Monday, January 18, 2016

The God of Abundant Extravagence

Homily notes for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (1/17/2016)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Isaiah 60:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

Anyone who has ever been to a wedding in a smaller, rural or a tight-knit, ethnic community might have a leg up on understanding what is at play in today’s gospel. I had the privilege of attending a such wedding in a small, rural mountain town. Good Catholics that they were, the bride and groom were married in the town’s church. As the Marriage Rite ended, I was expecting that my friend and I were going to drive to a reception hall. Imagine my surprise, then when the doors to the Church opened to reveal a fabulous feast set right there in the middle of the piazza fronting the Church – tables piled high with food, drink being poured, and a band striking up. The liturgical meaning of the Marriage Rite that took place inside the church was now underscored by an exuberant celebration. It was a day-long event that would turn into days-log celebration. It involved nearly everyone in the community. It was an extended family doing what they do best.

Such weddings, I imagine, could reflect conditions in Biblical times, the kind of weddings Jesus attended, including the one at Cana in Galilee. The whole village gathered, together with special guests, like Mary and her son, who would have come from neighboring villages. There would be a days-long celebration, with lots of dancing and merriment, storytelling and thanksgiving, food and all the wine you could drink – until it ran out.

So, what appears to have been an ordinary wedding at Cana will result in anything but an ordinary action. What we heard today was an account of Jesus’ earliest miracle. Saint John the Evangelist actually calls them signs not miracles which makes this a perfect lesson for the season after Epiphany. It is here, at Cana, that Jesus “manifests” or “shows forth” who God is for us. Indeed, Saint John’s very purpose in telling the story is not to make a huge deal about the act; but, instead, Saint John uses the sign to point to the reality of Jesus and who we can be in the Jesus Movement.

The story often gets simplified to a story about wine and merry-making. It is about those things butt it is also so much deeper, so much so that I couldn’t possibly approach its fullness in one sermon. I will, therefore, look at two aspects of the story – two sides of the “story coin” – as directed by Mary’s two lines of dialogue.

THEY HAVE NO WINE
Mary’s first line is the simple statement, "They have no wine."

It’s an interesting statement. Why should Jesus be bothered if the wine ran out and why would Mary be the one to inform him? On the one hand, wine running out would be a huge embarrassment to the one throwing the wedding feast. Mary was a concerned guest, trying to alleviate the shame of the host. But, as I have said, this story is about more than simply wine and merry-making so we should ask ourselves what Mary’s role is in the coming sign.

As for me, while I recognize what Mary said as a statement, I also hear in her voice a question, “They have no wine?” In Mary's voice, as she points out to her son Jesus that the wedding guests have run out of wine, I hear a question about scarcity. Abundant wine is frequently used by the prophets of the Old Testament as a symbol for the new age (Amos 8:13; Hosea 2:24; Joel 4:18; Isaiah 29:17; Jeremiah 31:5). I hear a question in Mary’s voice, “Has the wine really run out?” Jesus will answer Mary’s question-not-asked. Indeed, he will answer it at Mary’s own prompting. In the end, though, it is a question of scarcity that I hear in Mary's voice.

If I am honest, it is a question that I carry deep inside me sometimes. It’s a question familiar to many of us: Is there enough? Are we running out? Are we rich enough? …safe enough? …strong enough? …powerful enough? Will we go over the budget? (That last one was for my treasurer.)

We should ask ourselves, “How much is enough?” This is a critical question as we make our way in our world and on our Christian journey. In this context, we should recognize that scarcity and abundance are economic principles, questions of quantity, demanding calculations of dollars and percentages. I suppose that the expected Christian response could be that real abundance should rather be about quality – the good life – the life of salvation that cannot be measured in mere numbers. In some ways this might be true but theologian Sallie McFague points out that if we are to be faithful followers of Jesus we need to get out our calculators and take a look at what abundance means in our world today.

In her book Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril, McFague makes the case for a different kind of good life,
"I believe Christian discipleship for 21st century North American Christians means 'cruciform living,' an alternative notion of the abundant life...For us privileged Christians a 'cross-shaped' life will not be primarily what Christ does for us, but what we can do for others. We do not need so much to accept Christ's sacrifice for our sins as we need to repent of a major sin--our silent complicity in the impoverishment of others and the degradation of the planet." (14)
Christian abundance must include sustainability, self-limitation and inclusion of all, "especially the weak and vulnerable."

DO WHATEVER HE TELLS YOU
So Mary asks about scarcity. Jesus does not appear ready to respond, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” Despite this rebuke, Mary approached the servants and said “Do whatever he tells you.”

Despite her question of scarcity, Mary also knows the answer and she directs the servants follow Jesus. Just as Mary’s first statement points to the need (perceived or real), her second points to the solution. Jesus then produces a sign – the first of his signs – demonstrating that the wine, the potent symbol of the new age, has not run out. But it’s not just that it hasn’t run out, the new age is being ushered in – the good wine coming at the end – through, with, and in Jesus.

So let’s not miss the obvious: This is story is about abundance and extravagance. The wine had run out but now we hear about an enormous amount of wine – six stone jars full each containing twenty to thirty gallons. That is way more wine that the wedding feast needs and is beyond anything we should ever expect or could ever deserve. This kind of extravagance and abundance is a message that God wants us to celebrate life in Jesus, to enjoy the company of one another as companions on the way, and to pour the wine of new life for all to drink.

A story of abundance, this is also a story of remarkable transformation and new possibilities. In John’s gospel, the wine of the wedding feast at Cana will serve also as a precursor to final sign, the cross of Christ when blood and water flowed from his side. It is a sign of Jesus, the new wine of a whole new creation. This is most poignant in the Eucharist, the central sign of our faith – the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation, Jesus poured out for us.

Recounting the story of Jesus changing water into wine was John’s way of showing that Jesus had come to do nothing less than transform the common into the holy. So it is that in Jesus we learn about the power of God to transform the incomplete into the whole, the weak into the strong, the ordinary into the precious, the despised into the beloved, and the tasteless into the joyous. Is it through Jesus that we lean of the power of God to transform what we are into what we can become.

How well this transformation takes place depends on our connectedness with God. And that connectedness depends on our connectedness with Jesus, in whom we see the human face of God. And our connectedness with Jesus depends on how much we enter into the Jesus Movement (but more on that later).

In scripture, the connection between Christ and humanity is often described with the metaphor of marriage. In today’s passage from Isaiah, for example, we heard a wedding metaphor used to describe God’s redemption of Israel.
"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."
The prophet, preaching after the Israelites had returned to their own land from their exile in Babylon, foreshadows the new Jerusalem created from the one that had been destroyed.

Marriage metaphors in the New Testament exemplify the relationship of God with the people of God. We are encouraged to better understand our relationship with the unseen God by examining the nature of love between two people in marriage. We are bid to examine the best kind of love in marriage – self-giving love that is extravagant like the abundance of wine at Cana. In this way, we can better know the love that God intends for all people, a love that can produce genuine transformation from the tendency toward human selfishness into gracious, loving Christ-like-ness.

Today’s gospel story about a sign at a wedding celebration can help lead us to a renewed life in Christ. We can better learn how to share the unlimited gifts God offers us. We can better learn how to celebrate the joys of human community and the union we can have with God, one that will sustain us through our journeys of faith.

May it be our prayer today that Christ will more closely unite not only with the whole church but specifically with each congregation and each individual. In such a prayer we will seek an unbreakable connection of mutual love – love that not only will show us clearly what God is like but also will lead us to the fullness of Christ. We will seek in our hearts and souls to enter into the new, abundant life of our Lord Christ.

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