Holy Trinity Episcopal Church


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    Jan 20, 2019

    Water to Wine

    Passage: John 2:1-11

    Preacher: The Rev. Ken Massey

    Series: Year C: 2019-2020

    Category: Epiphany


    I am in the process for holy orders and to move forward in that, and to help out while Tim is on sabbatical, I will be serving and learning among you for a time. I am so grateful for the opportunity. My first suggestion to our priest in charge was that to fully appreciate the enormity and the impact of what Jesus did in Cana, we would need to provide between 120-180 gallons of wine to the congregation as you listened to the sermon. As you can see, our priest in charge didn’t want that to be his first sign.

    As I have confessed to you, I grew up in a Baptist household, and Baptists in this country were ardent supporters of prohibition, and later maintaining dry counties around the country. We had really fine punch at church, but nothing added. I grew up in a Teetotaling family, and the root of that term is “total” as in total abstinence; in every way. My Baptist ancestors actually avoided preaching on our text today, but if they had to, it was the miracle of turning water into Welches. That’s the world I’ve preached in for most of my life. So I have to tell you, I’ve been looking forward to preaching this sermon for a long, long time.

    It is such an amazing story with more facets than a mirror ball at a disco party. But it has only one key. This story has a purpose. Like other works of wonder in this gospel, we are told that changing water to wine was a sign. This fourth gospel calls the miracles of Jesus signs, not proofs, not relics, not sacraments, but signs.

    Signs can be compelling. When I lived in Beaumont Texas as a teenager, there was a great big sign on the highway going to Houston that said Galveston, the beach is beautiful. And the sign was a giant picture of that beautiful beach; blue water, white sand, a nice pier, a sailboat. I loved the sight of that beach. Looking at it, I could almost taste the salt water and feel the warm breeze. So whenever I had a few hours, I would get my beach chair, my cooler with Welches grape juice, and my suntan lotion, and I would drive and drive, till I reached that sign on the highway. I would back my truck up on the access road so the bed faced the sign. Then I would set up my folding chair in the truck bed where I had a perfect view of that beautiful beach, 60 feet across in living color, and I would relax, ignore the cars and trucks flying up and down the highway and listen to a recording of beach sounds on my 8-track tape player. I tried inviting friends to join me in the fun, but no one was drawn to the sign like I was, even though I brought the juice. Some of my friends said, “It’s only 30 minutes to the beach.” I told them that sign was the best view of the beach anywhere and no crowds. They were unmoved. This group of guys came along one day; not from around there; and one of them asked me what I was doing and I told him; and he said something about a wicked and perverse generation demanding a sign. Nobody understood: that sign was the closest thing you could get to the beach in Beaumont Texas, at least until the paper started pealing and they put up a different sign about a funeral home.

    Now my caricature is both ridiculous and universally true. The signs in John’s gospel are not meant to be objects of our fascination or focus, but that’s what they become. The whole purpose of a sign is to point somewhere else; to direct you beyond, not to draw attention to itself. You can see this in the way Jesus acted in the story. He was reluctant to accommodate his mother. It’s not time for that, he said. Also, he performed this sign in the most clandestine way possible, so that only the disciples and the servants who drew the water knew what happened. Yes, Jesus knew how much we love signs; how we are drawn to power; how we love the spectacular and then miss the sacred. It’s a bit like super bowl commercials. Everyone is talking about them and someone asks, “what was the product being advertised” and nobody knows. We love the signs but don’t have a clue where they lead us.

    Instead of discovering where this sign points, we get stuck in the fantastical story of turning water to wine. Some of you are wondering, for instance, did he make a merlot, a cabernet, or some exotic spiritual blend. All the text tells us is that it was the best wine, so I’m thinking a Chateau Lafite, ripe, rich and silky with hints of stone jar and holy spirit. I visited a member of our parish in the nursing home this past week and before I left, I told him I would be preaching on this gospel story, and asked if he have any insights on Jesus turning water into wine. He smiled, raised his coffee cup and said, “I hope it was a good year.” Apparently, even without the aging, it was, at least according to the steward who tasted it. But that’s the sign, not the beach.

    Others of us have been perplexed or troubled that Jesus made this much alcohol; 120-180 gallons. Not only that, but the text indicates people were getting intoxicated. You give people your best wine at the beginning of this weeklong party, says the steward, and when they can’t tell the difference between a 2009 Bordeaux and a 2019 Boones Farm, you give them the Boones Farm. Additionally, the gospels tell us that Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard by the righteous of his day.

    But I have actually read and heard sermons that solve this problem by insisting Jesus made non-alcoholic wine. Language can sometimes be unclear, but there is only one Greek word for wine in the NT: oinos. It means fermented fruit of the vine. When Paul writes to the Ephesians, “don’t be drunk with wine, but be filled with the spirit,” he uses the same word used in this passage. I can tell you from 7th grade experience that you cannot get buzzed on non-alcoholic wine. But you can get sick to your stomach. But arguing alcohol is another way to be stuck on the sign and never make it to the beach.

    Some are also distracted by the miraculous. Thomas Jefferson was. He went through his Bible and cut out every reference to miracles. We believe in a world that operates by natural laws and we may also think that God doesn’t go around countervailing the laws of nature that God created. And so we get bogged down on the issue of historicity. What actually happened? Are we supposed to believe Jesus changed the laws of nature? Is this story a parable like the story of Jonah? Did Jesus actually alter molecules of hydrogen and oxygen so that they became a mixture of 800 to 1000 different compounds? On the other hand, if the pre-incarnate Christ created the material universe from nothing, and became flesh and blood in the person of Jesus, which is central to our faith, then changing some molecules seems uncomplicated.

    But these too are questions whose answers never take us to the beach. In the gospels, we step into a world of metaphysics; a world that is trans-historical. You can fixate on the dynamics between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, but you’re going to miss Jane Austen’s love story. Trying to get your head around the sign will not take you into the love and mystery of this story.

    A sign points to something you would not otherwise see or seek. It directs you to a road you would otherwise miss. Signs are neither the reality nor the road. They point us beyond our self-made worlds. And this sign point us to a God who is the life of the party. Do you picture God that way? Or is God the cosmic killjoy? This sign says that what God brings to our world is life, and to quote my new friend, a really good year.

    This sign points to the abundant life Jesus promised and into which we have been baptized. The wine is extravagant because there’s always enough for everyone and everyone is invited, no matter who you are. God will not rest until everyone comes to the feast. Jesus modeled this by eating and drinking with people who were socially and religiously excluded. This sign of divine blessing for all animated the life and teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. whom we honor tomorrow. God’s table is open. This story of the wedding at Cana is pointing where our liturgy is pointing; to a reality of sacred union between God and the world; to extravagant blessing!

    This story also points to a new reality of love and life that comes about through transformation. Christ is transforming our world, even when we do not see it or understand it. Jesus told a parable about wineskins, about a fermentation process that stretches our lives and our world. No rigid way of life, or wineskin, can hold the expansion of that transformation. The status quo cannot hold the change God is bringing about.

    One of the reasons I have been drawn into the Episcopal Church is that we celebrate the Eucharist as a transformative sacrament, while also accepting it as a mystery that cannot be fully explained. We don’t come to the altar to figure out what happens to the bread and wine, or how Jesus is present in the bread and wine, but to give ourselves fully to the transformation God is bringing about in us.

    John Claypool, an Episcopal priest who came from a Baptist background, told about going to a monastery for some spiritual recuperation after the death of his daughter. As he settled into his modest room and closed the door behind him, there was a sign on the back of the door that said, do you want to be right or do you want to be well?  Today, I invite you to something better than being right about the signs or anything else. I invite you to taste and see that God is good; and that the life of Christ is a vintage like no other. Thanks be to God.