2nd Sunday after Epiphany
17th January 2016
Well, that was quite a wedding, wasn’t it? Don’t you wish you were on that guest list? Wouldn’t you have loved to be on the guest list? It was quite the party. Everyone was there. The disciples were there and Jesus and his mother, who bossed Jesus about. And lots of wine was consumed, so much they ran out of it, no doubt embarrassing the host. That’s probably why Mary told Jesus, the ever-responsible one, to do something about it.
Having wine at a wedding was a sign of generosity and hospitality. Wine didn’t flow freely in Jesus’ time. It was a cash crop, like olive oil. The poor drank little wine. They drank water with their daily diet of cheese and bread and olive oil. Weddings were different. The couple’s family had to save for a long time in order to have wine at a wedding reception. Family and friends passed harsh judgments on those who couldn’t throw a wedding in style. The wine was supposed to flow freely. So there’s shame here in Cana. The family couldn’t afford their guests. It was not enough. Mary tells Jesus to do something about it and then she say to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Jesus orders the servants to take the large, stone water jars used for purification, six of them, obviously empty, and fill them with water. They did as they were told, drew some out, and gave it to the wine steward who, unaware of the miracle, was impressed by the quality of the new wine. The steward says to the groom, “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” (John 2:10).” It’s a sign, John tells us, Jesus’ first sign.
Ah, but what does it signify? That’s the question. This “miracle” story is highly symbolic. When we read John’s gospel we need to remember that there’s always two narratives, two levels of meaning, two stories going on at the same time. There’s what’s happening on the surface of things and then there’s the deeper, more significant symbolic meaning. This is “just” a wedding that runs out of wine. I’m sure that happened all the time. It’s an ordinary domestic scene. And, yet, this miracle actually symbolizes something else for those with eyes to see. This text, like most of John’s gospel, is swimming in symbolism. A surface reading of the story misses the point—which I’ll get to shortly.
First, I’m struck by the way today’s gospel lectionary beautifully complements the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday this weekend. It might seem like a stretch to suggest that Jesus’ miracle at Cana has anything to do with King’s life and witness and struggle. But there’s a connection. The text has something to say to the Church as we continue to dream the dream.
We know his famous “I Have a Dream” speech given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 28, 1963. We’ve seen photos of that event. Seen the film footage. You might have been there (Al Davies). Whenever I visit the Lincoln Memorial (my favorite monument in DC), I’m always struck by the juxtaposition of the massive statute of Lincoln, with the Gettysburg Address carved into the wall to Lincoln’s right and the Second Inaugural Address to his left, one of the most theologically profound addresses ever given by a president. Whenever I’m there I look for the stone marker at the top of the steps that indicates the exact spot Dr. King offered his speech, with Lincoln looking over his shoulder. “I have a dream,” he said, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” One day.
Two days after the speech, the COINTELPRO, a covert program of the FBI, which at times acted beyond the law, said, “In the light of King's powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands head and shoulders above all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.”
There was much suffering and pain and death in the years following that speech. And, thank God, we have come far, very far, since the days of segregation and Jim Crow. It was said with the election of Barack Obama as president that we entered into a post-racial America. I didn’t believe that in 2008 and I certainly don’t believe that now.
It’s all too painfully obvious to us, especially in light of recent events in Ferguson, New York, Charleston, Chicago, and right here in Baltimore this year, that for many African-Americans, that dream is still “a dream deferred,” to quote the poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967). King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was actually connected to a poem by Hughes, written in 1951, called “Harlem.” It goes like this:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
It’s a good question.
Maybe there’s a problem with the dream itself? Some might say, “Well, what King offered was only a dream,” meaning it was a “fantasy,” it wasn’t realistic. “It raised expectations that can’t be fully realized in American society. It’s nice to be optimistic, imagine a future, but don’t get carried away.” Some contemporary authors, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, who grew up in West Baltimore, seems to suggest in his recent bestselling Between the World and Me, a series of letters to his son, that King’s dream, rooted in the Judaic-Christian vision of justice and redemption, along with the American dream, are both illusions, at least for African-Americans. Struggle, he says. Stop dreaming.
Unfortunately, people don’t put a lot of stock in their dreams, in the power of dreams to transform us and change us. Some, such as Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), think our dream life is a big trash compactor that processes all the stuff from our waking life. Others, such as Carl Jung (1875-1961), believed that dreams are given by the psyche, maybe even by God, to compensate for the extremes of our waking life, to offer balance. Dreams can also have a prospective dimension to them; their message originates from some place deep, often with a greater wisdom and generosity than our skittish, frightful egos. These dreams call for action, for change, they move us forward; they lead us toward transformation and wholeness. Jung also believed that profound dreams, “big dreams,” can be lived and relived in order to fathom their meaning and depth. Dreams can be a kind of North Star that leads us in the way we should go. From this perspective, we need to dream the dream forward, or, better, live the dream forward. (I’m firmly in Jung’s camp, by the way.)
King’s dream, vision still needs to be lived forward. We’ve made great strides. But as they sing at the end of the musical Hairspray, “I know we've come so far, but [baby, baby] we've got so far to go.” There’s still so much work that needs to be done.
Throughout King’s ministry the dream was expressed in his vision of the beloved community. King said, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives" (Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom, May 4, 1966). His words resound with the gospel; they echo Jesus' teaching on the Kingdom of God (or Kin-dom or Realm, even Empire of God). The beloved community is the dream—a dream that shapes our waking life. And if we’re going to enter into that community, if we are going to live from the dream, if we’re really going to get there and are serious about wanting to get there it will only come through change: qualitative change in our individual souls, in our hearts, change in the nature of our thoughts and feelings and quantitative change in our lives, in our actions, collective action strong enough that moves us off from dead center or the way things are. The status quo is often status woe, especially for those without power or privilege.
Why is this so difficult for us? Why? Why is it so difficult for us, both as a Church and as a nation, to talk honestly and openly about racism? We all struggle with this, whether we’re black or white or neither. Whether it’s the sin of racism in our past or the consequences of the unconfessed sin of racism that plagues our present, we need to honest about it. Racism is sin and every institution—church, nation, corporation, family—that benefits from being racist or helps to support racism is sin, is caught in sin, is a partner in crime against the human spirit. It’s why Jim Wallis, of the evangelical-social justice Sojourners community, calls racism America’s “original sin.” Philosopher Eddie Glaude, Jr., who teaches at Princeton University just released a book this week with the title Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul.
Until we confess the sin of racism, both as a people and as individuals, and acknowledge our own complicity in it—no matter how difficult and painful it is to do so—and then repent, which means changing our hearts and our minds and actions, both individually and collectively, nothing will change. Christians have to act. Christians have to call out other Christians when they’re being racist. Christians needs to confess their complicity in the sin of slavery. Christian culture isn’t innocent. We helped to cause the mess we’re in. The first slave ship to arrive on these shores in 1564, a British vessel, was named “The Goodship Jesus.”
|The Goodship Jesus, the first slave ship to arrive in America.|
Ta-Nehisi writes to his son, “You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.” History is never destiny, though. The Church must be able to embody the change and transformation that it teaches. If the Church, of all places, can’t be a model for reconciliation, if we can’t change ourselves and bring about the change, then what are we here for?
Why is it so difficult?
I was recently remind of W. H. Auden’s (1907-1973) searing words:
We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
We can’t do this ourselves. That’s why the water is changed into wine. There is no way for the followers of Jesus to follow him and claim his name without change. Sure, the wedding guests needed wine. So Jesus made wine. But there’s another level of meaning in this story that says something about what matters most to Jesus and those who love him. To trust in him means that we will undergo change and experience change until we die. And we need to change. We need to be transformed. The entire Christian life is all about ongoing change and reform. Those six, stone jars were originally made only to hold water, water for purification. They must now be put to a different use. “The water of one era must be replaced by the wine of another.”
Wine, itself, in this story is symbolic of the New Age, it’s the New Way that Jesus offers the world. It’s a sign of the Messianic Age. In the book of First Enoch, written before Jesus’ time, we’re told “in those days,” the Messianic Age, the vines will produce wine in plenitude. Philo the Jew (25 BC – 50 AD) of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus, spoke of God’s presence in the world in terms of rich, red wine. Curiously, this comes from Philo’s treatise called On Dreams. Jesus provides wine, loads of wine–do the math–about 180 gallons of the finest wine! This revealed his glory “and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11).
If Jesus can do that to water, just imagine what he is doing and wants to do with us and for us—we who are mostly water. We need to be made into new wine ourselves something needs to occur within us. We are supposed to embody God’s New Order, God’s New Age, God’s Kingdom.
Dr. King’s dream wasn’t King’s dream. It was and is God’s dream and we need to allow God’s dream to dream through us, to dream us forward, allow God’s dream to shape us and to change us—into new wine!
 Gerard Sloyan, John (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 36.
 Langston Hughes, “Harlem,” Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (Random House, 1990)
 Ta-Nehesi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015).
 See C. G. Jung, “General Aspects of Dream Psychology,” The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 8 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 237ff.
 Hairspray, music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman, 2002.
 Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America (Brazos, 2016).
 Coates, 71.
 Cited in Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), 14.
 W. H. Auden, “Age of Anxiety” (1948).
 Sloyan, 39.