A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
Lections: Isa 62:1-5; Ps 36: 5-10; John 2: 1-11.
“There is no rejoicing save with wine.”
The Wedding at Cana is an uproarious occasion; the revelers drink all the wine the bridegroom could provide, and then one guest, Mary, the God-bearer, gives her son Jesus a nudge. “Be helpful,” she says, and Jesus, ever mindful of his mother, turns six 20 – 30 gallon stone jars of water into an abundance of wine. Everyone fills their wine cups, the celebration continues untroubled, and the bridegroom is complemented for saving his best wine until last.
Are we surprised to find Jesus and his mother in the midst of this intoxicated social gathering? The church would have us begin our preparations for Lent on this Sunday, but Jesus is not in a contemplative setting, well-removed from the sensuous distractions of the world; Jesus is not out in the desert, fasting to confound the devil’s assault on his equanimity and mindfulness. Rather, he is displaying his Glory for the benefit of villagers who are over-serving themselves as they perpetuate a long standing institution of transferring the place of young women, recently arrived at child-bearing age, from their birth family to the family of their husband. The joy that gives rise to this celebration is not the joy of romantic love but the joy of having met the expectations of others, of having maintained community traditions that through their distribution of property across generations appear to harmonize with the order of the sky and of the seasons, the progress of life and death. Our modern, post-romantic experience is not entirely free of the vestiges of these ancient cultural beliefs and practices. For us, too, the deepest values of the Christian marriage and faith experience are strangers to the heart. We can be sure that when Jesus changed the water at the Cana wedding, he changed much more; for Jesus gives a powerful demonstration that the ordinary events and transitions of a person’s life are changed by his Divine presence: “a good wedding can be made better and sinners changed into saints.”
The Christian marriage is always a representation of the wedding of the human to the divine; the marriage of the bride and groom is symbolic of the marriage of the church to God, and the twelve major feasts of the church are an ample opportunity to celebrate this marriage. Indeed, the church is said to live “from feast to feast.” Sadly, as the church has distanced itself from celebration, and slipped from its moorings in the life of the community it gathers, feasting has become simply a matter of changing the color of the altar cloth and vestments. Congregations no longer devote themselves to cooking steaming pots of sausage soup, breads, potatoes, vegetables, home grown tomatoes and bean dishes, pastries and pies; since the late 19th century, we won’t even pour wine into our communion chalice. And because we won’t cook together, eat together, and drink together, we marginalize the church from the center of our lives. If we want to discover what people value, we can follow the sounds of celebration to their source; go to where there is eating and drinking, where voices are lively in conversation and no one minds the clock.
The season of Epiphany begins with two feasts: the Journey of the Magi and the Baptism of Jesus. These are occasions for celebrating the revelation of God’s glory. The Wedding at Cana is a not a feast; it is an ordinary event where the God-man seems out of place. The Wedding at Cana is a faint manifestation of an archetype that remains mostly a promise and leaves little more of an impression than a hangover. The Wedding at Cana begins our preparation for Lent because it hints at what the future holds and makes clear the celebration that is in store for us; the Wedding inspires our resolve. The roots of this resolve, and its significance, can easily go unnoticed; Lent calls us to be attentive, and the church asks us to fast, so our attention will be fruitful. But the church that has forgotten how to feast, has also forgotten how to fast. Abstinence precedes consummation. Together these constitute joy.
All that we have just observed is true, as far as it goes, but there is more. In the church we say we celebrate the Eucharist, the rite of Holy Communion instituted by Jesus the Christ. Jesus instituted two sacraments for the church: baptism and the Eucharist. The first occasion of the Eucharistic celebration we remember as the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday, when Jesus established the pattern for our solemn and joyful rite. The Wedding at Cana foreshadows this institution by demonstrating the significance of the sacrament. The water Jesus changed into wine was specifically the water used for the Jewish rites of purification. Just as the immersion of Jesus in the Jordon River changed the element of water to bear the Holy Spirit, the presence of Our Lord in the sacrament of Communion changes the elements of bread and wine into a means of grace. At the Wedding at Cana, Jesus replaced the water of purification with communion wine. He anticipated the significance of the celebration which is the root of all the feasts of the Church. By using the ordinary backdrops of a meal and a wedding, Jesus indicates that we can regard all the ordinary occasions of our daily lives as possessing a sacramental integrity.
Here in Vermont, as in many places around the world, few attend church. The churchgoers in small, rural communities such as ours have been an industrious people, working their farms and forests for sustenance and occasionally wealth. Some of us remember being without electricity in our schools, without bathrooms in our homes. The farms are fewer now, industries newer, the population larger, geared by education for a different, more mobile, life. The church we preserve is no longer a focal point for the community; the white building with its steeple serves as a reminder for strangers of a simpler time, when humanity lived harmoniously within its landscape. Our church is picturesque, vital only to a small weekly gathering of the aged. Our reality has become a symbol, largely irrelevant to those who daily pass by our building.
Still, we persevere. We are a remnant; we look around the inside of our building during worship services, and we see empty seats. We have been left to go it on our own by our neighbors. We would like the church to be filled; we would like to see our children and their children here in church worshipping with us. Regardless, we carry on. And this is cause for celebration; this is what God would have us do.
This year as we prepare for Lent let us prepare to celebrate. Let us celebrate what a church does – as light and salt – to preserve its faith and witness. Let us take take note of the buildings, and of how we have – for our communities – maintained them, much as they were when we first entered through their door. This is a worthy effort and a worthy beginning. Let us go on to consider how our church can tell the story, inside and outside of its buildings, of what God established for humanity here on earth and our role in sustaining and transforming the divine gift of creation. And most importantly, perhaps, let us learn as much as we can about the church yesterday and today, so that the story we tell will be passed on to people fifty years from now, when all of us have passed.
Naturally we think about how to grow the church. As we prepare for Lent, however, I want us to redirect our thoughts. I want us to think about what churchgoers everywhere can do differently, now, using just the resources we already possess, to preserve the church God entrusts to us, in a community and society that will continue to be strangers to our worship and remain uninterested in our beliefs. Redirecting our thoughts, and applying the teachings drawn from today’s gospel, requires us to accept our present circumstances as we look to move forward. There are at least three aspects of church life to consider.
First, let’s begin by emphasizing our strengths. Surely the greatest strength we have is our relationships with each other and with the community. As we grow more elderly, the people we worship with develop health issues that prevent them from leaving their homes; some move into assisted living and care facilities. We can apply today’s lessons by praying for these parishioners every week, and where practical, by regularly visiting with them. We can pay special attention to including them in the life of the church, by mailing out bulletins and newsletters, and bringing them copies of the Upper Room in a timely manner each time we receive our copies. It is always a good thing to keep praying, as Isaiah prays for Zion, for our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to serve them with compassion.
Second, let’s follow the example of Mary, the God-bearer, who shows us that compassion exercised in discipleship extends beyond the church. She and her son are at a wedding, and the guests need wine. Jesus says, “What concern is this of mine?” Mary doesn’t answer him directly; instead, she calls over the servants and says, “Do what he says.” Our church, like many others, participates in outreach efforts all over the world, but there are few signs of this in our building. Churches can use prominent wall space to display maps that identify sites of mission activity and photographs of communities being transformed. When churchgoers and visitors come into the building, they will see the big picture of what the church is doing in the world, here and now, as change agents. There is a vital worldwide church presence in areas such as community health and development, economic and social justice, meeting the needs of refugees, and working to stop sex trafficking, as well as peace efforts, and education aimed at promoting sustainable energy, agriculture, and curtailing global warming. Churches need to communicate these activities locally.
There’s a joke in John’s account of the Wedding. The headwaiter thinks the host has been silly to serve the best wine last, because the guests can no longer recognize its quality. What the head master doesn’t know is that serving the best wine last “stands for God’s act in the coming of Jesus.” Churches can’t be doing God’s work if they think like “people in the ancient world” who “commonly thought oldest was best.”[i] Churches can subvert nostalgia by representing the reality of their present witness in God’s world, rather than an unchanging reminder of their witness in the past.
Finally, I think, churches can explore the roots of their worship to discover how tradition vitally links the life inside their buildings to the life of the community outside the entranceway. This is fitting, for it is the mission of an elderly church to preserve its stories and teachings, its worship and beliefs, for who might come along behind them. Today’s scripture begs us to consider ways the church can celebrate its traditional feasts in a more extravagant manner, and how we can tie the church feasts into community events with special dinners – banquets, even – served in our buildings and on our grounds. Joyful social occasions are opportunities for us to offer hospitality and celebrate with townspeople. When we communicate the rhythm of church life through the structure the church provides, the meaning of our worship and beliefs will be openly displayed, and we will have succeeded in our preparation for Lent.
May God bless us our endeavors. Amen.
[i] The joke is pointed out by Richard Bauckham, in Roger E. Van Harn, Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Vol 1-3, “Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C.”