A Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany
By Emily Rowell Brown
1 Cor. 12:1-11
I pray in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. : “Eternal God, we bless you. Help us to seek that which is high, noble and good…Amen.”
On my wedding day, my dress didn’t fit, rain poured down from the sky, and our newly pregnant event planner kept sneaking off to the restroom to toss her cookies. Fortunately, all ended well: once we figured out how to arrange the corset correctly, my gown fit perfectly; our photographer made the best of the weather and captured artsy, romantic shots of Dan and me walking outside under a large umbrella; and the event planner recruited her assistant to take over and proceeded to deliver a healthy baby girl seven months later.
Anyone here who has planned a wedding has likely, at some point during the big day, felt a similar sense of disaster looming, and I wonder if it was not so different at the wedding in Cana. You can almost imagine the parents of the bride frantically soliciting Jesus’ mother for help while attempting to remain unruffled amidst the other guests. They perhaps instructed the servants to lessen their pours, meanwhile hoping that they would find dozens of bottles hidden in a corner of another room or that somebody would come to the rescue. That somebody turned out to be Jesus.
Despite how relatable the premise of this story is, there are some strange things about the ensuing response. The hosts know to go to Mary and Jesus for help–how is that so? What made them confident that Jesus could solve their problem? Jesus calls his mother woman–why distance himself from her in that way? The first miracle John reports in his gospel is the turning of water into wine. Why testify to a miracle about saving face at a wedding party and not something more significant? Miracles, after all, are the signs by which the disciples–and we–learn of Jesus’ identity. Is this miracle supposed to convince us that Jesus is divine, that God has come to save us?
These idiosyncrasies all serve a larger symbolic purpose. John never misses an opportunity to layer on meaning, and this very first sign foreshadows what is to come at the end. The six stone jars used for Jewish rites of purification are filled with new wine, showing us that Jesus creates something new within the midst of his heritage. To his mother, Jesus acknowledges his fate with the remark “My hour has not yet come.” And we cannot miss that it is water that also pours out of Jesus’ sides when he is later nailed to the cross. The transformed wine invokes the depths to which Jesus goes rescue us, his love spilling out on the cross as he endures and triumphs over suffering and death.
While the symbolic overtones of this miracle invite contemplation, at face value, the water-to-wine conversion seems magical yet incidental. God shows up to a celebration, a feast, of all things. God lavishes the guests with gallons and gallons of wine, and at the very end of the event, when everyone expects to be drinking the cheap stuff. We expect God to raise the dead and heal the sick but not so much to salvage a party…and in our modern context, examples like this prompt concerns about the dangers of excess, particularly when it comes to alcohol.
Nonetheless, God’s providing abundantly reveals a God who enjoys fun, who delights in at times spoiling her children. Part of the challenge here is to believe that God is in the small things and wants to be invited into celebration and joy. We give the obligatory reverence and thanks to a faraway God for the birth of a child or a new job or recovery from illness, and we readily call unto God to help us when we are in pain. C. S. Lewis has an all-too-apt observation about how we seek God only when there seem to be no other options. As he puts it, “We regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.” Yet on the whole, we are reluctant to seek God in less weighty matters–perhaps because we think we have them handled on our own, or perhaps because we think God is too busy with other, more important stuff.
Our lectionary readings today call us to experience a God bigger than our preconceptions and expectations. The words Paul offers to the Corinthians (who are all fighting about who has the most important spiritual gift) have an almost ho-hum quality to them. Of course God creates and equips us differently, and of course the Holy Spirit will work through us uniquely. It is logical that some of us will be good at some things, and others better at other things. A church is a perfect example of how many different people and gifts our world needs. What would St. Mary’s do without our numbers people and our construction experts and our teachers and our gardeners and our talented home cooks? We would not eat nearly as well or have such beautiful grounds, for one, and we might not be around at all.
What Paul’s words also tell us, however, is that God appears in a number of ways, that God does not confine himself to particular personalities or scenarios or activities. We are currently in the season of Epiphany, which has everything to do with illumination, or knowledge of who God is, attained especially by looking at Jesus. This season helps deepen–and sometimes blows up–what we think we know about how God works. It is not up to us to say where God will and will not show up. Sometimes it is through miracles and signs, or through speaking in tongues, or prophetic words; sometimes at weddings, births, church services, or soup kitchens; sometimes in laughter, tears, or joy.
If God is in such profane experiences as parties and events, food and drink, then we must expand what we count as holy. Holy is the good wine at the end of the party, the hospitality of wanting your guests to enjoy the best even at their final sip. Holy is the bowling alley which sometimes hosts deep youth group discussions about faith and spirituality but more often simply provides a cell signal-free zone to enjoy being human together. Holy is the knock-knock joke you hear from your grandson, which always ends with the same punchline that he delivers as though it is the first time. Holy is the lipstick you put on before church because you want to look nice for your pewmate, and nice for God, and God notices and delights in it. Holy is the good time had around the coffee table with friends and popcorn during the Super Bowl or premiere of the new season of The Bachelor.
Because God is celebration and pleasure just as much as God is mercy and forgiveness, and that is reason to rejoice in a world that can be all too weighty, all to solemn.