A sermon preached on January 16th, 2022 based upon John 2:1-11 entitled “Abundant Grace”. The sermon was delivered two days after the announcement of my retirement.
This is the Second Sunday Epiphany. As I said last week an epiphany is a sudden insight into deeper meaning and truth – in the context of Christianity – the truth revealed in Christ. This insight typically comes as an experience which can be hard to put into words and so we tell stories that hold the possibility of an epiphany of our own as we hear them.
Every three years we hear the familiar but very peculiar story on Epiphany’s second Sunday of the miracle Jesus performed turning a great deal of water into really good tasting wine to keep a wedding party from ending.
We’re accustomed to hear Jesus’ miracles taking place in response to some life-threatening need, but such is not the case with this miracle. Nonetheless, there is significant cause for distress that Jesus somewhat reluctantly addresses. In those days a wedding feast typically lasted the better part of a week, and such celebrations stood out in their communities in the midst of otherwise barren lives. The bridegroom was responsible to make sure that there was food and drink enough to last and to fail do so would be cause for shame that would be remembered the rest of his life.
In John’s Gospel, miracles are called “signs” – in other words, they are opportunities for those who are truly paying attention to have an “epiphany.” So, as we listen to the story the question to ask is, what is the epiphany being offered for us to witness?
I’ve noted before the mystery in my years of preaching how every time I come back to a passage I’ve preached on numerous times before I hear something new. In large part this is the result of hearing the story from a new point in my journey through life. For me, the present perspective is impacted by a) the perspective of this ongoing pandemic, and b) the fact that I just announced to you, my beloved congregation that after 33 years I will be retiring this summer.
There are two places that caught my attention this time around that I will take note of as I read the story.
Listen for the word of the Lord.
On 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. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’
This is the first place. Experiencing scarcity, Mary calls out to her son for help: “They have no wine.” It is a call that has been heard in various ways often during the pandemic. Scarcity is experienced in a shortage of hospital rooms, a shortage of contact with love ones — all kinds of scarcity.
And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ 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.’
The figure of the Steward of the wedding feast is the second place may attention was drawn. He’s the guy the bridegroom has hired to manage his wedding celebration. Oddly, the steward seems pretty oblivious to what’s going on. He doesn’t seem to realize what the lowly servants are aware of – that they’re about to run out of wine.
Whenever I read this before I assumed that the steward is complimenting the bridegroom when he talks about saving the best wine for last. Maybe In the larger symbolic meaning of the story they may well be, signifying that the best is saved for last in the coming of Jesus. But if you read his words just as they are it seems clear to me he’s criticizing the bridegroom. “Idiot, the people are too drunk now to notice how good the wine is. You should have served this wine first!”
11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
In other words, some – the disciples in particular – experienced an epiphany – but apparently many others, including the Steward – completely missed it.
Thus ends the reading, may God bless our hearing of the Word.
About fourteen months ago Sarah and I made a decision regarding the date of our retirement when it seemed the Holy Spirit mysteriously was opening a path into this uncharted territory – a life in the beauty and peace of Maine close to two of our three children.
For several months, time moved slowly. Retirement remained something of an abstraction. This Fall, however time began to move more quickly and challenging feelings began to arise. If you were listening in to my preaching in the Fall you may remember what in retrospect were some clues – the frequency with which I took note in how long I’ve been doing this work, for instance. There was also that sermon I gave in which I said that following Jesus involves opening yourself up to grief. I’d begun grieving.
There was also some fear that arose. For myself: The idea of laying down my responsibilities has been appealing, but what in fact would life be like without this identity, this community, this rhythm of life with which I’ve lived for so many years? I suspect that for a time at least I will feel a bit lost at sea until I get my legs under me.
And there was also fear for you, my beloved congregation. Would you be okay, particularly with this frustrating, ongoing pandemic? The idea I had in my head was that I’d see you through the pandemic and then hand you off to another pastor who could guide you in a world where the pandemic recedes into the past. But now it seems likely the Pandemic will be a part of the next pastor’s ministry as well.
So, Mary’s cry, “They have no wine,” resonated with me. There is a scarcity. Will there be enough of what I need, of what you need, to live life abundantly, as Jesus promised?
Here again, Mary seems something of a model for the life of faith. On the one hand, she honestly acknowledges the need, the fear of what could happen. Faith doesn’t mean pretending there is nothing to be afraid of. She acknowledges her anxiety regarding the perceived scarcity.
On the other hand, she knows to whom to take her need. She takes it to Jesus. She asserts her trust that Jesus will see them through this crisis. She doesn’t know how exactly Jesus will do this, but she tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you to do.” Our job is simply to be obedient to what God is calling us to do.
So now that second place in the story where my attention was caught.
It struck me that the Steward could easily be seen as a pastor. His job is to oversee this community of joy – this wedding feast. That’s certainly one way to see the work of a pastor.
I can identify with the Steward. First, he’s oblivious to what’s going on behind the scenes. I’ve been plenty oblivious at times as well.
Second, the way I’m interpreting his words this time around – he’s criticizing the bridegroom for his handling of the wedding feast. In Scripture, Jesus is often pictured as the bridegroom with us – the church – being the bride. So, it’s really Jesus the Steward/pastor is criticizing. He thinks he knows better what Jesus should be doing. I’ve been guilty of the same thing as well.
A lot of old memories have been coming up as the reality of my retirement in six months sinks in.
Sarah and I dropped our 26 year old son Bobby off at the airport Friday. It was great to have him home for almost four weeks, and as he helped us sort through the clutter of living in the parsonage all these years, so many memories arose.
This strange story of the wine and the wedding feast stirred up a memory. When Bobby was an infant, I found myself up late at night because his sleeping patterns were erratic. It was during this time that I experienced a remarkable three week period of inspiration in which I wrote the script of the first play I produced here. Unlike any other experience of play writing, the story seemed just to pour through me.
The inspiration for the story “Over the Edge” told came in large part from a one page devotional reading I came across in the Upper Room. The author wrote about the experience of having her mother-in-law live in their family’s living room during the last year of her life as her health declined. Life carried on in a rich way with her four teenage children bringing their friends over to hang out, with their grandma happily being a part of their life together. The author of the piece was a woman named “Lillian Gripp.”
The production of the play turned out to be a family affair. My mother – now departed from this earth ten years – played a grandma nearing the end of her life because of cancer whose bed had been set up in the middle of her daughter Sharon’s home – a single mother played by my wife Sarah. My nine year old daughter Kate played Lydia, the grandchild whose best friend is Jesus – a Jesus seen only by her that leads her mother to wonder about her sanity. There’s an older brother named Dave – played by Tracy’s brother Tim Booth — who carrying around a lot of anger about his father’s departure from the family. The only person Lydia feels understands her is her dying grandmother.
It truly felt like the Holy Spirit was leading us the whole way through. I mentioned the inspiration of Lillian Gripp because around the same time as we were producing the first performances of “Over the Edge” a young couple – Bill and Amy Gripp – joined our church. Only later would I find out that Lillian was Bill’s mother. She was writing about Bill’s teenage years. This seemed the Holy Spirit’s doing.
The play ended up being remarkably well received. Our district superintendent saw it and had us re-produce it at Annual Conference in front of 400 people. “Over the Edge” has been reproduced several times, including once again here with a cast featuring Anita Laux, Maggie Letsch, Liz Cogan, Anthony Miceli and Terry Germann.
My reason for telling you all this was that the final scene of the play came to mind this week as I read the story of Jesus as the wedding feast. The family gathers around Grandma’s bed as it has become clear that she is reaching the edge of her life in this world. Time suddenly stands still and Grandma gets out of her bed and stands beside Lydia’s Jesus, who here at the end of life she also can see. She gazes lovingly at her family and says, “I won’t be here for Lydia, and Sharon, and Dave to come home to. Jesus, will you look out for them?” He answers, “Anytime they need me, I’ll be there.”
She takes her final breath, and then dances down the aisle with her long-departed husband in what amounts to a wedding feast.
I’m sure you can understand the poignancy of this memory.
So, the “epiphany” of the story is that we can trust that Jesus reveals to us the abundance of God’s grace ready to meet us in every time of need. There is always joy even where there is sorrow.
The odd detail regarding Jesus’ seeming irritation at his mother’s request that he do something suggests to me that there would have still been an abundance of grace present even if the wine had run out.
So our call is simply to be obedient in living as faithfully as possible in following the path of Jesus, and to trust that he is working behind the scenes, and that there truly is overflowing grace in the face of all that is unknown in the future.
Anytime we need him, Jesus will be here.