January 16, 2022 - Sermon - Rev. Hamilton Throckmorton

Sermon Text

Scripture:  JOHN 2:1-11                                       


     Weddings, as you know, are big events. They are fraught with huge emotion. And not infrequently, they can go bad, beset by unexpected drama or mishap or cold feet. In one of the first wedding services I ever led, the best man forgot the rings—left them in the apartment, too far away to return to get them. So he walked across the street to the corner store, bought two cans of soda, or pop, popped the cans, and removed the pull-tabs. And that’s what we used for the rings. No one in the congregation was any the wiser. 

     Another time, a bride told me just minutes before the service that she didn’t know if she could go through with it, that she was overcome by the proverbial cold feet. They didn’t teach me about this in seminary, but I thought ‘The best thing I can do is tell the groom that his fiancée is reluctant to go through with it.’ I then brought them together, and for forty-five minutes or so, they talked about it, while all the guests waited upstairs in the sanctuary, having no idea why the service was so late in starting. The couple did finally decide to go through with it. A year or so later, they had a child, and to my knowledge, they’re still married.

     In my first church, I was officiating one day at a mid-July service in a scorching, un-airconditioned sanctuary. At some point during the service, I was looking past the couple, at the assembled guests, when, out of the corner of my eye, I sensed that the groom was leaning toward me, likely to whisper something to me, I guessed. I couldn’t imagine what he might be wanting to tell me, but when I looked at him to see if I could tell what was going on, I suddenly realized that he was in a dead faint. He fell toward me and I caught him like a football. The congregation gasped, and we sat him down in the front pew and gave him a drink of water. After ten minutes or so, we were able to resume the service. At the end of the reception, I went to leave, and asked the bride how she was doing. She snapped back at me, “All anyone’s going to remember about this day is that he fainted!” And when, years later, I saw part of an episode of “America’s Funniest Videos” with a bunch of grainy videos of grooms fainting, I couldn’t help but wonder if one of those grooms had been the one I caught.

     So I have some sense of what can go wrong at a wedding. Disaster can strike at any turn. And as calamities go, the one at the wedding in Cana was pretty bad. In a culture in which the wedding is celebrated for an entire week, and in which proper decorum is critical, with shame ensuing from the egregious misstep, it’s a terrible faux pas to run out of wine right in the middle of the party. There’s no corner store to go to in order to stock up again. They are simply out of wine, and out of luck. You can imagine the host getting weak-kneed and regretting their incredibly poor party planning. You can also imagine them wondering: what can we possibly do to make things right?

     As it happens, Jesus and the disciples are at this wedding. As is Jesus’ mother. And Jesus’ mother—who, oddly, is never named in the gospel of John—perceiving how awful this looks and what a social debacle this is, goes to Jesus and says, probably quietly, to him, “They have no wine” (John 2:3).

     And I hear in her voice, as she points out this calamity to Jesus, not only a possible judgment on the ineptitude of the hosts, but also an unease that must surely have gripped not just her, but the whole guest list—as if they’re thinking, ‘Oh, no. What’s going to happen now?’ It’s a tense and jittery “They have no wine” that she utters. And in that one simple observation and its evident subtext of distress, the mother of Jesus nails it. With her apparently frayed nerves, she names, for us, as well, one of the defining features of the very age in which we find ourselves. She is anxious, unsure, worried. And, in so many ways, so, too, are we. If there’s one thing we know about this persistent pandemic, it’s that it’s left us shell-shocked. Anxiety and social isolation have become pervasive. Not everyone, by any means, but in record numbers, people have been worn down by the relentlessness and the loneliness and the disorientation of these past two years.

     So we, too, know the uncertainty and discomfort articulated so simply and eloquently by Jesus’ mother. You have likely seen this anxiety in your families and in your work and among your friends. When I gather with other clergy, the single word I hear by far the most when they talk about this experience is “weary.” And mixed in with that weariness is a kind of loss of equilibrium. One colleague of mine says he knows fifteen clergy who have left the ministry just since COVID began. And you? You see it in teenagers camped out alone on their beds. You see it in older people confined to their apartments in their retirement communities. You see it in more speeding cars, in people snapping at each other in stores or restaurants, in an understandable reluctance to gather with anyone else indoors. On a news story on National Public Radio recently, one commentator evoked the image of a fifth-grader who has reverted to playing with dolls instead of interacting with peers; another commentator evoked the image of a high-schooler holed up in a school bathroom weeping because they don’t know how to be comfortable in a classroom. Anxiety? You bet. The figurative wine has run out, and it’s not clear what, if anything, will bring things back to normal, what will bring the metaphorical “spirit” or “spirits” back to the party.

     As the story progresses, Jesus’ response to his mother’s anxiety is not at all what we expect. “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” (2:4). And we think: Are you kidding? The usually—we think—kind and considerate Jesus snaps off a dismissive zinger to his mother. Basically: ‘leave me alone.’ It doesn’t sound at all like the Jesus we think we know. What gives? Has Jesus himself succumbed to the anxiety? Has he wearied of being nice all the time? What’s happened to our friendly Jesus?

     And I don’t know that there’s any answer to this. I suspect Jesus isn’t the caricature we sometimes make him out to be. He is, after all, deeply human. Which means he has all the same reactions you and I do to what’s going on around him. Even though this is early in his ministry, maybe he’s a little sick of always being “on” in his savior role. Maybe he craves a moment’s peace, where he can just enjoy the party: ‘I’m off the clock—don’t bother me.’ Maybe he just wishes everyone would leave him alone once in a while. Who knows—the story doesn’t explain his snippy retort, or try to justify it. The story just leaves it as is, and leaves us to wrestle with the fullness and complexity of Jesus being a real flesh-and-blood human being.

     What I hear in that response, and in the phrase that follows it—“my hour has not yet come” (2:4)—is someone who is seeking to be attentive to that “hour” toward which he looks. Jesus’ “hour,” in John’s gospel, is that moment of death and resurrection—when he’s fully responsive to God, when he’s most truly the person God made him to be, when he’s living the life and role he’s meant to live. At his “hour,” Jesus is not trying to be popular. He’s not trying to curry favor. He’s not prostrating himself before anyone but the God who has given him his very life and purpose. At his “hour,” in other words, Jesus knows what matters most. And what matters most is for him, and for us, to be true to God.

     So what happens next? Even after his snippy retort to his mother, she knows him well enough to suspect he may want to rectify this absence of wine, and in a quiet aside to the servants, she says, “Do whatever he tells you” (2:5). Jesus then right away does what his mother seems to know he will do: he mysteriously turns water into a huge amount of extraordinarily marvelous wine. Everyone knows you’re supposed to serve the good wine first, and then, when the guests are drunk, you can bring out the cheap stuff. But that’s not what Jesus does. He produces copious amounts of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, $3000-a-bottle wine in twenty- to thirty- gallon stone jars. Who does this? 

     And maybe more to the point: why does he do it? This is, after all, a fairly useless miracle. It doesn’t heal someone. It doesn’t bring anyone back from the dead. It doesn’t provide needed nourishment to starving bodies. What Jesus does is a lark. It’s a miracle without any real socially redeeming value. It comes across as a kind of parlor trick, impressive, but accomplishing little of substance. Why would he do this?

     Not only that, but, to be frank, he has done all this with a substance that has been the source of significant distress in our world. Addiction to alcohol has eaten away far too many lives to make light of it. It has snared people in its ruthless manacles. It has papered over a multitude of feelings that would have been far better expressed than repressed. I’m reminded of the pithy line of the Mexican poet Jose Frias: “I drank because I wanted to drown my sorrows, but now the damned things have learned to swim.” Much as we might like it, our sorrows and despair and hopelessness are not so easily squelched.

     So given that this gesture of Jesus seems like a parlor trick, and that it features a substance with a double-edge sword at its center, what in the world is the gospel of John getting at by telling us this decidedly inscrutable story—water turned into wine, and not just any wine, but the best wine going?

     I suspect John is telling us this story with an eye to the other edge of that double-edge sword. Problematic as wine and alcohol have often been, they have also, throughout history, conveyed, in many quarters, an exuberant joy. They are so often signs of celebration, elixirs of happiness. What the story-teller may well be getting at here is that there is something about Jesus that is pure, unalloyed joy and delight.

     The wedding at Cana invites us to show up to life in our favorite duds, ready to dance and sing and celebrate with gusto. This is an invitation to unbounded joy. It beckons us to remember that life is short and that we don’t want to leave it plagued by regrets that we simply wasted it away. Remember that great line of Hunter S. Thompson: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!’” I suspect Jesus is reminding those around him to celebrate, to enjoy life, to have fun.

     This is an invitation to us, it seems to me, to enjoy the birds and the sunsets and the food and the art and the music and the hugs and the laughter. That wine represents a spirit. And that spirit has been given to us. And it’s ours to receive.

     Of course, the unconstrained celebration of God’s world always comes with Jesus’ unique and world-changing spin on it. Real celebration, for Jesus, is never about just our own private pleasure. It’s never about a desensitized and isolated happiness. This astounding sign of turning water into wine marks the Jesus we know throughout the gospels as the One who is our North Star. And that Jesus always turns an eye outward. That Jesus always looks out for any who may have been forgotten or squashed or left by the roadside. That Jesus is focused with laser-like intensity on fullness of life for everyone.

     For Jesus, water is turned to wine when, as Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, the promise of America is opened up to everyone. King knew, in Montgomery, that no figurative wedding party had spirit as long as Black people were required to give up their seats to whites. He knew that no party had spirit as long as Black people were subjugated and relegated to second-class citizenship. He knew that no party had spirit as long as Black people were restricted in their voting rights. He knew that no party had spirit as long as Birmingham’s lunch counters were segregated. For King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” For King, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

     The real wedding party knows that there is no party as long as any are left out. The real wedding party knows that life will never be right until all are welcome at the table. The real wedding party knows that spirit means that outsiders are made insiders and everyone knows themselves as one.

     Let’s finish this morning with some more words from King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which, in the face of voices urging moderation, he urges us all, instead, to be extremists: “Was not Jesus an extremist in love?—‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice?—‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ?—‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist?—‘Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.’ Was not John Bunyan an extremist?—‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a mockery of my conscience.’ Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist?—‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ Was not [the Declaration of Independence] extremist?—‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [all people] are created equal.’ So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

     The wedding party, the party of joy, the party of blessing, the party of fullness of life—the real, faithful wedding party, the party that is full of spirit, happens as we become extremists in love. May it always be so.