Friday, January 15, 2016

Being a Good Guest (John 2:1-11)

This Sunday, I am the guest preacher for the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Utica, NY.  Tabernacle has an abundant ministry among Karen speaking persons, some of whom are refugees resettling in the Mohawk Valley from places within and near the country of Burma (Myanmar) and others who are first generation American born Karen.  The worship services at Tabernacle are offered in English (where I will be preaching) and in Karen at a second service afterwards.  (I bring greetings from the ABCNYS Region with the assistance of a translator at the beginning of the Karen service.)

This Sunday, the lectionary explores the first sign of Jesus' ministry, commonly called the "miracle at Cana" with water being changed into wine.  I also have spent this week considering what I would say in order to be sensitive to preaching in a context where English may be a second language for many, cultural idioms and colloquialisms may not have the same resonance or common understanding, and I also find John's gospel (like many preachers) a more languid narrative, enriched by meanings upon meanings in the text, yet you still have to preach within the confines of the average Sunday morning service.  (I am most grateful longer passages, the norm for John's gospel, are not among the texts for this Sunday!)

So, here's my sermon for John 2:1-11, written with the hope that I can be a good pulpit guest for a marvelous and vibrant congregation:

           Planning for a wedding celebration can be an anxious experience.  You never know if you have planned enough or thought through all the details.  Some people even have friends help them out, and others will hire a person (“a wedding planner”) to take all of the details over and make sure everything goes smoothly.
            But does a big celebration ever go smoothly?   I have worked with many couples preparing for marriage.  Sometimes, I will ask a question about the wedding service, and they will look at one another, and I realize that I have asked them about something they did not think about yet.  One time, the couple started arguing in front of me about a wedding planning decision.  I had to calm them down and spent the rest of the time talking not about the wedding but how communication and trust might be some things to work on before they got married.  Is it helpful to be planning a wedding when you may not be married after a few weeks of being married?   If choosing wedding decorations and whether or not cupcakes or cake should be served creates a big fight between the two, you need to think about your compatibility as a couple.
            Sometimes, no matter how long you plan, how carefully you work out details, there is still something that can wrong that nobody could have anticipated.  A bride wanted at her wedding reception a certain large glass bowl for punch (a sugary tasty drink).  The bowl had been in her family, passed down for at least three generations and used at family weddings and other occasions.
            However, after the wedding, the bride came out of the church with her new husband to find that the old glass bowl had simply broken apart, the red punch all over their refreshment table.  Nobody had checked the table, as they were inside the church witnessing the wedding.  Suddenly, they discovered they had no drinks to offer the wedding guests!
            Such a problem could be called an embarrassing moment.  Probably people had a laugh, and then for years, this story would be told at other times, even in a pulpit on a snowy Sunday morning in upstate New York!
            In the Gospel of John, the same situation (no drink was left for the many guests of a wedding) was understood as embarrassing as well as very dishonorable.  For the culture of Jesus and his disciples at this wedding in Cana, having not enough to share with your guests was a matter of shame and a dishonoring of your guests. 
Hospitality is a high value in the New Testament, just as it is in many cultures today and throughout history.  Some scholars suggest that a wedding was often a test of how well you and your neighbors got along.  To host such a big event was too much for one family, so it was more likely that people agreed to share their resources so a big celebration could happen.  If you helped out this neighbor, when it was time for your family to have a wedding, they would be obliged to help you. 
Thus, when the wine ran out, it was not an inconvenience.  It was a crisis that made you as host appear rude and inconsiderate. Good hospitality was expected. And people would remember this embarassment for years to come! 
            And into the fray, we find the mother of Jesus coming to Him for help.
            The mother of Jesus did not wish to see this happen.  I can imagine her watching the servants rushing around, trying to find if a jug of wine in hopes it was mislaid or hidden away.  In the midst of servants looking high and low around the household, the mother of Jesus moves through the crowd and finds Jesus with his disciples. 
            And Jesus is just like the rest of us:  He has a mother who expects Him to do the impossible!    
            After some discussion, Jesus does what is often called a miracle.  He turns water into wine.  If you didn’t know better, you would not believe that such goodness could come out of  as if somebody had taken a bottle long in storage, dusted it off, opened it up to breathe for a while before serving.  The taste was unmistakably from the best year of a vineyard, aged to perfection and therefore a sign that the wedding party had spared no expense in treating its guests so well.
Even more impressive was the water itself.  Six large jugs of water were on hand, not for drinking but for purification purposes.  He turns the water used for washing your hands—not even water meant for drinking!—into what’s declared not only drinkable but the best tasting wine!  
            Further, the wine is now so plentiful that nobody could ever complain that they did not have enough.  Every single person, even the servants and Jesus’ disciples alike, are able to enjoy the abundance. 
            The story of Jesus turning water into wine is often called “a miracle”, meaning something that should not be possible is made possible.  Jesus’ miracles are often described in terms of their spectacle.  Turn six jugs of water into wine, feed 5000 with just some bread and fish to start with, and the list goes on.  
            For John’s gospel, he does not use the word “miracle”.  It’s not that these moments like turning water into wine are not miraculous, but John calls these miracles “signs”.  It is written, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” 
The disciples are not caught up in the question of “how did this happen?” which is one way many modern readers would treat this story.  The disciples experience God at work through Jesus, and it deepens their understanding of who Jesus is.  The disciples are learning to answer the question, “Why did this happen?”  
While it is remarkable, spectacular and unexpected, the miracle of the water into wine creates a moment of great abundance where there was otherwise only lack, worry, failure and social shame awaiting the wedding party.    With Jesus, we will learn throughout John’s Gospel again and again that abundance, more than enough good to go around, is what God makes possible, even when we think nothing else could happen, let alone something so marvelously as a wedding party with a serious hospitality shortage  suddenly surpassing everybody’s expectations with great rejoicing and no thought of complaint.
Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus will offer signs of his glory, yet few will be able to perceive and understand them.  One scholar of John’s gospel claims that when these moments happen in the story, the signs Jesus provides are “acts that require interpretation, evoke discussion and demand decision” (Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship, Orbis Books, 1994, p. 80).   Jesus’ disciples, beginning at Cana and certainly long into the Gospel story when the disciple Thomas cannot yet believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, will struggle to understand. Yet slowly, one way or another, their eyes and then their hearts are opened to belief in Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, the Word made flesh, who dwelled among us. 
Only those who first see water, then taste the finest of wine, or who follow only the voice of the Shepherd who is truly their keeper, can understand and believe what is said at the beginning of John’s Gospel:  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
And seeing and believing in this Good News, we follow the disciples of Jesus into a life of discipleship. Jesus offers abundance to the world, yet individual Christians and churches can be too slow or willing to help share God’s good abundance with the world.  Too often, churches struggle (or sometimes outright refuse) to welcome others to join them or be accepted graciously and hospitably as honored guests.  
Then I come to a church like Tabernacle, and I know that the Gospel is being lived out.  You provide welcome to people who have arrived from far away, uncertain of the language and customs and not quite ready for the extremes of a Mohawk Valley winter.  You provide opportunities for worship, education and opportunities to serve.  Certainly, our entire American Baptist Region experienced your generous and warm welcome and hospitality when we had our Region meeting here at Tabernacle in 2014.  And certainly, if anyone attends a meal at this church, you will never go away hungry or thirsty.
            You could say that at Tabernacle, there’s enough to go around, even if you are a long-time member of the church family or a guest who just happened to show up quite recently.  Indeed, when I come here to visit, it’s like the wedding of Cana, where the celebration of God's abundance takes place and never seems to end!

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