Mystery wedding guest

a sermon for the second Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C]

John 2:1-11

Funny enough, one of the best little stories of Melinda’s and my marriage involves an incident with wine at our wedding.

The story goes that when we were looking for a reception venue in Pittsburgh 14 years ago, we found a restaurant downtown that we thought would be perfect. The problem was that when we met with the manager we quickly discovered that having an evening reception there was way out of our price range. Although we didn’t have a big guest list, we would still have to pay a rather large reservation fee to rent the whole place out and then, on top of that, cover all of the costs for an open bar, an expanded dinner menu, and parking. Before we left, disappointed, the manager offered us the idea of a lunch reception. Turns out there were no fees for that—no reservation fee for the space, no parking fees and, most importantly, no cost for the open bar. All we would have to do was pay for the food and drinks people actually got and the gratuity. As he explained, it would literally be like we were taking all of our family and friends out for lunch. No contract involved, no deposit—nothing. The only stipulation was we had to be out of there by 4. It cut the cost of a reception there in more than half.

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wedding reception at the Grand Concourse, Pittsburgh, PA

So we moved the wedding ceremony up to the mid-morning and enjoyed a great noon-time reception on a beautiful October day. We partied, we danced, we clinked our glasses, and then at about 3:45 that afternoon, a waiter came to Melinda and me with the bill. It was this long receipt—even longer than a CVS receipt—folded up into a billfold. Just like the manager had explained, we had just taken our friends to lunch. So before we handed him my credit card,  Melinda and I went through the receipt just to see if it looked right. We’re going down the list— gin and tonic, beer, beer, glass of wine, crab cakes, glass of wine—and suddenly we notice that buried in the list there was a $55 charge for a bottle of wine someone had ordered from the bar.

To two newlyweds just starting out, that sounded very pricey. Each time we re-tell the story, the bottle gets a little more expensive, ha! Of course, we were absolutely fine with it, happy to host the reception, glad someone was able to enjoy it, but we just thought it was a little funny that someone had ordered it and that the bar had handed out a whole bottle like that. Must have been something really fancy!

The thing is, Melinda and I have always wondered who it was. We don’t bring it up with our guests from that day, but it does intrigue us a little bit, and we have fun time re-telling the story, remembering what that day was like, how much fun we had. And how much fun some mystery guest must have really had.

Jesus’s first sign, his first display of God’s glory, involves being a mystery guest who gets the good wine at this wedding in Cana of Galilee. Of course, he doesn’t keep it for himself, and it’s just not one bottle. It is somewhere around 120 to 180 gallons of really fancy stuff. That’s like if someone had walked up to the bar at 4:00pm and ordered 757 bottles of wine (or 63 cases)—and then paid for the wedding reception to continue into the evening. I don’t know how big the reception was in Cana that day, but it would have taken us months to consume that much wine. I can’t get my head around that.

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“The Wedding Feast at Cana” (Paolo Veronese, 1563). A servant in the right foreground fills a wine bottle from a purification jar. The steward (I think) is immediately behind him, to his right.

Weddings in Jesus’ time, of course, were multi-day affairs that could drag on and on. They pulled in people from all over the village. The ceremony portion of the wedding itself could last almost a whole day, and then there were parties and meals that followed it, and guests often kind of came and went from them as they were able. The bridegroom’s family was typically required to provide most if not all of the food and drink for this occasion. A wedding symbolized a joining together of two families’ fortunes and hopes for the future, so the more lavish a family could make it, it was thought, the better. Favors would be repaid during these times, invitations reciprocated, and status in society overall could go up if things went well.

To run out of wine, then, which was basically the only thing other than water that people drank in ancient times, signaled the end of the shindig, last call, and could have been a huge stain on the family’s reputation. It’s hard to tell from the details presented, but it sounds like Mary, Jesus’ mother, knew that was the case. Perhaps she was a bit more connected to one of the families, perhaps this was a friend or a distant relative. I imagine her saying it with her eyes wide, through almost-clenched teeth: “they have no wine.” In any case, she is the instigator. She sees that guests are going to start to leave and she coopts her son into getting more wine.

There has been a lot of speculation about how Mary might have known this, or how Mary expected Jesus to solve this problem. Did she know already that Jesus had these special abilities? Why do they speak to each other this way, like she’s bossing him around? To some degree, all of that is just background. The main point is that Jesus does something about it, even though he makes it clear that this kind of thing is not really what he came to do or be. He says his hour has not yet come, which suggests that there will be more to come from him, that a greater glory will shine forth at some point.

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In any case, he does what he is asked to do and goes over the top.   Not only does he provide more wine than they could probably ever drink, but he makes it the fancy stuff. Everyone is amazed, especially the steward, who is in charge of the open bar and the menu and settling things up in the end. The bridegroom gets most of the attention. He goes from looking like a chump to an overly generous, creative, and almost wasteful host. The party lives! New wine flows free and fast.

Here’s the thing: by changing this water into wine, Jesus doesn’t just prolong the wedding. He transforms the wedding. Jesus doesn’t just save this village family from humiliation. He makes them the joyous and glad talk of the town. Jesus’ presence takes something ordinary and turns it into something unexpectedly extraordinary. Jesus’ presence that day doesn’t just keep things going. He creates a new beginning.

As a first sign or display of God’s glory, this is excellent clue of how God is going to interact with the world through Jesus. He is the true abundance at that wedding that day, not the wine. That God would open up God’s heart and pour into the empty vessels of this world the love of Jesus is a grace we will never get our heads around. His presence transforms us and it transforms the world. He is given to take endings and turn them into new beginnings. At this Cana wedding…by the shore where loaves are multiplied for the hungry and tired…by the tomb of Lazarus where people are weeping…at the cross of Calvary where he is dying…when and wherever the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, or becomes acknowledged in our midst we can expect life-giving transformation.

The back room in the restaurant where one of our Men’s lunch group meets has a small icon of Jesus high on the wall. I’ve noticed it several times before. It’s not a piece of fine art, by any means, but it is a nice icon or painting of Christ looking out at the room. It does not look at all like it is part of the décor. This week I asked the proprietor about it, figuring that must be important to her. Sure enough, she is of the eastern Orthodox tradition and explained how she has an icon of Christ in every room of the restaurant. I asked her “why?” and she said it was to help her acknowledge and remember his presence everywhere, that she has the potential to bear him in all that she says and does. And she then went into long history of all the times those icons had transformed conversations and interactions with her guests.

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the icon on the wall at Nick’s Roman Terrace

 

It made me remember how one of our seminary professors all but commanded that we have some kind of visual depiction of Jesus in our offices—a cross, a painting, a statue—something that would acknowledge his presence to us an others people who come into our offices for conversation or support. It wasn’t enough to let people assume that Jesus was some mystery guest whenever we’d meet. It was helpful to, like Mary, point him out and let him work.

I think we are all familiar with examples of how acknowledging another with a gesture of self-giving, of kindness, of humility can utterly remake the landscape of a relationship or a community. We can be the icons of Christ in this case, each using our Spirit given gifts to transform our surroundings with God’s love.

Congregations and church communities, by acknowledging Christ in their ministries are inviting gracious transformation to occur not just in their inner relationships but in the neighborhoods around them. Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa is attested as having said, “Every church should be able to get a letter of recommendation from the poor in their community.”  Those who live and work around us, who come into contact with Epiphany Lutheran Church should be able to say, this congregation is a transforming presence in the Richmond Metro area.

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This sign at the wedding in Cana may not seem, in the grand scheme of things, to have that many implications. No one sick is healed, no one’s hunger is addressed, no one’s life is saved from a thunderstorm. But it is still the first sign of God’s glory. It is the first epiphany of what God is like, the first, “a-Ha, this is who is behind the creation of the universe.”  It is God’s way of saying, here is a sign of how I will work in the world. This, right here—this wedding—is what I’m all about.

There are so many competing definitions for God out there these days. There are so many people and groups claiming God is like this or like that, that God is on this political party’s side or God is like that sunset or that new-fangled spiritual idea they’ve happened upon. And some of those claims and definitions are pretty scary. Some of them seem hard to argue against. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty stoked that we worship a God whose opening act is showing up at a wedding and turning it into a bash. I’m pretty stoked that he’s the guy who goes up to the open bar, who sees opportunity in empty vessels and says, there’s no reason we can’t have $55 bottle wine. This God might be pretty fun to be around. I bet this God of Jesus might be willing to transform some bleak, devastating scenarios into something pretty spectacular—something so spectacularly abundant, in fact, that if I had all of eternity I’d never get my head around it.

 

Thanks be to God!

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The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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