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Second Sunday After Epiphany - January 16, 2022

Updated: Jan 18, 2022

I am going to let you in on a secret. As a deacon, if I had the choice of serving at a wedding or serving at a funeral, I would pick the funeral every time. I like weddings, but hands down, if I need to be at one or the other as clergy, it’s the burial.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying I’d prefer one of your loved ones died to my being with your family at the start of a new married life. It’s all about the attitude people have about each service. What dominates the minds of the guests during most of the wedding ceremony? After seeing the bride walk down the aisle, thoughts drift away from the vows and towards the reception. When will this service be over so we can eat, drink, and be merry? By the time we arrive at the reception, who remembers what the preacher said? People measure the success of a wedding by the bride’s dress and the party, not by what the clergy did at the service.

By contrast, the service is the event at a burial. Burials are personal to all of us. All of us will die. We pay attention at funerals. We reverently pray. We listen to the sermon. We comfort one another. For clergy, a funeral offers the chance to make a difference for many, an opportunity that honestly does not exist at a wedding.

As if to prove my point about weddings, take a look at the reading from the Gospel of John appointed for today. Three days after deciding to go to Galilee and calling Phillip and Nathaneal to become his disciples, Jesus, his disciples, and his mother attend a wedding in Cana. John tells us nothing about the ceremony. He doesn’t even tell us who was getting married. John writes only about the reception. And note: the wedding at Cana is universally considered a great wedding because Jesus saved the party, not because of anything clergy spoke or did during the ceremony.

Nothing John writes or omits is by accident. John does not include extraneous detail. If John includes detail, there is a reason why. John does not tell us much about the wedding because many of the facts we commonly would want to know—the names of the couple, Jesus’ relationship to them, who performed the ceremony, did anyone say a few words—none of that stuff matters to John for his Gospel.

What did matter to John? I used to think that our four gospels were four attempts to tell the same history. I thought that Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John tried to recount the facts of Jesus’ life as best each could with the resources available. I assumed the versions differed because they were written years after Jesus’ life and they relied on stories passed down orally, which naturally differ, even within a short time.

The truth is different from my earlier understanding. Each gospel writer had a different perception about who Jesus was, what he did, and why what happened to him was so essential for everyone to know and believe. These viewpoints reflected different factions in the early Christian church. There were so many different factions, so many major disagreements about Jesus, that early Christianity has been described as “early Christianities” (plural). These Christianities struggled for dominance. The writing of a gospel and the acceptance of that gospel as authoritative were critical for a group’s quest to be accepted as the orthodox position. Those not accepted as orthodox, history and the church have condemned as heresies. It was a high stakes competition, one that demanded the best writers and the best theologians.

Of the four orthodox gospels, John’s has the clearest statement about who Jesus is. John does not beat about the bush. He tells us in the very first chapter that Jesus is God incarnate. God is revealed in Jesus, revealed when Jesus reveals himself. We see this message again and again in the gospel.

The person we call John, the writer’s true name is unknown, wrote his gospel at a time of transition for both the early followers of Christ and for Jews. Rome had crushed the Jewish revolt, tearing down the temple in Jerusalem in the year 70. As Jews lost the focal point of their worship, synagogues became the centers of Jewish religious life. In the power struggle that arose with the end of the temple high priesthood, Jewish followers of Christ suffered. When the followers of Christ were unable to persuade large numbers of other Jews to follow them, the rabbis and other leaders of the synagogues acted to stop what they saw as misguided and dangerous teachings about Jesus. In the decades after the temple’s destruction, synagogues excommunicated these perceived heretics, purging them from their communities. It is thought that John’s community of believers was one of these groups of Jewish Christians that contended with the synagogue leaders.

At the wedding reception, the mother of Jesus, John never gives her name, the mother of Jesus tells her son that the wine has run out. It is a crisis for the bridegroom and his steward. Some things don’t change. Jesus’ reply reveals two things about Jesus. First, there is a distance between son and mother, a distance shown in the words he uses to speak to her. For John, Jesus’ relationship with God the father is the relationship of great importance. Jesus’ relationship with his mother is pointedly downgraded to emphasize the relationship with the Father. Second, Jesus’ focus is already on his “hour,” that is, his death, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus’s life is oriented to his hour, not to a request that anyone, even his mother, might make on him. Critically, his mother does not take offense; she gets it. Far from being offended, she instructs the servants, showing confidence Jesus will act.

Act he does. He approaches the six empty stone water jars, ordering them to be filled with water. After omitting all the usual details of a wedding, John describes these jars in detail. That detail should alert us that John is making an important point. These jars are huge. They are symbols of Jewish religious life but are empty. Jesus has them filled to the brim. Through the steward’s reaction, we know the water has become wine, and not just any wine, the best wine. Through Jesus, the incarnation of the God who created all things, there is abundance and perfection to an almost absurd degree. The amount of wine added to the party, a celebration that was already well underway, is the equivalent of 600 to 900 bottles of wine. Gifts through Jesus, gifts from God, are crazy generous. We will see this generosity, this superabundance, again in John with his story of Jesus feeding the five thousand with a mere five barley loaves and two fish.

Unaware of the origin of the wine, the steward sees a lavish and somewhat eccentric bridegroom. He sees a wedding that was almost as a failure for running out of wine, even second or third string wine, that now will be famous for the excellent wine brought out late in the party. While the steward’s attention is on the wedding reception like that of many who attend a wedding (remember my earlier gripe?), he has missed God’s role in the event. The grand celebration was not the point. The steward cannot see that Jesus, the real bridegroom, created this wine as the first sign revealing his glory to the world. Jesus’ disciples saw it, however, and they believed in him. Likewise, John implies that all who recognize this sign will see Jesus’ glory and believe in him.

Where do we go from this story? John wrote his gospel with an aim of speaking to contemporary Jewish Christians being cast out from synagogues, cut off from Jewish religious practices, and persecuted. How is this gospel reading relevant to us in 2022 besides calling us to believe in Jesus as God who walked among us?

Persecutions and alienation continue in 2022. While many occur in far off lands inflicted by those hostile to Christianity, there are others here in the Texas Panhandle inflicted by Christians on Christians. Churches turn away, marginalize, or cast out people whom their theology and culture define as sinners or who are just different from the rest of their congregations. Christianity is wielded as a weapon to coerce people into social conformity. If pressure or shame won’t work, then offenders are expelled from their religious communities. People break this way. Understandably, when turned away by their church, they often turn away from the God they see as having rejected them, many despite missing that God so much.

We at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Amarillo, Texas, are blessed by God to help change lives. This church can show God’s absurdly overabundant gifts. We can share in the joys and the sorrows. We can be there when no one else will be there. We can be a new family like Jesus described, one formed of believers. Who are my brothers and sisters? Those in the congregation, those who share with me the one bread and the one cup, they are my brothers and sisters.

Most importantly, we can show that God is not a god of shaming, of alienation, of hatred, or of cruelty. We can show that God is a god of inclusion, of kindness, and of love. Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and all of us, without exception, are sinners. Bluntly put, without sinners, our church does not have a purpose. So come on in, we’ve been waiting for you.

I know this church can do this because it has been doing it for years. Members found a place to experience the loving God and to find a community that loves. Some learned of St. Andrew’s by visiting and there being welcomed regardless of who they were or what they looked like. Others came because they admired someone in our community and, like a diner in a restaurant, wanted whatever they were having. Still others came to church activities, including our parties, and felt an attraction to the people of this place. Recently, some have watched our services online and then decided to take the chance of coming in person. Many who came here, like settlers finding a good and pleasant land, invited others to come and see what is here.

Our work is far from complete. We often talk about the material needs of others and how we can help. Recently we gathered Christmas presents on behalf of incarcerated parents and collected household items for the Afghan refugees. But not all needs are physical. We don’t need 900 bottles of wine. What we need is to know that God loves us and forgives us, again and again. We need to know that there is a purpose to our lives, both individually and as a community.

At work, school, or play, we are called to reach out to those with spiritual needs just like we are called to help those with physical needs. Practice talking about your faith, a task Episcopalians sometimes find challenging, but for no good reason other than we don’t do it often enough. Start by recognizing moments of God’s abundance and sharing those moments with others. The more comfortable you are authentically talking about your faith and sharing your conviction that God is a loving, forgiving God, the more others may reach out to you. In doing so, maybe we can marry our listening to God with a great celebration. I would be happy to be at that wedding. Amen.

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