Time to Party?

A Sermon for 17 Jan. 2016

 A reading from the gospel of John 2:1-11. Listen for God’s word to us as we hear the way the gospel of John begins Jesus’s public ministry. Listen.

“On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When 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 and 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.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

Parties are wonderful, aren’t they? The music and dancing, the laughter and conversation, the food and even the drink. If you’ve ever thrown one – no matter the size – you know how much work they can be. Someone’s gotta get it all set up: from the invitations to the décor. Every detail must be attended. After all, typically when we throw a party, we want to put on our finest. We want everyone to enjoy themselves. To feel welcome. In all honesty, sometimes we even want them to think well of us for having thrown such a fabulous shin-dig where a good time was had by all. The biggest disaster to any such event is not having enough for all your guests. Enough space, enough food, enough wine. And this is exactly the predicament in which those throwing the wedding party in Cana find themselves. It’s a total faux pas.

“On the third day” the story begins – and yes, on the third day illusions to the resurrection are intended here (John 2:1). The party has begun! According to the gospel of John, the pre-existent Word has become flesh. And having just called some as his followers to come and see (John 1:39), Jesus and his disciples have been invited to a party. This is no typical celebration. According to the gospel of John, Jesus begins his ministry at a wedding. Again, our author intends for us to catch the deeper meaning of the setting. Long years the people of Israel were told by God’s prophets that God was like their groom – and a frustrated one at that, waiting for his bride to be faithful. Remember the prophet Hosea? Just to prove a point, God had him marry Gomer, a wife of whoredom to show metaphorically that God’s wife, Israel, had forsaken the sacred covenant. In anger and hurt God declares to Hosea: say to my people “she is not my wife, and I am not her husband” (Hosea 2:1-2). The covenant has been defiled. . . . A wedding in Cana is the perfect place for the embodied Word to begin revealing his glory.

But it seems Jesus doesn’t know that – or at least not at first. We never do hear of him being married himself, so maybe Jesus never knew firsthand that certain customs were to be followed to a T. Weddings were infused with ancient traditions which when unmet brought great shame to the family involved. Hospitality was to be expected. . . . I’ve lived in the South long enough to know that the South prides itself on being a place of hospitable welcome. In my years of living here, I’ve learned about the pineapple being the traditional sign of gracious friendship. I’ve learned that sweet tea made just so is to be offered. And I even have learned about a secret welcome symbol. Supposedly in the days of slavery, runaways were to look for homes with a magnolia tree planted out front. For those seeking freedom, the magnolia stood as a sign of full acceptance inside. I like that the first time I drove on to the property of this church, I saw a great big magnolia right outside. If only we all could remember that the next time a new guest to worship ends up sitting in your typical pew! . . . All of this is to say that hospitality comes in many shapes and sizes. In ancient Israel, hospitality codes held together the moral fabric of their culture. According to one author, “In the Ancient Near East, hospitality was the process of receiving outsiders and changing them from strangers into guests” (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, p. 408). The host would receive the stranger and by the ritual of foot washing (given as a command by Jesus, by the way: only in the gospel of John’s telling of the Last Supper). The host would receive the stranger and by the ritual of foot washing, would show that the stranger has been welcomed in as guest. Through this act, the host and stranger-turned-guest entered into a two-way relationship in which both parties had particular responsibilities. Hosts became protectors who saw to the needs of their new guests. And in turn, such strangers-turned-guests were to honor the host – not insulting them through any hostility or rivalry. The guest would receive what was given – especially any food offered. Oh, and it was incumbent upon the host to offer the best. To do otherwise was to insult the guest. Hospitality was this dance together of two who gave and received, trusting that if – and when – the tables were turned, the other could rely upon the same gracious, welcoming care.

Jesus’ mother seems to be the only one at the wedding of Cana who knows this is how it must be. Even before the bride and groom, she is worried about the unfolding breech of hospitality. You know how forceful mothers can be. And who can back down from the chutzpah of a Jewish momma on a mission? She sees the problem at the party. For she knows a thing or two about the responsibility of receiving in an outsider. After all, the angel said God willed it to be for her. She’s played host to another in her own body, which taught her the gift of life that hospitality brings. What’s more, she knows the true Host is present at this wedding who must attend to the needs of the strangers-made-guests. It was what he was born to do. Indeed the time of her son, the embodied Word, has begun. . . . Jesus takes up his mother’s ministry of hospitality in signs that reveal the abundant goodness of the true Host. That water becomes the best wine – and an infinite amount at that: anywhere from 120-180 gallons of the finest wine anyone ever could imagine. As promised – as we heard in our reading from the prophet Isaiah where God declares: “You shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you (Isaiah 62:2-5). As promised, God’s blessing has come upon the people and in such a boundless way. . . . Isn’t it beautiful? Here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, as the story is told according to the gospel of John, we learn a wonderful thing or two about God.

Some of you already know that I was raised in the church – a Presbyterian one at that, in a small town of the Midwest. At five-and-a-half weeks of age, I was baptized. And if my conscious memories of being in worship every Sunday tell me anything, then I’m pretty sure my parents had me there each week right from the start. I still vividly remember walking into the sanctuary as a small child. There was the bank president and the high school basketball coach. There was my Sunday School teacher and my best friend’s mother up in the choir loft. I remember the deacons actually ushering us in and seating us in a pew. My parents liked to be some of the first ones there, so we typically had our pick of the pews. . . . You know how in some church sanctuaries people rush in and sometimes even when the prelude begins, some people talk louder over the music to catch up with the person next to them – forgetting that other worshippers might be trying to quiet the cares of the world to prepare themselves in reverence to encounter God? Well, in my home church, that NEVER was a problem. Far to the other extreme, in my home church, you got pinched. You know: low in the pew so nobody else could see. If I fidgeted; if I made noise; if my sister and I played tic-tac-toe; if I did this tapping on my eardrums to see how the organ music sounded when you did this; we got pinched. We weren’t the only ones – my friends’ parents did the same thing to them too. You were particularly shamed if you didn’t get back in line before an over-the-shoulder-glare came from someone sitting in front of you. We were just little girls being little girls – what’s wrong with that? And while the preachers and teachers talked about the goodness of God’s love, the aura created was one of punitive judgment. . . . How can we learn about the abundance of God’s mercy? How can we know the joy of God’s presence? How can we claim the greatness of a love that never will let us go and that receives us in gracious welcome, because the Host won’t allow an outsider to remain a stranger but found a way to initiate inclusion for all at a marvelous, never-ending feast? . . . How can we know in our bodies that God is good, if we’re busy living among each other in ways that pinch, pinch, pinch the joy right out of Life?

One theologian writes and I quote, that: “Christians ought to be celebrating constantly. We ought to be preoccupied with parties, banquets, feasts, and merriment. We ought to give ourselves over to veritable orgies of joy because we have been liberated from the fear of life and the fear of death. We ought to attract people to the church quite literally,” he writes, “by the fun there is in being a Christian” (Robert Hotchkins, Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 4, pp. 262,264). . . . That’s Cana-grace. That’s the kind of life the Host invites us into so that we too would take up the ministry of receiving any stranger as we provide for their needs as finely and abundantly as God does ours. . . . Indeed, sisters and brothers of Christ: it’s time to party! For among us is the One who embraces life and makes the way for the feast of abundant love to go on forever!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)


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