January 17, 2016 – Married to God

Epiphany 2     January 17, 2016 Psalm 36, 1 Corinthians 12:1-12, Isaiah 62:1-5, John 2:1-11          Married to God

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Weddings are meant to be way high up there, among our most cherished moments… Which is how I remember our wedding, in metro Seattle – also, a week later, our affirmation-of-vows-full-dress, rings and vows all over again, service in Boston. (With family and friends on both coasts, we felt the need for more than one community gathering…) Our second service was technically more symbolic than the first, but I couldn’t really tell the difference. I felt the same mix of anxiety and bliss all over again… (I remember after the later service a friend from Vermont telling me “Tim, you were glowing!”)

Weddings, however, don’t always go quite as smoothly and joyfully as they’re supposed to. I remember one of my pastor-mentors telling me, “People just about always behave well at funerals. But with weddings, you never know… Meltdowns are not uncommon….”

I’ve been fortunate to not have had any major meltdowns so far in any of the weddings I’ve helped out with. The nearest I can recall to a malfunction was in a wedding in the Northern Adirondacks of New York. We came to the place where the groom was supposed to say “for richer, and for poorer”… but he insisted on saying, “for poorer, and for poorer….” (He’d done this also in rehearsal, so we knew it was not by mistake…) But his bride didn’t say anything…And all I did was raise my eyebrows, just a little, and pray for them.

Because by now I know I’m not in charge. We pastors never really marry anybody. We’re just facilitators. In all branches of the Christian church pastors and priests are recognized as official witnesses to the wedding, but it’s always the bride and groom themselves who perform the actual wedding, as they give themselves to each other through the making of their vows.

And to a lesser degree (though not necessarily a much lesser degree), the whole congregation also helps perform the marriage ceremony. It’s the bride and groom alone who say to each other “I will” and “I do” as they make their vows. But the whole congregation also says “we will,” and “amen,” as the pastor asks if we will do all we can to help this couple to grow in love and marriage…

I say all this by way of background, because today we are invited guests at a wedding… Where everything is not going right. The wine has just run out – a major catastrophe according to wedding practices of the time… But because of an unusual sign performed by Jesus at this wedding… Now our Christian wedding liturgies mention this wedding at Cana as a sacred symbol of our marriage covenant with each other… and with Christ…

Today our gospel reading has us seated at a country wedding in the small village of Cana of Galilee, near the town Jesus grew up in. The mother of Jesus is there. Perhaps she’s a relative or close friend of someone in the wedding. Legends of old guess she may be an aunt of the bride or groom. We really don’t know, but… Jesus and his disciples are also at the wedding… And the mother of Jesus lets him know there is a crisis – as she says “they have no wine.”

Jesus does not appear overly concerned. He replies, “what is that to me or to you?” (A polite way of saying “so what?”) But his mother understands her son’s way of speaking, probably better than we do… And she doesn’t take his words as rejection of her implied request… As she tells the servants “Do whatever he tells you.”

Jesus tells the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” They do. He says “Now draw some off and take it to the chief steward.” They do…

Now wedding wine is flowing in great abundance – six stone jars, each holding twenty to thirty gallons – now all full of wine – somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine altogether. And the chief steward calls the bridegroom aside and says– “Everyone serves the best wine first, then the cheaper stuff when everyone’s had plenty to drink… But you have kept the best for last!

History note: Jewish weddings of old would often last a whole week, and the whole village was typically invited. Everyone would take time off from work to celebrate with the bride and groom. A whole lot of people would be at this wedding….Even a lot of wine would not be too much.

Most weddings were partly pot-luck, but the host was responsible for making sure there was enough for all, and it was a serious disgrace to run out before a wedding feast was over. A bride’s family might even sue the groom for reparations. The disgrace to the family name was considered that bad…

Weddings were different in those days. A bride and groom would not go off to any far-away romantic place for a honeymoon. They would stay in the groom’s family home, and have supper each night with a different couple, each of whom would share their counsel for keeping marriage happy and blessed. It was assumed everyone needs continuing education in being married. It was also assumed that it takes a village to nurture a marriage… So let’s take time and start off on the right foot… Or feet…

Which still makes sense to me… And in any wedding I’m asked to help with I try to communicate the message that ‘weddings are wonderful, but what really matters isn’t your wedding, but your marriage.’ I talk about practicing patience, forbearance and forgiveness… A sermon I also preach to myself every day. (And if I forget someone in my family will remind me…)

Some of us may be wondering – why are we going on about marriage today? Isn’t this turning water into wine thing mostly about telling us who Jesus is? Demonstrating the power and love of Jesus?

And yes, of course this sign is all about Jesus. But the fact this sign happens at a wedding can hardly be coincidence. And I don’t think Christ’s supernatural power is the main point – though that’s certainly in evidence… The more I ponder the story, the more I consider the thoughts of other interpreters, the more I’m convinced this sign Jesus does really is mostly about marriage…

Marriage is the first human relationship we hear of in the bible – narrated in the same breath as the first mention of parenting, in the second chapter of Genesis, first book of the bible. The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea all talk about God being married to Israel… St Paul compares the relationship between the church and Christ to the relationship between wife and husband. The last book of the bible, near it’s end, speaks of the wedding feast of the Lamb… Rabbis of Israel and Christian mystics and monastics alike have all interpreted the biblical Song of Songs as a symbol of the marriage of God and God’s people…

So I do keep thinking of how often marriage is a biblical metaphor – analogy – sign – symbol – for our relationship with God. And whether we’re married or single doesn’t matter…When we’re talking about marriage with God…We’re all included.

In our reading from Isaiah today it’s made explicit – here is God, marrying the people of God. Rejoicing over Israel as a bridegroom – naming her (in the Hebrew language) Hepzibah, meaning “my delight is in her” – calling her affectionately Beulah, meaning “married.”

Which reminds me again of my wedding to Reah, coming up on sixteen years ago now… One of her sisters is named Beulah – and sister Beulah and sister Nizzi (along with Pete, a then-thirteen-year-old-family friend) actually accompanied us on our honeymoon in Vermont for the first two nights, after our celebration in Boston. When I initially objected rather strenuously to this honeymoon plan, my wife and sisters-in-law told me family participation is customary in the Philippines…Where, it seems, honeymoons and weddings are more like they were in Jesus’ time than most weddings and honeymoons are today in this country…

And remembering the counsel of one of Reah’s brothers, when we first met, who told me “Tim, it’s up to you, but my advice is, whenever there’s a real question about what to do, it’s best to say, “yes dear…” and just try to agree… So I did… and we did… And the honeymoon was wonderful, anyway… and…yes, miracles like this still happen…. every day… (and…)

John’s gospel calls this turning of ordinary water into extraordinary wine the first of the signs Jesus did – and this sign points (of course) to something far greater than even a wedding celebration rescued from disaster… and a huge quantity of the very best wine…

And of course it’s nothing but the presence of Jesus at the wedding that makes it memorable… But memorable forever, indeed, now this wedding has become – as Jesus previews for us his far-greater wedding banquet yet to come…

And in John’s gospel there’s no clear borders between the powerful signs Jesus does and the pastoral needs of his people… So not to worry (O, we Methodists)… Probably this best-of-all-wines was non-alcoholic for those who need no alcohol – and high-test fruit-of-the-vine for those who can drink stronger stuff. And like the manna on the ground in the Exodus – those who gather a little have enough, those who gather a lot don’t have too much. And this first sign links together naturally with the later sign of multiplication of loaves and fishes. In God’s banquet of grace there is always enough for all… And all signs point to Jesus, Messiah, who fulfills and transforms sacred scripture and faith tradition alike… (and…)

So often the miraculous is happening all around us… Yet we barely notice. And as I re-read the story, I am struck by how the chief steward, who is in charge of the banquet, has no idea what’s going on. The bridegroom who co-stars in this wedding drama doesn’t know either… It’s only lowly servants who carry the water-turned-into-wine… who see what’s happening – followed then by Jesus’ disciples… who, we’re told, now believe in him.

And the wedding at Cana is a metaphor – a parable – a sign and symbol – and we’re best off not trying to over-analyze these terms or what Jesus does. Let’s just be very sure to notice – how Jesus turns the most ordinary lowly elements of everyday life… into evidence of the holy joy that comes with life in his presence.

And if there’s just one thing we remember today, let it be what the mother of Jesus says about her son: “Do whatever he says.

Because when we do what Jesus says, we start to recognize – Life with God is a wedding festival….

And the best is still reserved for last–

Thanks be to God. Amen.