Readings for this Sunday:
Isaiah 62:1-5 | Psalm 36:5-10 | 1 Corinthians 121-11 | John 2:1-11
In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, a white mountain girl named Amy Denver gives shelter to Sethe, a pregnant slave girl who has escaped from her master. When she first sees Sethe’s bloody back torn apart by the whip, she is overwhelmed. Amy brings Sethe closer to clean her wounds and says, “Come here Jesus… Wonder what God has in mind.”
It is a striking scene, and a striking question, a question that—for me at least—requires some faith. Because there are other conclusions Amy could have come to. There are other options for us when we face difficulty and suffering, especially when it is undeserved. We can imagine, for example that God is nowhere to be found in the midst of such injustice and hopelessness. I’ve been there. I know I doubt sometimes whether God is really around in the midst of so much that is unsettled and uncertain. I know that even as I claim the church as home, and its hope that God is at work bending the moral arc of history toward justice, I wonder sometimes.
The story of Civil Rights is a familiar one for us. We’ve given ourselves on a national level to the story. We even have a day off of work tomorrow to remember it and to put its values into practice. But the facts suggest otherwise when it comes to the idea of having actually achieved the beloved community Martin Luther King, Jr. aspired to. The facts are overwhelming to this effect. It is impossible to create a reasonable argument that would suggest that disparities in health and wealth and education and employment and treatment under the law don’t persist some 50 years after the nation woke up to King’s alarm. Racial and economic injustice is still at the core of our being as a nation.
Come here Jesus. What does God have in mind? If we look at the gospel story today of the wedding at Cana another question might help us to frame the first: How do we reconcile a story of such beauty and generosity and power with a world of such tremendous need?
So much suffering. So much uncertainty. So much is unsettled. And yet so much goodness. Sometimes I feel like I’m batted between two completely different worlds that have nothing to do with each other so much so that I feel a little concussed. And we are at a moment in history, I suspect, when the extremes are particularly evident—not just in our stories between cultures but within cultures and generations too—even within our own church communities. And they have the potential to unsettle us, to tear us apart. It seems to me this is not an easy time in history.
So how do we reconcile a story of powerful generosity with a world of profound need? What does God have in mind?
In John we have a story of abundance, a wedding story of seemingly effortless generosity as Jesus and his mother partner to save what could have been an otherwise embarrassing social calamity.
In our first reading, the writer of Isaiah encounters what remains of Israel, a weary nation regathered in Jerusalem after their country was leveled and many were taken into captivity in Babylon. This story is, of course, told many times over today as many Syrian refugees could tell you.
Now, as they find themselves back together on the other side of exile, Israel is divided into factions. Those who stayed in the land, those who have returned from Babylon, and those born later struggle to see eye to eye. Their experiences have divided them. They are poisoned by massive power struggles, and as they try to rebuild the people wonder if they can count on God.
The prophet sees their unbearable pain and gives it voice. He does not turn away from the awful reality; he does not deny the suffering that has occurred or try to make it less than what it really is.
Yet he also speaks of promise, of a future that is not helplessly buried in the rubble of the past.
you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will give.
How do we reconcile a story of beauty and generosity with a world of profound need? What does God have in mind for us?
These two stories are so different in scale. The tragedy of running out of wine at a wedding seems almost frivolous when compared with the devastation of a nation leveled by disaster. What is certain, though, is that these passages speak with one voice as they invoke a God who brings abundant life to those in need.
I have always been struck by the conversation between Jesus and his mother. Do you get the sense that a whole lot more communication is going on here than what we have on paper?—That you need to read between the lines?
What we do know is that Mary sees a need that she can do something about, and she invites the gift in Jesus to emerge so that the need can be met. We hear Jesus say that it isn’t his time: “My hour has not yet come.” We will actually hear him say this many more times in John—all the way up to chapter 17 when he finally admits the hour has come for him to finish the work, to show the full extent of God’s glory in a self-giving death that makes way for belief and abundant life.
Come here Jesus. Wonder what God has in mind?
What we have here at Cana is the beginning. And with it, we have a model for our own community. Mary sees something that her son does not, and she sees something in him that she calls forth into being, and through it the community is blessed.
Paul lays it out in the Corinthians reading for today. The Spirit gives us all the gifts we need. Our work is to bring them out, to encourage them, to use our own to multiply the gifts in others. This is such a simple thing if we simply pay attention—if we pay attention to our own giftedness, and give ourselves to others. Do you believe this?
If you want to know how we reconcile a story of beauty and generosity with a world of profound need, here is your answer. This is what God has in mind. It isn’t a philosophical question so much as a practical one. It is to live in practical ways for one another, by giving our gifts and our very selves away only to discover that we get them back a hundred times over. It is to act our way into believing that we have been given gifts by God for the sake of the world, and that others have too, and to trust—not by forcing a belief that we don’t feel, but by acting in ways that bring the promised future into being.
If King believed in anything, he believed in the Beloved Community that Jesus modeled as he shared bread and forgiveness with—let’s be honest—a rather hapless group of disciples who ended up changing the world. And this story has been played out again and again in history, and especially in those moments when the stories of beauty and generosity and the stories of such tremendous need seemed so stark.
At Cana a miracle is performed, but no blind person receives sight, no sick child is restored to her parents, the social injustices of the day are not magically eliminated. The first of his signs simply provides a vast quantity of wine for a wedding feast. And the threat of social embarrassment is transformed into the joy of a really good party. Good conversations are allowed to continue and the social fabric of a community is enriched.People get to know each other. They leave joyful and deeply connected. In Jesus’ act, the grace of God breaks in in a way that nothing of significance happens except that everyone has a good time. There is not just enough, but an overwhelming abundance. And no one except perhaps for the disciples have the whole story. Most don’t even know a miracle has occurred!
And yet it did, and everything is different.
People of God, here are your marching orders, laid out one step at a time. This is how a story of beauty and generosity is reconciled with a world of profound need—in one gracious act after another, built on the gifts God has given to you, shared with others. Do you believe this?
May God make it so in our midst.
St. Andrew Sermons