24 January 2013

What God Joined Together

Isaiah 62: 1-5 & John 2:1-11

Third Sunday after Epiphany/ 20th January 2013

Now, that was a memorable wedding reception.  Cana in Galilee had never seen such a sight, then or probably since.  And just when the party was really getting going, the wine ran out.  As a guest, feeling the host’s embarrassment, Jesus’ mother turns to him and says, “Do something.”  She turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you.”  And so Jesus is coerced – by his mother – into performing his first miracle. What does he do?  He changes water into wine, of course.

Pay attention to what’s going on here and how Jesus acts.  John tells us, “Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification” (John 2:6).  These water-jars once contained water, not for drinking but for purification, for washing before a meal.  The water-jars are sitting there presumably empty because Jesus then tells the servants to fill them again with water, to the brim.  And that’s what they do.  Now the term “water-jars” is misleading; they were really more like jugs, large enough to hold roughly fifteen, twenty, even thirty gallons of water each, as the text says.  Jesus ordered the jugs to be brought to the chief steward who then drew some of the water, now wine, surprised and impressed.  The steward turns to the bridegroom and says, “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).

            This is not a small amount. Do the math.  If we’re talking fifteen-gallon jugs times six:  that’s 90 gallons of wine.  Thirty-gallon jugs times six:  that’s 180 gallons of the finest wine! 

            We discover a few things here:  Jesus blesses the feast with his presence; he knows that weddings, that marriages matter. Jesus offers the best (not the second-best!), he wants to make sure the bridegroom and bride are seen as good hosts, extending hospitality to their guests, and he wants the guests to have a good time. And we also learn from this that Jesus loves to party and that he has exquisite taste!

            Only John’s Gospel includes the miracle in Cana, but John is not alone in showing that Jesus lifts up wedding feasts as significant.  One might try to make a case that these texts demonstrate that marriage is sacred and holy, marriage between a bridegroom and a bride, man and woman. One can try to use such texts to say something about contemporary understandings of marriage, particularly when some states, such as Maryland, and some denominations, such as the PC (USA), are modifying or trying to modify how we define marriage.  We have to be honest, however, and acknowledge that sometimes there’s a little (or a lot) of historical amnesia at work in our wrestling with scripture and contemporary issues.  There’s no such thing as a traditional biblical view of marriage.  We can be assured that the marriage of the bridegroom and bride in Cana has little in common with our view of marriage today based on love, mutuality, and equality between partners.  But that’s a sermon for another time.

            Instead, this morning I want to party – or at least draw our attention toward the party.  It’s striking that the miracle occurs at the wedding feast, at the party.  It’s striking that in the other Gospels we hear less about the marriage ceremony per se than we do about the reception.  Like today, wedding receptions are something to look forward to.  A lot of time and effort and expense go into them.  Today there’s so much focus on the reception, sometimes more than anything else; sometimes wedding guests skip the ceremony, when it’s in a church, and just show up at the reception.  But that, too, is a sermon for another time. 

            In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son,” only to have people RSVP with lame excuses why they couldn’t attend (Matthew 22:1-14, Luke 14:16-24).  Wedding banquet etiquette matters:  “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited” (Luke 14:8).  And even beyond the Gospels, the vision of the future we’re given in Revelation, the goal and end and purpose of human history is described as a great wedding feast between the Lamb of God, Jesus, and his bride, the church (Revelation 19) – the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.

            The point here is that Jesus and then the early church lift up marriage feasts, receptions, banquets as metaphors for the kingdom of God.  It’s an image of what life is and can be and, indeed, shall be in the kingdom of God.  There is a wedding, a bringing together of man and woman to form something new – and the party follows.  But it’s not just the wedding of man and woman per se that warrants a party.  It’s the bringing together that matters.  It’s the pledge, the promise, the covenant itself that means something to God. God wants to be wed to us, united with us, joined with us, pledged to us, in covenant with us. And weddings warrant celebration. This is exactly what we hear in Isaiah 62.  Listen again to what Isaiah says to the nation 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 Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.”  And then Isaiah envisions Israel’s future as a marriage celebration, “For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Is 62:5, emphasis added).           

            Jesus carries on this metaphor of joy and rejoicing and celebrating when two are joined together and form something new. God’s kingdom is about coming together, bringing people together, forming bonds and unions, covenants, marriages.  And if the people invited don’t want to come to the banquet, then go out to the highways and byways, even the ditches along the road, and invite everyone else to come!

Several weeks ago I lifted up the root meaning of the word religion.  It doesn’t really mean being holy or following religious practices; it has little to do with belief.  Religion, from the Latin religare means to make a connection.  Our words ligament and ligature come from the same root.  Religare. It’s all about connection – God connecting with humanity, humanity connecting with God, human to human, person to person, connecting with the depths of the self, connecting with creation, with the cosmos itself.  As Einstein (1879-1955) showed, this entire universe – at every level, from the micro to the macro, including the properties of light – is all based on connections, relationships, making those links and discovering how we’re all connected.

It’s really this simple and profound at the same time. And the One who connects with us is Love itself because that what Love does – Love connects.  And because it is Love it’s untiring, it never gives up on us, never gives up searching, reaching, desiring us. And we never tire in needing to hear it again and again, to know it, to feel it, to encounter this Love.  Now we can easily exchange the word “connect” with “marriage” and the meaning still holds.  In this sense, God has always been in the marriage business and it’s our job to make sure that we don’t undo what God has joined together.

But there’s so much at work in our hearts and in the world, in the brokenness of the world, which works against this, which disconnects, which wants to break asunder the very bonds that God has pledged to uphold.  The plight of the human condition is rooted in the fact that we’re often disconnected from God, from others, from ourselves, from creation.

If God is in the marriage business – wed to humanity, bringing together disparate groups and peoples – it seems that it’s incumbent upon us to be wary of those forces in the world trying to divorce us from God, from our neighbors, from our enemies, from strangers, from ourselves; those entities that want to divide and conquer, hammer wedges between people, often for political gain, demonize the other as if the other is not a sister and brother equally endowed with the image of God.  It’s important to name these forces and fears and lies and so weaken their power over our lives.

On this weekend as we honor the life and witness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), it’s important for us to remember a time when there was not a happy marriage between blacks and whites in the United States – both figuratively and literally.  For too long it was assumed the humanity of a Caucasian had nothing in common with an African-American.  First, separate and not equal, then “separate but equal,”[1] but just barely equal, yet still separate in many ways.  To bring together.  To integrate. To make one, with differences to be sure, but still one, was the work and struggle of a generation. And that work continues. We are still on the way toward realizing Martin’s dream and some still don’t want to hear anything about no “mountain top.”[2] Just because Americans voted for a president who is African-American doesn’t mean we’ve come to terms with racism and our racist past, because we haven’t. Racism, both conscious and unconscious, continues to wreck havoc upon us.  Many churches are still segregated on a Sunday morning and wary of cultural and ethnic diversity of any kind.

There’s a place in Los Angeles raising awareness around these issues.  The Museum of Tolerance, part of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, addresses the hate and intolerance in Nazi Germany, but it also tries to get at the deeper issues of prejudice in human society.  Before you enter the museum with your group you’re confronted with two doors.  Overhead are television screens creating the feeling that you’re on the set of a game show, with a game show host asking, “Which door will you choose?”  Door Number One or Door Number Two?  Which one will you enter through?  One door is marked:  PREJUDICED.  The other door is marked:  UNPREJUDICED. Most people, being in a group, will choose the door marked UNPREJUDICED.  Who’s going to confess prejudice, even if it’s true? So you reach for UNPREJUDICED door, only to find that it’s locked.  It’s always locked.  For the way toward tolerance is through the door of prejudice.

Our prejudices, both the conscious and the unconscious ones, continue to separate us from God, our neighbors, and ourselves.  Here, like in most things, confession is good for the soul.  But this requires a certain amount of honesty and courage and grace to acknowledge what’s there.  Openness toward others is an essential dimension to the life of faith, acceptance of the other, whoever the other might be, is directly related to our relationship with God.  Because, “…limited openness to the otherness of humans always translates into limited encounter with the Ultimate Other – [namely,] God.”  There’s no way around this:  “limited openness to the otherness of humans always translates into limited encounter with the Ultimate Other – God.”[3]

But this Ultimate Other never wants to remain completely other and cut off, divorced from us, but comes to us again and again, most profoundly in Jesus Christ, who, in Christ, comes to us and calls us and loves us into the Kingdom and draws us into community, into relationship, to a feast, a banquet, a party of widely diverse and beautiful people. We are all bound together, whether we like it or not, because God has placed us in this world precisely in this way.[4] Bound together whether we like it or not
    or, until we come to like it –
            or, better yet, love it,
            or, better still, love the other as our brother and sister,
                        who bears the image of God!

            This is what the church is called to proclaim, embody, and celebrate.  The world needs to know that this is what God is calling us toward, this is what we embody, this is what we celebrate.  And, like Isaiah, we will not be silent about it, we will not shut-up about it, we will not keep it to ourselves, but shout it in the streets and from the rooftops, from spires and steeples, a message that shimmers and shines like the dawn and offers the world a new day.  Now that’s worthy of a party, isn’t it?

[1] This phrase was part of the legal doctrine, supported by American Constitutional law, which justified segregation.  The phrase derived from a Louisiana law of 1890, although the law actually used the phrase "equal but separate.”
[2]I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” From Martin Luther King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech given at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters) in Memphis, TN, on April 3, 1968.  On the next day, King was assassinated, in Memphis.
[3] David G. Benner, Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human (Brazos, 2011), 5.
[4] James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis, 2012), “No two people in America have had more violent and loving encounters than black and white people. …[Yet,] no gulf between blacks and whites is too great to overcome, for our beauty is more enduring than our brutality.  What God joined together, no one can tear apart” (166).

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