Saturday, May 16th
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 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 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.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.
— John 2:1-12
There are so many difficult stories about planned events that have been recently cancelled due to the pandemic. The list (e.g. sports, concerts, camps, graduations, etc.) is too long to begin a litany. However, today I am drawn to thinking about folks who have been planning weddings. There has been a lot of press about Princess Beatrice of York and her topsy-turvy experience in planning a royal wedding. We know a couple having Zoom bachelor/bachelorette parties this weekend, an immediate-family only wedding, and a drive-by reception. That’s creative, to be sure, but you’ve heard of many others, I would guess, whose enthusiasm and excitement now have to be postponed or morphed into a different scenario altogether. It is hard, but this gray cloud might have a silver lining, and that lining is this – maybe this time is a grand opportunity to pay more attention to what a wedding is supposed to be in the first place. This first “sign” described by the author of John may help in this regard.
Much biblical scholarship points to the fact that John was the last gospel written, perhaps as much as twenty years after the other three. Debate has gone on for some time about whether or not the author of John read the others before writing his. One would think, because the early Christian network kept in contact with each other via epistles, visits, etc., that surely this writer had some idea of the prior gospels. If that is true (and even if it’s not, and he had no prior knowledge), this gospel is all the more remarkable because of the way it is written. John (I’m going to use the proper name through our devotionals, fully acknowledging that the authorship of this gospel is up for debate.), instead of developing his gospel in a chronological fashion similar to the synoptics, is more intent on developing his gospel in a “kairos,” a theological sort of way. John does that by employing an outline of seven events – seven miracles that he designates as signs of the kingdom, seven lessons about the kingdom, seven insights into the heart of Jesus.
Today we deal with the first of these signs – the wedding at Cana in Galilee. I love this story for so many reasons, the main one being that it has a number of intriguing angles to it, and like a prism, moving just a bit sheds new light, asks new questions. Just the terminology alone could occupy our attention for a month of Sundays. There is the beginning phrase, “On the third day”. . . the third day of/after what? Does this reference a specific prior event, or is the number used as a symbolic literary technique, as it often was in the Bible? Or what is the significance of noting that there are six jars, each holding as much as thirty gallons of water (which, when turned into wine is a lot of wine!). Speaking of which… wine was more than just liquid refreshment in Jewish life. In the first-century Jewish world, wine was a symbol for the joy of being in God’s Presence. There is an old rabbinic saying that says: “Without wine, there is no joy!” Then again, there is Jesus’ strange tone in addressing his mother: “Woman.” And what does Jesus mean when he says, “My hour has not yet come.”? (Raymond Brown, the gifted Catholic scholar, notes that this statement could be seen as an affirmative interrogative, which could instead be understood as “Has my hour not now come?”) Finally, there is that great line of “saving the best for last”, uttered by the steward who meant it one way, but perhaps intended by John to be seen at even a deeper level.
Another fascinating aspect of this story is Mary’s exchange with her son. I like to imagine Mary making her way over to Jesus who is standing with his disciples, telling jokes and stories, enjoying the merriment of the moment, and being the life of the party. She says to Jesus, “We’ve got a problem. We’re about to run out of wine.” Jesus looks at her and says, “Why do you say ‘we’? Besides, my hour has not yet come.” Now, Mary could have said a lot of things. She could have said, “This is our cousin. This is our family.” Or she could have said, “Jesus, your disciples are the problem. We planned for 200 people, about 60 adults, and you brought in these 12 men with big appetites and few manners. They don’t mind eating the last sandwich on the plate, nor do they mind taking more than a glass or two of wine.” Mary could have said a lot of things, but she didn’t. Mary didn’t say anything else to Jesus. Rather, like the confident mother she was, she turned to the servants and said, “He will take care of things. Do whatever he tells you.” With that, she turned and walked away. Later, when the maître d’wedding announced the pouring of the best wine, I like to think she looked over her shoulder at her son with a sly, proud wink.
There is still so much more that we could examine, but my question today is that, with all the lessons, sermons, deeds and miracles of Jesus, why does John begin with this one? And why does he use this story that is not even found in the Synoptic Gospels? My take on this is that this act was an inauguration event, of sorts. Jesus, in this deed, is proclaiming his purpose, his calling, and that is to take a dying world and infuse it with life, life that has an eternal quality to it.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was a brilliant man, no doubt about it. Educators recognized it. When King went to high school, they allowed him to skip the 9th grade. Then Morehouse College, whose student body had been depleted because of World War II, allowed high school juniors admittance if they could pass the entrance exam. Martin took the exam, passed, and was matriculated at the age of fifteen. It was there that he felt the call to ministry, and following college he went to Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he earned his B.D. His father felt that would be enough education, but King went on to Boston University where he received a Ph.D. in theological studies. It was there that he met Coretta, a gifted musician. They married and moved to Montgomery, where he anticipated becoming a pastor, following in his father’s footsteps. However, the Civil Rights movement pulled him from the pastoral duties of the local parish into national prominence. He became a spokesman for the movement because of his keen intellect and his poetic brilliance. Martin King had learned the nuance of poetic preaching, enhancing theological and social insights with elegant rhetoric.
By 1963 King was known nation-wide and was asked to address the gathering of people from all over this country at the March on Washington. It was that speech that made history. Interestingly enough, the speech King wrote and the speech he gave were different. The night before, he gathered with his advisors and writers. They kept giving him advice on what to say and what not to say. One of his advisors, Wyatt Walker, even went to the extent of saying “Don’t use any of your ‘dream’ language tomorrow. It’s trite. It’s cliché.” Martin listened and then said, “I’m going upstairs to my room to counsel with the Lord. I will see you all tomorrow.” He went up and wrote a draft in longhand. One of his confidants, Andrew Young, said that he saw the speech and that Martin had crossed out some words three or four times, working on sound and cadence.
The next day, the crowd gathered. They were expecting 100,000 people, but 250,000 showed up. The weather was warm and there were many speeches. By the time King rose to speak – he was the 16th speaker – the crowd was listless. Norman Mailer, the gifted author, wrote, “There was an air of subtle depression, a wistful apathy . . . One felt a little of the muted disappointment which attacks a crowd in the 7th inning of a very important baseball game when the score has gone 11-3. The home team is ahead, but the tension is broken: one’s concern is no longer noble.” The crowd was faltering but then uplifted by the music of the marvelous gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, a friend and confidant of Martin’s. King then took the podium. People leaned forward in anticipation as he started reading his speech. The speech was probably okay by other people’s standards, but by King’s standards it was mediocre. John Lewis, the leader of the student wing of the movement said later, “I thought it was a good speech, but not nearly as powerful as many I had heard him make. As he moved towards his final words, it seemed that he, too, could sense the falling short. He hadn’t locked into that power he so often found.” Then as folks in African-American congregations are prone to do, feeling that they’re an integral part of sermons, Mahalia Jackson cried out in encouragement, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.” And it was as if a match had struck kindling. Martin moved his prepared remarks aside and leaned forward. He moved from lectern to the pulpit, so much so that one of his advisors said out loud. “These people don’t know it, but they’re about to go to church.” And go to church they did. Martin’s words took on the rhythm of the poet-preacher, and they became immortalized for all time . . . “I have a dream today . . .” I don’t think that dream was just Martin’s; it was God’s. And Mahalia Jackson, like Jesus’ mother Mary, coaxed it out of him.
The call of today’s sign is one that asks us to imagine a dream, one that sometimes sneaks into wedding ceremonies where people are called to imagine more than mere ritual. When I lead a wedding ceremony, I am often drawn to a quote of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. On the occasion of his niece’s wedding, one that he could not attend because he was imprisoned by the Nazis, he wrote to her, “Dear one, how I wish I could be with you on this day of days, to sing and dance and celebrate, but I can’t. I simply give you these words.: ‘All you have needed up to this point is love, but now you need one thing more – the promise to love.’” I usually pause and let that sink in and then say, “Bride and groom, we all know that you love one another. That is very obvious. But the question today is deeper than that, it asks even more . . . “Do you promise to love?”
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
What is the most memorable wedding ceremony you’ve ever witnessed? …the most celebratory wedding reception you’ve ever attended? What made those times so special — the couple, the families, friends, the setting, the music, the vows?
Today, try to recall your first realization of God’s love for you. Thank God for that moment and for God’s love.
The question, “Do you promise to love?”, is not only a question for weddings. It’s also a question of faith. What promises have we made to God? How might we renew our vows?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116: Let me not to the marriage of true minds”
(Interestingly enough, Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” during a 1609 quarantine against the plague. Let us pray for great things to come out of our sequestered time.)
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.