United Church of Jaffrey
January 27th, 2019
John 2:1-11 | An Excerpt from A Letter from Birmingham Jail by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true… hope of the world…. I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us… I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.
-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I’m a story guy.
You know that.
I’ve told you, several times, I think, about the way my mother read to me when I was a child:
Robert Louis Stevenson.
No doubt I am not alone in this. For many of us, our first experience of story, was through our ears.
Of course, it wasn’t long before I started reading myself, and this became another way to experience story.
I started reading, and it seems like I never stopped.
I’m a story guy.
As an English teacher, I better like story.
Today, I do both — I read books, and I also listen to them. As I drive my car back and forth from my home in Turners Falls, up here to Jaffrey, I listen to audio books through my car stereo.
But there is a third thing that I do with stories…
It is something that I do, because I am a Christian.
There is a certain story…
The story of Jesus
That I do more than listen to
I do more than read.
As a Christian, I participate in the gospel story.
What does it mean, you may ask, to participate in a story?
To participate in a story is to go beyond listening to, or reading the story.
To participate in a story is to allow that story to become a part of your story.
As Christians, we have faith that our stories can be meaningfully and powerfully influenced by the gospel story, and that this influence will bring about a better world – a world that is governed by forgiveness, compassion, justice.
A world, in short, that is influenced by the very real, and very effective power of love.
Glug, Glug, Glug
This morning I offer you one way to participate in the story that Bob just read to us from the Gospel of John.
It’s not the only way to participate in the story.
It’s the way that occurred to me, as I meditated over it.
The story begins like this:
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.”
Unlike most of Christ’s miracles, there are no raving demons in the vicinity, no lepers or dying children.
The scene is a wedding feast.
A wedding feast?
Sounds like fun!
Things seem to be going swimmingly until Mary figures out that the wine is all gone. She tells her son.
But Jesus responds impatiently.
Sure, it’s an embarrassing, but in the scheme of things, its small potatoes.
Mary perseveres. But interestingly, she doesn’t do so by encouraging her son to act. Instead she turns to the nearest servants and says:
“Do whatever he tells you.”
It sounds almost like Mary is coaxing this miracle out of Jesus! She is in on something that no one else at the party can yet see. She suspects that this son of her’s is more than meets the eye. I wonder if she is impatient for him to start showing everyone what he is really made of?
The story continues:
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.
Did you catch those impressive numbers?
These are huge jars – and there are six of them.
So when Jesus tells the servants to fill six jars to the brim with water, we are looking at a pretty daunting task.
Just for fun, let’s take the smaller number and assume the jars hold 20 gallons each. And then, just to give the servants a bit of a break, lets imagine that the jars were already half full before they started filling them. Even with this generous scenario in mind, each jar would need ten gallons in order to be filled to the brim. To fill all six jars, the servants would have to carry in sixty gallons of water!
Imagine carrying sixty one-gallon milk bottles through a crowded party!
Whew! That’s a lot of work.
If 5 servants carried in one gallon per trip, each servant would have to make 12 trips!
And it takes a while to pour all that water too!
Glug, glug, glug.
Now here’s another thing. John is quite specific about the purpose of those six huge jars. They were used for “Jewish rites of purification.”
The religion of Judaism is very interested in ritual purity. “Ritual purity” is not achieved through taking showers or rubbing your hands with Purex. Its outward effect may often be physical cleanliness, but “ritual purity” is essentially about being spiritually clean before God. The book of Leviticus contains a long list of laws that determine exactly what makes someone impure in the sight of God, and exactly what you have to do to clean yourself up again.
One of the ritual purity laws required people to wash before eating – hence the presence of the six huge jars.
Seems worthy enough.
Ritual purity, though, has its problems. Many Levitical laws governing ritual purity clearly addressed health concerns, such as contagion, but some have the effect of separating and demeaning people based, in particular, on gender difference. After giving birth, for example, a new mother was considered ritually impure and could not enter the sanctuary for 33 days. Examples like this make it difficult, sometimes, to figure out when such laws give tribute to God, and when they are cultural prejudices that are being propped up by the habits of institutionalized piety.
A Humble Miracle
So what happens now that the jars are filled?
Is there a big flash of lightening?
Is everyone stunned by Christ’s astonishing powers?
How does the story end?
Jesus said to the servants, “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.”
When did the miracle itself occur?
What an anti-climax!
John reports the miracle itself as a fait accompli – something that has already happened
“the steward tasted the water that had become wine…”
If Mary was trying to get her son to pull off an impressive party trick, she didn’t succeed.
The steward was utterly oblivious to the miraculous occurrence.
As far as the steward was concerned, the bridegroom deserved all the credit for saving the best wine for last.
As for the bridegroom, he must have been puzzled!
He’d come close to embarrassing himself, and then, mysteriously, he found himself being lavished with praise!
The only people that knew about the miracle were the servants who did all the hard labor and there is no indication that they told anyone.
Well, Mary knew too.
And so, apparently, did the disciples.
At the end of this morning’s gospel lesson, it is the disciples who are most influenced:
Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Though we may not be able to turn water into wine, we can help our neighbor.
And our tendency, when we feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, or welcome the stranger, is to say “Hey! Look at me!”
There is no “Hey look at me!” moment in this story.
There is a miracle in this story, but there is no show.
The people in the story – the servants in particular – work quite hard. In contrast, the divine action – the miracle — happens with no apparent effort at all.
Jesus doesn’t care if the servants know what’s going on.
It’s fine with him if the steward is fooled and the bridegroom is bewildered.
Christ has no interest at all in taking any credit for it.
It is a humble miracle.
A humble miracle.
We’re accustomed to miracles being a kind of proof that an individual has divine power.
But to the individual performing the miracle, the fact that they may or may not have divine power is beside the point.
In the end, miracle is not about show. Helping our neighbor is not done for show – it is done for its own sake.
It’s not Water, Folks
But what is the effect of this miracle?
On the surface, it looks like Jesus is just taking a party and making it more of a party. What good is that?
The real significance of this miracle becomes clear when we see that, in this miracle, Jesus does not turn water into wine.
Jesus turns Jewish Ritual Purification Water into wine.
With his miraculous act, Jesus is placing an unmistakable question before his people.
The question is this:
Do our pious habits glorify God? Or have they become the rigid rules that serve, instead, to that define the status quo?
This question is immensely important for us today.
Last Monday, in fact, was the day that we celebrated the birth of one of our great American prophets – Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Doctor King was also concerned about the way institutionalized habits were destroying the religion that was beloved to him and his people.
When Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference began a non-violent direct action to end racial segregation in Birmingham Alabama in April 1963, a group of Christian and Jewish clergy published an open letter in a local newspaper condemning the demonstrations. They said that Dr. King and his people should not do anything illegal, and that they should be patient.
Dr. King responded by writing the now famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” If you have not read it, I recommend it as one of the great prophetic works of our time. In it, you will find Dr. King’s question that Bob read for us:
“Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true… hope of the world.”
Like Jesus before him, Dr. King was suspicious of the way religion – when it is institutionalized – becomes a show – a show that is designed to prop up existing power.
Jesus was not interested in making a show. His humble miracle was an action that Dr. King might recognize as coming from “the inner spiritual church” – the church that seeks truth, even if that truth criticizes our comfortable habits.