Epiphany 2C Sermon
January 17, 2016
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Once upon a time, I was eight years old, and in third grade. The third grade was a hard grade after the comparative paradise of second grade, where my teacher let me sit inside and read if she ever had to keep me in at recess, and also let me borrow her sweater when I was cold. Third grade was a different story. It was a hard, cold, reality. We had to learn cursive in there.
A day came in the third grade when I forgot about an assignment I had. This happened a lot, because I also forgot to check my assignment book quite a lot, and even if I remembered, I often forgot to write down assignments in the assignment book. Come to think of it, there were a lot of holes in the whole assignment book process that a third grader could fall into, and I was acquainted with them all. My mother had been patiently—and sometimes not so patiently—trying to instill good assignment book habits, but it was hard going.
And that was why there came a night when, just before I had to go to bed, I remembered that I had an assignment due the next day. I think it was a page of problems in my math workbook that needed to be completed, and the teacher had vowed that she would be checking them the next day. It was the kind of work that would have taken until well past bedtime to complete, and so though I was upset—because even at the age of eight I was a little perfectionist and I hated failing—my mom sent me to bed.
I went to bed that night ridden with as much angst as you’re really capable of at age eight, and rose the next morning in a state of hopeless resignation, ready to march to my humiliating fate. When lo and behold, at breakfast my mom handed me the assignment, and it was complete. She had done it after I’d gone to bed.
And she looked at me and said something like, “This won’t ever happen again. Will it?”
In that moment, it was clear to me that, to my mom, this was a moment of terrible parenting. And I felt overwhelmed by that. I understood that for one moment, Mom put aside being MOM—overseer of homework, keeper of the chore list, giver of the groundings—and instead, became mom, the woman who did want to see their child face the pain and humiliation I was expecting, and so just stepped in and made it better.
I was filled with a mix of emotions. Some shame—because hey, my mother did my homework for me—some determination—because heck no, that was never going to happen again—but mostly wonderment, because I knew that walking into school with an incomplete assignment was absolutely what I deserved to do, and I had steeled myself to do it, and being able to turn in a completed assignment instead was a gift of grace that was so deeply unexpected and unmerited that, over twenty years later, it’s still the example I go to when I need a human story to describe what God’s grace might look like.
I hope you have a story like that too. Which is kind of a strange thing to hope, because in order to have a story like this, you must first screw up in a pretty profound way. But let’s face it: we’re none of us perfect, and we have all made mistakes, and so, what I hope for you this morning is that you have the experience of this kind of grace too. Of having someone in your life who looks at your screw-up and loves you anyway, and whose love carries you through. I hope you have experienced that unmerited grace in a powerfully real way.
And I hope that you can think of the moment when you felt that grace, and knew that it was for you, and call it to mind right now, because that grace, and that feeling, is what unlocks the story of the Wedding at Cana. This story is the story of what God’s grace for us looks like, in an everyday kind of way.
Let me set the stage for you a little bit. In the time of Jesus, wedding celebrations lasted for a week. They were big affairs. And it was expected that the wine would flow freely, not just because that may have been the only way to survive a weeklong wedding reception with your family, but because wine was the symbol of joy, of abundant joy poured out for everyone.
At the same time, Cana was a tiny little place, a one-camel kind of town. Probably no one famous or rich lived there. If they had, Jesus and his mother wouldn’t have been invited to their wedding—they weren’t important enough. No: this is a big affair with a small budget, and halfway through the party, the wine—which, granted, wasn’t the best to begin with—Runs. Out.
If this had been widely known, it would have been devastating to the poor couple. They were just started out, and the first impression that they would give as a new family to their very small town was one of inhospitality. Embarrassment—the deepest sort that you can imagine—was looming.
But somehow, Mary found out about the wine running out. And she went to her son. “My time hasn’t come yet,” Jesus tells her, but Mary just smiles and turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you.”
First impressions are important. The newly married couple knew that. Mary knew that. And John the evangelist knew that, which might be why that writer chose to report this sign as the very first one that Jesus performed.
So at Jesus’ request, the servants gather the jugs of water, and suddenly, remarkably, without flash or bang, the water is suddenly wine. And not just wine. Really, really good wine. And it’s not just some wine. We’re talking about a thousand bottles worth of really, really good wine.
The second half of that week must have been one heck of a party.
Jesus stepped in and saved the family from humiliation, giving them what they sorely needed, and never expected. For them, that day, the grace upon grace that John described just a chapter before has come into their lives, unexpected and undeserved and abundant.
This is Jesus’ first sign, and he doesn’t save it for the perfect moment, or do it for the important people, or wait until he’s in a prominent town. He simply sees someone in need, and he loves them so much that he can’t bear to let them face the fate they know the deserve. And he does not simply whisk them away from the possibility of shame, but places them in the midst of so much abundance that it can scarcely be believed.
It’s Jesus’ first sign, but it points the way to his last one: the one where he dies a death on the cross.
Jesus dies on the cross to give us precisely the same kind of grace, but instead of saving us from a serious social faux pas, he saves us from sin and death. And instead of placing us in the midst of the wine jugs, he places us in the midst of God’s kingdom, where everything, and everyone, is redeemed, where God Godself wipes away the tears from our eyes.
And when you hear this good news, do not make the mistake of thinking that the wedding of Cana was in the past and that God’s kingdom is in the future. Jesus’ grace for you is near and now, in this very moment. It is in the moment we share that cup as Jesus’ presence and promise among us and for us. And it is in the giftedness of this community, this congregation, where there is grace upon grace.
I have seen that grace even in the short time I’ve been here. I have seen that grace in making ham loaf, in giving up time to put up and take down Christmas decorations, in the commitment to serve on committees or in choir.
I have experienced it, in powerfully personal ways, in the trust you have put in me as your pastor, and in the grace you show as you let me walk with you.
You have so many gifts—an abundance, in fact—gifts that spring from the grace that you were first given through Christ in the waters of baptism.
Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of meeting with a few of the people involved in our youth’s lives for a retreat, and we talked about what we saw as Trinity’s greatest God-given gifts. And the thing that was lifted up consistently and with confidence was: hospitality. Warmth. Friendliness. You have an abundance of these things.
I wonder what it might look like if every single one of us went out into the world this week determined to share that warmth with each person we encounter. Even if it’s as simple a gesture as smiling, or of resolving to meet that one neighbor whose name you don’t know, or simply chatting with someone who looks like they could use an ear.
What might happen if we take the God-given abundance in this place, and let it flow into the world?
Let’s find out.