Expecting Abundance – Rev. Jessica Tate
Fairfax Presbyterian Church
17 January 2010, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
2 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “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.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
A few lines of poetry about this wedding miracle got caught in my psyche this week. The poem is by Kathy Coffey and entitled, The Cana Couple Reminisce. The last stanza of the poem reads,
Our union was not singular; we fought
And sulked, sickened like the other folk.
But in every glass of common water,
We tasted hints of garnet-gold.[i]
That’s what happens when we meet the Divine—common water tastes of garnet-gold. Maybe that’s what John wants us to understand, right here from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: something happens when we meet the Divine—signs that point us beyond the world as it is to the world as God sees and desires it to be.
Clearly, Jesus kept the party going, allowing for the hospitality and joy of the wedding to continue.[ii] That would be gift enough, but that’s not all that’s going on here. The miracle Jesus performs has significance that isn’t obvious on a first read. It’s not just any water that’s turned to wine. It’s the water of the purification ritual that is turned to the wine of salvation. The purification ritual is what allowed the Jewish people to come close to God; the wine that Jesus offers is yet another sign that God has come close.[iii] One commentator has explained the miracle this way: “The water recognized its creator and blushed.”[iv] In the presence of God, something happens to us.
Think for second about how much wine is created. Did you do the math when you heard the story? Six jars of 20-30 gallons a-piece. That’s a TON of water turned wine—we’re talking 120-180 gallons![v] An abundance of wine doesn’t just make for an interesting party. When the Hebrew prophets talked about the joy to come in the days of the messiah, they said things like: the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. (Amos 9:13).[vi] An abundance of wine means the messiah has come; salvation is here.
Abundance will continue to make appearances in John’s gospel. In the feeding of 5000 when five loaves and two fish feed all the people gathered and there is enough for doggie bags (Jn. 6:12-13) and when Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with an abundance of precious nard (12:3) and when Nicodemus comes to bury Jesus with 100 pounds of burial spices (19:39).[vii] Over and over John’s gospel links an abundance of good things with Jesus, the messiah. Abundance is what happens when the messiah comes. It’s part of salvation. Abundance of good things is what Jesus offers to that wedding party and to us.
This week, as I’ve been thinking about the miracle of abundance and the news is filled with images of people in Haiti, I’ve wondered about Jesus’ use of miraculous power to create such a huge amount of wine. In a world where the poorest experience a devastating tragedy, is an abundance of wine at a wedding really the best use of Jesus’ time and energy and power?[viii] If we’re going to do miracles, how about world peace, clean water, an end to poverty?
I’ve had to remind myself not to get stuck in the literalness of the story. It’s human to seek rational explanations. The steward does so. He summons the host to ask why he waited to serve the good wine. The steward expected a reasonable answer. But trying to “make sense” of a miracle gets us bogged down in questions of ethics and metaphysics, which, I fear, miss the point. The miracle points us again to the glory of Jesus that runs outside our conventional expectations about how the world is ordered.[ix] The miracle reminds us, because we need to hear it again and again, that with God there is abundance. There are no limits, there are no opportunity costs, there are no finite resources. There is abundance. With God, with miracles, we can’t try to “make sense.” We can only receive the gift of the miracle,[x] to trust God’s generosity and abundance.
That trust is what allows us to tug at Jesus’ sleeve, like Mary did, and say, “they have no wine.”[xi] The people in Haiti have no resources with which to rebuild their country. They don’t have enough medical supplies. They don’t have any infrastructure. It makes me want to tug at Jesus’ sleeve and say, “Do something.” “Help us do something,” because this miracle reminds us of the abundance that we have in Christ. It reminds us that from those jars filled to the brim, from Jesus’ fullness, we receive grace upon grace upon grace (Jn. 1:16), certainly enough to share.[xii]
Right from the get-go, Jesus is the giver of extravagant gifts. And this is only foreshadowing of the gift that is to come: the gift of Christ’s death and resurrection, which allows us to have life and have it abundantly.[xiii] Trust in the abundance and new possibility of God is what allows us to respond to a tragedy in the world certainly with grief, but also with generosity and hope. That kind of abundance is one of the marks of salvation.[xiv]
It strikes me that this sermon could just be pretty words. It’s a lot easier to preach a sermon about the abundance of God than to live like it’s true. It’s a lot easier to trust the mechanics of the market or the laws of physics—things that I can logically comprehend, than to put my trust in the mystery of a miracle. It’s a lot easier to come to worship to praise the God from whom all blessings flow, than to actually live as though those blessings are from God and not of our own making.
I fear that maybe I am one of those drunk wedding guests the steward worries about. Those guests that won’t recognize the gift of good wine because they’re already drunk. I worry I might be one of those guests, drunk with all the things I use to deaden my physical and spiritual perceptions,[xv] all those things that I do to try to secure abundant life, to feel like I’m okay, to experience the sense of being alive. Do any of you, after a rough day, head to Target? Or feel lonely and turn on the television? Or watch the images from Haiti and eat the whole plate of cookies? Each of us has things to which we cling because we don’t trust the miracle of God’s abundance.
It leaves me wondering this: When did I stop expecting the jars to be filled to the brim?[xvi] When did I stop expecting the jars to be filled to overflowing? It’s when I’m lonely or afraid or despairing. Those are the moments when instead of turning to Target or tv or chocolate we should tug the sleeve of Jesus because the story says there was water and then there was wine. And it was good wine, really good wine, filled to the brim of those huge jars.
Worship, I truly believe, can help remind us of that good wine, even when all the cultural values contribute to our drunken, deadened perceptions. When we’re lonely and afraid and despairing, worship can remind us to tug on Jesus’ sleeve, to look for glints of garnet-gold in common water. That’s why we’re holding the worship retreat in February, to remind us that “the intention of worship is to develop imaginative vision…vision that enables us to see the world as one might see it looking through God’s eyes—not as the world ordinarily presents itself, but as God intends it to be.”[xvii] Worship helps us to see and trust those overflowing jars, to taste the hints of garnet-gold, to live in abundant life. Surely that’s what grounded someone like Dr. King. He had that imaginative vision that allowed him to say:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. … But I’m not concerned about that now. … [God’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. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”[xviii]Everyone would have understood if Dr. King had given in to fear. But he didn’t. His vision had been expanded and he trusted in the abundance of God.
Shaping us for this imaginative vision is what worship intends to do. But it doesn’t happen automatically. We have to expect it. We have to be open to such vision. We have to bring our whole selves to worship like we’re at the top of the mountain looking over. We have to be willing to risk that the vision might change us. We have to trust God’s abundance.
That’s hard to do. Everything else in our culture and our psyches would rather deaden our perceptions. Everything else pushes us a different way, tries to convince us that we can buy, or work, or will our way to abundance, to salvation. But in worship, “we gather in the presence of One who was before us; who will be after we are gone; and who, despite our smallness and the brevity of our lives, invites us to some kind of relationship…” To see our lives against such vastness, such abundance—yet with the possibility of intimacy at its heart—that might be the mountaintop.[xix]
I, for one, would like to be on that mountain. More often than not, I would like to see the promised land and trust the abundance and intimacy of God, the glory of Jesus Christ, who died and rose so that we might have abundant life. And I would like to experience worship as a place for renewing that vision, for those jars to overflow. And, friends, they are. The jars are overflowing. God is abundance, Christ is abundant life. But we have to expect it, to believe it, to live it, and to worship like its true.
I’m learning that sometimes our bodies understand things first. So, loosen your body. Put down your bulletin, uncross your legs. Take a deep breath. Open your hands in a posture of receiving. Can you feel the abundance of God? Can you trust that abundance? Listen to this familiar tune. Let us worship the God from whom all blessings flow.[xx] If you want to, stand up. Let us praise the God of abundance, the God from whom all blessing flow. Let us sing these familiar words, over and over and over again, until we believe them to be true, until we know them not just in our heads but in the mystery of our hearts. Let us sing, and in our singing experience the jars overflowing.[Singing of the Doxology.] [i] Thanks to Dan Lewis for sending me the text of this poem this week.
[ii] Brearley, Robert M. Pastoral Essay on John 2:1-11. In Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: WJK, 2009, p. 262.
[iii] Boring, Eugene and Fred Craddock. The People’s New Testament Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, p. 295.
[iv] As quoted by: Gench, Frances Taylor. Encounters with Jesus. Louisville: WJK, 2007, p. 17.
[v] Boring and Craddock, 295.
[vi] Gench 12.
[vii] Boring and Craddock, 295.
[viii] Boring and Craddock, 295.
[ix] O’Day, Gail. John. In New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9. Abingdon, 1995, p. 540.
[x] O’Day, 540.
[xi] Hess, Carol Lakey. Theological Essay on John 2:1-11. In Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: WJK, 2009, p. 262.
[xii] O’Day, 540.
[xiii] Gench, 16.
[xiv] Boring and Craddock, 295.
[xv] Hess, Ernest. Homiletical Essay on John 2:1-11. In Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: WJK, 2009, p. 265.
[xvi] Tom Are, in a devotion he led for The Well in May 2008.
[xvii] Byars. Ronald. Christian Worship. Louisville: Geneva, 2000.
[xviii] King, Jr., Martin Luther. Speech: I See the Promised Land. Accessed: http://www.mlkonline.net/promised.html.
[xix] Byars. First quoted and then paraphrased.
[xx] Cousar, Charles et al. Texts for Preaching, vol. 3. Louisville: WJK, 1994, p. 103.