s no shame in being honest with God, after all. As if God didn’t know. But the church might NOT know, after all. Especially with Yankees. We’re so good at suffering in silence. Pride comes when? Before a fall. You don’t have to fall. But the church does have to have the resources to meet the needs that come our way. That means that those who have been blessed really need to figure out how to be a blessing as best they can. Maybe it’s through your local church. Maybe it’s through the Mass. Conference. Maybe it’s through the national UCC. There are plenty of ways to meet the needs that come the church’s way. If there’s a concern with one, just go with the others. But, however you do it – the need is there. Meet the need. Meet the need in the spirit of Jesus. Wine anyone?

See you in church. Rev. Rob