17 January 2010

Abundant Giving: A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany C

In the Psalm this morning we sang "For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light" -- fitting words for this season of Epiphany when our focus is on the manifesting of God among us. Really this is a common theme for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany -- God revealing God's self among us more and more. In liturgy and most importantly in story we recognise and celebrate this on-going revelation.

This morning the central story is from John's Gospel -- the wedding feast at Cana. Some of the stories of these seasons, like the Christmas story, or the story of the three kings, seem almost to unlock themselves. We too see the angels and the star, hear the heavenly chorus, recognise our own responses to God in shepherds and magi, in Joseph and, unfortunately, in Herod. And we see Emanuel, God with us, in the child born into difficulties, the refugee family fleeing into Egypt. But others are much harder to unlock, like this story of a very prosaic problem among ordinary people. How can John invest this tale of poor wedding planning with such deep significance? Let's look more closely.

There are a lot of details here that we would like to know that just aren't there. Whose wedding was it, anyway? Why did they run out of wine? And why did the servants consult Mary about the problem? As with many stories in the Bible, though, the details that rouse our curiosity did not seem important to the evangelist, so he did not bother to tell us! From what we do know about wedding customs at the time, it appears that the bridegroom's friends would have escorted the bride and groom to the groom's home where the actual marriage would have taken place, followed by a major party, one that could last up to a week. And, given the length of the party, it seems that friends and family of the groom were expected to chip in with gifts of wine. Likely Mary and Jesus were part of the groom's family (one ancient speculation is that she was the groom's aunt!). But be that as it may, Mary seems to have been the 'point person' for solving the wine problem, and she turns to Jesus for help, help which he is reluctant to give.

When she comes to tell him that there is no wine, an odd dialogue ensues. He replies basically that it is not his problem, because his hour is not yet come. This puts the problem of the wine on a whole new level! In this gospel, Jesus' hour always refers to the time of his glorification, the moment when (among other things) he would be revealed. After all, we are doubtless talking about a lot of wine here -- enough for a large group for a long celebration. It is not a simple matter of running out to a wine shop for a bottle or two. To provide wine in such abundance would require Jesus to act in ways that would at the very least point to the presence of a second Elijah and more likely to the presence of the Messiah. One of the signs of the Messiah's presence was the Messianic banquet, at which a superabundance of food and wine would be poured out upon the people.

So Jesus cannot solve Mary's problem without jumping the gun, so to speak, and revealing himself in an untimely way. Or so it appears. Mary's reply manages to combine acceptance with challenge in a very parental way. Speaking now not to Jesus but to the servants, she says, "Do whatever he tells you." On several occasions in the gospels, people -- women usually -- refuse to accept Jesus' answer to them and press on somehow. Usually their insistence is rewarded and such is the case here. What follows has got to be the most inconspicuous miracle in the New Testament!

Only a small group knows about the problem -- Mary, Jesus (and apparently his disciples), and the servantswho brought the problem to her in the first place. Mary, trusting that Jesus will somehow do what needs to be done, has left it in his hands by telling the servants to obey him. And Jesus, having first rejected the idea out of hand, seized the opportunity to save the situation without forcing an issue before its due time. As the evangelist tells us, he instructed the servants to fill up six stone jars with water -- between 120 and 180 gallons of water -- and draw some out and take it to the wedding co-ordinator. When he tasted it, he found not water but wine, and not the wine he expected and had tasted at the start of the party, but better wine, kept back as he thought until now, until its hour had come.

But only that small group knows the whole truth -- where the wine really came from. The bridegroom must have known that he had no special wine put aside for later, and I am sure he puzzled over it after the party was over and the guests had all gone home. One wonders what Aunt Mary from over in Nazareth said when she was asked, so what was with the wine? But the disciples knew, and for the evangelist John that is the important thing -- this simple domestic miracle completes his story of their call (which we heard last year at this same point in Epiphany). It gives a sort of first installment on Jesus's promise that they would see even greater things than his advance knowledge of Nathanael and the fig tree and its result was that they believed in him. Just as the figure of John the Baptist links the story of the disciples' calls with the prologue that opens the gospel, here the wedding miracle makes a link between those calls and the book of Jesus's signs that follows. And this story also speaks to us in our time, because of what it reveals to us about God and God's relationship with us. If, as the Psalmist says, in God's light we see light, what does that light reveal?

I think this story shows us two very important things -- how God sees our needs and how abundantly he gives to us. Earlier I referred to the problem of the wine as a prosaic one among ordinary people -- I meant nothing disparagaing. Prosaic and ordinary I said, and on any objective measure prosaic and ordinary it was. But, not to them, to the bride, the groom, their friends and family. It was a big problem to them: you want to think that your family, friends, and neighbours will remember your wedding and talk about it in the future, but not because you were the people who ran out of wine and had to send everyone home early! Because it was important to them, it was important to God, and we see in the story Jesus taking pains to find a solution that will solve their problem without a premature revelation. I find it tremendously reassuring when the answer to my prayers seems to be No, or Not now to remember that the difficulty is never that God does not take my problems or worries seriously -- this story is part of what reassures me of that.

The second important thing here is the incredible generosity of this miracle -- God gives abundantly and beyond abundantly. Those water jars held enough to fill over 600 wine bottles! And notice that God gives this abundance precisely so that human beings can give generously in return. At this wedding banquet there was more than enough to share and in fact Cana must have been swimming in wine for weeks to come. By showing God's generous abundance, Jesus calls us to imitate the same quality and also shows us something key about the divine nature that he shares with the Father and also with the Spirit.

The Spirit's abundant giving is also the focus of today's Epistle. The incredible variety of spiritual gifts that the Spirit offers is on view there: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracle-working, discerning spirits, prophecy, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. All are given by the one Spirit for the common good. Here again we are not being gifted in order to keep something to ourselves -- the bridegroom wasn't given wine superabundantly to keep to himself, and the members of the worshipping community aren't given spiritual gifts for their own enjoyment. Instead we should use these gifts for one another in a rich tapestry of service offered to one another in Jesus, our common Lord.

There were a lot of problems that Paul had to face up to and try to deal with in his mission church in Corinth. The one that brought forth this discussion of spiritual gifts was the the way in which the Corinthians were divided among themselves by pride and self-interest. Some were feeling that they were more important than their neighbours because of the status of the person who had baptised them. And others were feeling oh so special because of the extra-special spiritual gift they had received. Paul is having none of that! He wants to make sure that they understand that all spiritual gifts are given by the same Spirit, all equally valuable, and all equally important for the health of the community. And in doing so, he reminds us too that the Spirit, as much as the Father and the Son, pours out abundant gifts on us all for the good of us all.

In the news this week, seeing all the images of unimaginable suffering and loss in Haiti, we are reminded once again of how broken the world is in which we live. It is plagued by natural disaster as well as by all the brokenness of human evil. And it may seem naive or foolish in the face of that suffering to proclaim as we do that there is a loving God and a generous God who equips us for service with abundant blessings. And there are no easy answers for us as Christians to the problem of pain in this world -- God doesn't promise to deliver us from it or make it go away. Instead God promises to be with us in the midst of it and backs that promise up in the Incarnation. In it God shared in our human life and death in a broken world, revealing the same self-giving love in Jesus' human life as in the divine life of the Trinity. God also offers us blessings that we can share with the world, blessings of time, talent, and treasure we can give as freely as God has given to us. As individuals and as a community may we strive to imitate the example that has been set before us.