Isaiah 62:1-5 † Psalm 36:5-10 † 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 † John 2:1-11
So what is going on here?
Is this a story about a wedding that hasn’t been planned very well, a potential social disaster, a mother and son bickering because they don’t want their friends to be embarrassed? It could be. “Woman”--mother, why are you asking me. It’s not my time. And yet, apparently it is. Jesus’ objection seems to drown in the flow of the story as water jars are quickly filled, as an oblivious steward is astounded, and as a wedding is saved with about 400 bottles of really good wine no one accounted for.
Or maybe it’s not that at all. Maybe the party wasn’t about to collapse. Maybe this wasn’t about poor planning. It could have been even worse: a story about a poor, struggling family doing their best to pull off a celebration demanded by social customs that they could not afford. Suddenly this gift not only saves the day, but delivers them from shame.
Or, it could be that this was a celebration that was simply winding down: “When the wine had run out,” the story goes, as if this was the expectation, as if there was an understanding that all good celebrations have a closing time.
If we read it that way, this becomes gratuitous. A story about abundance for the sake of abundance—unnecessary, saving nothing, a sign, as John tells us, the “first of his signs” of a story and a savior that is so full of life that nothing will be able to hold it back—not powers or principalities, armies or political leaders. Gratuitousness, generosity, an onslaught of extravagance. There are many ways we could read this. The story does not seem to tip its hand.
This is a sign—the first of his signs, says the text. But a sign of what? What do the disciples see that makes them believe in him and sets this greater story in motion?
James C. Scott, a Yale anthropologist reflects on the nature of power and influence within human communities. How do our social institutions achieve and maintain the authority they have? How do they shape reality, conform our thinking, govern our expectations for social stability? This is an especially live question for us, I suspect, when as in the time of this story, so much is in flux, as we find ourselves living with institutions that have failed us, yet continue to hold onto power and privilege, sometimes, by using every trick in the book.
In his 1998 book Seeing like a State[i], Scott examines ways in which states, and corporations order life, by encouraging conformity and uniformity in order to streamline production and maximize profit. Scott uses the term totalism to name this—the economy, the means of production become monopolized so that profits can increase. The imposition and management of debt are not incidental, they are systemic arrangements designed to guarantee a dependent class that settles for menial work and low wages.[ii] Technology is monopolized, so is imagination itself, so that nothing of significance is imaginable beyond the scope and administration of those who control the means of production, the weapons of war, the purse strings.[iii]
Scott understands this construction of standardized formulas of uniformity—we might call it conventional wisdom—to be a tool intentionally to preserve and divert privilege and wealth into the hands of those who already have it. Wealth is increasingly in the hands of the 1 percent while the majority of society find themselves sharing what little is left.
He suggests this uniformity robs community life of metis, which is a Greek word that means advice, wisdom, or even cunning or craft.
Scott sees metis existing within local communities—a kind of contextual, flexible and practical knowledge or out-of-the box thinking that enables us to imagine different ways of being—the kind of knowledge that might help us to, say, imagine our way out of a destructive government shutdown that lacks any apparent off-ramps.
Some examples might help. Metis might be that gift that leads a seasoned physician to a diagnosis, even if she cannot quite tell us how she got there. Metis is the awareness of a farmer who just knows when it is time to plant potatoes when such knowledge is not found in any agricultural manual. Metis is a competent teacher who knows the right time to stray from a lesson plan for the teachable moment. Metis may even be revealed in a child who says just the thing to stop his parents cold in the midst of an argument.
Metis is what a young preacher by the name of Martin Luther King had that enabled him, without credentials, and with the wrong color of skin to spark a movement that occurred almost completely outside the halls of power, yet whose repercussions and momentum remain to this day. Metis is that folk authority that is able to escape the ideology of death that comes from seeing like a state. It is an alternative way of knowing that sets us free.
Metis is what the prophet Elisha had in what might have been a different pairing of scriptures for this text about a wedding and a mother and son who were able to see to just what was needed for life to flourish. This one from Isaiah isn’t bad, of course—with its language of marriage, and its alternative affirmation of God’s faithful presence as our true hope, this hope in God’s steadfast love and justice, which the disciples found they had given themselves to on the other side of this wedding feast, and after perhaps a little bit of a hangover!
You know the story—at least peripherally. We’ll see a parallel to it with Elijah during Pentecost[iv], but this one is a story found in 2 Kings 4 of Elisha—Elijah’s predecessor—and a desperate widow whose creditor is threatening to take her two children as slaves, because most slaves in that economy, like in many economies, are people working off unpayable debt.
The widow is frantic, so Elisha does an intake interview. What do you want me to do for you? We know the answer—save my children, get rid of my creditor. His second question quickly follows: what do you have? She has a jar of olive oil, but it is about to run out; it is not nearly enough to pay her debt.
So he gets to work. He tells her: “Go outside, borrow vessels from your all neighbors, empty vessels and not just a few. Then go in and shut the door…and start pouring into all the vessels; when each is full, set it aside.”[v]
Go into the neighborhood, he says. Mobilize them. Get resources from outside—all their pots and pans and bowls and pitchers—and then watch for abundance. Don’t just ask for a few. Get them all. Because this economy is about to be jump-started with metis.
And she does. And the neighbors respond. They keep bringing, they keep pouring, the story tells us. She asks and asks and asks until there are no more. And they all end up filled. And only then does the oil stop.
There is no explanation. Elisha actually does nothing. Walter Brueggemann, who outlines this connection for us in his book Tenacious Solidarity, says “It is as though his presence and his confidence of themselves evoked an economic abundance that changed social reality.”[vi]
And it does. The story concludes with Elisha giving the widow three more terse instructions:
1. Sell the olive oil
2. Pay your debt
3. Live on what’s left
When others are trapped within the limits of thinking that have been forced on them, when others can only see like a state, as Brueggemann puts it, Elisha is able to imagine an alternative reality that lives in the promises of God and it changes everything—metis.
God does not show up as a character either in this story in 2 Kings, nor in the wedding at Cana. And yet, a desperate cry is taken seriously. The story pivots on an inexplicable abundance that understands there are in the neighborhood, resources not yet recognized. And it concludes with an elimination of debt that frees the woman from the bondage that comes from seeing like a state. It changes the narrative and offers a path to life in community that is not controlled by the state or the corporation.
And when we compare the parallels, we might begin to suspect that this, the first of Jesus’ miracles is about more than a little wine, and so is our life of faith here in this community, in this time, in this state.
But this story does not happen without the community. It does not happen without you, offering your gifts, sharing your pots and pans, your time, and even your courage to act, to put yourself and your gifts on display for others. I often pray for the metis of Mary and Jesus in our own midst—the offerings of the kinds of creative, life-giving, particular gifts—gifts of the Spirit that we need for our life to go well here and in our communities. I know you do too. It has the power to change everything.
[i] James C. Scott, Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale Agrarian Studies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).
[ii] Cf., David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (New York: Melville House, 2011) as referenced in Brueggemann, Walter. Tenacious Solidarity . Fortress Press. Kindle Edition (Location 734).
[iii] This summary is drawn from Walter Brueggemann’s Tenacious Solidarity . Fortress Press, 2018. Kindle Edition (Location 350ff).
[iv] 1 Kings 17:8-24, Ordinary 10C, Proper 5C.
[v] 2 Kings 4:3–4.
[vi] Brueggemann, Walter. Tenacious Solidarity . Fortress Press, 2018. Kindle Edition (Location 571).
St. Andrew Sermons