Ever feel nagged by your parents? You’re in good company. Just look at the Lord’s face. “MOOOOOM…”
1913 Nobel prize winning Bengali poet, musician, and general renaissance man Rabindranath Tagore said, “The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.”
That sounds so nice, but really, the future is terrifying, usually, at least on some level. It’s a thing that fills us with anxiety these days and always. Up until last night, I had my own worries about whether anyone would make it to church tomorrow. But look at you: here you are.
Jon Lovett, host of one of my favorite podcasts, said something pretty profound recently: it was something to the effect of, “What’s with everyone trashing ‘looking back on the past’? It’s the only way we can look!” For sure, the future is always unknown and today is no different. How will the roads be when you leave? More, what’s going to happen with this government shutdown? What’s happening with the future of our country? What’s going to happen in Syria? And it’s not just the news, either: it’s personal. Are the kids alright? Many of you worry about your children and grandchildren, no matter how old they are, and you always will. Whether you have kids or not, you probably worry about things like long term finances, getting older, your general health and the health of your loved ones. The future is scary, and it always has been.
Along with that, here in the church we’re worried about the future too. As we talk about our upcoming retreat, I’ve sensed a little bit of anxiety from more than a few of you: what will the future look like for Our Savior’s Lutheran Church? We all see the numbers falling and we know it’s not just us: the church in all of New England and in the United States has started to take hit after hit as people find plenty of other things to do with their Sunday mornings.
I still think it’s an amazing opportunity that we have, don’t get me wrong. I think that pastoring and growing a church was quite different in the South, where most people still feel some obligation do the church thing, even in the cities. I’m happy to be here, though, and not just because by this point I’m practically allergic to religious obligation, far preferring people who are here because they want to be here — even when the roads are icy or they have to tune into some silly Facebook live thing.
I love being here, you see, because the church in New England is exactly where the Church in the South is going, but like many cultural things from region to region, it’s on a delay. I’d rather be part of figuring out the future than trying to preserve a status quo that certainly won’t stay.
Even when you frame the problems of the future as an opportunity, though, it makes sense that the future would cause us anxiety, and no romantic quotes from Nobel-prize winning poets about trees are likely to make us feel much better about it.
And here comes Jesus in today’s Gospel text. He’s doing a remarkably mundane thing for a Savior of the world: he’s attending a wedding. Along with new births and coming of age rituals, weddings are about the future, too, and they tell us something about how to approach the future. Namely, that we don’t know the future, so we might as well have wine and dance and celebrate the love that is.
Along with that, I have to tell you: of all the ways that Jesus is portrayed in the Bible, I think I like the one contained in these eleven verses the best.
Sure, there’s Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons and decrying the abuse of the poor. There’s Jesus the good shepherd, Jesus the playful, Jesus the sharp-witted. There’s Jesus the gentle, cradling children in his arms, and there’s Jesus the wild and political, flipping over table after table in the temple and making an actual whip (don’t miss that) out of cords. That Jesus will show up about three verses after this text is over, actually.
But for right now, he’s at a wedding, and there’s no whip, only wine.
Yes, my absolute favorite Jesus is the Jesus of John 2:1-11. First of all, he’s relatable. He’s the one who gets nagged by his mom then saves the party immediately before he turns the party. The Jesus of John 2:1-11 is like a good best friend, specifically, like my best friend Samuel: I love him and relate to him and I remain a little in awe of him, even after all these years. It also helps that he always shows up at just the right time with the good wine in tow.
Times were hard in first-century Israel, though, and they worried about the future in ways that we can’t even fathom. Their world was far more unstable than even ours. Rome had them conquered and suppressed. Jewish folks like Jesus and ostensibly the other wedding guests often feared for their lives.
They lived as the very definition of a minority: those who had power were very different than they were, and like minorities often do, they often found themselves on the wrong side of violent actions, state-sanctioned and otherwise.
As always, however, life went on in the first century as life tends to do; people were born, people died, people got married and sometimes people even fell in love. But times were hard and the future was unknown. The text doesn’t even tell us why the hosts of this wedding ran out of wine. Maybe they were poor, maybe the harvest was bad that year, or maybe they were just bad planners. The Gospel writer doesn’t think that’s an important detail. The point is, they ran out of wine. And Jesus’ mom, a guest at the wedding with her son the Son of Man noticed.
I imagine that she whispers her dialogue to him across the table at the reception. Back then, receptions could be days long, but for our purposes, just imagine it like any reception today. It would seem that Jesus’ mother knows that he can do something about this little wine shortage. And you know how the story goes: Jesus’ first miracle is one of his most famous, after all. With a good dose of motherly cajoling including Jesus never actually verbally agreeing, Jesus instructs the servants to get some water and he turns it into wine, and not just any wine: good wine, and a lot of it.
(As my adult ed students from last fall will remember from our study of John, in John, wherever Jesus is, there’s a lot of everything good: food, wine, perfume, spices.)
Now, arguably the best part about this wedding wine: in the story, only the servants, Jesus, Jesus’ mother, and Jesus’ disciples ever actually knew what happened. It’s the hosts of the wedding that get the compliments for bringing out the good wine. As readers, we are privy to knowledge that characters in the story aren’t; specifically, as one of my seminary friends used to say, that “Jesus kept the party going.” What’s more, this is the first time that John’s Gospel says that Jesus’ disciples “believed in him” (v. 11). Jesus turns the party, and they believe.
These days, most of us are feeling tired and anxious about the future.
The news moves at a pace that even professional journalists have a hard time keeping up with. Many of us worry about the state of the nation and the state of the world and the state of the church.
What’s more, this season of Epiphany always contains some of the worst weather New England has to offer. We worry about what storm will be next and how bad it will be. And many, many more people in New England and elsewhere live under conditions so difficult that the weather is the least of their worries.
In the midst of all of it, this text finds us, in the middle of January during yet another year in a universal church with an uncertain future, in furious America and in a furious world. This is where Jesus shows up to the wedding, brings the good wine, and toasts to the future.
John 2 is a text so full of joyful abundance that if you listen, you can hear the characters giggle in tipsy glee and newfound belief. They dance, even as they are in the midst of a furious and violent world and an uncertain future. They dance because they are at a wedding, and because God showed up. In the midst of everything, they find something to celebrate: each other, and Christ’s presence among them.
Yes, of all the ways that Jesus is portrayed in the Bible, I think I like this Jesus best. So don’t forget to dance at the wedding. Even in the midst of your worries, find the time to toast to the future as we continue to build all our futures and our church’s future together.
Rabindranath Tagore said, “The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.”
I agree. I also think that when we think of the future, we shouldn’t forget to toast to whatever may be, if we are to let Jesus be our guide: we shouldn’t forget to dance at the wedding, either. So bring out the good wine and put the bread on the table. We have a future to celebrate, this Sunday and every Sunday. Amen. (1)
1. The basis for this sermon was an article I wrote for the lectionary blog Modern Metanoia. You can find it here.