SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
Prayer of the Day: Lord God, source of every blessing, you showed forth your glory and led many to faith by the works of your Son, who brought gladness and salvation to his people. Transform us by the Spirit of his love, that we may find our life together in him, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
There is plenty to ponder in John’s marvelous story about Jesus and the wedding feast at Cana. Some of that is discussed below. But what strikes me more than anything else about this tale is its sheer abundance. John tells us that the six stone jars the servants filled with water, ultimately becoming wine, contained between twenty and thirty gallons. So we are talking between 120 and 180 gallons of wine. And this is not Gallo or Manischewitz. Think Richebourg Grand Cru. I cannot imagine a small Galilean wedding party making a dent in such a huge reservoir of wine.
Jesus seems to be all about abundance in John’s gospel. Where the wine seems to have run out, Jesus comes through with an abundance of wine that is better than the best. Jesus feeds five thousand people in the wilderness with just a few loaves-and there are leftovers. He promises the woman of Samaria enough water to last for all eternity. He offers abundant life. His own life is so full of life-giving wonders that the world itself could never contain the books it would take to tell of them all. The blessed “generosity of numbers” celebrated in Mary Cornish’s poetry is not lost on John the Evangelist.
The gospel of God’s unlimited generosity stands in stark contrast to the constant moaning we hear in the public square these days about the urgent need to eliminate deficits, practice austerity and exercise fiscal restraint. Now I am not opposed to any of that in principle. There is no virtue in waste or extravagance. We would all do well to reign in our insatiable consumer appetites. But it seems to me that the call for fiscal restraint is often issued to those who have the least to restrain. Austerity is more often imposed than practiced in our society and the burden of reducing deficits is usually placed on the backs of those least able to bear it. In this age of unprecedented wealth, we somehow cannot afford to pay a living wage to the people who prepare and serve food for those of us who can afford the luxury of dinning out. Much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric we are hearing these days seems rooted in a fear that there is not enough to be had in this country for everyone as it is. The life boat is already full. In this zero sum game, anybody else’s gain is necessarily my loss. The pie is shrinking. Admitting more to the table will only hasten its inevitable disappearance.
By contrast, Jesus promises abundance for all. The specter of scarcity driving so much of our politics, poisoning our relationships with our neighbors and killing our capacity for compassion has no place in God’s reign of abundance. God’s table is never bare, nor is it lacking in space for any who come hungry and thirsty. Disciples of Jesus know that generosity looks not to the limits of our own resources, but to the limitless promises of God to provide all that we need and so much more. The disciples saw more in the miracle at Cana than a magic trick. They recognized the dawn of the messianic age; the in-breaking of abundant and eternal life. They got “a foretaste of the feast to come” where the best wine just keeps on flowing.
Here’s the poem by Mary Cornish I alluded to above.
I like the generosity of numbers.
The way, for example,
they are willing to count
anything or anyone:
two pickles, one door to the room,
eight dancers dressed as swans.
I like the domesticity of addition—
add two cups of milk and stir—
the sense of plenty: six plums
on the ground, three more
falling from the tree.
And multiplication’s school
of fish times fish,
whose silver bodies breed
beneath the shadow
of a boat.
Even subtraction is never loss,
just addition somewhere else:
five sparrows take away two,
the two in someone else’s
There’s an amplitude to long division,
as it opens Chinese take-out
box by paper box,
inside every folded cookie
a new fortune.
And I never fail to be surprised
by the gift of an odd remainder,
footloose at the end:
forty-seven divided by eleven equals four,
with three remaining.
Three boys beyond their mother’s call,
two Italians off to the sea,
one sock that isn’t anywhere you look.
Source: Red Studio, (c. 2007 by Mary Cornish). Mary Cornish is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow. She lives in Bellingham, Washington, where she teaches creative writing at Western Washington University. In addition to her poetry, Cornish has written and illustrated a number of children’s books. I encourage you to read more about Cornish and her work at the website for the Poetry Foundation.
This reading comes to us from the third section of the book of Isaiah. (For a more thorough background on the Book of Isaiah generally, see my post for Sunday, January 3rd, Epiphany of our Lord; See also the article of Professor Fred Gaiser of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota at enterthebible.org. The prophet is speaking to the dispirited band of Jews who answered the call to return from their exile in Babylon and rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem and its temple. These returning exiles no doubt left Babylon in high hopes of accomplishing their task of reconstruction in short order. The land to which they returned, however, was inhabited by peoples who now considered it their home and did not desire to see Jerusalem rebuilt. The odds of these returning settlers achieving their grand plans were long at best. Decades after the Jews began to return to Palestine, the city of Jerusalem was still in ruins and rebuilding of the temple had been abandoned even before the foundation had been completed.
So you can see why the prophet’s grand vision of Jerusalem as “a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord and a royal diadem in the hand of your God” hardly comported with the reality experienced by his or her audience. Of course I do not know how this prophet was received, but I suspect that this preaching might have generated some hostility. After all, it was another prophet, the second Isaiah, whose preaching motivated these people to leave what was now their home in Babylon and return to Palestine, a land that most of them knew only from the stories of their elders. The miraculous “highway through the wilderness” promised by second Isaiah did not materialize. The reconstruction of Jerusalem and the temple proved enormously more difficult and complex than they had expected. They had exchanged the relative security of their Babylonian community in exile for an environment of hardship, danger and disappointment. That is what comes of listening to prophets.
In many respects, this is the life of prophets in every age. These are people of vision speaking of realities that do not yet appear. Sometimes, like Jeremiah, the prophet must speak hard and fearful truths that people do not want to see. Other times the prophet is called upon to speak words of promise to a people whose hopes have been crushed to many times to trust words of comfort and glad tidings. Obviously, our prophet fits into the latter category. He or she is preaching to a people who have forgotten how to hope and who no longer believe that they have a future.
Were the words of this prophet fulfilled? In some respects, we have to say yes. The fact that Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt is testimony to the effectiveness of the prophet’s ministry. But in another sense, the prophecy remains unfulfilled. The temple that was rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah did not match the splendor of Solomon’s temple which it was meant to replace. Ezra 3:10-13. Jerusalem remains to this day, not the center of peace and justice for which the prophet hoped, but a flashpoint for conflict and violence. So we might be tempted to say that the prophet’s critics were right and that his or her visions were merely pipe dreams. But, as my grandfather would have said, “Day’s not over yet.” John of Patmos reminds us that the new Jerusalem where God will dwell among human beings is yet to come. Revelation 21:1-22:5. Moreover, as I said in my post for Sunday, January 3rd Epiphany of our Lord, God may yet have a saving and redeeming role for the brick and mortar Jerusalem that stands in Palestine today.
This psalm of trust has been the victim of censorship by the lectionary police. Therefore, I am giving you the whole psalm to read so that you can appreciate what is really going on here. The psalm begins with a graphic description of evil people who, confident that they need not fear any consequences of their evil behavior, boldly concoct ever more mischief. Perhaps the folks who gave us the lectionary felt that we should not dwell upon evil people and the harm they do, but rather focus on the faithfulness of God that is extolled throughout verses 5-10. “Accentuate the positive” as the song goes. But in so doing, I think we lose the thrust of what the psalmist is telling us.
Let’s begin with the obvious. There are wicked people in the world. I am not talking about people who make snide remarks about your potato salad at the church supper or your neighbor who lets her dog do his business at the edge of your yard and doesn’t bother to clean it up. These folks are thoughtless and rude, but not evil. I am talking Osama Bin Laden evil here. I am talking about the one who “in his bed plots how best to do mischief-” (see vs. 4) like shooting down school children with semi-automatic rifles. How does one deal with evil like that?
According to NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” Well, the psalmist does not agree. “You [God] save humans and animals alike.” “All people take refuge in the shadow of your wings…for with you is the fountain of life.” The psalmist makes it clear that God’s “righteousness is like the mighty mountains” and God’s “judgments are like the great deep.” It is not for human beings to take judgment into their own hands and determine who must be punished, who must live and who must die. The “good guys” according to this psalm are those who do not carry weapons or trust in them but rely wholly upon God. That is why the prayer concludes with verses 11-12 (also conveniently omitted) in which the psalmist asks for God’s protection against the wicked.
Once again, this prayer strikes a dissonant chord in our culture of violence that has been indoctrinated by westerns and police dramas in which the underlying message is exactly that of Mr. LaPierre: the only way to stop violence is with more violence; the answer to gun violence in our schools is more guns in school, etc. The church’s story is altogether different. Our hero is the man who warns us that all who take the sword (good guys and bad guys alike) perish by the sword. Our role model is the man who refused to retaliate or exercise the right of self defense when confronted with deadly force. This is why, once again, I recommend two psalms each day just like vitamins, one in the morning and one at night. They help to immunize us against cultural programming and form in us the mind of Christ.
The church at Corinth was a congregation only the Apostle Paul could love. It had every conceivable problem a church could have. It had divisive factions; power struggles; sex scandals; doctrinal disputes; arguments over worship practices; and, of course, money issues. Yet remarkably, Paul can say to this messed up, dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. He does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ!” or “You could be the Body of Christ if you would just get your act together!” No, Paul is emphatic that the church at Corinth is the Body of Christ even now, with all its warts and blemishes. This is no metaphor. Paul means for the church to understand that it is Jesus’ resurrected Body. Nothing Paul says makes any sense until you get that.
In this Sunday’s lesson the issue is spiritual gifts. First off, understand that Paul is not using the term “spiritual” in the wishy washy new age sense that we so often hear it today-i.e., “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” (Whatever that means.) When Paul speaks of the spiritual, he is speaking explicitly about the Spirit of Jesus. That Spirit can be experienced only through the intimate knowing of Jesus. Jesus is known through communion with his Body, the church. Thus, it is impossible to speak of obedience to Jesus apart from communion with his Body. The church is the Body of Jesus precisely because it is animated by the Spirit of Jesus. Therefore, every ethical decision, every doctrinal teaching, every matter of church administration, every aspect of worship boils down to what does or does not build up the unity and health of Christ’s Body.
So now we come down to the specific issue at hand: “spiritual gifts” or gifts given to individual members of the Body of Christ for the building up of that Body. There is no hierarchy in the church for Paul. The issue is never “who is in charge.” Jesus is the Head of the church. He alone is in charge. The rest of us are all members of the Body. A little finger might not seem to be particularly important-until it gets slammed in the car door. Suddenly, the least important part of the body is commanding center stage! So also in the Body of Christ, the prominence of any person’s gift at any particular time depends upon what is happening. When determining the short term management of a large monetary gift to the church, someone with administrative skill in managing funds is critical. Such persons know how to transfer property quickly, efficiently and without loss to a place where it can appreciate in value as the church decides how to use it. However, when it comes to long range management of these funds, different gifts are required. The mission of the church is not to maximize income on its investments, but to use its resources to build up the Body of Christ and witness to the reign of God. To make faithful use of the church’s resources to these ends, the gift of prophetic vision is required. The gift of discernment is necessary also to evaluate such visions and find within them the call and command of Jesus. When all members of the church work together using their unique gifts to build up the Body of Christ, the gifts complement each other.
Unfortunately, such harmony was not the prevailing mood at Corinth. Certain individuals were convinced that their gifts conferred upon them greater status and authority. They were using their gifts and abilities to advance their own interests instead of building up the church. So Paul begins in these verses an extended discussion about the proper use of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives to each of member of the Body of Christ. In the first place, all members of the Body are gifted and their gifts are necessary to the proper functioning of that Body. So the church must constantly ask itself whether it is recognizing the gifts among its members. Second, it matters not which gift a person has, but how the gift is used. Paul makes it clear that all gifts must be used for the common good of the whole church. In the example of the monetary gift, a short term manager who loses sight of the big picture and is concerned only with maximizing returns on investment rather than growing the ministry of the church is no longer serving the Body. So also the visionary with great plans for the church’s resources who is unwilling to submit his or her vision to the ministry of discernment within the Body is no longer building up the Body. Third, there is no hierarchy of gifts. Hierarchy is antithetical to the well-being of the church.
This makes for a delightful story, simple in the telling yet layered and textured. Jesus and his family are invited to a wedding feast. This is no small thing. A wedding is about the closest thing to a holiday little Galilean towns ever know. One of the town’s few animals will be slaughtered and roasted. Wine will be served in abundance. For once everyone will eat and drink freely-as though they were wealthy. There will be singing, dancing and joy. Weddings provide an island of sheer jubilation in this ocean of back-breaking work, grinding poverty and ever-present hunger that the common people of Galilee know as life. Small wonder, then, that Jesus frequently used the image of the wedding feast to describe the reign of God. It is a time when sorrows are forgotten; tears wiped away; food, wine and dancing can be had in abundance. Wedding feasts are a sign of what God intends for human life. A wedding is a defiant “no” to what is and a yearning expression of hope for what might be. So I believe that Jesus’ quiet miracle for the preservation of a wedding feast is a more profound sign than might first appear.
Jesus’ mother (John never refers to her as Mary) calls to Jesus’ attention the situation with the wine. “What is that to us?” Jesus responds. That strikes me as a reasonable response. This is not their wedding and, as far as we know, Jesus and his mother had no part in planning it. Let the family of the bride worry about the state of the wine. Jesus’ mother does not argue the point. She simply instructs the servants with whom she has been conversing to follow Jesus’ directions. Mom seems determined to get her son involved, seemingly confident that he can be of assistance. I would very much like to know what was in Mary’s mind. What was she expecting of Jesus? A miracle? This would seem unlikely. As far as we know from John’s perspective, Jesus has never before performed any miracles. Nevertheless, Mary feels that it is important for Jesus know that the wine has run short and she seems certain that he will be able to do something about it.
The stone jars for use in purification were, in all likelihood, provided for the benefit of the guests containing water “intended to make the participating guests worthy by ritual lustration, to share in the solemnities of the marriage feast.” Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 by John Marsh, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 145. As the feast was already underway, the water in the jars had been used up so that the jars were now empty. Marsh goes on to suggest that the number six (one less than the perfect number of seven) suggests the inadequacy of Judaism’s religious practices. Professor Raymond Brown, however, finds this reading somewhat far-fetched and I tend to agree with him. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel of John I-XII, The Anchor Bible, Vol, 29 (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 100. That they were designated for purification, however, emphasizes the life giving potency of the sign for all who see it and believe. Moreover, the Hebrew Scriptures frequently speak of the messianic kingdom as a place where wine flows freely and abundantly. See, e.g., Amos 9:13-14; Hosea 14:7; Jeremiah 31:12.
The primary focus, however, should be on what John tells us about the purpose and effect of this miracle, namely, that through this act Jesus’ glory was revealed and his disciples believed in him. Apparently, this miracle was not for public consumption. Nobody, save Jesus and the servants on duty at the wedding, knew how there suddenly came to be such an abundance of such very fine wine. From all I can tell, neither the wedding planner nor the newly married couple was aware that the celebration was in jeopardy or that Jesus had saved it. The disciples knew, however, and that seems to be the whole point. Jesus would have his disciples know that he has come to make sure the wedding feast of the Lamb continues. So also should every joyous wedding feast that is a “foretaste of the feast to come.” No wedding feast will die of privation on Jesus’ watch.