The above painting by Pieter Breugel is entitled "The Elder Peasant Wedding Banquet"
"Signs of Celebration"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
January 20, 2019
1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
One of the great preachers of our time, Frederick Buechner, describes the wedding at Cana as dreamlike.
“Like so much of the Gospel of John, the story of the wedding at Cana has a curious luminousness about it, the quality almost of a dream where every gesture, every detail, suggests the presence of meaning beneath meaning, where people move with a kind of ritual stateliness, faces melting into other faces, voices speaking words of elusive but inexhaustible significance. It is on the third day that the wedding takes place; the third day that Jesus comes to change the water into wine, and in the way of dreams the number three calls up that other third day when just at daybreak, in another way and toward another end, Jesus came and changed despair into rejoicing.
There are the six stone jars, and you wonder why six – some echo half-heard of the six days of creation perhaps, the six days that precede the seventh and holiest day, God's day.
And the cryptic words that Jesus speaks to his mother with their inexplicable sharpness, their foreshadowing of an hour beyond this hour in Cana of astonished gladness and feasting, of a final hour that was yet not final. But beyond the mystery of what it means, detail by detail, level beneath level, maybe the most important part of a dream is the part that stays with you when you wake up from it.”[i]
As we wake from the dream, we try to make sense of things that don’t, and trying to pin it down too firmly causes the images to shred or melt. John’s elegant prose, rich symbolism, and literary complexity certainly deserve detailed study and careful analysis of the metaphors and nuances it uses, as well as the departures it takes from the other three gospels – the ones we call synoptic, or from the same perspective. Personally, I think it’s an error to suggest that any of the four share the same perspective – or that that they differ in their most basic assertion – that it is in Jesus Christ that we have definitively come to know the good news of God’s unconditional love and expectation of justice.
In the Hebrew Scriptures celebrations loom large as a way to describe how God relates to people. Isaiah compares Israel's future to a wedding:
“As a young man marries a maiden,
so will your sons marry you;
as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride,
so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5).
Psalm 36 describe a feast of abundance for “human and beast, both high and low” (36:7–8).
This is so also in the gospels. Jesus compares God's realm – or basilea – to “a ruler who prepared a wedding banquet for their heir,” only to have people make feeble excuses about why they cannot attend. The parable of the ten bridesmaids urges us to remain vigilant, like we do at life-changing events like weddings. Life in God’s shalom requires wedding etiquette, says Jesus:
“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.”
The Revelation of John describes the consummation of human history as a great wedding party. And as for signs, the Gospel John announces that the first sign of God’s presence in Jesus was at a wedding at Cana. He uses the word shmei,wn, meaning sign, mark, symptom, or example. Scholars sometimes make much of the seven signs in the gospel of John, though the gospel only enumerates the first one, and states that not all of the signs have been reported.
So, the first sign, mark, symptom, or pointer of Jesus was at a wedding at Cana in Galilee. To the embarrassment of the host, the wedding wine ran dry. In Jesus’ presence, with his mother Mary and his disciples, six stone pots used for ritual washings were filled with water, and when the steward poured them out it was wine. Empty pots used for ritual purity overflowed with wine for profane celebration. The sign was one of both quantity and quality. Each pot held twenty to thirty gallons, so the result was 150 gallons of wine, far beyond what the revelers could drink (and reminiscent of the extra food left over after the feeding of the 5,000).
There's an inverse ratio here between the trivial problem of running out of wine at a wedding and the unanticipated abundance of the solution. And whereas most hosts serve the best wine first when people will appreciate the quality, and cheaper wine later when no one can taste the difference, the circumstances in this story are reversed – saving the best for last. God as revealed by this first sign of Jesus’ presence is not stern and stingy. God is lavish, liberal, generous, and extravagant. God is like a manager who pays a worker a full day's wages for one hour of work. God is like a parent who welcomes home a wayward child with a ring, a robe, and a party. Water turned to wine is excess for our emptiness. And when we in turn imitate the character of God, it should be with the same extravagant generosity to others.
The Gospel of John is in some ways the most intimate of the gospels. We feel up close and personal despite the opening prologue with its sweeping, cosmic expanse. In contrast to that opening, John is filled with intimate encounters and private audiences with Jesus. Nearly a third of the book is known as the “final discourses” – a collection of Jesus’ monologues delivered to his closest followers in private. Yet none of the gospels tell us much about Jesus’ private life – almost nothing about his home life or the relationships with his family. The majority of Jesus’ life is a blank – private space, a mystery. We don’t know what dinner time conversation was like or what domestic squabbles erupted. We don’t know how his family spoke with each other and worked through the bumps and jostles of daily life together.
But this small exchange between mother and son at Cana sheds a sliver of light. There is really no indication of the tone of her voice, but I picture her a little like a dowager countess – volumes communicated in a stage whisper, “They have no more wine.” Mary knows that Jesus’ presence makes a difference. But Jesus demurs, saying that he isn’t ready and that it isn’t their business. Mary takes action – perhaps knowing from experience that the difference this Jesus makes is not to be the hero, but to empower others to participate in releasing the grace that lies before, between, and beyond our lives – to empower the creation of the beloved community.
In the preceding chapter in John, Jesus’ ministry begins with questions of identity and calling. Jesus is claimed as God’s Own, and immediately begins to form and expand the beloved community, saying, “Come and see!” Now at the wedding feast, the community begins to unfold. It’s as if John is suggesting that the usual categories into which we divide our lives aren’t relevant in Jesus’ life. Work and witness and celebration and family life are all bound up together as a new alternative is lived out by Jesus and his disciples. It seems that the Kin-dom is going to be messy – perhaps a little like that chaotic baptismal scene we observed last Sunday with the baptizer at the Jordan River – the Holy Spirit shows up and things get risky and wet.
Jurgen Moltmann, in his book The Church in the Power of the Spirit, describes Jesus’ earthly life as a festal life. It isn’t a ruler’s life, or the life of a willing slave, but a life of celebration. Jesus’ life demonstrates hope, liberation, and joy. It’s life at a crowded table – not a table where we sit to escape from suffering, but a table where this new alternative is made visible and viable. The outcasts are included, there is enough for all, and good wine flows when we only expected cheap, functional swill. It’s life in an expanding, inclusive beloved community. That’s grace, isn’t it?
When I hear the story of Jesus’ presence at the wedding at Cana, I can’t help but think of the 1987 film “Babette’s Feast” based on a novella by the Danish author Isak Dinesen. Many commentaries lift up the film as an example of the transformative power of sacrificial giving and the formation of the beloved community – even the power of the Holy Spirit to incorporate our disparately motivated actions into the song of redemption, reconciliation, and the restoration of paradise.
Like Buechner’s comparison of the gospel story to a dream, the film “has a curious luminousness about it, the quality almost of a dream where every gesture, every detail, suggests the presence of meaning beneath meaning, where people move with a kind of ritual stateliness, faces melting into other faces, voices speaking words of elusive but inexhaustible significance.”
On the desolate northern coast of Denmark, in the tiny village of Nørre Vosburg, two elderly maiden sisters, daughters of a gentle but strict pastor of a pietistic congregation, have taken in Babette, a refugee from the Paris Commune of 1871, who has seemingly washed up on their doorstep. Though they cannot pay her, they consent to her request to stay and serve them. Unbeknownst to them, she is a world-class Parisian chef. After years of serving them, Babette receives a ten-thousand-franc payout from the French lottery. This strange, cold little community has become her home, and the sour, bickering inhabitants have become her family. She chooses to stay and prepare a meal to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding pastor. There are twelve guests – all, but one, are scandalized by the extravagance of food and wine that Babette procures for the meal, and they vow not to say a word about the feast.
Course after course are served, the finest wine flows, old wounds are healed, old rivalries reconciled, old grudges forgiven. After the meal, and after the guests depart, Babette reveals her true identity and calling. She is a gastronomical artist, and she has spent her entire fortune on this “last supper.” Her sacrificial gift has redeemed, reconciled, and restored paradise – the beloved community, and as a result, she will remain with them.
Philip Yancey put it this way, “Babette landed among the graceless ones. …they heard sermons on grace nearly every Sunday and the rest of the week tried to earn God’s favor with their pieties and renunciations. Grace came to them in the form of a feast, Babette’s Feast, a meal of a lifetime lavished on those who had in no way earned it, who barely possessed the faculties to receive it. Grace came to Nørre Vosburg as it always comes: free of charge, no strings attached, on the house.”[ii]
This weekend we remember the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who also sought to redeem, reconcile, and restore paradise – what he called the beloved community. He famously had a dream – a dream that heard, “They have not more wine,” but envisioned a community fortified with God’s abundance, like unexpected good wine. King said, “But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles….”
Beloved, there are signs all around us every day pointing to the redeeming, reconciling, restoring, and remaining presence of God-with-Us – Emmanuel. We are easily distracted by the evil as well as the inconsequential. May we, like Martin, like Babette, like Mary, ever more clearly see the signs of celebration revealed in Jesus’ presence and our identity and calling as beloved of God who build the beloved community.
Thanks be to God for endings transformed into beginnings, for scarcity transformed into abundance, for waters transformed into wine. Amen.
[i] Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark (New York: HarperOne, 1985), 90.
[ii] Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing about Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002).