You can listen to the introduction of this sermon here. The rest of the audio is terribly static-y. Sorry.
I’m told—and obviously I have no way of knowing this personally—but I’m told that one of the scary parts of being a parent is that kids grow up fast. You turn your head for two seconds and all of a sudden your babbling baby is a hormonal highschooler. Then about a week later they’re starting a career.
It’s for that reason that I find the church to be really inconsiderate. We make poor Mary deal with this every single year. She birthed the Christ child not even a month ago and he’s already fully grown, baptized, and ready to start his ministry. The liturgical year is nice that way. It gets us right into the good stuff.
John says that Jesus has just called his disciples, but he hasn’t really started the work of his ministry. One day Jesus gets a call from his mom Mary. On the third ring Jesus picks up and then Mary says, “Jesus, your 3rd cousin is getting married in Cana. I know you don’t know that part of the family very well, so I got you a +1 in case you’re uncomfortable going alone.” Jesus says, “No, no. That won’t do it. My disciples are going to want to come, too. And last I heard there’s about 2 billion of them. Do you think you can find an invitation with a + 2 billion?” Mary says, “Oh, you actually don’t need to worry about that. We’re in the Gospel of John this week, so it’s not a real wedding. It’s more a cluster of symbols—a symbolic wedding.”
So we’re in Cana with Jesus at this symbolic wedding. The wine is flowing and everyone’s having a spectacular time. It’s a raucous wedding. Folks are really putting the wine away. And before too long the wine skins are empty. Mary says to Jesus, “Hey, just thought you should know, the wine is gone.” It’s a bit unclear whether she’s expecting Jesus to do something or if this is just a simple transfer of information. But in any case the wine is gone. Jesus responds by saying something like, “Hold on, Lady. Why is that my problem?” For some reason Jesus is rude to his mother. He’s distancing himself from her. “It’s not my hour,” Jesus says. Mary moves the action forward anyway. She turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever Jesus says.” Jesus says to fill a bunch of big jars with water and they do. And then the head waiter goes to taste the recently-poured water and voila! It’s wine.
There’s your story. Jesus is at a wedding. The wine runs out. Jesus is mean to his mom. And then Jesus does a magic trick. It’s not much of a story on the surface level, which makes me glad that whoever wrote the Gospel of John was intentionally symbolic. Something a lot more interesting is happening here.
John is trying to explain a truth too big for normal language. He’s trying to explain what it’s like when God’s intentions for humankind are finally fulfilled. The biblical question—the question the Scripture and the best of our tradition tries to wrestle with—is “How do we know when God is around?” Or we could ask, What’s it look and feel like for humans to reflect the glory of God by being fully alive? How will we recognize the coming of a new order out of the old? Big questions! John says, “Water to wine. That’s how we’ll know God is around.” John is probably writing for a Jewish audience but at the same time trying to open his message outwards to the wider Greek world. This water-to-wine story is nice because it plays on Jewish and Greek ideas about divinity at the same time. One of our biblical scholars says that in the ancient world there were “widespread associations between a miraculous gift of wine and the presence of a deity” which “would have helped readers understand that the sign [of water to wine] revealed the presence of God in the person of Jesus.” So water-to-wine is the sort of thing a divine figure would do in the ancient world, but the more important connotation in the story comes out of Jewish tradition and experience. One of the images used by the prophets to describe the arrival of God’s righteousness is a lavish outpouring of wine. And that’s exactly what we get here. The waiters fill up six really big jars with water. The jars are normally used for a ritual washing, but not today. Once they’re filled, presto change-o, the water is wine. This is one of John’s ways of speaking about what the presence of God is like. God’s blessings are poured out lavishly and joyously. They’re free-flowing and there’s no scarcity. A water-to-wine banquet is what it’s like when God is around.
Well, truth is, we normally only catch little glimpses of God’s banquet for all people. And it’s days like this one that we can be especially impatient for God’s righteousness to finally arrive in its fullness. It’s hard to reflect on all of the hope and promise attached to Dr. King’s life and message without also bringing to mind all of the ways that his dream hasn’t yet materialized. The promise of progress is oftentimes dampened by the stubbornness of our status quo. And prejudice changes its style but it seems somehow to always be in fashion. At some level we’ve known this to be the case. Do you remember that famous quote of Dr. King’s: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice?” Bending towards justice, yes, but taking far too long to get there. One of my favorite preachers had to admit towards the end of his career that he was an optimist by centuries but a pessimist by decades. Sometimes it’s hard see signs of progress in the short term, but we’re still hoping. We’ve had enough of these exclusive wine tastings and closed guest lists. When is the banquet?
I’m told that when Dr. King spoke to a gathering of the faithful it seemed immanent. That’s the special gift of our prophets. They don’t just bring words from God. The words brings a special presence that draw it’s hearers up into something Holy and truly communal. I like to watch the video of Dr. King’s 1963 speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It’s not like watching most other speeches. When you watch it, a part of you actually feels that you’re there. A message and presence that strong can’t be constrained by outdated television technology or 50 years of history. And, of course, the message lives on in books and shared memory. This morning I’d like to share some words written about Dr. King by Howard Thurman (from The Search for Common Ground): “As a result of a series of fortuitous circumstances there appeared on the horizon of the common life a young man who for a swift, staggering, and startling moment met the demands of the hero. He was young. He was well-educated with the full credentials of academic excellence…. He was a son of the South. He was steeped in and nurtured by familiar religious tradition. He had charisma, that intangible quality of personality that gathers up in its magic the power to lift people out of themselves without diminishing them. In him the “outsider” and the “insider” came together in a triumphant synthesis. Here at last was a man who affirmed the oneness of black and white under a transcendent unity, for whom community meant the profoundest sharing in the common life. For him, the wall [of segregation] was a temporary separation between brothers. And his name was Martin Luther King, Jr.”
I think that even those of us who weren’t born until years after Dr. King’s assassination have the sense that we’re missing something. Where is our leader and who will speak for us? But that may not be the best question to ask. Trouble is, the memory of a public figure as great as Dr. King can tempt us to take a Great Man view of history. It’s easy to think that certain individuals pull history forward by sheer force of their personality. But we ought to remember the original religious meaning of charisma. In biblical thinking, a gift like charisma is bestowed on an individual by God for the benefit of the entire community. It’s on loan. No one is truly charismatic without the participation of others for the benefit of all. And history seems to largely agree. Leaders and movements go hand-in-hand. So if we’re going to ask “where’s our leader?”, we might just as soon ask “where’s the movement?”
The story goes that Dr. King didn’t plan on a career in activism. He took up a pastorate in Montgomery, Alabama because he figured it would be a good place to settle in and finish his doctoral dissertation. What we don’t talk about nearly enough is that a lot of people were doing hard, fruitless work to lay the groundwork for what would later become a successful Civil Rights movement. Without all those little actions of largely anonymous people of conscience, those big moments that call for a leader with incredible charisma can never happen.
So I’d like for us to remember today that leaders need movements, and that the content of our day-to-day lives is just as important as the memorable speeches that history remembers. Special people like Dr. King are always part of our story, but special people don’t make history all on their own. Someone once said that all movements are impossible until they’re inevitable, and I think those are important words to bear in mind as we try to be a church that does justice. We don’t always know how our little actions are tied into the bigger picture, so it’s easy to feel that we’re trying to knock down the mighty walls of injustice with spitballs. But the little things matter, because sometimes the little things gain momentum and, before you know it, they’ve turned into something unstoppable.
I saw an interesting demonstration a few days ago of something called Domino Magnification. Most people have probably enjoyed at some point propping up a series of dominos and then watching the chain reaction unfold when the first domino in the series toppled over. Well, this is advanced dominos. The man doing the demonstration sets up thirteen dominos. The first domino is about the size of the fingernail on your pinky—very small. The second domino is about one and a half times bigger than the first, the third about one and a half times bigger than the second, and so on. The thirteenth domino is about 4 feet tall and weighs a solid hundred pounds. It doesn’t take long for the effect to be greatly magnified. So the man in the video leans down to give the first, pinky fingernail sized domino a little nudge with a pencil. The camera has to zoom in to even see what’s happening—it’s that small. He gives the tiniest domino you’ve ever seen a little nudge and then 2 seconds later the 4 foot tall, 100 pound domino plops to the floor with a giant thud. And if you continued the pattern long enough to line up just 32 dominos, you could knock over a humongous domino the size of the empire state building. The little topples the big.
Today we are in Cana waiting for God’s banquet. We’re remembering the promise of Dr. King’s dream and sizing up the obstacles that stand in its way. Our hope for a more just world comes paired with a disappointment that such a world is not yet a reality. Ponder that disappointment, because it may not be such a bad thing. It’s like Dr. King said, “there can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.” This week I pray that we’ll all come to learn a righteous impatience that channels our disappointments into a more powerful love.