Monday, January 18, 2010

Gifts in Abundance

Second Sunday of Epiphany (1.17.10)

Isaiah 62.1-5; Psalm 36.5-10; 1 Corinthians 12.1-11; John 2.1-11

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning’s psalm: “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.

Last week I was at a wedding in a small UCC church in rural Nebraska, and it was a wonderful celebration! Both our Sunday morning worship and then the wedding in the afternoon included communion. The whole little town was invited and before, after, and in between we had a potluck feast. Even the weather cooperated. On Friday and Saturday, it was -17 during the day, even without wind chill, but by Sunday it was in the 20s.

And now today we have another wedding. In this celebration from Scripture, Jesus turned the water into wine in the little village of Cana so that the feasting could continue, the guests could enjoy themselves, and the family responsible for the hospitality wouldn’t feel disgraced. Moreover, Jesus didn’t produce just any old wine. The chief steward, who didn’t know where the second batch of wine came from, was confused and then amazed that the host had saved the best for last. And, for the record, it didn’t seem to matter to Jesus that maybe the guests would not be in the best condition to judge the quality of the wine.

This story is considered important because it’s Jesus’ first miracle and because the wine is said to anticipate the wine of the last supper and then the Eucharist. There are other riches as well. At first Jesus didn’t seem to want to be involved. But isn’t it wonderful that he decided it was important, after all, to allow this celebration to continue and doing so was—at least in the Gospel of John—the start of his public ministry. I also love the fact that our Lord must have enjoyed seeing—must still enjoy seeing—people laughing and having a good time. And doing so together in groups: at a wedding, a church, a family, a gathering. I thought of that at our Twelfth Night party when one of our visiting teens got a little loud tooting his party-favor horn. Although the staff worker tried to shush him, I said it was fine; the boy was simply having fun.

Maybe this is Mary’s role in the story. She isn’t so much a nagging mother who may also want to show off her son; she is reflective enough to believe that God might care about a situation like this one, might care about social embarrassment or guilt or shame. She is bold enough to wonder whether even God might just be willing to offer abundance to a small-town couple and their guests.

Such a disposition is worth remembering in other contexts as well, when God doesn’t seem to be responding to what we consider our legitimate human needs, and we want to protest, “But they have no wine.” Just wine, you may say. Just a party. But what about, “But they have no bread.” Or “But I have no job.” Or “But I feel no joy.” Or “But their country is in ruins and there are too many bodies to bury.” By extension, Mary shows us that it is legitimate to encounter the divine by asking, even demanding. We can remember too, from this story, that the wine that is provided is not simply adequate, something left over that no one else had been willing to serve. Here the wine is first class, and God’s gifts always speak of God’s abundance and of God’s love.

The passage from Isaiah 62 is a match for the passage from John, and it too draws upon our understanding of weddings. The opening lines are powerful: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn and her salvation is like a burning torch.” This is the prophet announcing his deepest feelings. He reminds God of the humiliation suffered by Israel in Babylon, a shame that Israel still feels. The good news of the Bible is essential. But the strength of the Bible also comes from its ability to record and name our fears, our past. These may still be our reality.

The worship/study group that spent time with the psalms this Advent discovered such passages. We discussed the fact that the Good News can seem insubstantial if we don’t first vent our pain and that the psalms allow us to do this. A marvelous Old Testament scholar by the name of Walter Brueggemann has written of the psalms: “There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Every properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold part of life from that conversation is in fact to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God” (The Message of the Psalms, 52). Nothing can be withheld from the sovereignty of God. How we move past such moments, cannot be controlled or predicted. But it helps to be open to God in crisis as well as out of crisis. It’s not hard to praise God for the goodness we see and understand, but we must also keep our hearts open to God’s mysterious ways and, like Mary and Isaiah, keep asking our questions.

Once having cried from the heart, the prophet Isaiah speaks of the new work, the new name that will be given. God may even be the speaker in text at this point: “You shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight is in Her and your land Married.” The poetry of this passage is here compressing the history of a people, Israel, into the story of a couple’s wedding. The crisis in this story is more critical than running out of wine. Here Israel is desolate because she had been forsaken; she is like a woman without the protection off a husband. But now, Isaiah tells us, Israel is like a woman chosen, a woman in whom God delights and rejoices as a bridegroom at his wedding.

The author of the Gospel of John must have known such comparisons, such metaphors of celebrating. They are all through the Old Testament. Our Psalm for today contains them as well. It tells us that God’s steadfast love is all about feasting and drinking “from the river of [God’s] delights.” Such celebrations of God-among-us take place in groups, and not only among those we know well. Psalm 36 tells us that “all people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings…and feast on the abundance of your house.”

We are very much a church of celebrations, of food preparations, and of feasting together. These passages may well be inviting us into further kinds of table fellowship, even with those we do not know, such as boys who have to live in an institution or people whom we hope will trust us enough to come to our Food Pantry seeking food for basic survival.

John and Isaiah and Psalm 36 have each compared God’s presence—in fact, our intimacy with God—to the experience of dining well, with joy and abundance and with others. There is light at God’s table, a light that allows us to see the others who have gathered there or come to it as a place of refuge. We have no idea whom or what we may see or even how our image of ourselves may change. I need to repeat that: We can have no idea whom or what we may see or even how our image of ourselves may change. We cannot, in advance, define or even imagine God’s abundance. What Psalm 36 tells us is that God’s love and God’s abundant gifts reach as high as the heavens and may be found to the depths of the earth, and that they extend to humans and animals alike.

When we gather as God’s people, when we act as God’s people, we commit ourselves to seeking that all-encompassing love, to believing that it is there for others and for us. It may be most difficult to accept that abundance for ourselves. It may also be hard to answer the following questions: What does it mean that we are promised a feast from the abundance of God’s house? Not in the sky by-and-by, but now. What is God calling us to share? What are we leaving in our fields for someone like Ruth to glean? Certainly Scripture this morning tells us that each time we drink from God’s fountain of life—through prayer, song, or fellowship—we are taking only a sip from God’s inexhaustible resources for each of us.

Let us pray: Joyous God, thank you for taking such delight in us and for entrusting us with your many, generous gifts. Strengthen us and guide us—alone and as a community—to proclaim your abundance in all that we say and do. Shine through our lives so that we are able to see all your creatures transformed by the eyes of your love. Amen.

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